Perhaps grudgingly, each late October and early November, a day’s schedule is momentarily interrupted to acquire a Remembrance Day poppy from a display table watched over by a blazer-clad Canadian military veteran.
After all, what are you going to do? The veteran and his or her table of poppies are at a conspicuously open location — like perhaps the entrance or exit of a sizable business establishment.
It’s dilemma time: maybe you don’t really want a poppy, but breezing by the veteran might be noted by someone, and that may lead to embarrassment.
“How much?” I once overheard a well-dressed man, maybe in his mid-40s, saying as he paused at a veteran’s table of poppies.
The veteran replied: “A donation, sir. You decide. You’re also welcome to just take a poppy. Times aren’t easy for some of us.”
The man fished a handful of change from a pocket, and I guessed perhaps 75 cents was slipped into the cardboard Royal Canadian Legion collection box. The veteran then pinned the poppy to the coat of the shopper, who clearly wasn’t impressed with the perforating of his jacket.
I’d been chatting with the elderly veteran for a few minutes and asked if most people who weren’t wearing one stopped for a poppy. He smiled and said nothing.
Watching foot traffic a little longer, I guessed may two of every 10 shoppers slowed, only to then pick up their pace and, looking straight ahead, carry on. Several times, the response was: “I had one on this morning. It must have fallen off. Maybe it’s in my car.”
I wanted to call after them: “It’s permitted to have more than one poppy, you know.” But I followed the lead of the gentleman in the blazer and kept quiet.
Casual observation suggests slightly more than half of the passersby were wearing a poppy that day and, extending the benefit of the doubt, some of those who weren’t wearing one more than likely had their Remembrance Day symbol pinched by a vehicle seatbelt.
So why might you want to consider wearing a poppy?
Possibly to recognize the personal bravery, honour, loyalty and determination of veterans like Ernest Alvia “Smokey” Smith, born in New Westminster, B.C., on May 3, 1914, three months prior to Canada entering the First World War.
On the night of Oct. 21, 1944, Pte. Smith of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada was engaged in an attempt to push back German forces and establish a bridgehead across the Savio River in Italy during the Second World War. A company of Seaforth Highlanders faced a sudden counterattack by three German tanks, two self-propelled guns and several dozen supporting infantry.
Smith’s group was armed with PIAT anti-tank weapons, normally operated by two soldiers but manageable by one. As the Germans advanced on the outgunned and outnumbered Canadians, Smith and a comrade engaged the tanks. His comrade was soon wounded and unable to continue the fight.
Now alone, Smith battled the remainder of the German force while standing fully exposed to machine guns and cannon fire. Within 30 feet of one tank, he fired his PIAT, putting the tank out of commission.
Attacked by the armour-supporting infantry, Smith stepped into the road, firing his submachine gun, killing four and chasing off those who remained. The second tank approached and attacked Smith, who kept firing while protecting his wounded comrade.
Eventually, the German force, with one tank and both self-propelled guns destroyed, backed out of the fight.
Smith was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest award bestowed on British and Commonwealth forces for gallantry in the face of the enemy. He would become the last Canadian recipient of the honour.
Here we are, 75 years after D-Day and the heroism of Canadians on Normandy’s Juno Beach, living a rights-enshrined existence in a democratic nation in a world that has achieved so incredibly since fighting tyranny in 1945.
Man has walked on the moon, medical advances have saved millions of lives and technology has literally put the world, by way of a smartphone, at your fingertips.
So why do we say: “Lest we forget?” Why should we wear a poppy at this time each year?
You know why.
Roy Green is the host of the Roy Green Show on the Global News Radio network.