This morning, NaPo challenged me to write a poem that responds to another poet’s poem. I chose one titled “Natural History” by Leroy V. Quintana, one of five of his Viet Nam poems featured on PBS. But I could have responded to any, or all, of the five.
How did it feel?
To know you must go to Nam, to maybe die,
or go to jail, or to Canada?
To go there to kill any enemy, VC, NVA, or…?
To be overcome by fear, and to be forced
To kill anything that moved?
You’ve felt such fear I’ve never felt.
Not just some fight or flight twinge,
but big, sweaty, trembling, shit-your-pants fear,
both rational and sometimes crazy,
a fear that never goes away,
fear mixed with phenomenal anger,
when everything slows down, or stops,
where all you see, hear, feel,
smell, or taste wants to kill you, to maim you?
To suck the blood from your body?
And you can only live by killing him first,
or by not fighting, or shooting into the darkness,
or not, for fear of being exposed, or by tossing
grenades, or by friendly artillery fire so near you,
it may kill you? And most of all, how did it feel
to leave your comrades behind, to fly home
to clean clothes, a steak dinner, and
a thankless nation ignoring you,
wishing we’d all just go away? Trying to forget?
Look both ways along the path of a warrior,
that person sacrificed for the good of some system
like Capitalism, Communism, or Catholicism.
Mind the gaps for the fears and tears of real people,
both the living and the dead.
What was the most tired you been?
Slept standing or fallen down tired?
Been so dizzy? I hallucinated.
At POW camp they
would not let us sleep.
Peed in a #10 coffee can,
locked in cell, both overflowed.
To learn how to survive capture,
being treated beyond awful, we endure
such misery; to live it, feel it, survive it.
I thought I would not. Might never try.
How did they survive not knowing;
forsaken and forgotten?
Many decided to die. Too awful
to live. Most decided otherwise.
Sometimes, dancing in the rain,
or walking through the fire
are both hard-learned lessons.
Look both ways for light at both ends of the tunnel.
Mind the gaps in the dark until you can see.
Find life. Love freedom.
The vertical pronoun was your god,
the long corncob pipe,
a crutch as you’d exude imperious
confidence of irresponsible
narcissistic self-assured vanity.
Brilliance without wisdom never
questions self or knows dark
duality like Hastie Lanyon’s soul.
Your crime, a distant impassioned
supercilious and cavalier concern
for the misery your pomposity
beset upon your courtiers, devout
mindless adventured foolish demons,
lost souls who rose to the peek
of principled Peters with blindfolded
ignorance of history in the future,
now a legacy of incompetence
foddered with pride. With hubris
envied by Xerxes, you forced
your own shameful dismissed
The wisdom of a fading old soldier
heroically without end is clouded
by the dark shadow of your way,
the way, and the way of stars.
Legacy looks both ways, but history finds truth in justice.
Mind the gaps of human success for the failure of the soul.
Sunday. Blessed dullness fenced
by deceptive barricades of ocean’s
water; the sails flotilla, distant bushido,
flying samurai set to slaughter
the honor of death to a sleeping
dragon, killing two thousand and more.
Pride in death over defeated dishonor
slithers and hums into beating hearts
of heroes from hell’s kitchen to honor
as oppressed saves oppressor,
as hours of death’s destruction
delights devils with a world at war.
Zeros screamed as tora roared and
state magazines exploded when the
dragon opened one eye and a bloody
mess of shock and awe was felt
around the globe and demon war
smiled, the angel of peace died.
Two thousand young dead,
two thousand more, thousands
the sun set in the west
to a flash of final disgusting rage,
the emperor surrendered
with a whimper laid waste.
Look both ways, to a past of shameful honor and error,
as the future plays reruns.
Mind the gaps for truth of mankind’s inhumanity.
After being an Air Force officer for several years,
after being an enlisted dude for four years, and after
the oddly trainee controlled officer
training school, then flight training,
survival training, combat crew training
and many other experiences
that I have long since forgotten,
I was assigned to the Training Command
as a flight training instructor and commander.
An old instructor of mine was still there,
but he had been away to USC
to get his PhD.
He described command
flight training as a thousand officers
standing knee-deep in chicken shit,
stabbing each other in the back.
I found that description to be
Look both ways in competitive careers.
Mind the gaps and where you step – and check six!
I was 18, standing in a line or queue up of young men like me,
Kennedy was dead and LBJ faced off with a cool-named
guy called Barry Goldwater. It was basic military training
in San Antonio, Texas, near where I would later spend
more than 16 years of my life.
Up ahead stood four medical corpsmen with what looked like
space age weapons called jet gun vaccinators, with small
deadly vials on top and compressed air hoses attached.
Later they learned these were spreading diseases
like hep-c, luckily not into me.
When the corpsman’s aim was bad, a sliced bleeding arm
could send a sad lad to fainting, out cold, falling,
rolling down the nearest bloodstained hill.
We got so many shots
we had to keep a little yellow book as a shot record,
that included things like typhoid and yellow fevers.
And other shit I’d never heard of or wanted.
They call it parenteral since you don’t swallow it
(remember polio vaccine on the sugar cubes?)
so the names are always intra-something like
-muscular, -venous, -cardiac, -articular; and get this,
intracavernous is a jab at the base of a man’s penis to
check and treat for erectile dysfunction.
I’ve had so many shots and jabs, most required for my job,
as military we go to places folks have such diseases.
Now, I’m a walking pharma needing boosters for old men.
I took the second of the new shingles jab last week, next month
they will shoot me with the flu (extra strength for old farts),
a disease I may get anyway — like I did last year.
