Ode to a Lost Warrior
Ann Levingston Joiner
Another dying warrior stands defiant,
Hundreds of withered arms each ending
in five gnarled fingers
to the final products of its life
(perhaps remembering green youth and the too-rapid loss
of briefly white, then red and bleeding petals)
No match for the battling boy whose
nimble fingers deftly pluck away the
tightly clutched tufts,
dropping them into the canvas sack
several times longer than the boy is tall.
Ignoring his own trepidation,
he boldly peers down long rows
of similar dying warriors - their
fibrous balls waiting mutely
for him in the Texas sun.
The endless spheres of white
take on a cloud-like haze as the boy
dreams of greater battles yet to come.
More formidable enemies - worthy opponents
to overcome with greater honor.
(In his pocket lies heavily
one tiny brazen shell
to be put to use when this day's
work is done.)
The long sack finally bulging the boy
turns it over to be weighed
and takes his meager wages - too little
to buy food,
and so picks up the rifle and
loading it with the single shell
heads to a world more friendly and inviting.
In the woods, alone, moving silently,
finally at home - one with the
shimmering late-day beauty
sharp ears detect a rustle
of leaves overhead - sharp eyes a flick
of bushy tail - the gun swung up
deftly, one shot and it is done.
The single shell hit home. He claims the prize
which means one night less hungry.
The gnawing lessened in their bellies he puts
his brothers and sisters to bed and
returns to the chair
where his mother sits, long
chestnut hair released, hands still in
her lap, twisted, cramped fingers
aching again from too much use.
The boy kneads them gently, desperately watching
her face for response, seeing only a
vacant stare from a heart
grown cold from too little love, too much work, and too many children,
feeling only relief.
The abusive man they call husband and
father is once again absent. Not until the
boy has gone down to a restless sleep does
she pick up his one pair of
cast-off overalls and wash them,
leaving them to dry by the stove for morning.
The denim, faded and frayed from
too many washings has drawn
the trousers even shorter.
The boy, seeing his bare ankles
envisions the coming derision
and perceives grimly that
there will be more fights this day.
The teacher watches him arrive - his reddish hair
and freckled face washed shining clean.
As he moves quickly to his desk,
she resists asking of his absences,
again so many days. His classmates watch.
A curious mix of disdain and admiration. Among the boys
willing to risk their parents displeasure,
he has his followers
but the chestnut-haired girl in starched linen
sits scornfully in front of him.
Inside his desk, his one reprieve.
He lifts and gently fingers the books - escaping to
a distant world of hope and dreams
and full bellies.
But even in this joy - a sadness lurks. Already
he knows the limit to these days. This respite, too brief.
His mother and the other children are
too hungry - his useless father gone longer
and longer periods of time.
The boy-man crouches
in the wet, muddy foxhole, listening
to the incessant wind mixed with
the sounds of exploding shells.
At night, his dreams intermingle scenes: stark
white fields of cotton, his mother's early
but solacing death,
stalking this formidable
enemy with one shell in his gun.
Trading the foxhole to crouch in the now-familiar
whale-like belly of the landing craft -
"I hope I get to see France," he wrote to a friend. Approaching the shore,
remembering, he laughs,
Ashore, amid the whistling and exploding
shells echoes the rat-tat of the machine gun.
The men who follow him look
to him with eyes like the defiant school-boys
of that long-ago time.
The gun must not be met head-on. Choosing a safe,
circuitous route, he goes out
alone - but not quite alone -
followed by his closest friend who
refuses to go back. The gun
burps out again
his friend falls. (A letter from his
daughter in his pocket: "Deer Daddy, I am in school")
Remembering the too-little time he spent in school
he pictures the child, in class with
her spelling lessons, oblivious
to the fact that she is suddenly fatherless.
Rage wells up, finally - his
too few school days, his mother's eyes
as vacant while half-alive as his
now-dead friend in his arms.
