Remembrance, gratitude and goodbyes

What I remember most about his stories of the second world war came long after I'd written about him. He was describing the artillery in that German pine forest, about the rows of trees mile upon mile and the shelling and how the airbursts would detonate in the treetops. "The shrapnel and the shards of wood came straight down into the foxholes," he said. "It was terrifying." I heard him breathe into the phone. He was 87 then, or 88. "All those pine trees. When it was it over, even in the smoke, it smelled like Christmas."

Memorial Day is our national reminder of what the past bears away and what it returns and at what cost to us all. This is our week for remembrance and gratitude and goodbye.

Too often on American sports pages, we use the long-bomb language of war to talk about games. And too often on the editorial page, we use the slam dunk language of sports to obscure the realities of war. By doing so, we corrupt our honest understanding of both. The symbols and mythologies, the lessons and the metaphors might seem interchangeable -- devotion, honor, fortitude -- but one is a harmless funhouse reflection of the other. Sports are a kind of necessary human nonsense. War is the abject failure of everything that makes us human.

Look around America on this holiday and you'll notice that both sports and war produce a great deal of nostalgia. Nostalgia isn't memory. Nostalgia is the appetite for memory. And for memory of a very certain kind: Sweet. Sentimental. Dishonest.

Because nostalgia depends upon revisionism. In fact, nostalgia depends not on what we remember, but on what we forget. Nostalgia is watercolor, a soft wash of fictions and omissions. Times were never simpler to the people living in them, and people themselves were never less complicated. The apples weren't better and the cream wasn't richer and the ballplayers weren't more polite. We're taller now, and better fed. We have the iPad, and we use F-16s for the flyovers. That's it.

So I've been thinking this week about history and honesty and goodbyes. The other night, some sports writer friends and I gathered to say goodbye -- to the place we once gathered to say goodbye.

A couple years ago, we waked my late friend and mentor W.C. Heinz at Elaine's. Bill Heinz was one of the best sports writers who ever lived and a pioneer of the "New Journalism." Elaine's is was a famous restaurant on New York's Upper East Side, with famously bad food and famously great talk, filled with graying "New Journalists." It was a writers' hangout for 50 years. Elaine died last fall. Her restaurant closed forever last Friday.

We held Bill's wake there because his New York, the Technicolor New York of the post-war '40s and '50s, was long gone. The places he knew -- Dempsey's, Shor's, the Stork -- were overtaken by time and taste and lost to progress.

So in the back room of Elaine's, a few dozen of us raised a glass to memory, and to all those like Bill who had come and gone before us.

Then, last week, a few of us came back to that same room to say goodbye to Elaine herself, and to honor a place that already exists only in memory.

I mention all this because before he became a sports writer, Bill Heinz was a war correspondent. He spent months in the North Atlantic; landed at Normandy; chased Patton across France. He drank with Liebling and with Hemingway and watched American boys felled like trees in the Battle of Hürtgen Forest. That's what I think made him great. Not just the writing or the craft or the work ethic. But in knowing exactly how much -- and how very little -- is at stake in sports.

Because every word Bill Heinz ever wrote about sports was informed by what he carried out of that war. By the things he could never forget.

Down in Florida, my father and his friends at the Legion Post will make their speeches today about what they saw and what it means to serve. About what fear is, and duty and boredom and horror. Under a hot Miami sun, in the company of a hundred old soldiers and their families, they will recall what it means to be young and frightened and cold and lonely.

They will exaggerate only a little. And in those moments of poetry and pomp and ceremony, they will remind each other that they fought not for poetry and not for pomp and not for ceremony, but for each other. They fought for love.

And they won't say it, they never do, but they fought for you and they fought for me and they fought for some inexpressible ideal of a better world.

I thank them all. And all the fathers and mothers who fought for all the sons and daughters before them. And for those yet to come.

As hard as our patriotism and our politics try, we can never go back to the past. We can never repay the past. We can never escape the past. Those are the hard truths of the present. Our sacrifice, our abiding obligation, must therefore be to the future, and to honesty, here and everywhere, and to that impossible idea of a better world.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.