Why Do We Celebrate Memorial Day?

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When baby boomers were growing up, Memorial Day was always celebrated on May 30th. In my town, the celebration started with a parade, that frequently included military personnel, both active duty and veterans. The parade wound up in the town’s Memorial Park where those who have died in military service were appropriately and solemnly honored. Afterwards, many of us gathered around a radio to listen to the broadcast of the Indianapolis 500 while others attended family picnics. There was always something to do at the local Veteran’s of Foreign War (VFW) post or the American Legion post. Hopefully, winter was gone and warm temperatures were on the horizon. We were kids.

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Now, baby boomers are adults and many are senior citizens. Many of my friends and I share the perspective that Memorial Day is another of the many American holidays that have become highly commercialized. My goal is not to get opinionated or political in this blog, but I am going to give all of you something you can share with your children and grandchildren about how it was when we were their age. Please remember how it used to be.

This is the real meaning of the holiday (as posted on time.com, Tessa Berenson, May 23, 2015)

It’s easy to forget what Memorial Day actually means while you’re sitting by the pool and looking ahead at summer vacation—but the day signifies much more than just a three-day weekend.

Memorial Day is a solemn day of remembrance for everyone who has died serving in the American armed forces. The holiday, originally known as Decoration Day, started after the Civil War to honor the Union and Confederate dead.

It’s unclear exactly where the holiday originated—Charleston, S.C., Waterloo, N.Y., Columbus, Ga. and other towns all claim to be the birthplace of the holiday. The event in Charleston that may have precipitated the holiday offers poignant evidence of a country struggling to rebuild itself after a bloody war: 257 Union soldiers died in prison in Charleston during the Civil War and were buried in unmarked graves, and the town’s black residents organized a May Day ceremony in which they landscaped a burial ground to properly honor the soldiers.

In the years following the Civil War, Memorial Day celebrations were scattered and, perhaps unsurprisingly, took root differently in the North and South. It wasn’t until after World War II that the holiday gained a strong following and national identity, and it wasn’t officially named Memorial Day until 1967.

The final event that cemented the modern culture of Memorial Day in America was in 1968 when Congress passed the Uniform Holiday Act, designating Memorial Day as the last Monday in May rather than May 30, as it had previously been observed. This ensured a three-day weekend and gave the day its current status as the unofficial beginning of summer, mixing serious reflection with more lighthearted fun.

Amusement Park Games a/k/a the “Penny Arcade”

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I’ve previously written about amusement parks, focusing on the rides. The rides were only part of the fun times baby boomers and their families had at the park. In addition to the amazing food (almost exclusively junk, but the best tasting junk on earth) some parks also had swimming pools to enjoy. My parents liked playing bingo, but it was a little slow for me. I liked spending time in the penny arcade even though nothing ever cost a penny.

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There’s not a lot of research published about the penny arcade games that provided anything more than we already knew. I did however discover that Americans consume seven billion hot dogs between Memorial Day and Labor Day. The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions provided that information.

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Amusement park games were “pay per play ” games of chance (not skill?). They cost between from a nickel to a quarter to play depending on the game. Most offered a small prize or tickets that could be accumulated to win larger prizes. The first popular arcade games were shooting galleries, ball toss games, and early coin-operated machines, like fortune-tellers and mechanical music players.

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As I reported in my earlier blog, the parks were in decline at the end of the 1940s due to the cumulative effects of the Great Depression and World War II. When we baby boomers exploded on the scene, the remaining amusement parks rode the boomer wave, and the arcade games kept pace.

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There were two terrific amusement parks near where I grew up in central Pennsylvania, and sadly, only one is still operating. About four years ago, I stumbled into an antique store in Duncannon, PA that occupied a two block long factory where Lightening Glider sleds were produced starting in 1904. Sled production ended in 1988 and the factory officially closed in late 1990. In April 1991, the buildings reopened as the Old Sled Works with 125 antique and craft vendors, a sled museum and a working penny arcade with many of the same games that I played at Knoebel’s Grove or Rolling Green.

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My “helpers,” Judi and Judy, visited that arcade to escape from the February snow, and took the photos I’m sharing in this blog. Please enjoy Judy’s photographic artistry with the games we played.

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