Salute to the fallen

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Robert Lansing in "Twelve O'Clock High"
Robert Lansing in “Twelve O’Clock High”

My earliest memory of Memorial Day takes me back to Defiance, Ohio, where I grew up.

It was called Decoration Day then. I recall that I rode my bike to the street next to the old high school. There I joined dozens of other kids to get our bikes decorated with red, white and blue streamers.

Somehow, we all got rolling together to the ball field across the river to hear commemorative speeches and honor those killed in America’s wars.

So much has changed since then. More wars. More deaths. More fallen to remember.

I plan to spend this Memorial Day reading on our back porch. No bike rides for me. My left foot is in a boot the podiatrist prescribed to give my heel a chance to repair itself. Meantime, I scanned the papers, first The Journal Gazette delivered early to our front door, and then the national papers on their web sites. Lots of tributes.

I was especially pleased that my former colleagues on the editorial page devoted a lengthy editorial to the memory of a young man who died in Iraq when his helicopter was shot down. I’ve been friends of his parents for years and visited the funeral home for the calling.

The holiday really began Sunday. During the day a race driver from Columbia won the Indianapolis 500. In the evening, PBS featured its annual concert from the grounds of the U.S. Capitol in Washington. I didn’t recognize the performers. I guess pop culture passed me by some time ago.

In 1992, when my wife Toni and I lived in D.C., son John happened to be visiting over the holiday. So we all hiked down to the Capitol for the Memorial Day event. Last night, as I watched the program on TV, it looked so much like the event we enjoyed in person.

Either live or on TV, you just had to be moved as one of the two celebrity master of ceremonies recognized the disabled veterans in the front row. One especially touching tribute this year told a story of one fallen young soldier whose widow fought back tears as a video captured his earlier life on the huge screen behind the stage.

At intervals throughout the program, battle scenes from various wars also flashed on that screen. When images from the Vietnam War appeared, I recalled the headline of an editorial I had written at war’s end: “The war we lost.”

I was reminded too of a line spoken by the actor Robert Lansing in a long-ago TV series, “Twelve O’Clock High.”

Asked whether America was winning the war, set during World War II, the Lansing character, a bomber pilot, declared, “There are no winners in war, some just lose more than others.”

I didn’t serve. I was too young to enlist or be drafted for World War II and Korea. I was a theological student and therefore not eligible for the draft during Vietnam. Years later, I taught peace studies at the regional campus for Indiana and Purdue universities in Fort Wayne.

Still, my opposition to war doesn’t diminish my respect for those young men and women who have given their lives in defense of our country. Their sacrifice of family or career, of long holidays with loved ones, reminds me that America is about a lot more than about making money.

Indeed, Americans of all races, creeds and family backgrounds have stood up for their country when it counted. Today, on this special holiday, I salute them all.

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