May 17, 2003
On a recent rainy morning, I had the privilege of accepting a red crepe-paper poppy from a woman standing in the doorway of Riddler’s, our local news and tobacco shop. I had already purchased my fresh $1 chance at Saturday’s millions the day before, so I was just hurrying by. But when I saw the woman with the red poppies in her hand, I reached for my wallet to make a donation. I could do no less.
Walking to work, with the poppy in my pocket and the words of John McCrae’s poem in my ears, I wondered how many people would just walk by and have no clue why someone would stand in a doorway holding red paper flowers on a rainy day in May.
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.
The author of these words, John McCrae, was a Canadian medical officer, serving in Flanders, a region of Belgium, during World War I. At one point during the second battle for Ypres, he spent 17 straight days treating the wounded and dying. On the night of May 2, 1915, McCrae buried a former student and friend; the burial service was conducted in the dark for security reasons, and without a chaplain; McCrae simply recited from memory some passages from the Church of England’s “Order of Burial for the Dead.”
The next day, he sat on the rear step of an ambulance and wrote a poem about those young men lost, about the white crosses that marked their graves, and the red poppies that suddenly seemed to be growing everywhere in the fields. Why poppies? Wild poppies grow best when other nearby plants have been uprooted, and the soil is rich in lime. During the artillery barrages, the chalk soil of Flanders was churned and became rich in lime from the rubble. The poppy seeds in the soil sprouted, and almost overnight the barren battle fields and rows of graves were red with poppies.
McCrae’s poem continued:
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 hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
McCrae showed the poem to one other soldier, and then threw it aside. Another soldier retrieved it, and sent it to London, where it was published in Punch magazine. Eventually, it became the most famous poem of the war. Inspired by McCrae’s poem, women serving veterans – in Britain, Canada and the United States, in YMCA canteens, in the American Legion Auxiliary – began wearing red paper poppies as a sign of remembrance of those who had given their lives for their country. In 1919, the idea of distributing the poppies and collecting donations for the relief of disabled veterans was born. Since then, poppies have been an important part of remembering those who gave their lives — in wars we no longer remember and in wars that are entirely too fresh in our memories — and raising money for those veterans who will never return to full lives.
As Memorial Day approaches, the red poppy and John McCrae’s poem remind me that I am one of the lucky ones. My own military service was quiet and uneventful. I was never in combat. I returned to civilian life unscathed. But I feel compelled to remember and thank those who “lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow. Loved, and were loved…” but were not as fortunate as myself.
May 21, 2004
Yesterday I bought another poppy from the lady in the doorway at Riddler’s, and learned that her name is Mrs. Church, and that she was an Army Nurse in World War II. God bless you, Mrs. Church.