Memorial Day, Twenty Years Later

I had a somewhat stereotypical start to Memorial Day: went outside and played basketball with my recent college graduate son. I’m as terrible as I was back in 1972, the first and last time my name appeared in the sports section of the local paper (I was fouled in a tournament game in a “Hack A Nerd” play, because nobody had ever seen my make a shot — I made both foul shots and sent the game into overtime). My shoulder (rotator cuff) and knee (arthritis) remind me that I’m slower and more cautious than the twenty-somethings, which is acceptable. But dribbling the ball, clanging it off the rim, chasing it into the backyard and providing our own Johnny Most-channeled commentary reminded me of countless days practicing on my parents’ driveway.

That highlight reel season was made more fun by one player — a relatively new kid in town who became a great athlete in high school and went on to be a Navy Seal. Steve never once criticized my playing skills, my lack of playing time, or my overall tenor as more of a student of the game rather than a player of the game. He complimented, cheered and led with the same quiet, respectful voice he used around adults. My interest in basketball waxed and waned with geography – quiet in high school, outsized while at Princeton and watching my classmates play in the NCAA tournament, excited while the Celtics were in their Bird-flight peak during my first tenure in Bean town, and finally rekindled with a little 1:1 on my own driveway – but my early lessons in how you treat teammates, or players on your team, have been invariant.

Twenty years ago Steve was killed in a search and rescue mission. He’s the only contemporary I know killed in active service. Barbecue, official start of summer, retail sales — none of them convey the solemnity of the memorial part of Memorial Day. Steve got up and did his job, every day, protecting our freedoms, our stance in the world, and our ability to enjoy every one of those calendar time markers of the season. As I wrote eight years ago, he frequently found it repetitive and grueling, but his personal comfort came second. That is, in so many ways, what it means to serve, and why we observe — not just celebrate, but mentally take note — of those who gave their lives in active service to our country.

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