My Father on D-Day: Why Do You Ask This?

My parents and I traveled to Utah Beach on a gray, wind-swept day in September 1994. My dad was last there on June 6, 1944. He was 18—a pharmacist mate assigned to an LST, attending to the wounded and removing them, and the dead, from the beach.

Poem excerpt from My Father on D-Day_ Why Do You Ask This_ chamrickwriter randomstoryteller.com with image of WWII sailor 940x788px

Why do you ask, of a stomach-churning morning, “What were you thinking?”

 

They said the LST could ride higher in the water

When landing in trim.

She hit the beach slope, and the bow door fell,

Disgorging jeeps and tanks and, finally, us;

It was gray all around—the water, the sky, and the ships,

As far as I could see, the one time I looked back,

And then only forward.

 

I saw, in a blind moment, early June, the mountain shade,

Where tulip poplars grew straight, reliably, their futures in coffins—

“Yes, their wood is best,” said Lem Moss, maker of final boxes,

“Fast growing and long-lived.”

 

They made movies of our memories,

Of what they thought they were:

German mortar and exploding artillery,

The strewn wreckage

Of flipped, ripped jeeps,

Of wire,

Of bodies, whole, some with faces yet,

Of twitching pieces, arms here and legs flung there,

Of middle parts, spilling guts, oozing.

 

What was I thinking?

The sea foams, so does blood.

 

Then my hands did the thinking, and doing, on semi-automatic,

What the doctor ordered:

Stanch bleeding,

Apply dressings,

Sprinkle sulfa powder,

The lone wound antiseptic.

And dwindle the morphine— 

On who has the best chance?

 

The hands became the machine

That patched the broken living and passed them to other hands 

That stretchered them up the ramp.

 

I paused. Once. At the strangeness of it all.

Why Omaha? A city in a golden-prairie ocean. 

Why Utah? A land-locked state and a salt lake. 

But this Omaha, this Utah, opened to a dead sea,

Where no body would float,

Where boys stepped to rock bottom, 

Off Higgins boats,

Murdered by their gear.

 

I saw, in brief passing, early June, the mountain shade,

Where tulip poplars grew straight, reliably, their futures in coffins—

“Yes, their wood is best,” said Lem Moss, maker of final boxes,

“Fast growing and long-lived.”

When did coffins become caskets?

“Jewelry is for caskets,” said my mother,

Midwife and layer out of the dead,

Giving up a bed sheet to line somebody else’s final sleep,

East facing, because that was the way,

It was always done;

She held them at their beginning, and at their end.

 

I was the lucky one, finally home,

For that long in between when she held me,

In the North Georgia mountain shade,

One more time, many times over:

The boy, the man, the graying son.

 

 

6 Comments

  1. Dan Hise

    My word, Catherine, where did this come from? I’m astounded. Is it sourced in hearing your parents’ memories? The tulip tree? Hands as machines? What a great piece of writing. And the last line is amazing.

    1. Catherine Hamrick

      Yes, out of memories that spur imagination. Hands as machines–it seems those moments required a particular detachment for swift decision making as well as coping for endless hours. Thanks so much for reading and commenting!–k

    2. Leila Lou Baldwin

      Astounding in its cold, gray starkness and depth of understanding. You amaze me. “Murdered by their gear”–truth

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