The upcoming Memorial Day holiday weekend is the unofficial start of the summer vacation season. This year, it also feels like the start of the monsoon season. It’s raining as I write this. More is forecast through the holiday weekend.
This follows an unusually cold and snowy winter with numerous cloudy gray days. Now, we start the summer with high water and mud. The National Weather Service reported May rainfall almost three inches above normal, prior to the rain that started falling on Monday. The Weather Service predicted minor flooding along the Missouri River and moderate flooding along the Platte River based on Monday’s data.
At least it won’t be hard to slip the flower holders into the ground as people decorate the graves of loved ones for Memorial Day. American flags for veterans’ markers will need to be placed with care so that they don’t fall over in rain-soaked soil.
Yet much as we prefer sunny and pleasant Memorial Days, maybe it is fitting that the holiday is soggy now and then to remind us of what so many who lie in our cemeteries have endured in the past.
I cannot walk among the oldest cemeteries in Parkville, Platte City and Weston without studying the oldest graves. Some date to the 1840s. Many headstones bear birth or burial dates from the 1800s into the early 1900s. Rainy spells are nothing new. Think of what those folks endured and survived in weather such as this. It was a wet walk from the house to the barn for chores.
Farming, the primary occupation, came to a standstill and planting season remained uncertain. They did not have TV to pass the time as the rain pitter pattered on the roof. Those who did not have a dry woodpile or a coal bin were cold, too.
We find heavy rain hard enough, spoiled as we are by modern convenience. Car traffic was light in Platte City on Monday night as the rain fell hard and people stayed home. Even the ever-busy Casey’s was almost empty as I stopped for gas. Yet that was a temporary condition for that one night.
In the 1800s, rain and raised creeks such as we’re seeing now would bring horse-drawn traffic to a standstill for a week or weeks. The people living in towns with streets paved with brick could walk to work, considering that back then most folks worked in the same town where they lived.
The horse-drawn buggies could still roll on those streets, but those living in the country relying on dirt roads and four-hoofed horsepower would have to hunker down for awhile. Many a traveler gave it a try and had to walk through the muck to a farm house to ask for a horse or mule team for to help pull a wagon or buggy out of the mud.
Even now, a gravel lane can be a bit iffy in places. But a dirt road is a sure place to get a car stuck. Even a four-wheel drive pickup can by stopped by mud on the right roads, particularly in river and creek bottoms. But at least we can call for a tractor or a wrecker with our cell phones.
Memorial Day, of course, began as Decoration Day. Lest you think America is united in the origins of this holiday, think again. In this era of sharp political and social divides, you can check the Internet and find historians different greatly on the true origins of the observance. And you can find people who differ about how the holiday should be celebrated and observed.
We do generally agree, though, that military veterans should be remembered and honored on Memorial Day. Most combat veterans would list rain and mud as one of their greatest foes. From marching down unpaved farm lanes in the Civil War, to Doughboys in muddy trenches in France during World War I, to G.I.s slogging through Europe or the Pacific in World War II, to Marines wading in Vietnam swamps, to the men and women of today’s armed forces serving all over the world — all have seen plenty of terrific hardships in rain and mud.
Remember them all if you visit a cemetery this weekend or on Monday, and perhaps the ground squishes beneath the soles of your shoes, remember how they lived out in such weather.
Memorial Day reminds us of mortality. Rain and mud remind us of our connection to earth. Combined they remind us of how much we cannot control, and how lucky we are when the feel the sun upon our faces.