I went to a book release and poetry reading tonight at the library. I knew most of the readers. To be honest, I was there mainly for appearance ‘points.’ I don’t know that anyone else really notices, but I like to keep my face in the community here and there.
The night started off with the host and organizer, Bill, reading from his new novel. He interspersed passages with personal tales and anecdotes that introduced the next passage. Then there was a brief intermission, and then it was time to hear a poem from some of the invited veterans.
Joe, a friend of mine, read first. His poem, Q, is the story of a homeless veteran he used to see in LA when he worked near where Q hung out. I’ve heard the poem multiple times, but it is effective. Before he read, he talked about his uncles and how they had fought in WWII and in Korea. Joe, as well as the other vets on stage, was in Vietnam.
One by one, they each read one piece. Tony, Michael, Ed, Jim. They each started off with personal stories, noting their squadron or other men with whom they served. Tony’s poem was about his brother in arms, Benny, who didn’t come home and how he took a photo of Benny’s headstone (in Texas) and walked to the Vietnam War Memorial in DC with it. Michael’s piece was about how he ran on his ship to find serenity. Ed’s was a prose piece about a Vietnamese fighter the narrator has to kill and how, when he searches the body, he finds a wallet with a family picture in it. Jim’s piece was dedicated to the people from both sides who died at a hotel bunker shortly after his own post at that bunker.
There were also two other readers (whose names I don’t recall). One was a lifetime anti-war activist who talked about a demonstration he helped to organize right before the war in Iraq started in 2003. The other man, I don’t think he was a veteran, but he read a poem about seeing a mother cry over the casket of her soldier son.
All of these pieces were solemn, affecting, and very heavy. I was near tears several times as I tried to imagine these men who I only know as writers, poets, activists, advocates, gentle souls, as soldiers, Marines, airmen, in the jungles and on the rivers of Vietnam. The ways they have had to navigate the atrocities they not only saw but committed is beyond my grasp.
I couldn’t help but think of two other men I knew. First, my dad, who served in the Army but did not have to go to Vietnam, thankfully. Second, Jeffrey Joe, who was sent to Vietnam.
After the event, Joe told me and another woman, Judy, how he could have easily crossed the border to Canada to avoid the draft. He lived in Michigan, and lots of people crossed all the time. But he wouldn’t have been able to look his uncles in the eye. Ed mentioned to us that it only took 30+ years to write that story. Jeffrey Joe had said the same thing about this song. Thanks, guys, for your service and for your sacrifices.