Letter: Ring a bell, wear a red poppy and honor vets

In 1915, during the second battle of Ypres, Lt. Col. John McCrae was burying a close friend, Alexis Helmer, who had been killed during the battle. He saw how poppies quickly grew around the fresh graves, prompting him to compose a poem.

“In Flanders fields the poppies grow

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.”

Three and a half years later, on Nov. 11, 1918, at 11 a.m., the guns and their sullen muttering of death fell silent at last. The great “war to end all wars” had ended. Over 30 million soldiers had been killed or wounded, including more than 320,000 Americans. Never before had the world been exposed to such insane industrialized slaughter.

Those who survived the carnage observed the date with remembrances every Nov. 11, and in 1938 Congress declared that day to be Armistice Day, a legal holiday “dedicated to the cause of world peace.” In 1954, President Eisenhower observed the change in name from Armistice Day to Veterans Day by presidential proclamation, admonishing us to “reconsecrate ourselves to the task of promoting an enduring peace so that their efforts shall not have been in vain.”

I am a veteran, from a long line of veterans reaching back to 1775 when my ancestors responded to a call from Lexington. My grandfather, great uncle and several cousins were all World War I veterans. When I was young, we did not celebrate Veterans Day — we observed Armistice Day, the international day of peace. We did so solemnly, wearing small red poppies made of thin paper by veterans in VA hospitals. I seldom see those poppies now. At mid-morning, the stores and businesses would close and we would gather for a memorial service at the local American Legion hall. At 11 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month, a bell was rung and veterans stood while the names of dead comrades were read. The clergy offered prayers for peace. We did not remember the lives of those who fought to end war by going shopping at Veterans Day sales. We wore red poppies to remember row upon row of tombstones and rang a bell for peace.

At 11 a.m. on Wednesday, I will ring a bell. Maybe I’ll find a red poppy.

Craig Wilson