Outlaw Reflections: Memorial Day, “Black Granite”

Outlaw Reflections: Memorial Day, “Black Granite”

Memorial Day is a federal holiday, first first widely observed May 1868. The celebration commemorated the sacrifices of soldiers during the Civil War. Following the proclamation, participants decorated graves of more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers. In years since World War I, the day has become a celebration of those who died while serving in the country’s armed forces, as well as those who are veterans and current members of the U.S. military. In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday. The United States celebrates this holiday the last Monday of May.

Memorial Weekend in Telluride rhymes with Mountainfilm, an event dedicated to celebrating indomitable spirit and turning thoughts into actions to preserve and protect endangered species and ideas. Seems appropriate, no?

The following is a story by Oleh Lysiak, writer-artist-veteran in honor of the holiday. But Oleh’s is not a flag-waving rant, more a cautionary tale and an injunction to remember those who can no longer speak for themselves.

Arlington National Cemetery

Arlington National Cemetary


We have shared a difference of opinion for nearly 50 years.

Robin Luketina and I met in the summer of 1968. He was a war-hardened professional soldier, a Special Forces Lt. Colonel, and my first boss in the US Army. I was a recent journalism graduate of an eastern university, a liberal, and an ROTC Second Lieutenant.

After three tours in Vietnam, Robin was assigned to the US Army School, Europe, in Oberammergau, Bavaria, as Public Affairs Officer. I was there to replace him. Our differences were obvious although they never got in the way of our becoming friends.

We continue to understand that differences of opinion serve as intellectual and emotional fuel in working out ideas.

Robin served another tour in Vietnam. I took over as public affairs officer of the school. After he retired and I was discharged, we met in Washington, DC. He was in law school; I was a Renaissance Faires roadie in California. Our differences of opinion continued. We remained friends.

Next time we met Robin was chief counsel for a Michigan congressman and I was an outlaw. We visited the Pentagon together for a ceremony after Robin’s son was killed in Grenada. A few years later Robin was managing partner in a law firm specializing in divorces and I was writing for a southwestern Colorado weekly.

Robin accused me of being a reporter, part of a profession that never gets it right. I accused him of being a slimeball lawyer who’ll do anything for money, who gets paid to lie.

He reminded me of ruined careers of politicians, who he claims were good, honest, God-fearing folk. I reminded him of Richard Nixon and Richard Daly. The expression of our disagreements was heated and appreciably louder than when we started. Fortunately we ran out of time, laughed and went to lunch where necessity dictated we behave ourselves. Robin’s wife stands for no foolishness. She insisted Robin put the “machinegun” he’d been showing off back in the basement where it belongs. It was actually a compact 9mm semi-automatic assault rifle, but I wasn’t about to argue the point with either of them.

Fortunately, Robin didn’t remind me again “after you’ve killed a couple thousand people, two or three more don’t make much difference.” He loves to throw outrageous stuff like that into a conversation to throw me off stride. I’m used to it.

This time in Washington I wanted to visit the Vietnam War Memorial. I’d been avoiding it, but it was time. I wasn’t prepared for the impact The Wall would have.

The memorial is made of black granite with the names of those who died in that war engraved on black polished granite below the line of the horizon.

Vietnam Memorial, Washington, D.C.

Vietnam Memorial, Washington, D.C.

A slim black triangle engaged my attention as I descended into the memorial. An engraved name appeared above the incline of the path. More and more and more names of American sons, daughters, brothers, fathers, uncles, appeared until the black stone tablets were totally filled.

The granite reflected visitors’ visages, not sharp and clear like a mirror’s, but vague, gray, with no clarity.

I looked up and imagined if I were in an open grave, I’d see the crispness of the grasses, the benevolence of trees, the endlessness of sky, the faces of those who put me here. I had stopped looking for the names of friends who are on the wall. The dark wings of the memorial stretched out like the inevitable wings of death.

“The names of a lot of my friends are on this wall,” Robin said. “The price of a country’s freedom is paid for with the lives of its sons. I’m not copping an attitude. I took the lives of a lot of other people’s sons. Most people have a tough time figuring out what to live for. Knowing what to die for is another matter.”

Forget parades, bands, salvos, flags, speeches. Think of rows on rows of white markers of those who lie in military graves; those who gave everything.

Nearly 50 years ago I was a soldier. Over 50,000 of my countrymen and friends came home in body bags. They inhabit our national cemeteries, unable to speak, to voice their opinion. Not everyone who goes to war intends to be a hero. Not everyone wants to go. Many who went never even made it back in a body bag.

I’m outraged still about West Point generals who lied to all of us, outraged about the wasted youth and talent of my contemporaries. Rest assured I won’t forget.

We the people need to keep a watchful eye on those in charge. The lives of our sons and daughters are at stake. Let us not waste their futures for the sake of saber-rattling politicians who risk nothing besides rhetoric and votes.

Many soldiers never understand why they go to war. Some go because they believe in fair play, believe government acts in their best interest. Others go because they’re told it’s their duty and are too young to comprehend exactly what’s at stake. Some go because they’re too ashamed to say what they truly think is right. It takes extraordinary courage to stand up to the censure of society, family, friends.

A folded flag from atop a soldier’s coffin is small compensation to a child, a spouse, a parent.

Freedom requires more than rhetoric. There are times you pay the price, put it all on the line for yourself and everyone you love, dig deep for courage to face death or shame.

Robin Luketina’s son Sean was killed in Grenada. Sean wanted to be just like his dad, a Green Beret. Sgt. Sean Luketina died at age 19.

His father and I went to the Pentagon ceremony where the battle streamer for Grenada was attached to the Army flag. There are streamers for every campaign since the War for Independence on that stanchion, ribbons representing millions of deaths.

I remember the speeches, the politicians, the ceremony, the fancy uniforms, the brass of the military band. I wanted all the noise to stop. I wanted these people to shut the fuck up, to think about what they’re doing, to pay for their stupidity and our shame.

We can’t undo what’s done but we can show respect for those who can’t speak for themselves. Perhaps for a moment we can join them in their deafening silence.

Editor’s note about Oleh:

I am reminded of the man every day. A talented sculptor, one of his mobiles sits on the coffee table in our living room. But I had not seen or heard from Oleh Lysiak for over 20 years. Ah, the wonders of social media. We rediscovered each other about a year ago, which was when I also discovered the artist is also a writer – at least nowadays – though making marks on paper is only one among a very long list of talents, some slightly sketchy.

O. Z. Lysiak winking

A former Telluride resident, O.Z. Lysiak  once worked as a  San Miguel County journalist. He is also, as mentioned, an artist, author and poet. Two of his books: “Art, Crime & Lithium” and “Neighborhood of Strangers” are now available at The Wilkinson Public Library.

Given his street cred and the fact he wrote extensively locally in the bad old days, I asked Oleh if he would mine his files for past columns that might be of interest to our readers. I am thankful the man said “yes.” 

The column name? We hold certain truths to be self-evident.

Outdoor mobile, Oleh Lysiak

Outdoor mobile, Oleh Lysiak

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