Dear Big John and Little John and Billy and Londo and Breda and Kujawski and Hughie Menzies and Eddie McCarthy (the last two named who died a year apart in Korea and now are buried a grave apart in our cemetery) and the others in our infantry radio section and the comrade I carried to his death whose name I never knew and all the others I pray for every night yet, the men of the 31st Infantry Regiment and brother outfits of the 17th Regiment and the 49th Field Artillery Battalion in the Korean War, and all the comrades in all the battles in all the wars, our wars.
Many of the readings I’ve done for more than 64 years often contain messages such as the following piece pulled from my collection of memories: John Maciag, Big John (himself all the way from basic training at Fort Devens, Massachusetts,)
was all bone, knees, elbows and jaw,
hated his rifle, proficient at killing,
wanted home so badly it burned his soul.
We leaned up that mountain near Yangu,
(or some other forgotten village), frightened.
War’s hurricane tore our ranks,
trees of us lifted by roots.
I came running down three days later.
Like cordwood the bodies
were stacked between two stakes,
all Korean but that jaw of John Maciag I saw,
a log of birch among the pine.
The sergeant yelled to move on. I said no, I can’t move,
maybe I’ll never move. I am going to sit and think
about John Maciag’s forever, whose fuel he is,
what the flames of him will light.
Perhaps he’ll burn the glory of man or God.
I have memorized, on my choice, one entry of mine, as just read with a few changes time has incorporated; and a poem of great influence on me, “Shot Down at Night” by John F. Nims,
“A boy I once knew,
arms gold as saddle leather, lakeblue eyes,
found in foreign sky extravagant death.
Dreamy in school, parsed tragic Phaeton,
heard of war, arose surprised, gravely shook hands and left us.
His name, once gray in convent writing, neat on themes,
cut like erosion of fire the peaks of heaven.
The Arab saw strange flotsam fall,
the baseball sounding spring/
the summer roadster pennoned with bright hair/
the Halloween dance/
the skaters’ kiss at midnight on the carillons of ice.”
When once asked to read to announce and celebrate a new book of my memoirs, I wanted to let the audience enter the cubicle where the work came from. Portions of the following are what I told them: I’ll celebrate with you by telling you how it is with me. This is what I know. This is what I am and what has made me:
Just behind the retina and a small way back is a little room. It has a secret door and passageways and key words other than Sesame. If you’re lucky enough to get inside that room, at the right time, there’s ignition, there’s light, there’s a flare, now and then there is pure incandescence like a white phosphorous shell at detonation. It’s the core room of memories, the memory bank holding everything you’ve ever known, ever seen, ever felt, ever dislodged spurting with energy. The casual, shadowy and intermittent presences you usually know are microscope-beset, become most immediate. For those glorious moments the splendid people, those redoubtable souls found in or at most battle scenes one has known, rush back into your life carrying all their baggage, the now-imaginable Silver Streak unloading, Boston’s old South Station coming alive, bursting seams.
At times I have been so lucky, brilliantly, white phosphorescently lucky; it’s when I apprehend the one-time panorama, a soothsayer seeing it all in reverse. I see the quadrangle of Camp Drake in Yokahama, Japan in February of 1951. I know the touch and temperature of the breeze on my cheek and the back of my neck, the angle of the sun on me and a host of my comrades, how it has climbed past a chimney of a long silent gray barracks, and withers on a mountain peak of an unknown horizon flaring at darkness. I know the weight of an M-1 rifle on a web strap hanging on my left shoulder, the awed knowledge of a ponderous steel helmet atop my head, press of a tight lace on my left boot, wrap of a leather watch band on my right wrist, a series of web belts, gathering our impetus, knuckled and knotted around me as the horde of us became one.
I am lucky, at this moment, to know all the scenes again, when they come in these reverential pieces, my thoughts afield though gathering. Pete Leone from McKees Rocks, PA is on my left. Pete Marglioti from McKees Port, PA is on my right. Pete and Re-Pete. Frank Mitman from Bethlehem is there, an arm’s length off. John Maciag, Big John, is in front of me. Behind me, John Salazar, of eternal woe, is the comrade with two brothers not home from some place in World War II, whom the captain calls to his hilltop bunker one day much later in Korea and says, “You’re going home tomorrow, John. Get off the hill before dark.” “No, sir,” John replies, “I’ll spend the last night with my buddies down in the listening post.” After darkness a Chinese infiltrator hurls a grenade into their bunker.
