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Nobody Gets Off the Bus:
The Viet Nam Generation Big Book

Volume 5 Number 1-4
March 1994

Texts made available by the Sixties Project, are generally copyrighted by the Author or by Viet Nam Generation, Inc., all rights reserved. These texts may be used, printed, and archived in accordance with the Fair Use provisions of U.S. Copyright law. These texts may not be archived, printed, or redistributed in any form for a fee, without the consent of the copyright holder. This notice must accompany any redistribution of the text. A few of the texts we publish are in the public domain. For information on a specific text, contact Kalí Tal. The Sixties Project, sponsored by Viet Nam Generation Inc. and the Institute of Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, is dedicated to using electronic resources to provide routes of collaboration and make available primary and secondary sources for researchers, students, teachers, writers and librarians interested in the 1960s.

Meat Dreams

A poem of the Vietnam War

Robert Borden


1949 was a good year
for meat:

Marilyn Monroe
posed naked on
blood-colored velvet
for calendar photos.

men were returning
in boxes from Korea,

ground beef was selling
for 49 cents a pound,

and this poet
was in the womb,
of his own bloody birth


1969 was a good year
for meat:

Jim Morrison
was exposing himself
in concert,

ground beef was selling
for 59 cents a pound,

men were returning
in plastic bags
from Vietnam,

and this poet
was in that war,
of his own bloody death

1. Question

In Chicago
at the recruiting station
the sergeant said
to answer the question
about our communist activities

One young man
filling out the form asked
if such a question
didn't infringe on his
First Amendment rights

Two marine sergeants
pulled him from his chair
and threw him against
a wall,
knocking his glasses

They dragged him downstairs
and questioned him
all day long

2. Platoon Commander

It was the birthday
of the US Marine Corps
in boot camp

8pm/the platoon commander
calls us together
with unusual solemnity

Each and every one of you
has my respect, he said,
for joining an organization
in which you might

It was the one thing he said
that I still remember

The platoon commander
was a hero of the Vietnam War
with a foot full of plastic bones
where he was machine-gunned,
a purple heart
and a bronze star

Four months later
he was in the newspapers
the first body
of nine expert swimmers
from Quantico, Virginia,
Marine Officer Training School,
dragged from the Potomac,
blue and cold
like the river itself

The recording never made
of his boot camp speech
plays back
on nights
when I'm not standing guard

3. Camp Pendleton

A white rabbit
ripped open
in demonstration

white fur
peeled back over
moist, pulsing
still breathing through
skin-stripped nostrils

shrill rabbit screams
of instant
at this,
the ultimate nakedness

The troops laughed
when the sergeant
threw the organs at them,
and a man danced
with one inside-out
soft shoe

4. Shot

Rain and daybreak
in Okinawa

I met one marine
with a bleeding chest
who said he was going back
into combat

They gave me a shot in the ass
and I passed out,
Inside a building
sergeants passed out

to men who wore
the smell of death
like cologne

5. Flight

Good morning
we hope you have enjoyed
Flight 327
on the proud bird
with the golden tail,
and hope you will be
flying again with us soon.

It is 10:35am in Da Nang
and the current temperature
is one hundred and eight degrees

6. Greetings

Each morning at six,
radios started with
"Gooooooooooooood morning,

a cheery, insane greeting
to a day
some would not live through,

a curious blend
of comedy and horror,
like a fighter bomber
with a smile painted on it

7. Waiting

In the hold of a ship
just before dawn
the men sit in stunned silence
waiting for
The Word

Out on the beach
we can hear faint rifle fire
and see smoke rising
in blue-gray bursts

but it is quiet
on the ship
too much like a movie
in its twentieth rerun
overacted, too dramatic

How can I believe
there's real death
on that beach
when I know a commercial
is imminent?

Who's sponsoring this?
Let's have a brief message
of importance from
some local dealer,
let me hear someone say
that Coke is the real thing,
let me hear four out of five doctors
recommend something
for pain relief.

8. Sight

I am sitting
on the edge of a trench
eating a cactus plant,
unable to stomach
another can of unheated
ham and eggs,

I hear a quick rush of air
from behind,
like the sound of inhaling
through clenched teeth
followed by the crack
of the bullet, and feel
the shock waves
against my ear

If you hear it,
it missed you,
they say

but I can feel years later
the assassin's eyes in the jungle
on the back of my neck
that stranger with eyes
like clear ice,
watching me eat cactus
through his rifle sight

I write in my notebook:
Days left in Vietnam: 334

9. Da Nang

The city of Da Nang
has brick sidewalks
and streetlights that shine
off the harbor

and there are houses,
made of cardboard and wire,
and there are children
in the streets
selling photographs
of a beautiful young girl
fucking a dog

