I’ve just walked home from the Veteran’s Day Parade that marched it’s way north and south, east and west, on the grid that is Downtown Houston. High school bands, loudly trumpeting their supremacy over each other, cadet corpsmen straight and serious, girls twirling batons and strutting in shimmery, frilly skirted outfits, and of course the Veterans, some marching, some wheeling and some pushing, but all proud.
I was the only person in the lunchtime crowd wearing a poppy. It is not the custom in America – poppies being more associated with heroin than Flanders. Instead Americans patriotically wave flags.
I miss the poppies. That blood red splash of colour tucked into a button hole or a hat band. There is something inordinately moving about their simplicity.
Remembrance Day and Anzac Day have always been observed in my family. My mother was an Australian Army Nurse who served in Singapore as it fell, and then in Papua New Guinea. My father came from a long military lineage and he served on the North West Frontier in India and then in Malaya during the Emergency. Both my in-laws served their country, one in the RAF and one in the Land Army.
But I think the most poignant Remembrance Day I can remember was held in a dank, overgrown cemetery in a small, despotic African country, Equatorial Guinea.
The weekend before the 11th November a group of us would go up to the Malabo cemetery and clean the graves of ten young RAF Volunteer Reservists. They died when their Sunderland Flying Boat flew into a tornado just off the coast of the island, Bioko in June 1944. They were stationed with the 270 Squadron out of Lagos, Nigeria and were keeping tabs on the U-Boats using the port at Luba. Folklore has it that their plane went down in the sea just off Baney, and near a German-owned plantation. Guineanos went in to the ocean and retrieved the bodies of nine, and brought the tenth, William Best, very badly injured to shore where he died.
Whatever actually happened, it was a tragic end to the lives of ten young men far away from home and loved ones.
I had arranged with the Royal British Legion to have a poppy wreath flown out to Malabo courtesy of the air charter company, JetAir, along with a box of poppies to sell. I chose my time well and went to the local Hash run the Sunday before Remembrance Day and sold my poppies to the runners, of all nationalities, as they rehydrated with beer. The cheque later sent to the British Legion in London was for a most respectable amount!
On Remembrance Day a group of about forty British and Commonwealth men, and a couple of women, came to the Cemetery. Prayers were read by a Guineano preacher, the British Honorary Consul read the names of the servicemen and laid the wreath, and a retired officer of the Household Cavalry read In Flanders Fields, and then we stood in silence on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. We had no one to play taps and so we dispersed, quietly, with the feeling that we might be in an out-of-the-way place in sub-Saharan Africa but we did not forget.
Whether in that overgrown cemetery in a corrupt African nation, or in any of the pristine war cemeteries looked after around the world by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission or in Downtown Houston, the feeling is always the same. That of in-utterable sadness, exacerbated by the red poppy, at such waste and the words of British poet Ford Madox Ford come to mind from his poem Antwerp as I see or imagine the faces of those left grieving, These are the women of Flanders. They await the lost.