ANOTHER chilly spring, following a persistently snowy winter that refused to die, has made it difficult to imagine that summer will soon be here. But no matter what the temperature, we are reminded by the calendar that summer- unofficially at least - has arrived because the Memorial Day weekend is here.
We didn't always need a long weekend to observe Memorial Day, back when it came every May 30 and the day of the week didn't matter, back when America paused to honor its war dead with parades and somber ceremonies at its cemeteries.
Now it's a much different story. Anymore, Memorial Day, with a sanctioning assist from the federal government, is a three-day celebration of summer's arrival far more than a tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice, and we are all the more diminished for that.
Sadly, millions of Americans regard the holiday as the traditional kickoff to three months of backyard barbecues, baseball games, trips to the lake, and vacations in the family SUV, though gas prices this summer are likely to curb some of that travel. But most of us would rather party hardy after a long, hard winter and cool, rainy spring cooped up in the house, than spend much time pondering the day's real significance.
Northwest Ohioans and southeast Michiganders will be too busy firing up their grills, filling their pools, or launching their boats to give much thought to the deeper meaning of the holiday.
That's especially troubling this year, as the war in Iraq has martyred more than 4,000 brave young Americans.
The fact that the nation is observing the holiday today, four days ahead of its traditional May 30 date underscores how dramatically celebration has replaced contemplation, and how much we take for granted the sacrifices of those who fought and died, and who are fighting and dying in war today.
The holiday, dating back to the post-Civil War era, was created to honor the fallen in the fratricidal and bloody conflict that preserved the Union and freed the slaves. The military origins of this holiday are clear. It stems from a general order issued by Gen. John A. Logan, then serving as commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, a veterans organization that played a powerful role after the Civil War.
His order designated May 30, 1868, "for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country and whose bodies lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land."
It is an eloquent if old-fashioned document.
"All the consecrated wealth, and care that the nation can add to their adornment and security, is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders," the order read.
"Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed ground. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no vandals neglect, no ravage of time testify to the present or coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided country."
For many people the holiday was called Decoration Day because it was the holiday on which they placed flowers and other tributes not only to those who fell in combat but also on the graves of family members and friends. It is a time-honored ritual, but in many areas it is kept alive only because of the dedication of loyal members of the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Disabled American Veterans. Their ranks, however, are diminishing too.
Nationwide, more than 2 million Americans rest in national cemeteries, soldiers' lots, confederate cemeteries, and monuments. Overseas, another 125,000 American casualties are interred in 24 American Battle Monuments cemeteries. Here in Ohio, the National Cemetery in Dayton annually conducts many military burials.
Throughout the system, national heroes lie alongside the unheralded and the unknown, and on this day and all others, they all deserve the nation's gratitude in equal measure for their sacrifice.
And while we remember the fallen of our wars, we also must remember those men and women who fell not in wars but as innocent victims of natural calamities, and those who perished because of the acts of terrorists so evil they would murder thousands of Americans to make a point this country still struggles to understand.
All of us are soldiers in the march toward a more humane world order, and at times it seems that we will grow footsore on that march before we see real and meaningful progress.
However we spend the holiday - traditionally the start of the summer season, even though June 21 is weeks away - it is appropriate to spend time reacquainting ourselves with noble sacrifices and honored traditions.
Because, as we have noted so often in the past, it would be truly horrible to forget.