Sunday, May 24, 2009

Radio Memories: The Shadow Of War

This is Memorial Day weekend for our American neighbors, a day marked as a tribute to an ever-widening circle of individuals. At its inception, Memorial Day was intended as a day to remember the sacrifice of those servicemen who fought for the Union during America’s bloody War between the States, the US Civil War.

As other conflicts arose the day was expanded in meaning, to its present embrace of the memory of all who gave their lives for the noble cause of American freedom.

I think there’s another side to Memorial Day that emerges with a study of its history; it is a day to express not just gratitude, but forgiveness, as well. After all, the day started as an acknowledgment of Union troops who fell in battle against fellow Americans who fought for the Confederate States of America. What must the celebrations of Memorial Day have been like, for the first several decades of its existence?

Reading some of the ceremonial Memorial Day speeches given by US Presidents in the time before our own, we see that the attempts to live with the nation's past cast a difficult shadow for longer than we may think. When President Coolidge, for example, traveled to the decisive battlefield of Gettysburg to deliver his 1925 Memorial Day address there, 60 years after the end of the Civil War, he carefully invoked Theodore O’Hara’s mournful poem, “The Bivouac Of The Dead”, in his opening remarks, despite the wartime experience of its composer: an officer who fought for the Confederacy.

(The elegy is also quoted at Arlington National Cemetery, and as in Coolidge’s speech, the author goes uncredited, his wartime choices tactfully unacknowledged.)

On that May afternoon there were undoubtedly living veterans from both sides of the conflict in the audience. What must that day have meant to them?

13 years later, on the 75th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, an even larger-scale event took place, reuniting 2,000 surviving veterans of the blue and the gray. It’s said that at the planned re-enactment of Pickett’s Charge, the octogenarian (and older) rebs followed their cue and ceremoniously moved across the field, just as some of them had done all those years before. A different reaction greeted them this time: their former opponents in blue were so affected by the sight, and the memory, before them that a great cry arose from their souls and they spontaneously rushed towards the oncoming veterans to deliver an unplanned embrace. No choreographed gesture could more clearly establish that they were enemies no longer.

What happened between 1863 and that day in 1938? What happens between the heartbeats of history that teaches one soul to find forgiveness for that which has been done against it by another? Given the limitations of the human spirit, it seems hard enough to remember to express gratitude for the sacrifice of others; how much harder still is it to remember how to forgive those who cause us to mourn those sacrifices... and in so doing, keep faith in the possibility of peace.

This challenge is the theme we explore in today’s Radio Memories post.

Every Sunday we pause from listening to current events and instead lend an ear to the gone-but-not-forgotten echoes of radio drama, the dearly-departed theater of the mind.

On offer this week: a broadcast from the twilight years of radio drama, from a time when the medium's popularity had been completely eclipsed by the novelty of television. The series is called Frontier Gentleman, one of the last radio westerns; the episode is entitled “Gambling Lady”, originally aired Sunday afternoon, June 29, 1958.

Even though the audiences were no longer there, the production quality of radio drama reached its peak right at its final curtain call. Series like The Frontier Gentleman saw a blend of vivid sound effects, stirring acting and nuanced writing that, for this listener, makes it hard to imagine it's merely a group of actors and hurried technicians huddled around a microphone... it's much easier to let ourselves get swept away by the sound cues, and conjure up dusty western towns, embittered and embattled frontiersmen, all trying to escape from the shadow of war.

Rest on embalmed and sainted dead!
Dear as the blood ye gave;
No impious footstep shall here tread
The herbage of your grave;
Nor shall your glory be forgot
While fame her records keeps,
Or Honor points the hallowed spot
Where Valor proudly sleeps.

Yon marble minstrel's voiceless stone
In deathless song shall tell,
When many a vanquished age hath flown,
The story how ye fell.
Nor wreck, nor change, nor winter's blight,
Nor time's remorseless doom,
Shall dim one ray of glory's light
That gilds your deathless tomb.
__"Bivouac Of The Dead", Theodore O'Hara (1820-1873)

Previous Radio Memories posts:

Information Please: Guests Walter Duranty and John Gunther
The Aldrich Family: Cleaning The Furnace
Tom Mix, Terry and the Pirates VE Day broadcasts from May 8 1945
You Are There: The Capture Of John Wilkes Booth
Fort Laramie: War Correspondent
CBS Radio Workshop: Son Of Man
Great Gildersleeve: Easter Rabbits
Dimension X: Time And Time Again
An American In England: Women Of Britain
Cavalcade Of America: Bob Hope Reports
The March Of Time: Feb 10 1938 broadcast
Hear It Now: Coming Home From The Korean War
Escape: Vanishing Lady
Rogers Of The Gazette: Rewinding The Town Clock


Dag said...

That embrace, Charles, like Gilgamesh and Enkidu, is why we are a nation worth sacrificing for.

Internet Marketing said...

Thanks for sharing your insight. Many think of Memorial Day as the open of summer when it should be seen as a day of rememberance. God bless all of those who have given their lives and all who continue to fight for our freedom.

Dag said...

Charles' post makes me think for the first time in a positive way about Mothers' Day. I've always taken it as an excuse for card shops to flog nonsense for a day. Now I see it as akin to Memorial Day: a day to thank people for giving life.

Charles Henry said...

Thanks I.M.

I was surprised to learn this weekend that, originally, Memorial Day always fell on May 30, no matter where it fell in the calendar.

Then in 1967, Congress passed a law that shifted three holidays around so that they could conveniently form 3-day holiday weekends.

Astonishingly, Veteran's Day (for us in Canada, Remembrance Day) was one of the other two. (President's Day, a demolished version of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington's birthdays, was the third)

They moved Veteran's Day back to its rightful, historical place. May they one day do the same for Memorial Day, because otherwise, it will likely remain only a holiday, not a holy day.

Charles Henry said...

" matter where it fell in the calendar..

oops: obviously May 30 would always fall on May 30..!

I meant in regards to days of the week...