On this Memorial Day, we shall drive up the hill to the cemetery and leave behind the noisy street, past the towering old pine and tender young aspen. Seeing their new green leaves, we know that summer awaits, but we pause for a moment of remembrance, a recognition of those buried here who have served in the military forces of our country.
On Monday, we shall think of a Saturday last January when one of the last of our World War II veterans was laid to his final rest. That day’s blue sky, after a week of steady snow, met the mountains that surround our valley, and the temperature rose to 15 degrees. Winter’s white covered most of the granite markers, but the road had been plowed and the veteran’s family plot was carefully cleared of snow.
From inside cars and trucks that rounded the curve at the top of the hill, we saw 18 post members of American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars standing at attention, the flag of our country waving in the brisk wind. Our vehicles circled by in a slow line, the last coming to a stop at the far end of the cemetery. One by one, doors of cars and trucks opened and we stepped out of heated interiors. Even in my coat, boots, hat and gloves, I felt the abrupt slap of cold. Old and young, we walked on the white snowpack to where the Guard stood around the gravesite. I watched the two small boys in front of me, dressed in their best, walking with shoulders back and heads up.
We all walked with pride that day, each of us touched by the bond almost palpable that united the Honor Guard in a tribute to the man who came home some 70 years ago, a witness to the war that spread across continents and oceans. Thinking about him, we looked out over the valley, but the soldiers who stood guard saw even farther. Their eyes remained focused upon a horizon visible only to themselves. A Marine saw it above the jungle where he fought in Vietnam; an Air Force captain, beyond a frigid hill in Korea; an Army lieutenant, past a sandy desert in Iraq. Their presence beside the grave of the man who had fought against Hitler’s forces in Germany enveloped us all in the comforting warmth of their personal admiration and respect. Most of us knew these veterans, saw them often, at work and on Main Street, but in their white shirts and emblazoned hats, they reminded us of something important, something bigger than our little town tucked safely in the high valley of the Rocky Mountains.
That something is what this national holiday is about. We Americans have recognized it since the horrendous war that almost tore us apart 150 years ago. Separated as North and South, blue and gray, we came to the graves of our dead soldiers with spring flowers, blossoms fresh as the tears we shed. As decades and a century passed, we have become one again, demonstrating to ourselves and the rest of the world the strength of our belief in freedom.
Now we unite to honor all our fallen — men and women of the military, they who lie not only in our own cemetery on the hill, but also in graves around the world. May the flowers we place here Monday freshen our vision to the horizon toward which our veterans gazed in the winters of the past.
Monday is Memorial Day 2014. May it mark our path toward the summer ahead and toward the freedom that is the promise of America.