Something unfortunate has happened in America in recent decades: The true meaning of an important national holiday has been all but forgotten—obscured in the collective consciousness by barbecues, outdoor concerts, and unnecessarily long car races and golf tournaments. It isn’t too late to remember why Congress enacted Section 116 of Title 36 of the United States Code, though... to recall the reason why government employees—and most laypersons (and schoolchildren) as well—get to not go to work (or school). This last Monday in May, then, perhaps each of us can make a genuine effort to put the “Memo” back into Memorial Day.
As every schoolchild knows—or should be taught (and this will be on the final exam, and maybe even the PSAT)—Memorial Day (formerly known as “Dictation Day”) originated immediately after the American Civil War to commemorate the particular usefulness of memos to the military. Both sides: the Blue and the Gray; indeed, one of the very first Civil War memos issued, by Confederate States Army General P.G.T. Beauregard, informed the hundreds of thousands of troops and officers under his command that “Gray” would be spelled with an -a- (the manly, American way), and not an -e- (the fey, English style).
When the Civil War was already underway, on January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln, using his war powers, issued the Emancipation Pronouncement, which—as every schoolchild knows—did not itself outlaw slavery. Rather, the Emancipation Pronouncement was more of a reminder to Lincoln to push for passage of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would abolish slavery in America. (For this reason it is possibly the most famous “note to self” since the first epistle of Paul the apostle to Paul the apostle—whence “re-clean the glass; for it is still too darkly”.) Rejected names for the Emancipation Pronouncement include the “Liberation Recommendation,” the “Manumission Suggestion,” and the “Lincoln Memento.”
Of course, one of the best-known memos in all of American history is Lincoln’s Gettysburg Announcement, a document central to the consecration of a National Cemetery. The text of the brief, handwritten memo (posted on a kiosk just outside the main entrance to the graveyard by the President himself, using his powers as Cemeterian in Chief) begins with these enduring words, quotable by any schoolchild:
TO: All Visitors FROM: A. Lincoln RE: Hours DATE: November 19, 1863
The cemetery will be open to the public each weekday between four score ante meridiem and seven post meridiem (4:20 a.m. - 7 p.m.).
Regrettably—and ironically—however, the meaning of Memorial Day is being forgotten. Today, when the fifth month of the Western calendar comes to a close, the mens populi is seldom on interdepartmental communications... unless they concern such matters of fleeting interest as summer dress codes, vacation policies, cleaning of the break room refrigerator, etc. If the U.S.A. is to return to its former glory—the height of which it enjoyed in 1865, as every schoolchild knows—then we, the People, must remember to remind ourselves of more important things, including the importance of memos... in all facets of our daily lives.
For the memo is not just for the battlefield and the workplace. Memos have their places on the sports fields, at the beach, in the home, and, yes, even in houses of worship. Remember the Alamo, but also remember to serve the apple pie a la mode. Remember the Maine, but also Remember the Titans. Remember to sign your timesheets, but also don’t forget to breathe. And don’t ever be ashamed to write yourself a formal reminder if you need one. Memos make this country great. God Bless the United States of A-me-mo-ri-ca!
In future rants, we’ll address keeping the dance out of Independence Day and putting the Friday back into Friday the 13th.
Matthew David Brozik wrote this and many other short humor pieces, which have been published in print and online by The New Yorker, Adult Swim, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Grin & Tonic, The Big Jewel, and no one.