Gabe Pressman, seen here in the Bronx with his mother, Lena Pressman, in 1943. At the time he was a 19-year-old apprentice seaman for the U.S. Navy.
On May 30, 1868, General John A. Logan, commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, proclaimed a day for "strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion…"
When I was a kid, we still called this holiday Decoration Day to mark the decorating of the graves of those who died in our nation’s wars. Over the years we have settled on Memorial Day -- but the purpose remains the same: to honor the dead.
I loved seeing the sailors from the warships thronging the midtown streets this weekend. I remember my own Navy Days -- and the reverence with which we observed Memorial Day.
Unfortunately, the true meaning of the holiday has been almost forgotten by many of us. The department stores haven’t forgotten. They hock their products with Memorial Day ads in the newspapers and on broadcast media.
Some families go to cemeteries to decorate the graves of their loved ones -- but I fear that many of us think of this only as a holiday for sales and barbecues and fun.
Another memory from my Bronx childhood is the sale of poppies. Veteran organizations would sell tiny poppies made of cloth to commemorate the day. For a few pennies you could buy a poppy, to support charities that supported veterans. The poppy could be pinned on your shirt or jacket.
The poppy sale recalled one of the bloodiest battles of World War I, in Flanders, Belgium. The lines of a poem are haunting:
"In Flanders fields the poppies blow,
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky
The larks still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields " ( International Lyrics).
The songs sung in our nation’s wars have poignancy in every generation. In World War I, there were two other melodies that resonated throughout America. "Keep the home fires burning while your hearts are yearning, Though your lads are far away, They dream of home."
The second song, with a military beat, is more bellicose. "Over there, over there, send the word, send the word, over there, that the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming -- The drums tum-tumming everywhere."
World War II produced dozens of popular songs, some quite sentimental. And they’re worth remembering on this Memorial Day holiday. "I’ll be with you in apple blossom time. I’ll be with you to change your name to mine."
And another warm melody: "We’ll meet again; Don’t know where, Don’t know when. But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day."
Still another: "When the lights go on again all over the world. But the boys are home again all over the world; And rain or snow is all that may fall from the skies above; A kiss won’t mean ‘goodbye’ but ‘Hello to Love.’ "
In Joyce Kilmer Park, on the Grand Concourse adjoining the Bronx County Courthouse, the trees have plaques, each commemorating a soldier who died in the first World War.
The park itself seems a symbol, a living reminder of the sacrifice of soldiers, sailors and Marines -- and the need for us never to forget them, their sacrifice and the meaning of their lives.