Back when I was a child growing up in the 1960s, I often spent Armistice Day/Veteran’s Day at my grandparents’ house east of LaSalle. It was on one of those Armistice/Veteran’s Day when my grandmother told me about the origins of the holiday.
“The armistice was signed on the eleventh day of November at the eleventh hour,” she told me.
“What’s an armistice?”
“It’s the end of a war.”
In this case, it was the end of The Great War. The war to end all wars.
War was still something off my radar screen, but this was the 1960s and America was at war again. I heard news about guerrillas and couldn’t understand why gorillas were fighting. The only gorillas I knew was that gorilla in The Jungle Book.
This was 1966 and 1967. I would soon learn about Vietnam.
My grandmother, who was born in 1911, was two years younger than I was when she first remembered the war to end all wars. At precisely 11:00, my grandmother and I walked outside. She told me that would face the east and remember those who died. Back then, a whistle from the Alpha Cement Mill east of LaSalle sounded along with a fire siren to mark the moment the armistice was signed.
Having done our dutiful remembrance, I spent the rest of the day playing before my grandmother took me back home.
To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations.~ President Woodrow Wilson’s Armistice Day speech
Over the years, I remembered veterans standing outside banks in the Illinois Valley handing out/selling paper poppies for small donations. Folks took the poppies, twisted the thin metal paper-covered strips and proudly wore them on shirts, blouses, and jackets. My grandfather or grandmother gave me a coin to drop into the can and I awaited eagerly for the veteran to hand me my poppy. I didn’t know what these poppies meant at the time. For me, it was a moment that I shared with my grandparents, like standing outside on the eleventh of November and remembering the war to end all wars.
Poppies. In the seventh grade I learned all about them and their significance.
My English teacher, Mrs. Assalley, a Syrian immigrant, had the class keep a poetry notebook. One of the poems I transcribed inside my notebook was “In Flanders Fields” by John McRae:
In Flanders Field
In Flanders fields 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.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Little did I know at the time, how fitting the poem was for the thousands of young men who began to come home in flag-draped coffins to their final resting places in our nation’s cemeteries.
Over the years, Armistice Day and Veteran’s Day would have other meanings for me, first as a member of the armed forces, and one special Veteran’s Day in 2000 when I met Medal of Honor recipient General Raymond Davis USMC at a special ceremony on Knight Field at the Yongsan Military Garrison which commemorated the northern campaigns of the Korean War, including Kunu-ri which I wrote about in my Korean War novel, War Remains.
Today, this very special day that I first celebrated with my grandparents over 40 years ago is just as significant then as it remains for me today.
It is a day to honor all those who served and to remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice. And, in the words of President Calvin Coolidge, “The nation which forgets its defenders will be itself forgotten.”