Growing up, I was blessed to be able to escape the frenzied, fast-paced life of New York City's suburbs by spending my summers with my grandparents. Retreating to the mountains of northern New York, my grandparents taught me valuable and important life-lessons during my impressionable youth. I grew both in stature and in character each year as I modeled myself after the lessons my grandparents taught me, and all of those lessons were based on their faith. Looking back, I treasure those summers as having a lasting effect on the person I am today.
They taught me the value of good, old-fashioned, hard work. They taught me to be respectful of others despite our differences – racial, religious, political, or otherwise. My grandparents helped teach me to be firm and resolute, to never compromise my character and integrity, and to always act with kindness, compassion, and forgiveness in my heart. Most importantly, my grandfather, or “Pop” as we called him, taught me to respect our flag and to appreciate the freedom it represented. A freedom that young kids like me unknowingly and innocently took for granted. Although we lost Pop to cancer 20 years ago, the values he instilled in me remain.
Like so many of his generation, Pop was a combat-weathered World War II and Korean War Veteran. He was tough as nails, but he was always fair and just. He fought alongside the men of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the “Purple Heart Battalion,” as they stormed through Italy – facing an unrelenting enemy resistance. He and his brothers-in-arms endured barrage after barrage of heavy artillery, machine gun fire, and sniper fire as they advanced through the Vosges Mountains in France against a German foe that was under orders to “fight until the last man falls.” The men of the 442nd lived up to every word of their “Go For Broke!” motto. To this day, Pop is still one of the bravest men I have ever encountered.
Pop raised a flag on our front porch with the rising of the sun each day as I headed off to my summer job at the boat docks (the toughest, and best, $4.25-per-hour I’ve ever earned). Like clockwork, he lowered that flag at sunset. He taught me never to fly the flag in darkness. When we agreed that our flag had finally seen its better days, we didn’t just throw it away like an old blanket. Rather, we properly and respectfully retired it. Our flag had served us honorably as an emblem of our freedom and it deserved as much respect as we could offer.
Perhaps my Grandfather’s life experiences made him look at Old Glory a little differently than some, but the fact that our nation’s flag meant so much to him left a lasting impression on me. I guess that’s a big reason why I take it so personally when I see protesters on the news stomping on the Star Spangled Banner like it is nothing more than a beat-up rag.
Those who trample on the American flag tread on every American flag that has ever existed. They dishonor the flag my Grandfather raised on our porch every morning and the flag raised on Iwo Jima. They disrespect the battle-scarred flag that “so proudly we hailed” at Fort McHenry in 1812. They stomp on the tattered flag that I watched, with tears streaming down my face, being raised by New York’s Bravest at Ground Zero after it was pulled from the smoldering wreckage of our fallen Twin Towers. Those who walk all over the American flag dishonor the flag that graces the uniforms of every brave man and woman preserving and defending our freedom. And they desecrate the flags draped over the coffins and placed at the graves of our fallen heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice so that we could be free – may God rest their souls.
By teaching me what our Flag meant to him, my grandfather also taught me the real meaning of Memorial Day. It’s more than barbecues, beach days, and long weekends. Pop taught me never to let our flag touch the ground. So many Americans have willingly given up their lives so that our flag would never, ever, feel the earth beneath it. Memorial Day is about remembering and honoring those selfless, brave American heroes.
Take some time to teach your children and grandchildren the reason we celebrate Memorial Day. I'm pretty sure, just like me, they'll remember the lesson for the rest of their lives.