Memorial Day Leads to Memories of Freedom

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Memorial Day in the nation's capital provides a moment to reflect on growing up with the holiday long ago in a small Midwestern village. In many ways, it's a day to celebrate freedom.


Memorial Day was a rather stark and perfunctory affair in the little North Dakota village where I grew up. The place was too small to organize a parade, but there was a ceremony at the town cemetery on a hill rising out of the prairie just west of town. An honored guard of World War II veterans presented the colors, uniform buttons straining against their swelling girth. They planted small flags on the graves of comrades who had passed.

My father, a Lutheran preacher, often read a Bible passage and said a prayer, then the big moment for a young boy - the crack of the 21-gun salute followed by buglers' taps. When it was over, my friends and I scrambled to retrieve souvenirs - the shells ejected by those old M1 carbines.

That was about it for honoring veterans, but the holiday really signaled was freedom, not in the patriotic sense, though.

Most years, school had ended the previous Friday, and the summer stretched out ahead, seemingly endless days of unregulated time. Then in high school, the big Memorial Day event was the dusk-till-dawn movie night at the outdoor theater in Rugby, the slightly bigger town about 25 miles away. That provided another rush of independence - a car full of friends, our little town fading in the rearview mirror, an all-night party, hopping from car to car, meeting girls from other small towns, falling in love two or three times before the sun begin to rise.

It occurs to me, as I think about this Memorial Day, that many of the young servicemen and women we honor who've given their lives during the past four years in Iraq and Afghanistan, probably most vividly experienced freedom the way I did as a young person. Not the freedoms itemized in the Bill of Rights, the freedoms we often say they preserved with their ultimate sacrifice. Those political freedoms - of speech or assembly or privacy, the right to a fair and speedy trial, the right to vote - all are precious.

Of course, there's disagreement over whether those freedoms have been preserved or threatened by the war in Iraq and the war on terror. In any case, it's a tragedy. The young men and women who've died in service to their country didn't live to enjoy them fully.

But those natural human freedoms - to live and love, to raise a family and grow old - those are the real precious treasures that have been taken from those who have fallen. We can never repay them or their families. We can only promise not to ask for their sacrifice, unless it's for an urgent and moral cause.

(Soundbite of song, "Valentine's Day")

Mr. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN (Singer): (Singing) I'm driving a big lazy car, rushing up the highway in the dark. I got one hand steady on the wheel, one hand trembling over my heart. It's pounding, baby, like it's gonna bust right on through. And it ain't going to stop until I'm alone again with you.

YDSTIE: This is NPR News.

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