Tuesday, May 28, 2019
Memorial Day Memories
I do know what the actual meaning of Memorial Day is supposed to be. As a veteran of the military myself I definitely take that meaning (remembering all those that made the ultimate sacrifice for our country) seriously. At the same time I realize that changing Memorial Day from May 30th to the last Monday in May back in 1971 changed the perception and observation of the holiday. It went from being a day of somber remembrance to being the basis of a three-day weekend. The timing of that three-day weekend right at the end of May caused Memorial Day weekend to become looked at as the unofficial start of summer.
I mentioned my awareness of the true meaning of Memorial Day because now I'm going to share some of my memories of Memorial Day weekends from my youth--and those memories have little to do with the true meaning of the holiday and a lot more to do with enjoying a three-day weekend. I kind of feel bad about some of these memories and the fact that I wasn't really honoring the memory of fallen soldiers as much as I should have been. But at the same time I WAS a kid. And I WAS growing up in a time when it was still a relatively new thing to experience Memorial Day as a three-day weekend rather than a single day of remembrance.
It's worth mentioning that I wasn't a huge fan of school back in those days. I wouldn't go so far as to say that I "hated" it, but at the same time I never really WANTED to go to school. Like so many other kids throughout the years, I knew that I was supposed to go to school and didn't really have any choice or say in the matter. So I went. As a pre-schooler I'm sure each of the seven days of the week seemed pretty similar. But once I started attending school it didn't take me long to realize the importance of the weekend! The best way to put this is to mention that my absolute favorite moment of the week was usually when the bell rang at the end of the school day on Friday. Why? Well, it was because that moment marked the longest possible time before I had to go back to school! It's certainly true that Friday night and pretty much all of Saturday offered a lot of opportunities to take advantage of while NOT being in school, but that moment school got out on Friday was the most full of potential. Many (most?) weekends never actually lived up to that potential, but it always felt possible as I was heading out of the school on Friday afternoon.
So, as was the case with most people, I really liked weekends. A few more factors went into Memorial Day weekend to make it that much more special to me. First off, and most obviously, it was a THREE-DAY WEEKEND! I was guilty of not really enjoying most Sundays because I saw them as "church day" and as the day before Monday (the most hated day of the week). Now I look back and can't believe that I would sacrifice a complete day of my precious weekend by faulting it for being the day before Monday. But that wasn't the case on a three-day weekend. Sunday became kind of like a second Saturday on those weekends. And then Monday lost its sting as the worst day of the week because there was no school. All of that set up one more interesting bonus of the three-day weekend--the fact that there were only FOUR more school days until the next Friday instead of the usual five. That's a lot of good reasons to really appreciate getting a three-day weekend.
But there's still more! That whole "unofficial start of summer" thing meant a lot to me too. The weather was generally getting REALLY nice by the end of May. New England has pretty long, and sometimes pretty tough winters. It can take a while for spring to really take hold. But by Memorial Day you can definitely tell that you're getting quite close to summer and all that it has to offer a student who can't wait for it to start. At school the windows would frequently be open on very warm days. You could see, feel, smell and hear summer right outside the classroom. It became harder and harder to remain studious and pay attention as the weather got nicer and nicer. By the time Memorial Day rolled around you knew that the end was near. It would be the last scheduled day off from school and you knew that there were only a couple (or at most a few) more weeks before it would officially be the end of the school year and the beginning of summer vacation.
We now have the parameters of what made Memorial Day so special for me: it was a weekend, it was a three-day weekend, it was generally a summer-like three-day weekend. But the true reason for me to be writing about my Memorial Day memories, and why they remain so special to me all these years later comes in some of the specific details that filled in the framework of the three-day weekend. Let's go over some of these details (some large and some on the small side) that really made Memorial day so special and memorable.
First off was something that happened at school on Friday. Before that awesome feeling triggered by the ringing of the bell on Friday afternoon we would have the annual Memorial Day assembly. While I might not have gotten quite as much of the true meaning of the holiday as maybe I should have, there were two parts of the weekend (one at the beginning and one at the end) that did remind me of the true meaning. The first was that assembly. It was actually special for two reasons: it helped give me at least SOME appreciation for the real meaning of the holiday, AND it meant that I didn't have to go to the final class or two at the end of the last day of the week before the three-day weekend. In a way this seemed to extend the weekend just a little bit longer! Sure, I was still in the school building until the normal time of release. But during that time I was sitting in the auditorium being meaningfully entertained instead of sitting in a classroom wishing the clock would move faster and the final bell would ring.
Once I finally was free from school I do have to admit to not really having too many memories of the Fridays and Saturdays of most of the Memorial Days of my youth. I'm sure I enjoyed them just as much as any other Fridays and Saturdays (maybe even a bit more than usual because of the knowledge that the weekend wouldn't end after Sunday). But the most special memories of that weekend come from Sunday and Monday. I've written before about the strange phenomenon of having my family do something possibly only once or twice, but feeling like it was a long-standing "tradition" that we'd ALWAYS do (like New Year's Eve parties and vacations on Cape Cod that it seemed like we would do every year, but they may only have happened a couple of times in reality). Well, one of those things that to me felt like a long-standing tradition was a Memorial Day weekend cookout at the home of my sister and brother-in-law. There probably isn't a more stereotypical way to NOT honor the memory of the fallen on Memorial Day weekend than a nice cookout with family and friends. But at the same time it certainly is a great way to welcome summer.
