As the Memorial Day holiday approaches, it's important to remind everyone that this day represents more than just the "traditional start of summer". Originally called Decoration Day due to the tradition of decorating the graves of our fallen with flags, wreaths, and flowers, this holiday is a day of remembrance for those who have died in the service of this country.
Memorial Day was first widely observed on May 30, 1868, as a day to commemorate the sacrifices of Civil War soldiers, through a proclamation by General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of former Union sailors and soldiers. As Memorial Day celebrations evolved, one thing that symbolized the sacrifices made by American soldiers stayed constant -- the red poppy.
According to the American Legion website, "the red poppy is a nationally recognized symbol of sacrifice worn by Americans since World War I to honor those who served and died for our country in all wars. It reminds Americans of the sacrifices made by our veterans while protecting our freedoms. Wear a poppy to honor those who have worn our nation's uniform." So why has this flower come to mean so much to the families of those who have fallen? The story begins over a century ago.
Why the Red Poppy
World War I itself was a brutal affair. Deadly new tools of war were used that had never been seen in previous conflicts resulting in battlefield commanders being woefully unprepared. Because of this, World War I was dubbed the "war to end all wars" by H.G. Wells, and when the fighting ended, casualties totaled more than 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.
After the war, 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 battles. From the dirt, mud and blood grew the beautiful red poppy. 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.
My Childhood Memories of Foxhole John
I first became familiar with the story of the red poppy some five decades ago upon meeting a veteran from a small Pennsylvania 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 mid-1960s during the Christmas season.
There he stood in front of the local Army and Navy store in that small town, seemingly standing guard, giving the once over to all who entered. In one hand a coffee cup and in the other, a burning cigarette. His mustache and beard were stained yellow and his fingers a dark brown and 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 initiated conversation but if you made eye contact with him or said hello, he would regale you with a story or two about the second world war, in which he proudly served.
I was in grade school at the time and seeing John wearing his khaki pants, army boots, and a sash adorned with dozens of red poppies not only made him stand out but usually garnered the laughter and ridicule of kids and even some adults, including myself. John was considered crazy - harmless - but crazy. But boy, how I wish I knew then what I know now.
As I grew older, I learned that those who befriended him had a nickname for the weathered old veteran -- "Foxhole John" -- given his predilection for telling battle stories and sometimes embellishing the retelling. When I was old enough to work a newspaper route, I would run into John at the bar in the local American Legion Post where 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, he was drunk or, at the very least, feeling no pain. However a few times a year, I would see a different side of John, 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.
Meeting John's Family
During the spring in the early 1970s, I joined an American Legion baseball team sponsored by the Bernadine May Post. It was at this time that I met a friend named Greg and his father, Bill. I came to find out that Foxhole John was Greg’s uncle and Bill his brother. One afternoon, I joined them in meeting John at his small room over the local two-pump gas station. Upon entering, the first thing I noticed was the sickening stale smell of tobacco and beer. Looking around, I noticed that the windows were so stained with tar from the cigarette smoke that the sunshine filtering in was a strange shade of yellow. When I leaned against the wall, the skin on my arm became sticky from the remnants of his burning tobacco.
The room itself was sparsely furnished, just a couch, table, and chair - all looking as if they were picked from someone's garbage. His bed, pushed against the corner, sagged in the middle and was covered with stained sheets that contained holes burned in them by cigarettes. In another 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 the play-by-play of a Yankee baseball game, fading in and out, from the New York radio station WMCA. By the door stood a coat rack on which hung a 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 that ended his in 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 young men", something I failed to appreciate at that age.
Just turning 13, I didn’t give his stories much thought and just wanted to leave that room, which was humid, 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.
After leaving, I asked Greg why John lived like that. Greg was embarrassed by his uncle’s behavior but his father jumped quickly to his brother's defense. "John is not crazy," he said sternly and somewhat insulting. "He's just lost, the war took a piece of him that will never be replaced." Not quite grasping what that meant at the time, I asked Greg'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 very 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 those special days meant to honor our soldiers.
It 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 had a special gift -- he seemed to appreciate life, whether it was human or animal. We all thought he would be a doctor."
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 to these creatures. 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 trade winds that blew through the beautiful palm trees of those 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 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 somber tone. Instead of paradise, the warm atoll sands had turned scarlet with the blood of America's sons 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 trade winds now 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 -- to be standing shoulder to shoulder with his brother. However, this was not to be as he was sent to the other side of the world -- 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, fearing his reaction. Eventually, he did find out but held out hope that Phil would be found. It never happened. This was the harsh reality of war.
For John, he 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 and men without faces. 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.
The war ended, as most wars do, and American citizens celebrated the signed treaties. But for those who fought the battles, the celebrations were bittersweet as the next battle was on the horizon -- adapting to civilian life.
Returning Home a Stranger
When John 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 to do so was considered a weakness. So many suffered in silence as each battle they had witnessed replayed inside their heads over and over and over. John was no different.
Coming back to his small Northern New Jersey town, just barely 23 years old yet feeling like he was 75, John avoided people. 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. These memories were not left behind.
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.
From Hero to Exploited
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 his cousin's promises were lies, but no one believed him when he would tell stories. Soon, 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 local package store.
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.
Finding a Mission
Then, the American Legion Post commander asked John if he would help collect 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 Memorial 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 but...it 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 our youth 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.
A Lonely End
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, a local veteran's group stepped in and interred him with the honors he deserved.
The following weekend, his nephew Greg 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.
Words From the Heart
“In Flanders Fields” was a wartime poem written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, M.D. while serving on the front lines. The poem's opening line 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 that 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.
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 Memorial 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 to all those and their families who made the ultimate sacrifice from the staff and their families at Connelly Law Offices, Ltd.