Most of my blog audience are undoubtedly familiar with the movie, Saving Private Ryan. The movie’s blockbuster sales and ratings seemed to indicate how good it was, but the A minus grade given by one audience of American WWII veterans who participated in the D-Day invasion is even more telling as to its realism.
While there are several themes playing in the movie, a haunting line towards its end – perhaps the thesis of the movie – is what was on my mind as I nymphed a stretch of Balls Eddy on a beautiful Memorial Day last year.
This tradition of fishing has been something I’ve been doing for a number of years. There’s an old cemetery adjacent to the Balls Eddy fishing access and it is at that cemetery where I first witnessed a solemn and heartbreaking tribute to those who paid the ultimate price. The place is a simple rectangle of fertile river bottom, walled in fieldstone. There are a few trees there and the graves are adorned with flags, the lawn neatly cut. It is a peaceful place. On this past Memorial Day, the sky was blue, the birds sang sweetly, and the river ran by in hues of blue.
I was on the river and fishing by 8:30 a.m., and at exactly 9:05, heard the volley of shots that marked the day. They crackled through the river valley, then came round again in echo until the sound of the rushing water of the riffle finally silenced them. A few drifts of my nymph rig through the ‘rainbow’s den’, as I call it, resulted in my indicator plunging down in the fast water, the hook set, and a rainbow trout that leaped repeatedly and then made spastic runs in the heavy current. The flash of this fish, its strength, its athleticism made me feel good. After landing it and releasing it, I sat down, watched the river, and remembered the movie.
At the end of Saving Private Ryan, the elderly Ryan is seen visiting the grave of Captain Miller, the Army Ranger officer who led the mission to bring the young Private home after so many of his brothers had been killed in combat. Ryan pays tribute to Captain Miller with the following:
“My family is with me today. They wanted to come with me. To be honest with you, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel coming back here. Every day I think about what you said to me that day on the bridge. And I’ve tried to live my life the best I could. I hope that was enough. I hope that at least in your eyes, I’ve earned what all of you have done for me.”
Earlier in the movie, with Captain Miller slowly dying from wounds received while defending a critical bridge crossing, Ryan hears his last words:
James… earn this. Earn it.
As I listened to the rush of the river and the wind in the trees, I slowly came to the realization that Memorial Day is more than just honoring the casualties of war. It’s really more remembering the dead by celebrating life, and celebrating life in a way that honors those words so simply spoken by Captain Miller. In this country, we are free to choose how to live our lives. That freedom was bought with blood, their blood. In getting up early and going fly fishing – in doing good things – in living life the best we can, we earn it, and by doing that we remember them. And, as my grandmother once told me, no one ever dies if they are remembered.