Friday, November 11, 2005

A poem for Veterans Day

I found the following among my father's collected papers after he died five years ago. The oilskin has aged a bit. It is reproduced here with the original and sometimes unusual formatting.

Soldier

Few have heard of Demoleon, Antenor's son,
Who was slain in one of the last battles of the Trojan War.
His only distinction is that he was killed by Achilles
Immediately after Iphition and immediately before Hippodamas.

That is all. There is no other mention. Yet he was a good man and, according to Homer, a brave repeller.
The spear of Achilles took him in the temples,
Broke through the brazen helmet, and defiled the ardent brain.

Exit Demoleon, after ten years of a war.
He went through nine of them quietly, kept his armor
Polished, his tunics patched, his men (what were left of them) fed,
Saw Helen in the streets often, had nothing to say to her.

He was a competent fighter, but no hero;
He had to be quick to have lasted as long as he did.
Too bad that Achilles on one of his good days caught him
And shipped him off to the casualty lists and an immortal name.

It is not known what happened to his body.
Dogs got it, perhaps, though it is to be presumed
That his wife and children, granting, of course, he had any,
Became slaves in, say, Argos. And Troy, of course, went down.

Exit Demoleon. Exit Achilles. Exit the walls of Troy.
This happened three thousand years ago in a long and silly war
And would have been forgotten five generations after
Save for a poet who was blind and whose birthplace no one knew.

The odd thing about it is that there was no death.
Demoleon did not die. Achilles did,
But this was because Achilles was Achilles. Only one like that. But Demoleon was only a name on a list.

The names on the list never die. They are always around us.
We see them standing on corners or walking along a road.
When we want them they are ready. They don't have much to say,
But they say it when the time comes and they say it very well.


Demoleon, perhaps, was the captain who dressed down the driver at Ypres
And whose face looked vaguely familiar. Yes, he was on the next day's list. He was also the man who sprawled
Across the bombed parados, whose letter was seen in the mud.

He's still around. He keeps his equipment clean,
Patches his clothes when he has to, feeds his men,
Sees a woman named Helen on the street and does a double-take,
Can last a long time if he has to, and probably will.


And someday he'll catch an Achilles off his feed.
It will then be another story. He's waiting, and game to try.
Bronze has gone by the board and spears are out of fashion.
The casualty lists are much more prosaic now.

Only scholars have heard of Demoleon, Antenor's son,
Who was slain in the last cruel year of the Trojan War
By Achilles, the son of Peleus. Achilles had a heel
That white Paris pierced with an arrow. It sent him to the shades.
- Harry Brown
I emphasized a couple of stanzas which were not so in the original copy, because of their poignancy. Today we have many brave and unsung Demoleons in the United States armed forces, who we notice as ordinary and laconic, but they're always ready, and "they say it when the time comes and they say it very well."

My father was well into his twenty-first year when Hitler's armies went around the Maginot Line and commenced their invasion of France via the Low Countries. Most people correctly feared that the United States would eventually be drawn in, and that there would be a new draft. My father was physically fit and would have certainly been rated 1-A. (In fact, he might have been a track star in high school, except that in the depths of the Great Depression, he had to work after school to help the family's finances.) So he chose to enlist in the Army before any involuntary conscription resumed: that way he possibly could choose his base assignment, and likely stay there for the duration of the war.

His first choice was Hawaii, but the quota's very last spot was filled by the fellow in front of him in line. My dad then accepted assignment to the Panama Canal Zone base. Meanwhile, he had gotten chummy with the other G.I., who my father learned was killed three months later during the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor. Had Harold Eidelbus been a little earlier to the recruiting office, he might have been among the dead at Pearl. Then again, he was at the Panama Canal, which in the wake of Japan's cowardly sneak attack seemed the next target. But as it turned out, my father had more to fear from the bushmasters (which is not to make light of them, even today a bite from the more venomous ones is fatal 80% of the time).

He eventually attained the rank of Warrant Officer Junior Grade and was honorably discharged after serving five years. He went to Bentley College for a couple of years on the G.I. Bill, returned to his hometown of Schenectady, and found a decent traveling auditor job with General Electric. Not bad for a half-French, half-German young man who came from a broken home, grew up poor (and knew what it was like to miss dinner because there was nothing to eat), and had little future after high school graduation other than working in a mail room. The giant GE logo is still there in Schenectady, and though in modern times it's only a shadow of its former glory, when I first saw it, I couldn't help but wonder how it appeared to my father.

Not quite three of his Army years were at the Canal. The only record I have of his specific assignment is that he served with the 13th Signal Platoon (AVN), Albrook Field, Canal Zone. Then in June 1943, he was transferred to Seymour Johnson Field, North Carolina, where he served with Squadron D of the 123rd Army Air Force Base Unit until his discharge on "5 SEPTEMBER 1945" (as the Certificate of Service indicates). Decades later, he could still remember how bad the storms were off Cape Hatteras as a Navy boat returned him and others stateside.

In the 24 years we had together, my father never struck me as technically proficient. Yet not long after arriving at the Canal, he earned a certificate in radio operation and repair from the Panama Canal Department Air Force Technical School. In hindsight, it shouldn't be surprising; he was a very intelligent and adaptive man, good with his hands. He also could type quite fast, 80 wpm on those old manual typewriters, which his officemate said "sounded like music." That skill turned out to be quite valuable. It particularly endeared my father to a colonel on the base, who made my father his assistant/secretary. Being the colonel's favorite had an advantage on at least one occasion.

There was a certain visiting colonel who grated my father the wrong way. I don't recall the specifics, having been told them just once, but this full bird apparently was being a real horse's ass. My father was never the sort to take ____ from anyone, including bosses and superior officers, and, well, he always had this propensity to be a bastard toward people he disliked. So he blew up: "Well, colonel sir, you can go to hell!"

Whoops! The colonel was going to him court-martialed, but the base colonel talked him out of it.

I knew my father had been married before meeting my mother, but not until after he died did I learn they got married during the war. Here's a photograph from their wedding. My father, of course, is the handsome groom, second from the left, with his new bride. However, I don't know who either of the two are.



The fragile, tattered photo was in a dusty wallet that I discovered after he died. None of us knew he had either. The wallet wasn't his main one, nor was it that old, so it wasn't just an old relic from his first marriage that he'd forgotten about and unwittingly kept throughout the years. He knew he had the photo and deliberately kept it.

I may never know why he kept it. In conversation with me, he spoke of her perhaps ten times, if that many, always disparagingly, and I don't think he once told me her name. My mother did, while he was alive, but always being a bit scared of him, I never even hinted I knew.

May you be resting well, my father Demoleon.

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