I work in the oil industry, a trade that knows no pause and affords little sleep. Rugged men wake up each morning and enter into a taxing daily grind on oilrigs, in pipe yards, and at secluded corporate outposts on large mesquite-ridden plots of land. With all the tiresome hours these individuals end up putting in, they cherish their off time as much as their large paychecks.
With Memorial Day approaching, the buzz around our company seems to be purely focused on our elongated weekend plans. The majority of them seem dead set on joining the rest of the country in Memorial Day traditions: bringing the family to the lake, a barbeque with friends, or an extra evening of debauchery at the local watering hole. But America needs to keep moving, so I’ve found myself as one of the few employees coming in to work over the weekend.
Recently—while hauling some equipment to a pump jack—one of my coworkers said, “Man, I can’t believe they’re making you of all people work on Memorial Day.”
I found myself perplexed by his statement. “What do you mean me of all people?”
“Weren’t you in the Army?”
“You shouldn’t have to work if you were in the military.”
“It’s just another day to me.”
The conversation ended there. I don’t know if he was taken aback by response or if he understood what I meant by it, but he definitely knew I was perfectly fine with showing up to work Memorial Day weekend.
Why don’t I care if I work Memorial Day? It’s a very easy question with a complicated answer. I’ll make my response as easy as possible.
The reason why I don’t put a lot of thought into Memorial Day is because every day is Memorial Day to me. Every single day. I don’t need a day off of work to think of the men I knew who lost their lives in Iraq. I think about them from the time I stumble into the bathroom in the morning until the time I stumble into bed after a hard day’s work. I think of them during those lulls in work. I think about all the men and women who lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan when I’m driving home and hear about another casualty on the radio. I think about those of every generation who lost their lives in conflict when I open up the paper and see that little American flag next to a name in the obituaries. I think about my grandfather, who lost his life in the Pacific during WWII, when my father sends me his have a great day text every morning—he never knew his father like I know mine.
I knew some of these people well while others were mere acquaintances. The majority of them are strangers. But they’re all extraordinary individuals. Not just names on a wall or a grave marker. Every single one of them has a story. Every single one of them lived their own unique life. And every single one of them had their own unique death. Most of all, every single one of them left behind people who loved them dearly.
A few months ago, I was standing outside of a Mexican food restaurant in West Texas with two special couples. Both of the men—a cop and a cowboy—were guys I knew from the Marine Corps. The five of us were waiting for the arrival of another couple, two retirees who saved up all their hard earned cash to live on the road in their brand new trailer—accompanied by a loyal Australian Sheppard who rode in the middle seat.
The two couples I was with had already spent some time with the retirees in the past, but this was a much anticipated reunion. When their large truck pulled into the parking lot, long hugs ensued between these six individuals. The husband was a tall man with a long ponytail and mountain man-like beard. The wife looked as if she could have been any western mother out of a Rockwell painting. For me, it was my first time meeting them. I was immediately struck by their natural friendliness and enormous smiles when they came to shake my hand.
During our meal, we gladly listened to their stories about their travels around the United States and how big their little granddaughter was getting. This was a large table of laughter and contentment. Then the inevitable happened. The subject that every single person there was connected to came up.
“It’s still hard,” the woman retiree said as she choked back some tears. “He’s always on my mind.”
What bonded this table together was the loss of another, the son of the retirees. The cowboy, the cop and I had all served with him at one point, the cowboy being the last one to see him alive as he exited this earth from a murky street in Fallujah, Iraq. With that loss eight years ago, a new friendship was born.
What started out as a one week visit turned into a three week gathering that saw much laughter… and tears. Other former comrades of the fallen Marine came from all over Texas to meet the parents of the friend they once new. Just like my first encounter with them, the initial demeanor of these men would be a little awkward, and every time, the retirees would break the ice with their charming openness. Awkwardness quickly turned into a level of familiarity that only good friends shared.
The majority of that time saw new relationships being forged and a joyous outlook of the future. But there was a night when the inevitable came back in a larger force than the first night at the Mexican restaurant.
At two in the morning at a secluded ranch house in West Texas, the cowboy sat on a bench with his head down, facing the mother of his fallen friend as he struggled to mutter two words. It’s as if eight years of resistance was being forced from his lips.
Tears from every single person witnessing it. As the cowboy—a man hardened from war—sat in obvious pain, it was the woman who lost her oldest son that went to him and calmed his vulnerability.
I went to Iraq three times; however, I’ve never witnessed strength like that before.
Those retirees are the most courageous people I’ve ever met in my life. They go through life accompanied with a tremendous sting and they epitomize the true meaning of Memorial Day.
Later on in the night, as all of us were letting out those pent up feelings of hurt, the cop openly said, “I can’t go every single day dying for my brothers, because I owe it to them to live for them… for what they did for me.
On this Memorial Day, I’ll simply be going to work on a Monday and making my wages for the day. It’s the most normal thing I can think of. I’ll think about the ones we lost on that day. And the next.