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Palladino: Memorial Day Is About Much More Than Fun

World War II veteran Gerry Cardinal was the grand marshal of the Memorial Day parade in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, on May 25, 2014. (credit: CBS 2)

World War II veteran Gerry Cardinal was the grand marshal of the Memorial Day parade in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, on May 25, 2014. (credit: CBS 2)

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By Ernie Palladino
» More Ernie Palladino Columns

A young cashier in a drug store had everyone turning their heads Sunday morning. In a voice loud enough for those perusing the shampoo in Aisle 2 to hear, with no shame attached whatsoever, she announced to her register buddy that she only just now found out what Memorial Day is.

“Did you ever go to school?” her astonished friend blurted.

“Yeah, to eat my lunch,” she responded.

Unfortunately, this attractive woman of the late teens or early 20s did not have a unique point of reference about what Monday, May 26, 2014 is all about. In many towns, or even big cities across America, it has lost it’s meaning. It has become a cliche of sorts, a mere excuse for a federal holiday we now fill with fun runs, trips to the beach, visits to the ballpark and backyard barbecues. It has become the summer season’s official Opening Day.

There’s nothing wrong with that.

But the fact that the memories of those who served our country in time of need and those who made the ultimate sacrifice have become, in the minds of so many, mere dust under the carpet of history? Well, there’s a lot wrong with that.

These, for the most part, were people just like us. No different. Most had jobs. Some, like Pat Tillman, voluntarily left a lucrative NFL contract behind to fight in that hellhole we know as Afghanistan. He wasn’t chasing medals. Tillman easily could have stayed home in the aftermath of 9/11 and continued accumulating wealth as well as a reputation as a hard-hitting Arizona Cardinals safety. Instead, he played out the 2001 season, turned down a three-year, $3.6 million contract offer and enlisted in the Army in 2002.

Just because he felt it was the right thing to do.

Two years later, in that worthless land, he died.

Remember him today, and understand the man who felt that duty to one’s country trumps mansions and sports cars.

My dad lived his life as a normal guy. The son of an immigrant grocer, he was quite good at his job and quite a rabid New York Giants baseball fan. He once described himself as having “lived in the Polo Grounds,” and was indeed seated in right field on Oct. 3, 1951, when Bobby Thomson hit “The Shot Heard ‘Round The World off Brooklyn reliever Ralph Branca.

Six years before that, he spent his time on the dusty plain of Foggia, Italy, where he and his ground-crew cohorts maintained the flying machines that dropped their explosive tonnage over German factories and Romanian airfields. Only in later years did he talk about the other, more grizzly part of his job: washing out the torn remains of gunners from the shot-up ball turrets that sat vulnerable and defenseless under the heavy bombers’ fuselage.

Remember him and his friends today as some of the lucky ones who came back. Understand him as one of the many who pushed down the sights that no man — young or old — should see, and got on with the business of living and rooting and loving.

Think about Ted Williams, the great Red Sox slugger who might have had all the home-run records if not for World War II and the Korean War. He lost five years of his career to those cocktail parties. All those numbers went out the window, turned utterly unimportant, as he flew one Marine fighter mission after another. No less than John Glenn, the first astronaut to orbit the earth and a flight leader in Korea, called Williams the greatest wingman he ever had.

Remember him today as an example of how some things are just more important than home-run numbers.

This is what Memorial Day is really about. Enjoy the baseball and the beach and the barbecues. But take a minute or two to remember that this is also about the veterans who made today not just possible, but necessary. So go to a parade. Wave a flag. Say a little prayer between pitches for the kids of every war who didn’t make it back.

And if you still don’t know what Memorial Day is all about, for heaven’s sake, keep it to yourself!

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