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Story Last modified at 9:10 p.m. on Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Memorial Day weekend serves up conflicting emotions


From the minute most people clocked out of work on Friday, the Memorial Day weekend seemed charmed. The sun never stopped shining, and the temperatures rose steadily into the 70s. Those planning special weekends to mark the occasion couldn't have asked for more.

The long days of sunshine meant gatherings with families and friends could go long into the evening. Along the Glenn Highway pathway, cyclists, rollerbladers and runners kept a steady pace. In downtown Eagle River, young people boarded shirtless at the skate park on Business Boulevard and toddlers rolled down the sledding hill at Town Center's playground. A steady stream of treat-seekers came and went from Cold Stone Creamery, keeping the ice cream makers busy all weekend long.

Perhaps most striking were the hordes of people who flocked to Mirror Lake on Memorial Day. The road to the lake was lined with vehicles on both sides, and the parking lot overflowed. As I stepped out of my vehicle, I asked a man loading his toddler into his vehicle, "Is there a reunion, or is it just crowded?"

"Just packed," he answered, a smile plastered on his sun-burned face.

The 75-degree day lured people out, for sure. Picnickers, swimmers and boaters flocked to the beach, leaving standing room only in some places. The volleyball court stayed in use all afternoon, and the horseshoe pit clanged with the sounds of friendly competition.

Groups of friends and family clustered around portable barbecue pits, necessitated after the prime, covered picnic pavilions were snatched up. Latin music pulsated from one gathering, while a group of Japanese tourists posed for photos at another. A festive, friendly atmosphere permeated the day, accentuated by shrieks of glee from toddlers playing by the shore.

Those are the memories I'd like to keep from this year's Memorial Day weekend.

But, because we work at a newspaper, we hear of the sadder side of these weekends, too. And that's what you'll read about on the cover of this week's Star.

While most people were just beginning their summer celebration, we were fielding a call about a plane crash at Birchwood Airport. Five members of a longtime Eagle River family perished in that Friday morning crash, pre-empting what was meant to be the beginning of their fun-filled weekend.

To the south, a mother was discovering that her daughter had been hit and killed by a driver, after the little girl ran into traffic in Spenard. To the north, an 18-month-old toddler wandered off the family dock at Big Lake and drowned after falling in.

Back here at home, tragedy struck again, when a soon-to-be Chugiak High senior died following a campout with his buddies on the Knik River.

Moments like these are heartbreaking at any time, but they can feel almost overwhelmingly sad when paired with a celebratory time of year. How can people listen to music, splash in a lake, grill a hamburger or even muster a smile amid such sadness?

That's the reality of – and perhaps even the relief of – life: happiness can be achieved whatever challenges may arise.

Memorial Day is meant to be a day of remembrance for those who died serving our nation. In its truest form, it is a somber occasion, yet for most of us it marks the beginning of summer punctuated with celebrations. For some of our local families, though, Memorial Day weekend will forever be etched in sadness. To those families, we send our condolences and know that while life will go on, it will never be the same.

And that feeling, really, is what Memorial Day is all about.

This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, June 1, 2011.