By Tom Ehrich
To a child growing up in Indianapolis, Memorial Day was a day, not a weekend.
It was the day swimming pools opened for the summer. It was the day people lucky enough to have tickets took fried chicken to the town of Speedway to watch rough-hewn men like AJ Foyt drive fast for 500 miles. The rest of us huddled by radios and listened to Luke Walton and his troops call the “greatest spectacle in racing.” We thrilled when the massive audience sang “The Star Spangled Banner” and “Back Home Again in Indiana.”
It was also a day to remember sacrifice in the nation’s armed conflicts. We were always aware that Indiana lost more young men in the Civil War than any other northern state. Our grandfathers and fathers had served in two world wars. One of my best friends died in Vietnam. Flags for the fallen dotted many cemeteries.
Memorial Day changed, of course. It got bigger, becoming a three-day weekend. The race went national and then global. Southerners fought back with a competing NASCAR event on the same day. Political showmanship replaced some of the simple reverence for sacrifice. Women drivers joined the starting grid of 33, which was good. Entitled scions of wealthy families bought rides and cluttered up the track with bad driving, which was bad.
This weekend in the Hudson River Valley, I suspect I will be the only one in our extended family following the race on ABC-TV and a new radio app. I won’t follow it as closely as before, because TV has made the race about drivers and their personalities, rather than about cars and their technology. As a driver named Parnelli Jones said long ago, the race is about tires, not driving expertise.
For me, the weekend brings into focus the complex phenomenon known as patriotism. Jingoists and blowhards try to make patriotism simple with crowd-stirring slogans like, “America, love it or leave it,” and “Make America great again.” But love of country is never that simple. Those who oppose the wars are loving their country no less than those fighting those wars. The freedom to disagree and to speak one’s mind is more important than the call to get in line. When the nation serves some people extraordinarily well and leaves others gasping and groveling, something is wrong, and only we citizens can fix it.
And we must fix it, because the world needs America to be a good and just nation – not just militarily strong, but morally centered and capable of that ultimate show of strength, namely, sharing and self-sacrifice.
If America joins the scrap-heap of history, it won’t be because we failed to fly enough flags, but because we forgot what the flag represented: a nation founded by flawed men and women whose dream was of freedom, a place where they would be spared monarchs and their wars, a place where freedom from religion promised an end to Europe’s endless religious wars, a place where people mattered, and things could get better. We have never lived up to our ideals, but we have recognized the failure in that and vowed to try harder.
Our national enterprise isn’t done. We have more to do. We have a past worth remembering, but even more, we have a future worth pursuing.