Reflections on Memorial Day: The power of words is above average

This past Friday evening I made my first trip to Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts to go see a show put on by Lake Wobegon, Minnesota’s most famous son, Garrison Keillor.

This is only the second time I have seen him live (the first was at the Great Minnesota Get-Together in 2012), and what I am most impressed about Keillor is absolutely amazing ability to tell stories during his monologues of his Prairie Home Companion radio show. Being Memorial Day weekend, he spent a good portion of his monologue focusing on the stories of military service, especially that of his father in World War II.

At one point in the monologue Keillor recited (from memory) the famous poem “In Flanders Fields”:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

This poem brought back many memories of my Memorial Day tradition of attending the Memorial Day Program put on by the local American Legion Post in Cokato Elementary. Along with a keynote speaker, patriotic songs and a candle ceremony honoring all the troops who had died in foreign wars from the Cokato area, there would also be poems read by the Boys and Girls State representatives.

I served as a Boys State representative in 2001, which looking back, along with my trip to Minnesota State Speech tournament in 2002, may have been the proudest honor I achieved in high school. This morning, my cousin Michael, will be participating in the Cokato Memorial Day Service as the 2014 Boys State representative. I am really proud of him and am excited to see another Dahlman represented on that stage.

Back when my father was a Boys State representative in the 70s, the male representative would recite Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (which I wrote about last Memorial Day after a touching trip to the battlefield). While I am not sure how far back it goes, I remember from my childhood that the female representative would always recite “In Flanders Fields”.

Keillor’s poetic recitation brought back the stirring emotions from those Memorial Day programs of my youth. The feelings that I am so thankful for the men and women that gave their lives to create and protect the ideals of the United States for myself and many generations to come. It still boggles my mind that it is essentially just words that stir up those emotions in me. It needs to be my constant reminder that this is why our job as communicators in so important, to stir up the emotions that bring about change for the better in our world.

During the intermission it is traditional for Keillor to invite the audience to stand up and sing along with him as croons traditional songs ranging from the height of pop culture, to the religious, to the patriotic. On Friday night, it was his rendition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” (probably what I consider my favorite song of all time) that really got me stirred up.

On this Memorial Day, it is the last and most beautiful verse of that song I think about.

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me.
As He died to make men holy,
let us live to make men free,
While God is marching on.

As I think about those brave men and women who have gone before me, what am I doing to “make men free”? What are you doing? I worry a lot (maybe too much) that it is not enough. But I thank those who have given so much to even let me ask the question.

Image credit: T. Dahlman, 2014
Newspaper credit: “Michael Schultz will attend Boys’ State June 15-21.” Dassel-Cokato (MN) Enterprise Dispatch 7 April 2014: 2A. Online Edition.

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