Years ago, while shopping at a Walmart on Memorial Day weekend, an older gentleman wearing a veteran’s cap, held out his hand offering to sell me a bright red fabric flower.
I averted my eyes and shuffled past him. “Just someone else looking for a handout,” I thought to myself.
Driving home my conscience began to toy with me. I remembered my grandfather walking me along a downtown sidewalk in the late 1940s. We came upon a veteran offering a similar red paper flower and grandfather produced a coin and bought me one from the vet.
He tucked it in a buttonhole in my shirt and told me it was a veteran’s poppy. A block later, a vet held out another paper bouquet and grandfather dipped for another coin and tucked another red poppy onto my shirt.”It’s for the soldiers who fought for us,” he said simply, as if a seven-year-old knew all about the big war we’d just anguished through a few years before.
Tales of World War II were still pretty fresh then. Even in my youthful naiveté, I think I knew it was just a way of saying thanks.
That memory stirred my conscience on my drive home. Here I was, now in my 70s and I had forgotten how to say thanks to an old soldier. The vets and the poppies appear each spring around Memorial Day. It’s obvious the old soldiers are getting a lot older and more frail each year.
Now, nearly three-quarters of a century past World War II, even with four more major conflicts inserted into our country’s history, most people who pass the old soldiers by, as I did, have no idea what’s behind those little fabric flowers.
The poppy movement was inspired by the poem,”In Flanders Fields,” written by Col. John McCrae, of the Canadian armed forces, before the United States entered World War I. The bright red, common poppy flowers grow wild throughout Europe, brightening the fields and roadsides from May into July.
The poem presented striking images of the flowers blooming among rows of white crosses marking the graves of the war dead in Belgium. Selling replicas of the original Flanders poppy originated in some of the allied countries after the Armistice for the benefit of children in devastated areas of France and Belgium.
During the early 1920s, the Veterans of Foreign Wars evolved the idea which resulted in the VFW “Buddy Poppy.” The poppies were fashioned by disabled and needy veterans, who were paid for their work as a practical means of providing financial assistance.
The name of the “Buddy Poppy” originated with the men who assembled them. The VFW registered the name with the U.S. Patent Office in 1924.
The practice spread across the country and poppies have been assembled ever since in regional veteran’s hospitals and workshops. The American Legion also adopted the poppy as its official flower and has been selling the remembrances since 1923.
Poppy sales are based on a simple premise: Honoring the dead by helping the living. Proceeds go to veteran assistance programs, especially for vets who have been maimed and disabled fighting for our country.
Those men and women were our neighbors, our sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, husbands and wives.
This Memorial Day I plan to go looking for a vet selling poppies. I hope to make up for my moment of ingratitude that day outside the Walmart and buy a poppy from him or her. Or, at least go up and say “thank you for going over there – and for coming back.”
correspondent East Penn Press