June 12, 2011
Dear Alexander Bradley Burns,
From the second I saw your sepia photograph beneath convex glass above the door in the foyer of American Legion Post 80, I knew I’d have to write you.
What to call you, though? I didn’t know until I read in the capsule biography under a smaller copied version of the same photograph that “Alec” is what you went by to all of your friends, of whom I hope there were many.
Alec, who are you? The facts that I have are as follows:
1) You are dead, and have been since March 12, 1918, two days after you were wounded near Fremenic in the Tuneville sector, while repairing wire which ran from the advance position to the battery to direct fire.
2) You went to my high school, not even a mile from here, graduating shortly before the war broke out and were one of the first to enlist.
3) You were your parents’, J.M. and Mary’s, youngest.
4) You joined Battery C of the First Illinois Field Artillery, later the 149th F.A., known as “Reilly’s Bucks,” after Henry J. Reilly, Colonel and later Brigadier General, and your unit was part of the “Rainbow” division, composed of National Guard units from all over the United States.
5) You would not have called the war that took your life “World War I,” but rather “The Great War,” “The World War,” or “The War in Europe.”
6) You look elegant in uniform and have sandy, swept-back hair and intelligent, light eyes above surprisingly full and unsmiling lips set in a sensitive jawline.
7) You did not have to be doing what you were doing on the day you received the injuries that would end your life; you had volunteered and were in an exposed position when a shrapnel shell exploded, hitting you in 23 places.
8) You received the Croix de Guerre from the French government, but you couldn’t appreciate it because you were deceased.
I know what you looked like alive in a total of two photographs, and I know from the little brass plaque beneath the more formal one that you were born on October 2, 1898.
I also know from the saddest of the three pictures of “you,” also displayed here in the foyer where I’m standing, that your grave is in a huge American cemetery in France, marked by a white wooden cross that had, at one time, a fluffy wreath of chrysanthemums propped against it like a squashed, oversized donut. And that probably somebody who loved you put it there, then snapped the picture, after making the trip so far to “see” “you.”
Finally, I know that—in a way—I love you, too. The ghost of you. The addressable, intangible human remnants of you. The idea or spirit or soul of you.
Did you know that this is your Hall, Alec, American Legion Post 80? We’re having my Dad’s Army retirement party here today, in the same place my sister, Beth, and I had the reception for our double wedding almost six years ago—one of the first major family events that Dad got to attend after he came back from serving in Iraq. That wedding, I think, and the fact that our Dad got to be at it, means our lives are—so far—comedies. Your death, particularly at such a young age, makes yours a tragedy, I’m afraid.
My dad was a Lieutenant Colonel in the 100th Training Division. A Director of Pharmacy at the VA in his citizen-life, he was in the 801st Combat Support Hospital (CSH), called a “cash,” which is the unit to which he was assigned while in Kuwait City, Kuwait with the Kuwaiti Armed Forces Hospital; then at the CSH at Camp Anaconda, Ballad, Iraq; then during a short stay at the CSH in Baghdad. He finished the last three months of his tour at Abu Ghraib Prison (well after the torture photos) to complete 17 months.
American Legion Post 80 was established in 1919 and chartered in 1926. Their website—Alec, you never got to live long enough to see any websites—still includes World War I, “April 6, 1917 to November 11, 1918,” on their list of Eligibility Dates for potential membership. If you were alive, you could join. But does this listing seem heartbreaking to you, as well? At the exact minute that I’m writing to you, in the early afternoon of Sunday, June 12, 2011, only one WWI veteran remains in the world, one Florence Green, a British woman. She’s 110.
You were 19 years old when you died, Alec.
Frank Buckles, the last surviving American veteran of the War to End All Wars, died earlier this year on February 27. He was 111, plus 26 days.
My point, Alec, is that there is no way that any American Legion post anywhere in the country is ever going to get another member who fought in WWI.
The last combat veteran of WWI, in case you were wondering (I would be), was French: Claude Choules. He died this year, on May 5, actually—my dad’s 60th birthday.
