Last week I received an email from a longtime reader who has moved out to California, but occasionally sends me emails about things on his mind. Since he is older than me and has seen more of the world, I tend to take his missives to heart a little more.
His message was clear; we don’t have a very good idea about what the various holidays are for, in particular Memorial Day and Flag Day.
The topic was interesting in light of the column that I wrote last week about D-Day 70 years later.
Like a seed (we’ll call it a poppy seed) incubating in my mind, I stewed over the email for a few days. Then, waiting in the dentist office for my check up, I happened across a picture essay in Smithsonian Magazine of the ravages of World War I, particularly the still pock-marked landscape of eastern France.
We are now 100 years removed from the beginning of the war that President Wilson believed would end all wars, as did many in Europe and the United States.
How could a continent so peaceful for nearly a century erupt so suddenly into such bloodshed? Then it hit me, my loyal reader was talking about the poppies of Flanders Field.
Held around Memorial Day and Flag Day, the American Legion’s poppy sales remind the public about the needs of our veterans. Usually, you will find veterans on busy street corners giving away poppies for a small donation. The flowers are a symbol of the sacrifices made by soldiers on the field of battle during World War I and a metaphor for sacrifice in service.
It would do us well to remember that poem written long ago by a soldier from neighboring Canada, on his view of the battlefield and tending to those that sacrificed so much. John McCrae served in the Canadian artillery as a field surgeon, and saw the horrors of war on the field and in the aftermath of great battles.
Written and later published anonymously, "In Flanders Fields" has touched those who fought in and the generations that followed through nearly a century. In honor of my reader, and as a way to bring this poem back to life on these pages, let us put it out there as it was published in 1915.
"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. We are the dead short days ago. We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, loved and were loved, and now we lie in Flanders fields.
"Take up our quarrel with the foe: to you from failing hands we throw. The torch; be yours to old it high. If ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders fields."
Schoolchildren once memorized this poem as they did the Gettysburg Address.
Now veterans who have seen the horrors of war, and know that the theater may change but the struggles are the same, remind us every year with their red poppies. We will keep our poppy on the car mirror until the time comes a year later when it is time to refresh it with another, a reminder of McCrae's words.