By DAVE DALEY
Last month, the world was turning sour on me. From terrorism across the globe to nasty presidential politics to the 49 people shot dead at a gay nightclub in Orlando, I was feeling numb. There was a lot of disgust roiling up in me over what passes for humanity these days.
Then something unexpected happened, something that restored my faith in my fellow man and woman. Well, at least a good part of that faith.
I belong to the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2823 in Burlington. Every year, VFW posts around the country distribute red poppies to raise money for needy veterans. The VFW sets up tables outside big retail stores, sets down a donation jar and hands out poppies for a small donation.
The poppies are made by veterans confined to VA homes and are just simple, red, crepe-paper cutouts in the shape of a poppy. Giving away poppies for a small donation is a tradition with veterans’ groups that goes back to World War I, when poppies were said to be the first flowers that grew on the churned-up battlefields of France and Belgium where thousands of soldiers had died.
The weekend leading up to the Fourth of July, I manned a table outside the Walmart in Burlington. I did not know what to expect. I had been a member of the Burlington VFW post only since February and had never worked a poppy table before.
The day was burning hot, 90 degrees plus, with the noonday sun straight overhead. Sun-stunned customers slowly made their way to the store. Most gave me a nod or a smile even if they did not make a donation. A good number, though, walked over and put money in the jar.
“Thank you for your service,” one woman said with a smile as she took a poppy and dropped in a dollar. A middle-aged man murmured, “Thanks for serving,” as he gave his donation. A young man, not more than 20, said sincerely, “Thank you for all that you’ve done.”
And so it went. As the first hour passed, I realized almost everyone making a donation was thanking me, if for nothing else, as a representative of veterans who had served his country.
I can’t tell you how good that made me feel.
I’m a Vietnam veteran. I came back to the United States on March 29, 1971, the same day a young lieutenant named William Calley was convicted of killing South Vietnamese civilians in what became known as the My Lai massacre. Our plane — a Freedom Bird, ’Nam vets called it — landed at San Francisco, and I walked happily through the airport, not quite believing I was really back in the good ol’ USA after 10 months humping the jungles of ’Nam with a machine gun across one shoulder.
Then a long-haired, bearded young man with a sneer yelled at me, holding up a newspaper with a screaming front-page headline about Calley. “How do you like what they did to your buddy Calley?” he called out. I paused, anger boiling up. Then I relaxed. Hey, you’re home, I told myself. It don’t mean nothing.
That was a phrase we used a lot in ’Nam to shrug off what you could not change. What did mean something was that I was back on American soil and happy to be here. I ignored the young man and walked on. But that was my welcome home.
A lot of Vietnam veterans I know have similar stories about their not-so-welcome homecoming. So for me, people going out of their way that poppy-day Saturday to say thank you for your service was at first a surprise and then a genuine treat.
I found myself smiling back at people as they donated and then paused to add a comment or two. A middle-aged man set a bottle of water on the table. “From one vet to another,” he said with a smile. A woman noted the heat and offered me a milkshake, saying she did not have any change but asking if the Frosty would do.
Some told little stories as they dropped money in the jar and picked up a poppy. “My husband’s working with a man who’s suffering from dementia and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder),” a woman in her 70s told me. “The guy’s only 68.”
A middle-aged man dropped money in the jar and, as he walked away pushing his shopping cart, he called back, “My son’s in the Navy.” I responded, “Is he in a good place?” The man grinned. “He’s in a sub — hard to reach.”
The ages, genders and ethnic diversity were across the board. One African-American teenager bounced up to the table, dropped money in the jar and offered a cheery, “Have a good day!” A young Latina dropped in her dollar with a nod and a smile.
I quickly learned not to judge people too quickly.
I spotted one young man with a scruffy, first-time beard approaching, and I dismissed him as a potential donor. Then he surprised me, dropping in a dollar bill. When I thanked him, he said, “It’s the least I can do. Thank you for your service.”
A tall man in his 60s who looked like he could have served in Vietnam dropped money in the jar and said of the hot, humid day: “Remind you of Vietnam?” Another man with a shy smile said, “My son’s in the service. Five years. Gonna re-enlist.”
A woman plopped in a $5 bill and asked, “Can I get two poppies?” Heck, for five bucks, I would’ve given her a dozen poppies.
There was no shade anywhere near the Walmart entrance, and a store employee named Tracy came out with an umbrella for me and a second one for my VFW comrade, Dave Morrow, at the other store entrance. That was the kind of day it was — people going out of their way to be kind.
The afternoon was life-affirming. And, according to VFW Post 2823 Commander Bren Nimke, all told, our poppy tables at Walmart and other locations around the Burlington took in $3,000. That money is going to help make the day a little brighter for a lot of needy veterans.
Dave Daley, a journalist for 30 years, covered the Capitol for The Milwaukee Journal and legal affairs for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.