Most people know the span connecting Bogota and Hackensack, N.J., as Midtown Bridge, but its formal name, following a renaming in 1978, is the William C. Ryan Memorial Bridge. When I walked around adjacent Foschini Park in Hackensack a few weeks ago, I snapped several pictures of the bridge, including ones where the current name is clearly visible.
Who knows how many people have driven over this bridge, in the three and a half decades after its renaming, and thought about the life it commemorated? Few, and only fleetingly, if that, I imagine.
You can’t see the name of the bridge from the angle where I shot this picture, nor even get a sense of how rickety this 114-year-old bridge has become. But at least this picture conveys the peace that Lt. William C. Ryan got to enjoy so little during his abbreviated lifetime, and that small flag signifies the stubborn persistence of memory concerning the hundreds of thousands of young American service personnel cut down in their prime—those we honor this Memorial Day weekend.
If you’re going to really connect with the past, it helps to have a point at which you can connect with it. For me with Lt. Ryan, that connecting point was our high school, St. Cecilia, now closed, in Englewood, N.J.
Six years ago, I wrote a blog post that reviewed the circumstances of Billy Ryan’s education, heroism, and disappearance while flying a combat mission while serving in the Vietnam War. But I think some more can be said still, because of some numbers and dates.
The first date is May 11, 1969 (the day before he was scheduled for rest leave), when Lt. Ryan flew his last combat mission and went missing in action. This means that it is 45 years since he is gone, with the events of that time as distant as a Mad Men episode. Two generations have been born who never experienced the gaping national wounds of that era.
The other date is April 24, 1944. Last month, had he survived, Lt. Ryan would have reached 70. Yet he never had a chance to live anything close to a normal, extended life.
So yes, this weekend, let us rest, remember the extraordinary bravery these young people displayed, and shed a tear, but make a resolution, too: that the politicians responsible for the shortening of the lives of Lt. Ryan and so many others—through blindness to the injustice and other grievances that cause war, through the rank mismanagement that have put so many young men in harm’s way over the years—are questioned relentlessly, then held to account.