Thursday, November 11, 2010

For veterans and their families

The Wall Within

"Delivered at the commencement of the National Salute II in Washington, D.C. on November 10, 1984, as part of the official activities prior to the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial ("The Wall) as a national monument. It honors the personal list of love and loss that each American has marked in his/her heart. Poem entered into the Congressional, January 30, 1985." Jonny's Song: Poetry of a Vietnam Veteran. Steve Mason. (May 1986). Batam Books.

The Wall Within  

Most real men
hanging tough
in their early forties
would like the rest of us to think
they could really handle one more war
and two more women.
But I know better.
You have no more lies to tell.
I have no more dreams to believe.

I have seen it in your face
I am sure you have noticed it
in mine;
at the unutterable,
unalterable truth of our war.

The eye sees
what the mind believes.
And all that I know of war,
all that I have heard of peace,
has me looking over my shoulder
for that one bullet
which still has my name on it--
circling
round and round the globe
waiting and circling
circling and waiting
until I break from cover
and it takes its best, last shot.
In the absence of Time,
the accuracy of guilt is assured.
It is a cosmic marksman.

Since Vietnam,
I have run a zigzag course
across the open fields of America
taking refuge in the inner cities.
From Mac Arthur Park
to Washington Square
from Centennial Park
to DuPont Circle,
on the grassy, urban knolls of America
I have seen an army of combat veterans
hidden among the trees.
Veterans of all our recent wars.
Each a part of the best of his generation.
Waiting in his teeth for peace.

They do not lurk there
on the backs of park benches
drooling into their socks
above the remote, turtled back
of chess player playing soldiers.
They do not perch upon the gutter's lip
of midnight fountains
and noontime wishing wells
like surrealistic gargoyles
guarding the coins and simple wishes
of young lovers.
No.
I have seen them in the quiet dignity
of their aloneness.
Singly, in the confidence
of their own perspective.
And always at the edges of the clearing.
Patrolling like perimeter guards,
or observing as primitive gods,
each in his own way looks out to the park
that he might "see" in to the truth.

Some, like me
enjoy the comfortable base
of a friendly tree
that we might cock one eye
to the center of the park
toward the rearing bronze horsemen
of other wars
who would lead us backwards to glory.
Daily, they are fragged
by a platoon of disgruntled pigeons
saying it best for all of us.

And with the other eye,
we read the poetry of America the Beautiful
as she combs her midday hair
and eats precise shrimp sandwiches
and salad Nicoise catered by Tupperware--
and never leaves a single crumb.
No wonder America is the only country
in the world which doesn't smell like food.

...and I remember you and me
picnicking at the side
of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the rain
eating the Limas and Ham from the can
sitting easy in our youth and our strength
driving hard bargains with each other
for the C-ration goodies
we unwrapped like Christmas presents.
Somehow it really seemed to matter
what he got versus what you got.

It wasn't easy trading cheese and crackers
for chocolate-covered peanut butter cookies!
And the pound cake--Forget about it!
I knew a guy would cut a hole in it
and pretend it was a doughnut.
For six months I watched that
and refused to ask him about it.
I did finally. And you guessed it.
He hated pound cake.
And remember the water biscuit
that came in its own tin?--
I think they had the moxie to call it a cookie--
it came with the marmalade
and was made by that outfit in Chicago
we promised to burn to the ground someday.
Damn, how did your buddy, the animal,
ever eat that crap?
Then, we'd happily wash down the whole mess
with freckly-faced strawberry Kool-Aid
straight from the canteen
some days there'd be goofy grape
(anything to keep from choking
on the taste of purified water).
Bleck.
But somehow I sensed all the while
that I'd never be able to forgive myself
for enjoying your company so much
or being so good at the game we played.

We were the best--you and I.

In our parks
there are whole other armies of veterans
mostly young and mostly old
but always ageless
who are not alone.
They share with their families
and their friends
these open-aired
above-ground time capsules
of our national culture.
They read aloud to themselves
and their children
from the plaques and statues
monuments and markers
those one-line truths
of our common experience
as if there could be a real significance
in words like Love and Hate tattooed
on the clenched, granite fists of America.

