I remember Armistice Day.
I remember on countless occasions as a youngster seeing little old men in front of business establishments selling artificial red paper poppies. They even came to our door.
My mother, who frequently bought those poppies, told me that the men were World War I veterans. They were, I suppose, selling poppies to support the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States (VFW), or the American Legion, or any of a dozen other veterans’ organizations.
They were not nearly so young as my father, who was a World War II vet. They were of my grandfather’s generation.
My grandfather served during The Great War. Many years ago my father told me that his uncle — my grandfather’s brother — fought in France during that war and was exposed to gas at the front. He suffered from respiratory ailments for the remainder of his life.
When I turned 19, I joined the Army. I was prompted by no one, but made the decision to enlist on my own.
My father had served. My uncles had served. My grandfather and his brother had served. I felt it my duty to serve as well. Like so many in my family, I understood that I owed a debt of gratitude to this nation.
Friday is Veterans Day.
Maybe I’ve been inattentive of late, but I haven’t noticed vets selling poppies recently in my hometown.
Veterans Day is the current moniker for what used to be Armistice Day. Ninety-three years ago Friday — Nov. 11, 1918 — on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month the agreement that ended the fighting of World War I was signed in a railway carriage in the forest of Compiègne in France.
The cessation of hostilities marked a victory for the Allies and a bitter defeat for the kaiser’s exhausted Germany.
The final peace treaty, the infamous Treaty of Versailles, which many say laid the groundwork for World War II, was signed in 1919.
President Wilson declared the first Armistice Day in the U.S. on Nov. 11, 1919.
Throughout the 1920s and ‘30s most of the 48 states established Nov. 11 as a legal holiday. In 1938, Congress passed legislation making Nov. 11 a legal federal holiday, Armistice Day.
World War II began the following year.
In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allied Forces in Europe from 1942-45, signed legislation changing the name of the legal holiday from Armistice Day to Veterans Day. I was 9 years old.
Nowadays, Memorial Day, which is observed on the last Monday of May, honors men and women in uniform who died serving this country. Veterans Day honors all who have served honorably, in war and peacetime. It’s largely intended to thank living veterans for their service.
As mentioned earlier, I distinctly remember elderly gentlemen on the streets on Nov. 11 wearing red paper mache poppies in their lapels, selling poppies to passersby. Alas, no longer.
Why poppies? Poppies grew in abundance in Belgium’s Flanders fields, where tens of thousands of soldiers fell.
The poppies were memorialized in the haunting lines of Canadian poet John McCrae’s powerful World War I poem:
“In Flanders field 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 amid the guns below.”
McCrae, a medical officer with the 1st Canadian Contingent at the battle of the Ypres Salient, wrote his lines in May 1915. He didn’t survive the war. He died in France in 1918.
Perhaps with the passage of time we’ve forgotten the powerful message of the lowly poppy. Sadly, we no longer have grizzled old gents to remind us — selling their paper flowers door to door and along our commercial byways. Living poppies now adorn their graves.
I miss my grandfather’s generation.
JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Tuesdays.