Knock with me. I could share “Milan Carl Liskart, the Coalman,” with you, one of my stories about loss hitting at home, and share my grandfather Johnny Igoe, the Yeats’ reader and memorizer who initialized my early years, and a few other shining lights that, with tenacity, have found the pages of that memoir, A Collection of Friends, which carries this dedication: “For those who have passed through Saugus (and every town), those comrades who bravely walked away from home and fell elsewhere, and the frailest imaginable soldier of all, frightened and glassy-eyed and knowing he is hapless, one foot onto the soil at D -Day or a statistical sandy beach of the South Pacific and going down, but not to be forgotten, not here.”
I had the attention of the book release gathering. We shared. I said, His face is lost. How can I find his face again? Young, scrawny, red-faced John Salazar had his woe: I have mine.
Men of that command would not speak the name of comrade knowing the fragmentation of loss as if bones could dwindle. I cannot speak of time coming, only of time past and the laughter/cries of young voices sounding vibrant horns. I hear only echoes from mountains of years in the quick tumbling. You must hear the same mountain, the uncluttered system of their thoughts, the brass and velvet of young men at thinking sometimes down precipices sharper than truth; such men multiplied this command, yielding neither dreams nor arms, ideas set as hard as Excalibur before King Arthur pulled that mighty sword from the rock. Now their softness mingles in mind’s debris trying to say what they knew and took to grave. John Maciag never hurried anyplace but to die. He talked to the far mountain and we listen to the echoes.
In quiet spaces of late night, this is what John listened to: The day had gone over hill, but that still, blue light remained, cut with a gray edge, catching corners rice paddies lean out of. In the serious blue brilliance of battle they had become comrades becoming friends, just Walko and Williamson and S—— sitting in the night drinking beer cooled by Imjin River waters in `51 in Korea. Three men drably clad, but clad in the rags of war.
We had been strangers beside each other, caught in the crush of tracered night and starred flanks, accidents of men drinking beer cooled in the bloody waters where brothers roam forever, those warriors come to that place by fantastic voyages, carried by generations of the persecuted or the adventurous, carried in sperm body, dropped in the spawning, fruiting womb of America, and born to wear the rags of war.
Walko, reincarnate of the Central European, come of land lovers and those who scatter grain seed, bones like logs, wrists strong as axle trees, fair and blue-eyed prankster, ventriloquist who talked off mountainside, rumormonger for fun, heart of the hunter, hide of the herd, apt killer, born to wear the rags of war. Williamson, faceless in the night, black set on black, only teeth like high piano keys, eyes that captured stars, fine nose got from Rome through rape or slave bed unknown generations back, was cornerback tough, graceful as ballet dancer (Walko’s opposite), hands that touched his rifle the way a woman’s touched, or a doll, or one’s fitful child caught in fever clutch, came sperm-tossed across the cold Atlantic, some elder Virginia-bound bound in chains, the Congo Kid come home, the Congo Kid, alas, alas, born to wear the rags of war.
S——, reluctant at trigger-pull, dreamer, told deep lies with dramatic ease, entertainer who wore shining inward a sum of ghosts forever from the cairns had fled; heard myths and the promises in earth and words of songs he knew he never knew, carried scars vaguely known as his own, shared his self with saint and sinner, proved pregnable to body force, but born to wear the rags of war.
I came home alone. And they are my brothers. Walko is my brother. Williamson is my brother. God is my brother. I am a brother to all who are dead, we all wear the rags of war.
I can take you back to all the hard places, to the adjectives and verb ends; to the quadrangle in Japan in 1951 and the cool wind coming through Camp Drake and the voice of death talking in it like Billy Pigg crying as he rolled over in my arms and Captain Kaye saying, “I just want to go home for a little while and tell Merle and Andy I love them. Just for an hour or so.”
