The cold, not a storm loaded with snow, but the cold in burrowing waves, came sweeping down the valley just north of the Yalu River. Vatcher Sexton McKee, sergeant of infantry, as cold as he’d ever been in his life, could not hold the pencil in his hand. He’d already broken the lead point three times, but only worried about handling the rifle, managing the trigger when called upon, his latest letter home to be finished at an hour less demanding.
As the town announced itself with quick clutter, Greg Mulraney downshifted the Taurus saying it was on its last legs. The floorboards were full of soft threats beneath his feet, metal edges outside and below catching air like a sword causes a draft, a whine, the engine hum hesitant as an offbeat tenor. He saw Pete Leon standing in front of the public house, drink in hand as usual, and thought, Pete looks the same, leathered, liquored, lean, handsome as the long day.
The day’d gone over hill, but light still remained, cut with a gray edge, catching rice paddy corners. In battle’s blue brilliance they’d become comrades, friends, Walko and Williamson and Sheehan, at night drinking beer cooled by Imjin River in August of ‘51 in Korea. Three men clad in rags of war. Stars hung pensive neon. Mountain-cool silences were earned, hungers absolved, ponderous God talked to. Above silence, that God’s weighty as clouds, elusive as windy soot, yields promises. They used church keys to tap cans, lapped up silence rich as missing salt, fused their backbones to good earth in rituals old as labor itself, men clad in rags of war. Such August night gives itself away, tells tales, slays the rose in reeling carnage, murders sleep, sucks moisture out of Mother Earth, fires hardpan, does not die before dawn, makes strangers in one’s selves, those caught wearing rags of war. They’d been strangers beside each other, caught in the crush of tracer nights and starred flanks, accidents of men drinking beer cooled by bloody waters where brothers roam, warriors come to that place by fantastic voyages, by generations of the persecuted or the adventurous, carried in sperm bodies, dropped in the spawning, fruiting womb of America, caught wearing rags of war.
Earl Chatsby, six years ceased being a father for real, felt an odd distinction coming into his place of being. The newspaper for the moment loomed an idle bundle in his lap the way it stayed weighty and rolled and unread. Walls of the kitchen widened, and the room took in more air. He could feel the huge gulp of it. The coffee pot was perking loudly its 6 AM sound and the faucet drip, fixed three nights earlier at Melba’s insistence, had hastened again its freedom, the discord highly audible. Atop the oil cloth over the kitchen table the mid-May sun continued dropping its slanting hellos, allowing them to spread the room into further colors. Yet to this day he cannot agree to what happened first, the front porch shadow at the window coming vaguely visible in a corner of his eye, a familiar shadow, or the slight give-away trod heard from the porch floor, that too familiar, the board loose it seemed forever and abraded by Melba’s occasional demands to fix it.
“What the good Jesus!” Pete Tura yelled and disappeared, and as he said it again, his voice muffled, his mouth most likely closed by horse manure, a whole nine yards of it, the bottom of the collection box hanging from the second floor of the Hood’s Milk Company horse barn in West Lynn let go, taking my pal with it. I last saw one arm, not waving goodbye, probably trying to keep the pitchfork from doing him damage. Possibly he had tried to throw it behind him. That innocent weapon of deadly tines was not in sight as I peered down into the mixture of black clutter and hay still settling down with a metronomic slowness you could count.
Harlan counted again: 67 years!
The numbers were bright as they flashed in his head. In all those years he had made every trip to Wiscasset, Maine but one, the time he was in the hospital in McKees Rocks, PA for his coronary by-pass. 67 years to celebrate a death, a heroic death, but a death forever cold, no matter how hard they tried to warm it up.
I could picture what it would be like if we met again all these years later. It might go down like this: After 670 miles of a pretty cross country haul, I’d see the meeting-place pub we’d picked sitting brown and ugly like a hovel at the side of the road, a meeting place for the century, out there in some square, hard country setting. And I’d brace myself for comrades, the long stretch between get-togethers, wondering what the hard stuff would do to me this time. Undoubtedly it would leave tracks again.
I closed my eyes, wondering all over again. I hoped Balbo would be in there and Diaz. I hoped Archie’d be in there, red in the face, after his fifth visit, his third wife, his second hospital stay, counting his visits, keeping the tab at his elbow, paying it with no fanfare at all, sometimes embarrassed by his own quick acceptance of it, owing somebody, always owing somebody in this crazy life.
I’d lost a brother and remember the headlines, newsreels, songs of bond-selling, gas-griping, and movies too true to hate, the settings of World War II. Those days found the whole Earth bent inwards, imploding bombs, bullets, blood, shrieking terrible bird cries in my ears only deepest sleep could lose if it ventured close.
The mountains were sunlit, like glory loose of heaven, dark as old souls at their valley roots, in the clutch of earth trembling from a sky-high battle with its last aerial shot not yet fired, its last echo of death riding the sweep of air, when the screeching, not identified, began on high. The sounds of death had breath to spare, and the U.S Air Force’s F86 Sabre pursuit fighter plane from the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing, out of Suwon Air Base or Kimpo Air Base, both in South Korea, tumbled from the sky, the roar, the screech, the scream of air being sliced nearly by its atoms or other miniscule thinness not measureable by any of the troops facing each other on the ground.
Dear Big John and Little John and Billy and Hughie and Londo and Eddie Mac and Breda and Kujawski and the comrade I carried to his death whose name I never knew and all the others I pray for every night yet, the men of the 31st Infantry Regiment;
Every reading I’ve done for more than sixty-five years simply begins this way: John Maciag was all bone, knees, elbows and jaw, hated his rifle, proficient at killing, wanted home so badly it burned his soul. We leaned up that mountain near Yangu, frightened. War’s hurricane tore our ranks, trees of us lifted by roots. I came running down three days later. Like cordwood the bodies were piled between two stakes, all Korean but that jaw of John Maciag I saw, a log of birch among the pine. The sergeant yelled to move on. I said no, maybe never. I am going to sit and think about John Maciag’s forever, whose fuel he is, what the flames of him will light. Perhaps he will burn the glory of man or God.