Memorial Day, 2003
It’s at the center back of Olive Park,
framed by green laurel bushes quick with birds,
facing Chicago’s skyline by the lake.
It doesn’t get too many visitors.
Sometimes I pause in puzzlement to gaze,
as at a sibyl caught in low relief.
A dark vague cave mouth in the morning shade,
the bronze becomes, up close, a halo wreath—
a parachute that seems to rise, not fall—
above the helmet and uplifted eyes
of a young soldier who’s beyond the call
of flesh or pain or want or earthly ties.
In stunned, amazed transcendence he stares past
the world shattered by that holy blast.
Well, sure. You get the point:
one of our nation’s martyred saints.
Not a terrific gig,
these days—not when the cool, hip creed
is things and wealth. And yet,
check out that carved archaic date:
my graduation year
from high school. Back then none dared
to speak or even dream
of tossing Zippo’d flags, aflame,
in the defiling dust:
we were no pink-tinged atheists.
One older schoolmate died
down South, while on a freedom ride.
Yet though a radical—
a Jewish intellectual—
he shook nobody’s faith,
and eagle-winged became a saint
in the broad pantheon
of those who’ve proved America
worthwhile, divine, worth all
in spite of that great ancient fall,
which sent the Reverend King
and my old schoolmate protesting.
Others—the best bright men—
spoke too of a new Jerusalem,
yet made a crusade
of other men’s sons, and traded
them for digits, for dead
small strangers in a strange small land—
the crystal stairs’ last stop.
We plunged in a green fungous slop
beneath black-orchid clouds,
or shards of sun so hot that kids
dropped hard, smelled earth’s rank truths—
yet nothing shut those bright men’s mouths.
Most of those guys are dead themselves
while some, safely old, have confessed
some measured, qualified regrets.
Why should I care?
nobody muses on the war,
or on the South Side soldier, black,
this plush pale park was named to honor.
Why should they care?
out of the shadow of the bronze
two girls in jogbras skate the sun,
too quick to question war’s amends.
Why should they ask?
Muting my iPod, I roll my bike closer
and hear, above park noises and the splash
of wind-slapped waves, a strain of murmurs
sifting through ranks of stiff, prim, incised prose.
They’re tenuous and raw—tracers of war’s
ecstatic nerves and eye-blink thoughts, too fast
for rhetoric’s form or history’s lesson.
I stretch out on the grass and listen.
PRIVATE FIRST CLASS MILTON OLIVE III
Who am I now?
IN A SEARCH AND DESTROY
We looked for them and they found us
Where? Crazy-ass names
ON 22 OCTOBER 1965
I missed that crisp Chicago fall
the leaves the Bears the kitchen smells
thick hambone soup and spicy greens
THE 3D PLATOON
My crazy new mixed family
COMPANY B, 2D BATTALION (AIRBORNE)
We humped more than we flew—
line dogies, grunts, that’s all we were,
but we were good
That movie said, “Queen of Battle”
MOVED THROUGH THE JUNGLE
Green, man, green,
it swam our blood,
danced in our guts
A HEAVY VOLUME OF ENEMY GUN FIRE
Thunder, a tearing of the leaves
PRIVATE OLIVE AND FOUR OTHER SOLDIERS
Me, Smitty, Hanks, Garcetti and the Cisco Kid
SAW THE GRENADE
O geez, a pipe, a stick,
it bounced a bit
GRABBING THE GRENADE IN HIS HAND
O Lordy what a fall
I thought I’d save us all
but fell too fast, too hard
and scooped it under me
like a loose football
or, on fire, my baby bro’
FALLING ON IT TO ABSORB THE BLAST WITH HIS BODY
O mama who could know?
For one sweet second
I thought, Yea-ah! A dud!
No way it gonna blow
and then an earthquake
lifted me, I couldn’t see
or hear, the roar the hurt
shot me to some white space
O mama who could know?
BEYOND THE CALL OF DUTY
It wasn’t duty made me fall
HIGHEST TRADITION OF THE UNITED STATES ARMY
REFLECT GREAT CREDIT
no warrior loves his death
I’d rather be a crossing guard
or steer a city bus
O mama mama
Lake breezes flag, the sun flares overhead.
Duty calls: a barbecue. I mustn’t lag
or drag down happy talk, must leave unsaid
thoughts on our warrior leader’s carefree brag.
Bad taste to speak of shock and awe, of dead
on monuments or blood-dim sand. I shrug.
I ride in festive throngs along the shore.
What poet’s words have ever wounded war?
Jim Fairhall‘s publications include award-winning works of literary criticism, fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry. In 1993 his prize-winning book, James Joyce and the Question of History, was published by Cambridge University Press. Seven poems have won first-place prizes in national contests. Dragon Music won the Swan Scythe Press chapbook contest, judged by Sandra McPherson. Fairhall’s story “Pink” won the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival Award for Fiction, judged by Robert Olen Butler. His essay “Nui Khe” won the John Guyon Prize for Nonfiction (Crab Orchard Review) and was chosen as a “notable” essay for Best American Essays, 2013.
Note: Milton Lee Olive III was the first African American to win the Congressional Medal of Honor in Vietnam. Words in capitals are quoted from his medal’s citation.