Thoughts from Dr. Joe: Why we remember

Col. Robert Gould Shaw was 24 years old when he took command of the 54th Massachusetts, a regiment of freed slaves. He brought them from the chains of bondage and turned them into Union soldiers. He gave them blue uniforms and then he gave them their dignity.

In July 1863, the 54th Massachusetts was poised to attack Fort Wagner, a Confederate stronghold in South Carolina. The path that brought these men there had been a long one, born of idealism and fraught with difficulty. They succeeded in the face of bigotry and doubt because of the colonel who led them.

Despite his initial trepidations, the Harvard-educated son of abolitionist parents assumed the weighty responsibilities of command. Shaw never wavered in his resolve to show that black soldiers were the fighting equals of their white counterparts.

Shaw relished in the transformation of the 54th Massachusetts from slaves to soldiers. Throughout his command he had written more than 200 letters to his mother chronicling the efforts and bravery of his men while they overcame the stigma of being black.

It was not death or the demise of his men that he feared. But he did fear they would be forgotten. Not telling the story of the 54th was the real tragedy.

Memorial Day is upon us. There is no finer tribute to the countless numbers of soldiers who lie in gardens of stone than to hold them in your heart and save them a memory.

At 9 a.m. on Monday, May 27 — Memorial Day — La Cañada will commemorate those who died in America's wars. For the 36th consecutive year there will be a commemoration in Memorial Park dedicated to their memory.

Novelist Herman Wouk wrote, “The beginning of the end of war lies in remembrance.” Americans know so little of war that they have nothing to remember. Eleven years into the war on terror we are trapped in a strange moment: America is a country at war but hardly anybody notices.

Memorial Day has become more about long weekends and department store sales. However, once we forget the price of combat, it becomes easy to allow others — and other people's children — to pay it. We should not be more intent on riding the fire truck in the parade than we are on attending the commemoration in Memorial Park.

Lt. Col. John McCrae's poem, “In Flanders Fields,” reminds the living never to forget those who died: “If ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders fields.”

Back to the story of Colonel Shaw: Moments before the assault on Fort Wagner, The colonel approached Edward Pierce, a writer from Harper's magazine. He handed Pierce letters addressed to his mother and said, “Remember what you see here.” He then drew his sword and led the attack. He was killed on the parapet of Fort Wagner. Shaw found the mortality he sought; the 54th Massachusetts is remembered in the movie, “Glory.”

When you remember the fallen you assure their immortality. They no longer remain mere bronze engravings on the south side of the gazebo in Memorial Park. Life lives in the hope of becoming a memory.

Here's a thought written by an unknown Buffalo Soldier to his dead comrades. “The dead do not completely vanish from the earth. Death only occurs when we choose to forget. Then it becomes our duty to tell their story. One hundred years after horses and the creaking of wagon wheels your names are air, unseen, yet moving around us. How can something substantial as a column of 26 men riding side by side on a dusty road leave neither imprint on the ground nor sound in the sky?”

I found a quote from W.S Merwin in my journal, titled, 2009. “What you remember saves you.”

JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a retired professor of education and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at doctorjoe@ymail.com. Visit his website at doctorjoe.us.

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