When I was growing up, there were two important holidays that meant a family pilgrimage to the local cemetery: Memorial Day and Veterans Day. My family had several members who served in the military (and we still have a few serving to this day). It's part of family history and tradition.
We lived a small town that was home to a significant population of service men and women. The place was very remote, hours away from large cities and buildings taller than 3 stories. For many of our restless young people, there were three ways to leave town and head for life in the big city in civilization far, far away. You either had to have relatives all ready living in the big cities who could pay for your fare and give you place to stay. Or you could study hard and earn a scholarship to go to college and make it on your own once you got there. The third path was to sign up for military service.
There weren't a lot of rich families in town. In fact, when I think back, the whole area would probably be considered a poor region. It could still be thought off as a poor place to this day. But it didn't seem like a poor area. No one really starved. We lived off the land and the sea. The land was vibrant, green with trees; the sea, blue and rich with life. The air was clean. We grew food and learned to be self sufficient. We didn't have any homeless or starving people. In fact, the first homeless person I saw was during the summer I visited some cousins in San Francisco. It was my first time in the big city. I was shocked that homeless people actually existed and weren't some made up characters on tv!
Only a few families were able to send off their young ones to live with relatives who settled down in big cities. The hope was that these young people would make something of their lives. And while education was encouraged, there were only a few scholarships available to enable a few kids to go to college and make it on their own. So for the majority of young people restless for a bigger place and adventure, the only other option to leave was to join the military.
The military wasn't a bad option. It gave someone a job for a few years, helping them save up money and learn a new skill. And if they were smart enough, they'd take advantage of the GI Bill and have the military pay for college once their service was over. It was a chance to see the world and live life outside of our small, remote town. For some, it was the vehicle they needed to get them to their destination, to live life in the big city independently. For others, it was a learning experience that taught them that as much fun as it was to live life in a big place, there was no place like home. So in the end, a few returned, wiser and much more comfortable with their place in the world.
But there was a high risk that came with joining military service. There was always a chance that one would be called upon to go to war and risk life and limb in service to the country. Some served out their duty honorably and got out when the their time was up, going on to live the life they wanted. Others came back home, in coffins, to be laid to rest on family land or in the local cemeteries that were spread out across the region. Those were always hard. It's very difficult to watch a young person being buried, their time too short and their life gone suddenly just as they were beginning to live. You can't help but wonder about what could've been. You hope that the end came swiftly and painlessly, and they're in a better place now. You wish the surviving family members much strength to carry on with this enormous, tragic loss.
I know I was a mess when my cousin, only a few years younger than me, was killed in action. I could only think of us growing up, and I had baby sat him many times, playing with him, teaching him stuff about life, and helping him learn about himself and become his own man. When he died, it was terrible loss and I cried for months afterwards when I was suddenly reminded of him. He was like a little brother to me, and I miss him very much.
Every Memorial Day and Veterans Day, my family would make a pilgrimage to the local cemeteries and visit the graves of family members buried on family land. We'd take cleaning tools and paint and stuff for a picnic. We'd try to arrive early in the morning so we'd clean the grave sites before the sun got too hot. We'd pull weeds, sweep up the dead leaves, and pick up the trash and dump them in the garbage bins. Then we'd paint the graves a clean coat of white. By noon, we'd have flowers set up. We'd hold a little memorial to remember our loved ones and then we'd sit in the shade and have a picnic with the food and drinks we packed. Then afterwards, we'd head on back home and have a barbecue for the rest of the afternoon. We weren't the only family to do this. In fact, the whole town did the same thing.
I actually liked our Memorial Day activities. It was how we began our summer vacation. When I was younger, I just enjoyed going to the grave sites with my family and working together. And I really looked forward to the picnic and cook outs when we were done. When I got older, I realized that what we were doing was important. We were remembering our loved ones who served in the military.
When I left home to live in the big city, the first Memorial Day felt a bit strange. While all of my friends were excited about firing up the grill and drinking, I was struck with the realization that I wasn't going to make a family pilgrimage to visit the relatives. But I still found myself going to the nearest cemetery. There, I was pleasantly surprised to see troops of Boys Scouts and military personnel sticking little US Flags and poppies on the graves of service men and women. There weren't a lot of people at the cemetery. In fact, I don't see as many people these days during Veterans Day either. But the few that were there at the cemetery understood the spirit of the day. It was to remember the brave men and women who served our country proudly and honorably, often asked to make the greatest sacrifice--to give up their lives so that freedom and the lives of others can go on.
I didn't have a little US flag or a poppy to leave at the graves. I didn't even know anyone who was buried at this cemetery. But as I wandered around, I found myself standing over an old grave site of a serviceman. The grave was overgrown with moss and the paint had washed away a long time ago. I suddenly wished that I had a rake or some tools with me to clean up the grave. There was a pile of leaves burying one end and the name carved on the headstone was weathered and faded. But I was still able to read that this person was once a serviceman. It would seem that it had been ages since anyone had visited this grave.
