On May 24, 2023

Memorial Day: Freedom is not free


This weekend, we express our gratitude for our fallen heroes. Each of us will do this in our own way. Some of us will attend parades and lay down wreaths of flowers at the gravesites of our men and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice. Others will carry an American flag down Superstar as they feel the freedom of the wind on their face. Yet others will spend the day with a beer (or these days a hard seltzer) in hand at a family barbecue.

We all celebrate freedom differently. Killington used to host an actual triathlon, where you could run, pedal and then ski. Nowadays, we make our own triathlons in a celebration of things we can only do because someone else fought for our freedom to do so.

Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day, a time directly after the Civil War for Americans to come together to mourn those who were no longer with us — no matter on what side of the battle they had fought. It was a moment in time where Americans could come together to remember the deaths of the 620,000 soldiers — a massive 2% of the entire population — who had died during the War Between the States.

It started with a few women going to the battlefield at Gettysburg (where between 46,000-51,000 Americans died) and placing flowers on the graves of their beloved soldiers. Then the next year, another group of women in Virginia did the same thing. Then, in Mississippi, the women placed flowers on the graves of all soldiers, Confederate and Union alike.

And so, together as a great nation, we mourn our fallen soldiers. But as the nature of war has changed over the years, so has Memorial Day. I have heard people say “Happy Memorial Day” to each other, lost in their own freedom, which seems to just always be present. Even the threats to our freedom are taken with a grain of salt, a sense that our freedom could never be lost.

I remember interviewing my maternal grandfather for a high school history project. I was young, a teenager, without a care in the world except worrying if the other kids would make fun of me for my constant weight issues. My grandfather was only a few years older than I was when he enlisted in the Navy. And so we chatted, me on the floor at his feet while he sat in his favorite yellow armchair, smoking his pipe and telling funny war stories. He was originally from Georgia and was so fascinated by the cold temperatures of the Arctic while on the convoy runs. He laughed about making Jell-O in 30 seconds by just dipping it in the freezing cold waters.

But then he got quiet and slowly, over the next few sessions at his feet, I got to understand the true meaning of Memorial Day. My grandfather served as first gunner’s mate on SS Mormacrey, part of merchant marine convoys, the deadly PQ Series, delivering goods and TNT to the northern Soviet peninsula of Murmansk. They sailed past the Nazi stronghold of Norway and were constantly bombarded. 

He spoke with pride as he chased off a Messerschmitt BF 110 with his mounted gun “Penelope” that was coming toward his ship. And then his face got blank as he told me that the bomber went and destroyed another ship in the convoy instead.

By saving the men on his ship, he had doomed the men on another. He sat, silently and I could see the heartbreak and guilt that went along with the pride of saving his men. I had never seen my grandfather cry, but I saw his lower lip shaking as his eyes glazed over. It broke me. To watch my grandfather struggle to maintain control over the whirlwind of emotions that he was suffering through, even 50 years later.

Neither my mom nor her sisters had ever heard this story. Neither had any one else I spoke with. But my grandmother simply nodded in silence and looked me straight in the eyes, willing me to understand. She knew. Maybe not all the details, but she knew the horror that my grandfather suffered from. I can only imagine the cheer that went up as the plane flew away, the fists raised in the air in celebration only to be stopped short when they watched another ship explode, its hull packed to the gills with TNT. And the guilty nightmares that followed the survivors for the remainder of their lives.

This weekend, we honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice. They died so that others did not have to. They died so that we could be free, to ski, to bike, to golf, have a picnic with our families. Whatever. But remember the families with the empty seat at the table, the soldiers and sailors and marines who never got the chance to be grandfathers, never got to be parents or perhaps even fall in love. So please, take a moment this weekend to honor those who made the great sacrifice. Because Freedom is not Free.

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