I can’t find any information about what you were doing, exactly, before you joined the Army, or any stated reason you had for doing so. As for my dad, he signed up in September of 1985 and was in the Air Force Reserves for a total of six years. We were in Shreveport, Louisiana—him, my mom, my two younger sisters and I: three daughters under five—and he joined partly to make more money to support the family, and partly to fund his and my mom’s retirement. (Sidenote: the optimism of people who undertake such potentially fatal commitments impresses, me, Alec. (Side-sidenote: Alec, would you have had a family? You are—you were—handsome, attractive not solely because you were young. Did you have a sweetheart, I wonder? Who also wrote you letters? I keep picturing her like Vera Brittain—grieving her lost Roland and writing Testament of Youth—cherishing your memory with the morbid ardor of a sexless anchorite.))
Anyway, Alec, we moved to Woodridge, Illinois, one town over from Downers Grove, your home, in 1988. I remember my dad driving the eight or so hours down-state to Scott Air Force Base outside St. Louis one weekend per month to keep up his Reserve duties before transferring to the Army because they trained at Fort Sheridan, just an hour away. You trained at the same fort before being shipped to the Western Front. My mom hated having Dad gone both Friday and Saturday nights, and driving so far when he was already tired from working all week at the VA. This switch happened in 1991, after Gulf War Part I, during which he’d also been activated. Long story short (much longer than yours), he spent 20 years with the Army Reserves. And today, we’re here at your Hall to say goodbye to all that.
You can probably understand me, Alec, when I say that I used to be afraid that this day might never come. When my dad was overseas, I kept accidentally referring to him in the past tense. Then I’d correct myself, thinking—like I did as a kid, step-on-a-crack-and-you’ll-break-your-mother’s-back style (did they have that saying when you were little, Alec?)—that if I kept making that mistake, I would somehow kill him. Like it would be my fault—not Osama Bin Laden’s, not George W. Bush’s, not Dick Fucking Cheney’s—like I would ultimately be to blame for his pointless loss of life.
Alec, I am referring to you as though you are alive and part of the present tense.
On the car radio, coming here from the North Side of Chicago, my husband Martin and I heard that New Order song “Love Vigilantes.” What kind of music did you like, Alec? This song is the one from the perspective of a soldier coming home to see his family after a war, but the twist at the end is that he’s been dead the whole time. “When I walked through the door,” he says, “My wife she lay upon the floor” holding the telegram “that said that I was a brave, brave man, but that I was dead.” The ghost is unaware that he is, in fact, a ghost. Alec, did that happen to you? My fear, though, when my dad was overseas, was not that he’d die and not know he was dead, but that he would die and I would not know. That I’d keep thinking of him as alive like some kind of idiot until I got hit with the horrible news.
Alexander Bradley Burns, this post is your post. It is named after you. It is decked with your photos.
Speaking so much of photographs, Alec, once, in Shreveport, just after Dad joined the Air Force, he had to shave off his mustache for his military ID. They needed a picture of him with no facial hair. That was the first—and remains the only—time I have seen him with a clean upper lip. I was six or so, and the empty space below his nose—though normal-sized, I’m certain—struck me as inordinately long, like an airplane runway. It was, perhaps, my first experience of what I’d later learn you could call “the uncanny.” But my sisters, at two and three, could not get their brains to believe it was him. When he walked back into the house that Saturday evening, we three did our usual dash to the door at the boom of his voice, but instead of slingshotting ourselves into his arms for hugs, we did three saucer-eyed about-faces, followed by tears on the parts of Beth and Megan. My mom had to enlist my help—“Go give Daddy a hug, Kathy”—to get them to recognize that it really was him.
Alec, could you even grow a mustache?
In the first chapter of The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell speaks to the waste and desperation of so many smooth-faced boys like you being wiped out as early as 1914. “At the beginning of the war,” he writes, “a volunteer had to stand five feet eight to get into the army. By October 11, the need for men was such that the standard was lowered to five feet five. And on November 5, after the thirty thousand casualties of October, one had to be only five foot three to get in.”
How tall were you, Alec?
