It’s late afternoon on Memorial Day. Four young sailors in summer whites are on the corner of 86th and Amsterdam checking out their iPhones. I walk over and ask if I can help. Finally, one sheepishly says, We’re looking for a place to pick up some women. I tell them, about the string of young adult bars and Irish pubs heading south on Amsterdam. Put in a special word for the Gate.
It’s also Fleet Week, that annual visit of naval ships to New York City. It used to be a bigger deal. There’d be ships from Canada and France and other allied countries. All docking at our westside piers and filling our streets for a week. Now it seems to be just Americans. And more ships docking in Brooklyn as well. But somehow, i still look forward to it every year.
I just got back from the Memorial Day ballgame at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees wore special hats and uniforms with camouflage trim, something they never otherwise do even when every other team has multi-special event unis. So did the Royals, and every other MLB tam, including my Pirates. The national anthem was sung by an active duty sailor. Every inning saw groups of white clad sailors on the scoreboard. Much was said about honoring the troops.
We seem to have gotten something confused along the way. Memorial Day is supposed to be about, well, memory. Remembering those who served and are no longer here. My father always went to the cemetery to honor his father. Something in me wishes I could be back at home and go to his grave and do the same. It wasn’t about honoring the troops.
Honoring the troops. All this camo. At every level of sport. It's emotionally distancing, abstract. Pro forma.Ritual. Liturgy. Paul Lukas of ESPN’s Uniwatch calls it going GI JOE. OK, we’ve worn camouflage, on to the picnic.
We honor them, but they are somehow not us. They fight on and on in wars we don't think of and that don't touch most of us on a daily basis. I’m thinking maybe ending the draft was not such a good idea.
Oh, I know why we did it. During Vietnam, we believed that only those who wanted to serve should have to serve. Yet even though there were ways for the rich and educated to avoid serving, by the time they instituted the lottery and ended college deferments, we were all vulnerable. The whole concept of citizen soldier was still in effect. Every working class community was emotionally connected to the daily events in Vietnam. Our fraternities held draft lottery night parties to toast brothers on their way. And we toasted them when (or if) they returned. So much older. It was that shared commitment of communities, I’m convinced, as much as anything that led to the end of the war when we collectively said no more.
We never imagined the class based system that we now have. The lowest number of US congress ever have now served in the military. Most of us have no connection with those across the seas on active war duty. Disproportionately people of color and poor looking for the only way they can to make a living, escape poverty. As some families reach second or third generation, it’s as if we’re creating a warrior caste that lives among us but not with us. It’s out there. Dangerous. Other peoples' children paying the consequences for decisions made by people who will never feel the personal weight of what they have done.
So we cheer. And we say thanks. And wear camo baseball hats. And are never responsible. And there will always be more to remember.