My turn had come;
Billy Pigg, helmet flown
lost, shrapnel more alive in him
than blood free as air,
dying in my arms.
Billy asked a blessing, none come
his way since birth. My canteen
came his font. Then he said,
ŅI never loved anybody.
Can I love you?Ó
My father told me,
his turn long gone downhill;
ŅKeep water near you, always.Ó
He thought IÕd be a priest before
all this was over, not a lover.
Once Screamed to the Flag-waving Drunks at the Vets Bar, Late, Memorial Day Evening
Fifty years now and they come at me, in Chicago, Crown Point, Indiana, by phone
from Las Vegas. I tell them how it happened, long after parting, one night when I
was in a bar, thinking of them all.
Listen, gunmen, all I can smell is the gunpowder on you sharper than booze.
You wear your clothes with a touch of muzzle flash. Is it a story you wantÉ?
Listen to the years ago, to the no shooting, to the no rout, to the just dying.
The day stank, it wore scabs, had odors to choke tissues and burn secret laminations
of the lungs. Rain festered in soot clouds, rose in the Pacific or the Sea of Japan,
dumped down on us, came up out of yellow clay like a sore letting out.
The air must have been full of bats, of spider weavings; it was lonely as the lobo,
yet a jungle of minds filled it with thought leaves shining with black onyx.
Who needs doctors at dyingÉ? Prayers sew wounds, piece heads, hearts,
hands together, when blood and clay strike the same irrevocable vein, arterial
mush; when God is the earth and clay, silence, the animal taker leaning to grasp.
Listen, gunmen, listen you heroes in mirrors only you see into, we through,
it isnÕt the killing, itÕs the dying must be felt, associated, even if it stinks.
Blood freezes in hot days of dying, is icicle inside movement of trickery
less than glacierÕs, where a man crawls to his maker up his own veins,
is touched, feels the firebrand burn in the cold.
Where are the shade trees, cool drinksÉ? Once I froze in the confessional
against the fire. He was a Spick, they said, washed his skin too much, wanted
to sandpaper it white, be us, be another man But we wagered ourselves to get him
out of a minefield live as breathing, comrade shot down in the clay in the rain
in the time of bright eyes rolling with thunderÕs fear. Was it him we carried,
or the stone of his monument? Tons he was of responsibility, one of us
despite the Spick name, man being borne to die.
God is everywhere, the catechism says, my son says, now, years later. It was once
a divinity we carried on the poles, with his balls gone pistonless, no more a god
to his woman. His image rolled red on the canvas, burned through the handles
of the litter as secret as electricity; Spick shooting himself into us, Godhead
shooting signs up shafts of wood.
Lugging God on sticks and canvas is frightening. We felt this. Jesus! We screamed,
have You let go of this godÉ? Do You fill him up making him burn our hands?
He wanders now for times, rolling himself together, womanless, childless, a journey
in dark trees, among leaves, in jungles, to get near You. God seeking God at the intercept
of shrapnel, the tearing down and lifting up by our hands, God in the cement of death.
Oh, gunmen, itÕs the dying not the killing you must speak of. This day is theirs, not ours,
belongs to the gods of the dead, of the Spick we carried to his dying and all his brothers,
none of them here among us.
Drink, gunmen, one to the Spick and graveÕs companions, jungle flights they are in
to match their god with God. And think, gunmen, who among us have the longest
Born to Wear the Rags of War
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 theyÕd become comrades
becoming friends, just Walko and Williamson and Sheehan
sitting in the night drinking beer cooled by Imjin River waters
in August of Ō51 in Korea.
Three men drably clad,
but clad in the rags of war.
Stars hung pensive neon. Mountain-cool silences were being earned,
hungers absolved, a ponderous god talked to. Above silences,
the ponderous godÕs weighty as clouds, elusive as soot on wind,
yields promises. They used church keys to tap cans, lapped up
silence rich as missing salt, fused their backbones to good earth
in a ritual old as labor itself,
these men clad in the rags of war.
Such an August night gives itself away, tells tales, slays the rose
in reeling carnage, murders sleep, sucks moisture out of Mother Earth,
fires hardpan, sometimes does not die itself just before dawn,
makes strangers in oneÕs selves,
those who wear the rags of war.
They 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, 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
(WalkoÕs opposite), hands that touched his rifle the way a womanÕs
touched, or a doll, or oneÕs 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.