That’s a lot of questions for you, though. So, let me think—what else should you know about your Hall? There is a black message board here, below your photos, with white plastic letters that slide on and off to make the schedule: TRAFFIC COURT @ 8:30 AM & 1:00 PM and S 12 ROONEY- ARMY RETIREMENT PARTY and M 13 FLAG DAY 7:00 PM and SOCIAL NITE @ 7:00 PM EVERY FRIDAY.
The motto of the Legion is “Veterans Helping Veterans,” but nobody in your cohort can help anybody anymore. You are almost all gone. Florence is solo. She will have to help her own self. Unfortunately—and I bet you’re thinking this, too—this does not mean that there is, or will be, any shortage of potential members any time soon. The website (which maybe you’ll check after you finish this letter, which is long, I know) lists as its most recent and ongoing eligibility dates: “Persian Gulf August 2, 1990 to cessation of hostilities as determined by U.S. Govt.”
My dad was activated in the Persian Gulf War Part I, from January 1991 to March 1991, though he remained stationed in Belleville, at the Air Force Base, bored and waiting. My mom and Beth and Megan and I were small disasters during that brief period. I was in fifth grade and my teacher, Mr. Heflin, told my mom at parent-teacher conferences that I was “clearly intelligent,” albeit “distant and sassy,” but he felt “sorry for” me what with the War and my absent father. Not that we didn’t have a man around the house, Alec. My Grandpa Boo, my mom’s dad, a World War II vet whose real name was Aloyse, came from Nebraska to help take care of us. You might be amused to know that he did so in a military fashion. He had all these little rituals that I’d previously thought existed only in war movies. He taught us to make our beds so tightly a quarter could bounce off, high above the mattress, and would don a white cotton glove on his gnarled right hand to test how well we had dusted when we cleaned our rooms. I love structure and discipline, Alec, so I can’t honestly tell you that none of that was fun. But, to use an appropriately violent image, the Sword of Damocles hung over our heads—our dad, our only dad, might get shipped to Iraq any second.
Also, Alec, like I mentioned, our dad, our only dad, actually did get shipped to Iraq in Gulf War Part II, was sent “over there” for 17 months. I can’t quite figure out how many months you were “over there” before you got killed.
And that is part of why I need to write you like this. Because the “over theres” of various wars are simultaneously as unique and significant as they are identical and senseless. A popular phrase of this present iteration of the ongoing Gulf conflict is “It is what it is.” I read that in the trenches in WWI at the turn of the year, some soldiers would sing, “We’re here because we’re here” to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne.” I suppose each pointless conflict has its own pointed tautologies. Did you ever sing that? There’s a chance you might have; you spent at least one January there before you died.
And this is the thing, Alec: I don’t know much about your life, and since you died at 19—19-and-a-half, I should say, because why make it worse than it is?—one could make the error of thinking there must be little to know. I don’t make that mistake. I’m sure there was a lot. What I mostly know, though, is that I need you. Because as little as it is possible for me to know about you, it is as possible for me to know about your experience of war as it is for me to know about my dad’s, even though his war is different and he is still alive. This fundamental longing to know coupled with a fundamental unknowability exists both because I have difficulty—classic—really talking to my dad, but also because, as Susan Sontag writes in Regarding the Pain of Others:
We don’t get it. We truly can’t imagine what it was like. We can’t imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is; and how normal it becomes. Can’t understand, can’t imagine. That’s what every soldier, and every journalist and aid worker and independent observer who has put in time under fire, and had the luck to elude the death that struck down others nearby, stubbornly feels. And they are right. (126)
I don’t want her to be right, but I’m afraid that she is. Alec, do you think so?
If you’d lived, if you had been able, as Sontag puts it, “to elude the death” that struck you down, you could have joined this post. And not had it named after you, most likely, but still.
The post is really nice. You can play Bingo every Tuesday, along with raffles and pull tabs. You can rent the hall for events. They have a kitchen and a lounge with a wraparound bar festooned with PBR ads. You died before you turned 21, so you couldn’t legally drink if you were here for the party, but my dad would let you have as many beers as you wanted as a fellow vet. I’m telling you this because I thought you’d like to know: your place is a nice place.
