Memorial Day 2021: The Great Reset and Tomb Guard Values

On the evening the Centers for Disease Control announced that fully vaccinated people could essentially eschew their masks indoors and out, I was in Manhattan keeping vigil with my ailing father. As I walked north on Riverside Drive after a visit to his bedside, what struck me most was the smell of smoke.

Cigarette smoke. Cigar smoke. Cannabis smoke. Big honking wafts of it.

Though these days taking smoke into one’s body has all the cachet of pellagra, unmasked people were standing in happy clusters on street corners and in building entryways, chatting, grinning, and indulging. Who could blame them? It has been a brutal year. A little self-gratification was in order. After all, the Memorial Day approaching fast will be like none other. There is so much loss to contemplate.

With the thought of that sobering holiday, and the recent publication of my nonfiction picture book Twenty-One Steps: Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (Candlewick, 2021), with luminous and stirring art by the multitalented Matt Tavares, I flashed to Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb. As I was strolling past happy expressions of freedom, the Tomb Guards at our national shrine to responsibility, sacrifice, and selflessness were keeping faithful watch, as they have done every minute of every day since midnight on July 2, 1937.

To me, the juxtaposition offers a lot of hope.

Some have characterized one aspect of the COVID-19 experience as “The Great Reset,” in the sense that the pandemic offered and offers an unexpected opportunity to stop, assess, and reimagine. For many, the reexamining is of economic, social, technological, political, and sustainability issues. Given sufficient will, policies conceived in the reset may help create a more just, caring, and compassionate world.

Part of the reset, though, may be personal. Familial. Communitarian. It’s on each of us to engage with, in an individual way. In this COVID-19 year, I believe that the upcoming Memorial Day and the meaning of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier can be catalysts to an internal reset that will make us better individuals, family members, and members of our communities.

COVID-19 has already helped me to see that when I value more, I need less.

The approaching Memorial Day will help me focus on the starkness of life and death; how both combat bullets and the coronavirus make no political distinctions when it comes to choosing victims. How luck plays a much bigger role in life than I like to acknowledge.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier reminds how millions who came before me accepted fearsome risks on behalf of our nation, including the possibility of a nameless and faceless demise. The Tomb Guards — Americans of every race, religion, and creed, male and female, and of Native nations — inspire as they find strength in responsibility, duty, and self-effacement on behalf of the Unknowns.

So, yes. You can bet I’m going to have a beer or two on Memorial Day, and watch my beloved Cubs on TV as they play in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field. But I’m also going to visit the Los Angeles National Cemetery, walk amidst the headstone markers, recall the grievous losses of wars and the year past, and reflect on my own reset. Remembering the Tomb Guards on the mat at Arlington, pacing their twenty-ones, may help that reset to stick.

Jeff Gottesfeld

Jeff Gottesfeld’s latest book for children is Twenty-One Steps: Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (Candlewick, 2021), illustrated by Matt Tavares. He is based in Los Angeles. Visit him at www.jeffgottesfeldwriter.com

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