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.