They have committees for everything, which you probably would enjoy since you seem civic-minded: “Education and Scholarship,” “Constitution and By-Laws,” and “Americanism.” My Dad was the Post Commander from 2005 to 2006 and presently serves on the “Nominating Committee,” in case you’re curious. For some reason, I picture you on the Boy and Cub Scouts committee.
Do you agree? I think that you would, and here’s the reason why: the photograph of you in this Hall that I haven’t really discussed yet is the best one. It kills me. You and your unit are on the Western Front, and the theme of the image appears to be “Take off your hat!” You and 12 other young men are doing just that. On the far left, Alec, you fling your campaign cover with such insouciance that it’s off the page, out of the frame. You have good teeth, especially considering the era—your teeth, frankly, are better than my dad’s—and are smiling at the photographer, squinting slightly in the sun. (You squint nowhere near as much as my dad does in images of him and his unit in Iraq since the sun is harsher there than it is in France). Your last name is typewritten above your head, as are the last names of all the other men doffing their felt hats like a batch of Robert Baden-Powells in training. No, Alec, strike that—not men, boys. You are standing above “Butler” and next to “Nargney.” The picture practically bursts off the wall with boyish bonhomie. The tent in the background almost suggests you’re not in a war at all; rather, you’re at Boy Scout Camp. But the Boy Scout motto is “Be Prepared,” and you and your friends look anything but. Just fodder for the slaughter, Alec. I am sorry to say that.
Another part of why I need you is that I’ve been obsessed with World War I since the very first time I read that it happened, probably in some library book when I was six or seven. I was more into military history than you might expect a little girl to be because my dad was in the military. And then, predictably, when I was 12 or 13, I got deeply into the didactic TV series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles largely because the protagonist joined up and fought on the Western Front. I watched it with my dad, in fact.
Thus Sean Patrick Flanery is as important as Paul Fussell in my understanding of World War I. But even then, even at the height of my starry-eyed junior high romanticism, the erotics of the Great War, strong as they were—the trenches, the sky, the doomed doomed youth—could not fully contradict my urge to call bullshit. War is not sexy. Dulce es decorum est, my ass. I agreed with Wilfred Owen (another obsession) that to Mori for one’s Patria was among the falsest ideals I had heard in my life.
Still, I call World War I my favorite war, though “favorite” seems a strange term, I know. What I mean is that I like it best because it stands as an argument—writ large, in blood—against all war. War and its futility. War and its obscenity. War and its excess. World War I—its wastefulness, its Grand Guignol—provides incontrovertible proof that any glamour you might think attaches to war is at best a seductive and evil delusion.
I felt that way at 13, Alec, and I feel the same at 31. I do not believe state-sanctioned violence ever really “solves” anything unless you think a “solution” means devastating families and making shit tons of money for the military-industrial complex. I have even come to think this about World War II. Alec, did you know that? There was a second World War. Even worse than yours, worse than the first—because of the first really. It gets called “the Good War,” but I cannot believe that it was.
Does it make you mad to hear me say that, Alec? Do you want to stop reading? Also, does it make you mad, ever—how things ended up for you? Like “I was shrapneled to death in WWI and all I got is this stupid American Legion Post?” I hope not. The post, I keep trying to tell you, is nice.
I wonder, too: did anything ever used to make you cry? You were an Edwardian. A boy in an era that worshipped boys—pretty yet strapping, a bunch of dashing Peter Pans. They say boys don’t cry, but of course they do.
Because I wouldn’t ask you to tell me anything I wouldn’t tell you, Alec, some things that can be counted on to make me cry no matter how well or how mawkishly they are portrayed, include:
• Bigotry against gay people
• Slave narratives and stories about the Jim Crow South
• Anything having to do with the treatment of Jews in the Holocaust
• Cruelty to animals
Veterans, though, are the ones who seem to have the most control over their situations—at least if they weren’t drafted—and thus are the ones for whom I have the least sympathy. Yet veterans are the item on this list that never fails to make me cry the quickest. Silly, but there it is.
You have not yet made me cry, though, Alec. You are not now—and never were, technically—a veteran. You were a citizen, then a soldier, then dead and that’s it.
