George N. Schmidt reminds us of the meaning of Memorial Day:
Every Memorial Day and Veterans Day I would give my students the same assignment throughout the final decades of the 20th Century (the bloodiest in history): Make a spreadsheet of all the wars of the 20th Century and all the countries that were involved in those wars and then list all the casualties… As far as they could go.
Or they could visit someone in a VA hospital, preferably a World War II vet who had been there “forever.”
Then they had to discuss what they had learned…
It helped my students understand the need for the poppies and respectful silence on some days. That work ended when Paul Vallas fired and blacklisted me for test resistance in 2000… But I continue remembering all those lessons and what the “kids” would talk about.
Both my mother and my father served in the United States Army during World War II. For Memorial Day, we would wear the poppies (which I think my Dad would distributed from his VFW Post in Clark New Jersey; we lived in Linden) and visit a few graves. I don’t think anyone in our family said “Happy Memorial Day,” because there was nothing to be happy about.
My Dad, Neil Schmidt, served as an infantryman with the 44th Division from the coast of France to the Austrian Alps from 1944 to 1945. After he and his millions of brothers (and some sisters) had “won” against the Nazis in May 1945, my Mom was just beginning the worst of the hell she would experience — Okinawa. Mary Lanigan Schmidt was an Army nurse in a field hospital on the island of Okinawa during those weeks after, for many in the USA, the war was “over.” Both my parents taught me a lot about silence and not discussing what it was all about. Both were proud of their “service,” but silent about the details of what it involved.
My Dad would only say about the Bronze Star he brought home (“for courage in the face on the enemy during the Rhineland Campaign, February 1945”), “I got lost one night and I got lucky.” When he accidentally told me, very late in life, that he had been first into one of the “smaller” concentration camps (Struhof) I was stunned. I asked him why he had never talked about it with the family: “There is some evil for which there are no words.” I asked him what he remembered of driving his colonel into that liberated camp: “The silence and the smell. The smell never goes away…”
Both came home and by 1946 were fulfilling the dream that had kept them going throughout the war (they were already married by the time of Pearl Harbor, and Dad was in the Army). They were going to work hard and have a family, at least two children (they wound up with four), a home, and all that stuff.
But it wasn’t that easy. Because of their commitment to having a family, my Dad didn’t go to college, but returned to the “service” in the Elizabeth Post Office. He never missed a day of work until he retired, having learned during the Depression that a job was precious and not to be trifled with. He taught all of us the same thing.
My Mom slowly sunk into greater and greater depression and nightmares as time went on, and only after her early death (in 1985) did I begin to understand how the very word “Okinawa” made people who know the history shudder — to this day.
Yes, this is a day to mark with silence, perhaps a poppy (if you still live in a community where old men distribute them), and some attempt to clarify what the word “WAR” means.