As America headed into the Vietnam War in the early 1960's, a preppy folk group called The Kingston Trio was climbing the pop charts with a Pete Seeger anti-war song called "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" To cut a long repetitive lyric short, the answer was first to become soldiers and then "to graveyards everyone." Anti-war Seeger saw total catastrophe as the only alternative to peace at any price. But it was a great song.
In those days on Memorial Day in May and on Veterans' Day in November, then still called "Armistice Day," millions of Americans were ablaze with bright red poppies with green wire stems in buttonholes or wound around purse straps in honor of America's veterans.
The tradition began in England after the terrible casualties of World War I. It took the symbol of the poppy from a poem by a Canadian Col. McCrae who died in the war and wrote "In Flanders Field." Many who had served in the battlefields of Flanders and France were struck by the faithful blossoming of the bright red poppies there each Spring, despite the shell-torn devastation of the once placid farmland. The poppies came to symbolize the sacrifice of so many of their comrades. As early as 1919 a display of paper poppies in their memory had become a new tradition among several nations.
Each poppy then and now was handmade by a veteran, many in Veterans Administration Hospitals. It provided them a little much-needed income and another source for funds for rehabilitation. A donation in exchange for a poppy was seen as a way to honor the dead and help surviving veterans at the same time. .In 1965 almost 19 million poppies were ordered.
But even after the 30 years of the Vietnam War, The Invasion of Grenada, The Panama Intervention, The Gulf War of 1991 and the Afghan and Iraqi Wars, last year's poppy sales had dropped by almost 75%. And poppies had all but vanished from a great city like New York.
The American Legion Auxiliary, a women's organization, took over the responsibility for distributing the largest share of the poppies back in 1924. But like many organizations, from the Elks to the Masons over the past 30 years of Americans "bowling alone," the Auxiliary also lost about 75% of its membership. And although the American population nearly doubled in those years, the Auxiliary's distribution of poppies dwindled from 19 million to 5 million. Why?
"Perhaps Americans don't feel quite so personally involved with our professional volunteer fighting forces as they had been with a military largely made up of draftees," said Carol Van Kirk, National President of the American Legion Auxiliary in Indianapolis. "And organizations like ours that depend largely on volunteers find fewer homemakers available in a world in which many families have to depend upon working women for their income. Fortunately with the Internet, there are new ways of reaching more people at lower cost and we are exploring some of them now."
One hopes she is right. Certainly if the yellow ribbons and American flags displayed on the bumpers of millions of cars and trucks and mail boxes across the nation are any indication, there is widespread support among the American people for our military that is as deep as the educational system in the United States is steadfastly opposed to it. And that may be the key to where all the poppies have gone.
How many school rooms in America have Memorial Day or Veterans' Day displays today compared to the early 1960s? One quarter at best? And what are traditions if they are not commemorated in the minds of children? How many of the children who grew up in the past 30 years would even know why someone was wearing a red poppy on Memorial Day if they saw one?
For that matter how many even know the story behind the first Memorial Day itself that does so much to remind us of the duties of survivors to those who gave their lives in a bitter war?
It began one year after the close of the Civil War in a small city in the northeastern corner of Mississippi. Columbus had somehow emerged relatively intact from the ravages of a war that had destroyed so many towns and cities around it. There were 1400 Confederate graves nonetheless. And vines and weeds in the deep South grew fast in the fertile land so there was a lot of work to be done in the first months of Spring after the war. The ladies and many widows of Columbus decided to clean and decorate the graves of the dead on what they called then that April 25th 1866 and for years after: "Decoration Day." The local newspaper stated "We were glad to see there was no distinction made between our own dead and about forty Federal soldiers."
Surely a national tradition that began with such a generous gesture after a bitter civil war is more instructive to young Americans than the often absurd politically correct observances that now crowd the calendars of American schools, as trivial as Presidential proclamations of "National Clown Week."