While national holidays are public in scope, our recollections of them are personal, private. My childhood memories of Memorial Day are entwined with roses.
For all my years at the family home on the far Southeast Side, our alleyway fence would be laved over by a profusion of quarter-sized rose blossoms. Those flowers of remembrance would start to bloom near the end of May and into early June, creating a pink and bright-green wave that seemed suspended in the air.
Memorial Day back then still carried all of its solemn airs, as World War II was only two decades past, Korea one, and Vietnam was ongoing. Our house would be quiet, as my father had lost a brother at Anzio, in 1943, but as his brother was buried in Italy, my father and his family were denied the emotional release, the sense of purpose completed, from visiting his grave. (I really need to make the trip over there, before the purple hour).
Beyond those roses, some six blocks away, was a field, and a history lesson. On Memorial Day, 1937, 10 steelworkers were shot dead in that field, cut down like sheaves of wheat, by the Chicago Police. They had been part of a large group of vocal, yet unarmed, pro-union protesters who were demonstrating at the main gate of Republic Steel at 118th and Burley.
My father was 16 at the time, and although he lived on the other side of the Calumet River along Torrence Avenue, word of the massacre spread like a prairie fire, even across the water. Years later, after he came back from the war — he served four years on a much-storied destroyer, the USS Nicholson (DD-442) and returned a battle-hardened salt — he himself worked at Republic Steel, and was a respected grievance committeeman, defending the rights of his fellow union workers.
Starting in the late 1960s, my father taught me the history of that murderous event, telling me to never forget what happened there. Decades later, I acquired a copy of the black and white footage of the event, images shot by a crew from the Paramount newsreels. I watch it every Memorial Day. Unfortunately, my father had passed and never had the chance to view it. My mother did though, and she was appalled. And she wept.
To say that Memorial Day has changed would be the proverbial understatement. Thankfully, my father taught me the importance of maintaining family graves. When I go to the cemeteries nowadays, so many graves of men who fought in the war, returned, and died still fairly young, are overgrown, seemingly forgotten.
For me, Memorial Day will always be a day of reflection. What did they all have in common, those men and women who marched across that field on a hot, sunny day in 1937, and my father and his shipmates who fought and won WWII, those who died and those who came home to fight other battles? They all believed in a better world, a world of justice, equal opportunity, mutual respect, and peace.
But do we have that better world? Our present world with our constant fascination with, and at times celebration of, violence? Our blind faith in technology to solve our problems, over and against any faith in ourselves? Our marginalizing of the working classes and the demonizing of unions? Our allowing of public interests, the commonweal, to be sold off to private interests? Our mind-numbingly stupid acceptance of our over-administrated, high-tech, high drek, and militarized culture? And on the last note, our political leaders’ proclivity in keeping us engaged in a state of seemingly constant war somewhere?
There is a scene in The Odyssey, where Odysseus, on his voyage home to Ithaca, stops to sacrifice some sheep, and from their pooled blood, he summons up the spirits of those who had crossed over to Hades while he had been away at war. If I were to be that bold, and summon the shades of the men and women who I have been writing about here, what would they say about us and what we have done with their ideals, their dreams, and their sacrifices? Would they not turn away, dismayed, wondering if we were the ones who were dead, not they?
John Vukmirovich is a writer and researcher who lives in Chicago.