A writer thinks of a poem from another century, a bullet hole in human flesh and plastic poppies — and knows the dead do speak.
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.
For as long as my memory goes back, I knew the poem “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae, a WWI Canadian physician and Lieutenant Colonel. When I was a child and we recited the poem each Remembrance Day, the line “We are the dead” frightened me. It brought up images of ghostly soldiers wandering through misty fields in Europe, stumbling with their guns through my dreams, speaking to no one and every one. If the dead could speak, all terrors were possible.
I was right to be afraid of war, and fortunate that I’ve never known a World War in my lifetime. Oh, I heard the stories but mostly those who returned from the war didn’t talk about it. Once I saw the hole a bullet made in the human body. He was a Vietnam veteran and he told me I could touch it, stick my finger in the scar-tissued tunnel it left beneath his rib. Forty one years later I still remember my panic at the thought of putting my small finger in that hole and perhaps touching something so horrible I would never be released from the knowledge of it — war.
I think about that Vietnam vet now and then. I’ll think about him tomorrow when I stand in the rain (because it always rains) on Remembrance Day. And when the pipers come, and the drummers march and the cannons blast under a grey sky, I’ll look out at the sea of plastic poppies — symbolic of real poppies that blossomed on some of the worst battlefields of Flanders in World War I, symbolic of blood sacrifice — and be grateful that where I live thunder is not the sound of distant guns and I have the luxury of peace.
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.
“In Flanders Fields” Painting by Dirk Lemmens ˚1959