Photo of red poppies in a field

Poppies in a field.

By Jacqui Banaszynski
It’s Memorial Day in these dis-United States. The news won’t take a holiday. There are too many active war zones, notably in Ukraine and Gaza; the armed conflicts that persist in a number of countries the Middle East and Africa; drug and gang wars in Latin America and Haiti; the brutal civil war in Myanmar that gets very little news coverage. That’s not a comprehensive list. I Googled “wars in the world right now;” the lists were long and discouraging.

Not all of these wars are officially claimed as such, of course. The long and costly entanglement of the U.S. in Vietnam never received a formal war declaration by Congress; nor was the U.S. Civil War. But no amount of political tip-toeing can reduce the number of the dead and injured, or the collateral damage to families, friends, communities and economies.

I’m not qualified to write a worthy piece about the human history of war or a thoughtful essay on American Memorial Day. I’ll hunt through news and social media this weekend for that. (Calling on you, Dan Barry, Charlie Pierce, David von Drehle, Connie Schultz, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Chuck Haga, David Finkel and more.) Instead, I want to spend a few words talking about the challenge and value of such holidays as prompts for meaningful story work.

Predictable holiday fare

Much that comes your way will give barely a glance to the war origins of Memorial Day. You’ll read stories about the vagaries of weather, the trials of travel and the list of local celebrations — at least in those communities that still have news sites to listify and note such things. I found this lede from an AP story:

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — Memorial Day is supposed to be about mourning the nation’s fallen service members, but it’s come to anchor the unofficial start of summer and a long weekend of discounts on anything from mattresses to lawn mowers.

To be fair, the AP story went on to be a smart break-out of the emotions, origins and controversies behind Memorials Day. The opening graf is a deft bit of writing that skewers the usual boilerplate journalism. Not that the boilerplate lacks it’s place: It serves a valid informational purpose. But some reporters resent those assignments (often dismissed as “dog’s breakfast coverage” in my day), so stories that are predictable — and predictably forgettable.

Those reporters miss the opportunity to see holidays as portals (adits, to the word-nerds out there) to mining journalistic gems. The key is to think ahead of and then beyond the calendar event to the origins and meanings of the event, and to then think about in the context of current times. Sometimes those stories ping directly off the news; sometimes they probe a better understanding of history; sometimes they take readers on a walk with those who live with the legacies.

Early this morning, I slogged through my mess of stored files to find a piece from years ago. It was by the late David Lamb, who covered Vietnam and other wars for various news outlets and for 25 years was a traveling foreign correspondent for The Los Angeles Times. Written in March 2004, it wasn’t technically a Memorial Day story, but coverage of a WWII veteran’s burial at Fort Snelling National Cemetery in St. Paul. Minnesota. It was the first story that anchored, for me, the inevitable loss, veteran by veteran, of a generation. Lamb called it a “roll call.” Here’s his lede:

Bill Bornetun, 81, a former sailor, was buried on a cold winter morning, the hard earth dusted by snow, with full military honors. His place in history was minor. But as the roll call of World War II veterans grows smaller by the day, the farewell he received at Ft. Snelling National Cemetery was that of a hero.

Around his grave stood a dozen other veterans, members of the volunteer Memorial Rifle Squad, which has presided over more than 40,000 military funerals here in the last 25 years. Holding 1903 bolt-action Springfield rifles and the American flag, most of them were vets from the 1940s, average age 77, some with hearing aids and canes — and all firm in the belief that in the brotherhood of the military, veterans look out for veterans until the last shovelful of dirt fills the grave.

Some years earlier, I landed the Memorial Day story assignment for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. It was 1985 — 10 years after the end of the (undeclared) war in Vietnam and 40 years after the end of WWII. The piece I wrote for the end-of-May weekend was a space-filler I don’t even remember. But while scouting for story ideas, I stumbled onto a story that I think still think about, almost 40 years later.

Sorry, no link available. 1985 was still the Dark Ages in digital time. I hunted through three boxes of musty old clips in the garage, but couldn’t find this one. So the details are no longer crisp. But the essence of the narrative, and the emotions it sparked, remain. Here’s the short version:

I found a Vietnam veteran who enlisted, fought, came home damaged, continued to battle his way through a divorce and drink until he pulled through. He was running a support center for other veterans when we met. He told me he had enlisted, in part, because his father had fought in WWII, and maybe his grandfather in the first Great War. Yet he did it in defiance of his father, who did not want his son to go to war.

That, in itself, suggested story material. I remember my own father, a WWII vet, having the same fight with my oldest brother, and insisting he stay in college to avoid being drafted. The reasons weren’t articulated — war stories were seldom told in my house — but the line drawn could not have been more clear.

Now I asked the Vietnam vet — his name was Reed, or maybe Reid — if I could talk to his father. He shrugged; the two had been estranged since Reed came back from Vietnam. He wouldn’t stop me, but he wouldn’t be part of a dual interview.

I called the father and he told me his story. And that’s where the haunt settled in.

Both men were named Reed. They were separated in age by a short generation, but one that created a chasm in culture. Neither was able to share their experiences with the other — despite eerily similar experiences in war. Both had fought in the jungles of the Pacific. Both were part of units that did reconnaissance behind enemy lines — some of the most dangerous work in jungle warfare. Both had seen many of their comrades killed. And get this: Both carried letters, the father from a wife and the son from a sweetheart, in the chest pocket of their fatigues. At the end of the day, each pulled the letter out, unfolded it carefully, read it, refolded it and tucked it back away to be read again after patrols, night after night. Both told me those letters kept them grounded.

Their mirrored stories separated there. The son came back from Vietnam to a far colder welcome than the one his father faced upon his return from the Pacific theater. The father was embraced as part of a hero generation, with Legion halls and parades to celebrate him. There was no ticker-tape honoring the son or other Vietnam vets who, for years, were treated as social pariahs.

I told each of the men what I planned to write, but they still didn’t want to talk together. I wrote my story, weaving parallel grafs back and forth between the parallel experiences. I think it was published on Veteran’s Day that year, but again, I’d have to find that clip.

The true rewards of story work

The story never won any awards. But I received one that mattered far more to me, and is part of why that story, of the thousands I reported and wrote, is one I still think about.

After the father and son had each read the story — separately, of course — they made a tentative plan to have dinner and talk. They shared blood and, for many years, a roof. But that had never shared their own stories.

I don’t know how or if their relationship progressed from there. Journalists are notoriously bad at follow-ups, especially those who work in the constancy of daily news.

But I never again dismissed a holiday story assignment, either as a reporter or an editor. Our response to them becomes rote over time — another day on the calendar of another year that we ignore until the last minute. Yet holidays and anniversaries began with events that had deep meaning. If not, they wouldn’t remain markers in our collective lives. It is the meaning of those markers we need to look for, report, then write with the honor they deserve.

It’s also a sure way for an ambitious enterprise reporter to land some original work. Editors are desperate to fill space in print and on site for anniversaries. That is space that a reporter can easily claim. Sure, you may need to provide the calendar list of celebrations or do the standard reach-out to the people most involved or most affected. But if you ponder the origins of those calendar dates, connect them to the issues that echo today, ask fresh questions and stay open to the detours that yield even better stories, that time will be well spent. And the reading public will be well-served.

Further Reading