Reflections on Memorial Day

(Some of you may have noticed that I have taken a break from writing these columns for a few weeks.  Well, break’s over, and it’s time to get started again.  Thanks for reading!)

This past Monday, America celebrated Memorial Day.  I’ve been thinking about that, and wanted to share some thoughts.

Memorial Day is NOT national barbecue day.  And it’s not a time for the linen sale at the mall, nor for the opening of the city’s swimming pools, nor the unofficial start of summer.  It may have taken on some or all of those meanings, but that is not why it exists as a special day.

Memorial Day was originally known as “Decoration Day,” and originated during the Civil War.  Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, claims to have started the tradition, when local ladies decorated the graves of war dead with flowers on July 4, 1864.  Unfortunately for their claim, there are several documented cases in Virginia, Georgia, and elsewhere, of similar observances in 1861 and 1862.

To further add to the confusion, President Johnson signed a proclamation in 1967, naming Waterloo, New York, as the birthplace of Memorial Day.  The truth is, it was such a good idea (and an obvious one), that it originated in several places, independent of each other, at about the same time.

Back in the days when families had private cemeteries, many Southern families would gather once a year in the spring or early summer to weed the grounds, repair any damages and place flowers on the graves.  This was often done in connection with a family reunion and “dinner on the grounds” at the cemetery – it was a way of retaining family connections with those who had gone before, and in my opinion, a lovely custom.  (My good friend Joel Fox has told me of attending his family’s cemetery get-togethers, and I always thought it was a nice tradition.)

So, it wasn’t a big stretch to go from such occurrences to placing flowers on the graves of those lost in the war.

One of biggest early celebrations of the day came in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 1, 1865, when nearly 10,000 recently-freed African-Americans came together to honor the hundreds of Union soldiers who had died in a POW camp there.

The term “Memorial Day” was apparently first used in the 1880s, and both terms seem to have been used until after World War II.  However, it was not until 1967 that “Memorial Day” became an official Federal holiday – originally set for May 30, and later changed to the last Monday in May.  Some localities still hold their observances on May 30, which is coming up tomorrow as I write this.

Memorial Day should not be confused with Veterans Day, which comes on November 11. (That was previously known as “Armistice Day,” and originally marked the end of hostilities of World War I in 1918, but that’s another story.)  Memorial Day honors those who have died in the service of their country; Veterans Day honors the service of all military veterans.  Both are appropriate, but they are not the same, and should not be thought of as interchangeable.  (Thanks to Woody Turnbow for helping me appreciate this distinction!)

Besides honoring the sacrifice of those who have died, Memorial Day has also been a time of asking the larger questions of the cause for which they died.  In the late 19th and early 20th century, for example, the day was often used to decorate the graves of the Southern Civil War dead, and to promote the “Lost Cause” of Southern independence.

The day can be divisive and hurtful to some.  For some, it is a time to mourn the waste of so many lives and the loss that represents; for others, it is a time to celebrate liberty and promote patriotic values.  So what are we celebrating?  Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism?  Or the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave?

It’s a good question, I think.

On the larger issue of remembering, here are just two Biblical truths to consider.  First, go read the book of Deuteronomy, and notice how many times Moses commands the Israelites to “remember” during his farewell address – by my count, 16 times, or about once every other chapter.  You definitely come away from that heartfelt speech with the sense that he wanted them to hold onto and cherish the thoughts of all that God had done for them, and to live accordingly.

Second, in the first chapter of Romans, when Paul is making his list of all the depravities of which unredeemed humanity is possible, notice that it all begins with the refusal to remember or give thanks to God for His many blessings.  As he says, “They did not think it was worth their time to retain the knowledge of God” – sounds to me like a failure to remember.

Draw your own conclusions, my friends.

In my opinion, Memorial Day should not be used as a way of glorifying war, or whipping up some misguided patriotic fervor for a cause some may wish to promote.  But it IS appropriate to remember those who have given “that last full measure of devotion,” who have “laid down their life for their friends,” and “who have died that this nation may live.”

It IS appropriate to ask if I am honoring their sacrifice not just with flowers or parades, but with a well-lived life.

And it is appropriate to remember the awful cost of war, and the terrible price paid by the families and loved ones.  My grandmother Sallie McMillan had a brother who was killed in Korea, and I think she grieved his loss to her dying day.

So, to honor those who have given their lives for this country, and to their families:

O beautiful for heroes proved

In liberating strife,

Who more than self, their country loved,

And mercy more than life.

America!  America!  May God thy gold refine,

‘Til all success be nobleness, and ev’ry gain divine.

The World’s Greatest Hobby

Like many little boys who grew up in the 50s and 60s, one of the earliest toys I can remember playing with was an electric train.  Unlike many others, I never outgrew the fascination.

marx-logoOther kids might have received a train by Lionel or American Flyer; in my case, it was made by Marx.  I don’t remember much about the actual train, other than playing with it until it absolutely fell apart.  Marx Toys was the same company who would later make the “Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em Robots” and the “Big Wheel” tricycles, but to me, they will always be a maker of trains.

tim_and_his_train_coverWhen I wasn’t playing with trains, I was reading about playing with trains.  My favorite book as a kid was Tim and His Train.  It told the story of a boy who loved trains (I could relate!), and whose dad took him to visit a rail yard.  When Tim’s birthday came around, he found a complete train set waiting for him.

