It was uniform check time.
We all looked down at our brown penny loafers topped with canary yellow socks and placed our feet solidly on the designated white line in front of the building. We adjusted our golden peter pan collars, tucked in our blouses, straightened our brown beanies with their fuzzy bright pom-pom on top, and stretched out our uniform skirt mightily so it would appear a few inches longer to meet the school’s uniform code.
“Arms distance,” instructed Sister.
With near-perfect precision (the boys were always in the line to the left and the girls on the line to the right) the last student in each row stepped back a few steps and extended their right arms to barely touch the shoulder of the student directly in front. This gesture was repeated in practiced precision all the way up to the front of the line until we were all “lined up” with an arms distance between each one of us. It was reminiscent of a slow, undulating wave.
Sister walked slowly down the line inspecting the girls’ uniforms as meticulously or perhaps more meticulously than an officer inspecting his troops. At the end of the line, she reversed direction and inspected the boys’ uniforms, ultimately reaching the front of the lines again. It was time for our morning pledge to the cross followed by the pledge of allegiance.
The year was 1954 – the Marian Year – and I was in the 5th grade. It was the first day of school and something new was about to happen. For the first time ever as we recited the Pledge of Allegiance together we were going to include the new line “under God.” We had a small paper passed out to us, so we could all insert the new phrase correctly. With right hand over our hearts and our left hands clutching the paper, we began the Pledge of Allegiance and proudly belted out in unison as children do “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” We took the change in stride, too young to appreciate the deeper significance.
That same year of 1954 witnessed another change at our school. Armistice Day, our traditional national holiday commemorating the end of World War I, was celebrated each year on November 11th. On June 1, 1954, just before the end of my fifth grade year, Congress passed a law changing the name to Veterans’ Day and changed its purpose to include “all veterans” not just the veterans of World War I.
Our history lesson the day of the name change was centered on this holiday. It was utterly fascinating to me to learn that the major hostilities of World War I were formally ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, when the Armistice with Germany went into effect. That’s why the holiday is celebrated on November 11th each year.
As a child, on both Veterans’ Day and Memorial Day, I remember seeing men dressed in various military uniforms selling paper flowers – poppies – white if your veteran was living and red if deceased. I found it to be a moving experience when my mom or dad would pick several red poppies for my deceased relatives who had served in the armed forces for various wars.
The practice of wearing of poppies takes its origin from the poem In Flanders Fields, written in 1915 by John McCrae. Selling replicas of the original Flanders’ poppy began almost immediately after the Armistice of 1918. Each year around Memorial Day and also on Veterans’ Day in some places, Veterans of Foreign Wars members and American Legion Auxiliary volunteers would distribute millions of bright red poppies in exchange for contributions to assist disabled and hospitalized veterans. The program benefits both the veterans and to the community. Hospitalized veterans who make the flowers earn a small salary, and the activity is therapeutic. Donations assist and support veterans and their families. Some groups still offer poppies today.
The poppy also reminds the community of the past sacrifices and continuing needs of our veterans. The poppy has become a nationally known and recognized symbol of sacrifice and is worn to honor the men and women who served and died for their country in all wars.
Two years later, in 1956, when I was in the 7th grade, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a law officially declaring “In God We Trust” to be the nation’s official motto. The law, P.L. 84-140, also mandated that the phrase be printed on all American paper currency. It was already on our coins.
So much has changed in our country since that time. Our national culture has made a Copernican revolution. Life is very different now and many people today question that difference. This year, as we celebrate Veterans’ Day our country has court cases pending that want to take out the words “in God we trust” striking it from every place in our land. The words, “one nation under God” are also being examined in the courts. The final verse in the following poem can most certainly be applied to us. Indeed!
In Flanders Fields
by John McCrae, May 1915
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.
Wear a poppy this year on Memorial Day and if it is available in your area on Veterans Day also, Wear it proudly.