Saturday, November 12, 2011

I Remember Armistice Day

If November 11th fell on a school day, it was always the same scenario--in grade school as well as high school. At promptly 11:00 a.m. all students would stand, face the classroom flag, bow our heads, and spend two minutes in silent prayer.

It was Armistice Day. The day we thanked God for the end of WWI and for those who had served our country and come home safe. Even though we hadn't been around during that war, we knew enough to be grateful for those who had protected our freedoms, for we actually understood war to some small degree, having lived through WWII as children.

School kids commemorated the rest of Armistice Day as soon as school was over. That's when our teachers led us across town to the riverbank and handed out either white or red carnations. I chose a red one because my uncle, a WWII medic, had come home safe and whole. Some of my friends chose white ones, and though I never asked, I knew that somewhere along the way of wars, they had lost family members.

Once we each had our flower in hand, we tossed them into the river then watched as they drifted downstream, out past the end of town, out toward farm country, past cows grazing on browned grasses and field mice skittering along the reedy banks. I never knew how long they stayed afloat. I always hoped it was a long time so that as the river pulsed past the next town, others would see our flowers and remember to thank our veterans.

Following WWII, Armistice Day became Veteran's Day and rather than honoring only the living, we now honored all who had served in wartime. In my day, we were taught to be patriotic, both at home and at school. And while I always saw old guys around town selling red poppies, I never understood their meaning till I was older. All I knew at that point in my life was that they had something to do with war.

According to the Department of Veteran's Affairs, there are currently 24.9 million military veterans in the United States. And while we can't thank an American WWI vet, since the last one standing passed away in 2009 at the age of 111, we can thank those we know or those we come across in our daily living. Without them, we would not sleep sound in our beds at night nor walk free during the day.

And while this blog is a bit late, it remains heartfelt. For me, now the widow of a Korean War vet, it comes strongly to mind to thank our military day in and day out. Each day they purchased for freedom is a gift to me. They serve, expecting nothing in return. Yet each smile and handshake along with a "Thank you for your service," brings forth an ear to ear grin from even the most exhausted and battle weary troop.

November 11th is the day we honor our military, past and present, and whether we call it Armistice Day or Veteran's Day is of little matter, for what we acknowledge is the fact that at one time in their lives, each veteran and current troop signed a blank check payable to we the people, promising to guard our shores, our people, and our way of life--even if it cost his life. How on earth can we do less than go out of our way to say "Thank You?"

History tells us that The Great War took place from 1914-1918 when the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey faced off against the Allied Powers comprised of Great Britain, Russia, Italy, and Japan. By the time WWI ended in defeat for the Central Powers, more than 9 million soldiers had been killed and 21 million more had been wounded. 

While battles raged here and there, the one most remembered today is the battle of Yrpes  in Belgium and had it not been for Lt. Col. John McCrae, a Canadian doctor attached to the 1st Field Artillery Brigade, it is likely no one but historians would today even give thought to WWI or the Battle of Yrpes in a place known as Flanders Field.

Photos show the battlefield, known as Flanders Field, had been war pocked and churned up to naught more than a barren wasteland. During the second day of battle a young Canadian officer was killed when an exploding German artillery shell landed near him. His close friend, Dr. John McCrae, grieving the death of his buddy, composed a short poem to honor him. He called it "In Flanders Fields" and dated it May, 1915.

Those buried where they
lay were later moved to
a proper cemetery

In Flanders field 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.

The American section
of Flanders Field cemetery

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.

Flanders Field today,
where still the poppies
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; by yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Thus was born the remembrance flower, the common red field poppy, which now serves as an international symbol of the great loss of life in war. With that bit of history in mind, the next time you see some "old" gentleman standing outside a store with red poppies in hand, toss some change in the pot and wear your flower proudly. Then pass the history on to those who have not learned that in Flanders Field, the poppies still grow.

Posted by Sandy Keith, November 12, 2011, in honor of my husband Jim, a Korean War vet who joined the military at age seventeen, knowing full well he would end up in the war. He served four years active; three inactive, and always said joining the service was the smartest move he'd ever made.

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