And I can say to Hughie Menzies: You think I don’t remember you. Your nose was red, ears outsized, you had blue eyes, red cheeks. In front of the State Theater on Saturday matinees you towered over us. But I remember you, Hughie! Your hair was tall in front, dark; your arms were long, your nose English like mine’s Irish but mostly for word music. You didn’t skate with us, but I remember your picking leaves, watching the sun fall through the filaments, pointing filaments to younger companions. I saw you Saturdays watching us play football at the stadium. Then, how Time plays tricks on all of us, we were in Asia, carrying carbines in the Land of the Morning Calm. That far Asia’s sun set down on you, Hughie, but I walked free of that hole. Most mornings after, on my way to school or work, old shells echoed, shy infiltrator eyed me, cursed land mine sat like a maimed turtle in my path, dark clouds grew darker, dread rain became yellow madness, deep earth opens its welcome arms. Other lights shine upon my imagination and recollections, begging their recall, the lakes and rivers, and the seas and sands with their salt:
I who lost a brother and nearly lost another
remember the headlines, newsreels, songs of bond-selling,
gas-griping, and movies too true to hate. The whole Earth
bent inwards, imploding bombs, bullets, blood, shrieking
some terrible bird cry in my ears only sleep could lose.
Near sleep I could only remember the nifty bellbottom blues
he wore in the picture my mother cleaned and cleaned
and cleaned on the altar of her bureau as if he were the Christ
or the Buddha, but he was out there in the sun and the sand
and the rain of shells and sounds I came to know years later
moving up from Pusan.
I never really knew about him until I dreamed him home
and saw his sea bag decorated by his artful hand
with a drawing of his lovely wife,
and a map and the names
Saipan, Iwo Jima, Kwajalein, the war.
Salt, in its own way, carries everlasting messages: The river’s a slow snake idling through eel grass (now and then its body pouches). Red-winged blackbirds watch the uncoiling, hide their young the way lint finds pocket depths. They are noiseless, stock-still (their hearts must beat like pocket watches). Kelp is kindling on the air, a hot house party of algae and brine; sea flowers by crude acres burst inland until love-lies-bleeding takes over, or lady slippers stepping into soft coves as though changing rooms in the middle of the night (you can hear silk talk).
An old man, knee-locked, land-locked, a familiar roll still tossing his hips, casts his gray eyes outward at graves without stones, hearkening sons to his feet. Voices ride the tide, whisper the valid tongues of the marsh, the dark undertaking of root. He knows dangers everywhere about the river: the porous bog whose underworld has softened for centuries, the jungles cat o’nines leap up into.. The old man has strawberries in his backyard, running rampant part of the year. He planted them the year his sons caught the last lobster the last day of their last storm. Summers, strawberries and salt mix on the high air.
A truck driver, dumping snow another December at river’s edge, backed out too far and went too deep. His wife hung a wreath at the town garage. His son stutters when the snow falls. At the all-night diner, a waitress remembers how many times she put hard liquor in his coffee. When she hears a Mack or a Reo or a huge and cumbersome White, she tastes the hard sense of late whiskeys. He had honest hunger and honest thirst, and thick eyebrows, she remembers, thick eyebrows.
Salt comes in on the morning air like wounded walking home. It promises to cleanse a nursing home’s back room. Salt teaches me balm and history; it occludes itself, becomes a soul masseuse, assuager, its thickness at times a spiriting; and when it gets too heavy, too much for the soul, I see the Great Salt Lake flats, burnt wide under the poring sun, all its immeasurable reach being cut up in portable chunks for the West-spreaders’ wagons, hear the clout of it all.
In August, when marsh grasses and ‘nines burn past midnight, justice is left over from smoke; nests flare up whose young the minute before winged off. I share salt with strawberries, others’ sons, arathusa bulbosa sadly purple in hiding places, the red-winged shifty pilots near their nests, eels I won’t touch, turtles I do. We put flashlights and stones in glass milk bottles and inserted them in step locks to pull at alewives running their mad dash up the river before noon was known. By hand we caught them, salt healing wounds and bruises in our own whirlpool and illume.
