Lessons of the Red Poppy on this Veteran's Day

Wednesday, November 11, 2020, is Veteran's Day. As always, we would like to share our annual Veteran's Day blog with our readers.

As this Veteran's Day approaches, it is the 102nd Anniversary of the end of World War I. Dubbed the "war to end all wars" by H.G. Wells, the fighting ended with casualties totaling in excess of 40 million people between military personnel and civilians. According to best estimates, there were 20 million deaths and 21 million wounded. The deaths included 9.7 million military personnel and over 10 million civilians.

And from those blood-stained fields of Europe rose hundreds of thousands of red poppies, which came to symbolize remembrance of those who served and those who died. I first became familiar with the story of the red poppy some five decades ago upon meeting a veteran from a small town on the Delaware River called Easton. His name was John. I became aware of him while walking with my father along that town's main street one year in the 1960s during the Christmas season.

There he stood in front of the local Army and Navy store in that small Pennsylvania town, seemingly standing guard, at the front 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 dark brown, but there he was in the cold, on a damp December day, unfazed by the weather. This was a scene I would see over and over again for years along Northampton Street, rain or shine, hot or cold, there he stood in proud repose. He never bothered anyone but if you made eye-contact with him or said hello, he would regale you with a story or two about World War II.

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 kids and adults alike. John was considered "crazy" - harmless - but "crazy". Boy, how I wish I knew then what I know now.

As I grew older, I learned that his peers referred to him as "Foxhole John", given his predilection for telling battle stories. When I was 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 John at that time, 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 military shirt. On those days, John was sober, clean-shaven, sitting up straight and speaking politely with those who donated.

During the spring in the early 1970s, 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 at his small room over the local ARCO 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 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 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 the 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 seemed to be his second home, or perhaps his first, given that most of his meals seemed to be of the liquid variety. He then launched into a series of war stories and ended in pointing out his 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 young men".

Just turning 13, 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 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 jumped quickly 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 quite understanding what that meant at the time, 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 man I saw living by himself in a nearly empty room over a garage. And that story has stayed with me to this very day and I come to appreciate it more each passing year on Veterans Day.

John’s story began in the 1940s in a small town in Northern New Jersey. 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 cared for a number of sick animals, even helping deliver a number of 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. "You could see the joy in his eyes when helping birth calves, or puppies, or even hatching chicks." John was living his American Dream.

Shortly after graduating high school, John was drafted into the military. He ended up being 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.

During his last year in high school, John would read the letters that Phil sent home describing the warm weather and beautiful palm trees of the Pacific islands. This motivated him to go to the local library and take out books containing stories of the South Pacific with photos of the islands and atolls that populated the region. He sometimes felt envy about Phil being in this paradise and made a silent vow to join him someday.

But just before shipping out to basic training, the letters that John was getting from his brother had taken a decidedly different tone. Instead of paradise, the warm atoll sands had turned scarlet with blood and the placid and clear waters of the Pacific became polluted with the fuel of sunken ships and the floating decomposing bodies of those killed in battle. The warm winds smelled of burning oil and rotting corpses and the sunsets, once fiery orange and stunningly beautiful were now filtered by an artificial fog of black and gray smoke. Paradise, it seemed, had become hell.

But John still had one dream -- that was to be standing shoulder to shoulder with his brother. However, this was not to be as he was sent to the battlefields of Europe. John consoled himself by forming many friendships with others and just having the knowledge that both he and his brother were fighting for a just cause. He would write letter after letter to Phil but received no answer, chalking it up to the distance and the business of war that they were conducting.

Meanwhile back home, his family had received the news that Phil was missing in action on Iwo Jima. They decided not to share this information with John, not knowing how he would react. Eventually, he did find out and but he held out hope that Phil would be found. It never happened. This was the reality of war.

John found his duty as a medic to be more like working as an undertaker rather than a lifesaver. Instead of mending the injured, he was picking up pieces of bodies. Back home, other young men his age were playing softball, going to drive-in movies and dances while John sat in a cold, wet uniform awaiting the next salvo from the enemy and the deaths and macabre gathering of body parts that would follow.

When he returned home, his family whispered that he was not the same, but no one dared to say this out loud. Few returning veterans at the time spoke about the horrors they saw and even fewer would admit that they were scarred by the experience. For John, he lost his brother, his friends, and even more importantly, he lost himself.

