Veterans

Wilfred, I wish I could share this New England gin

with you.         Tonic, lime, ice, and a sprig of rosemary here

on the Florida coast where I wouldn’t ask

about your writing.

I’ve heard many great poets read you.

I know your poems well enough,       but those greats always remind the class

that you died

just a week before the war ended. They mean it as commentary

on how cruel war can be,

how random,

 

as if war is only cruel and random in the week before it ends.

 

The truth is, Wilfred, we both know how lucky you were,

that your wife never found you          crying in the early morning

with a shotgun between your legs,

and you never had to listen to the doctors telling you

the war had killed you despite your survival,                         it was just taking its time.

Your family got the glory and never had to watch

you wither

and rot

as a corpse in a chair.

 

I’m glad you didn’t have to watch Dresden become ash,

and or see the pictures of the camps. Hell, I’m glad

you can’t see the drones over Yemen and their targets under twelve years old.

 

You were buried in France,                did you know?

In Ors, where you died, they named a primary school after you.

But you’re in the ground, next to the boys you fought beside.

 

Maybe you wouldn’t admit it                         until the third or fourth drink,

old boy, but we both know you did it right.

 

I just hope it was quick.          That’s all soldiers can wish for each other.

I hope it was a cloudless day, and a perfect seventy-two degrees.

I hope the rounds from the machine gun smacked center-mass,

and that you bled out painlessly.

I hope that you were left alone to die as the soldiers pushed on,       as they’re trained to do.

 

You never heard the schools debate your work, or pretend to know

what life is like in the smoke and fire.

You went out as a soldier should

because survivor’s guilt sticks in all the places

doctors can’t reach –

 

I’m alive and I’ll be the last one left alive, old boy,

because that’s the curse.

Could you imagine being the only person

who knows what the Sambre-Oise Canal

smelled like on November the 4th, 1918?

 

It’ll be me one day, sitting alone at a reunion

because I’m going to watch

the men who called me Doc

drop here and there over the years,

as if the slowest sniper was taking the shots.

I don’t go to the funerals, Wilfred.

 

Instead I wonder why I survived and feel guilty for doing so.

They were good men, all of them, and I’m glad you didn’t know them        like I did.

They won’t bury us beside each other.

Yes, that’s changed and so has the gin.

Better now and won’t rot your eyes out of your head.

 

You didn’t miss anything worth seeing. I could say the same about myself.

The world is the same as it ever was, and I do know this, Wilfred,               you did it right.

You died when there was hope that humanity had learned that the world burns too easily,

and I couldn’t be happier for you.

 

 

 

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