When I was in high school (way back in the day) my English class used a text book called The Best Loved Poems of the American People. They were selected by Hazel Felleman and printed by Doubleday & Company in 1936. Felleman says in her preface that she compiled the collection through her own insights garnered from her work at The New York Times Book Review where she was editor of the Q & A page.
I have always kept that book and find it a good source for poetry with different subject matters. It has chapters as diverse as love, inspiration, humor and today’s subject: Patriotism and War. This Memorial Day, I find this poem by entertainer extraordinaire Billy Rose (1899 – 1966) particularly moving and apropos.
The Unknown Soldier
by Billy Rose
There’s a graveyard near the White House
Where the Unknown Soldier lies,
And the flowers there are sprinkled
With the tears from mother’s eyes.
I stood there not so long ago
With roses for the brave,
And suddenly I heard a voice
Speak from out the grave:
“I am the Unknown Soldier,
The spirit voice began
“And I think I have the right
To ask some questions man to man.
“Are my buddies taken care of?
Was their victory so sweet?
Is that big reward you offered
Selling pencils on the street?
“Did they really win the freedom
They battled to achieve?
Do you still respect that Croix de Guerre
Above that empty sleeve?
“Does a gold star in the window
Now mean anything at all?
I wonder how my old girl feels
When she hears a bugle call.
“And that baby who sang
Hello, Central, give me no man’s land.
Can they replace her daddy
With a military band?
“I wonder if the profiteers
Have satisfied their greed?
I wonder if a soldier’s mother
Ever is in need?
“I wonder if the kings, who planned it all
Are really satisfied?
They played their game of checkers
And eleven million died.
“I am the Unknown Soldier
And maybe I died in vain,
But if I were alive and my country called,
I’d do it all over again.
About Memorial Day
- Its year of origin is still disputed between 1862 and 1868
- Some say that General John A. Logan, leader of Northern Civil War veterans, requested on May 5, 1862 that May 30th (which was not an anniversary of any particular battle) be designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.” Logan called it Decoration Day. (I remember when it was called decoration day.)
- Others say it began when Waterloo, New York began a yearly remembrance on May 5, 1866. Annually, Waterloo businesses closed and citizens paid tribute to dead soldiers by decorating their graves with flags and flowers.
- Originally the holiday was to honor Civil War casualties but now includes heroes from all US wars.
- In 1968 Congress made Memorial Day a federal holiday and declared the official date to be the last Monday in May (took effect in 1971).
- At Arlington more than 260,000 gravestones and about 7,300 niches are decorated by soldiers. Additionally 13,500 flags are placed at the Soldier’s and Airmen’s Cemetery. The 3rd U.S. Infantry requires about three hours for placement of all the flags. The Soldiers remain for the whole Memorial Day weekend to ensure all flags remain in place.
About Billy Rose
- Rose lived from 1899 to 1966.
- Rose was born William Samuel Rosenberg.
- Rose became famous as a songwriter and lyricist.
- Rose wrote or co-wrote “Me and My Shadow,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon” (with E. Y. Harburg) and “Does the Spearmint Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight” ((with Marty Bloom).
- Rose was married to Fanny Brice.
- He was portrayed by James Caan in the movie Funny Lady, a sequel to Funny Girl.