Tom Sheehan

A Pocketful of Verse

Nothing brings it home like feasting on a poem.
(Unknown guitarist on a troopship, outbound, 1951.)

I'm not sure I knew I was setting out on an important journey. The whole battalion had been marching for three days, in the rain, the heat, the Korean miseries. Was something new trying to break into my thinking... journey of journeys? Occasionally a marcher is full of questions, or doubts. In marching there is little to do but gripe, pray and think away.

Somewhere down the line of my comrades on the march, above the thud of boots, web equipment jostling, grunts and deep breaths in odd unison, came the blast of a whistle. We were two columns of fully armed men, passing each other and going in opposite directions, and for moments stopped in our tracks. Some of us were going back to a reserve area, to rest and hot showers. Some of us, in the luck of the draw, in the other direction. We were beside a company of engineer troops digging roadside gutters to handle the promised seasonal rains coming from the Sea of Japan. Soon, as good as promise, the Sea of Mud would grab at us.

I dropped my gear to take ten and stretch out on the damp ground beside the Main Supply Route, the MSR, on the Korean eastern front, a May day at mid-morning, 1951. The sun rays felt hazy and damp. At the small of my back an ache kept making itself known.

Realization came that silence in the war zone is eerie, and unbelievable. I thought that measurement of a sort was in play, demanding attention. It was, I reflected, like stopping to smell a riot of flowers on a country lane or a manure pile ripening outside an old barn down Maine. Things forever lived and abounded all around me, memories and imagination locked with their noose. The engineers, I noticed to a man, were all black soldiers. The infantry marchers were all white.

I sat up when one of the engineers stood over me looking down, his eyes like sad brown echoes. A smile suddenly striped his face with perfect teeth, affability. The man, I thought, knows how to smile.

"Care for a smoke?" The black soldier extended a pack of cigarettes toward me, and then sat down as I drew a single cigarette from his pack.

"Thanks," I said, nodding, looking into the deep brown eyes. "I haven't seen any Luckies in a month of Sundays. What we generally get, at this end of the war, is floor stuff, factory sweepings not worth the bother to collect it commercially, more powder than a grenade sets off."

"Don't mention it," the black soldier said, as if disregarding my claim, "I'm Calvin Boone." Boone extended his hand and allowed a deep, gleaming smile to accompany his outstretched hand. White teeth, square and even, one of them capped in gold the sun found easily, carried contrast to a distance. I thought again, he sure knows how to smile.

"I'm Frank Butcher." The knowledge in my back was teaching me a lesson about what side of my body to lay on, what hip could tolerate the slightest temperature change or an ounce of discomfort, how it could manage sudden movement.

"You guys going back up?" Boone puffed away at his own butt, small exhalations of smoke marking the stilled air.

"Yuh," I countered, though not really up for small talk. "We were in reserve for a few days, but we moved out yesterday. We gotta do it all over again." A pause hung its stripe in the air. "Probably be back up there in a few days and cover the same ground. We did it before so many times, it's like a big game of checkers."

Boone looked straight into my eyes. "Do it all over again? The same territory? The same terrain? The same hill?"

I spoke from the side of my mouth, like I knew it all. "Yup, we're going back up to take Sugar Loaf II. Blue Item lost it day before yesterday. And that's after we had pitched it in our back pocket. Not that it was a piece of cake by any means." I paused, measured, replied, "It friggin' stinks the way I look at it. Ought to be a realtor here drawing lines, making sides, setting prices, and posting ads. Cover his ass if not ours, if you really want to know." I was sorry I said that, as Boone grimaced, like an outsider let in on a secret.

Boone flipped his cigarette arching through the air. It fizzled in a small pool of water in the main road bed. "Tough that way, ain't it?"

I leaned back and lay on one side, propping my head on one hand. "I don't think we're ready for it, not this outfit. We're not up to full strength for sure. Pulled some of us down the last go around."

"I'd sure like to be going with you," Boone said as he looked back down the road. The company of black soldiers was standing on the side of the road, each soldier holding a long-handled spade. Boone began to rub his palms together.

I looked up at him, one eyebrow arching higher than the other. "Hell, I'd just as soon be back here with you guys digging holes while I was standing up, rather than be up there digging them on my gut." I spit out the side of my mouth. The saliva landed on the edge of his pack. He reached out with one finger and rubbed it into the pack.

Boone rubbed his palms together again, like punctuation of a sort, or annunciation. "It's different with us. They won't let us go up. Not much of a fight lugging a shovel in your hand. I hate to see you guys going by, going back up."

"You guys have a job to do," I offered. "If these roads get mired in, the supply trucks can't get through... no ammo, no good chow, and," I laughed a bit, "no reporters either."

"I've heard all that soap before. It doesn't sound so good when you see a unit go up and they come down a few days later and you know some of them ain't coming back the same way."

I looked at the butt of my own rifle, the plate all scratched, abraded, worn. "Is it so damn important to you to go up there?"

"It sure is when they say you can't join a combat unit because your skin's a different color. Most of us are in transport or engineer units. Makes me feel useless." He sat down beside me, his hands stretched out behind him, one hand resting on the barrel of my rifle, stretching himself, his manhood.

"Where you from in the states?" I said.

"Jersey." His eyes were like mine when I mentioned home.

"Makes it kind of hard, don't it?"

"I never met anything like this at home, not usually. But some of the guys, they don't feel anything different. All of us hope they stop this segregation crap pretty damn quick."

I sat up. "I'd swap places with you any day of the week. In a minute. I'm kind of worried about this trip. I almost got wasted on the last trip up there. Never been so scared in my whole life."

"I've been afraid a lot back here, too," Boone said. We get a little incoming mail once in a while. It can't be the same feeling though."

I rolled over on my other side, my legs crossing one another in a deliberate motion. "Man, when you're getting popped at, it's all the same."

"Difference is you can't hit back with a shovel." Distance and some other reach, some other argument, were buried in his eyes.

I didn't answer. The silence continued on for a long spell, and Boone finally said, "Where's home?"

"Saugus, a dozen miles north of Boston."

"Blue collar?"

"Yuh, it is, but my dad a guard at the GE Plant in the next town. I'd sure love to be back there now." I stared down the road and I pulled on my pointed chin with one hand. Reaching out, I grabbed a handful of earth and let it trickle through my fingers.

Boone lit another cigarette and I looked up at him as the whistle sounded down the line again and the moaning of men arose as they came to their feet.

I said, "What's that you got in your jacket pocket?"

Boone smiled as he said, "An orange. Want it?"

I said, "I'll swap you for it."

"Okay. What you got?"

"A book of poetry. Soft cover. I've been into a lot of it. Probably three or four times through it all the way. Marked it up a bit." I reconsidered. "I marked it up a whole lot, lots of special places in there."

Boone's eyes glowed. "Deal," he said, then smiling, added, "pen or pencil?" His smile was a huge smile. That guy, I swore again, knew how to smile.

I laughed from deep in my gut, reached into my fatigue jacket pocket and drew out the book as Boone handed over the orange. I stuck the orange in the pocket where the book had been, picked up my pack and hoisted it to my back. I felt I was close to some destination.

I slung the rifle over my shoulder and walked off to my destiny, looking back as Boone thumbed open a page, saw a verse I thought he might know because he smiled that true smile again.

—Tom Sheehan

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