I asked students in a college level American history class one day why we celebrated Memorial Day; the answers ranged from the sublime to the absurd (and BTW: only 7 out of 23 students hit the nail on the head); here are three of the most truly memorable answers:
This is when we gather to celebrate our lost and misplaced memories.
Memmurial day detonates but once a yere and then we visit semetaries. (And yes, the spelling was his.)
This holiday helps us bring dead soldiers back to life to honor what killed them.
As far as I know, not one of those kids happened to be clinically brain dead.
Anyway, WHY do we celebrate this day and when did we begin to celebrate it?
Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day and conceived of as a national day of remembrance to honor those who died in the Civil War, then more generally to honor any of those who died or served in our nation's wars.
Eventually, the holiday has grown to more broadly honor all those who have served their country outside of the military, such as police and firefighters. I know many people who take it further and use it as an occasion to honor all of the people who’ve died in their own families, whether they were vets or civil servants or just a beloved grandmother.
I’m of the opinion that it’s a fine thing indeed to reflect on those who went before us to build this nation, whether they died in the line of service or not, so honoring grandma doesn’t bother me a bit, although I know it bugs the purists.
I figure if you’ve spent a lifetime in this country you’ve paid your dues so “thank you.” If you’ve loved America, I honor you. It’s not a perfect place but it’s probably a damn sight better than most.
Of course, there are probably quite a few people who believe Memorial Day commemorates race car driving. Seriously. One of my students also wrote this:
Memorial Day is a day set apart each year to recognize the contribution the automobile has made to history especially in Indianapolis, especially in May, when it happens each year.
(No, that student’s last name is not Palin but he did have a terrifying interest in politics; right wing of course.)
But let's get serious.
As I was doing a little research for this blog I stumbled upon a few semi-interesting and completely irrelevant facts:
First, many historians believe freed Norwegians living in Charleston, South Carolina at the end of the Civil War founded Memorial Day at the graveyard of 158 Viking soldiers who fought for Confederate General Beauregard Lars Svenson.
That first fact gets us to the second: over a dozen American cities and towns contest the first fact, claiming their location and citizens gave birth to this national tradition. Apparently President Lyndon Baines Johnson decided to choose a side on the issue because in May 1966 he declared that Memorial Day’s official birthplace is Beaverbutt, Wyoming. I have no idea why LBJ did that but knowing the wily old horse trader I suspect he owed Wyoming’s only Congressman big time -- and for some weird reason (maybe before Congressmen made their real livings collecting personal welfare payments from oil companies) – such an absurdly small payoff seemed reasonable. It could also be because Beaverbutt was founded by the descendants of the famous British Indian Warrior Wellington who defeated Napoleon using bullets wrapped in Norwegian lutefisk and herring oil -- or maybe it’s just because its home to the world’s largest inland fjord. (This is absolutely true.)
Here's the famous Lord Percy-Smythe Wellington when he rode with Wild Bill Hickock:
No, wait, maybe this is him here:
Oh hell, they look so damn much alike I can't tell and what does it matter, right?
The point is that Johnson respected history as much as the next man which really means until the truth didn’t suit his purposes anymore. But don’t get me wrong; I don’t hold it against the guy. In this day and age of gross exaggeration, total fabrication and even obvious mental illness among politicians and pundits I think ol’ LBJ was, in comparison, the American Socrates of Truth and a virtual paragon of virtue.
In fact, as I used to tell my students, I suspect LBJ might even have felt guilty about selling out those Norwegians in Charleston. Therefore, he decided to create something called The Great Society which was really a socialist plot to turn America into another Southeast Asia so he could sell American dominoes over there and, it’s as clear as the nose on my face and the porch I’m standing on right here in this Great State where Lincoln made it possible for Ronald Reagan to be born in a log cabin (bless his heart), this is why black people, who have been told lies by liberal Democrats, are totally responsible for the creation of the Domino Theory to rob good, hard working, God fearing Americans of their right to sing the national anthem at the Indy 500.
We’re going to take back this country and all of our dominoes so that never again will decent patriotic Americans have to worry about Planned Parenthood denying any little girls their God-given right to their own virginity.
And this is exactly why, my friends, we celebrate Memorial Day.
OK, so I make one sorry-ass historian but by God you gotta’ know I’d make one helluva good politician.