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  • Last modified 116 days ago (May 31, 2023)

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In memory
of Memorial Day

We old editors have long memories and very special relationships with holidays.

Although later in my career I often was the editor in charge of various editions of the Milwaukee Journal, the first time I ever was in charge of a professional newsroom — other than the Record’s or my college paper’s — was six months after I graduated from KU at a mid-size daily with the odd name of the Pantagraph in Bloomington, Illinois.

Sometime in November, my managing editor had come up to me and said: “Eric, I have good news and bad news. I’m sorry, but you have to work Christmas Day. The good news is you’ll be off on New Year’s Day. You just have to work the night shift New Year’s Eve.”

I was so thrilled by his added instructions that I would be in charge of the newsroom those days that I never noticed how I’d been screwed.

A few days earlier, I had gone to visit in-laws in Evanston, Illinois, on another holiday, Thanksgiving. I didn’t arrive until shortly after 5 p.m. because I, like most of my Pantagraph colleagues, had to work.

My in-laws regarded me as a modern day Bob Cratchit until the evening news came on TV after a football game.

There, delivering headlines, was the regular network anchor, not some fill-in. Like me, he had to work on Thanksgiving Day. And, like me, he didn’t get the next day off as an added bonus. For both of us, it was gobble turkey and then get back to work.

Most journalists have stories like that and, as a result, tend to be a bit jaded when it comes to holidays — the days off that other people get so they can do things they expect us to cover.

Still, it seems to this particular jaded journalist that if workers get a holiday — any holiday — and don’t bother to take even a moment to observe whatever the holiday was created in observance of, maybe that holiday has served its usefulness and ought to be put back on the calendar as a regular workday.

That wouldn’t affect people in Hillsboro, Peabody, Florence, Lincolnville, Ramona, Pilsen, or even Burdick, to name a few. All managed to take at least a few minutes out of their holiday this week to honor fallen veterans.

In Marion, however, although at the last minute a crowd that assembled at the usual time took it upon themselves to honor veterans, no one bothered to plan even the slightest of ceremonies. Maybe, for Marion workers, Memorial Day should go back to being a regular work day.

Yes, it’s true that veterans groups are getting older and smaller and that people are less likely to travel to visit relatives, as Pat Wick suggests in her column this week.

But if Ramona could muster an observance and Burdick could switch from veterans to local ministers as organizers for its observance, why couldn’t Marion? Shoot, we even have a community enrichment operation within government. It or the town’s ministers could have assumed responsibility if no one else would.

We don’t mean to criticize Kiwanis, which used to sponsor a reception, or especially the VFW post, which used to serve a big dinner as well as provide a firing squad every Memorial Day.

But we have to wonder about society’s values when, in a Memorial Day week, the post doesn’t sponsor something about Memorial Day but does sponsor a beer tent at Chingawassa Days.

The VFW does many fine things. I contributed three huge bags of aluminum cans to its Honor Flight drive a couple of days ago. But if we think of such groups more for their bars, their beer sponsorship at festivals, and their trailer camps, how do we continue to justify giving them tax exemptions?

As a kid, I used to spend every Memorial Day actively involved in observing the holiday. Usually, we’d travel the day before to decorate graves at area cemeteries where relatives were buried. On the day itself, I marched with the high school band, which continued to practice even though school was out. I then would ride from event to event, listening to and photographing thoughtful speakers and getting goose bumps hearing “Taps” played not just by someone with a recorder jammed inside a bugle but by multiple trumpeters creating an eerie, echo-enhanced rendition.

Freedom isn’t free. It was bought and paid for by people we are supposed to honor on Memorial Day. Sure, we can have fun. But we must be careful not to shortchange them and regard Memorial Day as merely marking the state of summer beer-drinking or whatever it is that we do instead.

I was equally upset a few years back when municipal employees decided they didn’t want to honor Martin Luther King Jr. on his holiday and instead wanted to take the day and stick it after Thanksgiving or Christmas as an extra day off.

If you’re racist enough not to want to honor the only person of color with a national holiday, keep working that day. But don’t dishonor him by insisting on taking his holiday and using it for something else altogether.

The veterans we honor on Memorial Day gave their lives so we could celebrate the start of beer-drinking season — or whatever else it is we celebrate instead of their sacrifice.

Next year, let’s not disrespect them by stealing their holiday and making it entirely about us instead of at least a little bit about them.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified May 31, 2023

 

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