On Memorial Day weekend, old poem beautifully captures horrors of war

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I don't want to appear disloyal to the American charcoal, meat and beer industries, but Memorial Day isn't only for grilling and drinking.

And it's not only for empty politics from empty political suits.

Relaxing and having fun are part of a three-day holiday weekend, sure, but lest we forget, there are other components of Memorial Day that take precedent.

Like the poppies, and perhaps a trip to the cemetery and quiet prayers for the fallen and maybe a nod to Lt. Col. John McCrae.

There are still some who know about McCrae and what the poppies mean. Not many, but a few, like Michael Turck. He knows.

"I was out with the poppies the other day at Union Station," said Turck, 72, a Vietnam veteran and quartermaster of Logan-Avondale VFW Post 2978 in Chicago. "And some of the other guys were at the other train stations. That's what we do around Memorial Day. The poppies."

You've seen them, haven't you, out on the street, at commuter stations? Some wear old uniforms or other insignia. They come from the Veterans of Foreign Wars and other service organizations.

They hold out a tiny flower, a paper facsimile of a poppy, and you drop a donation in a can. The money goes to help veterans, especially those in VA hospitals.

"We did better than last year, since the controversy over the scandals in the VA hospitals," Turck told me. "But you know what? In the 25 years I've been doing this, nobody asked me about the poppies.

"I take that back," he said. "One guy did. One guy in 25 years. He said, 'What's with the poppies?' And I said, 'Did you ever hear of John McCrae?'"

McCrae was a Canadian army doctor, from Guelph, Ontario, during World War I.

It was April 1915, in Flanders, Belgium; the Germans began shelling the trenches with a new weapon: chlorine gas.

McCrae somehow survived. He helped treat the wounded. He helped bury the dead, including a close friend.

Later, he noticed something growing among the graves: poppies. If you know the poppy, if you've grown them, you know they look somewhat like the little paper flowers, but not really.

They're much brighter, red or orange, and sometimes, if they're singletons growing alone or unsupported, the width of the blossoms can overwhelm the delicate stems.

McCrae was a soldier first, from an Army family. He was a doctor second. But he was also a poet, and after that battle, he wrote one of the defining poems of the war that was supposed to end all wars.

"In Flanders Fields"

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

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