Sheehan, 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
------Walko: We lost the farm. Someone stole it. My father
loved the fields, sweating. He watched grass grow by starlight,
the moon slice at new leaves. The millÕs where he went for work,
in the crucible, drawing on the green vapor, right in the heat of it,
the miserable heat. My mother said he started dying the first day.
It wasnÕt the heat or green vapor did it, just going off to the mill,
grassless, tight in. The system took him. He wanted to help.
It took him, killed him a little each day, just smothered him.
I kill easy. Memory does it. I was born for this, to wear
these rags. The system gives, then takes away. IÕll never
go piecemeal like my father.
These rags are my last home.
------Williamson: Know why IÕm here? IÕm from North CaÕlina,
sixteen and big and wear size fifteen shoes and my town
drafted me Ōstead of a white boy. Chaplain says he git me home.
Shit! Be dead before then. Used to hunt home, had to eat
what was fun runninÕ down. Brother shot my sister
and a white boy in the woods. Caught them skinninÕ it up
against a tree, run home and kissed Momma goodbye,
give me his gun. Ten years, no word. Momma cries about
both them all night. CanÕt remember my brotherÕs face.
Even my sisterÕs. Can feel his gun, though, right here
in my hands, long and smooth and all honey touch. SquirrelÕs
left eye never too far away for that good old gun.
Them white men back home know how good I am, and send me here,
put these rags on me. Two wrongs! Send me too young
and donÕt send my gun with me. IÕm goinÕ to fix it all up,
gettinÕ home too. They donÕt think IÕm coming back,
them white men. They be nervous when I get back, me and that
good old gun my brother give me,
and my rags of war.
------Sheehan: Stories are my food. I live and lust on them.
Spirits abound in the family, indelible eidolons; the OÕSiodhachain
and the OÕSheehaughn carved a myth. I wear their scars in my soul,
know the music that ran over them in lifetimes, songsÕ words,
and strangers that are not strangers: Muse Devon abides with me,
moves in the blood and bag of my heart, whispers tonight:
Corimin is in my root cell, oh bright beauty of all
that has come upon me, chariot of cheer, carriage of Cork
where the graves are, where my visit found the root
of the root cell---Johnny Igoe at ten running ahead
of the famine that took brothers and sisters, lay father down;
sick in the hold of ghostly ship I have seen from high rock
on CorkÕs coast, in the hold heard the myths and musics
he would spell all his life, remembering hunger and being alone
and brothers and sisters and father gone and mother
praying for him as he knelt beside her bed that hard morning
when Ireland went away to the stern. I know that terror
of hers last touching his face. PendalconÕs grace
comes on us all at the end. Johnny Igoe came alone at ten
and made his way across Columbia, got my mother who got me
and told me when I was twelve that one day Columbia
would need my hand and I must give. And tonight I say,
ŅColumbia, I am here with my hands
and with my rags of war.Ó
I came home alone. And they are my brothers.
Walko is my brother. Williamson is my brother.
Muse Devon is my brother. Corimin is my brother.
Pendalcon is my brother.
God is my brother.
I am a brother to all who are dead,
we all wear the rags of war.
© Tom Sheehan
Web site address: http://www.milspeak.org/TomHome2.htm
Update bio: Tom SheehanÕs books are Epic Cures (IPPY Award winner) and Brief Cases, Short Spans, 2008 from Press 53; A Collection of Friends (Aldren nomination) and From the Quickening, 2009, from Pocol Press. His work is in new anthologies from Press 53, Home of the Brave, Stories in Uniform and Milspeak: Warriors, Veterans, Family and Friends Writing the Military Experience.. He has 14 Pushcart nominations, three Million Writers nominations, Noted Stories for 2007 and 2008, the Georges Simenon Award for fiction, a story in the Dzanc Best of the Web Anthology for 2009 and a nomination for Best of the Web 2010. He served in Korea, 1951-52, with the 31st Infantry Regiment, and has published 13 books. He has appeared in 10 print issues of Ocean Magazine, has 126 cowboy stories on Rope and Wire Magazine, and many pieces on Troubadour 21 and recorded works on Qarrtsiluni. He and a committee of friends have co-edited and issued two books on their hometown of Saugus, MA, sold 3600 to date of 4500 printed (842 total pages in the two books) with color sections, text, timelines, nostalgia and history, all proceeds for Saugus High School graduates. He has signed a recent contract for The Collected Works of Tom Sheehan with Milspeak Publishers.