Monday, October 16, 2006

Never Certain

As I mentioned in a previous post back in August, I used to question whether I did the right thing by not serving in Vietnam when I was a security policeman in the US Air Force. This doubt has entered one of my poems, one that appeared recently in Project for a New Mythology. This poem also won an in-house prize judged by Mark Doty when I was a graduate student years ago; the poem remained unpublished until recently.

I recognize that my understanding of the weapons in use then is wrong; that misunderstanding is intentional. Let's hope that no one shares the feelings I once knew regarding the current conflict involving American troops.


Never Certain

I was trained for war as a child,
given toy soldiers and taken to movies.
July afternoons in the yard I reenacted
the liberation of France, the taking
of Porkchop Hill in Korea. My father
told a story of spending the first
night of the invasion at Omaha Beach
with the dead all around him,
before he fell into silence.
He gave me the oath when I enlisted
and asked me not to disappoint him.
Assigned first to Montana, I guarded

tankers on alert. Eager to tell
the stories that we heard nightly
about mamasan selling her mouth
in the shower, papasan selling sticks
of marijuana carted from Thailand,
and the sappers who lobbed mortar
shells from the jungle, creating action
on the flightline, my friends volunteered.
Not convinced, no matter how alluring
the account, but still more afraid,
I asked for England. I spent a year
guarding nuclear bombs against the fog

that crossed the perimeter and crawled
below the fence, waiting for me
to look away as I drew pipefuls
of hashish into my lungs. I handed
out leaflets and marched in London
against the war. I took a discharge
offered, with benefits, two years early.
It took only weeks to regret my choices.
I missed my nights on post, my friends.
No one else I knew had stayed home.
Even now at times, thirty some years
later, when I count up the time
spent inside, stoned, jobless, alone,
with no ribbons but national defense
stored away with my night stick, I wish
I had joined my friends from high school,
my friends from Montana in AZR training
at Lackland. Like Azrael, the angel
of death, I could have learned
to separate a soul from its body
with a knife, a bazooka, a mortar
before boarding a plane for Da Nang.

I could have spent a year releasing
my nineteen year old lust. I could have
peered through a night scope and aimed
my M60 machine gun at the shapes
firing mortar shells onto the flightline,
watching them fall like silhouettes.
I could have created my own silences
for the last night of stuffing
my dufflebag, before adding
my souvenirs to the stack of bodybags
flown back to the world.