Jet fighter pilot Charles Plum had flown 75 combat missions during the Vietnam War, when his plane was destroyed by a surface-to-air missile. Plum ejected safely, but was captured by the North Vietnamese and endured six years in a Communist prison camp.
In his lectures about that experience, Plum often shares an incident in which a man approached him and his wife in a restaurant.
“You’re Plum!” the man exclaimed. “You flew jet fighters in Vietnam off the aircraft carrier, Kitty Hawk. You were shot down!”
“How in the world did you know that?” asked Plum.
“I packed your parachute,” the man replied. “I guess it worked!”
“It sure did,” Plum said. “If your chute hadn’t worked, I wouldn’t be here today.”
That night, Plum couldn’t sleep. How many times, he wondered, had he passed that man on the ship and not even said good morning, ignoring him because he was “just a sailor,” not a fellow pilot. And yet, with each parachute he packed, that man held in his hands the fate of the person who would wear it.
On this Memorial Day, we, as a nation, pause to remember and honor those women and men who have served and sacrificed in the US Armed Forces. These are people who have “packed our parachutes,” so to speak, and today we are called to take notice and give thanks for their service.
Formerly known as Decoration Day, Memorial Day originated after the American Civil War to commemorate the fallen Union soldiers of the Civil War (southern ladies’ organizations and southern school children had decorated Confederate graves during the Civil War, but each region had its own date.) By the 20th century, Memorial Day had extended to honor all Americans who had died in all wars.
Today, Memorial Day has been extended even further. For many of us, it has become an occasion for more general expressions of memory, as we visit the graves of our deceased family members and friends, whether they have served in the military or not. For others, it has become a long weekend, devoted to family gatherings, picnics, shopping, and the Indy 500. Although all of these have significance, I hope we don’t lose sight of the intended purpose of this day.
Having had a cousin killed in the Vietnam War, and a brother who served there as well, and was “booed” when he and his fellow soldiers returned home, I’ve come to know firsthand the importance of remembering, honoring, and thanking. However one may feel about war in general, or a specific war, those who have sacrificed and served deserve our respect and tribute.
Please join me in honoring those who have sacrificed and served our nation in our armed forces by seeking to be a maker of peace in your everyday life. And may we never forget all those who, in any way, have “packed our parachutes.”