It’s the Fourth of July weekend. A time when much of America marches and sings and stops to do all sorts of different things for all kinds of reasons.
Where are you today? At the beach? On the front step? Down the Cape? Up in Vermont? Just sitting around the house hoping the sun will clear that clutter of clouds and provide you with the gift of a fine summer’s day? What are you doing? Making plans to have a cookout? Looking for your bathing suit? Cranking up a lawn mower? Sleeping late? Working maybe? Still talking about the parade or the fireworks that shattered the night sky? Monitoring kids as they move through the kitchen like troops on maneuver, all the while ignoring your questions about what they’re going to do and where they’re going to go?
Maybe you’re alone? Maybe you’re far from that particular place you might call home? Maybe you’re simply looking for a quiet spot where the breeze blows for you alone and the heat can never wound or stifle?
That’s where I live, in a sanctuary of private peace. A place that proves what life merely hints at: Death is the ultimate democracy, and all of those who are here with me this morning died, in a sense, for the Fourth of July.
Make no mistake, there are all kinds of people here with me. And they come from every part of the land you walk today: From the hill country of Tennessee, from the big industrial cities of the Midwest, from Boston, from Valdosta, Ga., and Culpepper, Texas, and Bellflower, Calif., Brooklyn, N. Y., too.
We are black and white and brown, and mostly young forever. That’s because we died during the permanent season of youth. We fell at places such as Okinawa and Anzio, by the Bay of Masan in Korea, along rocket-scarred ridges at Hill 881 South, looking through the mist toward the Laotian border, and in Grenada and Beirut as well.
We died for the Fourth of July!
It’s funny, but more than Memorial Day, more than November 11th, we always hope that who we were and what we did will be recalled at this time of year. Perhaps that’s because it is the lush edge of summer, a time when wounds seem remote and the concept of death is a stranger.
Shut your eyes for just a second and you’ll be able to see us, to hear us, too. We come from your hometown. You knew us. And, if you think about it for a minute, you can easily remember.
See that fellow over there? Well, on the Fourth of July, 1943, he was playing sandlot baseball in Clinton, Massachusetts. One year later, he took up residence with us because he had been claimed by a sniper’s bullet as he walked a hedgerow in Normandy.
Do you recall the fat kid who always made you laugh by turning on the hydrants and getting the cops mad during that hot summer of 1950 when the temperature was an unyielding adversary? He’s here. Been with us since Inchon.
And those boys who graduated from high school with you? Those kids with long hair and dreams of a decent future lived in a land that asked where Joe DiMaggio had gone and turned its lonely eyes to him? All those young men? They’re here, too.
They came over the course of a tortured decade, in a long proud parade — in numbers that never seemed to quit — from the A Shau valley, from Con Thien, from Camp Carroll and other miserable places that were quickly shuttled off to the shadows of history because America had chosen to become a land of living amnesiacs. But we remember.
We remember the hopes and dreams we had. We remember the families we left behind and the families we hoped to have someday.
We were poets and shortstops, schoolteachers and longshoremen, storekeepers and firemen, husbands, fathers, sons, lovers. Some of us were born rich. Some poor. Some knew glory before our last zip code was carved in stone. Some knew abuse and prejudice and the strictures of class.
Yet none of that matters now because there is no hate here. No unreasoning racism. No fits of temper, outrage or revenge. Not even much memory. Here, summer is forever.
Don’t feel badly for us, though, because we are the lucky ones. We don’t worry about the world ending in a single flash of agony caused by ignorance and unreason. We don’t have to be concerned about the steady tide of poverty, the ocean of drugs, all the lost sense of history or the victory of money over the elements of compassion and justice.
We are beyond all of that. Above it really. Because we are all dead now. And we died for the Fourth of July.