Take a three-day weekend from the ongoing public health crisis, and break out the Bermuda shorts and potato salad — it’s Memorial Day!
But of course, there’s more to Memorial Day than cabana wear and mayonnaise-based side dishes.
A distinctly secular national observance — like New Year’s Day or Oscar Night — Memorial Day is a federal holiday honoring the many American men and women who gave their lives in military service.
It also gives the country’s grill-masters a chance to show off their chops (or whatever cut they can actually find). Because in America, we commemorate every occasion with some type of roasted meat (or, as a last resort, Beyond Burger; there’s always plenty of Beyond Burger in the butcher’s case).
Observed in one form or another on one date or another for almost 150 years, Memorial Day originates with the Civil War.
Decorating soldiers’ graves with flowers rose to prominence in America after the Battle of Gettysburg, in 1863. Large-scale public grave decorating ceremonies followed multiple subsequent battles, surrender at Appomattox and the shooting of Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater. Hence the original name, “Decoration Day” even though as far as holidays go, Memorial Day decorations are pretty thin. And no candy either. You’d think they could at least make bald eagle Peeps or something.
In 1868, Grand Army General John A. Logan—whose handlebar moustache, incidentally, would make Hulk Hogan soil his wrestling singlet with envy — issued a proclamation calling for “Decoration Day” to be observed annually and nationwide every May 30.
Thus, the date of Decoration Day was great-grandfathered in for the next 100 years, until 1967, when federal law officially changed its name to “Memorial Day.” Congress moved its observance to the last Monday in May via the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968, which similarly relocated three other holidays from their traditional dates. It comforts me to know that in the throes of the Vietnam War, the Kennedy and King assassinations and massive civil unrest threatening to tear apart the country, lawmakers tackled hot-button issues like three-day weekends and what to call them.
Speaking of which, around the same time President Lyndon B. Johnson also signed into law an official decree naming Waterloo, New York, the official birthplace of Memorial Day.
Full-disclosure: driving back to college from some concert or other, I was once pulled over in Waterloo, New York for doing 25 in a 20 — and subsequently searched, very thoroughly — on Memorial Day 1997! The search yielded nothing except a fake ID, which I’d completely forgotten I still owned, because I’d turned 21 four months earlier. Before letting me go (with a speeding ticket), the officer made me watch him cut up the“fraudulent state-issued document,” before lighting it on fire right there on the side of the road. Every year since then, for me, Memorial Day has become a day for remembering to clean out my wallet.
Now, in brave defiance of LBJ’s executive order, Boalsburg, Pennsylvania also claims the title birthplace of Memorial Day. My own history with Waterloo aside, I say let Boalsburg have it. There’s really not much else going on there, although nearby Tussey Mountain Resort boasts a skate park, batting cages, a par-3 golf course, Go-Karts and a Zip-Line.
You know, on second thought, Juneau doesn’t have half that stuff. Boalsburg should give “Birthplace of Memorial Day” to us! Just look what it’s done for Waterloo, New York!
Now, where was I? Ah, yes. Modern Memorial Day marks the unofficial start of summer, which up here, of course, means beginning preparations for winter. Seriously, it’s coming. Look at all that termination dust up in the mountains.
Memorial Day activities normally include parades, barbecues and commemorative ceremonies. This year, with last-minute mandate lifting, we’re sure to these in some form or another. Just be advised: Whatever event you venture to attend, assume it will be BYOPPE.
One definite cancellation, however: the National Memorial Day Concert on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol. In recent years, the line-up has featured the U.S. Army Chorus, the U.S. Navy Band Sea Chanters, the U.S. Air Force Signing Sergeants and, on one occasion, General Colin L. Powell (Ret.). Wow, I wonder what his set list looked like. “War”? “Love is a Battlefield?” “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (to Party)”?
General Powell, if you’re reading this, please, in lieu of this year’s show can you stream a living room concertof yourself covering the Beastie Boys? That’d make 2020 one Memorial Day we’d never forget.
What’s the point of all this, you ask? I’m not entirely sure. But I can say this: I desperately hope we all celebrate Memorial Day responsibly, because, you know, I’d really hate to have to shut down again in two weeks.
Because then you’re getting into Flag Day. And you don’t screw around with Flag Day.
• Geoff Kirsch is an award-winning Juneau-based writer and humorist. “Slack Tide” appears every second and fourth Sunday in Neighbors.