This past week, as I prepared our church bulletin, I included a couple of photos I had taken at Holten Cemetery in The Netherlands. Many of our seniors were born in Holland and have personal memories of the Liberation. They would appreciate the homage to Remembrance Day. But I also hoped the photos would catch the attention of the kids in the congregation, a visual catalyst for a teachable moment. One picture highlights a single stunning yellow rose at the foot of a white headstone. If you look carefully, the partially-hidden inscription says, “At the going down of the sun… we will remember them.” The other photo is a wide-angled shot of several rows of white headstones, each with a maple leaf prominently displayed in the centre of a circle. Vibrant red roses wave their billowy colour in the foreground offering a perpetual salute to the fallen.
I needed a caption, so I typed: “Freedom is not free”. I had to think for a moment where the phrase originated. Then I remembered – The Korean Veterans War Memorial in Washington, DC. Mark and I toured the National Mall last year and spent some time viewing the War Memorials there. The WWII Memorial is a pristine white circle, appropriately symbolic of its global impact. The Freedom Wall within the Memorial is embedded with 4048 gold stars, each one representing 100 American service personnel who died in WWII or are listed as missing. The Memorial has a classical elegance with the bubbly sounds of the spraying fountain muting extraneous noises.
The Viet Nam Memorial evokes a sombre mood with its sinuous low profile and dark polish. A hushed respect was palpable as you moved closer to this monument. The bits and pieces of ribbon, medals, and notes left on the ground were telling… this conflict was not so long ago.
The Korean War Memorial was the one that has stayed with me, though. I didn’t even know it existed. No preconceptions meant I was completely open to its power. My first sight of the memorial was a low wall of shimmering stone with the words “Freedom Is Not Free” strongly cut and visible from a distance. Sunlight reflected from a pool of water beside the wall. The curt truth seemed lit from all angles.
As you walk closer to the Memorial, mature trees both screen and enclose a mound. You enter the space and suddenly you are on a small rise of land in Korea. Your comrades are with you, leaning forward, moving grimly up the hill. The nineteen statues are life-sized and the faces are exquisitely rendered with fatigue, determination, and courage. One of the soldiers is positioned so that he looks directly at you, willing you to go on with him, wordlessly promising that he will be at your side.
The Memorial also features a second glossy granite wall with faces shimmering on the surface. I have absolutely no idea how the artist achieved this stunning holographic effect. As you look at the wall, hundreds of faces seem to rise up out of the stone, and look directly at you. As you look at the faces, it suddenly dawns on you again that you are there, too, with them. Your own face is reflected back at you, and blends in, just one of the many.
The genius of that particular memorial was the way it pulled you into that time and place so effortlessly. I was on the battlefield. I was forging ahead with my comrades. I was one of the many whose lives were jettisoned out of the ordinary into war. For the briefest moment the cost of freedom was personal. I was there.
A concrete retaining wall encircles the Korean War Memorial inscribed with the names of countries who offered their soldiers and their hearts to the cause of freedom. Even that unassuming wall of bricks touched me. Countries like Canada and Belgium and Australia banded together, not one greater than another, each name uniformly engraved with the same size and lettering. On another stone these words: “Our nation honours her sons and daughters who answered the call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met. 1950 -1953.”
Fast forward to the present. Like so many churches in communities everywhere, our local church has a sign which seeks to reach out with a pithy comment to passing motorists. My mom and stepfather are the volunteers in charge of the sign. When my mom asked me if I had any suggestion for Remembrance Day, my response was immediate: “Freedom Is Not Free.”
On a church sign, doubly profound.