John came back to New Jersey, to a town named Harmony, just barely 23 years old yet feeling like he was 75. Gone was the dream of being a veterinarian. He had no interest in the family farm anymore and was repulsed by the image of a cow giving birth. The sight of oil stains on the road elicited memories of blood-spattered truck beds where bodies and pieces of bodies were tossed for evacuation back to the camp where men, still too young to have a beer in the States, were tasked with trying to match limbs with torsos using dog tags for identification.

During the day, he was too tired to find a job and at night he was too awake to sleep. Every time he closed his eyes, he relived the horrors of the war, the loss of friends, his bare hands holding together gaping, bloody wounds hoping for the best while in reality just delaying the inevitable. The backfire of a car, the smell of burning leaves, and even a summer thunderstorm caused John’s heart to race and his stomach to convulse. He was back home but it seemed like he never left the field of battle.

In those days, it was called “battle fatigue” or “shell shock”. Today we know this as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Returning veterans did not talk about this for fear of being ridiculed. “Be a man,” they were told. For John, being a man meant pulling up a stool at the American Legion Post where he drowned those thoughts with whatever liquor he could afford.

As John aged, he was unable to hold down any meaningful employment but did work from time to time at a local gas station owned by his cousin, doing menial tasks that made him just enough money to keep him in alcohol. His welfare check helped pay the rent for a room in a local flophouse.

Bill said that he and John’s cousin suggested that he move into a room above his garage, which would be made over into a small living area. All John had to do was give him a portion of his check and he would be provided with three meals a day, a place to live with all utilities included. John jumped at the chance.

After his parents died, the siblings sold the family farm for a substantial amount of money and John's portion of the estate was placed in an account opened by his cousin, who volunteered to "manage his money" and keep him safe and healthy.

As time went by, John began to realize the promises of his cousin were lies, but no one believed him. He became known as "the drunk in the trunk". On a good day, John was lucky to receive a stale sandwich for lunch and a bowl of canned beef stew for dinner from his "caring" cousin. He had very few clothes and most of the time lacked the most basic of hygiene supplies.

Neighbors who saw John wearing flannel shirts in the heat of summer or shorts in sub-zero weather chalked it up to his alcoholism. He became the butt of jokes from the adults in the community to the children who enjoyed teasing him whenever he went out for a walk. So John stayed home most of the time except, of course, when he visited the American Legion, the Army and Navy store, or the liquor outlet.

Bill said he had tried to talk John into leaving the room he was renting but he refused to do so. He also refused to show Bill his bank account fearing reprisals from the cousin. Confrontations with the cousin usually ended with John being treated even worse so the family looked the other way.

Then, the commander at the American Legion Post asked John if he would help in collecting donations on Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day at the local market. The first few times, John was uncomfortable, but it seemed those who donated gave him the respect he deserved. He would lecture those on the significance of the red poppy, usually garnering weird looks from those who didn't quite understand, but most held him in high esteem.

Bill said of John at the time, “… he takes his role seriously. He understands that each donation can help a veteran avoid the mistakes he made. And when someone refuses the poppy he offers them, he explains the meaning of the red poppy and how important it is to display it for the veterans and their families.”

Bill often reminded me that the sash of red poppies that he wore "is not the clothing of a crazy man but a tribute to those who served and those who continue to serve."

For John, he wished that every day was Veteran’s Day and he wanted all Americans to know that. The red poppy represented the friends he lost, his brother who never returned, those crippled both physically and mentally, and the good deeds that organizations like the American Legion and others were doing for veterans.

As I grew older and became closer to John, I would listen to his stories, always interesting, always having a deeper meaning, which I would not come to appreciate until I had gained a better understanding of the world. One warm Memorial Day, I sat with John and his nephew outside the Food Lane department store as he told a story about a discovery he made after an allied bombing raid on a French city.

"We were going in to clean up and I heard moaning coming from a pile of rubble. I found a French woman, hurt really bad and dying. I also noticed she was pregnant and giving birth. Me and some other medics delivered the baby but she was just too small, we hoped to find life in all the death just died." Was it true? We would never know, but in John's mind it was, and in any case, the story personified what John was feeling.

As he spoke, you could see the sadness in his eyes as he stared off into space, reliving the experience, or maybe just a confabulation of experiences -- surely not for the first time. He then said to me, “If I could, I would have gladly given my life to save that baby…I guess things don’t work that way in the real world.”

