Heightened awareness fuels poppy sales
By ROY MacGREGOR
Monday, November 4, 2002
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Believe it or not, there is no official registry for war veterans. We told you about 13 last week. Since then, we have learned of three others. However, we'd like to find more. So, if you also served in the First World War, or know of someone who did, please click here and let us know.
WINNIPEG -- "We sold right out," she says.
"We even had to sell the ones we were wearing ourselves."
She is Mrs. Emma Freeman, and she is tiny and dignified and sits, shoulders back, head held straight, at the front entrance to the Portage Place mall in downtown Winnipeg.
She is selling poppies. Selling them for the Legion, whose blazer and tam she wears so proudly. Selling them for the veterans of all the wars and peacekeeping missions. Selling them, as well, for her husband, Aubrey, who dropped dead of a heart attack only three weeks ago.
His death, rather than serving as a convenient excuse for not bothering this year, is the reason Mrs. Emma Freeman insisted on doing her poppy duty, as she does every year at this time. Aubrey Freeman, 78, was 13 years in the armed forces and a member of the First Canadian Paratroopers in the Second World War.
He would expect her to be here. He would be delighted to see their son, Gary, standing in for him, helping his mother at the makeshift poppy table. He might be surprised, however, at the business they are doing.
When the Portage Place sellers began in the morning they had four boxes of approximately 500 poppies each. By noon, they were sold out, and while the branch moved quickly to whisk in new supplies, for more than 15 minutes they had none but the pins on their own lapels, and soon not even them -- and still the buyers were lined up to stuff large coins and even $10 bills and $20 bills into the donations box.
Something is happening here. Poppies have become the fashion statement -- or perhaps the political statement -- of the fall of 2002. It may be the coldest fall since 1887 in Manitoba, but there is a warmth toward veterans rising here and throughout the rest of the country that may well make this the most successful poppy drive in history.
"It's been unbelievable," says Gary Freeman. "There seems to be a different spirit out there. It has to be tied to Sept. 11 . . ."
"And those poor boys who died in Afghanistan," interrupts his mother.
Bob Butt thinks both are right -- but thinks, as well, that there is much more to this rising national compassion for veterans.
It began last year with record poppy sales and seems, so far this year, to be well on the way to exceeding the 15-million-plus poppies that were sold in 2001.
"It is looking bigger than last year," says Mr. Butt, the chief of public relations at the Royal Canadian Legion's Dominion Command in Ottawa.
"Personally, I think it's all about anniversaries. Once they started having 50th anniversaries -- 50 years since Dieppe, 50 years since the end of the war -- people started to look around.
"And what they saw was that almost all the First World War veterans were gone and those who had fought in the Second World War were dying off.
"We were losing our vets."
There is also, Mr. Butt thinks, an attitudinal shift that has taken place. At 53, he comes from the generation that so deplored war -- as if all generations do not deplore war -- that it took years following the end of the Vietnam conflict to come to terms with what Nov. 11 is supposed to be all about.
"It's not a celebration of war," Mr. Butt says. "It is a celebration of peace."
Then, over the last few years, certain pivotal events took place. First came the millennium and the Legion's successful push for a special two-minute silence. Then came the return of the Unknown Soldier and the very moving ceremonies that took place around this event.
And then, of course, came Sept. 11, 2001, and out of this tragedy a profound new respect for all those in uniform who believe that duty comes first.
Sept. 11 led to the war on terrorism and action in Afghanistan, and suddenly, shockingly, Canadians in uniform were dying.
In April, a tragic misunderstanding sent an American laser-guided bomb into Canadian paratroopers operating near Kandahar, killing Sergeant Marc Leger, Corporal Ainsworth Dyer, Private Nathan Smith and Private Richard Green.
Private Green was only 21 years old, an only child, and when they brought his body home to Nova Scotia, his mother, Doreen Coolen, said she loved him "more than life itself. . . . This is tearing the heart out of me."
It tore the heart out of all of us.
Next Monday in Ottawa, Doreen Coolen will lay a wreath as the Silver Cross Mother of 2002.
All of which makes it all seem not so long ago and far away.
And as for that which is so long ago and far away, it has somehow seemed both nearer and closer these past two falls.
"We do it to remember," says Mrs. Emma Freeman.