Taft: Poppies are the symbol of Memorial Day

Like so many holiday weekends, this is one of those times when folks are happy for a chance for some fun at the beach, on the water, in the mountains or just a place to get away from it all and rest. But few know why they have the time off in the first place.

You may see men and women in the uniform of some Veterans organization — such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars or the American Legion — passing out silk or paper poppies (for a donation) in shopping malls as a hint that this is Memorial Day weekend.

So what, you might wonder, are we memorializing? The fact that it started out at least 146 years ago as Decoration Day doesn’t help either. What are we decorating?

The whole idea started officially in 1868 when veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic set a day in May (when flowers would be in bloom) as a time to decorate with bouquets the graves of the 215,000 dead from the Civil War. Following the requisite speeches by suitable officials, children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home and members of the GAR, singing hymns and reciting prayers as they went, made their way through Arlington National Cemetery strewing flowers on both Union and Confederate graves.

Other local ceremonies had sprung up throughout the North and the South earlier or at about the same time and many were called Memorial Day observances. Businesses closed, flags flew at half mast and flowers were placed on graves of the Civil War dead.

Not until after World War I was the event designated to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice in all of our nation’s wars (634,597 in 20 conflicts since the Civil War) and it was not until 1971 that Congress declared Memorial Day to be a national holiday to be observed on the last Monday in May.

There are few civic ceremonies marking the day anymore, but most local VFW, American Legion or DAV (Disabled American Veterans) groups will have a ceremony of lowering flags to half-mast, patriotic speeches and prayers. Some folks will go to cemeteries to place flowers on graves. Throughout the weekend, veterans from those organizations and their auxiliaries will offer red poppies to passersby, mostly in shopping areas.

Those poppies — red symbolizing blood shed in war — are a tradition promoted by the VFW since 1922. Seven years earlier, Moina Michael, a native of New Hope, Ga., vowed to encourage people to wear poppies in memory of those who died in Europe during World War I. The idea came to the University of Georgia professor in response to the popular poem, “In Flanders Field,” by Canadian doctor John McCrae, who had served in that conflict.

Because she was teaching a class of disabled veterans and saw the need for help, Michael started selling silk poppies and contributing the money to helping such veterans. For her efforts, the U.S. Post Office dedicated a 3-cent stamp to her in 1948, four years after her death.

Around the country last year, veteran organizations distributed 10 million Buddy Poppies made by disabled men and women, veterans in hospitals and other facilities, reported Randi Law, communications manager for the national office of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Kansas City, Mo. Donations from those receiving the traditional red flowers amounted to $13 million, she said. That money compensates the veterans who assemble the poppies, provides financial assistance in maintaining state and national rehabilitation and service programs, and partially supports the VFW National Home for Orphans and Widows of our nation’s veterans.

Typical of the two relatively small VFW posts and two American Legion Posts in the Brooksville-Spring Hill area are:

♦ VFW Post 10209 at 1473 Edward R. Noll Drive In Spring’ Hill, where Mike Gonsalves, a combat medic from the Army’s 101st Airborne unit in Vietnam, is in charge of charitable projects. “Our aim is to improve on last year’s record of nearly 700 poppies distributed and donations of nearly $1,500. Part of that money went for Thanksgiving turkeys for needy families. Representatives of the post will be offering the flowers at the Sam’s Club at 13360 Cortez Blvd.

A formal ceremony open to the public will be held at the post at 11 a.m. Monday, said Gonsalves, himself a disabled veteran. The ceremony will be followed by entertainment featuring Gene Collins of Down Deep Sound.

♦ VFW Post 8713 at 1681 E. Jefferson St. in Brooksville where incoming post Cmdr. Dave Doerr said the 138 members of his unit aim to distribute 500 poppies in the Winn Dixie shopping area at 1230 S. Broad St. and the Publix shopping area at 19390 Cortez Blvd.

In addition, Doerr, a Navy seaman during the Vietnam conflict, said there would be a Memorial Day service outdoors at the post with a flag ceremony and a program during which the principal speaker will be Chaplain Dennis Wilson.

Those activities are planned to conform to the order of Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, who was in charge of the first official observance of Declaration Day. He directed that posts under his command decorate graves, “with the choicest flowers of springtime.” He urged: “Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”

A veteran of the 100th Infantry Division in World War II, Adon Taft was for 48 years a reporter for the Miami Herald. He lives in Brooksville and is a frequent contributor to Hernando Today. Email him at adontaft@yahoo.com.

Taft: Poppies are the symbol of Memorial Day
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