Alas, Americans have more to memorialize on this first Memorial Day since Sept. 11 and the start of the war against terrorism. Founded spontaneously by soldiers' mothers wandering empty Civil War battlefields to mark their departed loved ones, Memorial Day has taken on varied forms and activities over many Mays. It usually has been associated with the military, though Memorial Day has been celebrated more often in peacetime. It's become a day to honor those who fell in battle, those veterans who died later and even some individuals who had nothing to do with the armed forces.
Memorial Day also quickly became the unofficial annual harbinger of the summer that Labor Day would close. During long periods of peace, Memorial Day was closely associated with the Indianapolis 500. Even in the homes and garages of those more concerned about mowing grass with tiny motors, radios blared urgent live reports on the heartland's circular chase of cars with large motors until the exhausted, exhaust-smudged winner drank milk in Victory Lane. Once called Decoration Day, Memorial Day also was a day for peacetime parades of veterans decorated with ribbons and medals, local fire trucks decorated with cheerleaders and enthusiastic children on bicycles decorated with crepe paper and flags. It was very exciting, especially when the sirens sounded.
But Memorial Day 2002 is different, less innocent perhaps, more relevant for certain. This Memorial Day we have painful fresh images, memories of deaths and losses. The shock has waned some. We still feel sad, at times quite apprehensive. On one day, maybe even two or three, we're obviously at war, and we follow and digest that news. Then come days of puzzling peace apparently, when sports playoffs, school concerts, partisan politics and celebrity sightings push the immediate fear of terrorism out of the mind for a spell.
Lurking beneath it all, however, is a simmering unease, a kind of misleading calm before an uncertain storm whose shape and power we can only imagine. The unknown or invisible is always scariest. Officials issue vague warnings and candid admissions that all terrorist attacks cannot be stopped and suicide bombers will someday successfully stalk the same American streets that convey the decorated bikes.
Over thousands of years, many nations and cultures have succumbed to internal and external threats. Americans have proved to be a resilient people, taking body blows like Pearl Harbor and returning eventually to subdue foreign military enemies.
This Memorial Day may be less about memorializing the certain past, its heroes and victims, as honorable and memorable as they were, and more about conjecture on the faceless foes and the uncertain, undefined battlefields ahead. Makes us wonder, then, how future Memorial Days will look back on and memorialize what we do here and now.