More than a three-day weekend: A small movement tries to return Memorial Day to its original meaning
Leaders in Long Island, New York want people to pull their cars off the road and stop what they're doing for two county-wide moments of silence to honor fallen troops.
Nassau County, New York - just east of New York City - is home to more than 40,000 veterans, one of the highest populations in the state. While the county has traditionally commemorated Memorial Day with parades and little plastic American flags in people’s yards, county leaders have bigger plans this year.
“We're going to sound the sirens in Nassau County,” County Executive Bruce Blakeman said at a May news conference. “And we're going to ask everybody to stop what you're doing for 50 seconds at 12 noon and 6:00 p.m. — 50 seconds representing the 50 stars on our flag — and just stand at attention.”
Blakeman said firehouse alarms will blare and emergency vehicles will blast their sirens. Church bells will ring. Even buses will pull over for the two moments of silence. And he wants residents to participate, too.
“If you're driving, and it's safe, and you can get out of your car and stand at attention, I think it'd be a tremendous tribute to all of those that gave their lives for America,” he said.
Blakeman said the initiative is part of an effort to return Memorial Day to its original meaning - a somber day of memory for fallen service members.
“While we have a wonderful weekend of family and friends and barbecues and picnics and the beach and little league games and parades, sometimes we don't realize what a solemn day it is,” Blakeman said. “We forget that there were young men and women that gave their lives defending this country.”
The coordinated county-wide moments of silence might be a first for the nation according to Blakeman. He said he was inspired by a trip to Israel on its Memorial Day, where he saw residents stop whatever they were doing when the sirens sounded.
“It was very moving to me,” Blakeman said as he pulled up a video of Israeli Memorial Day, called Yom HaZikaron, on his phone. “I had chills down my back. And always in the back of my mind I was saying to myself, ‘This would be a great thing to do in America.’”
Nassau County’s effort to restore the original meaning behind Memorial Day isn’t the first. Veterans groups have for years wanted Congress to change the law that sets Memorial Day as the last Monday in May. They instead want it to always be May 30, regardless of when it falls during the week.
“It would encourage people to really think of Memorial Day as not just a three day weekend,” said John Raughter of the American Legion, “but as a day to honor the more than one million men and women who died in America’s wars since the Revolution.”
Raughter said moving the date would make the holiday feel less like a vacation.
“We don't fault anyone for enjoying some time off — many of the fallen used to partake in a lot of those family-oriented leisure activities — but we just ask that Americans reflect why they have that weekend, what it’s about,” Raughter said.
Every year, the seaside community of Long Beach on Long Island’s south shore officially opens its beaches to the public beginning Memorial Day weekend. It’s one of the busiest weekends of the year for Local Cycles, a bicycle shop blocks away from the boardwalk.
Charles Rath called the shop a “seasonal business in a seasonal town.” He said he’s been selling and repairing bikes there for about 10 years.
“Three day weekends are of course going to bring more business in because people have more leisure time,” he said.
Still, Rath said he’d support changing Memorial Day if that’s what military families prefer.
“They’re the people with the real skin in the game and their wishes and their opinions should take precedence,” Rath said. “By making it no longer a three day weekend, it's going to cut into business but then again, what's more important?”
Rath, like many people we spoke to near the beach, said he supports the county-wide plan to hold two moments of silence on Memorial Day this year.
“Anything that can emphasize the seriousness of the day is positive.”
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.