The Missouri River flowed right outside the conference center where I was facilitating a day-long workshop for a large gaggle of business folks. The river figures prominently in one of my favorite folk songs, "O Shenandoah," so, at lunch break on a lovely day, I ventured to its banks.
"Look away, you rolling river," I heard as I looked across the wide Missouri. I imagined seeing the Native peoples cruising the mighty current in their carved out canoes a hundred centuries before the first European explorers made it a preferred route to the great Northwest.
So, of course, I did something stupid. Dressed out in a fine suit and tie, I proceeded to slide down the steep embankment - oxford shoes slide readily - using the palms of my hands to keep my rear end from bouncing in the dirt.
I stopped myself miraculously before joining the now frighteningly powerful current. Rivers make a lot of noise close up, by the way. I reached down, down, down, and then dipped my right hand into the flow. I retrieved the hand and gazed at the droplets of the Missouri glistening upon my fingertips.
I was now part of the history of that great waterway, a vast human story replete with love and conflict, legend and myth, spanning 12,000 years, flowing most recently into the land I call America. My heart raced with that profound realization, not to mention the realization that I was now called upon to climb back up that slippery bank in even more slippery shoes.
All of us, from the sweet child of an ancient Missouria tribeswoman to my baby granddaughter, have entered like droplets into the current and contributed our moment to what the river was and is and will become.
This week we honor a peculiar subset of that swath of humanity. These are the men and women, most of them young, bright, and strong with much to live for, whose lives were abruptly shortened by their willingness to throw their bodies into the path of danger.
The dangers they sought to thwart were many. The designs of a distant monarch desirous of working his will upon us without our consent; the specter of a fissure between North and South that would tear our flag in two; the threat of an evil doctrine that placed one race of people above all others; and the deadly danger of rogue monstrosities intent on killing all who are not like them.
The reason we memorialize these brave ones is that the benefits of their bravery were bequeathed to us, while they bore the ultimate cost. They kept alive the spirit of freedom, equality, self-government, tossed it forward to us, and remained behind, hopeful that we the living would catch that spirit, stuff it into our hearts, and never let it die.
The signers of the Declaration of Independence captured that spirit when they mutually pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to the cause. I've always felt that, in the mind of our founders, honor was the most important of those three. Only honor is adorned with the word sacred.
Their lives, they knew, were passing, like droplets in a great river. Their fortunes were critical to the well-being of their families but also passing. Their honor, however, is the very bed of the river, its source, its course, its destiny. Honor determines not that they give their lives or forfeit their fortunes, but what is worthy of the giving of life and fortune.
Across the wide Missouri, our lives and fortunes are tiny beads upon the fingertips of history. Honor makes the river mighty. Honor creates the sacred bond uniting 12,000 years of people, steering the rest of us to a blessed ocean where all our good is crowned with brotherhood.
From sea to shining sea, the rivers flow. We will never forget.