OK, it’s actually not the first time I enjoyed the start of summer wearing a heavy coat to ward off the chill, but I think it is the first time I wore a parka to stand at the barbecue and worried the meat might re-freeze if I wasn’t snappy about getting it on the grill. Looking back, I should know better of North Shore weather than to expect days of balm, when the real sure sign of spring is a black fly cloud at my ears. Tropical we aren’t. I’ve worn chopper mitts to water fresh seeded grass (while thinking the dratted stuff stood a better chance of germinating in my refrigerator). And I recall more than one early summer canoe trip that encountered gray snow lingering in a sheltered hollow or winter ice lurking in a crevice. Our weather disinclines us toward sunbathing. The tanning booth was made for our land.

If I look back further, I see this was so as far into the past as my experience carries. At age thirteen or fourteen, the first plunge into Colby Lake was an ice-breaking experience followed by a voice-breaking yowl straining the limits of the treble range. Boys will jump into icy water because it is there, and throwing themselves into insane activity was what boys did best. You’d think fifty years of hard-fought experience would have taught me to cook indoors like a civilized person, or, better yet, sit-me-down in a restaurant where all is done for me. But no, there I was, hell-bent determined to barbecue in a blizzard if need be because, damn it, this is summer and I better enjoy it while it lasts. I did so and I “enjoyed” it, though in me lurked suspicion that summer reverie should not come at risk of hypothermia.

Time, also meaning distance, has blurred the origins and meaning of Memorial Day as begun near a century and a half ago when General John Logan set May 05 of 1868 as a day to honor the graves of Union AND Confederate dead with flowers at Arlington National. I’m sure there were those on both sides of the Civil War not ready to forgive or be forgiven, but I think General Logan’s order grand and in the best American style by recognizing the devotion of both sides to their causes. In terms of armies today, our Civil War was a horror of death and killing, as was WW I with its repetition of bayonet charges at dug-in enemy positions. It was after WW I and the image of the fields of Flanders blooming red in token and remembrance of the fallen that Memorial Day became consolidated and then reaffirmed by the sacrifices in lives and blood of the Second World War.

For most of us, now served by volunteer protectors, remembering the dead and injured of earlier days is less appealing than a family weekend of fishing, water sport, and outdoor cookery that has turned Memorial Day into a commercial success for sausage makers, beer suppliers, and producers of charcoal briquettes. In plain fact, you’ll sell more sausage for a holiday weekend than you will for a sober memorial event. But the truth remains that the ease we enjoy today was paid in lives and devotion by people with more names than we can remember. A heavy price was paid in lives and suffering spent for our comfort. Those who paid it did so that we could be secure, but I think we owe them the decency to remember what it took and why Americans fought.

Our fights (flawed and questionable as some see them) have tended to be for the cause of freedom and decency as we’ve come to define those things. Ours is not absolute freedom. I don’t think Americans fought to defend a right to impose. When our Marines went into action in Tripoli, it was not to establish our culture atop another. We went after pirates who took hostages and traded in salves along with disrupting commerce. Being self-critical, as we often are, makes us somewhat unaware of things we did NOT do that others (many of whom stand eager to join in criticism) do as a matter of course following their “freedom” of cultural, ethnic, or theological supremacy. Berlin was not forced to become an American city and Japan was not required to give up its language or culture. Our role focused on being constructive. If you doubt this, look for evidence of American triumphal arches or monumental structures celebrating our victory over others. Our wars and foreign policies can be questioned, of course, but what we did not do is significant. We did not aggrandize ourselves by building on the ruin of others.

I didn’t always understand or take time to appreciate our peculiar American strengths, but General Logan expressed this very well in 1868 with his order to honor both sides. America makes mistakes, but it also tries to be even-handed and fair. Can as much be said of those who assail the West for presumed imperialism? It seems to me our ideals are an exception to the rule where a victor imposes their ways, their language, and their beliefs on others and then tops their show with a grand monument of self-celebration.

This past Memorial Day left me with thoughts. I was not called to serve in the Viet Nam era, so I did not put my life or future on the line as did so many others. But that doesn’t mean I feel or am free of responsibility. The living, those of us enjoying life and liberty, have a duty to remember the past and to be brave in the present and future by defending our ideals and resisting those attempts to weaken liberty with arbitrary burdens of sect or doctrine that in their implementation leave humanity enslaved to the cruel god of obedience to artificial authority. Our freedom cost dearly. It is left to us to enjoy and preserve the happiness of life and liberty.