Sunday, November 11, 2018

Poppy Day

On Veteran's Day, more years ago than I care to admit, members of the American Legion, donning ill-fitting uniforms, and, after marching in small local parades, came knocking door to door, selling crepe poppies to commemorate the dead of World Wars l and ll. Why? Following the Great War, scientists noticed that poppies began to grow and edge the graves of those buried in the battlegrounds of France and Belgium. They concluded the cemetery grounds had been enriched by the crushed, lime-rich rubble that had been plowed into the soil as the battlefields were prepared for mass burials. After the First World War, and following publication of John McCrae's poem, "In Flanders Fields", the poppy was adopted as an international symbol of remembrance. Professor Moina Michael, was inspired by the poem and vowed to remember the war dead by wearing a red poppy on Remembrance Day. At a conference in 1918, she appeared with a silk poppy pinned to her coat and distributed 25 more to those attending. She then campaigned to have the poppy adopted as a national symbol of remembrance. At a conference in 1920, the National American Legion adopted it as their official symbol of remembrance. She is one of many woman whose efforts have been buried by history.

I thought of her as we walked the geometrically perfect rows of crosses that mark the graves in the Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer in France. Hopes and dreams and plans for a bright future were buried with each of the bodies entombed here. Ten thousand souls were lost in this place in a frighteningly short period of time and few of their immediate survivors are left to mark their passing. That makes the symbolism of the poppy even more important. At least these men, many of them no more than boys, can be part of our collective consciousness and memory on Veteran's Day.

I've had this feeling of collective loss before. Once at Gallipoli, where a deadly silence, broken only by bird songs and waves lapping against once bloody shores, overcame me and the hundred other people gathered at Seddulbahir. This cemetery was not one of "ours". It is the final resting place of ANZAC forces who tried to land here during the "war to end all wars". It is the ages on the headstones that give one pause. Save for a single officer, most buried here are less than 20 years old. They were conscripted to fight for a king and country they had never seen and most could not have found the place where they died on a map. The old lie...Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori...was repeated on this beachhead. Today, the countries of New Zealand and Australia proudly, but with great sadness, wear the blood red poppy on their lapels, a reminder of the unrealized hopes and dreams that are the cost of war.

That sense of collective lost was again brought home to me at the Hanoi Hilton in Vietnam. Better than half the group I was traveling with had military backgrounds. Needless to say, the testosterone level in the group was high and there was polite jostling among the men to see whose exploits and memories would carry the day. Tucked in our group was a woman, about my age, who had a passion for textiles and weaving. She was quietly charming and had a positively wicked sense of humor, but like most of us my Hanna looked like a grandmother whose interests would normally peg her as a homebody. For better or worse, I'm a people watcher, and there was something about the way she spoke and carried herself that led me to believe Hanna had a secret, a story if you will, begging to be shared. We adopted each other for the duration of the trip and because we spent so much time together I started to notice a vague, barely perceptible smile that would appear when the guys talked rank with each other. I had also seen the distinctive silver chain she used to carry her keys. Its spread eagle insignia helped me pull the pieces together and once I knew that it had not been a gift to her, I had a sense of who she really was. I didn't ask for confirmation because I think folks should be allowed to tell their own stories when they are ready to unveil them. That happened as we got closer to Hanoi. She withdrew a bit and absented herself from the group when we toured the Hanoi Hilton. That evening she shared bits of her story with me. My friend had retired from the service with flag rank. She was a Bird Colonel, the first woman to receive that rank. She entered the service right out of college and because of her age and medical background, she had first hand knowledge of what went on in the Hanoi Hilton. She did not want to see a sanitized version of a place she knew to be a hell hole. She spoke briefly of of the death she had seen during her tours, but her focus was the damaged minds and bodies the war had left behind. She carried the weight of those less honored than their fallen comrades, those for whom no special day had been set aside to honor their sacrifice. I will wear a poppy today to salute her "boys" as well as the war dead.I will also wear it to remember Hanna. Heroes all.

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