What makes these events special – and important – is that they ask us to remember: to remember those who sacrificed, to remember why they sacrificed, and to remember that without those sacrifices we would not be the country we are today.
I stood proudly with Frank LaMarsh, Commander of the American Legion Gold Star Post on Cannon Avenue in Travis, for a Memorial Day service. As I looked around at the sea of faces, I noticed it was a smaller sea than it had been in the past -- and realized it has been getting smaller with each passing year. And older.
Similarly, at a beautiful and stirring Flag Day service led by Abe Spector at the lodge of the B.P.O Elks, attendance was down and the average age of the participants was up. It was the same story as I stood with Gene DiGiacomo, President of the Thomas Tori Chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America.
What does this mean? I’ll tell you what I think it means: folks are more concerned with grilling a burger and popping open a cold one than they are with recognizing our flag, our country, and the brave men and women who died in service to an ideal.
I’m greatly disturbed by this trend. This is not a lull, this is not a temporary downtick – it has been going on for far too long to be a bump in the road. This is a trend that can lead us to but a single conclusion: these patriotic organizations are, unless something changes soon, marked for extinction.
When this happens we will be a poorer nation for it. Something great about America -- the love of its citizens for their flag, the respect of its citizens for the veterans who’ve kept us free, the pride of its citizens in their constitution -- will have died a little bit, and America will have seen the bright light of its promise dimmed a little bit. And those who long for an America in twilight will smile.
I’m reminded of the words of the poet Dylan Thomas: “Do not go gentle into that good night,” he said. Are we, as a nation, prepared to do exactly what he warns us against? Are we willing to, in fact, go placidly into the twilight of the American epoch, to put behind us the nation that has done more good for more people than any political body in the history of this planet? I cannot believe that we are, no, I cannot believe that.
We take too much for granted. We believe we will always be free and prosperous. We think that patriotism is an old-fashioned emotion, and that we are much too sophisticated to belong to one of those silly organizations populated by old men trying to re-capture past glories, re-fighting battles long after the last shots were fired, recalling foxhole buddies who never came home from Normandy, or Iwo Jima, or the Chosin Reservoir, or Ia Drang, or any of hundreds of locations that seem to have existed only in a distant past.
We need to look at these groups in a new way; we need to create within ourselves a sense of obligation, of responsibility, an acknowledgement that although they present us with no bill for their service, we are honor bound to offer them support.
The numbers are trending poorly and I want to help; I want to put the resources of Borough Hall behind crafting a strategy to stabilize their memberships, so that these organizations and traditions will be there for future generations. To that end we will be gathering a group of veterans, advocates and interested citizens to have a discussion – a free exchange of ideas dedicated to helping them grow and thrive.
If enough of us make it a point to join one of these groups they may survive. If enough of us simply pay attention to their missions and attend their events they may go on for generations. But if enough of us choose to ignore them they will become less than a footnote in the history books, a slice of Americana from too simple a time. A time when patriotism mattered and we expressed love for our country and gratitude for being able to live in it. A time when it felt good to wave an American flag.
“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
These are the last lines of Thomas’ poem. We should heed them.