THE STATUE takes no form of shape in my memory, but I recall the day clearly: A Sunday, hot and hazy, not the faintest breeze, and a blistering Alabama sun lowering behind us in the Confederate cemetery. It was late spring and I was wearing a white suit, I believe, standing next to my father and mother and grandparents in front of the statue, which was draped with a white cloth. Someone made a speech, then I was handed a cord to pull and the white drapery slid to the ground and revealed the monument. There was applause. I was 8 years old and this is my first recolletion of Memorial Day.
Not many years later I returned to that same spot on the same date, this time dressed in the gray wool tunic and white ducks of the local military school, and stood in ranks with my classmates beneath the same fierce afternoon sun listening to the speeches, interrupted only by the occasional clatter of a heat-prostrated cadet fainting dead away after our five-mile march to the cemetery. I think I will carry that sound with me always, the peculiar noise of a boy collapsing -- his rifle always fell first, with the stacatto rattle of its metal sling swivels; then the boy himself, with a dull thud, and he would be quickly carried off to the rear while we remained motionless, at attention. I did this every year, for 10 years, on Memorial Day.
By all rights and traditions, I suppose I should have a keen personal interest in occasions such as Memorial Day. My family has sent its men to fight in every war this nation has had.
A grandfather several generations back was Gen. Richard Mongtomery, killed while trying to wrest the fortress of Quebec from the British in 1775. kHis associate in this ill-fated endeavor was Gen. Benedict Arnold, who likewise failed and later, of course, got into hot water for being a traitor. More succssful was Major Elijah Montgomery, my grandmother's grandfather, who fought with Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812. My great grandfather, Fermont Thrower, was a member in good standing of the Confederate cavalry, and his son, Earle Thrower, went away to Cuba with the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War.
More recently, my grandfather served with the Old Rainbow Division in France in World War I and my father was a major in the Army during the Second World War.
And then there was me.
I had gotten myself into ROTC in college to avoid being drafted as a private and was all set to serve my two years in some garden spot like Germany or Hawaii when the balloon went up and I found myself on a troopship with the Fourth Infantry Division, headed for Vietnam. Such are the uncertainties of military life.
In light of that, I sat down the other day to figure out how I felt personally about Memorial Day and, examining it from practically every angle, came to the inescapable conclusion that I didn't much care about it one way or the other. At least not until I was asked to write this piece. As a matter of fact, I am embarrased to say that I didn't even know exactly what it was -- at least not in relation to the other official days, such as Veteran's Day, Armed Forces Day, and so on.
So I sought advice from an old friend, whose wisdom I frequently call upon when things seem to be getting out of hand. He is a strapping ex-Marine who survived the bitterest fighting in the Pacific theater in WWI, and thereafter divided his time between Paris and New York. Even though he isn't an academic, he is known to me as the professor.
"Professor," I said, "I'm doing a story on Memorial Day and its due tomorrow and I haven't the faintest idea what I'm going to say about it."
"Good heavens" said the professor. He paused for a moment, "Why don't you meet me at my club and we'll talk about it over lunch?"
The club is an elegant brick building on Fifth Avenue and I found the professor in the library, seated on a leather couch, surrounded by leather-bound volumes and writing furiously on a legal pad. He has been there for hours.
"I've just found out a few things here," he said. He ticked off some facts. Memorial Day, he had discovered, was officially started in 1868 on orders of Gen. J. A. Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, specifically to honor the Union dead from the Civil War. That is probably why in my home state of Alabama it is not celebrated, but instead, there, and in the states of Mississippi, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Virginia and Louisiana and Tennessee, some form of confederate services are held.
The professor and I ran through more historical tidbits. The remains of the unknown soldiers from World War II and the Korean conflict were laid to rest beside the unknown soldier from World War I at the National Cemetery in Arlington on Memorial Day, 1958. On May 30, 1937, an event occurred in Chicago which came to be known as the Memorial Day Massacre. There, police shot into a fleeing crowd of striking steelworkers, killing and wounding dozens of people.
