Today is Memorial Day. Contrary to popular opinion, Memorial Day was not established to celebrate outdoor barb-e-ques or furniture sales, although these events seem to hold more significance within our national cultural consciousness each passing year.
Memorial Day began as Decoration Day, a day in which Americans decorated the tombs of Union and Confederate soldiers. Some say the tradition began in Warrenton, Virginia in 1861; other sources point towards Savannah, Georgia in 1862, and others point to a celebration by newly freed African-American slaves in the South. That being said, honoring the graves of fallen ones was an ancient practice. By 1882, “Decoration Day” became known as “Memorial Day,” and following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, a more formal, organized day of decoration began. The day took special significance during and after World War II and in 1967, the name was made official by Federal law, and in 1968, as part of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, the official date was moved to the last Monday in May.
For the past decade, Memorial Day has become a very personal date to wives, husbands, parents, children and others, as the death toll from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq continues to rise. There are countless shattered lives and shattered dreams, for those brave men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice live and dream no more.
It is my opinion that artists should pay particular attention – and do honor – to Memorial Day, for it is only through the courage and bravery of our troops that we are permitted the freedom to express our dismay in, our frustration and our sorrow for events that occur within our country. There are many places in this world where I would be imprisoned – or possibly even executed – for some of the plays I have written. I am grateful to our soldiers. I thank them for their service, so I may be free.
If I were to pick one film that both solemnly and joyously celebrated our troops, it would be The Best Years of Our Lives, released in 1946, written by Robert E. Sherwood and MacKinlay Kantor, and directed by William Wyler. Best continues to resonate even today, as it explores the trials and tribulations that our soldiers – and their families – face once deployment ends. We follow the story of a trio of soldiers brought together on a flight back home to Boone City. We have Al, the white-collar commander, who returns to his gilded life as a well-paid banker, only to discover that banking has changed. Corporate greed rules the till, and Al is unmanned, unable to provide even fledgling support by way of start-up business loans to his fellow soldiers. There is pretty boy Fred, an adrenaline junkie fly boy. Prior to the war, Fred preferred form over function; his taste in women leaned towards dance hall girls. He was perpetually in search of Miss Right Now. But the war has taken its toll on him; he dreams about the loss of his men. He has no education, and no skills other than flying fast and parachuting, and finds himself a low-paid soda jerk at a department store fountain with a narcissistic wife who prefers restaurants to home-cooked meals. And finally we meet Homer, the boy next door. Homer was a sailor in the Pacific, and when the Japanese bombed his ship, he escaped with his life – but without his arms. Homer is returning to his sweetheart Wilma – and together, they must face the fact that he will never again stroke her hair with his hand – a truth that might tear them asunder.
Best is the best of the best of storytelling. A stellar cast, brilliant photography, and a nostalgic, melancholic score that speaks of innocence lost… and yet, it is a story of hope, of renewal, of second chances. It’s on TCM today. I’ll be recording it. I hope you will, too.
Memorial Day is a day to remember those that made the ultimate sacrifice, and yet, I think it is high time to redefine the word sacrifice, for some sacrifices do not end on a battle field; instead, they attach themselves to one’s shoulders, like a cloak of despair. The sacrifice continues long after the return to regular life. Veterans in our country face extraordinary challenges. Astronomically high unemployment rates, foreclosures on their homes greet them upon return. They are dumped back into society like salmon on a fish farm, urged and pressured to swim up that stream as fast as they can, for if they don’t the grizzlies might consume them. They are often offered inadequate care for their wounds; they are provided with little or no psychological assistance, to deal with the horrors that they endured. Every 65 minutes, a military veteran commits suicide – 31 percent of these suicides is by veterans who are between the ages of 18 to 49. Men and women in the prime of their lives. Over 13 percent of homeless Americans are veterans. The list goes on, and on, relentless, peppering the mind like flak dots the sky during an airborne assault.
Today is the first day for us to begin to practice gratitude, not only for the fallen, but also for our returning veterans. Consider donating your weekly latte expense to the Children of Fallen Soldiers Relief Fund. If you see an elderly man in his military finest, thank him for his service. If you are an employer, and a veteran applies for a job, put his or her resume at the top of the stack. If you have friends that have served, listen to them. Take them out for a walk. Be a friend. And give them thanks for what they have done for you. There have been more sacrifices made than any of us will ever know.
Now, go write.
HRH, Princess Scribe