“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.