Author’s Note: As I was creating the video that appears at the end of this post, I was recalling a piece I’d written some years ago, inspired by something I’d witnessed in a gym. Thanks to a portable floppy-disc drive and my pack-rat compulsion to hang on to my old floppy discs, I was able to find the piece. I had no idea it was almost 30 years old. But, as we know, time flies ….
While the video I created is intended to commemorate Memorial Day 2023, the sacrifices we honor on Memorial Day are ultimate manifestations of giving without season. The only way we can repay our debt to those who’ve given their lives is to honor the freedom they died to preserve.
On Saturday, December 18, 1993, with anticipation of Christmas at its warmest, fuzziest, and most superficial pitch, I happened to be in Gold’s Gym in Manchester, indulging my vanity in the selfish preoccupation of another in an endless series of workouts, when Chapter 120 of the Vietnam Veterans of America interrupted my self-absorption by holding a ceremony — curiously moving, quietly disarming in its deliberate yet humble solemnity — in honor of some other spirit of giving with which I am not entirely familiar, a spirit of sacrifice without season, artifice, or pretense.
These survivors, anonymous in their uniform camouflage fatigues as they were in their trials in Southeast Asia, as they remain in their efforts to reconcile themselves to those trials, had come to recognize Gold’s Gyms for participating in the holiday food drive the Veterans annually conduct for the benefit of their homeless and otherwise needy peers. They had also come to honor the service of members of the state and local police forces and to present commemorative gifts to wives and mothers of their fallen police and military brethren.
All of those assembled, veteran and active soldiers and police officers, widows, and childless mothers, shared this singular bond: No matter how compelled — by self, family, government, or ideology — they have given of themselves and their families in service to people other than themselves, in service to institutions other and larger than their families. They continue to give in ways more painful and profound than most of us will ever have to know. And it occurred to me in watching this ceremony that the least I could do is understand that.
But this is not a lecture on moral obligation. It is not (intended to be) a pedantic diatribe on duty; on the morbid and mortal price paid by others for our freedom; on the guilt we might feel for never having been asked to pay so dear a price ourselves, thereby earning our right to enjoy that freedom. Rather, this is intended to be as sincere and focused an expression of gratitude as I can muster.
To each of the men and women I saw that December afternoon, I wish to say thank you. But my gratitude is not limited to their having given of themselves so profoundly, for sacrificing in ways I can only feebly imagine with horror and hope that neither I nor my children may ever be asked to give the same. More fully and purposefully, I say thank you for their having penetrated my sarcastic cynicism for a meaningful, reflective moment, for reminding me that it’s only by the sweat and blood of selfless souls such as theirs that, once the blush of the Christmas spirit has faded for another year, I have the inestimable freedom to remain detached, sarcastic, and cynical of all that frightens or mystifies me.
Yes, dubious as its value might seem, that is the freedom exercised most frequently by many of us. It is the product of too much abundance, too much freedom to choose among options too numerous to fully evaluate, too much opportunity to take that freedom for granted, too many chances to benefit from the sacrifices of others without thought, acknowledgment, or reciprocity.
For these reasons, I must say to that group of men and women I am frightened and mystified by their sacrifices. But, thanks to that public demonstration of their commitment to giving, I know I am deeply and forever grateful for what they’ve given, and for their having reached me on one, cold winter afternoon, while I, as always, was deep in self-absorption.
In this season and all others, as they have given of themselves so others might not have to, and for helping to purchase the very liberty by which I might write this opinion, God bless them, every one.