Some of us heard the sea calling, even way back then, from Normandy, from Leyte and Anzio and the smell only Pusan Harbor knows. George knows the salt of the French coast, his nose stuffed with it forever, and tall, gaunt basketball player Ernie, hands splayed wide as maps, where the lifeline ran away from itself, kisses yet the first-wave salted sands Iwo Jima threw up at his mouth, or was it Guadalcanal or Kwajalein? memory asks. Has such sand or such name made a difference since then?
Once, near thirteen, a friend and I shared a cigarette under cover of the mist and the alewives passed us, up-streaming. That’s the night we forgot to listen. Yet mist administers salt in dark dosages, or fog does the duty when streetlights flatten beneath that misty grip. Cures prevail. Some paralyses pale by comparison where warm waters muscle their way in. Some of these nights esteemed neon signs violate the marshy estuary where time and tide meet and fuels are stationed. At the rim of the reeds, Standard Oil has a new red glare limping along the briny path.
Strawberries sleep all winter.
Only some sons know true darkness
where horizon comes down,
where the salt is mined.
Oil slicks are silent rainbows;
under way the prism orients points
of the moon and paths only deep waters know,
and those lost sons.
I still love the river the sea comes in on,
knuckling down to the old milldam
across the street from me, twice a day touching.
And the salt borne, all the salt borne.
Of course, salt brings me words on the majority of sound or lack of it;
Silence comes out of bullets that rot in the Earth
or a bucket of hand grenades some meek hero
threw overboard in the Leyte Gulf in that old Pacific war.
Silence is a wet stone without a carved name
making storm knives in a mile-wide cemetery
in the Philippines or bones in a Kwajalein cave
coming up white as good teeth in a hard jaw.
silence is a big RBI some kid drove home in Kansas
in ’41 and a father remembered the ball going
like a bullet into left center.
Silence is a brother, swimming 100 miles off
a New Zealand, beach saying your name,
through salt in his teeth,
one last time.
This conversation is with old red wine that brings you, brother, out of surging daylight to fill the doorway like a mailman with a bad letter or telegram. Specters leap out of this old mixture, the blood of grape, the fine chalk it paints teeth with, a whole day of sunlight collared in a tumbler, a red sunset too far away to tell where. You went off to that sunset once, around the corner of the barn tipping toward its knees and Sam Parker’s garden paving the ripe earth all way to the Lovett house sitting white as a pepper-mint down the lane.
When you waved at me you did it with both hands and only later, when it had gone down the mortal chute, was significance found as I remembered the leaning barn’s shade swallow you up, taking one bite of the car. And you were gone with a two-hand wave like signaling Saturday’s lone touchdown.
So I have an old wine or two, a buzzed-vine beauty of taste sometimes more like apple cores or flesh from a peach nearer the pit, and hum the old sad songs, scribble crazy designs and whorls on a once blank paper waiting a poem or thought up to its knees in mud in my mind, and think about your waving at sunset because I never see it the same way twice. Often it is pieces I see; your eyebrows thick and dark and sure as cordage; or gray-green eyes wide as dial faces on test equipment measuring tasks I was at and how you appraised with a nod so slight I shivered before recognition; the little off-center tilt of your head in question the way a dog takes a first look at the new neighbor’s cat or fingers snapped behind the back; perhaps, deep in the sunset of the second glass, down past the red and purple and fiery collars, past all the striae a shining breaks out in wine, a shadow of you walking across Pacific waters, sea bag shouldered, stride long and unhurried, smiling, waving to us, coming home, gigantic fire fading behind you, awful nightmare blasts, bombs, aerial explosions, fracture of a ship, swimming alone, fading too.
I find you in the glass, tall, lean, crowbar true, warm as rubbed pine, immovable as bottom rock, close, reaching, bending, lifting up, still building all our dreams you drafted in darkness in the bedroom the night before the end began.
A sweater too long hung on an iron spike
near leather goods of an old horse, tells tales.
One glove, fractured at wrist and thumb,
three gardens old, capped on a spade handle, clues.
