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The Appalachian Thru-Hiker

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July 22, 2019

Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley

Memorial Day on the Appalachian Trail: The true meaning of the day


Dates and even days of the week are quickly forgotten when hiking in the Appalachian Trail, so it is by pure coincidence that I ended up in town for Memorial Day weekend, feeling spoiled by hot running water and even a swimming pool that shall go empty under the storm clouds.  Still, part of me wishes I was out on the trail during this time.  Let me explain: the trail passes by a surprising number of historical cemeteries, and it is from the gravestones of soldiers killed in the line of duty from which the idea of Memorial Day sprung.

Memorial Day has come to signify so many things over the years; the start of summer, the opening of pools, motorcycle trips, and B.B.Q.’s and other gatherings with friends and family. These things are certainly valuable and uplifting, but let us hope that they never overshadow the true purpose of Memorial Day.

Yesterday veterans, ROTC, boy scouts, bikers, and other community groups all over the country took time to place a flag on the grave of every fallen soldier.  Last night I dared to turn on the news, despite my intentional avoidance of news on this trek, believing that the small-town news channel would bypass the nonsense in Washington and instead present me with some local stories.  I was not disappointed, and the few minutes I watched involved the hallowed tradition of placing the flags.  Lest the significance of this practice on Memorial Day weekend be underestimated, let it be noted that it was not until the mid-1960s that the name of this sacred day changed from Decoration Day to Memorial Day.

I have had the honor of looking out on Arlington National Cemetery on such a day, a vision which overwhelms with the staggering number of flags required. The sight is bittersweet; recognition of the ultimate sacrifice made by so many, and sadness that such a sacrifice is necessary still.  As F.D.R. said in an address to the University of Pennsylvania in 1940, “We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.”

My first experience with this tradition was as a Boy Scout in Manchester, CT in the early 90s, where for several years I was given my bundle of flags and carefully navigated the local cemetery, delicately placing them on the appropriate headstones.  I am not sure how well I truly understood this at the time as war was still a very abstract idea in my mind, which had yet to have any direct connection to such a thing.  I faintly recall watching the green tinted bomb blasts of Operation Desert Storm on television with my aunt and grandmother, caring for me while my father worked, but for a 9-year-old these bombs may as well have been going off on the moon.

It was not until I was 16 that an event occurred close enough to home that I could even begin to understand such a sacrifice.  A year earlier I had begun working after school at the Newspaper Association of America and my predecessor, who was preparing to graduate, gave me the tour and showed me the ropes on his last day.  He was such a casual, carefree person, bouncing up and down the cubicle farm and dropping mail off at the desks of writers and editors with a friendly hello.

I don’t think I knew this at the time, but he was destined for the army after graduation.  Sadly, about one year later news reached me that he died  from complications resulting from an injury sustained during a stateside exercise.  What greater sacrifice can there be than risking one’s life in a time of peace for the purpose of keeping the country prepared for whatever dangers may lie ahead? As we now know, danger indeed was in our future, and three years later the twin towers fell.

It may perhaps be taken for granted the sober ceremony with which soldiers arrive today at Dover Air Force Base, and the formal respect given to fallen soldiers and to veterans who pass, even decades after their time of service.  Decoration Day and eventually Memorial Day sprung from this respect for soldiers during the Civil War, when suddenly there were many soldiers to bury.  The numbers being so great, there are recorded instances of soldiers being buried in large numbers in unmarked graves, and in such instances the community rallied and gave proper respect to the fallen.  Through Memorial Day, the community rallies still.

Lest it ever be questioned whether the incredible formality and ceremony that follows a soldier all the way to the grave is necessary, whether killed in combat as a care-free 19-year-old, or passed of other causes more than half a century later, understand the pride I felt as the color guard proceeded over my grandfather after his passing.  He was a marine during Korea, and he was a marine when he passed six years ago.  He never uttered the slightest word about his time as a marine in the early 50s, but showed through example that one never ceases to be a marine by running the local marine “Toys for Tots” program and other activities, not to mention displaying an honor I have never known in any other individual.

As someone who enjoys his own privacy, I have a habit of avoiding using names in my writings here.  However, I feel that the names of those who have given this ultimate sacrifice must never be forgotten.  Therefore, I hike this next section for the Ben Berry who showed me the ropes, the Private First Class Berry who made such a sacrifice, and whomever had the honor of placing a flag on his grave in Arlington National Cemetery yesterday.

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