On War and Remembrance

Ken Rodgers


The days before a young man musters off to war he marches in search of how to pull his zoot suit trousers on one leg at a time. He spit-shines his brown and white oxfords—the oxfords with the brogue-capped seams and natty wingtips. Snaps his spats and trims up the knot on his broad paisley tie. He borrows his daddy’s ocean-blue Buick and cruises from the Masonic Hall on the east end of Florence Blvd all the way to Blinky Wilson’s DeSoto dealership on the seething highway to Gila Bend. He halts in a large vacant lot and switches off the air conditioner, puts the transmission in park, and kills the engine. His old girlfriends navigate there in their fathers’ yellow Cadillacs. Daughters of Allis-Chalmers tractor salesmen and GMC dealership service department managers and high school American history teachers and cotton farmers, they gaze with wide and wary black-mascaraed eyes. As if they discover something that wasn’t there before, or something they earlier didn’t recognize. They don’t finish their cherry Cokes, nor their cheeseburgers bought at Mel’s out on the road to Sacaton. They talk as if disembodied, seekers all who need to understand why. But why is a word whose fabric has no sheen. In the east, a rising full moon shows its quizzical face. In the west, black clouds pester a paisley dusk backlit by a dying sun. A blinding streak of lightning shatters the twilight, a hint of wind, scattered sand.

On Death Part II

There’s a jarhead up ahead with a tibia tied to a thong tied to his marine green web gear. It clacks against his plastic canteen and occasionally against a loaded M-16 magazine he totes in his pocket.

Yesterday he showed me the bone, a tawny tint, some chunks of red mud, a piece of withered tendon still attached. He spaced its length with the fingers of his right hand. “Not quite thirteen inches,” he said. “Either a teenage boy or a small man.”  “Mongolian race.” “I guess it could be a woman. A big one.” He said, “I dug it out of a bomb crater.” He pointed to a distant hill. Shattered tree trunks like splintered femurs lined the horizon. I must have delivered a look of doubt. “No shit, man,” he said, “I know about this stuff. Studied anatomy at Temple University. I went there for two years.”

Today I watch the back of him, his dungarees way too large. Reminds me of a Halloween skeleton. And his scruffy haircut. His jungle boots scuffed and tinted red. As is his M-16. 

Later, the sun begins to set. It won’t stick around, fights our tendency to ossify. The B-52s show up and juke their twenty-six ton loads from fifty thousand feet. The concussions rattle concertina wire. Rear up like soap bubbles that children blow.

We settle on our pelvises in the red mud and root for our side.

Portrait of a Young Marine

In the photo you flex your biceps, your green utility jacket ragged, long sleeves rolled to better
expose the ropey muscles. You sport a child’s mustache, not a man’s. More like a thin red
mud stain than a russet tinted caterpillar. You might nod to yourself, that would be good, a
mustache as thick as a caterpillar. But we have no butterflies in this memory. We killed them
all, and the shattered trees that look like jagged leg bones, one end jabbed into the wet red
turf. Your weapon, though, shines black. You kept it clean and able. The bayonet honed to a
microscopic line. The magazines stuffed with brass and steel. The tips of bullets carved by K-
bar blade, a cross across the top—a message to the hated ones you pray will sprawl mug-up
in the mud, their sallow skin the color of paper your wife’s letters arrive on—old paper.
Waiting to engage them, we claim to have fornicated many girls. The lies we spin lead to
hidden sniggers and grim smiles. We tell filthy jokes about horny women. We laugh and slap
our dirty thighs at the mention of death and strut below the lip of the trench, dare death to
come calling, careful not to jab our helmeted heads above the moldy sandbagged parapet.
Once you stood tall, unaware that you would fit in sandbag crannies, like an insect, in cracks,
and shiver beneath clods of blood red mud.

Uncle Wiggly

The jungle is a repository of life we can’t understand. Spiders black and red and yellow as big as your hand. Snakes with heads like nuns’ wimples which bring no solace. Leather skinned salt crocs that hide in the edges of the rivers we cross. Striped cats that eat us. They weigh a quarter of a ton and sneak through the bamboo thickets below the hives that hold the bees that hold a lot of malice if you mess with their house. Ask Richardson, he cut one with a machete and ended up swollen like a bloated toad, his face with knots and knuckles. He lived to fight another day but hopefully a wiser warrior. Attack only what you need to kill.  Kill only what you need to kill.

Ask Uncle Wiggly. Ask him about getting stoned in the back of a Huey and shooting elephants with a fifty caliber out the door as the chopper flew over the eons of trees that stalled our progress. Pomp pomp pomp. The weapon report caught in the wind and hauled off to Hanoi with the dead leaves of autumn. The elephant finally succumbing and I mean finally, its knees stuffed in the mud. Its young trumpeting a lost sorrow caught in the gale of the chopper blades. Ask Uncle Wiggly about getting stoned in the back of a chopper and burning up the barrel of his fifty caliber machine gun, his lover, his gun. Ask him about red hot tracer rounds gone astray, scratching art through the canopy like lost little waifs in Danang. Ask him.

At the Reunion

We proud old men riding high in our wheel chairs

gray hair thinning

or is it the years

Once we marched in step

M-16s right shoulder arms

M-79 40MM grenade launchers

Our spit shined boot heels

thumping the grinder

the skin of the earth

six thousand strong

as if we were one

thump thump thump

We busted our lungs

and our muscled guts

in the lyrics of our battle hymns

our Montezuma’s Halls

our Tripoli Shores

We hunkered in our bunkers

and waited for the conclusion

the hot metal

the hot scent of blood

and for those of us still standing

it did not greet us face to face

but hovered over our shoulders

those terrible years

the swish of the wings

like memories that keen

their sad old killer’s anthem

But here

the gray haired

chubby guts and cheeks


reminisce and lie

or maybe we don’t lie

we just don’t remember




Copyright © 2009 Switchback
All works property of their respective owners