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A veteran’s own flower power

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For eight hours on Thursday, a stooped man with white hair and a walker sat outside of Nate N’ Al deli in Beverly Hills, offering flowers to strangers. They were poppies, with red crepe-paper petals and green wire stems.

“Wear the poppy for Veterans Day!”

Irv Justman’s thin voice hardly carried down the sidewalk.

Some pedestrians were lost in cellphone conversations or carefully avoided eye contact. But others stopped, took a poppy and dropped money into a pail at his feet.

Justman, 92, has collected nearly $1,500 in donations over the last three days. He does this every year around Veterans Day to raise money for homeless vets.

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It’s also a chance for him to meet other people — veterans, children of veterans, grandchildren of veterans — whose lives, like his, were changed by war. “Everybody has a little bit of the story,” he said.

Most people who spoke to him began with this question: “Where did you serve?”

“The Second World War,” Justman would answer. “I spent some time on Iwo Jima.”

Justman never fired his gun in the conflict — he mainly worked office jobs, developing training curricula — but he says he feels “bound by brotherhood” to those who fought in battle, and those who perished.

For his mission Thursday, he wore cowboy boots, a blue American Legion polo shirt, a big World War II commemorative belt buckle and a snug military cap bearing the Jewish War Veterans insignia.

He arrived before dawn to make sure he got his spot in front of the Beverly Hills deli, which draws crowds for its pastrami and matzo ball soup. (David Mendelson, the manager, said Justman’s presence was welcome. “We don’t have any opinion on any outside issues, as a deli,” Mendelson said. “But, yeah, we love him.”)

On this day, Justman had competition. A homeless man in a wheelchair was hanging out under the same palm tree, trying to poach business from the poppy operation. “Can you help me, too, sir?” the man shouted, shaking a few coins inside a coffee cup.

But it was Justman who attracted a crowd.

Larry Nicola, 61, the owner of a nearby martini bar, dropped a bill into the pail. Nicola said he had been stationed at an Army base in Germany during the Vietnam War.

“I’ll take five flowers,” Nicola said. “I’m going to put them on my dad and my uncles’ graves, because they served in World War II.”

Justman handed him a small bouquet.

The poppies Justman distributes were made by disabled veterans, who are paid a modest fee by veterans groups for their work. For some, it is their only income.

The poppy has been a symbol of fallen soldiers since 1915, when it was immortalized in a poem by a Canadian soldier who fought in Europe during World War I. “In Flanders Fields” tells of poppy-covered battlefields of the Western Front, where soldiers “lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow.”

Justman can recite the poem, one of his favorites, from memory. Along with poppies, he handed out copies of some of his own verse:

“Recent wars and wars long past/ Once reported, now telecast / Battles here and ‘round the world / Flags half-mast and flags unfurled.”

Justman supports the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but he thinks the American military must find new ways to fight them. A New Jersey native, he was drafted into the Army in 1942. He thinks military service — or Peace Corps stints — should be mandatory for all high school graduates.

But he tries not to talk politics with the people who stop by for poppies.

On Thursday he was approached by Kerri Safavi and her 2-year-old daughter, Haley. Safavi, whose father served in the Vietnam War, pressed a dollar into Haley’s hand and urged her toward the donation pail.

Haley shyly approached Justman. Then — apparently having made the calculation that she wanted the dollar more than the poppy — she stepped back.

After more prodding from Mom, she loosened her grip on the bill. Justman twirled a poppy twice in the air, then handed it to her.

kate.linthicum@latimes.com


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