Woster: Honoring not just those who served, but those who died
The hand-made, red-silk flowers were inspired by the John McCrae poem about the war dead buried in graves in a place called Flander’s Field in France.
For more than two decades, I walked each weekday morning two blocks from the newspaper bureau to the post office in Pierre for my mail.
In each of those years, on a morning in late May, two elderly women stood near the entrance to the post office, smiling and holding containers of red, silk poppies. They were members of the local VFW Auxiliary. They sold the poppies just before Memorial Day, a way to remind others that the annual observance meant something more than a three-day weekend or the unofficial start of summer.
Memorial Day is a moment to remember and honor the men and women who died in military service of this nation. The poppies the women sold, called Buddy Poppies, were symbolic of the blood shed by Allied soldiers. It began as a way to remember the dead from World War I. It has continued in this country as a remembrance of all who died in uniform in service to the United States, all those whose lives were cut short by armed conflict.
The hand-made, red-silk flowers were inspired by the John McCrae poem about the war dead buried in graves in a place called Flander’s Field in France. The poem, as most school children learn, begins, “In Flander’s Field the poppies blow, between the crosses, row on row, that mark our place.’’ The verses encourage generations that followed the fallen service members to take up the fight for freedom. It ends, “If ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flander’s Field.’’
It bears repeating that Veterans Day, in November, is a way to honor all who served this nation in the military. Memorial Day is selectively for those died in that service. The writer-photographer Tamra Bolton put it this way:
“This is the day we pay homage to all those who didn’t come home. This is not Veterans Day, it’s not a celebration, it is a day of solemn contemplation over the cost of freedom.”
Not long after World War I ended, the Buddy Poppy program began. It has continued, carried on by the efforts of folks like the two who faithfully stood near the post office each year with their containers of poppies.
I got to know the women, and both they and I would begin to smile as soon as I turned the corner by the gas station up the block from the post office. I’d slap at my pockets, pretending to be without so much as a dollar bill. Then I’d pull out a bill, swap it for a poppy and exchange a few pleasantries. We’d go about our business then, secure in the knowledge that they had been true to their cause and I had been reminded why I should thread a red flower through my lapel.
One year I actually did show up without a cent on my person. I apologized, embarrassed.
“Take a poppy, anyway,’’ one of the women said.
Instead, I walked back up the hill to the bureau and searched through my desk drawers until I found a bit more than a dollar’s worth of coins. I scooped up the coins, walked back down the hill, apologized for the small change and traded the handful for the red flower. I don’t know why it mattered that I pay something. It just did. Had I taken the flower without any payment, I’d have spent the rest of the day feeling guilty for getting off so cheaply.
I already feel at least a twinge of guilt on Memorial Day most years. Growing up, I knew names of several local, older guys who had died during World War II and the Korean War. Everyone in town knew the names.
The Vietnam War is my generation’s conflict. Like many others my age, I didn’t go. Like many others my age, I know several who did serve. And like many others my age, I know too many who served and didn’t come home. I think of them often, especially on Memorial Day. They did their duty — and mine, too.
Wearing a poppy, I guess, is a way to acknowledge that.