Break out the white shoes and cabana wear and don’t hang them back up until September — it’s Memorial Day again.
Of course, there’s more to Memorial Day than a valid excuse to drink beer on a random Monday (seriously, try cracking open a tallboy on Flag Day and see what your boss says).
A distinctly secular national observance — like New Year’s Day, Independence Day and Oscar Night — Memorial Day is a federal holiday honoring the many men and women who gave their lives in military service.
It also gives the country’s grill-masters a chance to sharpen their chops before the Fourth of July, much in the way Thanksgiving serves as a dry run for Christmas. Because in America, we commemorate every occasion with heaping piles of meat… and you’ll never live it down if it’s the least bit over- or under-cooked.
Memorial Day is not to be confused with Veterans Day, celebrated in November; nor is it to be confused with Personal Day, which comes every other Friday — as opposed to Sick Day, which comes but five days a year, or Vacation Day, which everyone accrues differently according to seniority.
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. Large-scale public grave decorating ceremonies followed subsequent battles, the surrender at Appomattox and Lincoln’s assassination. 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 Gen. John A. Logan — whose handlebar moustache, incidentally, would make any millennial soil his skinny jeans with envy — issued a proclamation calling for “Decoration Day” to be observed annually and nationwide, on May 30.
Thus, we celebrated of Decoration Day on May 30 for the next 100 years, until 1967, when federal law officially changed the name to “Memorial Day.” Congress moved its observance to the last Monday in May via the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968. It comforts me to know that in the throes of the Vietnam War, the assassinations of both Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. and massive civil unrest threatening to tear the country apart, lawmakers busied themselves tackling hot-button issues like three-day weekends.
Speaking of which, right around that time President Lyndon 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 had, because I’d turned 21 four months earlier. Before letting me go (with a speeding ticket only), the officer cut up the “fraudulent state-issued document, a potential felony offense,” 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. Personal 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, a Zip-Line and, according to its website, Wing Fest, every Thursday from June 22 through August 10.
You know, on second thought, Juneau doesn’t have half that stuff. Why doesn’t Boalsburg give us “Birthplace of Memorial Day”? Or at least a Wing Fest. I mean, what am I supposed to do with all this blue cheese dressing?
Lastly, modern Memorial Day marks the unofficial start of summer. In Alaska, of course, this means beginning to prepare for winter. Seriously. Look at all that termination dust up in the mountains.
• Geoff Kirsch is an award-winning Juneau-based writer and humorist. “Slack Tide” appears twice monthly in Neighbors.