Subtle, personal mementos provide perpetual Memorial Days
For me, Memorial Day is every day, but I don’t mind sharing it once a year
Austin Williams visits the gravesite of U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Christopher C. Campbell in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day, May 30, 2016. Campbell was one of 30 Americans killed when a CH-47 Chinook helicopter, with the call sign Extortion 17, crashed in Afghanistan. (U.S. Army photo by Rachel Larue/Arlington National Cemetery/released)
By: Jim Hill
On the wall of my office hang three items of personal significance: a photograph, a small triangulated piece of weathered cloth and a plate enclosed in a frame. Because the photograph is surrounded by other pictures and postcards taken or purchased on vacations and weekend jaunts, no one pays it any particular attention. Quite small and partially hidden by a radio, telephone and desktop file holder, the weathered bit of cloth is lost to the casual observer. Visitors to my office sit facing me, while over their heads, also facing me, shines an especially significant plate routinely unseen or ignored. This partially hidden, low-key, never fully recognized but ever-present display is of great significance to me but lost to all but the most observant.
In the photograph, two bright green weeping willows guard a modest, pale green stucco and brick home in a quaint and pretty little spot in the road known as Skull Valley, Arizona. To the wandering eye of the average office visitor, this photograph is little more than a blur of green with a bit of red in the center. However, closer inspection reveals that in front of the weeping willows is a short chain-link fence. Attached to the fence is a 7-foot-long section of small-diameter galvanized steel pipe. The bit of red in the center of the photo is a full-size United States flag hanging from the pipe. This particular decoration was not, indeed could not be, purchased at any retail or war surplus outlet. In 1967, this flag draped the coffin of 2nd Lt. William E. Martin, USMC, KIA, Republic of South Vietnam. It was then presented to his mother, who then presented it to her brother, my uncle and owner of the weeping trees. This particular flag has been proudly displayed this way every Memorial Day since then.
The small piece of red, white and blue cloth, weathered from several months’ duty as grave marker, is a miniature but appropriately triangulated United States flag. Originally placed in the ground by unknown-but-caring hands, the wood stick bearing a miniature flag was one of those routinely placed on veteran’s graves for national holidays. It was discovered a week before Memorial Day and had been in place for some time, so it is thought that the flag was left by a forgotten friend, silent loved one or fellow veteran. 2nd Lt. Martin’s uncle and cousin replaced the small flag with a newer but identical flag. The cousin took the former flag, triangulated it and brought it home to Southern California; today it hangs partially hidden on my office wall.
Finally, a plate – enclosed in a glass-windowed, wood frame – depicts three warriors on patrol in front of the black marble of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, which bears about 58,000 names of young men and women, United States Military, KIA, Republic of South Vietnam.
At age 53, every work day, when sitting straight forward at my desk, writing or speaking with fellow engineers, I need only to glance up to be reminded of where I was and what I was doing on my 21st birthday. Each time the telephone rings, while reaching for the receiver, my eyes turn to the triangulated red, white and blue decoration and photograph of our nation’;s flag surrounded by weeping trees. Speaking on the phone serves as a constant reminder of the sacrifice made by 2nd Lt. Martin, at age 29, and all those thousands of other young men and women – our brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, fathers and grandfathers.
For me, Memorial Day is every day, but I don’t mind sharing it once a year.
(Note: This piece was written on Memorial Day 2001. This is perhaps the reason I didn’t retire until age 68. To do so meant the permanent dismantling of my private memorial.)