When I was a child veterans would sell red paper poppies on the street around Memorial Day to commemorate those who died in wars. I thought they were pretty, so I bought one and pinned it to my collar. When I got home, my mother lost it. “How can you support those people? Throw that thing away!” It wasn’t the veterans themselves she disliked, but war itself. She thought of those veterans like I think of organizations who protect the right to carry a submachine gun over the safety of school children. My mother had strong beliefs about political issues, but didn’t explain their genesis to us. Her family had been Union organizers in New York City, and rule number one was “Never cross a picket line.” Rule number two was “Stay away from guns.” She hated the NRA and the John Birch Society equally.
My father had been in the Marines during WWII, but somehow never went overseas. My mother said he would claim he had painful hemorrhoids when his unit was about to ship out, and would (sadly?) stay behind. He just enjoyed posing for pictures in his uniform. He particularly liked borrowing someone’s flight jacket and posing while leaning up against a war plane, as if he were a pilot.
I haven’t seen those paper poppies in a long time. Nowadays Memorial Day has become a weekend for getting bargains at big box stores and buying rooms full of cheap furniture at rock bottom prices. You can get a great deal on a Kia or a Ford or a Hyundai this weekend too. I saw the ads on television. You can remember those who gave their lives for our country by getting a sweet deal on a vacuum cleaner.
I never fully appreciated the seriousness of Memorial Day until Ron and I got together. I still carried my mother’s irrational prejudice against paper poppies, and had been an outspoken anti-war activist during the Vietnam War and both Gulf Wars. While I marched, waved signs, and chanted for peace, however, I was never one of those protestors who targeted soldiers in airports, dragging their asses back from battle. There were some who spit at soldiers or even threw bricks at them, but my whole reason for protesting was to protect our young people who were being sent across the world and placed it harm’s way. I saw them as victims of the System as much as the people they were charged with killing. I didn’t want anyone sent to Vietnam or the Gulf in my name, as I was skeptical of the rational for the wars we were handed by the war machine.
While I was busy being a Yippee and loudly protesting war, Ron was waking up every morning in the jungle waiting to get shot at. Good thing we didn’t meet back then, or we probably wouldn’t have had much in common! As you know, Ron is a veteran who spent several lifetimes fighting for our country. He was raised in the Midwest and as a cornfed Indiana boy, he saw a side of America I didn’t. I was refusing to cross picket lines in support of others, while he was dodging bullets and slogging through snake-infested swamps to protect those back home. He is a patriot who risked his life for his fellow soldiers and, as he saw it, for the protection of our way of life in this country. He did two tours in Vietnam where he was in Special Forces. He viewed his mission overseas as fighting not only for those back home, but also for the innocent civilians who were tormented by the Vietcong. He saw whole villages gunned down because the men in that village had refused to join the Vietcong army.
Because he spent so many years on active duty in every place on the globe you would never want to visit (think Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Columbia, and Serbia, to name a few) he lost many close friends in battle. On Memorial Day he pauses to remember those buddies and to send a prayer up for them and their families. For him, war is not an abstract idea, but it means watching your best friend take a bullet and die in front of you. Every year as Taps is played at the Memorial Day ceremony, Ron closes his eyes and remembers. And every year he cries for those he lost.
Ron and I are both Quaker. In fact, we met at the Quaker Meeting in Black Mountain. While it isn’t a stretch to think of me in a pacifist religion as I have a history of protesting war, it might come as a surprise to find Ron as a Quaker. He spent so many years in battle, risking his life for his ideals. Yet, who else is in a position to say that war is not the answer. He has been there and done that, and yet, the same places where he was sent are still the scene of continuing bloodshed. He has seen firsthand the warlords of Afghanistan and their brutality, and he says that all the fighting in the world won’t change anything there. We are throwing away the oh-so-valuable lives of Americans in a struggle we can never win.
Chifferobe will be closed on Memorial Day to remember those who died in wars and to pray for those still on active duty overseas. I also pray that we will stop killing each other over hazy idealogical concerns and over imagined differences between us.