I saw an advertisement for old people to get whooping cough shots
so as not to infect the young ones, who spend a good bit
of their time infecting the older ones. I think my whooping
immunity was the hosting of the disease itself, as it was with
mumps and measles and who knows what all I got into.
The chicken pox never really left, ergo shingles.
Nowadays, I get my shots at the grocery store along with
bread and milk and maybe some wine. No white clad corpsman,
no jet guns or four shots at a time. I decide. Three different
shingles shots and six weeks with a case of that pox-related
nightmare virus, I sure hope my immune system
fends off any of that painful shit, shingles.
Look both ways and thank science and immunity for better health
at the cost a poke. Mind the gaps,
a compromised immune system invites trouble.
It may be just another from there-to-here story, but it is mine.
Officially, I haven’t written in my memoir for about two weeks. Sure, I typed over 50-thousand words for Nano in November, but so what? This isn’t just the telling of any story, it’s the recording of a part of my life. That first whack during Nano (something less than a 1st draft) is like putting primer on the wall before painting or prepping a canvas.
When I tried to make an outline, I ended up with a list of events somewhat out of order. Each time I had a memory or an idea, I quickly added it to the list. I now have a list of 165 items, memories, or events. There are a few duplicates, some ideas aren’t useable, and for some I still have no idea what I was thinking about or why I added it to the list.
I’ve glossed over a few how to write a memoir books. Now I’m slowly reading Your Life as Story by Tristine Rainer. I just finished Writing is My Drink, a memoir by Theo Pauline Nestor. Giving all this thought to autobiographical writing has enlightened me that I prefer non-fiction to fiction. I prefer autobiography to biography, and specifically memoirs. I like history. In fiction, I prefer real life/real world stories to Sci-Fi or fantasy. It’s complicated. I like them all. Anything done well is better than my favorite genre not so well done.
I’m even considering changing last year’s novel to an autobiographical novel, and rewriting it from third to first person. But that’s for later. For now, I want to keep working on this memoir. While I’ve not recently written much in it, I have been working on it. Organizing both it and meh-self has taken a bit of time.
About 80% of my writing is rewriting, and if you know how Nano goes (thou shalt not edit), that effort will require mooch-o rework. It’ll keep me off the streets, out of the bars, and out of most trouble for a while. I enjoy rewriting, editing, correcting, and improving my own work more than writing the first draft. Maybe that’s cuz I don’t have to create (think) and spell simultaneously.
I’ll be right here, in my 11×11 spare room. This is my work-space, set up with folding tables that I can take down to turn it back into a bedroom when we have visitors. While I sometimes find other locations to write, I prefer this one. I got all meh stuff around me. And look at these post-it notes behind me. Each one has one or more of the topics contained in my memoir. Those written in pink or orange highlighter are yet to be written. It’s how I’m organizing the thing until I learn Scribner.
Below is my view from the chair at my computer. The sock monkey on top is the kind that rolls around and laughs, in case I need a lift, or someone walks in here and asks me what I’m doing. A couple of windows to my right provide an uninspiring view of my neighbor’s rooftop. But I want to know when it’s raining — pluviophile, remember?
Here is a little snippet from my memoir. I was 17, would soon graduate from high school, and was Air Force bound in a few months. Shirley was my sister and Danny’s meh big brudder.
As a senior in high school, my guide and advisor regarding entrance into the military was Shirley’s husband, Jack M. This hard-core, active-duty, career Marine gave me all the advice he could – more than I could assimilate. Jack was a highly decorated First Sergeant (Sergeant Major to be) and a veteran of both WWII and Korea. He would later complete two tours in Viet Nam, and he would resent being denied a third.
Sergeant Major M. was a true warrior. He was the guy you want on your side in a fight, but not necessarily the man you wanted in any situation requiring sensitivity, grace, or political correctness. Despite this, Jack was a boisterous and friendly Italian-American from Ohio who seemed to be liked by everyone.
Jack and Shirley were both Catholics, but were married by a Justice of the Peace because Jack was divorced. Eventually they were married into to the good graces of the Church, which seems strange because they never practiced their religion, or if they did, not for long.
One day Jack and I were browsing through a hardware store so he could tell me what to buy and what was good stuff. This was back when hardware stores had everything or knew where to get it.
Jack pointed at some hunting knives in a case, “Yer gunna want a good knife. Your own. Not too long, but you want good balance, feel, and steel that won’t break on bone. In the Marine Corps, everyone has a knife.”
I looked at him, “Jack, do you think I should join the Marine Corps and not the Air Force? It’s not too late to change.”
“Oh Jesus, no. First off, yer Mom would hate me, if not kill me. But I gotta tell ya, Billy. Yer Air Force material. The Marine Corps don’t work out fer kids like you. Shit, the Marine Corps is not for you.”
Jack was right. The Corps had not worked out well for Danny. Why would it for me?
Jack picked up a knife and pointed it at me. “But, this knife here looks like a good one. It’s Solingen steel and I can tell ya, the Krauts make good stuff like this. Feel it and see how it fits ya. How’s the balance?”
Jack bought the knife as a gift for me. It had a straight, one-inch wide, thick steel blade. The handle was black plastic inlaid with a red and white diamond symbol, and a black metal sheath. I soon realized that Marines have many more good uses for knives than Airmen do.
Note: My Air Force career spanned over 45 years; 22 active duty, the rest civilian. In my last job before retirement, I worked on Eglin Air Force Base for a Marine Corps Colonel. I enjoyed telling him this story.
Only you can tell your story.
Just mind the gaps and look both ways.