Memorial Day is certainly a significant American holiday, but I somehow lost track of its actual date this year. I probably should have adjusted by now to this federal three-day holiday weekend; after all, the last-Monday-in-May designation did take effect in 1971.
Back when we celebrated Memorial Day on the same date every year, May 30 generally signaled various annual events. The school year for us ended somewhere around Memorial Day, while May 30 also alerted the fashion crowd to break out their white purses and shoes. And Memorial Day on whatever date has long served as the unofficial gateway to the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer.
We called it Decoration Day then, when we visited the cemeteries near Rosewood and Mechanicsburg where our great-grandparents are buried. Our parents took flowers, and we kids learned respectfully not to step on any graves. There were family potlucks, too, with aunts and uncles and cousins under soft summer skies with splashy peonies and stately irises in full bloom. And did I mention homemade ice cream?
But with this year’s designated day of May 25, its earliest possible date, Memorial Day arrived sooner than I expected. After such a cool spring – I was still heating my house until May 23 – and our daily routines substantially rearranged by the pandemic, the holiday simply crept up on me.
Then I heard that Champaign County native and 1964 GHS grad Philip Grieser would be uniquely honored. A Navy Seabee who served three tours of duty in Vietnam, Phil lost his life in May of 1969, 22 days before he was to leave Asia and 40 days before ending his naval career to return to the family dairy farm.
NASCAR annually honors fallen members of the military with 600 Miles of Remembrance, the Coca Cola 600 race run at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. Each driver’s windshield carries the name of one such honoree, with Phil’s name this year featured on the car of Kurt Busch. Making this tribute extra special was the fact that the son of Phil’s commanding officer works for Busch’s team, Chip Ganassi Racing, thus providing a personal connection.
Phil was a couple of years older than I, so I did not know him particularly well. As a young teacher, however, I had his brother Mark in freshman English – and later also taught Mark’s three daughters. I loved the interview when Mark and other family members traveled to Charlotte to see the car and meet the driver himself. By the way, Kurt was on the pole and eventually finished in seventh place.
Interestingly enough, there was another local link during Sunday’s race. My nephew, Josh Sell, is lead engineer for the Kurt Busch team. Josh grew up here in Urbana and graduated from Catholic Central High School, so he was not familiar with the Grieser name. However, the connection became clear when St. Paris entered the conversation. Another one of those small world situations during a fitting tribute to Philip Grieser.
On Sunday night I watched part of the rain-delayed race, but I also tuned in to the National Memorial Day Concert. As with many programs this spring, it was more virtual than live. Nevertheless, I admire actors Gary Sinise and Joe Mantegna for their ongoing dedication to veterans and always enjoy their hosting of the annual program, unfortunately this year without spectators gathered on the west lawn of the Capitol. I especially look forward to the Armed Services Medley when all five service songs are presented. I always cry when I watch members of each branch of the military, past and present, stand for their respective songs.
I also always think of my father, now gone, and his Army time in Europe. This year my thoughts were particularly poignant. Our lives were thoroughly disrupted for several weeks by the pandemic, causing great health and economic upheaval. My father also experienced disruption and upheaval: four years of not seeing his family, not sleeping in his own bed, living in danger, battling the forces of nature. Many fellow soldiers did not return – many others brought the war home with them. Like my father, they all did what they had to do and then resumed their lives. We cannot forget the many sacrifices all our military folks have made for so many years – on our behalves.
Locally I found the Field of Flags display at the hospital a beautiful tribute to health care employees and first responders. And I loved that Hometown Hero signs were placed in the yards of area health care workers. I loved it even more that many of those recipients moved their signs to the yards of military veterans.
By far, the most emotional part of this year’s Memorial Day for me came on Monday when I saw videos of Jeff Buell, his daughter Bailey, and Michael Ludlow playing “Taps.” The song brought tears to my eyes and a longing to my heart that we Americans might come together to truly honor the sacrifices we celebrate on Memorial Day: by listening to one another, being kind, caring for each other, keeping clear and unselfish perspective in these challenging days. Those 24 haunting trumpet notes played in yards and on porches at 3 PM all across America added to the appropriateness of author Mitch Albom’s words: We yearn for what we have lost, but let us not forget what we also have.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.