Scythe handle, spine scattered to every degree,
two blades dead, holds a hundred years of sweat
waiting raccoon’s discovery the slow night of a full
moon and wheat fields curling wet.
Your size eleven khaki waders, hung to dry years ago,
exhibit river remembrance in deep-scarred veins
the way lake bottoms dry and whisper of accidents.
A red and black lumber jacket, buoyant exclamation
mark beside the cellar door, rigid as winter pond
yet soft behind my eyes, holds the last day my
If I were to gather all these moderate artifacts,
the yield would be tender.
An infantry of stars swarms the slow sky wide as a Vicksburg field between shots. The guidon ripples the slow torment of deep passage just beyond Polaris. Near giant Orion’s eastward shoulder, a torchbearer pops an impetuous gleam. Small encampments, sometimes sevenfold, tighten their ranks in bright bivouacs. Others, loners and post guards, march wide circles like the dog star Procyon hunting the heavens. This vast array does not appall me, though I diminish before its deployment. I have been told, in good faith, that many of these stars are dead, but we know their shining, like old soldiers, long gone, cement themselves into statues, dim ribbons and old medals whose scriptures fade at sun and slowly, gram by gram, inch toward minerals and memory. Beneath my feet this veteran Earth slips into the far side of another’s telescope. How far doesn’t count, or time to negotiate; gage the map of stars, so long dead, still shining.
I remember Lake Hwachon. There was nothing to do on this side, that’s for sure. We boated over. There was nothing to do on the other side either, but die, or stand in line, or check out your gear. No rentals. No two-piece bathing suits catching up the glorious sun. No hot dogs in short buns. No sand-oil grit spread. Dale Morgan lost a calf muscle to a Bouncing Betty. Oh, there were lots of them, locally-flavored, territorial. They made stupid noises that said, “It’s too late, pal.” Those were the only smoky umbrellas at Lake Hwachon, you can bet.
Tony M. was unluckier at calves, losing both, and everything you can name in between. Waco used to be his hometown. He didn’t like lakes, this one. When we crossed on pontoons and rafts and dories with out-board motors, I watched him undo his booted laces, then unstring his weapon, set his small pack under his butt. He smiled at me, telling me about water, rivers he must have grown up worrying about. How to hold your breath floating on deep water. We knew about the impacts of mortars. Water does them up, oh full of phantoms.
I talked to old Ski in Chicago a few years back. He’d buried his Japanese wife in Arlington, his daughter was dying, he was sad. He had so much shit then, and now, it piles up again. Back at Hwachon he said he didn’t like lakes, not that one, or the one that’s been shifting its swim of cancer around Chi-Town. Breda’s near Mattoon and he once said the Old Polack’s just not the same, got this old-time look in his eyes, like when we beached at Hwachon and he asked what date it was and counted there, right in the open, his damn rotation points, as careful as a teacher noting attendance.
He’d been through Frozen Chosen, Hungnam and all the stops between. Oh, he had a before and an after: Los Negros, Luzon, Leyte, the Philippines, not necessarily in that First Cav order, HQ in the occupation of Japan, and then Chi-ROTC for years, and death still hanging all around him like a turd on the bottoms of his boots. And tears on the phone he couldn’t hide, tough old bastard he was, two-wars dying at that. He didn’t like the lake shore either. I can see him, even all these years later, stepping ashore, rifle down-range, ears picked up, more a cougar than a deer, intent, a Polack with a piece of Apache in him trying to find its way out of his eyes. Maybe a New World Comanche in tow. Perhaps, I often thought, an old Prussian bloodline, left over from ancient and short guard duty, had made the first impression.
But lakes have a way of undermining you, make you sit too easy on the fat duff, make dreams and nightmares quick-wedded, stick it to you where you least expect it, make it happen. Ski happened. He exploded! I shut that mastery out of mind. You fail, too often, in measurement, contrast.
