John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields” — verse invoking images of wind-blown poppies “between the crosses, row on row” that mark the resting place of the fallen — memorializes those who died fighting in World War I.
In 1915, inspired by that poem, a lady named Moina Michael came up with one of her own in support of her proposal that citizens wear red poppies on Memorial Day in honor of those who had died serving their nation during war.
“We cherish too, the poppy red/That grows on fields where valor led/It seems to signal to the skies/That blood of heroes never dies,” she wrote. According to the website usmemorialday.org, Ms. Michael sold poppies to her friends and co-workers, the money going to benefit servicemen in need.
Just before Memorial Day in 1922, the Veterans of Foreign Wars became the first veterans’ organization to sell poppies nationally, and two years later its “Buddy Poppy” program began selling artificial poppies made by disabled veterans.
The tradition spread to other countries, and in 1948, the U.S. Postal Department honored the poppy lady by issuing a red 3-cent postage stamp with her likeness on it. Today, just as it is said that the opera isn’t over until the fat lady sings, Memorial Day weekend is not here until veterans groups set up their card tables at store entrances nationwide to dispense the artificial poppies and accept monetary donations to benefit veterans’ causes.
I dropped my contribution in the container and walked away from a Caribou business establishment on Wednesday with imitation poppy pinned to my hat, courtesy of two ladies of the American Legion Auxiliary. With the crepe paper memento serving as a prompt, my thoughts turned to Monday’s solemn day of remembrance, once known as Decoration Day, and what it means to families who have lost loved ones in war. And what it might mean, as well, for those who have sons or daughters, husbands or sweethearts in harm’s way, or about to become so in military deployment to the world’s volatile hot spots.
At roughly the same time, a solemn military ceremony was taking place at the State House in Augusta, where 11 dog tags bearing the names of servicemen from Maine, or with ties to Maine, who died in Iraq or Afghanistan were added to the Battlefield Cross Memorial. There they joined the names of 39 other Mainers who have died in service since the global war on terrorism began more than a decade ago.
Those honored Wednesday had come from Exeter, South Portland, Sanford, Old Orchard Beach, Waterville, Smyrna Mills, Oakland, Mexico and Orono. Two were residents of the small Somerset County community of New Portland — population 785 in the 2000 census — bringing the tragedy of war to the home front with cruel emphasis. In small-town Maine where everyone knows everyone, the losses hit with a vengeance. “Mere words cannot do justice to their sacrifices,” Gov. Paul LePage said of those memorialized.
Like others before them, our deceased young warriors willingly answered their country’s call to arms, many learning all too soon the truth in Gen. William T. Sherman’s assessment that war “is, at best, barbarism … it’s glory all moonshine.”
Their contributions were immense, their tenacity and courage well documented, and society will forever be indebted to them. It is their common link with the dead of the nation’s previous wars, a point likely to be driven home in Memorial Day observances throughout the state come Monday.
Maine cemeteries have been spruced up in advance of the holiday, the family plots having been given tender, loving care by relatives and volunteers. A visitor need not be a highly trained observer to notice that there are more American flags marking grave sites of veterans this year than in previous years.
The proliferation of red, white and blue is confirmation of what the newspaper obituary pages tell us nearly daily: Those aging veterans who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam are leaving us in rapidly increasing numbers, gone to their heavenly reward. Gone, but like their comrades in arms of World War I who sleep in Flanders Fields, never to be forgotten.
BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.