Memento Mori Free Verse

Sappington Cemetery

Old Cemetery

That day we ditched our duties at the music contest,
And drove to the old cemetery out by Arrow Rock,
The one with the mossy tombs above the ground,
Like down in New Orleans.
And it was even better because it was like we were playing hooky,
Only there were no classes,
Just that we’d volunteered to welcome the kids from other schools,
And help them find their rooms.
It was expected that we’d show up and do our civic duty,
But we figured they’d never notice we were missing.
We heard the call of other tunes,
And we had other demands that day to serve.
It was coming down one of those warm spring rains,
The air and everything was wet and willing,
It was the middle of the day but no one would be driving by,
And, even if they had, the old Ford’s windows were so fogged up
That no one could ever see what was going on inside.
In school, we’d learned how the doctor buried there
In the grandest tomb of all had made his fortune and his fame
selling quinine to cure malaria,
Made it possible for pioneers to settle in the boggy bottomlands,
And for America to finish where the French had failed
at digging the Panama Canal,
Opening up a passage that had never before been penetrated.
(In another class, we’d hear it wouldn’t be the last time
We would have to bail out the hapless Frenchmen.)
And though the aging tombs beckoned us to come and learn,
And contemplate the weakness of our flesh,
We’d have to take our teachers’ word for it.
That day we never got out of the car …
++++++it was raining so hard …
And we had other geography to explore,
And history of our own to write.


Notes:  Growing up in my Missouri hometown, I heard stories like this actually happened. This one may or may not be partly true.  Names have been redacted to protect the guilty.

The medieval Christian tradition had an ascetic practice called memento mori, meaning, “Remember that you will die.” The monk might keep some object, such as a skull, to remind him that life is transient, and that death is inevitable. The idea was to focus the soul on things that really mattered.

I’m not sure, but some of the poems I write might serve as my own personal memento mori.

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Hometown haiku

 

Minuteman missile silo, Saline County, Missouri
Photo courtesy of Susumu Wakana

Just miles south of town
missiles waited in silos,
hell in a cornfield.


NOTES:  In the early 1960s, we began hearing talk of the government planning to put missiles in underground silos in our part of the country.  Sure enough, Minuteman sites began to appear in fields across west-central Missouri.

The silos weren’t advertised, but they were not hidden either.  There was one clearly visible from the main highway south of town.  Many others were scattered about the surrounding countryside, both in our Saline County and in neighboring counties.

The Minutemen were intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads.  They burned solid fuel, which allowed for much faster launches than the older, liquid-fuel missiles.

The idea was deterrence.  Our missiles were able to target Soviet cities, which would discourage them from initiating an attack on the United States. They had missiles pointing at us.  We hoped nobody blinked.

It was vaguely unsettling to know that we had nuclear missiles located so close.  But, I was just a grade school kid, and didn’t think too much about such things.

A few years later, when I was in high school, talk started about upping the ante and locating anti-ballistic missiles (ABMs) nearby.  These were defensive weapons, designed to shoot down incoming ICBMs from the other side.

I read a couple of articles, believed myself to be an expert, and declared my opposition to the ABMs.  If I remember correctly, the nationwide high school debate topic was about the ABM issue.

I really didn’t know what I was talking about.  My big argument was that having ABMs located close to our homes would make us a primary target.  I remember having no real answer when a classmate’s big brother, who attended the Naval Academy, pointed out that we were already targets because of the Minuteman missile installations. Having ABMs nearby, he said, would at least give us a chance to shoot down the Russian missiles headed for us.

The Minuteman missiles stood on guard until 1991, when then President George H.W. Bush ordered them off alert status.  Under the terms of the START I treaty, the missiles were removed and the silos destroyed a few years later.

In hindsight, the Minutemen seemed to have done their job.  The Russians never attacked.   The inherent weakness of the Soviet Communist system gradually became more and more evident as their economy crumbled.

In 1989, Mr. Gorbachev did indeed “tear down this wall,” as Ronald Reagan demanded.  Or at least the Soviet leader allowed East Germans to tear down the Berlin Wall themselves.  And then we saw the Soviet empire collapse.

China essentially gave up on Communism around the same time, when its leaders realized that if  they wanted to make money, they had to harness the power of markets.

Today we see Venezuela teetering on chaos as its experiment with socialism goes up in smoke.  Cuba still soldiers on under the heel of the second-string Castro, yearning for the day when real freedom returns.

Of course North Korea continues to keeps the flame alive for all those who dream of establishing a world-wide Worker’s Paradise. It’s our best example of what happens when Communism reaches full flower.

It seems fitting on May Day to pause and think on these things.

Hometown haiku

Marshall, Missouri, 1968.
Courtesy of Susumu Wakana

Old streets remind me
I did not know compassion
when I walked them then.


