Sorry Cadet Bone Spurs,

the only things I’m carrying into a classroom are books and lesson plans.

I suspect I might have been qualified to carry a pistol in the classroom while teaching. A 45 was my assigned weapon when I served as a Mortar Platoon leader in Vietnam, though I usually grabbed a “greasegun” from one of the tracks when we came under direct fire. In truth, I would rather have had anything but a 45 in Vietnam because it’s notoriously hard to shoot accurately for any distance with a pistol.

When I bought a Glock a few years ago, I took a class to refresh my skills and the pistol instantly felt right in my hands. In fact, I was more proficient in shooting practice than I had been with my 45 years ago. Having been put in the position of trying to kill Viet Cong for an extended period of time, I’m convinced that confronted by someone with a pistol I wouldn’t hesitate to kill them. I suspect most teachers WOULD hesitate. Few teachers are combat veterans. Hesitation will get you killed, which is probably why police sometimes kill innocent people or people who aren’t really a threat.

Despite the fact that I am accomplished with a pistol and feel comfortable wearing one while out car camping, I would never have agreed to carry one in school. I know just how dangerous they are from experience — especially for those who aren’t well-trained. I didn’t have to do too much weapon training to fear those who had little or no experience with weapons. It’s amazing how stupid some people were on the firing line with live rounds in the barrel of their rifle. They finally took weapons away from the engineers we were guarding in Vietnam because of accidents. In other words, loading and unloading their own weapons turned out to be more dangerous to them than the Viet Cong.

One of the scariest moments of my tour in Vietnam was when I accidentally discharged my 45 while clearing it in the dark right after we’d been hit with a hand grenade thrown off the front of a track. Luckily, I knew enough to be pointing the gun at the ground away from myself and others while clearing it. Everything I’d been taught said that gun shouldn’t have gone off because my finger was nowhere near the trigger, but it did. I can’t imagine the trauma of having that happen in a school setting.

Equally important, I have a pretty good idea just how many bullets miss their target, landing only God knows where. We fired an awful lot of bullets at snipers firing at us from the village without ever getting a confirmed kill, other than livestock we reimbursed a villager for. When somebody is shooting directly at you, you don’t always (like NEVER) take the time to ensure that no one is behind them that might accidentally get hit. Self-preservation is a really strong instinct, much stronger than common sense in most cases.

Despite coming under fire regularly during my tour of duty, I was always amazed at the adrenaline rush after a firefight. It took me hours to come down from it. Does anyone think that a teacher confronted with a shooter for the first time in his life is likely to shoot accurately? The most you could hope for is that the intruder would flee if they saw a teacher with a gun in their hand.

After 30 years of teaching, I would be terrified that a student would find it a challenge to get his hands on my gun just to prove he could. Kids love challenges almost more than anything, and it’s even better if it’s a really dumb challenge. I would probably be so paranoid about the gun I was carrying that no student would ever get near it, but paranoid isn’t a great state of mind for teachers or kids. I’d rather be worried about kids getting harassed by other kids or wondering how I could help a student who is struggling with his schoolwork.

Robert Michael Pyle’s Evolution of the Genus Iris

Whenever we visit the Bloedel Reserve we end our walk at the gift shop. Usually I end up buying garden-related items, naturally, but on a visit this summer they were featuring poems posted throughout the reserve and poetry books in the gift shop. I ended up buying three or four poetry books by local poets I hadn’t heard of before and one by Robert Michael Pyle who I knew only from his non-fiction. In fact, I wrote about Sky Time in Gray’s River several years ago.

I’ll have to admit to a certain ambiguity about his poetry though I definitely identify with his view of nature and life in general. I tend to prefer his short, concrete poems but am less fond of others when I feel overwhelmed by his “vast knowledge and lexicon of a scholar” (as touted in the cover blurb by Henry Hughes).

Evolution of the Genus Iris is short, only 70 pages long, so I’ll try to give a few examples of the kind of poems I really liked.

ALL THINGS CONSIDERED
Two river otters fished the salmon,
diving and rising side by side,
almost down to the surf. Watching
their sleek and pointy loop-de- loop,
over and over and over,
I managed to miss the evening news
.

Considering the state of “The News” today, it’s probably easy to see why this is a personal favorite. It doesn’t hurt that river otters are a personal favorite, either. Though it’s obviously too long to be a haiku, it has the kind of concrete imagery that most appeals to me in haiku. It also has that surprising twist at the end that the best haiku has. In other words, this is the kind of poetry that I really favor at the moment.

While trying to figure out what I wanted to say about Pyle’s book, I started reading Sam Hamill’s “Crossing the River” and in the preface W.S. Merwin notes, “The great Chinese poets, for all their formality and regard to conventions, speak often with a surprising directness which makes them seem surprisingly intimate and close to us.” I really hadn’t thought about this before, but it’s another characteristic I like in poetry. It turns out, that’s a characteristic of my favorite Pyle poems.

JUST ABOUT

What I want to say is how mianthemum
and stream side violet and spring beauty and oxalis
cover the ground in April as thick as the mosses
and club mosses and ferns jacket
the boughs of vine maples. How
the elderberry springs beneath the spruce
and the winter wren’s many notes ride
the single chord of varied thrush. How
corydalis and salmonberry meet you
across the skinny bridge. What I want to say
is that all this ought to be enough
for anybody.

“Mianthemum” and “ corydalis” aside, this seems to me to have precisely the “surprising directness” W.S. Merwin ascribes to the great Chinese poets. Though I can’t image one of the great Romantic poets ever using the phrase “What I want to say,” it fits the tone of this poem. And he’s right, “… this ought to be enough/for anybody.”

I ended up marking ten poems in this short volume that I particularly liked and wanted to reread, as many as I often mark in a much longer book. I guess that makes it a good investment of both money and time.