But still he was sad and hated lakeside, shore, waters of the giving and taking lake, time. Old Man MacArthur was right; Ski’s just floated away on the invisible waters, drifted off, leaving me, finally, way down the line here, like the others promise, numbers mounting, this strange way of saying goodbye, comrade I met in a hole, the 76-er mm weapons in alien hands, their shells screaming over our heads all that so ungodly night in the previous century, and still here.
In strange moments there it stretched all the way home here: Eddie Smiledge was the houseman at The Rathole, racked the balls, collected coin, was a judge with a hundred dollar bill in the side pocket. He smoked cigars thick as cue sticks, ate Baby Ruths until his teeth stuck, sent us home abruptly when our eyes became hazy or midnight slipped like a footpad over the green felt on table No. 4. He did not lend us money, but let the clock work in our favor; at a nickel a game he didn’t see the eight ball eight times in the side pocket, and forgot to lock away all the nickel bags of potato chips.
One night we played One-Ball-in-the-Side- Pocket past closing and Eddie sat in a corner waving off the game costs. We walked off under a September moon all the way to Korea. The night I came back, chevrons up and down, deep new wrinkles struck across my face, measureless but valid, reaching for my yesteryear, a skinny bald-headed man was racking the balls. He didn’t know my name, who was home from Korea, who wasn’t home, who wasn’t coming home, and why Eddie Smiledge had drifted off someplace the day after we left.
Such destinies clash, find lost souls, like sending a letter to Londo 50 years later, after Korea, after finding each other, a testament, a true memorial of one hungered night we spent on a foreign mountain marked by stars: “There boomed a silence at midnight. Cold appeared in pieces like slate falling. Feathers coming loose. We hunted for burned bread tossed three days earlier, and tossed jam in C-ration cans. We looked in sump holes to find the raspberry, the sour strawberry, to find cast-off bread harsh as leather. No milk there. No mother’s milk. No sour cream on a bet. No cow’s cud. No cow. Just cold. Cold smooth as those falling slates. Cold as gray as slate. Cold in thin sheaves, long knives in the wind, or worn out sleeves or emptiness. We remembered the rain we’d had just days earlier. How warm it came, cleansed us down to our toes, inside out, newness, our spirits upright again. I remember that rain. In puddles it shone on your face. Showed you, me, in pieces. But warm, mild, grass and brush in mountain grips shone. Now on odd dawns shaking about me, it flares cold with light, draws attention to itself, freezes. Tells us it freezes. Says don’t hold on this way. The mountain talks back. If you listen, Londo, you hear me again, you hear it, us, and the cold leaning inward.”
“I think of you in Las Vegas now, the wind across a desert raw as lonely can be, both of us wondering where Jack Slack had been hanging his hat all the time, then finding him at last, as though a resolution had been broken, at Fort Bliss National Cemetery, Section PG, retired as Master Sgt. John. R. Slack, fifteen years hidden from our grasp, but still in the ranks. What a searching run that has been … knowing he once lived at 17 Van Schoick St. in Albany, NY and whose father had been a police captain or chief. I’ve found Jack Slacks in Gloversville, Medina, Long Beach, Wood Haven, Vestal, and Webster, and had to check them out, to no avail. My wife and I on a trip knocked on all the doors on that Albany street, gained little knowledge about Jack’s whereabouts, and then spent half a day at the city’s stunning Korean War Memorial, me remembering, her wondering about a lost soul. I had told her about his taking over my spot in the regiment so I could get rotated home from Korea, his writing ability, his humor staying behind after we left, his saying at my departure, “If you ever want to get together if I make it out of here, you’ll find my name scratched into the walls of half the men’s rooms in Albany. Start there. I’ll be easy to find.”
It’s apparent he had seen some of the future.
“Then, Londo, share with me the first week of October, 2006, after our son was married, my wife and I spent a day with old comrade Chuck Rumfola in Avon, NY, not having seen him since February of 1952. He’s the guy who ran ammunition and supplies up one mountainside on a cable he ran on a tireless rear wheel of a jacked-up six-by truck; his on-the-spot invention. I said hello for all of you, to this other brother of ours, and he said it back to all of you not forgotten here, not forgotten there, never forgotten.”
“I’ll not let go,” I told Londo, “not casually.”