We trooped off to the Memorial Day service in light sprinkles Monday and listened to the speeches and wished it would rain hard, for the interest.
The usual themes of ancestor worship and Pax Americana, and then a moment of silence and “Taps,” and we dispersed, feeling we’d not honored the fallen as they deserve to be. For one thing, we were a crowd of somber stiff-legged old people and they were eager young men who kept pictures of beautiful broads in their lockers and fully expected to beat the odds and return home safely and resume their romances with Betty and Veronica. Rather than speak of honor and loyalty, we should’ve hired a pack of lovely young mammals to whirl around in the Lindy Hop. Long-legged dames in flared skirts hoisted up high by sailors, exposing their white undies, and swung around and slid between the gentleman’s legs – that’s how the fallen would wish to be remembered, as Gene Kelly.
Back in my salad days, we hung out in the cemetery after dark and lay on the graves, sometimes intertwined with another, and whispered and touched each other in thrilling ways, knowing that the authorities would not bother us there, and looked up at the Milky Way, our backs to a man our age who had perished of his wounds in Korea, and talked about great things we’d do in the world and lands we’d see, enjoying the privacy of proximity to the dead. We honored him in our own way, by carrying on his eager faith in the future. If he believed in the boundless promise of the second half of the 20th century, well, so did we, and we were lucky to see it – open-heart surgery, jet travel, the computer, Indian and Thai and Japanese cooking, and all the rest.
What is forbidden at Memorial Day is politics, though of course one thinks of it.
William Jennings Bryan, Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of state, resisted the fevers of 1915 and resigned his office in protest, believing that the world war fermenting in Europe would likely lead to another, which turned out to be prophetic. One thinks of the hard-liners who stayed the course in Vietnam. One thinks of Bush and Rumsfeld and Cheney. Wrong, wrong, wrong. The heroism of the troops does not absolve the sins of the leaders. But nothing is said of this, and that is okay. We look at the wreaths and walk away and find a cafe with tables outdoors under the awning and sit in the summer air and order eggs and coffee and turn our attention to the newspaper and the billionaire buffoon who will carry the Republican banner this fall. He is the stupidest man ever to run for the office of president and the ultimate test of whether public education has prepared our people for democracy. So far, not so good.
Like him, I am a draft dodger. I skipped along for a few years on various deferments and then, when I was ordered to report for induction, I wrote my draft board a long letter explaining why I would not report (the immorality of the war, etc.) and mailed it off and never heard back. Forty-six years later, no reply. I feel guilty about this, thinking that someone else may have gone in my place, wondering if someone at the draft board knew my family and tucked my papers into a circular file. I will never know. Only that I skipped out on a war in which more than 58,000 of our people lost their lives. I used my time to make a career and enjoy romance and family and see the world and they crashed to earth in the jungle and broke the hearts of loved ones and wound up as names on a wall in Washington.
The other draft dodger hungers for recognition.
He has swept his lackluster opponents from the field of battle by enunciating the irrational fear that a foreign-born president has deliberately driven the country to the brink, enabled by a Washington cabal of think-tank muckety-mucks, and so China and Mexico and Iran are sucking the lifeblood out of us. He is onto a conspiracy. He promises to build a wall, deport Muslims, torture terrorists, sock it to the imports, provide health care, and renegotiate trade deals, none of which is in line with classic conservatism. He has cowed most of his opponents into supporting him, but he himself remains his chief admirer. Nobody else has spoken of Mr. Btfsplk with the fervent affection that Mr. Btfsplk has. His name was not mentioned at our Memorial Day ceremony but he was on our minds. We still don’t comprehend how this turtle climbed up on that fence post.