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With Memorial Day weekend at hand, things are lined up for a particularly pensive observance this year.

Survey any population sample younger than, say, 35, and a solid majority would likely identify the commemorative holiday primarily as the kickoff to summer. A small, perhaps tiny, percentage might recall Decoration Day, from which it descends.

And if anyone younger than 35 can correctly date its origins to the Civil War and the custom of decorating the graves of dead soldiers, they deserve a hearty handshake and back-pat (except in these socially distanced times, they might prefer a large package of mega-roll toilet paper).

Back when the National Assessment of Educational Progress first began testing kids, history wasn't a strong suit. Kids lose interest in last month's events; it's a chore and more trying to interest them in last century's (or others before then). And as screens have proliferated to distract and demand their attention, history knowledge has weakened further over time.

In this year's test, only 15 percent (roughly one in seven) of eighth-graders scored proficient or above in U.S. history.

Viewed from the bottom of the half-empty glass and put another way, six out of seven 14-year-olds don't know what they should know about the history that built and shaped their country. Small wonder they'd normally think this three-day weekend was anything more than time set aside to head to the lake.

Since normal has been turned on its head, however, things might be different this year.

So much is already different. Without sports teams and games to artificially incite our root-and-rally instinct, athletic stars have fallen from top of mind. Same thing with movie stars, with no theaters to flock to. If anything, seeing such celebrities on social media looking much less larger-than-life has pulled their pedestals decidedly downward.

Others have been lifted in their place, most notably those in the health-care professions. We've redefined heroes away from grossly overpaid actors and athletes. Nurses Week was awash with social media tributes, and we're quick to cheer and applaud community volunteers.

Life's priorities were suddenly jumbled, and while getting our bearings we've begun to question some of the old hierarchies, if not out loud, at least with that voice in our heads.

Mine is not a military family, so I can't truly conceive the doubled-edged despair of losing loved ones in service to our nation: simultaneously proud of the sacrifice they made, but devastated over what they will never do.

Memorial Day's ancestor, Decoration Day, was born of historical trials few of us today can fathom.

Gettysburg, Pa., in 1863 was a town of about 2,400, which was a decent-sized small city in those days (Little Rock's 1860 population was 3,727). But the three-day battle that began on July 1 of that year left more than 7,000 dead bodies in nearby fields.

If you can envision your hometown suddenly besieged by wartime corpses exposed in summer heat numbering three times your population, then your imagination is superior to mine. It's unthinkable. And yet for so many cities, towns and communities in that war, it became common and recurrent.

In the South, one of every three households lost a family member. The local nature of Civil War army divisions amplified and concentrated casualties beyond our modern comprehension.

At Gettysburg, the 26th North Carolina infantry (which drew from seven Tar-Heel counties) lost 714 out of 800 men. Every soldier in Company A of the 11th Mississippi regiment, for which 135 of 139 Ole Miss students had enlisted, was either killed or wounded in Pickett's Charge.

Such totality is inconceivable today. The entire student body of a university wiped out in one battle? Ninety percent of a multi-county region dead, maimed or captured in three days?

The Civil War era is so politicized for special-interest purposes that the scale and significance of its real history has become trivialized.

The resultant, enduring tragedy is doubly troubling. Our citizen masses miss out not only on the easiest study of important past wartime events and lessons (it all took place on American soil), but also on the expansive, compassionate perspective gained from being confronted with and forced to grasp the havoc and devastation the war caused on the home fronts across a multitude of communities.

Just as understanding the complexities of that great war contributes to a better and more unified America, falling prey to faulty oversimplifications stirs discord and stokes divisiveness.

Families fresh from Civil War carnage knew firsthand the heavy price that had been paid in fighting for a cause. Using flowers, nature's symbol of renewal born of desolation, to decorate graves was and is a gesture of more than just recognition and respect.

It's also a grand display of hope.

Unable to flock to restaurants and lakes and backyard barbecues in regular measure, it might be a good weekend to take a drive to a cemetery for some genuine memorialization of lives given for our freedoms.

The military graves are usually easy to spot. It's okay if you don't take flowers. Let your presence--in mind and body--be your decoration.


Dana D. Kelley is a freelance writer from Jonesboro.

Editorial on 05/22/2020


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