Medal of Honor by Jim Fairhall

 

 

Memorial Day, 2003

 

1

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.

2

Well, sure. You get the point:

one of our nation’s martyred saints.

Not a terrific gig,

these daysnot 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.

3

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.

4

And now?

Most of those guys are dead themselves

while some, safely old, have confessed

some measured, qualified regrets.

Why should I care?

 

Today

nobody muses on the war,

or on the South Side soldier, black,

this plush pale park was named to honor.

Why should they care?

 

Just now,

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?

5

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

PHU CUONG

                       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

503D INFANTRY

                       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

HIS BRAVERY

                       O mama who could know?

BEYOND THE CALL OF DUTY

                       It wasn’t duty made me fall

                       HIGHEST TRADITION OF THE UNITED STATES ARMY

                       Buffalo soldier

REFLECT GREAT CREDIT

                       O mama

                        no warrior loves his death

                       I’d rather be a crossing guard

                       or steer a city bus

HIS COUNTRY

                       Where?

LYNDON

                       Who?

JOHNSON

                       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.