In the dream, it is always the same; always different. Bits. Pieces. It is dawn; the world a drizzly gray; a wet, dripping green. Angry clouds kiss the mud. The smells. Fuel - rainbows of it swirling in puddles - and cigarettes and dead stuff. I'm chilled. A crew chief sprints toward a helicopter already in its whiney wake-up dance, its blades starting their slow, methodical arc. Whup-whup-whup.
He points off to the mountains as he runs by. "Look!" he yells. "Look!" I do. I see nothing at first. But, then, in a fly speck of a hole up high, I think I see it: A smear of red, a blink of white. I know what it is. It's that flag.
Guys on a mountaintop observation post out there had swiped a huge American garrison flag from someplace and raised it over their God-forsaken, backyard-size piece of mountaintop real estate - despite regulations forbidding it and much to their commander's chagrin. In the distance, that dirty piece of cloth is peeking through the mist. "We are still here," it seems to be saying.
It is a miracle. Aren't they dead? After hours of determined attacks and iffy radio contact and constant artillery barrages and hand-to-hand fighting, some of them are hanging on. Most of the guys on the ravaged post are dead or wounded but, despite the torrents and clouds, help finally is on the way for the remaining handful.
But in the dream, we cannot get there, no matter how hard we try. Generally, I pop awake, sweating, just before we would touch down. The dream is a nightmare; reality was worse.
Tomorrow is Memorial Day, a day when I start thinking about those guys and the rest, the friends and brothers who died serving their country on tiny hilltops with strange names like Siberia or Hawk Hill or East, or in places like Kham Duc or the Song Tran River Valley. Some places where they died - the countless mountainsides, swamps and rice paddies -- had no names and were just pinholes in a rumpled map. Names on The Wall. Stories, more than 58,000 of them, fading fast.
This nation has a long line of ghosts stretching back to its earliest days. Bunker Hill. The Battle of Long Island. Yorktown. Gettysburg. Normandy. Midway. Guadalcanal. Iwo Jima. Luzon. The Bulge. Inchon. The Chosin Reservoir. And now, Fallujah, Najaf, Karbala, Nasiriyah and Kandahar. Then, there are the countless, often nameless, other trails and stream crossings and ridges where Americans have died.
Tomorrow, the last Monday in May, is Memorial Day, a day now to celebrate the beginning of summer, to get out the lawn furniture and the grill and the camping and fishing gear. It's hot dogs and hamburgers and beer and potato salad. But it also should be a day to remember and honor our war dead.
Nobody is sure who first came up with the idea of Memorial Day or where it started, although a long list of cities claim the honor. First called Decoration Day -- women's groups in the South were decorating Confederate graves before Civil War cannons were silent -- and it officially was recognized by Grand Army of the Republic Gen. John Logan on May 5, 1868. On that day, flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate war dead alike at Arlington National Cemetery.
Nowadays, the crack 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment places small American flags on the more than 260,000 white gravestones in neat lines on Arlington's 624 square acres the Thursday before Memorial Day, and at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
It is difficult for me not to choke up even looking at pictures of those rows of white. It could be my getting old and soft, I suppose, like clouding up when I see an American flag flying or hear the Star Spangled Banner. But I think it is because with age comes the understanding of what each of those markers truly represents.
In a nation where service is not required, where duty, honor and country largely are just words, Memorial Day is a reminder that we owe a debt to those who gave their lives for this nation. A good place to honor them is at the Annual Memorial Day service at the Fort Richardson National Cemetery, beginning at 12 p.m.
Perhaps we can pray for a day when that long ghostly line will end.
Paul Jenkins is editor of the AnchorageDailyPlanet.com.