Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Red Poppy Fields: Dave's Story

Since I moved to Chicago in fall of 2010 to serve as a US-2 missionary of the United Methodist Church and then started this blog, a few folks have asked me why I named it "Red Poppy Fields". A few people have also noticed that I wear a red fabric flower--a red poppy--sewn to the collar of my jacket. This post should answer those questions.

I remember the day pretty well. My then girlfriend and I had traveled down to Maryland to do Christmas with her extended family. We were hanging out in the living room in the far wing of the rather rambling house when I got a call from my buddy Rich from home. He asked if I had heard the news. I told him that I hadn't. Rich told me that he had heard that Dave Dietrich had been killed in Iraq. I stood up from the couch, now pacing the room like I do when I get anxious, and said that I hoped that it was some sort of sick joke from a spiteful girlfriend.

I don't recall anything else about that visit to Maryland. It was Dec. 29, 2006.

It wasn't a sick joke. Dave had been killed, and the shock started permeating the small, central Pennsylvanian communities where he had grown up before joining the Army. Dave had had a rough childhood, but due to his loyalty and hard work, he had managed to graduate high school, albeit a few years later than others his age, and get into the military. I knew him best from Boy Scouts, where Dave found a second family to more or less replace his perpetually in-abstentia family. I knew that he could be little mentally slow and quick to anger, but he was as strong as an ox and rarely shirked his work. He also work on stage crew for plays and musicals at the high school and was on the football team. We were proud that Dave had gotten into the military.

The military is pretty popular in the hills where I grew up, and Dave was far from the only friend who went into the armed forces. Before I recognized my call to ministry, I had flirted with military service, too. After we got news of his death, rumors started floating around that he was up for an award for bravery. However, I started noticing things that began to sour my perspective on what had happened. At a candlelight vigil to remember Dave, his father appeared, something he hadn't done in many years, even when his son was living out of a Ford Bronco. At the memorial service in Mechanicsburg, the military chaplain told a long story about how Dave had unexpectedly accepted Jesus into his heart only weeks before he was killed. It was one of the first times that I had gotten such a wretched feeling that I was being lied to.

A year and a half later the national magazine Newsweek did a long article titled "He Should Never Should Have Gone to Iraq", which recounted Dave's story in the military. It talked about how Dave had failed the military entrance exam once, and the military couldn't explain why they had let Dave in after the second time. Dave struggled mightily in basic training, and he had been killed in his first patrol away from the base in Baghdad. The quote that titled the article came from the Army recruiter who had guided Dave through the paper work of enlistment.

I only read that article during this last autumn.

In the years after Dave's death, I had changed quite a bit. After a three-year relationship, I broke up with the girlfriend in whose family's home I first received the news. I started studying the causes of poverty and oppression, sometimes by accident, other times knowing what I was doing. I became a pacifist and started describing myself as a Christian anarchist of the Dorothy Day school. And Dave's story grew more and more important to me.

I had kept the red fabric poppy that the American Legion Auxiliary had given me outside of the funeral home where Dave's memorial service was held. A few years later the flower was held to the stem by only some putty. On the evening before I left Bucknell University for winter break in 2009, I had some sort of radical, idealist discussion with my roommate, and coincidentally I found the red poppy again. I took the flower off the  stem, threw the bent stem away, and then sewed the flower to the collar of my Carhartt jacket. I vowed that any time when someone asked me about the red flower on my collar, I would answer  that "it helps to remind me of the true costs of war".

Today I usually just say that the flower came from the memorial service of a buddy who was killed in Iraq. Few statements take the wind out of a conversation like that one.

I am sure that Dave would disagree with my stance on the military. I can't even pretend that he would agree with me. Just like so many hard-working folks in the lower echelons of contemporary American society, whether in Perry County, Pennsylvania or South Side Chicago, Dave believed in the conservative narrative of America. If we just work hard enough, then the goodness of America will naturally come out and freedom will reign. Neither would Marysville, Dave's hometown, agree with me. Dave is a martyr there, honored with a memorial path around the town park and with a patch of state road that leads west from the town.

I think Jean Paul Sartre said it very clearly when he said "when the rich wage war it's the poor who die". This basic sentiment--that the rich and the powerful exploit the poor for their own purposes--is what inspired the protesters around the world in the last year. It's what inspired me to sew a red poppy to my collar.

So I work in the Red Poppy Fields
made of red fabric flowers
torn fathers' flags
worn women's washrags
Plough, sow, harvest
In silos' shadows
Through markets' smoke
Over churches' altars
We all work in the Red Poppy Fields

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