Today’s guest post is in honor of Memorial Day, probably the most popular day of the year to visit cemeteries. I thank my friend and writing buddy Shelley Tougas for writing this. I forget about the power of “In Flanders Fields,” the World War I poem written by Lt. Col. John McCrae. Thanks, Shelley, for the reminder. And I echo her sentiments below in thanking all of the men and women who have served our country.
Organizers of my hometown’s Memorial Day Service asked my high school drama coach to send a poised graduate to recite a poem for the service. A patriotic poem. They also invited young kids to perform a presentation of their choice.
The drama coach selected me. Anxiety struck immediately. But both of my grandfathers served in war. The one who still lived would be touched to see me honor his service.
So the drama coach gave me “Flanders Field,” a poem from World War I. “Trust me,” she said, “it’s perfect.” She was right. The poem is simple and profound. Young men watch the sunset on a field of poppies. A day later, they are dead and buried in that same field. From their graves, they call for their brothers to continue the fight.
On that Memorial Day, on the east side of the city’s cemetery, a large crowd gathered. Flags snapped in the wind. Veterans were silent and grim. Wives held their hands.
The program listed the order of events. Somewhere in the middle, the kids would do their presentation. I came after them. Those kids, about 10 of them, stood nervously on a small platform. They began, in unison, to recite “Flanders Field.”
I was horrified. Clearly, there’d been no communication about who was doing what. I wanted to melt. If my name hadn’t been in the program, if my grandfather hadn’t been there, I might have fled, leaving an awkward gap. I pictured the man at the microphone calling my name, searching the crowd while I hid in my car.
“Flanders Field.” Again? Twice in a row? Cute, innocent kids and then a dopey high school graduate?
As I walked to the platform, my vanity evolved into empathy.
I passed the veterans who held flags and handkerchiefs. Some were stoic. Some wept. Others seemed lost in another place, another time. I passed gravestones and thought of families battered by grief.
Shame followed embarrassment. Yes, this moment required courage from me, but even then I knew it was miniscule in time and weight. To compare it to veterans’ experiences was disrespectful, trite and grotesque.
My face flashed red before I got to the microphone. My sweaty hands were turning “Flanders Field” to mush. In a voice that shook, I said something like, “I’m also going to recite ‘Flanders Field.’ I don’t know much about poetry or war, but when I read ‘Flanders Field,’ history emerged from my high school textbooks and hit me with a weight I’ve never before felt. Kids barely older than me died. Their bravery and devotion to this country makes me speechless. I can’t comprehend the fear, the sadness, the loss. So I don’t think you’ll mind hearing this poem twice. If you understand how deeply it affected me, then I hope you’ll know that us young punks do care, and we are grateful. I thank God my grandfather came back to us. I’m proud of him. I’m proud to be his granddaughter.”
I’m certain my statement wasn’t so articulate. I’m sure it was full of “ums” and “likes” and awkward pauses. I probably didn’t say “emerge” or “comprehend.”
But I did read that poem with passion.
“In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row …”
Afterward, I sat between my grandparents. My grandfather, never full of words, gave me a glance and a nod, his signal for pride. My grandmother and I cried. She’d lived the war. I’d just begun to feel its magnitude.
Thank you, veterans. Thank you, service men and women. Thank you for protecting us, our values, our way of life. You are the very definition of courage and sacrifice.
Shelley Tougas is the author of Little Rock Girl 1957: How a Photograph Changed the Fight for Integration and the forthcoming novel The Graham Cracker Plot. She blogs at shelleytougas.com.