Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Veterans Day / Armistice Day / Remembrance Day

We used to call November 11 Armistice Day, even as November 11 in the Commonwealth countries is Remembrance Day, marking the end of World War One on November 11, 1918.

"In Flanders Field," one of the most well-known poems written during WWI, was composed in 1915 by Major John McCrae after he conducted the funeral service for another officer, a friend, 22-year-old Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, who had been killed in the fighting in France.

"Conducted the funeral service" puts it mildly. The account linked above says Helmer died on the morning of May 2 when he "left his dugout and was killed instantly by a direct hit from an 8 inch German shell. What body parts could be found were later gathered into sandbags and laid in an army blanket for burial that evening." No chaplain was present, so McCrae "conducted a simple service at the graveside, reciting from memory some passages from the Church of England's 'Order of Burial of the Dead'." Then they buried Helmer and marked his grave, as they had countless others, with a cross bearing his name.

Helmer's grave was marked, but the marking eventually was lost, and he "he is one of the 54,896 soldiers who have no known grave in the battlefields of the Ypres Salient." That's 54,896 unknown graves in an area that was fought over during the four years between 1914 and 1918, was the site of the first use of chemical (gas) weaponry, saw fighting every single day during one two-year stretch, and was the place where as many as 400,000 to 500,000 men on all sides of the conflict were killed or mortally wounded. That's one area of one region on the continent as a whole.

This year, the British remembered their dead WWI soldiers, those from Britain itself and from their colonies at the time, with a Sea of Ceramic Poppies flowing from the Tower of London and pooling around the base of the tower. One poppy for each soldier who died adds up to 888,246 poppies filling the moat.
This image from the Daily Mail shows the Sea of Ceramic Poppies
filling the moat around the Tower of London. 

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The last stanza charges future generations to "take up the quarrel against the foe," and we can and should consider carefully who/what that foe is and how best to "take up the quarrel."

Nevertheless, as long as we live in an imperfect world where evil vies for our hearts and minds and lives and nations, each of us is called to protect, to guard, to defend -- whether through military service or through civil service or through active, thoughtful citizenship -- the ideas* that good exists, that good will ultimately prevail, and that, until then, it is better to die, physically or in the small daily sacrifices we make for others, in the service of good than it is to pretend that evil does not exist, that the conflict does not exist, and/or that we are not called to serve.

None of us is innocent. None of us is excused. None of us ever can be said to have retired from active duty. We each have been thrown a torch. Will we take what is good and use it for evil to burn, kill, and destroy? Will we, out of fear that we are misusing it, stamp it out and, having blinded ourselves to good, stumble about in evil's darkness? Or will we hold it high to shed as much good light as we can so all can see to work for good.

*When a recruit joins the U.S. military, he/she takes an oath to "support and defend" what? The president? The country? The people? Read the oath here. Here is another Department of Defense article worth reading to help us understand how our country works and why: "Why Civilian Control of the Military?"  

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Punctuate This: Remembering the Original President's Day

No wonder we can't figure out complicated problems like health care and climate change. We can't even figure out how to punctuate Presidents Day.

George Washington probably wouldn't have 
minded our changing the date we celebrate his birthday. 
A change in calendar systems during his lifetime shifted 
his birthday from February 11 to February 22. And, because 
the latest the third Monday can be is the 21st, we never again 
will celebrate his birthday on February 22. Never say never, 
however; the 1968 bill also moved Veterans Day to the fourth 
Monday in October -- but that only lasted until 1975 when it 
wasreturned to its November 11 origins.
Many of us of a certain age remember making stovepipe hats out of black construction paper on February 12, eating cherry pie on February 22, and having no school on either day.

Pity our children and grandchildren. The Uniform Holiday Bill of 1968 moved Washington's Birthday, as it had been called since 1885, to the third Monday in February. President Lyndon Johnson justified the change
 by saying it would "enable families who live some distance apart to spend more time together. Americans will be able to travel farther and see more of this beautiful land of ours. They will be able to participate in a wider range of recreational and cultural activities" and it would reduce the disruption caused by mid-week, non-uniform holidays.

The 1968 bill also had proposed renaming the holiday Presidents' Day (apostrophe after the s) to honor both Washington and Lincoln. But that part of the bill got lost. And, even though the bill had passed in 1968, it didn't take effect until January 1, 1971, when President Nixon signed Executive Order 11582.

Technically, we celebrate one president's birthday (apostrophe before the s) because the holiday is still listed in federal statutes as Washington's Birthday. State statutes are another matter.

On the third Monday in February, for instance, Alabamians officially celebrate George Washington's birthday and Thomas Jefferson's birthday -- even though Jefferson was born in April. Somehow, Jefferson's birthday slipped into the state calendar in 1907.

Florida doesn't list any official holidays in February. Indiana celebrates Washington's Birthday in December.

Merchants, wanting to milk the day for all it's worth, tend to refer to it as Presidents Day, President's Day, or Presidents' Day, but also tend to picture only Washington or Lincoln in ads--if they make any historical reference at all.

Presidents Day (no apostrophe) has become the officially preferred designation, even though President's Day is the p.c. -- punctuationally correct -- version and even though the Chicago Manual of Style and many dictionaries prefer Presidents' Day. And even though it officially is still just Washington's Birthday.

With the latest round of presidential candidates preparing to ride into their respective Jerusalems so convention delegates can raise the palm branches and shout 'Hosanna!' we should acknowledge the peculiar combination of destiny and drive that has drawn fewer than 50 people -- people very different in parentage, in education, in religion, in character, and in conviction of what was best for this country -- to occupy its highest office.

We also should acknowledge that we, among the nations of the earth, can most truly say to our children that any of them might grow up to be President of the United States. We should not take either of those peculiarities for granted, regardless of whether we agree or disagree with the current occupant of the office.

It's time to make it official. Presidents Day.

No apostrophe. Honoring our past. Keeping faith with our future.

If we can do that, maybe there's hope for finding consensus on health care and climate change.