Sometimes, when I am angry
it seems as if I could start my own country
with the same twenty Spill and Spell words
we shake out at the feet of our heroes
like some crone spreading her hands
over the runes prior to a mystic reading.
Words like:
peace and sacrifice, war and young
supreme and duty, service and honor
country, nation, men and men and men again,
sometimes God and don't forget women!
Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines and freedom.

Then, just as quickly, the anger passes
and reverence takes its place.
Those are good words, noble words, solemn
& sincere.
It is the language of Death
which frightens me;
it is unearthly to speak life concepts
over the dead.
Death is inarticulately final
refusing forever to negotiate.

That, and the awesome responsibility
we place eternally on our fallen
teenage sons,
seems unbearably heavy
against the lengthening prancing
shadows of Sunday's frisbees.

Apparently, there is no period
which can be placed after sacrifice.
All life is struggle.
an act of natural balance
and indomitable courage.
As it is with man
so it is with mankind.

If we permit Memorial Day
to come to us every day,
we ignore the concept of sacrifice
and dilute its purpose.
When we do that
we incur the responsibility
to effect change.
If we are successful,
the sacrifice has renewed meaning
It seems there is no alternative to life.
But there may be to war...

The values of our society
seem to be distributed in our parks
and find only confusion and sadness.
Strange, I have observed no monuments
to survivors.
No obelisk to mark the conflict
of those who risked
and lived perhaps to fight again
or perhaps to speak of peace.
Nowhere, yet, a wall for the living.
There is no wonder
guilt is the sole survivor of war.
We do not celebrate life after combat
because our concept of glory
lives neither in victory nor in peace
but in Death.

The are plaques at the doorsteps
of skyscrapers;
in New York on the 10th and the Avenue
of the Americas it reads:

IN MEMORY OF THOSE

FROM

GREENWICH VILLAGE

WHO MADE THE SUPREME SACRIFICE

IN THE KOREAN CONFLICT

1950-1053

In Nashville's Centennial Park
in a shaded wood
to one side of the Parthenon
built to scale and to the glory
which was Greece,
a small statue stands;
it is inscribed:

I GAVE MY BEST

TO MAKE A BETTER WORLD

1917-1918

I stood there one fall
ankle deep in leaves
and looked up at the night sky
through a hole in a ceiling of trees
wondering how much better the world
might look from up there.

From the moon
only one manmade object
can be viewed by the naked eye:
The Great Wall of China
(a tribute to man's functional paranoia).
It's a peculiar perspective
because we're a lot closer
and the only manmade object we see
is THE Wall in Washington, D.C.
(the veterans' solemn pledge to remember)

There is one other wall, of course.
One we never speak of.
One we never see,
One which separates memory from madness.
In a place no one offers flowers.
THE WALL WITHIN.
We permit no visitors.

Mine looks like any of a million
nameless, brick walls--
it stands in the tear-down ghetto of my soul;
that part of me which reason avoids
for fear of dirtying its cloths
and from atop which my sorrow and my rage
hurl bottles and invectives
at the rolled-up windows
of my passing youth.

Do you know the wall I mean?

I learned of mine that night in the rain
when I spoke at the memorial in Washington.
We all noticed how the wall ran like tears
and every man's name we found
on the polished, black granite face
seemed to have our eyes staring back at us,
crying.
It was haunting.
later I would realize
I had caught my first glimpse
of the Wall Within.
And those tears were real.

You and I do not walk about the Wall Within
like Hamlet on the battlements.
No one with our savvy
would expose himself like that
especially to a frightened, angry man.
Suicide loiters in our subconscious
and bears a grudge; an assassin
on hashish. We must be wary.
No. We sit there legless in our immobility
rolling precariously in our self-pity
like ugly Humpty Dumpties
with disdain even for the king's horses
as we lean over the ledge to write
upside down with chalk, bleached white
with our truth
the names of all the other casualties
of the Vietnam War
(our loved one)
the ones Pentagon didn't put in uniform
but died anyway.
Some because they stopped being who
they always were
just as truly as if they'd found
another way to breathe.
Others, because they did die
honest-to-God casualties of the
Vietnam War
because they lost the will
to breathe at all.

