Monday, July 24, 2017

In memory of my father

Soldiers of the 96th,
we are your families.
We are your wives, sons, daughters,
grandchildren, great-grandchildren,
and all those who bore your children
or share your bloodline.

Your legacy comes down to us
in books, in movies,
and in black-and-white photos
that show ordinary men
working, playing, taking a break,
training in the snow for a war in the Pacific,
and sailing thousands of miles
to places that had no Kansas wheat fields,
no Iowa corn,
no Ozarks or Appalachians;
places with strange names like
Buri, Dagami, Shuri, and Medeera;
and with hills and ridges that we gave our own names to
and would long remember in our dreams and nightmares:
Hen Hill, Conical Hill,
Hacksaw Ridge, and The Big Apple.

So many of you never returned,
reaching your end in rifle fire,
a hail of machine-gun bullets,
or an exploding shell.
Those of you who did return
were not the ones we had sent overseas;
you bore their names,
but you carried dark secrets
that you would not share with us;
secrets that clouded your thoughts during the day,
and spawned terrible nightmares after dark --
Nightmares so real that you might mistake your lover
for a Japanese soldier
and find yourself shouted awake
with your hands at her throat.

We could not condemn you later
for drowning those demons in alcohol,
or silencing them with a bullet.

But amazingly, some of you
chose to live, love, and work again
in the country that had sent you away.
Look at me; nearly seventy years ago,
one of you chose to marry, build a home,
and create and support a family of five.
Only two of us remain,
but we remember,
and stand in awe at what you accomplished.
Despite your pain, you worked 72 hours a week for 20 years
to support that family and watch its children grow.
You stopped only when the oil company that sponsored you
declared you too old to be of service to them.
Deprived of your ability to serve others,
only five years passed before disease took hold of you
and slowly erased your mind and memories
over the next eight years,
until nothing remained.

Your ashes sit atop a high point of land
that now looks westward across the same Pacific
through which you sailed to hell and back.
Your devoted wife, my mother, sits close beside you
under a stone that proudly proclaims your union and service.
I hope to join you there some day.

Few will notice your memorial
among the thousands of other stones there,
but it is my hope that some will remember you,
as we do here today.
Soldier, leader, husband and father
we thank you for your service
and your inspiration.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Life after the unicorn (part 1)

I walk there twice a day, knowing, as always, that the result will be the same.  These creatures have too little time for adventurers such as I.

And yet I persist.

My doctors tell me not to think about it; to broaden my horizons and give the real world more time.  Their reality is not mine, for I know what I saw, and I cannot, and will not, forget.  For who could forget, if they had been there, with me?  The rustle of the leaves, as if a respectfully muted wave of applause had accompanied the breeze that had softly risen and brought with it the clarity, the spiciness, the electric certainty and realization that a moment unlike all others was about to unfold.

I had experienced something like that once before, in a clock store a world away, where the small bell that hung over the front door announced my arrival into a softly ticking room of scent and sound, where the smell of seasoned wood a thousand years old combined with the slightest hint of machine oil to cause me to suddenly stop and stand in anticipation and readiness for a singularly rare event.  The door closed silently behind me as my numb hand let slip the handle, and as the street noise faded the experience intensified to become a world where nothing else existed; there was only I at the center of a universe where that scent and sound emanated like twinkling starlight from each golden messenger who now stood, immobile and facing me, to present a single truth in unison.  Improbably, all said exactly the same thing:  it was two seconds before five, the moon was full, and it was time for them to sound.

And sound they did, until I stood among a choir of cathedral bells proclaiming that yes, this was the time, the moment of momentousness, where everything else fell away and there were only the loudly proclaiming bells stridently marching through an ancient rhythm that pierced my consciousness from all sides.  My breath had caught in my throat, and I felt my body yearning to breathe while my mind said, no, not now, stay, stay here, and just be.  It was only when the darkness rushed in to eclipse me, and I felt myself falling forward, that I gasped and broke the spell, while still, with mouth agape, I sank to my knees and turned my head slowly to see, hear, smell, and taste the cold, sharp importance of the event.  I had passed through much more than a physical doorway, and was now worshipping at a celestial altar.  As the last bell faded, I rose shakily and staggered out of the shop, into a man-made cacophony that beat upon me and demanded that I return to the reality I had left just moments before.  Yet I knew then that I would never fully return.  The veil had been lifted, briefly, just for me, and in the days to come I pondered and struggled with the memory.

Perhaps you will understand, then, why when she appeared, my reaction was not fear, but acceptance and satisfaction.  The curtain had risen on the second act.  The four polished hooves ascended into impossibly pure and perfect legs that supported a regal frame and a graceful neck that lifted my gaze to be dropped into her eyes.  Those eyes had seen millennia pass, had seen empires come and go, and yet they were now focused on me.  They saw everything, all my failings, all my yearnings, and all my hopes.  There was nothing for me to say; I simply bowed my head and silently waited for her to speak.