Veterans aim to re-energize popularity of the poppy
A Buddy Poppy, trademarked by the VFW before Memorial Day in 1922. 
Photo by Debra A. Aleksinas

Veterans aim to re-energize popularity of the poppy

NORTH CANAAN — In the days leading up to Memorial Day, it is not uncommon to find veterans groups distributing red paper poppies outside stores, gas stations and on street corners in exchange for a donation in honor of fallen soldiers and to contribute to the continuing needs of veterans and their families.

The small, crimson memorial flowers, which are hand-made by veterans, providing them financial and therapeutic benefit, even have their own annual day of recognition: The Friday before Memorial Day, May 26 this year, is National Poppy Day.

But while most people over a certain age recall the tradition of wearing a paper posy or placing a poppy on the tombstones of those who served as tributes to the fallen, those decades-old rituals have lost ground to barbecues and celebrating summer’s unofficial arrival, according to members of Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and American Legion posts in the region.

From Winsted to North Canaan to Millerton, veterans and auxiliary members said they are hoping to re-energize the humble poppy’s popularity through distributions on Poppy Day, along Memorial Day parade routes and at other sites throughout the region this weekend.

Kirk Harrington, commander of the VFW Couch Pippa Post 6851 in North Canaan, said his post will kick off the annual drive the week leading up to Memorial Day by setting up poppy distribution tables in front of the Post Office and Lindell ACE hardware.

“We will also be at Stop &  Shop in Canaan the weekend of Memorial Day on Saturday and Sunday,” and members of the local Girl Scout Troop will also assist by handing out poppies during the town’s Memorial Day Parade, he said.

Harrington said his post distributes between 500 and 1,000 poppies annually, and all donations benefit veterans and their families.

Pandemic put a crimp in revenue

Molly Jenks, who serves as vice president of American Legion Post 178’s Auxiliary in Millerton, said members will be distributing crepe paper poppies during the community’s annual Memorial Day Parade and in Veterans Park, as well as outside various businesses, on National Poppy Day. She said her post expects to hand out about 250 crimson flowers.

Donations are not required but are welcome and appreciated.

The amount raised annually, “depends on how many volunteers we get,” to participate and how many people attend the parade, said Jenks, noting that fewer people have been turning out for the patriotic festivities in recent years.

The pandemic put a damper on the annual event and poppy drives, and crowds have yet to be as robust as they were pre-COVID, she noted.

People tend to forget that there are soldiers currently deployed overseas, said Jenks, who are often in harm’s way.

“If you don’t know someone who is serving in the military it’s not at the forefront of your mind,” said Jenks, whose personal view “changed being married to a soldier.” She is the wife of Robert Jenks, past commander of Post 178.

All proceeds raised annually from the Millerton Post’s poppy drives are used to aid veterans and their families through distribution of gas cards, oil fill-ups to help heat their homes and mail overseas care packages, said the Auxiliary vice president.

“We sent a care package to one soldier’s wife who was home alone with a 2-year- old. It contained some tea, soap and a gift card and a note saying, ‘thinking of you’ and thanking her for her sacrifice.”

Welcomed back at Stop & Shop in Winsted

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was not uncommon to see veterans seated at a small table outside of the Winsted Stop & Shop with a collection can and bundles of poppies in the days leading up to Memorial Day, greeting shoppers and youngsters. But the novel coronavirus put a halt to such social interactions until this year.

“This is the first time we will be allowed back,” said Daniel Matthews, commander of the VFW Seicheprey Post 296 in Winsted, where more than 1,000 poppies are distributed annually by members.

“The VFW requests that members distribute five poppies per member each year, and we have approximately 100 members,” noted Matthews.

“Overall, we have definitely seen an increase” in donations following a dip in revenue from 2020 to 2021, he said. A stand of VFW-trademarked “Buddy Poppy” flowers are also on display and available to the pubic year-round on the bar at the Winsted VFW headquarters.

“Typically, our Post utilizes the Stop & Shop Plaza in the days leading up to Memorial Day, and the American Legion Post in Riverton typically distributes their poppies at Tractor Supply in Barkhamsted,” the Post commander explained.

In keeping with tradition, he said, the Winsted VFW Auxiliary will be handing out poppies along the parade route during the town’s Memorial Day Parade.

Matthews stressed that every dollar received from poppy donations is used solely to care for disabled veterans, their spouses, widows and children. “We don’t use any money for paying things like the electric bill.”

Inspiring a new generation

Younger generations, in particular, appear to have lost the connection and meaning of the little red flowers, or what to do with them, something that is all too apparent when veterans start appearing at public places with their poppy bundles and collection cans.

The answer is simple, said VFW and American Legion members. Wear it proudly.

While the proper place to wear a poppy has traditionally been the left-hand side of one’s shirt, over the heart or on the lapel of one’s jacket, on the left-hand-side, putting poppies on purses baseball caps or zipper tags, or secured to rearview mirrors, is acceptable and appreciated.

History of the poppy

From the battlefield of World War I, weary soldiers brought home the memory of a barren landscape transformed by wild poppies, red as the blood that had soaked the soil. By that miracle of nature, the spirit of their lost comrades lived on, according to American Legion literature.

The poppy became a symbol of the sacrifice of lives in war and represented the hope that none had died in vain. In the U.S., the American Legion and the VFW took up the cause.

The America Legion Poppy Program started in 1920 and has continued to bloom for the casualties of all wars, its petals of paper bound together for veterans by veterans.

The American Legion brought National Poppy Day to the United States by asking Congress to designate the Friday before Memorial Day as National Poppy Day, which was officially designated as such in 2017.

Not all poppies are created equal, however.The delicate, crepe paper poppies are made for the American Legion.

The VFW’s “Buddy Poppy” flower was trademarked in 1924 and is distributed solely by VFW posts, not only on Memorial Day, but also prior to Veterans Day in November.

Originally worn to commemorate the fallen of the First World War, also known as “The Great War,” poppies are now worn in memory of those lost in every conflict since.

Both the VFW and American Legion memorial flowers trace their roots back to the haunting poem “In Flanders Fields” written by Lt. Col. John McCrae, a Canadian military doctor and artillery commander, in May of 1915 while he served on the front lines.

The famous war memorial poem’s open line refers to poppies that were the first flowers to grow in the soil from soldiers’ graves in the Flanders region of Belgium.

It ends with the line, “We shall not sleep, though poppies grow, In Flanders fields.”

 

DID YOU KNOW?

Red poppies symbolize resilience

Despite their cheerful appearance, poppies are technically classified as weeds.

They have grown in some of the most inhospitable of landscapes, including the war-torn battlefields in 1915. Even though the terrain was left devastated, bright crimson poppies sprouted from the wreckage come spring, like delicate beacons of hope.

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