The summer grasses remain

I neglected to post something yesterday about Veterans Day, thinking I didn’t have anything fresh to say, and finding the outpouring of social-media thank-yous to the military slightly irksome. I never served, but if I had, I expect I might not enjoy being pandered to any better than I would being ignored.

Like Charles P. Pierce, when I was a squirt I didn’t know anyone whose father was not a veteran. Since the old man was career Air Force, we mostly knew the kids of Blue Zoomies, but in the course of affairs we would meet others; sons and daughters of soldiers, sailors, Marines.

dad2We’d hear the tales secondhand (none of the dads I knew bragged to kids about his service, so the kids bragged for them). This one was at Omaha Beach, that one at the Battle of the Bulge; this one got shot down in a B-29 after bombing Tokyo, that one flew unarmed Gooney Birds out of New Guinea.

It all sounded really cool, especially while consuming a steady diet of war movies at the base theater, like “The Longest Day,” “The Dirty Dozen,” or “PT 109.” And then we got a little older, and a little smarter, and we came to realize that going to war involved a strong probability of getting one’s arse shot off.

We realized that we never got to hear kids tell about their dads who didn’t make it back, because those kids died unborn with their would-be fathers, figments of an unrealized imagination. And we didn’t get to hear about the men who returned from war damaged in body, mind or spirit, or meet them; not until our own war, Vietnam, came along.

Books like “All Quiet on the Western Front” took on new meaning. And there were others, like “Dispatches,” by Michael Herr; “A Rumor of War,” by Philip Caputo; and “Everything We Had,” by Al Santoli.

In “Narrow Road to the Interior,” Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō (1644-94), following a visit to the ruins of Yasushira — and riffing off a line from the Chinese master Tu Fu about how war had left “the whole country devastated,” a place where “only mountains and rivers remain” — wrote:

Summer grasses:
all that remains of great soldiers’
imperial dreams

In “The Poetry of Zen,” co-author Sam Hamill calls this poem “a brilliant indictment of the stupidity and cruelty of war,” one that reminds us how little we have learned over the millennia. How does one say “Thank you for your service” to the grass?

By seeing to it that subsequent generations get to spend as much time as is humanly possible enjoying the sunny side of it, I suppose.

Peace to those to served, and especially to those who never came home.

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27 Responses to “The summer grasses remain”

  1. Chris Says:

    Good one, O’G.

  2. Jim Isaacs Says:

    nicely said from a son of a father who served and one who did serve

    • Patrick O'Grady Says:

      Thanks, Jim. So you went into the family business, eh? I had problems with authority and thought it would be a bad fit for me. I’d probably still be in the LBJ Ranch. At least now I have the proper haircut. …

  3. khal spencer Says:

    I actually wrote a memorial this year, Patrick, but I’ll never hold a literary candle to your efforts. Thanks from us to all those folks who are not around any more.

    http://labikes.blogspot.com/2013/11/11-november-2013.html

    • Patrick O'Grady Says:

      Well done, K. You have more information about your lot than I do about mine. Dad wasn’t talking, and Mom was mostly bullshitting, from what we can tell. She always told us that her father died post-WWI from complications of being gassed, but turns out it was mostly complications of being loaded.

  4. Stan Thomas Says:

    At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
    We will remember them.

  5. veloben Says:

    Very nicely said. You have touched my thoughts on the matter as to those who did not come back. My mother’s older brother and only sibling did not return and the impact of involuntarily getting to redefine herself as an only child affected her kids and her grandchildren to this day.

    • Patrick O'Grady Says:

      Thanks, Ben. My mother was profoundly affected by her WWI-veteran father’s death; her mother remarried, the stepfather was something of an ogre, and Mom left home at age 17.

      Dad was an animal lover who had hoped to become a veterinarian before joining the Air Corps and logging nearly 300 missions flying transports in WWII. That ambition faded and he stayed in the service.

      It all rolls downhill, one way or another, doesn’t it?

  6. Larry T. Says:

    My dad was too late for WWII and too early for Korea, serving as merely a helicopter mechanic in the USA. What gripes me about Veterans Day is all the claptrap about how “these men fought for our freedom” from folks who, on the other 364 days of each year, don’t wanna pay squat to take care of all those damaged by the wars once they return OR the families of those who don’t. How many vets are on food stamps, homeless, etc? In a country that spends many times more on so-called “defense” than most other countries combined, this is beyond shameful.

