"On Armistice Day, the philharmonic will play"
-- Paul Simon
My grandmother, Catherine Mackenzie McCrae Higgins, was born in Canada. She said, "aboat" and, "eh?", put two syllables in "film" and invariably told the same story every year, that her cousin, Lt Col John McCrae wrote a poem in WWI called, "In Flanders Fields."
As a child, I recall frayed old men in tattered uniforms handing out Red Paper Poppies on the corner of Hollywood and Vine. And as I dropped a dime into the bucket, a donation to the veterans of past wars, I was more enamored with the brightly colored lapel garnish than with any deeper significance.
To this 10-year-old, there was a modicum of cache attached to the fact that I was a distant relative of some famous person. But "Ike" was president and we were far enough away from WWII, the "last great war," for any of this to have real meaning for me. And so, it is the Red Paper Poppy that I recall.
It was tradition on this day, during Assembly in the auditorium of Cheremoya Grammar School, for the poem to be read...
"In Flanders Fields, the poppies blow, I see the crosses row on row."
As the years passed, Armistice Day, gave way to Remembrance, or Poppy Day, which in turn became Veteran's Day and an "extra 20 percent off at Macy's."
The iconic poem was written by Canadian surgeon, Lt Colonel John McCrae, on the blood soaked and crimson poppy strewn battlefield of Ypres Salient in Belgium, during the time when we started numbering the wars.
"In Flanders Fields" was a eulogy for a fallen brother. Although it was written in 1915, its significance and melancholy ring even truer as the years pass, on these anniversaries in which we honor those who have made the "supreme sacrifice" for their country.
My uncle Sgt.Thomas F.("Dude") Bachom's name is carved into the cold marble of the "Wall of the Missing" in Ardennes, France. "Dude" was a radio operator and flew with the "303rd Bomb Group" known as the "Hells Angels." He was shot down over the English Channel three months after he joined the United States Army Air Corps, December 20, 1942. He was 19-years-old.
Captain Patty Brown, whom I met only once, was a Marine and Vietnam Veteran with two tours and a Silver Star to his credit. But it was as a Captain of Ladder 3 in the FDNY that Patrick laid down his life in defense of his country, on September 11, 2001. He was 48-years-old.
But it was while visiting the firehouse who lost half their men, including their beloved Captain, shortly after 9/11, that I met a man, with his two young daughters, that I learned the whole story of the poem. They had come all the way from Belgium to pay their respects to Captain, Patty Brown. When I told him of the poem, he sent me the story of its writing, as he lived near Flanders.
As the story goes, Lieut. Alexis Helmer of Ottawa (where my grandmother was born), a young friend and former student of Dr McCrae's, was killed by a shell burst during a particularly bloody battle. The remains of his decimated body were fashioned together with sandbags, as John recited the eulogy, a poem he had scribbled in a matter of minutes in the spring of 1915, as he gazed out to his fallen and wounded brothers, and the field of blood red poppies which had sprung up...he would later write of that day...
"I wish I could embody on paper some of the varied sensations of that seventeen days... Seventeen days of Hades! At the end of the first day if anyone had told us we had to spend seventeen days there, we would have folded our hands and said it could not have been done."
I was once told, on November 11th at 11am, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, comemrating the signing of the Armistice between the Allies of World War I and Germany, Canadian school children stop whatever they are doing and recite these beautiful words.
In Flanders Fields (May 3, 1915)
Lt Col. John McCrae, MD
Whose body lies 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 amidst the guns below.
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.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
In all true art, there is no expiration date. Words and music born out of the artists pain, become an immortal and timeless Anthem for the reader. The great gift and healing of art is this harmonic connection with our collective grief, words WE would have written if we could summon them. The perfect words. This is the healing of art. As if to say, "You are not alone. I have gone before you and I have felt your pain and I have survived." This is the legacy between the lines. Hope.