Sunday, May 27, 2012

Remembering the Fallen

     My earliest recollections of Memorial Day (a.k.a. Decoration Day) were of putting out our four small flags on sticks in the front yard.  The flags would come out again on the Fourth of July, but I can't recall any other day they were displayed.
A soldier places flags on graves at Arlington National Cemetery for Memorial Day.
       Later, in high school,  I associated the day with the community parade that started at the bottom of the hill and wound up at the top on the Catholic side of Homestead Cemetery.  My recollection of those parades evokes rather unpleasant memories: marching uphill in the heavy wool Munhall High School band uniform, tooting my clarinet, and sweating like a racehorse. At the monument, we gathered for what seemed like the same ceremony each year: a Boy Scout reciting the Gettysburg Address, someone reading John McCrae's 1915 poem ("In Flanders fields the poppies blow/ Between the crosses, row on row. . .), a bugler playing "Taps."
     It was appropriate to read Lincoln's famous address at the Gettysburg battlefield on these occasions.  The horrific number of war dead, both Union and Confederate--nearly 700,000, by some estimates--led to the creation of a day to remember them.  Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on 5 May 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic.  The day was first observed on 30 May of that year, when flowers were placed on the graves of soldiers from both North and South at Arlington National Cemetery.

     One hundred years later, Memorial Day had morphed from a commemoration of war dead into a more general day of remembering those gone.  As in the 1950s and '60s, today people still visit cemeteries to lay wreaths or plant flowers on the graves of loved ones.  However, in addition to commemorating the dead, Americans use the holiday to mark the beginning of summer--ball games, cookouts, camping, boating, visits to the beach. And for those remaining in the city, there are also those great holiday sales, which bring shoppers flocking to the malls. Times change, and we change with them.
     On Memorial Day my thoughts go out to friends and family members who are no longer with us, especially those who served in the armed forces during WWII:  Uncles Dr. George C. Schein II, Fred Baugher, Joe McGeever (U.S. Army), and Bernie Katilius (U.S. Navy).  And those who witnessed and endured terrible events during their service, my cousin Gilbert Breakwell (U.S.Army, POW in Germany) and my children's grandfather, Dr. C.H.Christensen (Carlson's Raiders, U.S. Navy, Pacific Theater).
Carlson's Raiders on Bougainvillea, one of the battles in which C.H.Christensen served.

     Because of their age during the wars and other circumstances, my father and grandfathers did not serve in the military. However, my paternal great-grandfather, John Paul Busch, served in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War. (He was a fireman on the USS Gunboat Hale at the Battle of  Mobile Bay).  I have often thought it ironic that the skill that saved him from being infantry cannon fodder in the Civil War--the building and tending of fires in industrial boilers)--is what brought him to his death in the Homestead Works nearly 28 years later.
     I also can't help but think of the thousands of others who died in the domestic war that has been going on for centuries, ever since landowners ("nobility") decided that the rest of us should hand over our money and the fruits of our labor to them. After the Industrial Revolution, the combatants became the Company versus the Workers. The Battle of Homestead is the second most bloody clash in a series of many hundreds of violent clashes in the U.S. between the private and public armed forces protecting the interests of company owners and workers demanding fair wages, shorter hours, and/or better working conditions.  Although the official death toll in Homestead was 16, many more died during and after the battle, either by suicide (Pinkertons) or by sabotage (scabs).
     The bloodiest battle came 28 years later in West Virginia at the Battle of Blair Mountain (retold in the 1987 film, "Matewan").  By the end of this battle between striking coal miners and private agents, the sheriff's department, the state police, and the U.S. Army, nearly 15,000 workers and 30,000 police/soldiers were involved. The death toll is estimated between 60 and 120 on both sides, with the workers suffering many more casualties. As in Homestead, the workers ultimately lost.  The result was the setback of miners' rights until the early 1930s when the Federal Government recognized labor unions.
     These were the most bloody confrontations, but there were many others.  To name three: the Lattimer Massacre in Hazelton, PA (1897), when 19 unarmed miners were shot in the back by a sheriff's posse; the Ludlow Massacre (1914)  in Colorado, where the fight between miners and mine guards plus the state militia resulted in 20 or more deaths; the Columbia Mine Massacre, also in Colorado (1927), when mine guards and state police fired a machine gun at striking miners and their wives, killing six and wounding dozens .
Machine gun-equipped armored car, known to the striking miners as the Death Special. The machine gun was turned on the striking Columbia coal miners (mostly immigrants) and used to riddle their tents with bullets. Afterwards, the press whipped public opinion into a frenzy against immigrant workers.
     On this Memorial Day I will remember not only those of my family and of my personal acquaintance who served the country or a cause they believed in, but the many thousands of others, unnamed and often unsung, who served--and sometimes died--trying to make a better life for themselves, their families, and their community.
Poster for "Matewan": "It takes more than guns to kill a man."
 "You think this man is the enemy? Huh? This is a worker! Any union keeps this man out ain't a union, it's a goddam club! They got you fightin' white against colored, native against foreign, hollow against hollow, when you know there ain't but two sides in this world - them that work and them that don't. You work, they don't. That's all you get to know about the enemy." 
--Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper) in "Matewan"

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