“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.”
During World War II, my maternal grandmother frequently quoted Canadian physician Lt. Col. John McCrae’s poem to me. She and my grandfather would take me to visit World War I veterans at the Sawtell Veterans Home near UCLA.
Nearly 75 years later, I still remember the wheezing, raspy voices of the men of the 42nd “Rainbow” Division and the 1st Division, the earliest Americans to enter the Western Front, who had been given insufficient and/or defective gas masks.
Many of those who didn’t make it back were buried alongside their French and English allies in Flanders Fields along the French-Belgian border. During the warm months, the fields were strewn with poppies.
Flanders Fields was still occupied by the Germans in the spring of 1944, but what impressed me most at that moment were the endless rows of crosses, Stars of David and even a few Islamic Crescents that were just up Sepulveda Boulevard from the veterans home.
When we came to these graves, my grandmother would again recite the poem and tell me the significance of the poppies. She would explain that World War I began in 1914 and didn’t end until Nov. 11, 1918. When it was over, nearly 10 million soldiers and sailors were dead. Another 20 million, mainly soldiers, were maimed.
Then she would add a line of poetry from Moina Michael, who popularized the wearing of poppies in remembrance, and wrote, “And now the Torch and Poppy Red, we wear in honor of our dead. …”
It was all gory stuff for an about-to-be 4-year-old, but I loved it. The following November, I stood wearing a foldable Army “garrison” or “side cap” on a corner along Long Beach Boulevard selling red paper poppies to support the veterans for my grandfather’s Lions Club.
In 1944, Nov. 11 was still called “Armistice Day,” marking the day when the armistice between the U.S., England and France on the western side and Germany on the east took place. It marked the conclusion of what many thought would be “the war to end wars.”
Obviously, it wasn’t. In England, Nov. 11 was known as “Remembrance Day.” In 1954, the U.S. Congress changed the name to Veterans Day to honor the veterans of all of America’s wars.
Poppies are still sold in the UK and Canada but have all but disappeared in the U.S. Some historians have attributed this to the social upheaval that followed the Vietnam War, feeling the poppies “glorified” war. But for me, they always bring a few tears for friends and family who never returned from more recent wars, and the many who did and continued to suffer great pain.
My physician, Dr. Barry Eibschutz, who is Canadian by birth, always wanted to know, “Where have all the poppies gone?”
You are welcome to join me for my annual Halloween Day tour of the 1870s-era Old Mission Cemetery in San Luis Obispo on Wednesday, meeting at the Bridge Street entrance to the cemetery at 4 p.m.
It lasts about 90 minutes and is free and open to the public.
Correction: In my last column I incorrectly identified Fr. Reginald McDonough OFM, as Fr. Reginald Gardiner. Thanks to Lynne Schmitz for catching this error.