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Remembering With a Buddy Poppy on Memorial Day

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In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
-
Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918)

For every year of my life that I can remember (and some of my memories go back to when I was three), I have worn a Buddy Poppy on Memorial Day. When I was little, my mother tied it to a buttonhole in my shirt. As I got older I put it on the zipper of my jacket or the lapel of my blazer, or tied it onto my cap. Now I put a fresh one on the rear view mirror in my car every year because it is a powerful reminder that we owe all we have to those who served our country in times of war.

Four generations of my family were in the Armed Forces: my great-grandfather in the Army (Spanish-American War), my grandfather in the Navy (World War I), my father in the Army (World War II), and my cousins (in Vietnam). Because of their sacrifices, I was fortunate enough to grow up in a time of peace and did not get drafted to fight in a war. I hope we all will be able to say the same for our sons and daughters, and all the sons and daughters of Americans born or not yet born in the years to come.

The other day my daughter and I were walking along the main avenue in our neighborhood, and there were two old fellows standing in front of the church selling Buddy Poppies. They were proud gentlemen, wearing their pointed hats from the local VFW. I handed a dollar to one of them and took a poppy and gave it to my daughter. Of course, she liked it but had no idea what it was about, so I gave her a brief history lesson on the Buddy Poppy.

The Buddy Poppy is a powerful symbol for those who have served in the military and their families. According to the Veterans of Foreign Wars web site, "The VFW conducted its first poppy distribution before Memorial Day in 1922, becoming the first veterans' organization to organize a nationwide distribution. The poppy soon was adopted as the official memorial flower of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States." During all these years, "The VFW's Buddy Poppy program has raised millions of dollars in support of veterans' welfare and the well being of their dependents."

The poppy connects us to the early days in World War I when things didn't look too promising for the Allies. Dr. McRae wrote the poem while sitting and looking at the fields bright with the red poppies. It is an uncompromising and vivid account of what should be a peaceful scene marred by the realities of battle. The makeshift crosses over the graves and the hostilities happening at that moment remind all of us that some paid the ultimate price in that war.

Even now with wars still happening in Afghanistan and Iraq, my daughter and many others are almost unaware of it most of the time. With a news report here and a conversation there, she may hear something about it, but mostly it does not affect her world. When she reads about rationing during World War II and how people's lives' were affected significantly, she understands a little something about the cost of war on civilians, but these days most of us go about our lives as if nothing is happening a world away.

When I was a kid, Memorial Day was a huge celebration. I can remember flags flying from every store and house. The parades were filled with robust numbers of veterans from many conflicts, and the very old fellows sat in cars and waved to the significant crowds lining the street. The pounding of the drums shook me to my heart, and I stood with a little flag in my hand and saluted those people going by whom I thought had to be the bravest people on earth.

Many things have changed since then. For one, the men and women from my father's generation are gone for the most part or are not well enough or too disabled (like my Dad) to actively participate in the parade. There are still World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, and Persian Gulf War veterans involved, but nothing close to the large number of marchers from those years ago. Sadly, the number of spectators has diminished for these parades as well.

I know people see Memorial Day as the unofficial start of summer. People flock to beaches, open up their summer houses, swim in pools, and have barbecues. While all of this is fun and exciting, let us not forget what we are supposed to be celebrating. If we cannot get to one of the parades where we live, we can fly the flag to honor those lost and try to tell our young ones about why this day is not just any day off from school.

If we do nothing else, perhaps this weekend we can purchase a Buddy Poppy when we see one of those veterans selling them in front of churches, stores, and banks. We can remember that the cost of that small little red flower is nothing compared to the price paid by many of the men and women who never came home.

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About Victor Lana

Victor Lana has published numerous stories, articles, and poems in literary magazines and online. His books In a Dark Time (1994), A Death in Prague (2002), Move (2003), The Savage Quiet September Sun: A Collection of 9/11 Stories (2005) and Like a Passing Shadow (2009) are available online and as e-books. He has won the National Arts Club Award for Poetry, but has concentrated mostly on fiction and non-fiction prose in recent years. He has worked as faculty advisor to school literary magazines and enjoys the creative process as a writer, editor, and collaborator. He has been with Blogcritics since July 2005, has edited many articles, was co-head sports editor with Charley Doherty, and now is a Culture and Society editor. He views Blogcritics as one of most exciting, fresh, and meaningful opportunities in his writing life.
  • http://viclana.blogspot.com/ Victor Lana

    My sister (who is a teacher) sent this Memorial Day Song to me, and I thought it was appropriate to add here.