  7. Patrick O'Brien Says:

    Thanks, Patrick. You certainly did have something fresh to say, and you said it remarkably well!

    The last sentence of the first paragraph resonated with me. Wall street continuing to churn the market on Veteran’s Day while wreaths were being laid illustrates, in my opinion, the bumper sticker patriotism we see today. There are millions of us veterans; I don’t think many think of themselves as “heroes”, especially the real ones.

    Tao te Ching, translation by Stephen Mitchell
    “When the country fall into chaos, patriotism is born.”

  8. Libby Says:

    Thanks, Patrick. Thanks, too, to your Father and all who served and serve us now.

  9. James Says:

    Thank you Patrick for your insight. It seems that it is more along the lines of believing that there is some logic to “if everyone else is doing it, do you think it is worth doing too?” Nevertheless, thank you to your father, his buddies and all of their families for their service – past, present and future.

  10. Khal Spencer Says:

    Regarding those who came back damaged. The Best Years Of Our Lives came out in 1946, as a story about the troubles three veterans experience when returning to civilian life after WW II combat. It is a really compelling story, and pre-dates the multitude of movies that came out during and after Vietnam.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Best_Years_of_Our_Lives

    Of course, there was also Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, told about a WW I soldier–I’ll not say more in case anyone here doesn’t know the story. Have a fifth of something strong handy if you watch that.

    For something far lighter on the insanity of war, try King of Hearts (1966), also set during The Great War.

  11. Kate Says:

    Patrick,
    You echo an on-going tradition of terrible WAR. Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg. Hope this isn’t too long but these poems bear witness too.
    “TO THE LEAVEN’D SOIL THEY TROD” BY WALT WHITMAN

    To the leaven’d soil they trod calling I sing for the last,
    (Forth from my tent emerging for good, loosing, untying the
    tent-ropes,)
    In the freshness the forenoon air, in the far-stretching circuits
    and vistas again to peace restored,
    To the fiery fields emanative and the endless vistas beyond, to the
    South and the North,
    To the leaven’d soil of the general Western world to attest my
    songs,
    To the Alleghanian hills and the tireless Mississippi,
    To the rocks I calling sing, and all the trees in the woods,
    To the plains of the poems of heroes, to the prairies spreading
    wide,

    To the far-off sea and the unseen winds, and the sane impalpable
    air;
    And responding they answer all, (but not in words,)
    The average earth, the witness of war and peace, acknowledges
    mutely,
    The prairie draws me close, as the father to bosom broad the son,
    The Northern ice and rain that began me nourish me to the end,
    But the hot sun of the South is to fully ripen my songs.

    “GRASS” BY CARL SANDBURG
    Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
    Shovel them under and let me work—
    I am the grass; I cover all.

    And pile them high at Gettysburg
    And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
    Shovel them under and let me work.
    Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
    What place is this?
    Where are we now?

    I am the grass.
    Let me work.

    • khal spencer Says:

      Sandburg is one of my favorites. Along with T.S. Eliot (The Hollow Men, the Waste Land, written in the early ’20’s).

      Perhaps if politicians were poets instead of lawyers, we would have fewer wars?

  12. Patrick O'Brien Says:

    To war we are sent
    Duty bound, a debt to pay
    Is our time a waste

  13. Steve O Says:

    My dad did his year in Vietnam. Fought well, served honorably. Nothing sexy. Basically a MASH company commander, a CPT’s job. Never talked about his own service, and joined Kerry and the Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

    But he did tell us all about his great great grandfathers, serving on both sides of the Civil War. And how his own dad landed at Utah Beach on June 6th, a combat medic who made Sergeant Major.

    Years later, found out he didn’t have one blood relative on this side of the pond in 1865. His mom’s and dad’s sides both came over in the 1920s. And grandpa’s tombstone says “T-Sgt,” not “SGM.”

    Lately he’s been telling folks about secret CIA missions in Laos, which never happened. “Watch the Military History Channel tonight … that’s me, in the back, face obscured, in the Dutch uniform.”

    There has always been an inverse relationship between the extent of one’s combat experience and the subsequent storytelling.

    “There I was, in the shit, knee deep in hand grenade pins, flak so thick you could walk on it … Outnumbered …Two against a thousand.”

    What did you do, Dad?

    “We killed them both.”

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