It was a black-and-white photo. My father in uniform. It sat in a frame on a tabletop. From my earliest memory, that photo was part of our family story.
"That's when dad was in the Army, right?" we kids would ask.
"The Air Force," he would say.
"The Air Force," we'd repeat.
Most of my friend's fathers had these photos, too. Man in uniform. Stripes on the arm. A hat or a helmet. Maybe a weapon.
As the oldest boy in our family, I figured one day there would be a photograph of me in my uniform. I remember in the mid-1960s, when a female cousin from New York got engaged to man in "the service." That's how our family referred to it back then. "He's in the service."
When we met him for the first time, he was wearing his uniform, a crisp, light tan outfit. His hair was cut short. He smoked cigarettes.
So this was a soldier, I thought.
And again, I figured, I would one day look like that.
In those days, which were not so long ago, soldiers were part of every family. The grandfathers and uncles had fought in World War II. The fathers had fought in Korea. The sons were going to Vietnam.
The odds of a family having personal experience with the military were pretty high. I'll bet if you went from garage to garage in my old neighborhood, you'd find some memento — a medal, an Army knife, a set of dog tags — in nearly every one.
Today, that is not the case. Today, the houses with soldier stories are limited. Frequently, they are in the working-class areas. Often they are in poor and minority areas. You can't drive through chic neighborhoods in the suburbs and expect to find many folks talking about their kids being "shipped overseas," code words in our day for a soldier's duty.
And so for the general population, Memorial Day, which is today, becomes more and more about wars past and less and less about those fighting today. The families with members in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere are clustered in certain sections of the country.
And while most Americans have an opinion on the latest war — and Lord knows we get polled enough about it — the majority of us are not living in fear of a phone call or a telegram with the worst kind of news.
Think about how the nature of military service has changed since the 1940s. Back then, kids lied about their age to sign up. They fought with passion. Their safe return home was the stuff of Hollywood movies. The pride in a soldier — both his own and his family's — was tangible.
We moved to the 1960s, where war touched every home, but not always with pride. Young men often tried to defer their service, or find loopholes out of it. Soldiers returning from Vietnam were not hailed. At times, they were hooted.
Then came the all-volunteer military, which is now our norm. Some join this military to fight the bad guys. Some do it for opportunity or money. And some of them have to listen to their actions questioned and criticized by everyone from their neighbors to talk radio.
What we all need to remember is, no matter what the politics or where the war takes place, fighting in the name of your country is always a sacrifice, and, when it comes to the soldiers themselves, nearly always a noble one.
So when a soldier is lost, yesterday, today or tomorrow, he or she should be honored and mourned. That is what Memorial Day is about. Not hot dogs. Not charcoal. It's about the line that connects all those photos that sit on tabletops and mantles, the best and the bravest, and the ones who never came back.