My mother gave her first recital
at Carnegie Hall at age eleven.
Sometimes, when I was a boy
I'd watch her play the piano
and wonder if, God, after all, was not a woman.
One evening when I was in the bush
she turned on the 6:00 news
and died of a heart attack.

My mother's name is on the Wall Within.

You starting to get the idea?
Our lists may be different
but shoulder to shoulder
if we could find the right flat cloud
on a perfect, black night
we could project our images
upon a god-size drive-in theatre
wide enough to race Ben Hur across
for a thousand years...

Because the Wall Within
adds up the true cost of war...

We can recite 58,012 in our sleep
even the day after they update it,
but how many of those KIA had kids?
How many of them got nice step-dads?
Whose wall do they go on?

And what about you vets
who came home to your wife and kids
only to divorce her because
there wasn't anyone to be angry at?
How many dimes
have you heard long-distance fathers
dropped into the slot
to hear how another man
was raising your children?
Yeah, Yeah, I can hear you hollerin',
"Put it on the wall! Put it on the wall!"
Damn right, it's on the wall...
And you remember how that came down?
you told the three year old
his daddy loved him
and his mommy loved him
and nothing would ever change that.
But it did anyway.
But not because you didn't love him enough,
but because you loved him too much
to be a part-time daddy.
And you couldn't explain that to him
because you couldn't explain it to you.
What the hell? I mean who were you,
Spinoza? You came home a twenty-two-year-old
machine gunner for chrissake,
you did the best you could.

PUT IT ON THE WALL!!

And somewhere, in an art gallery, maybe
is a portrait of American Grieving Parenthood.
Handholding, Rockwellian caricatures
of wisdom and forbearance
and oh yes, pride
sitting on the front porch
of the township
waving their lemonades
at the Greyhound bus driver.
Baloney. The names go UP!
Because every time you can't find Mom,
you damn well better call Doc Smith
'cause she's up on the second floor again
sitting on the floor in Johnny's closet
smelling his Varsity sweater
with the sleeves around her shoulders
sobbing something maybe only Johnny ever
understood.

But don't worry about dad,
who never fished again,
or watched a ballgame on TV again
and won't talk to anyone this year
between the ages of thirty and forty.
He's doing fine.
He just doesn't exercise
as much as he should,
but Doc Smith assures us there's no medical
reason why the folks should have
separate bedrooms;
Dad just likes to read a lot these days.

If you and I were men of common conscious
we might agree on a collective dedication
to our Walls Within.
As for me
they could all read:
This wall is dedicated
to mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers,
wives, husbands,
sons, daughters,
lovers, friends,
and most of all dreams
of the men and women
who risked it all in Vietnam
while you continued to lose them
during and after the war
with less a chance than they for a parade
and no chance at all for an explanation.

You lost them to bullets, internment,
drugs, suicide, alcohol, jail, PTS[D]
Divorce, but never never did you any of you
ever lose them to the truth
which is now being shared
across this great nation
in such an act of spontaneous
moral courage, its like many never
have been seen on any battlefield
in the history of mankind....

Amen to that, brother.

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

I started to put this poem of the late Steve Mason on this site many years ago. But the triggers were more than I could handle, and I stopped short about three pages from the end. It is funny now. Anyway, since Steve Mason passed away, a couple of vets have asked me where they can find this poem, I have decided to finish transcribing The Wall Within today (July 23, 2005). In ending, I would like to say two thiings. One, Thanks, Steve. You always said it the best. Second, you can find "The Wall Within" in the book (or cassette) entitled Johnny's Song: Poetry of a Vietnam Veteran by Steve Mason (May 1986).A Bantam Book.
The dedication reads:

"Dedicated
to all of us
who know the true cost
of war
and have paid the price."

Steve Mason died at age 65 on May 25th, 2005 in Ashland, OR of lung cancer from AO exposure. Steve was a decorated Vietnam Veteran, poet, Poet Laureate of the VVA (Vietnam Veterans of America) and spokesman for so many.
dougyelmen@earthlink.net

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