Memorial Day comes yearly, yet recalls life’s unpredictability

The holiday's precise origins are disputed, but its unifying idea can get buried by car sales and cookouts.

Memorial Day, somewhat murky as to its precise origins, recurs as one of those periodic sign posts that define a year.

A day dedicated to remembrance of armed services members who lost their lives in service to the United States, Memorial Day has collected a lot of detritus along the way. Car sales, gateway to summer, cookouts. I confess to heading to West Virginia Sunday to watch motorcycle racing. For the second year in a row, my town won’t host its parade, an event I never miss. Seeing the local Pearl Harbor survivor always causes me a catch in the throat. Now I’m not certain he’s still alive.

The lack of a parade appears to be an overhang from uncertainty over when if would be safe for people to gather again. That determination came too late to execute on parade plans and the like. But, to its credit, the Veterans Affairs Department says its cemeteries will be open this weekend. People so inclined can visit veterans’ graves and follow the tradition of decorating them on Memorial Day.

In a video, VA Secretary Denis McDonough urges people to visit the Veterans Legacy Memorial web site. (Leave it to YouTube to stick a dopey ad on the front of a Memorial Day message from the Secretary of VA.) Operated by the National Cemetery Administration, VLM is a great site. But it’s a different experience from kneeling on the grass between the earthly remains of a lost service member below and the great sky above.

On a long walk last evening, I was contemplating the many overlapping periodic cycles that mark life. This year, the 17-year cicada Brood X spectacle reminds us that some cycles are oddly long. Sweeping the patio of dead cicadas the other day, I recalled my mother telling me how my grandmother swept piles of cicadas off the small patio behind their Northwest D.C. rowhouse. That would have been the 1936 appearance.

Federal employees’ professional lives are marked by a recurring series of cyclical events. Recently the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey results came out, sparking the ritual analysis of its fever diagram. Today — although on a less precise cycle than that of the cicadas — the White House delivers its $6 trillion budget proposal. For every administration, these proposals contain varying parts of wishful thinking, cheery assumptions, pure fantasy, and a touch of voodoo. Still, when the multi-hundred-page PDFs come out, everybody thumbs through to find their own programs.

For members of the House side of Congress, and to some degree their staffs, life runs in two-year election cycles. For Senators, six, which gives them a little bit of time during which they need not worry too much about re-election.

Cyclical and periodic events do bring some predictability and order to life. We know when Federal Information Technology Acquisition and Reform Act report cards are due. When to re-enroll in a Federal Employee Health Benefits program plan. When to set the clocks back.

In truth, life is ultimately unpredictable and largely unscheduled. Those we remember on Memorial Day, in many cases, died while uncertain what the next day, hour or five minutes would bring. This while they were acting on behalf of the country. Parades, cemetery visits, and whatever private devotions people do helps ensure the Memorial stays in Memorial Day.

Nearly Useless Factoid

By David Thornton

In the 1600s, British scientist Charles Morton hypothesized in an essay that birds migrated to the moon for the winter.

Source: Wired

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