Well, here we are. Memorial Day. And we all know what that means....the unofficial start of summer. And based on TV and radio ads, tweets, and virtually every other form of media, that's all it means. Barbecues and sales.
And what says Memorial Day more than buying something "patriotic" from Willie Nelson?
Except, that really isn't Memorial Day. Or Decoration Day, as it was first called in the years after the Civil War, a time "for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land,"
No barbecues, no sales.
And at Rutgers - one of ten schools in the Big Ten to predate the Civil War - the conflict impacted the students in ways they could not have imagined.
When Rutgers graduate George McNeel gave his commencement address to his fellow members of the Class of 1860, the native Texan broke out dancing the "Lonestar two-step" to entertain the crowd.
In 1860, all 28 members of the graduating class were required to give commencement addresses. McNeel's classmate Josiah Brown, a local graduate from Newark, stuck with a more traditional speech and wrote in his friend's yearbook - wishing McNeel safe travels home after their years of fun at "Old Rutgers."
Four years later, Brown was in a Confederate prison camp and McNeel was dead.
Brown and McNeel, who fought on opposite sides of the Civil War, are among thousands of Rutgers graduates who have served - and sometimes died - in American military conflicts throughout the university's nearly 250-year history. Civil War soldiers often found themselves fighting against friends, family members and even fellow alumni.
Interestingly, McNeel's name is not among those on a plaque in Kirkpatrick Chapel honoring graduates who died in the war defending their country; he fought against it.
The remembrance is there with several plaques and markers on campus honoring alumni who have given their "last full measure of devotion".
Including one in the stadium that we noted last year at this time. And I'll repeat here part of what I wrote then.
It sits cordoned off by a black chain, towards the bottom of Section 129.
The black chair of honor, standing out from the sea of red that is the bowl of the stadium, with the all-too-familiar POW-MIA logo emblazoned on the chair back. And the same logo painted on the concourse behind it.
You are not forgotten.
It isn't the patriotic R helmets. It isn't flag waving for the TV cameras. It is a simple, strong statement that those who have served this country are appreciated. And more importantly, those who have not returned from that service are remembered and loved....always.
Every time I go to Washington, DC and see the Vietnam Memorial, I think, "There but for the grace of God..." That was my era, my war. It is my wall of 58,000 names of lost peers. I can recall vividly my freshman year. It was the year of the United States incursion into Cambodia and the resulting student protests across the country. It was Kent State, and the killing of four students on that campus. It was a very divided country and a very divided campus in New Brunswick. Service men and women, especially soldiers, were berated, ridiculed, and taunted. They were looked upon as evil, and the wounds were deep.
But more than a generation later, some of the wounds have healed, and there is, at least, a recognition that the soldiers, sailors, airmen and women, and marines are doing a job. The job of protecting us, our way of life, our freedom. They are the ones who protect our rights and give us the opportunity to have those protests. They are the heroes.
Seeing the chair of honor at High Point Solutions Stadium caught me off guard. But, at the same time, it didn't surprise me. It is something that has become a part of the culture and tradition at Rutgers, and I'm proud that it is.
So, as you celebrate this Memorial Day 2016, enjoy the barbecues, raise a few, and have fun. But take a minute...just 60 seconds...to think about why you're celebrating. And who made it possible.
National Park Service
From all of us at On the Banks, have a great holiday. God bless America!