I lost two college friends to the war in Vietnam. Frankie Lee Wallace, from Cherokee, AL and Felix King, from Birmingham, AL. A buddy who was in my Special Forces Officer’s Course, Kurt Binion, was KIA within months of our graduation. There were others, of course, but these were the closest.
I may have posted this last year, if I did, forgive my memory lapse.
This piece originated in a real experience, in the VA Hospital in Birmingham, AL, back in the late ’80s. It is not meant to be a transcription of that meeting, rather it is a recording of the encounter filtered through the emotions of a Vietnam Veteran.
¬In VA hospitals,
old soldiers from all our modern wars
crowd into the same space of time,
mutely aware of common losses
that have shaped us.
Sitting on an uncomfortable island of vinyl
in a surf-rolling susurrus of voices,
I had cocooned myself inside a silence,
untouched by the misery and despair
that swirled like cigarette smoke,
stinging exposed nerves.
But I felt the touch of ancient eyes
and tentatively looked back at him
like a man afraid to look in a mirror
after long, dark nightmares.
How big a man he was, I’ll never know.
He stared at me from the mountain
his loose white shirt and brown suit made
stuffed into the seat of a wheelchair.
His brown eyes flickered around the ward
like a sparrow, watching from a nest of old rags.
The woman stood behind him,
thin arms circling the chair
holding his shoulders
as if he might roll away again.
He wanted to talk.
Asked what war I had been in
then, without my answer,
told me I would never know real war.
The kind he knew in the Argonne Forest
where artillery stormed
through nights when rain was steel.
The earth, ploughed
and sown with exploded metal
a treacherous place for man to walk.
They sprinted along trenches
splashing through partly-frozen mud
and huddled in bunkers;
fear of crashing shells almost lost
until the silence;
when the big guns stopped.
Ears groped through underground darkness
stretching to know
when slow, soft mortar plops signaled
sliding yellow death
that felt its way across broken ground
and found edges of earth where men hid.
The mustard gas, like a living predator,
seemed to find them by sensing their fear
and clawed bare skin.
prying at protecting seals of rubber masks.
I listened –
held by more than a soldier’s courtesy
due to an older warrior.
His images of war,
the “Great War”,
–hard to overlay on flickering sepia
or jerky black and white movies
whose soldiers in antique wool uniforms,
puttees and greatcoats
look vaguely ridiculous;
always smiling, waving to the camera,
holding bolt-action rifles
with absurdly long bayonets.
What did he and his diminishing comrades see
when television specials showed their war?
Did the old films move in their eyes
with smooth, strong strides of young heroes?
How did that mirror,
those old moving pictures, reflect the man
now shrunken inside a pile of old clothes?
As he held me with his stories,
I began to see pictures of my war—
news clips from Vietnam,
projected against the back of my brain.
Though these mirrors,
constant reflections, stuck in time,
begin to look archaic,
looking into them, I find myself again
chilled with the immediate fear
that swirled in battle like morning fog
and coalesced into rage,
forging a weapon
more lethal than simple tools of killing.
But, like fragments from a looking glass,
slowly shattered by the warp of changing seasons,
these broken pieces of a dead war’s face,
shards of reality,
reflect all that my sons will know
looking back at a father’s war.
Thomas Rowe Drinkard, 1990