The cookout was always great, but there was another thing that beckoned on those Sundays before Memorial Day. I was never a big sports fan as a kid (which I'm sure would come to a pretty big surprise to people that have only known me as an adult). I was not very interested in cars either. But that didn't stop me from really enjoying another traditional part of Memorial Day weekend--The Indianapolis 500! My sister's house was close enough to ours that once I was old enough I could walk or ride my bike between the two. I recall leaving the cookout a little early to get home in time to watch the Indy 500 (or at least a chunk of it). As I mentioned, I wasn't really into sports or cars. So why was the Indy 500 so important to me? Well, it's time for another confession. Just as I didn't really celebrate the true meaning of Memorial Day as a kid, I also didn't really watch the Indy 500 for the race itself. As wrong as it might sound, I was more interested in seeing the crashes. The reason I can admit that is the fact that I know that I wasn't the only one who watched for that reason. I mean, unless you're a REAL racing fan, watching cars zoom around a track for a few hours (and 500 miles) can get a bit boring. The start of the race, the end of the race and a couple moments of drama in the middle as leaders pass each other and jockey for position are really the most interesting parts. But the sometimes spectacular crashes made it REALLY interesting! Of course I didn't hope for any of the drivers to get maimed or killed or anything like that. I knew there were drivers inside the vehicles, but I suppose I kind of tried to think of it as just machines careening into each other.
Anyway, watching the Indy 500 introduces another element of my youth that I probably should mention here. It would be easy enough for me to deny this, but let's be honest...TV was kind of an important part of my life as a kid. The fact that Memorial Day weekend generally coincided with really nice weather did mean that I was likely to be spending a lot of my free time outside--riding my bike, going to the Town Park, hanging out in the woods behind my house... But there's no doubt that I'd also find the time to watch TV at some point during the weekend. The most obvious time to be watching would be Sunday night. At the time when I'd normally be getting ready to go to bed so I could get up for school Monday morning I would be likely to be checking out one of the big networks' (ABC, NBC, CBS) Sunday Night Movie. Since it was Memorial Day weekend, that movie would probably be worth watching. It was a nice option to switch to if the latter part of the Indy 500 was getting kind of boring. While I can't say I have too many specific memories of watching a Sunday Night Movie on a Memorial Day weekend, there is definitely one. It's tough to know what year it was, but I do recall watching the Chevy Chase/Goldie Hawn film "Foul Play" (1978) in the early 1980s. The memory of the cookout in the afternoon and then watching the Indy 500 and "Foul Play" is kind of etched into my memory.
The final special thing about my childhood Memorial Day weekend memories was on Memorial Day itself. And, like the assembly at school that started off the weekend three days before, this was one of the few examples of me actually observing the real reason for Memorial Day. Of course, simply not having to be at school on a Monday was pretty exciting in itself. But since it was finally Memorial Day that meant I could walk down to our town Common to watch the Memorial Day parade! Man, that sounds so 1950s small town, doesn't it? But it was reality. That was something I really looked forward to. And it's kind of nice to think that the long weekend would end with something that actually had to do with the real reason we were having a three-day weekend in the first place. At the end of the parade, which featured the high school band and a number of veterans (including a few World War I veterans in my earliest memories), there would be a ceremony on the Common that included some speeches, some patriotic music and a firing squad shooting off a salute with their rifles followed by the playing of Taps. It was a great way to finish up the weekend the right way, in the true spirit of Memorial Day. I remember at least one year when I was able to grab one of the empty blank shells after the salute as a souvenir.
That's pretty much what I wanted to share as far as my childhood memories of Memorial Day, but there is still one more thing that I always enjoyed about that weekend. You could kind of call this the "soundtrack" of the holiday. Back in the early 1980s (possibly earlier as well, but I mostly remember it from the 80s) radio stations would mark the weekend by playing what they dubbed "The Memorial Day 500" (a la the Indianapolis 500). Starting on Friday they would play what they decided were the top 500 Rock and or Pop songs of all time. The list was very subjective of course, and would vary greatly depending on which channel you chose to listen to. I remember hearing it on channels like 92 Pro-FM out of Providence and 103.3 WHTT out of Boston. There was a part of me that kind of wanted to hear the whole 500 song countdown (and I believe some of the channels that played it would send you a list if you sent thm a SASE). Obviously I never heard the entire countdown (it ran 24 hours a day during the long weekend) and I don't even know if they were actually able to play ALL 500 of the songs. Either way, during our family cookout and throughout the rest of my adventures during those Memorial Day weekends I always enjoyed hearing the countdown whenever I could and tried to keep track of it as best I could. While I consider the Memorial Day 500 to be a part of the past, a little research online seems to show that there are STILL channels around the country that have continued the traditional countdown of the 500 greatest songs of all time every year!
Memorial Day is indeed an important holiday. It carries a much heavier message than many others that we celebrate. But it also does act as a great way to welcome the beginning of summer (even if that's not SUPPOSED to be the reason for it). It really did mean a lot to me as a kid for a lot of reasons. Heck, just look at how long this post ended up being. Seems like I could have said what I wanted to say in a few paragraphs, but there were just too many details that went together to make up the whole experience. I could have probably written at least a few more paragraphs, but for the sake of (relative) brevity let's end it here. I hope everyone had a great Memorial Day weekend and that you were able to take a moment to remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice to ensure that you have the right to enjoy the weekend however you want!