What I'm thinking about on Memorial Day

What I’m thinking about on Memorial Day

Most people I know are happy about Memorial Day, There’s no school, no work, and probably some beach or pool time. They throw burgers on the grill and spend the day in the sun.

But that’s not what I’m thinking about on Memorial Day.

I think about a naval surveillance aircraft, the Lockheed SP2E-Neptune, taking off for a mission through the Santa Ana Mountains of Southern California one rainy February night in 1969.

Seven crew from the nation’s heartland miss their wives and children back home, yet they are tense with anticipation. They are aviators, and they crave flight. The thrust, the power, the roar of four engines course through their veins like electric current.

The controller sends them the coordinates, and the heavy Neptune lifts into the furious dark. Rain assaults the aircraft like driving sheets of metal hammering against its flanks. Walls of water hedge the plane as it lifts through the black night. The coordinates lead the Neptune into Modjeska Canyon at 3,000 feet.

But aviators don’t fly into canyons. They navigate from high to low, not low to high. This canyon is no place for a huge aircraft. Somehow, their coordinates are all wrong. The Santa Ana peaks rise to 5,000 feet, unnoticed, ahead of the crew. Thunder booms. Lightning flashes, lighting the canyon walls hedging in the aircraft.

Pull up, pull up!

May day! May day!

There’s a deafening collision of metal and rock. The explosion illuminates the dark.

Fate snuffs out seven young lives. Out, just like that. In a millisecond.

The next morning seven young mothers open their front doors to naval officers in crisp white uniforms, hats tucked under their arms. Seven sets of parents open their doors to the same. The nightmare that haunts every military family materializes.

Twenty-four children sit, numb and confused. When is Daddy coming home?

Never, baby. He’s with Jesus now. Seven young widows live the price of freedom.

They find jobs and struggle to make ends meet. Their children avoid father-son outings and father-daughter dances because the pain is real, at every age. They go to school and sit in quiet sadness while people act awkwardly toward their grief.

Grandmothers and grandfathers and brothers and sisters finger old pictures and keep old toys, simply because they belonged to him. Families settle into silent pain, guarding memories, even while they long to speak. At any moment, their memories find smell, touch, and feeling of a man’s presence. They see him everywhere and nowhere.

Always they must correct assumptions about the absence of their husbands and fathers and sons and brothers. Life marches dimly on, through Memorial Days and Fourths of July and Veteran’s Days when other people fly flags and eat burgers and complain about America.

Our government is untrustworthy, people say. Yes, I know. My father died, and the Navy sealed the records on what happened and why.

Our government is taking too much money for taxes, people complain. I know that my mom opted out of her widow’s benefits because she wanted to the money to go to people who needed it more than her.

Our government should stop sending troops into war, people rage. Yes, I know war is horrible because in some sense, everybody loses.

Countless thousands of soldiers have died on training missions, sorties, special ops, and wartime missions. But I also know that grieving families wish that everyone would consider their loved ones American heroes because it helps validate the loss. They wish that people would appreciate the sacrifice instead of condemning the policies. They just want people to remember.

They wish, that when the National Anthem begins, people would take off their caps and put their hands over their hearts and actually sing the words. Because “the land of the free and the home of the brave” has been achieved at great personal expense. Every day, someone is paying dearly for the privilege of America.

Today, someone—so many someones—are visiting cemeteries and missing their loved ones. This is what I’m thinking about on Memorial Day.

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