A colleague astonished me yesterday when she asked, “What’s the deal with that red flower?” Specifically, she wanted to know why Prince William, Kate Middleton, and so many other Brits are wearing a poppy on their lapels these days.
For me, though, this was rather like a colleague asking, “What’s the deal with that pink ribbon?” You know, the one people wear throughout the month of October.
For the edification of those of you who have no clue, people wear the poppy from late October to early November (primarily) to remember those who died in WWI. The peace treaty to end this war was reportedly signed at 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918.
That’s why 11:11 is generally observed as Remembrance Day (or Armistice Day).
[Naturally, we thank all veterans for their service. But the blacks who fought so heroically during World War I (and World War II) deserve honorable mention. Because nothing could have been more humbling and humiliating than fighting in Europe to “make the world safe for democracy,” only to return to find that America was still neither safe nor democratic … for black folks.]
That said, the heroic poem “In Flanders Fields” was inspired by the death of one soldier during WWI. But it has evolved over the years into an elegy on all war dead. My primary school teacher taught me to recite it with the same reverence with which my Sunday school teacher taught me to recite “The Lord’s Prayer.”
No doubt the cultural presumption this imbued explains my astonishment at my colleague’s ignorance. Never mind that I now struggle to recite both, which probably reveals as much about my encroaching senility as it does my evolving apostasy.
IN FLANDERS FIELDS
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.
(John McCrae, 1915)
NOTE: This commentary was originally published on 11:11:11. I’ve been reprising it ever since not only to honor all war dead, but also to commend the UK for its awe-inspiring tributes. They always serve as a poignant reminder of the “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” that characterized both world wars.