Memorial Day 1970
Cottonwood seed blows down the alley
Behind the Catholic school down the street
And collects in snow drifts at the base of
Utility poles and along the edges of garage doors.
A block over by the pool the smell of chlorine mixes
With carbon and lighter fluid and blue plumes
Of smoke rise and disperse and burn your eyes
When the wind shifts in your direction.
Walking through the neighborhood here and there
You see blue star flags in the windows
Of brick bungalows and apartment buildings
And faded peeling clapboard frame houses.
Back at our house my dad flies the flag
At half staff like he does every year, knowing
A thing or two about what it means for young men
To go overseas and not to come back.
Today he’s thinking about the coast of France
And the black water that swallowed
Eight hundred men from the S.S. Leopoldville
On Christmas Eve in 1944, but he never says.
There’s an ambivalence in our house today
That even an eight year old can sense –
To separate the dead from the cause,
To feel empathy even if you’ve been betrayed.
But across the street from the Catholic school
A woman of indeterminate age to an eight year old
Gingerly replaces a blue star flag with a gold star flag,
And lays the blue star flag somewhere out of view.
There isn’t, it seems to me, any ambivalence
There, not at that precise moment, anyway,
Lost in crushing sadness, moving without awareness
Of anything but a dull pain in her chest.
And the cottonwood seed collects at my stopped feet
And the noise from the pool rises and falls
And the woman of indeterminate age turns and
Fades into the black rectangle of the window, and she’s gone.
[I wrote this piece about a year ago, before I started this blog. I repost it here in honor of the holiday, with some minor modifications. By way of explanation, the S.S. Leopoldville, mentioned in the fifth stanza, was a Belgian passenger ship that was impressed into military service during World War II, used primarily as a troop transport between England and France. On December 24, 1944, the Leopoldville and a companion ship, the HMS Cheshire, crossed the English channel with the 260th and 262nd regiments of the U.S. Army’s 66th Infantry Division – my father’s division. A few miles off Cherbourg, France, the Leopoldville was hit by a torpedo from a German U-boat and eventually sank, killing nearly 800 American soldiers. My father, Pfc. Paul J. von Ebers, was on the Cheshire that night. He and his fellow soldiers on the Cheshire spent Christmas Day 1944 pulling the bodies of their comrades out of the icy waters of the English Channel. This was their first experience with war. For further reference, Jacquin Sanders’ A Night Before Christmas (Buccaneer Books 1963) tells the story of the Leopoldville disaster. Picture: The Leopldville Memorial in Titusville, Florida.]
© 2011 David P. von Ebers. All rights reserved.