None of this seemed to be getting us very far, so the professor suggested we sit down to lunch. It was raining outside, and through the large oval windows of the dining room the trees in Central Park looked lush and green.
"You know," said the professor, as we dined on delicious homemade split pea soup and soft shell crabs, "when I was a boy I went with my father to a Memorial Day parade in a small town on Long Island. There were Civil War veterans in the procession, men in their eighties and nineties, but they rode in big open touring cars. My father watched them go slowly by, and then said wistfully, 'I can remember when the Civil War veterans marched.'"
I told him about my military school experience, going each year to the Confederate cemetery, the cadence of the drums, the boys fainting.
Twenty years earlier and a thousand miles to the north, he had done the same sort of thing.
"At Groton, we started practicing several weeks before," he said: "They got some kind of fife and drum corps and decked us out in straw boaters and marched to the town for a ceremony," the professor said.
He thought for a moment, as though struck by an idea. We were both trying to be profound.
"You know," he said "what's interesting about this Memorial Day business is that so many people celebrate different things. I mean, in the South, you celebrate the Confederate dead. At Groton, I remember we celebrated the dead from a lot of wars -- French and Indian Wars, the Revolution, all that."
I thought about it for a while. It brought to mind a story Willie Morris told me.
When he was editor of Harper's magazine he had gone back to his home state of Mississippi accompanied by a fellow editor of a rival (and very liberal) national magazine. Willie had taken his friend and his aging grandmother out to the cemetery near Vicksburg and as they stood amid row after row of both Union and Confederate soldiers who had died in the terrible fighting there, Willie asked his grandmother a troublesome question.
"Granny," he said, "do you think that all these boys died in vain?"
The old lady thought for a moment, then said. "Oh, I don't know, son. It don't make any difference, I guess. They'd all be dead by now anyway."
After lunch, the professor and I took a walk in Central Park, where there are many commemmorative markers. One such monument is a series of small stone plaques, each resting beneath a towering oak tree. The plaques list the names of dead soldiers in the professor's uncle's regiment from the First World War. Each plaque represents a company of the regiment, which sustained more than 50 percent casualties. The trees, now tall and mature, were planted by the survivors of the outfit, more than 50 years ago.
A few weeks ago he had showed me this site. It was the first spring day in New York and we had gone for a walk. The park was filled with young people on roller skates, playing radios, mothers with children, people walking dogs and so on. None of them seemed very interested in the plaques, or how they might have gotten there.
"Come on," said the professor, "I want to show you something." We walked beneath the dripping green foliage, crossed out of the park to the brick-paved little square opposite the venerable Plaza Hotel. There, not far from a large statue of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, the professor led me to a small, somewhat undistinguished granite marker, upon which these words were chiseled: GRAND ARMY PLAZA Sonamed in honor of and to commemorate the deeds of the Grand Army of the Republic and the Union forces that brought about the rebirth of the Nation conceived in liberty.
"I discovered this some time back," the professor said. "I don't think many people know it's here." Then he drew himself up as though his sensibilities were offended. "Millions pass by here and never notice this," he said. "The funny thing about it, is that everybody seems to think this little square was named for the Plaza Hotel, when, in fact, it's just the other way around."
That just set me to thinking about how people see things differently. Just as the professor had said about the way they celebrate Memorial Day differently. For years, I had perceived it only as the beginning of summer. A date, a reference point, a time to take off the shore, or the mountains, a long weekend with a pretty girl. . . .
That seems the way for my generation. Neither Korea nor Vietnam has done much to inspire patriotism. In fact, they have served to the contrary. There have been a few times when men my father's age have suggested that I should join the American Legion, or the Veterans of Foreign Wars, or some such group. But I've never had an interest. As a matter of fact, when I GOT BACK FROM vietnam, I wanted out of the Army so fast that I forged a doctor's signature to my medical records so I wouldn't have to hang around another day. (I can admit this now, assuming the statute of limitations has absolved me from that criminal act.)
