Sunday, November 6, 2016



Just two poppies grew this summer from the seed  from Flanders Fields that my son Mark gave me.
Yet I tended them like they were the rarest orchids. For they bring back my lifetime of worry and fear and mystery and doubt about war and its music and its savage waste.
There used to be more poppies. I dug up a couple and gave them to people whom I thought would treasure a flower from Flanders Fields. They didn't say much but then the blossom really honours remembrance and not a gush of words.
But the main enemy of the flowers in the big bowl of  an ancient cream separator has been the west wind that always pounds my cottage point and some determined daisies.
If there are none in the spring, I will have a reason to return to Flanders Fields which has been seared in my memory since I first heard that simple but grand poem as a kid.
Hanging in my house for decades has been one of the rare original colour print copies of In Flanders Fields that was produced and sold by the American Red Cross in its war relief drives in Manhattan in 1917 when the U. S. finally got off its ass to join the slaughter to end all slaughters.
Lt. Col. John McRae, who in death became the pride of Guelph, had his poem published in Punch in 1915 when it was a world-famous magazine.  Only several inches of type. There are several versions of how it was reprinted into fame, most of them concluding that the big push came when it appeared in a book in 1919 in New York City.
So collectors used to praise that "first" edition, not realizing there was this sombre black-and-white poster two years earlier showing a few crosses under a giant tree with poppies nestled in the grass. It is up to you and I to add the red of spilled blood.
Some years ago, John McDermott, whose lovely tenor takes on a heavenly sweetness when he sings about peace and war and its human wreckage,  recorded a CD called Remembrance about war songs.
He asked me to write the liner notes. There was a sold-out concert afterwards at Roy Thomson Hall.  I  worried that he might not just introduce me but also get me to participate in the traditional recitation of Flanders Fields. It is a poem that wallops my emotions every time. I didn't mind a few tears before a crowded hall but would I be able to start again?
McDermott had Cliff Chadderton of the War Amps, who died in honourable old age in 2013, read the legendary words in a flat steady tone, almost relentless like an advancing tank, and it was just great.
It is a poem where the poppies and the words are the stars, not the speaker, even one like Chadderton  who left the prairies to leave part of a right leg behind in Holland.
 I have written about the jerks who trash the red poppy, like a Canadian senator, or steal the Legion's collection box, which should be a hanging offence.
There even have been people who have criticized me anchoring my poppy with a Canadian flag pin, because I tired of having them fall off.
I don't mind, just as long as everyone wears one to mark the incredible sacrifices made by so many.
If only I could keep them growing in the garden, not that I really need them because they carpet my memory as far as the eye can see when I think of war and how fortunate I was that I didn't have to fight.
I thought I would as the Korean "action" flared when I was in high school. So I joined the RCAF reserve. It was a great experience. Years later, in those periods of journalism when it was not much fun, I wondered what it would be like to go back as an air traffic controller, but then some story would grab me.
The air force experience made me think a compulsory military year would be good for everyone, providing there were no new military cemeteries.
I have several medals now which I never wear because the ones that come from battle and military service so outrank them.
But a poppy always blooms on my chest...and in my memory, along with a line from Tennyson about "the blood-red blossom of war with a heart of fire," and, of course the words from the doctor who didn't grow deaf when he heard the brazen throat of battle.

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