Posted by: Thomas Drinkard | May 20, 2012

A Poem for Armed Forces Day

This poem is from Finding The Way Home, a chapbook of poetry about the Vietnam War and the way it affected those who were there.

***********************

    OLD SOLDIERS

An aged man is but a paltry thing,

                                                              A tattered coat upon a stick,…“

                                                                             Yeats

Old soldiers from all our modern wars

crowd into the same slice of time,

-in veteran’s hospitals,

waiting together,

mutely bonded by losses,

-empty spaces that surround

and define us.

Sitting on an uncomfortable island of vinyl

awash in a surf-rolling susurrus of voices,

cocooned inside my silence,

untouched by misery and despair

swirling in the crowded air like cigarette smoke,

stinging exposed nerves.

But I felt the touch of ancient eyes

-looked back;

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 out at me from the mountain

his loose white shirt and brown suit made

stuffed into the seat of a wheelchair,

blue eyes flickering about the ward

like a sparrow watching from a nest of 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 which war was mine,

and, without an answer,

told me I would never know real war.

The kind he knew in the Meuse-Argonne,

where artillery stormed

through nights when rain was steel.

The earth, plowed,

and sown with exploded metal

-sterile, unstable-

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

feeling its way over broken ground,

finding edges of the 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 soldier’s courtesy,

due an older warrior.

His images of war,

the Great War,

-hard to see,

superimposed over silent, jerky, black-and-white films

whose soldiers in wool uniforms,

puttees and greatcoats

look vaguely ridiculous;

always smiling, waving to the camera,

holding long bolt-action rifles.

What did he see,

when TV specials showed his war?

Did the gait of those old films move

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 was seeing pictures of my war;

old nightly news clips from Vietnam,

-live firefights,

color TV with sound,

projected against the back of my brain.

Though these mirrors,

-constant reflections stuck in time,

now 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 at war’s end, survivors return,

with eyes of old soldiers,

-to insults or parades.

Apparitions that were young warriors

burned in mind’s retina

like lingering persistence of vision;

-portraits stamped on the face of a mirror,

forever the age of those whose names

old veterans read in monument stone.

Like fragments from a looking glass,

slowly shattered by the warp of changing seasons,

these broken pieces of a dead war’s face,

-unfashionable images,

-shards of incomplete reality,

reflect all that my sons will know,

looking back on a father’s war.

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Responses

  1. Always powerful…always relevant. Happy Armed Forces Day Dad
    Love Mike

  2. Well Done, Thomas!

    • Thanks Rich. This one comes from a place so deep inside that I have trouble keeping dry eyes when I read it in public.

      • I understand. Thanks for sharing.

  3. I remember as a boy watching my Great Uncle Roy eventually succumb to the ravages of Mustard Gas exposure in WWI. My father and his brothers were all WWII veterans. I am a Vietnam veteran. I fear none of our trials can compare to the horrors endured by the men in WWI. God bless them all.

    • Never saw anyone suffering from gas attacks, but I’m told they were ghastly.


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