How to keep the memory in Memorial Day

Even if you don't know a soul buried in Arlington, you'll feel they're yours.

It sounds corny but I sometimes feel like we’ve lost the sense of awe and majesty when thinking of the origins of the nation and its subsequent defense, its ideas bound up in smoke, sacrifice and calls to arms.

Events that produced our, or any nation’s, war dead were never glamorous, but they’re always worth recalling and interpreting. So yes, we’ll have cookouts and doorbuster shopping sprees, but here are a few tips to make sure the memory part of Memorial Day stays part of the observance:

If you’re in or around Alexandria, check out the little green in front of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. There you’ll find a roughly restored Higgins Boat — the homely vessel that brought troops to the shore on D-Day. USPTO is featuring the Higgins for the upcoming D-Day remembrance, and boat developer and World War II legend Andrew Higgins received a patent for the drop-down front panel. You’ve seen a Higgins boat in countless films of D-Day. Stand in it, and you can feel how fearsome it must’ve been to know that when that panel dropped, you’d be sloshing in the surf, laden with gear and under heavy fire. The USPTO museum is providing small flags to stick in the ground near the Higgins. I invoked the name of my late father, a Navy veteran of WWII, when planting my flag there.

If you’re down on the National Mall, this is a great day to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. Amazing how the structure, bitterly controversial during its original design phase, has become a revered place. Watch the people placing flowers, touching a name — some bringing small folding ladders to reach. You’ll realize how fresh in some ways Vietnam still is in the country’s memory, and how many people still feel it directly.

At any of the memorials, you’ll be able to spot the vets. Talk to one of them. It’s amazing what people will tell a well-meaning stranger.

Head over to the DC War Memorial, a circular temple erected to remember District residents killed in World War I. It’s one of the smaller pieces of compelling architecture in D.C. A tangible beneficiary of the 2009 stimulus bill, the memorial was in terrible disrepair until then. Now it’s spiffy, and it gets a lot more traffic since the World War II Memorial opened up nearby. Still, it’s a calming place to stop and contemplate.

There’s a commission working to establish a national World War I memorial, but for now the D.C. site will have to do.

Check out a local parade. In Rockville, for instance, there’s always a fun Memorial Day Parade. A lot of it’s hokey, such as local bigwigs waving from a convertible. The last few times I’ve gone the parade has also borne a couple of Pearl Harbor veterans, whose fragile waving from an open-top car does bring a lump to your throat. They too are tangible links to those killed in the attack.

If in that parade a politician marches (and especially throws candy), go ahead and shout out to them your opinion. Put ’em on the spot — it’s your right.

Fly a flag. If you don’t have one, you can easily obtain one at a hardware store. It’s a cliche, perhaps, but people did die, not for the flag but rather for what it represents. I recommend investing in a cast aluminum flagpole holder. They don’t rust like the cheap stamped-steel ones. It’s also fun to teach a child the proper way of folding the flag into a tidy triangle.

Volunteer or make a donation. The Purple Heart Foundation, Honor Flight, USO and many other organizations always need dollars. Operation Homefront is another worthy organization. What better way to remember the fallen than to help out the living?

It’s not an easy access on Memorial Day weekend, but find some time to visit Arlington National Cemetery. One of those phenomena of living in a city with lots of famous and wonderful things to do, locals often neglect to play tourist in their own hometowns. Washington is an easy place to be a local “tourist” — with the benefit that you won’t stand out like a rube trying to figure out the Metro or which way F Street is when you emerge from the station. Arlington, though we often see bits and pieces of it from the roads near its perimeters, is always worth a visit. And since it’s a cemetery, not a museum, it’s open every day.  Even if you don’t personally know a soul buried there, you’ll feel like they’re yours.

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