I’ve felt like this before. The nausea,
simultaneously sweating and shivering,
knowing that something was about to happen
and it wouldn’t be good.
Then it was being crammed into the landing craft,
Pressing toward Omaha Beach,
held in place by the shoulders of the men on either side of me,
eyes fixed on the door at the front,
with death on the other side as the bullets hissed.
Now it’s more than sixty years later
and the tubes and wires
hold me in place as the machines hiss
as I stare at the door with death on the other side.
Maybe this time, too, I’ll be lucky.
Then we advanced like a wave, and death took us
by the handfuls;
Bombs, machine guns, artillery shells leaving
sudden gaps in the line,
friendships and debts disappearing in an instant,
but we still advanced from hedge to hill, from farm to city.
Storming a farm house we found
the German kid with a couple of bullets
in him, clutching a religious medallion and
praying “Mein Gott, mein Gott”
as he bled out.
My God, too.
I knelt and his lips moved as he looked at me,
I put my hand on the side of his face,
“God, have mercy on him,” I prayed as his
face became peaceful and the light left with his blood.
“God, have mercy on us all.”
At reunions we’d regroup and note
the new gaps in the line;
death now a sniper as we fall one by one
and just as inevitably.
Does He see our faces in the scope
as He lines up the head shot,
or only the meat as he selects
heart, lungs, marrow?
Then we advanced because we had to,
We had to win
We had to make our losses mean something.
We thought we had won, at the end,
but it was only the war and not the battle
and the lives were just a down-payment
on peace and breathing room
until the enemy returns
with installments paid in different ways
in the days and nights to come.
Sometimes in later years
when I felt the moistness of my wife
I would suddenly think of Steinie,
of pushing his guts back inside him
after he was burst by the 88.
Those were the nights, then,
when I would sit up at the kitchen table, smoking
until you kids came in for breakfast,
keeping watch, remembering the faces,
wondering how many others might also be sitting up
that night, remembering the same faces.
I don’t wonder so much anymore.
Meanwhile, the fat sales director,
who sat out the war In England
in the Quartermaster corps, would say,
“Boys, we’ve got to take that hill” and
we would take that hill, fill that quota,
and make another payment on the Dream
because we had seen Evil and had our fill
and thought it was finished and that
the world had been reborn shiny and new.
Surely it had to have been,
given the cost;
surely evil had to have been driven away,
and we came back to build a new world
for you our children,
a world where you would never have to
face what we faced;
see what we saw,
do what we had done.
We were naive, of course,
but don’t blame us
for wanting it to be so.
Did we do wrong, my children?
Thinking no one would dare open that door again,
did we neglect to prepare you,
to give you valuable perspective?
You´ve seen the pictures,
And heard the words,
but you can´t know the smell
or the taste,
of walking into that concentration camp,
so your Hitlers are effigies and
Nazis are bogeymen,
mere cursing but not a curse.
I´m sorry, I´m sorry, I´m sorry.
There’s much I would have you know
things I should have said and
lessons you’ll have to learn on your own.
I don’t know why I’ve lived so long
when so many died around me,
unless it’s because something of their
unused futures was somehow transferred to me
in the spray of their blood.
I’ve tried to use it well.
May you do the same.
— John Stewart