Memorial Day Memory

May 25, 2015

We all know that today is a day for remembering those who died in the service of our country. You may not know that the occasion has been observed since as far back as 1861 when flowers and ribbons were used to decorate the graves of honored Civil War dead. Hence the occasion became generally known as “Decoration Day” but was also called “Memorial Day” by many. Both names were used for nearly a century until the situation was finally decided by Congress in 1967 with the formal adoption of “Memorial Day” as a national holiday. That was about the time of my first Memorial Day memory.

I can’t say for certain, but it would have been either 1968 or 1969 when I marched in my hometown’s Memorial Day parade. I know it had to be one of those two years because I remember wearing my first Little League uniform, heavy grey cotton with dark navy piping and dark navy block letters spelling out “BRAVES” across the front. (I still have the team photo hanging in the hallway of my home.) On the back in block letters was the name of our team sponsor – “CHEROKEE LIONS” – “Cherokee” for the region of East Tennessee where I grew up that was originally inhabited by that brave group of Native Americans, and “Lions” for the international service club. Through the power of the internet, I found that this organization still operates today, nearly 50 years later ( Unfortunately, I was not able to learn whether the organization still sponsors a Little League ball club, and even more unfortunately, I did learn that the Braves no longer exist.

Yet, perhaps this fact makes my memory even more compelling, since I am remembering a team and perhaps a time as well that no longer exists other than in memory. I recall vividly marching through the streets of my hometown behind a color guard carrying a waving Stars and Stripes and the red, white and blue of the Tennessee State Flag (bearing 3 stars for the three diverse regions of the state rather 50 for our country or one for the memory of its former republic like my adopted home state of Texas).

I remember marching between crowds of waving citizens on each side. It would be the only time I ever wore a uniform to a public event and the closest I would ever come to feeling like a hero, although the idea of a “returning hero” was not common in those days. I recall a distinct sense of pride in my country even though by this time the nation surely understood that the Vietnam War was not something that all Americans were proud to be part of.

As a Little League ball player, however, those complex feelings were far from my mind. I was occupied with much clearer pursuits. I loved baseball. I loved winning, and I loved being noticed. Truthfully, I haven’t changed much in the past half-century. I still love baseball and winning. I no longer care much for recognition, however, and will gladly forfeit it in exchange for a collective victory. I also have a greater awareness of the world around me and the incredible debt I owe to the men and women who have worn the uniform of America’s armed forces. As a resident of one of the nation’s military hubs (San Antonio is the home of the United States Southern Command), many of these men and women are now my neighbors and some are my friends. I am grateful for their sacrifices that have preserved this nation and that will allow me to watch several baseball games today in a free country and safe environment.

You may think it trivial to associate Memorial Day with baseball, but the connection is most assuredly there. I am also constantly reminded of the relationship between the sense of pride in American freedom and the beauty of America’s invention in baseball. This happened again just hours ago while I was watching the ESPN Sunday Night Game of the Week. Bernie Williams, NYY’s centerfielder from 1991-2006, was at Yankee Stadium to have his #51 retired when he was asked by Curt Schilling if any one moment stood out in his long career that included four world championships. I was stunned to hear Williams say that among his 2,076 games played his greatest memory was of President George W. Bush throwing out the first pitch for the resumption of baseball after the attacks of 9/11. I have posted this video before, but how can I not honor Bernie’s greatest memory on his special occasion and on this Memorial Day? The nation preserves the freedom to play baseball, and those who love baseball never stop saying thanks.

The nation has seen many difficult days during its 239 years and lost many brave soldiers that are worthy of lasting memory. Baseball has marked over half of those years and honored many of those who have served during this time and even employed a few. Indeed, today a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy will be on active duty on a MLB roster for the first holiday in nearly a century. What do you think are the chances that Mike Matheny finds a place for him to pitch in today’s game in St. Louis? As certain as the Star-Spangled Banner still waving over Busch Stadium?

My Little League Cherokee Lions Braves team may no longer exist after 50 years, but the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave most assuredly does. Here’s to the next 50 years. Play ball!

© JSR 2015

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