When the editor of this story first called me about it, he suggested I might want to explore my own experiences in the war and see how they relate to Memorial Day. So from the outset that was in the back of my mind. And yet I find I cannot really connect the two, not in any sensible way. But I tried.
I conjured up a painful old memory, now softened a little bit by time, of a friend of mine. He was a young lieutenant, a Dane, or at least of Danish extraction. A big, easy-going farmboy from the Midwest with laughing blue eyes, his name was Sig, and he had been shot in the leg.
I dropped in to see him at a field hospital near Pleiku just before I was scheduled to come to the United States, and found him lying on a cot smoking a cigar. His leg was suspended from some apparatus attached to the bed and he was feeling fine. Somebody had just been by to award him a Purple Heart and he was listening to a broadcast of the BBC on a big, expensive transoceanic radio he had ordered through the PX.
"Well Kraut [that's what we called him then]," I said, "you satisfied now that you've gone and got yourself shot?"
He was not, he said, because he, too, was due to go home in a few weeks and had arranged through correspondence for a gold game (or tennis, I can't remember which now) with a buddy of his and there was to be a large sum of money bet on this event, and he would have to postpone or forfeit.
"When are they going to get the cast off?" I asked.
"They're not," he said serenely. "They say it looks good on me. They say they're going to leave it on permanently."
I left him with an assortment of C-ration fruit cans I'd squirreled away, and said goodbye.
Two month later, back in the states, I got a letter from a mutual friend who had assumed command of the company. Sig, he said, had died the week before from gangrenous complications in the leg. He had said he wanted me to have his transoceanic radio and it was being sent, the letter said, by surface mail.
The letter came a few days before I was to receive some decoration that was to be presented through the ROTC commander in the college in my home town. On that day I put on my uniform for what was to be the last time and stood with the colonel of the ROTC as the cadets passed in review. All the time I couldn't help thinking about my friend and how happy he had been with those little cans of fruit and I felt the anger welling up in me like steam in a riser pipe. There was no bittersweet memory of a buddy who died in honor and glory -- although Sig did exactly that -- but only the empty and powerless frustration of knowing total waste. I feel that to this day.
No one to my mind put it better than the poet Wilfred Owen who, describing the very same bloody and horrible trenches in which he later died during the First World War wrote: My friend, you would not tell with such high zest To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old lie: Dulce et Decorum Est Por Patria Mor [It is both sweet and good to die for one's country].
Back in the park the professor and I were walking again beneath the dripping beech and elm and sycamore trees.
"There's one other thing you might like to see," he said. "I don't know if it will help you or not, but there's a sculture near Sixty-Sixth Street."
It had begun to drizzle again, and Fifth Avenue was filled with honking taxicabs and limousines in front of the luxurious apartments across from the park. The sculpture was alongside the wall, facing westward.
It commemorated the soldiers of New York's own regiment who fought in World War I -- the venerable Seventh Infantry, the roster of which, at least in those days, sounded like the social register and which, the professor informed me, is said to have provided more Army officers during that war than the United States Military Academy at West Point.
It is a heroic statute, cast in bronze and set on an enormous granite slab about six feet off the ground. Half a dozen doughboys charge forward, bayonets at the ready, some wounded, being helped along. The figures are just a little larger than life, with massive arms and legs, an impressive sight, this bronze recollection of men charging into fire.
"They lay wreaths here on Memorial Day," the professor observed. "I guess it's the Seventh Regiment Association, or maybe the American Legion. g
"But you know," he said, "they never lay any wreaths on the little plaque at Plaza Square.
"Sometimes," he added almost sheepishly and as an afterthought, "I go down there and do it myself."
And I looked at the professor, standing there in his familiar gray suit, the rain damp in his white hair, and for an instant I could almost see him cutting back across 30 years, to Guadalcanal, and Peleliu and all the other campaigns.
And I didn't have to ask him why he would lay a wreath. I didn't have to.