Cynically, I wonder what sort of remembrance our country will muster, other than Memorial Day sales. And how will young people, who have never not known freedom, go about appreciating the gravity of this most special of days? How will those who have never known Selective Service imagine the sacrifices made by patriots who gave their very lives that we might live free?
Indeed, today's youth know military service only as a career choice entered into voluntarily by those with eyes wide open, who know full well all possible consequences of enlistment.
What would the namesake of our nation's capital think?
In the winter of 1777 Gen. George Washington encamped at Valley Forge, Pa., not far from Philadelphia. His beleaguered army was beset by deprivation and starvation and had experienced significant numbers of deserters.
"The Father of our Nation" was observed on more than one occasion deep in prayer, once in a moment powerfully described by the Marquis de Lafayette in which Washington was concentrating so fervently that the General was unaware he had been observed. Quaker Isaac Potts, in whose house Washington established his headquarters during that dreadful winter of suffering, observed the general kneeling in prayer in a wooded glen, praying out loud in a clear, fervent voice to the Almighty for divine guidance.
Washington prayed and took communion. In his letters and communiqués he clearly referenced his beliefs and called on his peers, as they went about founding this nation, to follow the precepts of Divine Providence upon whom he called for guidance.
So I'm thinking that George Washington would most likely offer up a prayer of thanksgiving on Memorial Day, and hopefully that thought will occur to all contemporary citizens as well.
One of my local heroes, Pierce Cline, called a few weeks back after reading about "The Bedford Boys." Pierce is one of a handful of folks I know who have hiked the Appalachian Trail in its entirety, and he told me of a memorial on that trail to World War II's most decorated soldier, Audie Murphy, not far from Bedford's signature mountain, "The Peaks of Otter."
Audie Murphy's story is truly amazing, as are those of other great warriors like Gen. Ray Davis. Davis virtually single-handedly prevented the total annihilation of our Marines in Korea as the Communist Chinese attempted to overrun them at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. And let's not forget a mild-mannered, thoughtful professor from Bowdoin College in Maine, Joshua Chamberlain, who anchored McClellan's left flank at Gettysburg's Little Round Top. And what of Ted Williams, "the splendid splinter," halting his baseball career to fly jets in Korea?
Important as these and other stories like them are, though, Memorial Day calls into focus those patriots who did not survive: those who gave the last full measure of devotion on faraway battlefields or in the skies, at sea or under it, as well as those who were lost in training accidents or to the tragedy of "friendly fire" at the hands of their own countrymen.
Several years ago a B-25C Mitchell bomber was retrieved from South Carolina's Lake Murray, near Charleston. Five World War II training flights ended with a ditching in Lake Murray, where 13 airmen lost their lives.
And who can forget the tragic death of former NFL safety Pat Tilman of the Arizona Cardinals, who eschewed his football career to serve his country? Tilman was slain in a 2004 firefight in Afghanistan, a victim of "friendly fire" in a terrible case of mistaken identity.
No, the sacrifice of those who perished in training, or who fell to misguided "friendly fire," cannot be overlooked or in any way trivialized as less meaningful than if the lost had flown a crippled bomber down an enemy ship's smokestack, or covered a live grenade to save the lives of his comrades.
Every one of them describes American patriots "who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life."
There's yet another category of American patriot we too often fail to recognize: the prisoner-of-war, or POW.
So tomorrow I'll reflect on the double tragedy involving USS Shark II, a submarine lost with all hands after sinking a Japanese transport near the Luzon Straits. The tragedy was compounded in that the enemy transport carried 1,800 American POWs, which Shark could not have known.
I don't know how you plan to spend Memorial Day, but I hope it'll be meaningful. I'll start mine in prayer, and then despite the forecast will fly the flag at first light, and will read aloud this excerpt from "Standing Guard," by Michael Marks:
"For when we came home, either standing or dead, to know you remember we fought and we bled is payment enough; and with that we will trust; that we mattered to you, as you mattered to us."
May God continue to bless America.
Nat Harwell is a long-time resident of Newton County. His columns appear regularly on Sundays.