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I was probably about 6 or 7 when I first noticed it. We were visiting my two great-uncles, John and Ed Chitwood, bachelor brothers of my grandmother. They lived in Mangum, Oklahoma – a small but still vibrant town in the early 1960s – in a small Midwestern frame house. There was the requisite storm shelter in the backyard, tornadoes being the Sooner State’s official mascot.

I was looking at the only original art in the sparsely furnished home, an 8X15 framed print depicting the horrors of war illustrating the In Flanders Fields poem by Dr. John McCrae from World War I. The print (if that’s what it is – it could be a colored pencil sketch, I’ve never taken it out of the frame for fear of damaging it) shows a graveyard with crosses on a dark, green hill and three soldiers – one obviously injured, but all grimacing as if in pain – ascending into the green, gray sky. Near the crosses are either yellow flames or – per World War I – a depiction of the dreaded mustard gas. Surrounding the crosses, in yellow, are fields of poppies, also mentioned in the poem. The poem, titled here We Shall Not Sleep (the original title of the poem) is written in pencil to the right of ascending solders and the graveyard.

I did not know what it was when I was young, only that I couldn’t look away. Even if I did look away, one glance and it was locked into my subconscious, escaping occasionally to remind me the world could be cruel, destructive and held no guarantees.

I didn’t even know that my great-Uncle John had served in World War I. Other than the print and the poem, there were no other indications John had been in a war. He was a small, quiet, slender man who drove his Dodge Dart into the town square every morning to have coffee at the local diner, then head to work as an accountant. Knowledge about his wartime experience wouldn’t come until later.

If you don’t know the poem, reprinted in a sidebar, here’s a little history, most of it taken from a great, detailed article by Rob Ruggenberg from Sheet Music Magazine in 2006. It was in that magazine because the poem was so popular it was put to music by several composers, including the “March King” John Philip Sousa. You can find some renditions of that version on YouTube, one by the United States Marine Band that is pretty stirring. I personally think the poem is well-suited to a treatment by Philip Glass, but Sousa’s is pretty nice, a little operatic, but more modern sounding than you would think for 1915.

On May 3, Sergeant-Major Cyril Allinson was delivering mail and he saw McCrae sitting at the back of an ambulance parked near the dressing station, writing the poem. McCrae had authored several medical textbooks and had written a few poems as well.

After he finished the 15 lines of the poem, in about 20 minutes, according to Allinson, he handed the poem to the mail carrier. Also there was Lieutenant Colonel Edward Morrison, who later became an Ottawa newspaper editor. He described the writing of the poem thus: “This poem was literally born of fire and blood during the hottest phase of the second battle of Ypres. My headquarters were in a trench on the top of the bank of the Ypres Canal, and John had his dressing station in a hole dug in the foot of the bank. During periods in the battle men who were shot actually rolled down the bank into his dressing station.”

And the crosses mentioned in the poem and in the painting? Continues Morrison: “Along from us a few hundred yards was the headquarters of a regiment, and many times during the 16 days of battle, he and I watched them burying their dead whenever there was a lull. Thus the crosses, row on row, grew into a good-sized cemetery.”

Because of the poem, poppies – already associated with battles and the death of soldiers – became further popularized and the plant, particularly red poppies, became associated with Remembrance Day in many countries and Memorial Day in the U.S.

World War I was brutal, with over 7 million civilian deaths and 10 million deaths among military personnel. In a recent World War I documentary on PBS, it showed that, when peace was finally declared on Nov. 11, 1918, the soldiers quickly stopped fighting, came out of the trenches, shook hands and began playing soccer. They were tired of the death, carnage and destruction.

I didn’t know any of that as a 6-year-old. I just knew that print haunted me. We Shall Not Sleep, with its depictions of horror, death, suffering and muted beauty, held some deeper, buried mysteries that people didn’t talk about at barbecues, picnics and church socials.

It wasn’t until I was older, living occasionally with my Aunt Lou Ann (I required a lot of parenting) in Washington, D.C. She spent her early years in Oklahoma near Ed and John, and from her I learned more about World War I and my family connection to it.

My father did recall one story Uncle John would tell others about the war. John was small and slight, but fast, so they made him a messenger boy, even though he was in his mid-20s when he was overseas. Sent to deliver a message during one battle, he had to crawl under barbed wire. He was wearing a backpack and it got tangled in the wire. The enemy, spotting a target that couldn’t escape, began firing at him. John fought his way out of the barbed wire and made his way to safety without any serious wounds. He couldn’t say the same about his backpack, which was destroyed in the fusillade of bullets.

John died in 1976 and I missed that small house in that small Oklahoma town that had streets named after presidents, from Washington up through, ironically, our World War I president, Woodrow Wilson. And, I never got to hear any stories about his experiences in the war. From some research I’ve done more recently, I know he did his basic training right here in Fort Worth at Camp Bowie and that he was wounded several times while overseas.

Also doing some research, I found a print similar to the one from my uncle’s wall. It was a cover to some sheet music for another song that uses the poem at its text, this time by Charles Gilbert Spross. The print is slightly different and the poppies are bright red. It could be that Uncle John’s print was faded, but it’s hard to tell. I also learned that many times copies of the song, along with prints of illustrations of the poem were sold to soldiers returning from the war and/or during Memorial Day events. That’s probably where John got his copy. But it obviously spoke to him of his memories during that time.

I was attending the University of Maryland at the time and I remember we were driving through Virginia, continuing our tour of American history sites. (Hint: History is all over Virginia and the Washington, D.C. area; you don’t have to drive very far).

For some reason, probably because you can’t forget something that gave you nightmares as a kid, I mentioned the We Shall Not Sleep painting. My aunt remembered it, too, and wondered whatever happened to it. Maybe, she thought, it was being stored with all the other contents of Ed and John’s home.

You get a lot of gifts in your life. Some of them never get out of the box, some of them (cupcakes perhaps) last only a few minutes. This was truly a gift of thoughtfulness and love. Only someone who cares, and cares about you, would go to the trouble to track down something that you mentioned in a casual conversation 10 years earlier.