Memorial Day Brings a Chance to Remember the Real Captain Americas
In case you haven't noticed, the first big holiday of the summer season is at hand.
That's because Memorial Day, the 2015 version of the holiday when America remembers the soldiers who died defending her freedom, arrives on the calendar this upcoming Monday, May 25th.
Normally in my neck of the woods - the Red River Valley of North Texas - the arrival of this holiday serves as the jumpstart for the summer boating season on nearby Lake Texoma, an 89,000-acre reservoir that is the most heavily visited lake in the Lone Star State each year.
It's also a day filled with fishing on nearby water bodies, more than a few backyard cookouts and pool parties and even a 3-D archery shoot or two as school winds down and the year's warmest and best weather finally arrives on the scene.
In short, Memorial Day is the beginning of America's summer party time, the three months out of the year when we live it up, laugh a lot and smile big while enjoying the great outdoors.
For years, I was right there with the rest of my Yankee Doodle brethren, celebrating all things red, white and blue - not to mention barbecued - as the holiday arrived.
But last May, while covering a Major League Fishing event in Oklahoma, something popped across my social media stream, a meme that caused me to pause and take a deeper look at this day when Americans remember.
The meme, which quickly went viral, showed a U.S. Marine in Blue Dress Uniform, kneeling to the ground and presenting a folded U.S. flag to a young boy who is saluting - while fighting back tears - at the military funeral of a loved one, presumably his father.
With that sobering picture was the powerful inscription: "Memorial Day, Just in Case You Thought It Was National Barbecue Day."
While some praised the meme and its nod to the heroic sacrifice of others, others said it rained down hard on the spirit of celebration that is a great part of our American fabric.
I fell somewhere in the middle, enjoying my day off with family and friends - along with a good old fashioned Texas barbecue to boot - but doing so in a somewhat more somber frame of mind as I thought of those members of the U.S. military who gave it all with freedom's greatest sacrifice.
True to form, I had a grilled burger, yes, but I also did so while thinking of cemeteries filled with rows of white markers, tombstones that cause many American families to see the summer's first big holiday in a far different light than I usually do.
It's not that I'm calloused or forgetful when it comes to the military service and sacrifice of so many others. In fact, just the opposite is the case since numerous family members have served in various generations, including my dad, my brother-in-law and my late grandfather, a trio that served in three different branches of military service.
In fact, my late grandfather, Eddie George, who I loved to fish with as much as any man I've ever known, actually served in two branches of the U.S. military.
After wrapping up a hitch in the U.S. Army as the Great Depression wound down in the 1930s, he put the uniformed life behind him and returned to his home turf of Memphis, Tenn. to begin the remainder of his lifetime while living out the American dream.
In doing so, he met, courted and eventually married my late grandmother Zelma Barfield in May of 1941.
You probably don't need a U.S. history lesson to remember what happened a few months later in December 1941 on that day that will live in infamy as Pearl Harbor was attacked by Japanese forces, thrusting America into the greatest of all its wars.
In the years that would follow between Pearl Harbor and V-E and V-J day celebrations, countless battles would be fought on front lines drawn out across the Pacific, portions of Africa and of course, on the shores of Normandy and on into Europe.
My grandfather was as good and as hard working as any man I've ever known. And he was also as patriotic as any man I've ever known, loving any and all things that dealt with Uncle Sam and his red, white and blue.
So in early 1942, my grandfather did what he felt he had to do as a red-blooded American man, marching down to the local recruiting office for the U.S. Navy and joining up.
Fully expecting to be sent somewhere into the Pacific combat theater, a previously undiagnosed medical ailment kept my grandfather from such duty. Instead, he spent World War II stateside helping to train those soldiers who would sail on and fly to defend freedom while ending the rule of Axis powers intent on controlling the world.
It's not the stuff of a Hollywood film, but my grandfather's patriotism and willingness to fight for what our flag stands for has always etched out a special place deep in my heart.
Because to me, he was always the original Captain America.
Even if he didn't carry a shield and he's not buried in a national cemetery somewhere beneath a white cross.
Which leads me back to my original thought from a year ago.
And that's the thought of what to do with this big American holiday where we remember the 1.32 million members of the U.S. military who have died serving their country from the Revolutionary War until now, including some 848,163 soldiers who have actually perished on battlefields around the world.
Do I go about the day like many of my countrymen, launching the boat, wetting a line, shooting my bow, working out the Labs, diving into the pool and firing up the grill while cutting it up and celebrating America alongside my family and friends?
Or do I take a more somber tone, celebrating a bit more on the conservative and quiet side while spending the day reflecting in sobering fashion on the lives of those lost while serving the red, white and blue?
The answer, for me at least, is found in remembering my late grandfather.
Partly because Eddie George was a hardworking man, one that never shied away from getting his hands dirty with a wrench, around a workbench or in his backyard garden.
If hard work from the greatest generation is a part of what made America great in the 20th century, some of that took place on the back of my late grandfather who rarely sat around doing nothing, even on a holiday.
In fact, when I remember him late at night, I see him in my mind's eye working on a car, doing yard work, sweeping the den floor or even washing the dishes.
If hard work was a part of his makeup, then so too was his faith and family since my grandfather was a man of deep Christian faith along with a great love for his wife, his kids and his grandkids.
In fact, he cherished and intensely looked forward to our family gatherings on holidays like Christmas, Thanksgiving Day and Memorial Day, days that were in his mind the very best days of the year.
And he enjoyed the outdoors too, albeit not as much as I do.
In his later years, my grandfather didn't hunt much at all, not because he was against it but because he and his family had steadily lived on an earthy diet of squirrels, rabbits, opossums and other such critters during the Great Depression as it unfolded in the shadow of the Mississippi River.
But he loved to hear me talk about my own hunting exploits, especially my love for duck hunting, a sport he was vaguely familiar with having grown up in rural eastern Arkansas where rice and mallard ducks were king.
And he enjoyed fishing, especially if it were on a trip with me and my dad as the three of us chased bass and bluegills on small to moderately sized lakes near our Mid-South home.
In fact, some of my fondest memories now as a late 40s something man are the times I spent as a kid fishing somewhere across the South with my grandfather.
As he smiled big and enjoyed all that it meant to be an American.
So on this particular Memorial Day, yours truly plans to spend the day just as my grandfather did.
Enjoying the day fully while not forgetting all that it represents.
Which for me will include a fishing rod in my hand as the day begins, trying to catch up once again with the double-digit Lone Star State bass that has eluded me so far this spring.
Unless I miss my guess, that quiet time on the water will then be followed by a few chores around the house and yard, things that need attending to, holiday or not.
And finally, I'm all but certain that the day will conclude with a session around the barbecue grill as my wife, my kids and various other family members laugh while the smell of smoked meat fills the air and gives notice that summertime in all of its glory has finally begun.
Somewhere along the way, I have no doubt that I'll get quiet and reflect for a moment or two on the real reason for the day, the sacrifice of so many Captain Americas.
Soldiers who died defending the American flag and its promise of freedom.
And I'm sure that I'll also reflect on the lives of so many others who were willing to do the same.
Including some who were willing to do so not just once, but even twice.