George Orwell, another veteran for whom I possess an enduring across-the-decades affection, writes that when you get shot, you feel “no pain, only a violent shock, such as you get from an electric terminal; with it a sense of utter weakness, a feeling of being stricken and shriveled up to nothing.” I wouldn’t know. You wouldn’t either. But you do know what it feels like to get shredded in 23 places by shrapnel. Or knew, for two days of suffering. Then you died. And then you knew what? Nothing?
Is it sentimental, Alec, my teary-eyed soft-spot for the sake of veterans? I’ve thought about that a lot and concluded: No. Oscar Wilde says a sentimentalist “desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.” You know as well as anyone that these emotions have been paid for. In life. In blood. In limbs. In minds. In your war, Alec, there were over 65 million combatants, including 4.7 million Americans. Of those, over 9.7 million combatants—including you—were killed, as well as approximately 6.8 million civilians for a total of 16.5 million deaths and 21 million wounded: the sixth deadliest conflict in all of human history.
In my dad’s war, if you limit it to the conflict in Iraq that began in 2003 and continues with no exit strategy, more than 4,469 American soldiers have been killed, and close to over 100,000 have been wounded. No one has been keeping especially excellent track, but it’s estimated that at least 111,000 Iraqi civilians have been murdered in the process.
But Alec, numbers are faceless. Impersonal. Numbers are barriers. And that is why I am grateful to you. Not because “freedom isn’t free” and you gave “the last full measure.” I did not ask for, nor did I require, your bodily sacrifice. I am grateful because I need someone to talk to and I can’t talk to my dad, not quite so intensely.
Anyway, Alec, like I was saying, because of my dad, I have more than a passing interest in military history. One of my fondest small stories from your era is about Horace Smith-Dorrien, a British General whose eyes and salt-and-pepper mustache put me in mind of my dad. Like my dad, he was against the War and the powers who wanted it, but he ended up fighting because he was in the military and he had a commitment. Anyway, Alec, do you know this story?
Lord Kitchener was supposed to go, in 1914, to review the cadets at the Officers Training Corps camp in the UK at Tidworth Pennings. Since WWI was about to happen, he couldn’t make it. They sent Smith-Dorrien instead. To everyone’s surprise, according to Donald Christopher Smith, one of the cadets, Smith-Dorrien said that:
war should be avoided at almost any cost, that war would solve nothing, that the whole of Europe and more besides would be reduced to ruin, and that the loss of life would be so large that whole populations would be decimated. In our ignorance I, and many of us, felt almost ashamed of a British General who uttered such depressing and unpatriotic sentiments, but during the next four years, those of us who survived the holocaust – probably not more than one-quarter of us – learned how right the General’s prognosis was and how courageous he had been to utter it.
Smith-Dorrien went on to lead troops of his own in the British Expeditionary Force during the war, but he did not like it. If you knew that story, Alec, what did you think? Did you hear it in high school and disagree with Smith-Dorrien? Would you have been one of the ones who found his warning embarrassing? Just wondering.
Another story: when my dad was in Iraq, Vice President Dick Cheney came to address the soldiers at his camp and everyone assumed that my Dad, as an officer, would want—and get, because of his rank—to go, but he said no thanks; he’d man the pharmacy and anybody who wanted to should go instead. When pressed—his fellow soldiers couldn’t believe he didn’t want the chance—my dad said he would not piss on Dick Cheney to put the man out if he were on fire. So. War? So dumb. And the men who make it? So evil.
But, Alec, you made it look, for a second, so fun: pitch a tent, wear a hat, clown around with your manly comrades, stalwart and laughing in the outdoor air somewhere. Not so different from the Boy Scouts who run around the grounds and have meetings at your Hall.
The last sentence of your bio here in the foyer says, “He was the first of ‘our boys’ from Downers Grove to make the supreme sacrifice.”
And WWI soldiers from the States were called Doughboys, right? Not Doughmen. Doughboys. Did you call yourselves that or was it a homefront thing?
