Wednesday, November 12, 2008

My tribute to a veteran: a day late but never too late

Last night I was just going to repost a poem I reprinted a few years ago, when I remembered my father, a veteran of World War II. I didn't get around to it, but tonight I want to acknowledge a friend. As the title says, a day late but never too late. He's been very sick, and I hadn't seen him (among many other friends) since I got married. Tonight we ran into each other on a Metro-North train. We had a few minutes to catch up, and he smiled broadly when complimenting me on my beautiful wife. I didn't know he already met her through one of my relatives, with whom he's also friends.

He was an everyday Joe who got drafted and sent to Vietnam. When telling me about the war, more than once he lamented how his platoon would be sent out in a cloverleaf outline, taking control of the area within, only to give it up later on. Almost as frequently, he warned me that Iraq was becoming another Vietnam, and it was a correct assessment while our military commanders had no idea how to occupy the country.

Early in our friendship I asked, "Did you ever kill anyone?" "Sure," came the matter-of-fact reply. "I killed lots of people." His government plucked him from upstate New York, sent him to jungles and rice fields halfway around the world, put metal, wood and powder in his hand, and told him to take others' lives.

He has this URL, but he's never hinted that he ever read a word of my blog, so here I can express what I couldn't say to his face. He probably knows already from seeing it in my eyes. "Very sick" was an understatement: he's been fighting throat cancer for a couple of years. It's currently in remission after the doctors excised a big chunk of flesh and started him on chemotherapy, but he's not out of the woods yet. His former husky self has gotten so thin, and I'm really worried for him.

He's another Demoleon. You won't find him mentioned in Wiki entries on Vietnam, and most of future generations will not know his name, let alone remember it. So in that sense he lacks Demeleon's immortality, for Demoleon was at least mentioned briefly. But my friend, when his government wanted (more like "demanded") it, was ready.


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 is 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


Blogger jk said...

Superb post, Perry.

Monday, November 17, 2008 11:20:00 AM  

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