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Memorial Day 2006: Lest We Forget

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It Was Said

"My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." said John F. Kennedy on January 20, 1961. Kennedy then continued, "My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man."

Many antecedents to these words have been cited, including Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. in his Memorial Day Address, 1884: "It is now the moment... to recall what our country has done for each of us, and to ask ourselves what we can do for our country in return." Kennedy himself expressed the same idea in a televised campaign address, 20 Sept. 1960. But no matter how many times these words, or words like them are said, I can not but help think - they have not been said enough.

Memorial Day weekend is upon us. This holiday is one of many, which have stories within stories about the why and the how we celebrate it. Here are just a few.

In The Beginning

Memorial Day was formerly known as Decoration Day, and was instituted May 30, 1868, to honor the Union Civil War dead - which brings us to the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR).

The GAR was a onetime American patriotic organization, composed of Union veterans of the American Civil War. It was founded in Decatur, Illinois, on April 6, 1866, and was dissolved in 1956 following the death of its last member. Founded for the commemoration of dead comrades and the practice of fraternity and mutual assistance, the GAR instituted the observance of Memorial Day in 1868. The organization wielded considerable political influence at various times, particularly in its support of presidential candidates between 1872 and 1904 when its membership was greatest.

Memorial Day was first observed on the order of General John Alexander Logan (of GAR) for the purpose of decorating the graves of the American Union Civil War dead. It was observed on May 30 until 1971, when most states changed to a newly established federal schedule of holiday observance. In order to give federal employees 3-day weekends, a 1968 federal law made several changes in dates of holiday observances, including the move of Memorial Day to the last Monday in May.

Today, Memorial Day is a legal holiday observed annually on the last Monday in May in most of the United States The holiday is traditionally marked by parades, memorial speeches and ceremonies, and the decoration of graves with flowers and flags, hence the original name, Decoration Day.

Confederate Memorial Day, formerly a legal holiday in many southern states, is still observed on the fourth Monday in April in Alabama, January 19 in Arkansas and Texas, May 10 in North and South Carolina, June 3 in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Tennessee, the last Monday in April in Mississippi, April 26 in Florida and Georgia, and on the last Monday in May in Virginia.

The Entertainment Side

As with many of our holidays, sports events abound. Perhaps the most well know of all Memorial Day events is the Indianapolis 500. It has been held annually on Memorial Day weekend since 1911. With crowds averaging over 400,000, it is the best-attended single-day sports event in the world. But why in Indianapolis?

In the late 19th century Indiana emerged as a major industrial, political, and literary force within the Union. Its industrial growth was stimulated enormously by the discovery in 1886 of an extensive natural-gas field, which attracted hundreds of new manufacturing firms. One of these was the automobile industry, which was established in Indiana (!!!) in the 1890s by Elwood Haynes. The Indianapolis Speedway opened in 1909 as a track constructed of crushed stone and tar. It was designed as an outdoor laboratory and competition facility for Indiana's (!!!) then burgeoning automobile production industry.

The first Indianapolis 500, at that time called the International 500 Mile Sweepstakes, was run on May 30, 1911. Ray Harroun won the inaugural race in a Marmon Wasp race car with an average speed of 74.602 mph (120 km/h), finishing in 6 hours 42 minutes 8 seconds and claiming the champion's $10,000 share of the $25,000 purse. Since 1911 the Indianapolis 500 has been run annually except during 1917 and 1918 and from 1942 to 1945, when the United States was actively involved in World War I and World War II, respectively.

Lest We Forget

Getting back to what we all too often forget about on Memorial Day

The Unknown Soldier is ceremonially entombed as the representative of all the war dead of his country, and accorded national honors. After World War I many nations selected an unknown soldier as a tribute to those who had made the supreme sacrifice. In the U.S. the Unknown Soldier was interred in Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia, on November 11, 1921. His tomb, a simple white-marble structure dedicated on November 11, 1932, rests in front of Arlington Memorial Amphitheater. It is inscribed: "Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God." On Memorial Day 1958 two more unknown soldiers, one from World War II and one from the Korean War, were buried at the head of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

On Memorial Day 1984, a soldier from the Vietnam War was interred, but later investigations revealed the soldier's identity, and they were removed.

Deciding that scientific advances, including DNA tests had made Vietnam War or future unknowns unlikely, the Pentagon announced (1999) that no new remains would be placed in the memorial.

May your Memorial Day be one of remembrance.
--- Regards, Walt Schmidt