Most people I know are happy about Memorial Day, There’s no school, no work, and probably some beach or pool time. They throw burgers on the grill and spend time in the sun.
I think about a naval surveillance aircraft, the Lockheed SP2E-Neptune, that takes off for a mission through the Santa Ana Mountains of California one rainy February night in 1969.
Seven crew from the nation’s heartland miss their wives and children back home, yet they are tense with anticipation.
These aviators crave flight. The thrust, the power, the roar of four engines and the spinning propeller course in their veins like an electric current.
The controller sends the coordinates, and the heavy Neptune lifts into the furious dark. Rain assaults the aircraft like driving sheets of metal hammering against its flanks. Walls of water hedge the aircraft as it steers through the black of night.
The coordinates lead the Neptune into Modeskja Canyon at an altitude of 3,000 feet.
But aviators don’t fly into canyons. They navigate from high to low, not low to high. This canyon is no place for a huge aircraft. Somehow, the coordinates are wrong.
The Santa Ana peaks rise to 5,000 feet, unnoticed. Thunder booms. Lightning flashes, illuminating the canyon walls looming ahead.
Pull up, pull up!
May day! May day!
There’s a deafening collision of metal and rock. A fireball is seen miles away.
Fate snuffs out seven young lives. Out, just like that. In a millisecond.
The next morning seven young mothers open their front doors to a naval officer in a crisp white uniform, his hat tucked under his arm. Seven sets of parents do the same. The nightmare that all military families dream materializes. Twenty-four children sit, numb and confused. When is Daddy coming home?
Never, baby. He’s with Jesus now.
And seven young widows live what freedom really means.
They find jobs and struggle to make ends meet. Children avoid father-son outings and father-daughter dances. They go to school and sit in quiet sadness while people whisper that they should be better by now.
Grandmothers and grandfathers and aunts and uncles finger old pictures and keep old toys, simply because they belonged to him. Families settle into silent pain, guarding memories while they long to speak. At any moment, their memories can recall the smell, the touch, the feeling of presence–presence of the person they can see everywhere, even though he’s not.
Always they must correct assumptions about the absence of their husbands and fathers and sons and brothers. Life marches dimly on, through Memorial Days and Fourths of July and Veteran’s Days, when other people fly flags and eat burgers and complain about America because they can.
Our government is untrustworthy, people say. Yes, I know. My father died, and the Navy sealed the files on what happened and why.
Our government is taking too much money for taxes, people complain. I know that my mom opted out of the Social Security benefits paid to widows because she wanted to the money to go to people who needed it more than her.
Our government should stop sending troops into war, people rage. Yes, I know war is horrible, and I hate it, too. Countless thousands of soldiers have died on training missions, sorties, special ops, and wartime missions. But I also know that grieving families wish everyone would recognize that their loved ones were heroes; they wish that people would just appreciate the sacrifice instead of condemning the loss.
They wish, that when the National Anthem begins, everyone would take off their caps and put their hands over their hearts and sing. Actually sing the words, because “the land of the free and the home of the brave” is achieved at great expense. Every day, someone is paying dearly for the privilege of living in America.
This is what I’m thinking about on Memorial Day.
image by Petr Kratochvil