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Issue Date: May 2004 Issue


Confessions of a Poppy Seller

They bloom every Memorial Day weekend outside grocery stores, strip plazas and wherever people congregate: the artificial Buddy Poppy salesman. One member of Solon VFW Post 1863 provides an insider's look at the tradition that has benefited needy and di
Emerson Batdorff

You may have wondered about the old guy with the funny hat standing around on Memorial Day weekend with a bunch of fake red poppies in one hand and a cardboard can inscribed "BUDDY POPPY" in the other.

Go ahead and wonder, for he is wondering about you.

I am an authority on that because, for years, I was one of those old guys. There I stood on the bridge in Chagrin Falls, wearing my VFW overseas hat, wondering if anybody knew my purpose.

Should I give passersby a steely look, willing them to take a poppy and put a contribution in the can? Or should I stand there nonchalantly and let nature take its course?

I usually let fate take its course. I tried the steely look once and my target came up and said, "Do I know you? You seem to think I do."

He bought a poppy in the end, but it took too much out of me. So I decided upon the nonchalant approach. It worked pretty well.

But I fear a lot of people didn't know what was going on. There I stood, holding some artificial poppies in my hand and wearing another on my overseas cap. A woman approached and said, cheerfully, "What are you collecting for?"

"Buddy poppies, ma'am," I replied. "Veterans of Foreign Wars. Guys in the hospital. They make these flowers and we try to make their life a little better with the money you give."

"Oh," she said and put in a dollar bill.

Some time later, a prospective purchaser approached and said, "What were you in, the Army or the Navy?"

"The Army," I said.

"Why did you pick the Army?"

"I didn't pick anything," I said. "They threw me in. The draft board sent me a letter that said my friends and neighbors wanted me to join up, so I did." He seemed to know nothing about the draft, lucky guy.

"The reason I'm asking," he explained, "is because I was wondering about joining and I was wondering what was best. I'm thinking about the Navy, though, not the Army. What's your opinion?"

"Less chance of drowning in the Army," I said. "But on Red Beach in southern France, the Navy didn't get the LCI close enough to the shore on account of a sandbar and I went in up to my shirt collar. If I hadn't expected something like that, I would have got my pipe tobacco all wet. But it worked out OK because I had my tobacco in my helmet, along with my Zippo lighter. Besides, nobody was shooting."

"OK," the guy said, his mind made up, apparently. He put a dollar bill in the can and took a poppy and went on his way.

I thought it strange that 40 people could walk by not buying anything, and then four of the next five would buy. Then trade would die down again.

I got to thinking how much better it is to stand around selling poppies on Memorial Day, as we do now, and not on Armistice Day, as they used to do. Of course, we could still sell poppies on Veterans Day, as they now call Armistice Day, but it is a lot warmer on Memorial Day. It can get brisk on Nov. 11.

It doesn't have to be veterans who sell poppies. I remember one brisk November day years ago when a bright, beautiful young woman was selling poppies outside the Akron Savings and Loan Building. A girl, we would have called her in those unenlightened days.

She would spot a man — never a woman — coming down the street, hurry out to him with a big smile, put a poppy in his lapel and say, triumphantly, "There!"

That was her sales pitch. Bemused, he would put a dime or maybe 25 cents in the can and be on his way. Those were different days financially, too.

Suddenly, I was pulled from my thoughts by a volunteer fire truck pulling up in front of the amusements and rides entrance right next to my bridge. Two firemen in uniform got out leading two big dogs. One of the firemen had a spare boot in his hand.

I figured them for competition. How was I to compete against a couple of big brown dogs? Fortunately, they went into the park, leaving me alone on the bridge.

I don't know how the volunteer firemen made out collecting between the merry-go-round and the Tilt-a-Whirl, but I tried Buddy Poppies there once and didn't get a bite. The bridge is better for me. Less distraction.

For no reason at all, I got to thinking of the time I was loitering along a street in a German town we had taken a day or so earlier. There came a strange sound overhead. In a war, you learn quickly about strange sounds in the air, so I hit the gutter and observed from there. It would have been impossible for me, or any well-shot-at soldier, to remain standing.

By now, there were two strange sounds, one that was obviously an incoming bomb and another roar well off in the distance. It did not sound like any airplane I ever heard. I looked toward the horizon in the direction the sound seemed to be going and there, just about to vanish, was a small spot far ahead of its sound, traveling twice as fast as a plane could.

Meantime, the approaching bomb got louder until it crunched into a building about 100 yards from me. I gritted my teeth. No explosion. So I got up and went about my business.

I figured some noble slave laborer working under duress in a German factory had failed to install the bomb's detonator. I wished him well.

I asked around later about the extremely fast plane with the strange engine. "It was one of those new rocket planes," a knowledgeable soldier finally told me. And that's what we called them. Rocket planes.

Today, we call them jets. Welcome to the jet age.

Back in reality, a gentleman came along, smiled hugely, stuffed a dollar in the can and refused to take a poppy. "No, no!" I said. "Here!" and held out a poppy.

"No thanks," he replied and strode off.

It didn't seem fair to me. He should have had a poppy for his dollar. Besides, I planned on staying there until all my poppies were sold, and this meant a longer stay. But I thought of the guys in the hospital and was reconciled.

Another 30 or 40 people passed. Then I got a flurry of business. When I had one poppy left, I shut up shop, my year's work done.

I kept one poppy. In my experience, someone who wanted a poppy always stopped me on the way to my car. One year, I had to sell the one on my cap and was left without one for a whole year until the post bought another batch.

So it happened on this occasion. I didn't get to the corner before a guy asked me for a poppy.

A pretty good hour and a half: 25 poppies sold and I saw one guy put in $5. That's a record for me.


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