Monday is Memorial Day which means that outside every Krogers and Sam’s Club and fill-in-the-name-of-any-high-traffic-store-here is a guy in uniform, usually elderly, with a bunch of cheap flowers and a can, making me feel guilty because I’m not shelling out for them. I’ve seen those poppies all my life; in the little blue-collar town I grew up in, you wore one of those on Memorial Day because the VFW was everywhere, and everybody you knew had either served or knew somebody who had, and I have mixed feelings about that town. Plus the flowers are poppies because of John McCrea’s “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.
Famous poem, it drills in my head whenever I see any kind of poppy, but the thought of all those crosses and blood-colored flowers is not one that goes with a long sunny weekend and the smell of grilling meat. McCrea’s war was WWI, the war my grandfather was proud to have served in. My uncle was proud to serve in WWII. My dad was mad that he qualified as a pilot just as that war ended so he never got to fly in combat; my mother was relieved. That history is kind of romantic, but then there was my war: before I got to my freshman year of college, I’d lost a friend from my graduating class to Viet Nam. Two years later, the government shot people like me in Ohio, the safest place in the world, because they were protesting the war, and as the child of Republican parents who never questioned the government, everything I believed in blew up in an instant. I started protesting the war and, by extension, the military. Two years later I was living on a military base with a husband in the ranks at home and a brother-in-law in the worst of the fighting in Viet Nam.
Poppies. I have mixed feelings.
But I believe in Memorial Day. I believe we need a strong military and from my experience within, I believe that the majority of military personnel are proud to serve their country. They go places I would not go and do things I could not do, and in doing so they keep me and those I love safe. I disagree with how our military is being used, and I’m appalled at how our military personnel are abused, but I’m grateful for the work they do every day.
So now it’s Memorial Day weekend, and as Paul Rieckhoff says, the military celebrate it very differently than civilians do. What he said made me remember everything I wrote above, the things I never think about because they’re in the past or because they’re happening far away to people I don’t know. So today I’m remembering the classmates I lost in Viet Nam, and the boy from our county who was captured and executed in Iraq, and all the others who gave their lives for their country, not just the ones who died but also the ones who left their families and put their lives on hold to serve. Whatever the political climate, whatever your political bent, Memorial Day is not about politics or war or peace or right or wrong or anything else but remembering and being grateful to those who served.
Which is why, when I went to Sam’s Club for asthma meds and kids’ suntan lotion and paper towels, I stopped at the poppy table on the way out and looked at a piece of wire and some cheap red fabric, and sixty years of mixed memories and mixed emotions came rolling back.
I bought a poppy.
Happy Memorial Day.