In the UK they were called Tommies. My dad’s dad was Tom, but he never fought in any war—born at the right time. Although, maybe, Alec, you liked the war and would consider his timing to have been poor? My dad’s oldest brother was also named Tom and he died because of—not in, but because: Agent Orange cancer—the Vietnam War.
My dad, although he turned 60 a little over a month ago is also a boy. He is boyish. Enthusiastic. He has a lot of hobbies. It’s not hard for him to be happy.
But when my dad was over there, in Iraq, it was, as you might know from your own experience, kind of depressing. He dropped down to the wiry weight that he was in high school. They made him eat ice cream every day so as not lose more. Pistachio ice cream. He said it was delicious, though he hardly had the stomach for it.
Alec, what did you eat, when you were in your war?
Today, at my Dad’s party, we’re having so much food: every kind of meat that ever used to walk the earth and countless potato salads, baked beans, veggies and dip, a million potato chips and two huge Costco sheetcakes, decorated like for a birthday, which seems appropriate to me because it’s like my dad is being reborn into a life where he will eventually die, sure, but not in a war.
We set up for the party last night, Saturday. What did you do for fun on a Saturday night, Alec? Back here at home in Downers Grove, a conservative town that still tries to pretend—soda fountains and classic car shows—that life now is not really so different than when you grew up? What did you do on Saturday nights over there in Europe? Where did you go? What did you drink? Who, if anyone, did you sleep with, or did you die a virgin, pure and lamblike?
Anyway, Alec, when my husband Martin and I came out here last night to meet up with the family to help decorate the Hall, the gathering devolved along strict gender lines, the way my family always seems to: girls versus boys. Or rather, the women and girls did all the labor: my mom, my sisters, my aunts and female cousins from Nebraska and Iowa cutting table cloths, making centerpieces, hanging garlands and flags and stars and stripes. The women and girls worked hard while the men—the boys—sat around eating sandwiches (organized by the women) and drinking beer.
My sisters and I, led by Beth, the craftiest, made a piñata shaped like a beehive because, Alec, here’s something neat: my dad keeps bees. See? A boyish hobby. Here at your post, that’s where he keeps them, out by the garden, another hobby about which his boyish enthusiasm is boundless. Only my husband, Martin, crossed the gender line to help us—snipping and gluing the yellow crepe, affixing the pipe-cleaner-and-pom-pom bees, filling the hollow inside with an improbable amount of candy.
Also, because Martin is the perfect height, six-foot-three, to drop sequins in an aesthetically pleasing array, he went around to all the tables in the Hall, alternately covered in red and blue, and dropped the sparkles my Aunt Jeannie had brought as a finishing touch. My Uncle Mark—who I wonder if you’d like, Alec. I am pretty sure you would like my dad because most everybody does. Anyway, my Uncle Mark is also a veteran of the current Gulf War and still in the Reserves and is much more post-traumatically stressed and brash than my dad. Do not get him started on all the guys he’s seen dead, on all the guys he’s killed. My Dad will almost never talk about what he saw, except to say that it was awful and should never have happened, will only say, because he was a medical officer, that the combatants who came into the hospital from the enemy side could not believe that the American docs and pharmacists were going to fix them up, but fix them up they did. So my Uncle Mark sees Martin sprinkling the sparkles and says good-naturedly, mostly, but with an edge of mockery:
“What are you, Martin, one of the ladies tonight?”
Because a lady, obviously, is an inferior person to be. And he likely would have said something worse, more off-color, probably about being a faggot, even, if I hadn’t been standing right there.
“Just here to help, Mark,” Martin said, cheerfully, dropping more sequins, fluttering them down, I thought, like autumn leaves. Then I thought bombs. I thought of civilian casualties: wedding parties and schools struck by American weaponry at semi-random.
Alec, I wonder: would you have helped me make the beehive piñata? Would it be possible for you to be my friend? Would you have dropped sequins from whatever height you had? I look at your photograph and like to believe you would have. You have a compassionate face. And because I don’t know you, and don’t have any evidence to prove otherwise, I’m going to decide: you would have been a man, a real man, a secure man comfortable sprinkling the sequins and helping the women. You would not have been like, say, Ernest Hemingway, our area’s vastly more famous (sorry, Alec) local WWI veteran from Oak Park, a few miles to the East between here and the city—boorish and overcompensatory.