NOTES: I have come into possession of a treasure trove of photos from the late 1960s taken by an old schoolmate, Susumu.  He was our Japanese foreign exchange student when I was a junior in high school in 1968 and 1969.

Across the years and across the internet, we reconnected and he sent me the photos he collected during his year in my hometown.

Susumu saw things through his camera lens that I had long forgotten.  These are shots I would never have thought to take.  Simple street scenes.  Iconic buildings long since torn down.  Teachers and friends long forgotten.

The gift of these photos is almost indescribable.  It is as though I am seeing my hometown again, for the first time.  I’m transported back nearly half a century to the place of my childhood, to the places where I lived my formative years.

No fancy Instagram filters are required.  These photos already have the faded Kodachrome quality you cannot fake.  They come with authentic poignancy.

These photos take me back to my youth.  And my heart is filled with questions.  What if?  If only?  Didn’t I realize?

Thanksgiving haiku

clothes-pin-bag
We may have been poor
but we always had clean clothes.
Our mother made sure.


Notes:

I hadn’t seen a clothes pin bag like this is decades.  But, recently, in Sonoma of all places, in the laundry room of a little house my family had rented, I found this item from the past.  It was identical to the one my mother used all through the 1960s.

It seemed to be just another part of the retro-nostalgia vibe of the décor.  It took me back in time.  Back to that little house on East Mitchell Street, where a Missouri farm family found their slice of the American Dream.

My mother used to wash our clothes in an electric wringer washing machine that was more wash tub than machine. I’m pretty sure my dad must have proudly ordered it back in the 1950s from the Montgomery Ward catalog to make life easier for his wife, our mother.

The modern feature was the wringer that squeezed the excess water out of the clothes to speed up the line drying.

I suppose it was a big step up from the washboard down by the stream, but it still required considerable manual labor.

One day, my mother absentmindedly fed some clothes through the wringer and got her left hand caught.  I remember blood and crying and a bent wedding ring.

But, all in all, that was a minor event in the grand scheme of things.  We knew more than one farmer who had lost a whole arm in a disagreement with a stubborn corn picker.

When it became apparent that the first location of the clothesline in the back yard was interfering with the natural layout of the whiffle ball diamond, my dad relocated the clothesline, even though uprooting and transplanting the poles amounted to considerable work.

Is it my imagination, but is there nothing like the smell of clothes dried on the line in the July Missouri sun?  It’s a fragrance Proctor & Gamble can only wish they could duplicate.

Bounce just doesn’t cut it.

Civics Haiku

First Presyterian Church, Marshall, MO
Let me not forget
my dual citizenship,
and which one will last.


Notes:  Pictured is the First Presbyterian Church of Marshall, Missouri.  Known as “The Rock Church,” it is the most beautiful church building in my hometown.

Hometown haiku

House on East Porter Street, Marshall, Missouri
The old hometown seems
smaller than I remember.
Once, it was magic.


Notes:

For Van Morrison, it was Cyprus Avenue in his hometown of Belfast. The fancy, tree-lined street where the upper class lived.  Where a working-class boy went to dream and catch glimpses of aspirational girlfriends.

In my hometown, that street was Eastwood.  It was a shady, tree-lined street with what passed for mansions in my little Missouri farm town of Marshall.  And there here were even a couple honest-to-Pete mansions among them.  Reminders of old money abounded.

To a Johnny-come-lately, working-class kid like myself, it seemed like the coolest place on earth.  I lived on the other side of town.  Not in the poorest section, but definitely in a different layer.  My house was brand new, but it was a plain 1950s ranch house.  Utilitarian and homely.  Decorated in the finest Late Depression.

At first I didn’t have any friends among the Eastwood society.  Unattainable, I thought.  But when all of the grade school kids graduated to junior high, we were suddenly thrown together.

I became buddies with an Eastwood kid, Clyde, who, while he didn’t live right on Eastwood, lived close enough — a long block off of it.

His home was a demonstration of exquisite interior decorating, and his family a wonder of graciousness and hospitality.  I felt lucky to have such a cool friend.

We played football, we raced slot cars, and talked about our growing interest in girls.  I heard Sgt. Pepper’s for the first time in his basement.

When my cat didn’t come home and was eventually found struck to death by a car, I went to Clyde’s to play basketball.  I played so furiously that I eventually egged him into our only physical fight.

Because that’s how 12 year old boys grieve.

In those days of flower power and Vietnam, we did find ways to wage a few political protests, and fight against what we saw was hidebound traditions at our high school.

We eventually began to drift our separate ways, spending more time with girls than with our old guy friends.

One evening, late in our high school years, we sat around a campfire out at the park, vaguely aware that our sheltered years in our old hometown were drawing to a close.  Our oh-so-enlightened conversation including a one-through-10 ranking of our female classmates.

If I remember, we did try to maintain a sense of irony about it.

The photo atop this little poem is a recent shot of Clyde’s old house.