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Memorial Day will be difficult this year without ‘Sweetie’

A soldier from 3rd US Infantry Regiment 'The Old Guard' places flags grave sites during 'Flags-In' ceremony ArlingtNational Cemetery ArlingtVirginiMay

A soldier from the 3rd US Infantry Regiment, 'The Old Guard,' places flags at grave sites during the 'Flags-In' ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, on May 22, 2014. A US American flag was placed one foot in front of more than 220,000 graves in the cemetery to mark the Memorial Day. AFP PHOTO/Jewel Samad (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

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LOS ANGELES — For many years, my dad and I had a ritual. Or rather, I had a ritual, I suppose.

Every Memorial Day, I would see ‘‘Sweetie’’ or call him on the phone, after he and my mom retired to Texas, and I would say, “How’s the old bomber pilot doing?’’

He’d laugh and say something like, “All clear for takeoff!’’

Memorial Day began as a day to honor Union and Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War. In time, it expanded to include all Americans who died while in military service.

My dad made it through World War II, wherein he piloted a Mitchell bomber in Europe, but he lost pals, and he saw some bad stuff. But he never complained, and to us kids he made most note of the hilarious and absurd side of the mass assemblage of young men in a foreign war, doing what young men will do.

For instance, members of his squadron would fly empty bombers from southern Italy up to Rome for R&R, the massive planes piloted by insane, immortal 22-year-olds who, under other circumstances, would have been at beach parties.

“Honest to God, Rick,’’ ‘‘Sweetie’’ would say, unable to suppress his laughter, “some of those guys would fly so low over rivers and buzz little fishing boats that they’d make the fishermen jump overboard.’’

Of course, Memorial Day is serious. Whatever a nation is, it owes to those who died for its existence.

Maybe we forget some of that now that the conscription army is gone, and our military is made up of men and women who signed on voluntarily, in many cases to use the service as a paying career.

There are those, too, who lament the infusion of a “warrior culture’’ into mainstream aspects of American life. The connection between professional sport and the military — particularly the NFL, which seems to have a corporate logo sprung from the design room at the Pentagon and which turns its pregame rituals into quasi-martial displays — is a curious one.

Yet this Blackhawks-Kings game Monday night at Staples Center will begin with a patriotic salute and a stirring rendition of the national anthem, and it will be appropriate. At the United Center, singer Jim Cornelison’s bellowing of ‘‘The Star-Spangled Banner’’ before Hawks games has become so much of a raucous tradition that people might think it mainly has to do with scaring opposing teams half to death.

But Memorial Day makes a point.

Yes, it’s the unofficial start of summer.

Yes, it’s a federal holiday, and there’s nothing wrong with being lost in the fumes of a backyard barbecue.

But people have served and died for our country. And it would be tragic to forget them.

‘‘Sweetie’’ died last August at 92, and every first holiday without him has been hard. Thanksgiving, Christmas, his birthday. And, coming soon enough, Father’s Day in June. That’ll be very rough. But this Memorial Day is shaping up as the toughest so far for me. Because of our ritual. Because of my ritual.

“Got the squirrel gun ready?’’ I’d ask.

“Yep, got it loaded with rocks and buttons,’’ he’d reply. ‘‘Sittin’ on my lap.’’

“The rules about the cannon?

“Always keep your powder dry.’’

We’d go on like that, and at the end I would say, though it was hard for me because men don’t like to get sentimental, ‘‘Thank you, ‘Sweetie.’ Thank you for your service.’’

And I would ask him again to repeat the greatest send-off a pilot could have, flying into the great blue yonder.

“CAVU,’’ Dad would say. “Ceiling and visibility unlimited.’’

To all you departed veterans: CAVU.



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