I thought he was just about the luckiest boy in the world.

Like many hobbies, model trains have their own jargon.  One of the first things you learn is about scale – how large or how small are the models?  The classic Lionel trains are known as “O” scale – pronounced, “oh scale.”  O scale operates on the ratio of 1 to 48; that is, one inch on a model equals 48 inches in real life.  A man 6 ft. tall in the real world would be a model an inch and a half tall.  O scale models are big and impressive to watch as they go by, but they can also be expensive, and they can take up a LOT of room for a layout.

scale_comparisonThe most popular size are known as HO models – you pronounce the letters separately, as in “aitch – oh” scale.  The name came from the fact that it is roughly half of the size of O scale models, or H-O.  These models have a proportion of 1:87 – one foot of track equals 87 feet in real life.  You can build a decent layout on a 4′ x 8′ sheet of plywood, which is how a lot of hobbyists start out.

There are many other scales, each with their own devotees and specialties – Z (1:220), N (1:160), HO (1:87), S (1:64), O (1:48), and G (1:29).  Each has different advantages – you can built a nice Z scale layout in a suitcase, whereas G scale is often the choice for running outdoors on garden railroads.  It all depends on what you like.  I’ve played around with different scales over the years, but I’ve recently come back to modeling in HO scale.  Here’s my model of the 1950s vintage “Texas Eagle” as it pulls past the Abilene station.

eagle04aOne reason that model railroading is such a popular hobby is that it incorporates many different hobbies in one.  The hobby can involve carpentry, architecture, engineering, electrical skills, computer programming, history, research, and many other sub-interests.  You can express your artistic self with scenery for any and all types of terrain and landscapes; you can recreate a memory from the past, or come up with an original expression of things the way you think they ought to be.  You can create something out of pure whimsey – the Hogwarts Express visiting a train station on Vulcan – or produce museum-quality reproductions that are accurate right down to the number of rivets.

Some guys enjoy operating their model as a real railroad, complete with timetables and switching lists, making up trains, moving them over the road, picking up and dropping off cars along the way, and doing it all on time.  Other guys just enjoy watching their train tick off the miles as it goes by, enjoying the smooth running operation of the engines and cars.  Some enjoy reproducing modern railroading, with its double-stack container trains and high-horsepower modern diesels, while others prefer the “old timey” tea kettle steam engines and short trains.  It just depends on what you like.

One of the most revolutionary developments has been something called “Digital Command Control,” or DCC.  In the old days, when you turned on the power to a particular stretch of track, every engine on it moved at the same time.  This led to elaborate wiring schemes and dividing the track up into numerous “blocks,” each insulated from the others, so that you could turn on power to one little section of track at a time.  Obviously, not a realistic approach to running trains!

DCC has changed all that.  Now, it’s possible to install a little computer circuit on the engine, and give each engine a unique code number.  With DCC on board, your controller sends out a coded signal that is read and understood ONLY by your engine.  This allows you to run multiple trains on the same stretch of train, each independent of the others.  You can even install miniature speakers on the trains, enabling engines to operate with realistic sound effects.  All this allows for a level of realism previously unimaginable.

One thing people always want to know: isn’t it expensive?  Well, it can be (especially when you’re just getting started), but it doesn’t have to be.  In my case, I don’t have the space – or the budget – to have a big layout, but I’m a member of the Abilene Society of Model Railroaders.  The ASMR has a nice layout that the members are continuing to build.  As a member, I can run my trains on the club layout, AND even better, I can tap into the knowledge and experience of guys who are much better modelers than I.

wgh_logoIn recent years, several manufacturers of model trains and other interested businesses have formed a trade group devoted to promoting the industry.  It’s called “The World’s Greatest Hobby.”  That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but then again, maybe not.

After all, what other hobby allows you to build and operate your own rail empire, create cities to suit your taste, travel over vast distances, and even go back in time?

Sounds of the Season

Okay, it’s time for me to come out of the closet.

I love Christmas.

For years, I’ve enjoyed being a curmudgeon, wearing my Grinch tie, cheering for Ebenezer Scrooge when he says, “If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, would be boiled in his own pudding.  And buried with a stake of holly in his heart!”

But the truth is, I love Christmas.  Not the commericialism, or the insane busy-ness of it, of course.  Those things, I did and do despise.  But I love the decorations, the family traditions, the get-togethers with friends.  Every year, we read the Christmas story from Matthew and Luke.  Every year, we watch “White Christmas” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Carol” (the 1984 George C. Scott made-for-TV version is my favorite).  Every year, we marvel at the miracle of the King in the manger, and share candlelit communion, and give thanks that the Word became flesh.

And the music.  The songs of Christmas may be my favorite part of the whole thing.

I have recently upgraded this blog, and I now have the ability to put music on here (and video, for that matter).  So, in celebration of the season, at the bottom right of this page, you will find ten of my favorite Christmas songs, in no particular order.  Some of them are sacred, some are not; some are traditional, others are new.

In my next column, I will tell the story behind my favorite Christmas carol, but meanwhile, from me to you, here’s some Christmas cheer.

Rejoice.