America's annual door into summer, Memorial Day, is found at picnics and cemeteries.
Spring's brief flowers dance in the same soft breezes that move the Memorial Day flags so many families have planted at the graves of those they love.
Families grow stronger, nourished by sensations sweeter and more sour than hotdog relish.
This sacred secular holiday, like the drinking glass ritually broken under foot at Jewish weddings, reminds us that joy and sorrow are seasons that come and go and come again in every human life.
In Europe, the red poppies are in bloom once again, as they were for ancient Greeks and Romans and Neanderthals.
After World War I, the "war to end all wars," it became popular to wear artificial red poppies as symbols of the blood of millions poured out — sometimes more than 100,000 deaths a day to swine flu and combat.
During more than 230 years, America has sacrificed in war approximately 1.1 million warriors, nearly two-thirds of them in a North American war between brothers that was far from civil.
The current military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost nearly 4,900 American combatant deaths — roughly the number killed during an average two weeks of combat during World War II, when the U.S. population was only 43 percent as large as it is today.
Memorial Day's name has at its root "memory." It was carved into the calendar for the same reason names and dates are carved onto gravestones: to help us remember despite aging brain cells and life's distractions.
What this annual holiday calls us to remember is love, sacrifice, and the nobility of those who gave their lives in America's wars.
Memorial Day's origin dates to the War Between the States that claimed 620,000 American lives, the conflict the winners who wrote the history books called the Civil War.
Some say this holiday began with Emma Hunter of Boalsburg, Pa., who in 1864 carried flowers to decorate the grave where her father fell in the Battle of Gettysburg.
Others credit four Southern women from Columbus, Miss., who on April 26, 1866, scattered flowers on the graves of 1,500 Confederate and 100 Union soldiers alike who had died together four years earlier at the bloody Battle of Shiloh. The compassion and humanity of these women touched the hearts of the whole nation.
The Grand Army of the Republic, a veteran's organization, organized the first Decoration Day service at Arlington National Cemetery on May 30, 1868.
It quickly became a holiday, moved by Congress in 1971 from May 30 to the final Monday in May. And it has grown into a day for families to decorate the graves of loved ones lost in any war.
America's World War II generation is now passing on at more than 1,000 per day. The hard life experience of those who survived the Great Depression and global war can yield great wisdom that, when handed down, becomes a family's greatest inheritance.
What we can learn from our own loved ones about survival, priorities, and the cost of freedom is more precious than money, property, or stock portfolios.
Those who became martyrs to materialism, exchanging our few years on earth to acquire such assets, have in recent months learned how unreliable and transient prosperity can be.
Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin recommends that right now we should get out the video recorder, the tape recorder, and the spiral notebook and create a family history of what those who faced war have to teach us.
A family is in many ways like a small nation. A nation is in many ways like a large family.
What we remember — and forget — largely defines who and what we are, both as individuals and as a people.
Some of my own ancestors, French-speaking utopian farmers in Iowa, were conscripted to fight in that conflict which the winners called the Civil War, a political label asserting that the Confederate states never seceded from the country. But afterwards the U.S. government officially re-admitted to the Union the states it said had never left. Then as now, history is written by the winners.
My German grandmother's family fled her feudal now-Polish principality because the Kaiser (a title derived from Caesar) was about to conscript her brothers into his army.
Much of the unpopularity of the Vietnam War — the conflict into which Democratic President John F. Kennedy sent the first 16,000 armed U.S. combat troops — came from the draft being used to turn baby boomers into cheap cannon fodder.
Today we have an "all-volunteer" military, mandatory military duty having been ended in 1973 to ease public opposition to the war in Vietnam. Some who served a tour of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan, however, have learned that our government can and will require veterans to serve again and again.
In 1980, Congress reinstated mandatory draft registration to guarantee that manpower would be available in military emergencies.
This discriminatory law requires only males to register. One of every 5 young American males has failed to visit the post office or use the Internet to register with the Selective Service System for the draft.
Failure to register is a felony theoretically punishable by up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. In practice it could mean automatic ineligibility for federal jobs, citizenship for male immigrants, and federal student loans.
As a free nation we should erase military conscription from our laws this vestige of slavery, military conscription. To recruit and maintain a professional military, we need to pay our warriors far better and to remember and honor.
And when the Democratic Party's Minnesota senatorial candidate Al Franken, like its 2000 presidential candidate Al Gore, tries to steal an election by having military absentee ballots thrown out, we need to remember and with our future votes repudiate such vile denial of rights for those who guard us while we sleep — for those who by their sacrifices preserve, protect and defend our liberty.
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