The Boy Scouts and military haven't reached this part of the cemetery yet to plant a flag and leave a poppy. And under the cool shadow of the old trees in the afternoon sun, I couldn't help but feel a little sad standing by that grave; it seemed so lonely and abandoned. It was so eerily quiet and forlorn. So I took off my US flag pin from my shirt--I had purchased it the day before. I laid it on the headstone and held a moment of silence for this man and all those who had served our nation proudly and honorably.
A cool breeze sprang up and a bird started singing. A ray of sunlight broke through the shadows and landed on that pin. It started glinting in the sunlight like a precious stone. I smiled to myself and felt a whole lot better for some reason. Whatever sadness I had felt was lifted away by the gentle, cooling breeze and the song of happy, chirping bird. I left the cemetery, ready to rejoin my friends for some grilling and drinking. On the way out, I nodded politely to the Scouts and military.
When I first moved to Texas many years ago, I came across the sign for a town called Three Rivers. It's situated between Corpus Christi and San Antonio Texas. It's a very small town. But it's had a huge impact on American culture and history. And I just didn't know this until I moved here to Texas.
In 1944, Felix Longoria, a truck driver and father of a young daughter in the town of Three Rivers was drafted to serve in World War II. Seven months later on a mission in the Philippines, he was killed at age 25 by a Japanese sniper in 1945. It would not be until four years later, in 1949, that his remains would be recovered and sent home to his widow to be laid to rest in his hometown of Three Rivers, Texas.
But when his wife Beatrice went to the only funeral home to request chapel services for this fallen soldier, she was denied her request. The director refused to allow a Mexican American to have chapel services there because "the Anglo people would not stand for it." But he did offer to have this soldier buried in a Mexican part of the town cemetery, a section that was separated from the whites section by barbed wire.
The widow, encouraged by her sister and family, approached military veteran, Dr Hector P Garcia. Dr Garcia was a surgeon who returned to Texas in 1946 after serving a tour of duty in Europe, fighting in WWII. He went up against the US Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi, because they refused to treat sick Latino WWII veterans, because they weren't white. Dr Garcia went on to establish the GI Forum, a civil rights organization dedicated to helping servicemen and Latino Americans fight against discrimination.
Dr Garcia tried to reason with the funeral director, but the funeral director did not budge. Times were different then--discrimination and racism was a way of life. Dr Garcia organized the GI Forum and sent telegrams to Texas Congressmen, protesting the discrimination and shameful treatment of an American soldier who made the ultimate sacrifice, giving up his life for freedom and defense of his country, only to be denied burial in his hometown. The national media soon picked up on the story and people were outraged at the treatment this soldier had received. The small town of Three Rivers, thrust into the glaring, unflattering national spotlight, tried to offer burial services and honors for Felix Longoria, but it was too little, too late.
Then Texas Senator Lyndon Johnson--who would later become US President Lyndon Johnson--quickly responded and made arrangements to have Private Felix Longoria buried in Arlington National Cemetery. On February 16, 1949, four years after he was killed overseas in duty, Felix Longoria became the first Mexican American to be laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery, the honored resting place of the military.
Though he died an American hero, Felix Longoria became the martyr and unifying cause for Mexican Americans across the nation to unite and fight for their civil rights and dignity, to be treated as equal citizens under the laws and flag they've defended with their blood, their sweat, and their lives. With Dr Garcia's hard work, Mexican Americans began to stand up for their rights and overcome generations of discrimination and obstacles that had shackled their existence since the US took over the region. These people didn't move or immigrate here. It was the border that moved--they've always been here.
Memorial Day has long been intertwined with civil rights. The very first Memorial Day took place at Charleston, South Carolina on May 1st, 1865. It was at the Washington Race Course, now Hamilton Park, a Confederate prison camp for captured Union soldiers, and a mass grave for Union soldiers who had died there. Immediately after the end of the American civil War, the newly freed slaves exhumed the bodies from the mass grave and reburied them properly into single graves. The work took ten days. And the 1st of May, 1865, a mainly black crowd of ten thousand residents proceeded to the location for sermons, singing, and a picnic to honor the fallen Union soldiers who had given their lives to end slavery in America and advance the cause of freedom and liberty for all Americans. Many regions of the country held memorial days to honor fallen military men and women. And in 1967, it became a national holiday.
Over the last few years, many people seem to have forgotten the significance and spirit of Memorial Day. For a lot of people, it's just a day to barbecue, watch auto racing, and shop for furniture on sale. But there are a few of us who still remember the spirit of the day.
In his Memorial Day address, retired US General Eric K. Shinseki, now Secretary of Veterans Affairs, uses the quote,
“Poor is the Nation that has no heroes, but beggared is the Nation that has and forgets them.”
Tomorrow, I'm going to a cookout with some friends in the afternoon. But I have something important that I have to do first before I can celebrate. I'll probably visit the nearby cemetery. And at 3 pm on Monday, there will be a moment of silence to remember and honor all our military men and women who died while serving their country. Memorial Day is meant to honor those service men and women who gave their lives to ensure freedom and protect this country. Tomorrow, I will take time to remember these service men and women, and I will thank them and honor them for all they've done to protect freedom and ensure liberty in this country.