This is Memorial Day, and I’m thinking of my uncle Sam Venditta, who died of a World War II injury at age 31 five years after the war ended, and my cousin Nicky Venditti, a 20-year-old Army helicopter pilot who went to Vietnam in 1969 and was dead in 11 days.
The war dead – that’s what this holiday is about.
It’s interesting that over many years, the day has evolved to encompass more than that. Many ceremonies aren’t just about the fallen; they also embrace veterans and current servicemen and women. Unless memory fails me, that’s been in sharper focus since 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s as if we’re trying to make amends for the way we treated Vietnam vets in the 1960s and early ’70s.
One Memorial Day ceremony I attended in Allentown over the weekend, at Cedar Crest Bible Fellowship Church, warmly saluted veterans and service members, who had been especially invited. Hundreds of people applauded the vets as they stood while a band played the Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and Marine Corps themes, and a reception was held for them afterward. It was a patriotic outpouring of gratitude.
I’m not saying that’s wrong. Vets and those now serving certainly deserve our thanks. But we do have a day set aside for them — Veterans Day — and it’s easier for us to show our appreciation for them. They are among us. The dead aren’t here. We can’t speak with them and shake their hands and thank them for making the ultimate sacrifice. They can’t acknowledge the attention. They live only in memory.
Still, veterans groups who hold Memorial Day ceremonies are more on the mark. I was at a service Friday put on by a half-dozen members of Lehigh Valley Chapter 190, Military Order of the Purple Heart. It took place in front of the graves of Civil War veterans in Union and West End Cemetery in Allentown, where dozens of kids from Cleveland Elementary School sat in the grass and held small American flags.
A bell was rung to mark the passing of Purple Heart members in the past year – Edwin W. Geyer, Mark Lacina, Phillip J. Leshay and Dennis S. Sell. A wreath was placed in honor of the dead, and three World War II vets fired a rifle salute.
It was a solemn tribute to our war dead, and it fit the day.