And even though I’ve been clear about how boyish you are, Alec, don’t you think there’s something so “manly” and ridiculous about war in general? I can’t help thinking that the flag-waving of war is also a lot of dick-waving, especially here, today, at your Hall with the phallic Obelisk out front, sticking straight up as if to penetrate the sky.
The sky. Alec, it is a flawless day. The kind of day that makes you feel you’ve won a prize just by being alive. The sky today is a beautiful blue, the kind of blue of sky cliché: a blue bowl, a robin’s egg. I’ve read that you, our boys in WWI, became enamored of—even obsessed with—the sky because that was most of what you could see from inside your mucky and disgusting trenches. I hope, at least, that the day you died was a pretty day so you were looking up at the blue before dissipating into it. Were you looking? I wish you could say.
Okay, Alec. I’m almost done. If you’re still reading, I hope that nothing I’ve said—about you, about War, about whatever—has made you too angry. And I hope you like flowers in addition to the sky because we’ve hit the point in this party where we’re going outside. Come on—I’ll keep writing if you keep listening.
The sky is blue and there are flowers, red and white, around the Obelisk in front of the Hall, your Hall, Alexander Bradley Burns American Legion Post 80. The Obelisk was installed in May of 1976 and is engraved with the names of members and friends on its sides. Recently, Post 80 acquired, refurbished, and dedicated two howitzers adjacent to the Obelisk, howitzers maybe like the ones that sent over the shell full of shrapnel that hit you.
Do you like flowers? Like the ones in your other photograph, Alec. The sky is in that one, too, above the curve of the wreath above your dead head, but: it might not even be your head. The neatly spaced rows of American soldiers’ graves defy credulity—they couldn’t have found every body and been so precise, could they? Probably you were piled in a mound somewhere and put out of sight/mind, no? Some of you must have been buried where you lay, so that decades later some French farmer plowing would turn up your skull? Not to be rude. It doesn’t matter now, does it? Does it matter to you? It matters to me that you died, but not where your mortal remains may or may not be. And it matters to me that my dad is not in a grave.
That’s my dad over there, Alec, by the tree where they’re hanging the beehive piñata we made. Isn’t seeing him here today, the day of his retirement, like seeing him for the first time? Soon he’ll be taking a crack at the piñata. The almost-200 people who’ve shown up to celebrate—his hospital colleagues, his fellow soldiers, his family from Nebraska and Iowa and all over this state—are rushing out to watch. This is all almost over. I’ll have to sign off soon.
When I do, I think I’ll close with “Your Admirer.” Maybe I should say “Your Secret Admirer” because it’s a secret that I admire you, at least to you, being dead and gone. But I’m humbled, in the end, for what you did for our country—for whatever made you enlist and whatever good you thought you were doing.
There goes my Dad, his friend Ed tying a camouflage bandana as a blindfold over his bifocals. After being spun so many times, he shouts out loud: “Where the heck is that piñata?” Then he lets fly with the swing of the bat. Its broad-sided bash makes a cracking-whumping noise. My dad feeling happy. My dad making contact. Papier-mȃché shredding and puffball bees whizzing by. Then a shower of candy with old timey names—Chick-O-Sticks, Peanut Butter Bars, and of course Bit-O-Honeys—falls like rain on the fresh-cut grass. And the kids, like ducks to bread, crush in to collect it. Then my dad pulls up his blindfold, teeth flashing beneath his mustache, smiling the smile of the boy he used to be, and, Alec!—the boy you never stopped being, the boy you will always be to me.
This story appeared in Indiana Review 35.1, Summer 2013.
Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a non-profit publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a collective of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poetry on demand. Her most recent book is the novel, O, Democracy! and with Eric Plattner, she is the co-editor of the first ever English edition The Selected Writings of Rene Magritte, forthcoming in 2016. Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Toast, the Poetry Foundation website, and the Chicago Tribune. Follow her @KathleenMRooney