It’s probably not surprising since I’m a Vietnam Vet that I have mixed feelings about the day. When I was still teaching the only three Vietnam Vets on staff would meet in the parking lot during Veterans Day assemblies, not wanting to take part in what, too often, seemed more like a glorified war rally than a memorial for those who had died and those who had been irreparably damaged by their participation in our country’s many wars. Apparently there’s little value in recognizing that wars exact a heavy price on everyone who fights them.
Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”
captured for me how poorly my fellow Vietnam Veterans were treated by our government during and after the war.
Creedance’s “Fortunate Son,”
however, better reflected my own experiences in the war. My platoon, drafted from the Los Angele’s area, had two whites in it, a few black NCO’s and an awful lot of Hispanics, hardly representative of LA. Strangely enough, neither of the reserve units I was assigned to after I returned had a single black or hispanic in them. Wonder why that was? Hard to believe after my experiences that we were really fighting to preserve Democracy.
Apparently I share more than I first imagined with Simon Ortiz since we are both war veterans. He has a moving section entitled“Poems from the Veteran’s Hospital” written precisely for today. This is my favorite:
We had barbecue beef on buns,
cole slaw with crushed pineapple, coffee, and cherry pie.
Here in the VAH, at least,
America feeds well the men
it has driven mad.
“My favorite used to be cherry pie.”
“Lemon is good too.”
“When I was a kid at Indian School,
I worked cleaning yards on weekends.
Walking back to campus at evening,
I’d stop at this café on Fourth
and order banana cream pie.
Two slices of pie, boy, that was good”
Deanda hasn’t been yelling lately.
They’ve been feeding him more
and better mind silencers lately.
Kelly offers his cole slaw.
Nobody wants it, shake their heads.
He offers his bread, we shake our heads.
“He’s a dedicated nut,” another nut says.
“The only pie I don’t like
is mince meat, too rich.”
“I wish I was rich.”
“I almost married a rich girl once.
She was from Alabama”
There’s always something that you almost
did that you should have done.
A cherry pie slips to the floor
off a man’s saucer.
He stands there and everything is gone
from his face except sorrow and loss
and it’s hard to lose those.
Ortiz almost lulls you to sleep with these mundane, understated details, which makes the last three lines all the more crushing. Even the sarcasm in the opening stanza is understated: “America feeds well the men/ it has driven mad.” We almost begin to think that these veterans are just like us until we’re told that Deanda hasn’t been yelling lately because he’s been fed “better mind silencers.” Hopefully you don’t need those; having worked as a caseworker, I know I don’t want them. But what could be more normal than thinking that “There’s always something that you almost/ did that you should have done.” What the reader is left with, though, is a man who hasn’t just lost a cherry pie when he drops it, but someone who has lost everything except “sorrow and loss,” and we all know how hard those are to lose.