Gary Brown: Despite somber theme, Memorial Day is a happy day

Gary Brown

My dad called it Decoration Day and he taught us early why the graves of fallen soldiers were marked with flags. Then he always took his family to our town’s Memorial Day parade.

During much of the holiday he planted his garden — dozens of tomato and pepper plants, hills of squash and cucumbers, and rows of peas, carrots, radishes, onions and green beans.

Late in the afternoon, Pop always cooked dinner on the backyard barbecue — blackened chicken, whether we wanted it to be that color or not.

And, at the end of the day, fireworks rose into the sky, seemingly right in front of our porch where we sat with family and friends, collective “oooooo’s” and “aaaaaaahs” echoing through the neighborhood.

Bullet, our black and white mutt, loved Decoration Day because of its discarded burned poultry skin but whined and paced through most of the loud and patriotic parts.

I’ve always had a special fondness for Memorial Day. It sort of started in my family.

“Waterloo, New York — Birthplace of Memorial Day,” a header for the website — the result of my Google search. “Waterloo is the only federally recognized birthplace of Memorial Day and we are proud to interpret this somber and reflective holiday.”

I grew up only a few miles from Waterloo and had family there. Indeed, relatives helped work to get Waterloo recognized for the historic part it apparently played in the origin of the holiday.

“The Civil War, which had torn our nation apart, had come to an end. In Waterloo, N.Y., as in the rest of the nation, the great sacrifice of our most precious asset, our young men, weighed heavily on the minds of our citizens,” explains a page at the community’s website devoted to the National Memorial Day Museum in Waterloo. “During the fall of 1865, Henry C. Wells, a local druggist, proposed that a commemoration be held to honor their sacrifice. Late in the winter of 1866, he enlisted the aid of General John B. Murray who immediately threw his support behind the proposal and on May 5, 1866, the first Memorial Day was held.”

A century later, in May 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson recognized Waterloo as the birthplace of Memorial Day. It didn’t mean much to me then. I was a child. All I thought was, with an official celebration scheduled, that branch of the family probably wouldn’t be available for a holiday gathering. I’d miss the second and third cousins, but that also meant there would be more soda pop and potato salad for the rest of us.

Those were selfish thoughts, of course. I’ve since recognized that the day honors the supreme sacrifice made by many of those who served our country. They paid for our holiday celebration with their lives.

Despite the day’s somber theme, it has become a happy holiday. It has grown to mark the beginning of summer, the start of boating and barbecue seasons, the first of many opportunities to gather with friends and family in fellowship.

While we should take care to pay respect to those who died for our freedom, I have long believed that those true American heroes would not begrudge us the activities we engage in on their day.

Given the chance, they likely would be celebrating with us, decorating a grave, watching a passing marching band, planting gardens, playing a game of volleyball in the backyard, and happily dining on grilled foods — hot dogs, hamburgers, steaks and even the blackest charred chicken.