The old man walked up to the three of us and squinted up from beneath his visored baseball cap.
“So what goes on in here, then?” he asked, motioning to the ugly newspaper building we worked out of.
I looked at the writing on his hat. It read “U.S.S. Darke APA-159 Tokyo Bay 1945.” My mind jumped into action. Imperial Japan surrendered to the United States Sept. 2, 1945, after the dropping of the two atomic bombs. And this man was there to see it.
“So how close were you to the U.S.S. Missouri when the Japanese delegates were on board for the surrender,” I asked.
He didn’t even blink.
“Oh, I’d say a block or so,” he replied.
His name was Burt Falk, and in his youth, he’d served on the U.S.S. Darke, a 455-foot attack transport that earned two battle stars during its time in the Pacific. It took part not only in the landings on Iwo Jima and Okinawa, but also practicing for the planned invasions of the Japanese home islands.
During the ensuing 25-minute conversation, which meandered between fishing and war stories, Falk showed us his Navy dog tag (“Not the real one. Some idiot from Hopkins lost that one when we were doing the landing on Iwo”) as well as a tattered airmail letter that had a commemorative stamp from Tokyo Bay.
My seemingly random encounter with Falk reminded me of something important. Memorial Day in the minds of many people equals a Monday off with a good chance of barbeque over the weekend. In fact, one of the staff blogs at the newspaper started correctly, with the assertion that Memorial Day is under-appreciated, but in the wrong direction from there: “Memorial Day is an exciting time because it marks the kick-off of summer activities.”
The column (here) goes on to say that the holiday also kicks off the summer garage sale season and that we should all de-clutter our homes because “In a way, we are no different than the dung beetles.”
An excuse for a sale. A chance to watch the Indy 500. A good reason for a barbeque. “A kick-off for summer activities.” Am I missing something?
The roots of this holiday are darker, stained with the blood of soldiers and the tears of those left behind. It originally began as Decoration Day, when relatives of soldiers lost in the Civil War paused to remember the husbands, fathers and sons who had fallen in the service of their county. Over the years, it gradually developed into what we now recognize as Memorial Day, which was declared the official name of the holiday in 1967.
Several veterans’ organizations have been trying to undo to change Congress made to the holiday in 1971, when it was changed from a specific day (May 30) to a weekend with the National Holiday Act. A 2002 Memorial Day address from the VFW stated: "Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed greatly to the general public's nonchalant observance of Memorial Day."
We owe these men and women our thanks. Many towns have remembrances of various scales. I wonder how many people attend. I know I shouldn’t throw stones, as I’ve not actually attended one of these events, but I have at least realized they exist, and find it sad that people can’t crawl away from the air conditioning for just a few minutes to honor those who made the entire day possible.
I wonder what Falk will do to celebrate. Personally, I think he’ll go fishing.
“One day, they came over the loudspeaker on the ship, and said, ‘The war is over. We dropped the a-bomb,’” he recalled. “The guys and I just laughed. We misheard them. We said to ourselves, ‘What do you mean, a [as in ‘single'] bomb? How dumb do you think we are?’”
Falk told us his memory was failing. He couldn’t remember his daughter’s wedding or his current phone number, but could remember the complex formula for U.S. navy gunpowder, a memory as fresh as the day it was created in July 1942.
“Why do I remember that,” he said, gently tapping his forehead. “What good is that doing to do me?”
The U.S.S. Darke was withdrawn from service in 1995 and sent to the breaker’s yard in 1974. Some day, Falk will be gone too, taking his story with him.
Memorial Day is designed for men like Burt Falk. It’s the one day of the year we are actually asked to recognize veterans, both living and dead, and to give them the thanks that is their due, even if in passing thought only. It’s not an excuse for a barbeque, a sale or a multi-hour race, because without men like Burt Falk, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy those freedoms in the first place.
I’m not saying not to have fun or enjoy the extra time – but at least remember how it was bought and paid for. I think our vets would enjoy nothing less.