He charges the hill, seeing
in the face of every enemy the face of
his own too-absent father.
(If the only escape with honor was in a body bag
he could at least go home with his friend.)
At length he stands alone upon the hill,
alive. The enemy lying dead around him.
Returning to his friend he sheds his last tears.
The house stood dark with shadows and the
smell of death and he knew the enemy
still lurked in darkened places. When
the evil creature with
his father's face and glaring
blood-shot eyes appeared, he fired at once.
In the shattering slivered glass he saw
the disintegration of
his own reflection.
(His buddies joked about a Texan
beating himself to the draw.)
Stalking through the forest, the
new brass bars he did not want burning
into his shoulders, weighing them
even more heavily, he heard a rifle crack
finally felt the searing pain that even
in its intensity came as relief.
Cool sheets and the woman in
white with chestnut hair - a temporary reprieve -
"Next time," he wrote home, "I guess
they'll tag me for keeps."
Too soon back at the front the orders
come through: "Hold the road at all costs."
(the cost already having taken
four-fifths of the one hundred-plus men
under his command. Their only support
two useless tanks, one already in flames.)
Those left looked to him with eyes
too much like siblings and school boys so that
when he saw the enemy - over two hundred
strong with six lumbering tanks approaching -
ten times outnumbered, the phone he used
to call in distant artillery not enough - he jumped
upon the useless burning tank,
shoving bodies aside,
ignoring "smell of burning flesh"
to fire the tank's machine gun, raking
repeatedly the approaching enemy - next time
they'll get me for keeps and body bags
the only honorable escape and so mr. artillery man
what are your post war plans?
Surprised to find himself alive as the enemy
retreats, the boy-warrior
gathers up his men....
Back in the glaring Texas sun
the plane lands. Beneath him
are crowds cheering and he
flinches at artillery salutes and
cringes at endless speeches. The medals
on his chest already an albatross - he endured the shame
of being sent home a living trophy to the
blood and death of too many friends.
Unknowingly become an ICON, the
man-boy-soldier with too little schooling soon
found himself in a celluloid world of too much
light and too many happy endings: Too many people
clamoring to touch him.
With the praise and
applause came the tiny
chestnut-haired women, the second
giving him the only prize he
truly valued - two healthy sons who would never
know hunger or the pain felt and rage directed at
a father whose absence at least meant
the absence of brutality.
(Later he would speak of animals and
children as the only all-good creatures left.)
Too often he lived in a
too-light make-believe world of good
always defeating evil
from which he reconciled himself with
"It beats pickin' cotton,"
and knowledge that he at least gave
children hope of making a better world.
at night, escaping the still persistent dreams
of blood and battle and dying buddies
he would find himself in too-dark places.
Places where he saw other fathers - fathers
with pock-marked arms and such powerful syringes
the men left their daughters to
play in the dirt and their wives to
sell themselves. Here was another war
more terrible in its hopelessness - a war
he fought in the dark while
in the daylight hours he gave children
joy and hope in happy endings as he found what
joy and hope he could in his two growing sons and
the too few distant friends which he kept
at bay because he could not bear more losses.
But a time came when even the
was fading - fading
as the world was changing
as wars and threats of wars continued in
the real-life world. Working with the
make-believe he journeyed to
a land where
children with yellow skin and black
eyes which looked strangely like the eyes
of his brothers and sisters
(and now his own sons) - children who
were losing their fathers in a war - a war
that would soon see still more
young warrior-fathers from his own land
die or come home maimed and fated to wake screaming
from the same dreams he still
Still he fought to keep alive
a much-needed vision:
a world of light and hope for his own children
and the growing number of fatherless children.
This vision took him on
a mission - and a small plane
carried him to his final
destiny with a Virginia mountainside - a destiny
which finally tagged him for keeps.
Our memories of the boy-warrior-man
too quickly fade.
After a too-long time
we finally begin to remember.