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Slack Tide: There's more to Memorial Day than Bermuda shorts and potato salad

Posted: May 25, 2014 - 12:03am

Break out the white shoes and matching belt and don’t hang them back up until September — it’s Memorial Day 2014.

Of course, there’s more to Memorial Day than Bermuda shorts, potato salad and a valid excuse to drink beer on a random Monday (seriously, try cracking open a tallboy on Flag Day and see what your boss says).

One of several distinctly secular national observances — like Independence Day, New Year’s Day and Oscar Night — Memorial Day is a federal holiday remembering the men and women who died in military service.

It also gives the country’s grill-masters one last chance to sharpen their barbecuing chops before the Fourth of July, much in the way Thanksgiving serves as a dry run for Christmas. Because in America, for whatever reason, we mark every important occasion with heaping piles of roasted meat.

Memorial Day is not to be confused with Veterans Day, celebrated in November; nor is it to be confused with Personal Day, which comes every other Friday — as opposed to Sick Day, which comes but five days a year, or Vacation Day, which everyone accrues differently according to seniority.

Observed in one form or another on one date or another for almost 150 years, Memorial Day originated with the Civil War.

Decorating soldiers’ graves with flowers rose to prominence in America around the Battle of Gettysburg. Large-scale public grave decorating ceremonies also took place following various future battles, the surrender at Appomattox and President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Hence the original name, “Decoration Day,” even though as far as holiday decorations go, Memorial Day really only has miniature American flags (that’s pretty much it). And no candy either. You’d think they could at least make bald eagle Peeps or something.

In 1868, Grand Army Gen. John A. Logan — who had a handlebar moustache that would make a Brooklyn hipster besmirtched his skinny jeans with envy — issued a proclamation calling for “Decoration Day” to be observed annually and nationwide, choosing May 30, which wasn’t the anniversary of any one battle in particular.

Thus Decoration Day on May 30 was great-grandfathered in for the next 100 years, until 1967, when federal law officially changed the name to “Memorial Day.” Congress officially moved its observance to the last Monday in May via the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968, which similarly relocated three other holidays from their traditional dates. It comforts me to know that in the throes of the Vietnam War, several high-profile assassinations and massive civil unrest, lawmakers busied themselves tackling hot-button issues like three-day weekends and what to call them.

Speaking of which, right around that time President Lyndon Johnson also signed into law an official decree naming Waterloo, N.Y., the official birthplace of Memorial Day, for its 1866 Decoration Day celebration.

Full disclosure: driving back to college from some concert or other, I was once pulled over in Waterloo, N.Y., for doing 25 in a 20 — and subsequently searched, very thoroughly — on Memorial Day in 1997! The search yielded nothing except a fake ID, which I’d completely forgotten I still had because I turned 21 four months earlier. Before letting me go (with a speeding ticket), the officer made me watch as he cut up the “fraudulent state-issued document, a potential felony offense,” then lit it on fire on the side of the road. Every year since then, for me, Memorial Day has become a day for remembering to clean out my wallet.

Now, in defiance of LBJ’s executive order, Boalsburg, Penn., also claims the title birthplace of Memorial Day, after the ladies of the town organized a Decoration Day in 1864. My own history with Waterloo aside, I say let Boalsburg have it. Not much else goes on in Boalsburg, although nearby Tussey Mountain Resort boasts a skate park, batting cages, a par-3 golf course, Go-Karts, a Zip-Line and, on June 7, Tussey Mountain Celtfest is featuring special guests the Bastard Bearded Irishmen.

You know, on second thought, Juneau doesn’t have half that stuff. Boalsburg should give us “Birthplace of Memorial Day.” Although, everyone here heads out of town for the long weekend. We’ll take Celtfest, then.

Modern Memorial Day marks the unofficial start of summer, which in Alaska means beginning to prepare for winter. Seriously, I saw some termination dust up on the mountains Wednesday.

Every year, thousands gather on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol for the National Memorial Day Concert. This year’s line-up: the U.S. Army Chorus, the U.S. Navy Band Sea Chanters, the U.S. Air Force Singing Sergeants and, at least according to the official website performer listings, retired Gen. Colin Powell. Wow, I wonder what songs he’ll be doing? “War”? “Love is a Battlefield”? “Let it Go”?

Oh, man, Colin Powell singing the theme from Disney’s Frozen — that’d be one Memorial Day I’d never forget.

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