Those of us who had spent time with John moved on with our lives and visited him less and less. As he aged, we would see him sitting outside the local Food Lane every Veteran's Day and Memorial Day, collecting money and handing out poppies. The vest remained but the poppies faded with age, although he would add a few new ones every now and then. With each passing year, John looked more tired and sickly. His lawn chair eventually became a wheelchair as he slouched at the table, still doing what he loved but it was obvious the effort was draining him.

It ended for John on one chilly March night when he was found dead in his bed, succumbing to a cirrhotic liver. A proud American veteran who gave all he had for the country died in squalor and loneliness. Making matters worse, it became apparent that the "caring cousin" had exploited John for his money. A brave soldier who had battled the enemy in a foreign land to keep America free returned home only to become a victim of financial abuse by a family member. There was not even enough money to bury him. Thankfully, the local veteran's groups stepped in and interred him with the honors he deserved.

The following weekend, his nephew Eddie asked me to help him and his father clean out John’s room. Upon entering, even though it looked the same as I had remembered it many years before, I had a different understanding and appreciation for John and what he treasured. I looked closer at the pictures on the wall.

There was a poster of John Kennedy, probably three decades old and removed from the magazine section of the Sunday New York Daily News, a photo of his brother Phil in his officer's uniform and two poems, “In Flander’s Field” and “We Shall Keep The Faith” -- both framed and hanging on either side of a dirty and stained American flag. After reading the poems, I wanted to learn more about the red poppy that John loved and the poems that were so important to him that they held such prominence in his room. What I learned gave me a new appreciation for the red poppy and why John cherished it so.

Shortly after the end of World War I, the poppy flourished in Europe. Scientists attributed the growth to soils in France and Belgium becoming enriched with lime from the rubble left by the war. From the dirt and mud grew the beautiful red poppy. The flower came to symbolize the bloodshed during battle after a wartime poem called “In Flanders Fields” was published. The poem was written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, M.D. while serving on the front lines.

The opening line of the poem refers to the site of the thousands of crosses laid out to mark where so many soldiers died for their countries. Among these crosses grew the red poppy, a resilient flower that could lie dormant for years and then reappear in great numbers in fields which were bare just years before.

For Lt. Col. McCrea, the poppy signified the bravery of military heroes who would appear in great numbers to assist and fight with their comrades against the oppression and tyranny of the enemy during "the war to end all wars" then disappearing and lying dormant until the call came again.

In 1918, humanitarian Moina Michael wrote a poem as a tribute to McCrea’s accounting of the deaths on Flanders Field and as a result, the poppy became the official symbol for the remembrance of our heroes - those who died and those who survived.

On September 27, 1920, the poppy became the official flower of The American Legion family to memorialize the soldiers who fought and died during the war. In 1924, the distribution of poppies became a national program of The American Legion.

Led by the American Legion Auxiliary, each year members of The American Legion Family distribute poppies with a request that the person receiving the flower make a donation to support the future of veterans, active-duty military personnel, and their families with medical and financial needs. Most of these poppies are assembled by disabled veterans as part of their rehabilitation.

Distributing the poppies was John’s passion. One which he never lost despite the internal pain and suffering he endured until his death. Below are those poems that were written by Lt. Col. McCrea and Moina Michael and I encourage you to read them and truly think about their meaning.

In Flander’s Field

by Lt. Col. John McCrae, 1915

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.

Lt. Col. John McCrae is buried in Wimereux, France after succumbing to pneumonia in 1918.

“We Shall Keep the Faith”

By Moina Michael

Oh! You who sleep in Flanders fields, Sleep sweet – to rise anew! We caught the torch you threw And holding high, we keep the Faith With All who died

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, But lends a lustre to the red Of the flower that blooms above the dead In Flanders field

And now the Torch and Poppy Red We wear in honor of our dead Fear not that ye have died for naught; We’ll teach the lesson that you wrought In Flanders field.

Although this Veteran's Day may be different due to the pandemic, if you do see a veteran manning a table adorned by red poppies when exiting a grocery store, remember what these flowers symbolize and how important your donation is. Maybe, just maybe, instead of heading to the doughnut shop to buy an overpriced cup of coffee, consider dropping those few extra cents into the container to help our veterans and their families.

And when given the red poppy by the veteran, don't just throw it into the car where it will be stepped on, disrespected, and tossed out with the trash, think about the disabled veteran who made it and why it was so important to an American Hero like John. And remember the last stanza of Moina Michael's poem:

And now the Torch and Poppy Red We wear in honor of our dead Fear not that ye have died for naught; We’ll teach the lesson that you wrought In Flanders field.

Thank you, John, and all of our veterans!