It always happened on a Sunday in Spring. Right before we attended church services, in fact.
My Mom would slide a small handful of coins into my tiny fist with instructions to give them to the man or woman standing on the sidewalk in front of the church. I would return with two or three stiff, red, paper poppies. Each flower stem carried a paper label emblazoned with “VFW” and “disabled veterans” on it. Then, we would head into the church.
Those were the days before I had any inkling of who disabled veterans were or why they would be assembling paper poppies. Not too many years later, the Vietnam War would provide me with battlefield photos and reports putting the glaring truth out in the open.
Memorial Day (originally called Decoration Day) was first enacted to honor Union soldiers of the Civil War. It was expanded after World War I to include any war or military action.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) first distributed poppies right before Memorial Day in 1922. The funds raised support veteran’s and their families welfare. In 1924, the VFW trademarked the term “Buddy Poppy” under the category of artificial flowers so that the public would know that any poppies carrying the name of the VFW were actually made by needy and disabled veterans.
Today, the VFW continues to raise funds for disabled vets in VA hospitals who assemble the poppies that are sold by VFW members around this time of year. The poppies were inspired by a poem by Col. John McCrae of Canada.
In Flander’s Field by John McCrae
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. 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.
I hope you’ll take a few moments out of your day today to silently remember all of those brave men and women who have made watching public fireworks displays and holding backyard barbecues part of normal life for Americans.
Happy Memorial Day!
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