Monday, May 27, 2013


So here I am, 62 years old, writing from the front lines of early retirement on Memorial Day. But it's not the real Memorial Day. I'm old enough that I remember when Memorial Day was on May the 30th. That was before the United States Congress changed it to a 3 day weekend shopping extravaganza intended to kick off the summer vacation spending season.

I've lived in New England for over a quarter of a century now. Here, the summer season used to be July 4th to Labor Day in September (that's the phony Labor Day; the one the rest of the world celebrates is on May the 1st and honors events that happened here in the U.S. of A., which big money interests don't want people to know about let alone remember). With the change in the weather the summer season starts earlier here now. This year has been a little more like the old days, with the result that newscasts bemoaned the rainy and cool weather we had Saturday and Sunday - so many open campsites, so many unused barbeques.

Memorial Day started when the widows of the Civil War (or the "War of the Insurrection of the Southern States" as it used to be known in these parts) brought flowers of remembrance to decorate the graves of soldiers, "Decoration Day". After other wars it became "Memorial Day". There used to be parades; people used to display the flag. When I was a kid, it was a mixture of honor to the fallen and patriotism with the jingoistic flavor of the Post World War II era.

By the time I was a teenager, the War in Vietnam was oh so au currant. But just as television and its news programs had shown the lies of prosperous equality versus the malarkey we were fed through civics classes and entertainment, it also told uncomfortable truths about Vietnam. It became more and more difficult for me to accept the unquestioning flag waving exemplified by a mirror I found in 1969 with a painting on it of Stephen Decatur with the Carl Schurz quote (attributed to Decatur), "My Country right or wrong, My Country!"

The other day, I found a movie coming attractions trailer on the internet which I decided to play. One of its stars is a young man whose career choices have interested me more than any talent he has displayed (which is considerable). He played Harry Potter in a stage musical he co-wrote and co-produced in his teens. He showed up on the tv show "Glee", playing a gay teenager in his first relationship - it is a main story thread. Such things were unthinkable once. Anyway, as the trailer played there was one quick shot that made me pause it. I was right, it was the boardwalk of my once beloved Ocean City, NJ where summers started on Memorial Day weekend.

There's a "Subway" on the boardwalk now. A chain store. When I lived there, chain stores had names like A & P, or Dairy Queen. And they weren't on the Boardwalk. And now there's junky signs. It's actually worse than how it looks in the frame grab. Here's another contemporary view:

Back when I lived there, back before there were giant cheap backlit plastic signs, back before there were BigBucksMarts, before there were chains of inedible overblown thin hamburger patty plastic arches, back when gaudy wasn't acceptable unless you were whoring on 8th Avenue in New York City, back when Memorial Day had just been changed to a Monday, it looked more like this:

The last picture is a little out of focus, like so many memories tend to be. But you can see that the hard sell isn't there, signs are on a human scale. By today's standards you might say it's 'quaint'.
In the 1970's or so, Memorial Day Weekend became the opening of the Hollywood extravaganza season. When I was in the business, a few of us used to say that a good picture would play in any season. When one studio dared to open a big budget picture at the beginning of May, the other studios thought they were crazy. It played. The old patterns (which had been new patterns maybe a decade before) started changing. Now it seems like almost every movie has a budget well over one hundred million dollars - and that's before advertising. Twenty years ago, an extremely successful movie might gross one hundred million dollars. "Iron Man 3" opened 3 weekends ago and has already grossed $1.15 Billion worldwide. And that's before cable, tv, DVD, Blue-Ray and streaming internet sales, before merchandising tie-ins. It's a live action cartoon. They all seem to be live action cartoons anymore. Well, this year there was a new adaptation of "The Great Gatsby", which has grossed over 100 million domestically, but in Brattleboro it was pushed off screen after two weeks to make way for "Fast and Furious 6" and "The Hangover Part whatever". Basically, live action cartoons. Don't get me wrong, I like live action cartoons. And these are usually very well made special effect bonanza live action cartoons. I can't often afford to part with close to ten dollars to go see one, though. And here it's not even in 3-D. But what happened to the other movies, you know, the ones that just told stories and attempted to uplift the spirits? Oh, we get the occasional art film about 90 year olds facing death with dignity, but that's not what I mean. We just don't live in a world where they make beach party movies with guest musical stars anymore. They don't even make suggestively dance your asses off in the Catskills summer movies anymore. Unless the dancers have superpowers and their pasodoble is used to kick the villains into the stratosphere.
A news article I read this morning reported on a study which revealed that the IQ's of people in western civilizations have declined by an average of 14 points since the Victorian era. That would include the Civil War, the Insurrection of the Southern States against the idea of Union.
And that brings my little roundelay back to Memorial Day. I don't like standing armies. I don't like the idea of conscription. Just today, in a guest editorial in the New York Times, a writer called for a return to the draft. The aftermath of the Vietnam War left us with a volunteer army. There are now army families. It's a job. It's a job the undereducated and the underclass can get. It's a profession-al army. If another marine holds an umbrella over the President, will Fox news call them the Praetorian Guard? Will the Fox News readers even know what the Praetorian Guard was?
I dislike the world we got, for which the honored dead allegedly fought. There is no real depth to it, it's a plastic chain store corrupted cartoon version of the American Dream. Which we once tried to sell as part of our presence in that miserable war in Vietnam. There was a summer movie I saw with friends here in Brattleboro the summer before I moved here called, "Forrest Gump". When the movie was over, one could have easily thought we'd won in Vietnam. A friend who was with me leaned against the Latchis' old outdoor box office and said, "We're getting ready for war again, aren't we?" Is that the real American Dream?

Over the years, I've made my peace with this day. I memorialize the very honored dead who fought the wars of government. Wars against evil. Wars of conquest. Wars of expansion and corruption. Wars of greedily grasping corporations hungry for oil. I also honor those who fought and those who died in our other wars. Economic Wars - the fight for the 8 hour workday, the end of child labor, the minimum wage, the end of hunger, health care. There are martyrs there too, non-military soldiers who fought on at the Haymarket, at the Hoovervilles, at the mills. Not all were killed - Inez Milholland collapsed and died of pernicious anemia at the age of 30 while giving a speech. Her last words were, "Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?" That was in 1916. And then there is Charlie Howard, who has been forgotten. He was killed, martyred, in the late 1980's in Bangor, Maine by teenagers who threw him over a bridge into a river because he was gay and walking alongside his boyfriend. He was 23 years old. Or Matthew Shepherd who was literally crucified on a split rail fence because he was gay. Or any of the unknown soldiers of this nasty little war - did you miss the news story in April of three teens who were tortured and killed at a "camp" to turn them into "men"? Oh, that's right the camp was in South Africa, so who cares? Who cares about the gay dead in Uganda and the gay dead and women dead in various Muslim countries? Who cares about Bradley Manning? It's been a long war, this war for simple human dignity. Times are changing. They always are. But now there's a President who is African American, women have rights if not yet equal pay, and there is a tv show with two main characters who are gay male teenagers who kissed right there in front of all America. Imagine. And so, on Memorial Day, the soldiers whose memory I honor are more varied than most might accept. The world, the changes, the Dream they fought and died for wasn't and isn't a plastic cartoon. These are the people I choose to remember. These are the soldiers I honor.
Requiescat in Pace.