The Red Poppy - One American Veteran's Story
by Don Drake, Connelly Law Offices, Ltd.
"In just a few short days, America will be observing Memorial Day, a holiday where we honor the men and women who died in service to our country," said certified elder law Attorney RJ Connelly III, a veteran himself. "Originally known as Decoration Day, because families decorated the graves of the deceased, it finally became an official federal holiday in 1971. In observance of this holiday, I always like to republish a blog by Don Drake, a member of our staff, about a personal experience he had as a child with a troubled veteran in his hometown in New Jersey and that vet's love and respect of the red poppy, a symbol of sacrifice and hope."
It was 1968. Having a paper route as a pre-teen introduced me to several interesting and offbeat individuals who lived in or visited my hometown of Phillipsburg, New Jersey. Some of the customers and organizations I delivered to were barrooms, clubs, restaurants, and other small businesses where I got a chance to meet these wonderful characters. It was a different time, but change was on the horizon. A time of turmoil and unrest was beginning with the assassinations of the Reverend Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy.
We were also embroiled in the jungles of Southeast Asia, just a few decades removed from World War II. And although we still had a reverence for our veterans at that point, as the 1970s progressed, that would change drastically. But that's a story for another time. This blog is about the Red Poppy, a small handmade flower given when a donation is made to the American Legion, and just what it meant to one veteran who was back home in New Jersey but mentally had never left the battlefields of Europe.
I first became familiar with the story of the red poppy over fifty-five years ago when meeting a veteran from a Pennsylvanian city on the Delaware River called Easton. His name was John. I became aware of him while walking with my father along that city's main thoroughfare one early winter day in the mid-1960s during the Christmas season. Easton was a short jaunt across a bridge from my hometown and was the location of most major stores and shops in the area.
John was in front of the Army and Navy store in that Pennsylvania city, standing guard at the door of the store. In one hand was a coffee cup and in the other, a cigarette. His mustache and beard were stained yellow and his fingers a mahogany brown, but there he was in the cold, steam rising with every breath, on that damp and chilly December day. This was a scene I would see repeatedly for years along downtown Easton's Northampton Street, rain or shine, hot or cold, he stood in proud repose. He never initiated conversation, but if you made eye contact with him or said hello, he would regale you with a story or two about World War II and then good luck getting away.
I was in grade school at the time and seeing John wearing khaki pants, army boots, and always a sash decorated with dozens of red poppies not only made him stand out but garnered the laughter and ridicule of young and old alike. John was considered "crazy" - harmless - but "crazy". Boy, how I wish I knew then what I know now about John and men and women like him.
I learned that his peers referred to him as "Foxhole John", given his predilection for telling battle stories. When I became old enough to work a newspaper route, I would run into John at the bar in the local American Legion Post when I dropped off the evening paper. He would sit in the corner by himself, downing beer after beer, wearing his sash of red poppies. If I arrived later than usual in the afternoon with the day's news, I would see him staggering down the street to parts unknown.
It seemed whenever I saw him, he was drunk or, at the very least, feeling no pain. This was the case except for the few times a year when I saw him seated outside the local Food Lane grocery store taking collections for veterans and giving out red poppies, and yes, wearing that vest of red flowers over a well-fitting and smartly ironed white, military shirt. On those days, John was sober, clean-shaven, sitting up straight and speaking politely with those who donated. It was a different man I would witness on those days.
During the spring of 1972, I joined an American Legion baseball team where I met a friend named Eddie and his father, Bill. I came to find out that Foxhole John was Eddie’s uncle and Bill his brother. One afternoon, I joined them in meeting John in his small room over the local Atlantic Richfield garage. Upon entering, the first thing I noticed was the stale smell of tobacco and beer. The windows were so stained with tar from the cigarette smoke that the sunshine filtering in was a strange shade of yellow. If I leaned against the wall, the skin on my arm became sticky from the tar, remnants of his burning tobacco.
The room was furnished sparingly, just a couch, table, and chair, and a bed that sagged in the middle, covered with stained sheets containing holes burned in them by cigarettes. In the corner sat a trash barrel full of beer cans and liquor bottles, some of which were still half full. On the wall hung a few pictures, stained brown and tilted in different directions, and a radio sitting next to his bed loudly playing a Yankee baseball game, fading in and out, from a New York radio station, WABC. By the door stood a coat rack on which hung his uniform shirt, stained yellow under the arms, and the sash decorated with red poppies of varying shades. The costume of a "crazy man" I thought to myself.
Upon introducing myself to Foxhole John, he remembered me as “the kid” who delivered the newspaper to the Legion bar, which was said to be his second home, but in reality, his first, given that most of his meals were of the liquid variety. He then launched into a series of war stories and ended up pointing out the medals that were on his shirt and, of course, the dozens of red poppies that adorned a sash. He went on and on about those poppies and how they represented the blood of veterans and the sacrifice of "America's best", something I sadly could not genuinely appreciate at the time.
Just turning thirteen, I didn’t give his stories much thought and just wanted to leave that room, which was uncomfortable, stinky, and seemed to be a scene lifted from the "Twilight Zone". Every time John moved, I could smell a faint stench of body odor mixed with other smells of unknown origin. Quite frankly, I was scared and wanted out.
Upon leaving, I asked Eddie why John lived like that. Eddie was embarrassed by his uncle’s behavior, but his father quickly jumped to John's defense. "My brother is not crazy," he told me. "He's just lost, the war took a piece of him that was never replaced." Not understanding what that meant, I asked Eddie's dad a question that had bothered me since I first became aware of John. "Why does he wear those flowers all the time?"
"Those flowers are poppies," he told me. "And they have a deep meaning to my brother. Honestly, it's what he lives for and is the passion that probably keeps him alive." He went on to tell me about John and how he became the shell of a man I saw living by himself in a sparsely furnished room over a garage. And that story has stayed with me to this very day, and I come to appreciate it more every passing year on each Memorial and Veterans Day.
John’s story began in the 1940s in a small town in Northern New Jersey, ten miles from where I grew up. The United States had been pulled into World War II a few years earlier. His brother Phil had already joined the service. John’s dream was to become a veterinarian since he was raised on a farm and had regularly cared for several sick animals, even helping deliver multiple calves. But like hundreds of thousands of other young Americans at the time, that dream would need to be put on hold.
"John loved bringing life into the world," Bill said, looking into the distance as he thought about happier days. "You could see the joy in his eyes when helping birth calves, or puppies, or even hatching chicks." John was living his American Dream and had big plans for his future.
Shortly after graduating high school, John was drafted into the military. He was assigned to a medical unit, given his understanding of animal anatomy and knowledge of providing medical assistance. Although he was disappointed that his college education would need to wait, he was excited about the prospect of serving next to his brother, Phil.
Phil was the oldest in the family and John remembered when he went off to war and how grown-up he had looked in his uniform. John idolized him.