Union soldiers fire cannons at Confederate troops

Union soldiers fire cannons at Confederate troops

This coming Memorial Day weekend is a three-day holiday. What this often means for most of the country is that it's time to dust off the barbecue and get ready for summer cookouts. Since we have that beach party thing going on all year in our wonderful climate, Memorial Day weekend is not such a dramatic transition into summer for us.

As we're sure you know, Memorial Day isn't a holiday that commemorates picnics. It's a holiday to commemorate our war dead. Many different communities lay claim to having established the holiday, and it likely had multiple origins as a nation began to heal and honor its fallen soldiers at the end of the Civil War.

One version is that the holiday began May 1, 1865, as a celebration to honor the completion of reburial of Civil War dead in Charleston, S.C. Mostly black Union soldiers who had been interred in mass graves were unearthed and reburied individually. An estimated 10,000 people, mainly black, turned out for a day of sermons, singing and picnics. The Civil War was over, and the slaves had been freed.

A May 1866 celebration in Waterloo, N.Y., is also accredited with popularizing the tradition of decorating the graves of those who died in the Civil War. In 1868, May 30 was observed nationwide as Decoration Day. The purpose of the holiday was to decorate the graves of Union soldiers, usually with flags and flowers.

Not surprisingly, the holiday was not celebrated in many Southern states because only Union war dead were being honored. Southerners held their own celebration on a different date to honor their fallen soldiers. After World War I, the purpose of the holiday was changed to recognize and decorate the graves of all war dead.

By 1882, the name of the holiday was changed to Memorial Day, but the new term didn't become common until after World War II. When I was growing up, my grandmothers still referred to the holiday as Decoration Day. But Vic says that he only knew the holiday as Memorial Day.

In 1971, during the height of the Vietnam War, the date of the holiday was changed from May 30 to the last Monday in May. Traditional observances of the holiday include visiting the graves of departed relatives, not just war dead, and placing flowers on the graves. Picnics and backyard barbecues are other traditions, as well as flying the flag. And since I'm from Indiana originally, I also associate the holiday with the Indianapolis 500 auto race.

Vic and I have recently been watching the HBO series "The Pacific," a series about the Marine Corps battles on various Pacific islands during World War II. All 10 episodes will be rebroadcast Sunday and Monday. Given the extreme realism of the series, I think seeing all the episodes in such a short time would be too intense. We can't imagine what it must have been like to have lived through such events.

Both of our fathers served during World War II in the U.S. Army and are now both deceased. Neither of our fathers ever told us much about their experiences, but over time, we gleaned a few impressions. Vic's father was an infantryman in the 37th Division that liberated the Philippines. He fought in the intense building-to-building, room-to-room battle to retake Manila.

My father was a mess sergeant with a railway unit stationed in France. He told me stories about the starving farmers in the areas that he passed through on his way to Paris. The Germans had depleted the resources of local farmers to support their war effort. The French farmers had so little feed for their livestock that they would pen up their hogs, two to a pen, with one in front and one in back. They only fed the one in front. The one in back survived on what was available. My father buried hams and bags of sugar as his unit went through France, letting the starving farmers know where they could dig up the food after the Germans had been cleared from the area.

Back in the United States during World War II, our entire nation was focused on the war effort. Manufacture of automobiles for personal use had ceased, and plants were converted to production of vehicles and other equipment for the war. Movies carried advertisements to buy war bonds, and people were encouraged to plant Victory Gardens.

With so many of our own farmers fighting in the war and rationing of fuel in this country, food was in short supply. People needed coupons to get their weekly rations of staples such as butter, cheese, coffee, eggs, milk, meat and sugar. And because of both labor and fuel shortages, it was difficult to get fresh fruits and vegetables distributed. Canned goods were needed for our troops, so there were shortages of both fresh and canned produce. The government encouraged people to grow their own by planting Victory Gardens.

An estimated 20 million American families responded by planting gardens, some of them for the first time. While people living in the countryside had always had gardens and preserved their harvest, this was a new activity for their city cousins. Gardens sprouted up in backyards, empty lots and even on rooftops. The results were astounding. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that between 9 million and 10 million tons of fresh produce were grown in Victory Gardens, an amount nearly equal to that being produced commercially. Sales of pressure cookers used in home canning quadrupled between 1942 and 1943.

But by 1946, the war was over. The government no longer promoted Victory Gardens, and people didn't plant them that spring. The result was shortages of some food items until commercial agriculture caught up with demand.

As we enjoy our pleasant suburban gardens this Memorial Day, we might want to pause a moment to reflect on the blessings that we enjoy as a result of the sacrifices of others. We can also remember the humble but important role that gardening played in World War II. We should also remember the great crisis facing mankind today: the energy crisis that pollutes the water and air around the world, raises the price of food for us all and even alters our climate.

Remember that every pound of food you grow in your own yard is a pound that doesn't need to be shipped in from somewhere else. Growing some of your own food saves fuel and helps combat global climate change. This time, it isn't just America that needs your help. It's the whole planet.