  • STM

    I remember everyone – and I do mean everyone – wearing red poppies in London on Remembrance Day (the Brit equivalent of Memorial Day) when I was kid living in England; us kids and most adults if I remember correctly actually called it Poppy Day.

    It’s when I read these things from America that I realise while we are all different in the different countries of the English-speaking world, we are all very similar too. It all speaks of the shared values.

  • STM

    Nice piece too Victor … I’d forgotten about that poem. Pretty shocking place at that time. They fought for four years literally over inches and yards of ground until the Germans were simply too worn down at home, with the civilian population near starvation, through the seaborne blockade. Russia pulling out of the war, American entry on the western front, and the nearing defeat of Turkey in the middle east that freed up many thousands of fresh, veteran British empire troops, the best of whom were moved to France and Belgium for the Western Front virtually guaranteed German defeat. And all for what??

    Like I say, really for what amounted to yards of ground and after many millions of deaths and horrible wounds.

    If you can, and if you’re interested in our experience compared to the American one (although ultimately, they are one and the same), have a listen to these two songs: The Green Fields of France (played by The Furies), about a young Scottish soldier killed on The Somme and Joan Baez’s version of Eric Bogle’s And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, about a young Australian maimed at Gallipoli.

    They are beautiful anti-war songs and if those two songs don’t bring a tear to your eye, Victor, nothing will. World War I has special resonance to us in what is left of the old British empire … because of the dreadful loss of life and in the end, as my grandma used to say, with a great deal of sadness, it all seemed so pointless and took a whole generation of young men.

    Nearly all the boys in her family were killed or maimed or driven nuts, most represented by cameos on the fireplace or yellowed newspaper clippings of casualty lists she used to pull out and look at sometimes.

    That is partly the reason why the western democracies – especially France, which suffered dreadfully in 1914-18, were so unprepared and so unwilling (until Churchill warned them) to confront the Germans in WWII.

    In 1939, it had only been just over 20 years, which meant many men who’d survived WWI knew exactly what they were sending their sons off to.

    I think they simply couldn’t believe the Germans, in a nasty reincarnation of Prussian militarism (which was bad enough) were willing to do it all over again just to restore their “pride”. Madness.

  • STM

    If you do have a listen to those two songs Victor, some explanation: the Last Post is the bugle call traditionally played in memory of the fallem, The Flowers of The Forest is a British commonwealth funeral march played on the pipes (a quite beautiful tune actually), and Waltzing Matilda doesn’t mean what most people think … it means living free, roaming, carrying a pack with atent and supplies etc through the bush and the outback.

  • STM

    Mike Oldfield has an exquisitely beautiful version of Flowers Of The Forest , although it morphs midway into another beautiful pipe tune (they go perfectly together), originally called in Gaelic “Creag Ghuanach”, then back to Flowers again; Flowers is the pipe tune traditionally played at the funeral of commonwealth soldiers but it’s nice to listen to anyway without thinking about that. The flowers, of course, are meant to represent the fallen.

    Hope I’m not overloading you with stuff here; I’m fascinated by the similarities between all of us in the English-speaking world (and not because we’re all anglo … we aren’t), especially America, which I love, and I always presume that Americans who take the time to come on here on this site, or to travel, are as interested in others’ cultural experiences as they are their own.

    In our case, I believe they are one and the same anyway, if just a hair’s breadth different.

  • http://viclana.blogspot.com/ Victor Lana

    Hey, STM, I appreciate the links to the music. I agree about the connections we have and the common bonds. I’ve spent time in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada – all English-speaking countries where our similarities far outweigh the differences. It is truly fascinating.

    Thanks for your comments!

  • STM

    Sounds like you’ve had a pretty interesting time of it mate; lots of nice travel.

    I have been to the US on quite a few occasions and love the hospitality of Americans (I can remember in San Francisco actually forgetting where I was because of the similarities to home and almost getting skittled by a car because I looked the wrong way crossing the road) – and at one time thought I might move there as I was offered a job, but the idea ultimately didn’t appeal as I was too into my surfing as a young bloke and this is where it’s at if you’re into it. Had the job been in Hawaii, however, I suspect I might be a US citizen by now, though :)

    Keep remembering those guys about whom your story is based, Victor. They deserve to live on for in our memories what they did for us.

    Cheers.