Until about 40 years ago, Memorial Day was observed--not celebrated--on May 30 every year. Eager Cub Scouts would work their way through the crowds at small town parades selling bright red artificial poppies. In reviewing stands, graying veterans would salute or place their hands over their hearts as high school bands marched by. Often a young girl would be called upon to read the World War I era poem "In Flanders Fields" that describes the poppies blowing row upon row among the graves of fallen warriors of the Great War.
You can gain a real appreciation of Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery. There, soldiers of the Third Army, the ceremonial "Old Guard" will place little American flags on thousands of well-tended graves. Visitors will be told the story of Arlington, how Col. Robert E. Lee paced the floors of the Custis-Lee mansion back in 1861, praying and pondering. He had to decide whether to serve in the U.S. Army to which he had dedicated his life or to leave the Union with his beloved Virginia. The terrible Civil War that followed for four long and bitter years helped to fill thousands of graves at Arlington, once Lee's beautiful hilltop home.
When the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was dedicated in 1921 at Arlington, President Wilson spoke as a Bible was included among the objects placed in the cornerstone of this sacred space. Today, 24 hours a day, Tomb guards march their appointed rounds, honoring those who have fallen to defend our freedoms. The bumper sticker dates from our own time, but the sentiment it expresses goes all the way back: "America--land of the free because of the brave."
Americans have always loved their country. We love our country still. And we have a special reverence for those who gave what Lincoln called "the last full measure of devotion." Even today, with casualties in the War on Terror mercifully coming down, there are still flag-draped caskets returning regularly to Dover Air Force Base. There are fresh graves being filled daily at Arlington--and across America. So great is the call of America that even foreigners feel its pull. The Marquis de Lafayette--a brave hero of our Revolution--took home to France enough American soil to bury his earthly remains. In recent years, Memorial Day has become the occasion for sales at the mall, cookouts, rock concerts, and days at the beach. Our fallen heroes died for this America too. They knew that a certain lightheartedness, of ever-youthful exuberance, is a part of what it means to pursue happiness. It is for all of this, the paths of laudable pursuit, the fruits of honest toil, that America stands. May we always be worthy of those who died to give this America to us.