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Legion Auxiliary preparing for Memorial Day: Buy poppies to remember and support Island veterans

The story is told of John McCrae, a Canadian officer and physician, staring at the battlefield grave of a beloved friend, Alexis Helmer, on a May evening in 1915. He had been killed in action in Ypres, in an area of Belgium known as Flanders, during some of the most brutal engagements of World War I.

Exhausted, overcome with grief and the psychological trauma of endless days and nights at the front line, Dr. McCrae suddenly became aware of vivid red poppies blooming everywhere in the makeshift military graveyard.

It’s believed that the poppies blossomed in the battlefields of the Great War because bombardments churned the soil and brought seeds to the surface, and chemicals in the explosives gave a burst of fertilizer to the ground.

Dr. McCrae found a seat in the open back door of a field ambulance and began to write. Reports vary on when and where he began one of the most revered poems in English, with one noting that it took him only 20 minutes to remember his friend Alexis in verse, and to honor all who had died in a field in Flanders.

In Flanders Fields, the poppies blow/ Between the crosses, row on row,/ That mark our place …

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 …

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.

At the Shelter Island Memorial Day ceremonies on Monday, May 29, Rita Gates, president of the American Legion Auxiliary, is scheduled to recite “In Flanders Field,” to the annual gathering in front of Legion Hall, and give a history of why wearing and/or displaying poppies since 1920 has come to be a call to remember those who died serving their country.

Ms. Gates noted that Friday, May 26, is National Poppy Day, and Americans are urged to wear a poppy and donate to the American Legion for its multiple services to veterans and their communities.

Many Islanders don’t realize the amount of work the Legion Auxiliary does for residents here, she said. It’s not just helping organize and support activities such as Veterans and Memorial days, but the Auxiliary sponsors a Shelter Island high school student to attend the Empire Girl State program each year, which is a week-long educational program on the workings of government.

The Auxiliary also provides two $500 scholarships for graduating high school students.

Its work with veterans includes donating items to veterans at the Northport VA Medical Center, which includes toiletries, pajamas, underwear, socks and other needed items. The Auxiliary also supports women veterans at the Northport VA Women’s Wellness Center, with gift cards for baby items, as well as financial support when needed for a special project.

Closer to home the Auxiliary has an annual Christmas campaign providing donations for local families in need. Other donations include: the Vet Dog Program; the Strongpoint Theinert Ranch; the Food Pantry at the Presbyterian Church; the United Beacon House; and several other veteran assistance programs.

Ms. Gates said all those who have had a father, grandfather, or spouse — male or female — who is a veteran, or relatives on active military service, are eligible to join the Island’s American Legion Auxiliary. She noted that now men are being accepted into the Auxiliary, if they meet the qualifications.

The Island’s traditional lawn poppies, made by Auxiliary members, are now available for order. They add color to your garden, flower pots or driveway year-round. And best of all, 100% of the profits from the sale of the poppies goes directly to help the veterans of Mitchell Post #281.

Contact Pam Jackson at 631-965-0860, or Ms. Gates at 201-264-3056. The prices are: one lawn poppy for $20; two for $35; three for $55; and five for $85.

Cash or checks payable to ALA Unit 281, PO box 852, Shelter Island, NY 11964.

Pickups are available at the American Legion Hall from 4 to 7 p.m. on Friday, May 26.

Order now because there are a limited number available.