Late last Friday night, I landed at London’s Heathrow Airport and made my way to the Central Bus Terminal to catch a bus to Oxford. I was headed there to attend a weekend conference on Healthcare Inequality (perhaps the subject of another post someday).
As I was standing at the bus ticket counter, I noticed that there was a basket of paper red poppies that one could pin to one’s coat or jacket. I reached over and took one, putting two pounds in the jar placed on the counter to collect donations.
The tradition of wearing red poppies is to mark Remembrance Day (popularly referred to as Poppy Day) on November 11th. It is in honor of those who died in the First World War. The practice is inspired by the poem “In Flanders Field” by the Canadian poet, John McCrae. The first verse reads:
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.
While it is widespread in the United Kingdom, many other Commonwealth Nations observe the same practice. However, we do not have a similar practice in the United States. That’s a pity.
Indeed, Remembrance Day observances, or what we call Veterans Day in the United States, have fallen out of highly visible public practice in the United States. Notwithstanding how one might feel about war in general or some of the more specific wars in which the United States has been involved, we owe our veterans a profound debt of gratitude. We give that debt short shrift in big and small ways.
The United States has an all-volunteer military. Any veteran since the end of Vietnam War has served in the military by choice. In my view, our current practices (to say nothing of our policies) do not adequately honor their commitment or sacrifice—or the sacrifice of those who served under the draft, for that matter.
It’s a small gesture, but that’s why I wear a red poppy this time of the year, as odd as it may look on the streets of New York City.
As I struggled with the pin, trying not to prick myself affixing the poppy to my jacket, I complimented ticket sales-woman on her poppy. It was a much more sturdy metal poppy with a backing to affix to a lapel.
Finally, worried that I would miss my bus, I gave up in frustration and stuffed the poppy in my pocket to deal with once I was on the bus to Oxford.
As I was standing in line to board the bus, the woman from the ticket counter raced up to me and grabbed by arm. She handed me a metal poppy lapel pin, like the one she was wearing, as if to say, “Thank you for remembering.”