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Honoring our war dead Help make Memorial Day observance May 30

by Matt Harvey

Asst. Managing Editor

Let's play word association for a minute.

What comes to mind -- be honest, now -- when I say Memorial Day?

My guess is that some of you thought about a return to the swimming pool after an eight-month layoff, or maybe a day off from work with pay.

Others probably thought about a picnic, or grilling a steak.

A couple of famous auto races, the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600, probably came to mind for more than a few.

Vacation plans undoubtedly popped into a few minds, while some surely thought about going to the cemetery to decorate the graves of their loved ones.

Or, if you're a part-time farmer, like me, you might have thought about baling hay.

If you thought of any of those things first, don't be ashamed. I'm not here to bash you for getting sidetracked from the true meaning of Memorial Day. I'm guilty, too.

I just want your help.

Let me explain.

Memorial Day -- or Decoration Day, as it once was called -- is a holiday for only one reason: Honoring our war dead.

According to brittanica.com, a fixed national day of celebration began in 1868 when "Commander in Chief John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic issued a general order designating May 30, 1868, 'for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.'"

Somehow I doubt that Mr. Logan had hamburgers, hot dogs or Coppertone sun lotion in mind when he took that action.

And when our national leaders decided later to expand Memorial Day to honor the dead from all our wars, they certainly weren't firing up a Winnebago to head to Lowe's Motor Speedway.

Yet that's where we're at today. Most of us see Memorial Day as everything but what it's really about.

Somewhere between Mr. Logan's action and now, we lost much of the meaning of the holiday, just as we've lost the meaning of some of our other holidays.

My guess is that the biggest culprit was the federal decision, in 1971, to begin observing the holiday on the last Monday in May.

Before then, Memorial Day was celebrated on May 30, whether it was a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday.

But now, seemingly to ensure workers have a long weekend off, we have to always have the holiday on a Monday. You may not like to read what I'm about to write, but that's just plain wrong, especially because of what's become of the way we view the holiday.

I can remember the first funeral I ever attended, when I was just a 5-year-old. They'd brought home Denny Hartpence, a teen-ager from our rural county in North Central Ohio who was killed in Vietnam.

I often think about Denny, about how he was almost the same age as one of my sisters.

I think about all the good things she's gone on to do, the schoolchildren she's taught, the kids she's raised, the other people she's touched. And then I think about what Denny might have done -- might be doing -- if he had lived.

I think about my wife's uncle, too.

John Wilson Randolph came from around here, growing up near the Harrison-Lewis county line.

When he died in France in June of 1944, he left behind a bride and a lot of unfulfilled promise. If he had lived, he might today be wondering right now if it was going to rain on his hay, or might be thinking about playing with his grandkids.

Denny, John Wilson and the hundreds of thousands of other American men and women killed in wars had promising lives. Then, they were gone.

Here's what I think: Get the holiday back on track, or forget about it. Our war dead deserve that.

This is where you come in.

It's surely OK to have fun on Memorial Day, but let's not let that message overwhelm the original intent.

It should be a hallowed day, a day of reflection, a day of thanks. Keep the soldiers who have died in our wars alive in your thoughts.

Now, for the harder part.

I want to you to contact our senators, Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller. Encourage them to propose legislation to change the observance of Memorial Day back to May 30 each year.

Byrd can be reached by phone at (202) 224-3954, or (304) 342-5855, or by letter at 311 Senate Hart Office, Washington, D.C. 20510, or by e-mail at senator_byrd@byrd.senate.gov. Rockefeller can be reached by phone at (304) 367-0122 or (202) 224-6472, or by letter at 531 Hart Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20510, or by e-mail at senator@rockefeller.senate.gov.

Giving up a long weekend when the weather's just starting to get beautiful is a big sacrifice.

But take away the idea that Memorial Day always means a three-day weekend to kick off the summer, and it's likely we'll put back the idea of what this holiday's really all about: Honoring our war dead.

I think they sacrificed a little bit more than most of us. Don't you?

Assistant Managing Editor Matt Harvey can be reached at 626-1449.

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