During the 1960s, as a nine-year-old in the American Legion girl’s auxiliary, I worked on an assembly line of paper poppy producers: twisters, affixers, and dippers who manufactured faux flowers for sale on Memorial Day weekend. I was a dipper. By the time the paper poppy arrived at my station, twisters like Marianne Lacourt had formed the flower from flimsy red crepe paper, never getting a speck of red dye on their white Sandra Dee sweaters. With the grace of an origami master, affixers like Joanne Kelly fastened a white paper tag that flew perfectly perpendicular to the wire stem. Each tag looked like a fortune cookie fortune but bore the unchanging declaration to all: “American Legion Post 33.” I was charged with dipping the red blossom into a cauldron of bubbling blue goo, melted paraffin.
Post 33 was next to Sam’s Poultry Market. The sidewalk in front was cluttered with wooden cages filled with squawking, agitated birds who clearly knew their jigs were up. The knotty pine banquet room directly behind the kitchen where I dipped was rented for Polish weddings and Irish wakes. The glossy walls and endless poultry vocalizations from Sam’s provided an oddly rustic touch to the urban setting. What I remember most about that room are the plaques. Instead of decorative paintings, plaques in memory of dead Post members decked the walls. The regularly spaced, uniformly sized tablets reminded me of the Stations of the Cross. One could circumnavigate the room, pausing at each plaque to consider the death of a departed veteran, the way one might pause to consider the passion of Christ.
The plaque commemorating my father’s passing was on the swinging door of the kitchen. His surviving veteran brothers joked that the perfect place for Red Dugan’s plaque was on the kitchen door, since he always enjoyed a good meal.
Straining on a wobbly stool to reach into the liquid wax, I barely managed to coat each flower without causing permanent scarring to my knuckles. Occasionally, I’d look up, distracted by the plaque on the kitchen door. It was unnerving to see my deceased father’s name etched in bronze, a repeated reminder that he was forever dead, succumbing in 1962 to a nagging war wound sustained in World War II, after he’d enlisted for the second time.
These days, it’s rare to see veterans selling poppies, but when I do see them, I buy one. I fret that these days, like all things quintessentially American, it is made in China. Nonetheless, I buy one to honor the sacrifices of men and women who leave their urban neighborhoods to go half a world away to finish fights they didn’t start. I buy one to honor the sacrifices of the spouses and children who build meaningful lives in their absence in what my father thought would be a post war world – a world where there would be a chicken in every pot and a red paper poppy worn proudly on every lapel.
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