Alan Clark

Our American landscape is dotted with military cemeteries containing almost identical grave markers honoring those who died in combat in our many wars.

So we do not forget, it is customary to visit and decorate these places in honor of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.

Memorial Day is an American holiday, observed on the last Monday of May, honoring the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military.

This year, Memorial Day occurs on May 25, and it will be like no other before it.

Originally known as Decoration Day, it became an official federal holiday in 1971. Many Americans observe Memorial Day by visiting cemeteries or memorials, holding family gatherings and participating in parades.

With the current pandemic, we may not see these activities to the degree we have in the past, as we keep our social distance, cancel family gatherings perhaps, and if we hold a parade, it will be a different sort than the ones we enjoyed or participated in previously.

Nevertheless, many of us will not forget to honor the fallen, regardless of our situations.

Unofficially, it marks the beginning of the summer season. But there’s more to the story.

In the years following The War Between The States (AKA the Civil War), soldiers from both sides of the fight, Union and Confederate, developed the tradition which survives today.

The Civil War, which ended in the spring of 1865, claimed more lives than any conflict in U.S. history and required the establishment of the country’s first national cemeteries.

By the late 1860s, Americans in various towns and cities had begun holding springtime tributes to these countless fallen soldiers, decorating their graves with flowers and reciting prayers.

It is unclear where exactly this tradition originated; numerous different communities may have independently initiated the memorial gatherings.

Nevertheless, in 1966, the federal government declared Waterloo, New York, the official birthplace of Memorial Day.

Waterloo—which first celebrated the day on May 5, 1866—was chosen because it hosted an annual, community-wide event, during which businesses closed and residents decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers and flags.

Memorial Day, as Decoration Day gradually came to be known as, originally honored only those lost while fighting in the Civil War, but during World War I, the United States found itself embroiled in another major conflict, and the holiday evolved to commemorate American military personnel who died in all wars.

For decades, Memorial Day continued to be observed on May 30, the date selected for the first Decoration Day.

But in 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May in order to create a three-day weekend for federal employees; the change went into effect in 1971.

The same law also declared Memorial Day a federal holiday.

Growing up, Memorial Day meant one thing to me – the Indianapolis 500.

Even though my father and mother were veterans of World War II, I was a racing fan and equated the classic Indiana race to that day, the 30th of May.

Back then, it was actually held on whatever day of the week the 30th fell on, and I can remember sneaking a listen at school on my transistor radio every time I could to see if Johnny Rutherford or Mario Andretti or A.J Foyt or Parnelli Jones was in the lead, or was it those guys from Europe like Jim Clark, Graham Hill, or maybe one of the Unser boys, Al or Bobby?

NASCAR got involved in 1960 with a Memorial Day weekend race in Charlotte now known as the Coca-Cola 600 to compete with the open-wheeled boys.

In 1974, NASCAR decided to schedule it on the same day as the Indy 500, though later in the evening. Some drivers, like Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch, have driven both races on the same Sunday only hours apart.

It is all part of a holiday weekend marking the beginning of summer, and we sometimes forget what it really is, don’t we?

In getting our grills ready, putting our boats in the water and trying on that new bathing suit, we fail to recognize the significance of Decoration Day/Memorial Day.

I leave it up to scholar and mythologist Joseph Campbell and Gen. George Patton to summarize what Memorial Day should mean.

Campbell described the hero as, “someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself,” and Patton is quoted as saying, “It is foolish and wrong to mourn the soldiers who died. Rather, we should thank God such people lived.”

And that’s the way it oughtta be.

Retired US Army Col. Alan Clark will be one of the speakers during Franklin County’s Memorial Day service on Monday at Franklin Memorial Gardens. His auditorials are available as podcasts on iTunes.