My Father on D-Day and Mountain Shade

To remember D-Day, I share a poem published in Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel: Appalachian Witness, produced by the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative. It’s the finished piece from a post shared on the blog in 2019. Written in my father’s voice, it relates his first experience as a healer—an 18-year-old pharmacist mate patching up the wounded on Utah Beach.

They said the LST rode higher

in the water when landing in trim,


and on a stomach-churning morning,

she hit the beach slope; the bow door fell,


disgorging jeeps and tanks and finally us;

it was gray all around—the water, the sky,


the ships, as far as I could see, the one time

I looked back, and then only forward.


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 oozing guts—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, passing them to other hands

that stretchered them up the ramp.


I paused later—at the strangeness of it all.

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


Why Utah? A landlocked state with a salt lake.

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


where boys stepped to rock bottom

off Higgins boats, murdered by their gear.


I saw, in a blind moment,

north Georgia mountain shade—


and tulip poplars growing straight,

reliably, their futures in coffins.


“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 bedsheet to line


somebody else’s 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 mountain shade


one more time, many times over:

the boy, the man, the graying son.


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