At midnight
on armed forces television
a Vietnamese girl
teaches three new words
of the language
to the American troops

10. In the Jungle

In the jungle at daybreak
I am just waking up
to a slither against my side

A bamboo viper
just passing through

11. Truck

I step out of a tent
where I have been drinking beer
and listening to Jim Morrison
The End,
and turn to see a truck
headed up the road to the hill

Next morning dawn
lights up seven rifles
topped with helmets,
stirring in the wind

12. Search

A girl working in a field
was approached by a patrol
of American marines

who shot her water buffalo
stripped her naked
and fingered
every opening of her body

looking for hidden weapons
and thrills

13. With Pencil

I sit in a bunker
covered with sandbags,
safe from all danger

and with mathematics,
with charts and maps and plans,
and with radio, with paper
and with pencil
I kill

Men die from my penmanship

14. Typhoon

Near the coast of Vietnam
a typhoon rolls in
off the ocean,
tents flattened and waving,
belly on the ground
like manta rays

I stand out in it
soaked more completely
than ever in my life,
watching rats as big as dachshunds
scurry through the whipping grass

Days left in Vietnam: 283

15. Cramps

The monsoon season
comes in autumn,
falling rain to replace
falling leaves

One night I sleep
beneath a leak in a tent
and wake up
in a pool of cold water,
with stomach cramps

And like a girl spread open
for her twentieth rapist,
I watch it begin to rain


16. Poem

A spiral of smoke in the air
marks the collision
of two helicopters

Twenty dead bodies
burning in a rice paddy
chopped by spinning blades

17. Off

A moment after a fire mission
we are notified by radio
that an artillery shell landed
in the center of a platoon
of South Vietnamese soldiers
killing 28 men

We check our guns
and find one of them
180 degrees

18. You Never Know

When it rains in Vietnam
the foot-long
go where it is dry
into boxes
into bunkers
into boots

You never know
when you'll feel the bite,
shooting you up
with a foot's worth
of your last nightmare

19. Cigarette

I hear shots
popping and sparking
in the jungle.

The marine patrol comes in grinning
carrying a North Vietnamese soldier
they shot through the brain,
his head exploded
like a kernel of corn
whatever thought he had
were left in the jungle

They put a lit cigarette
between his limp fingers and said
"Show us your Lark pack!"

He didn't laugh
at their brief message of importance

20. Birthday

Two men were sitting
inside a helicopter
on a quiet Sunday morning
washing the tinted glass windshield

In Illinois, my friend
was having a birthday
and I was thinking of him
when I heard the whistle
of the rocket at dawn

After the explosion
came deep silence
and when I got up from the dust,

I saw the burning helicopter
with two indistinct forms
like flaming monks
in silent protest

21. Reprise

Reading the KIA list
feels like reading the phone book

so many names
of so many strangers

until I read the name
of someone I knew in boot camp,
and I gasp, choking on it,
cannot help hearing that voice
from under the Potomac saying

Has my respect
for joining an organization
in which you will die

Each and every one of you

22. Tracers

There's a hard rain falling
on the road up to Hill 65
just past sundown

I am in the back of a troop truck

trying to breathe
through the sheets of water,
too tired to care
about the tracers
streaming over the truck
in red glares

I bow my head in the rain
and try to sleep

23. Temple

In the deep jungle
the truck passes a temple
more beautiful than any
I ever remember seeing,
which I will see only once
in my life
as the truck goes by

Further up the mud road
a Vietnamese girl
watches the rain

As the truck lurches past
she looks into my eyes
for the only time
in my life
without bitterness
without sympathy
without recognition

24. Rifle Number

"What's your rifle number?"
the sergeant asked.

I told him:
"Seven, sixty-nine,
double-0 seven."

"Don't fuck around," he said,
"gimme your rifle number."
"I just did."

He grabs the rifle
from me and reads:
"Seven, sixty-nine,
double-0 seven."

Days left in Vietnam: 99

25. Epitaph

Malone, the truck driver,
shot in the stomach
on the day he was to go home
died on his nineteenth birthday

26. Civilization

I am in Da Nang
stealing materials
from the US Navy

I step inside a building
looking for a drink of water
and find:
waxed tile floors
electric clocks
air conditioning
water coolers
suits and ties

Oh God, where am I?

I back out
into the sun
and shiver
in the 114 degree heat

27. Mess Duty

The sergeant in charge of mess duty
was proud that all the men
hated him.
That was part of leadership,
he thought

Greasy pots,
scrubbed until midnight
were never quite
clean enough,
the floors, he said,
had to be mopped again
and again
and again
"Why doesn't somebody
frag that bastard?"
the men asked
no one in particular

One night, still and hot,
no one in particular
placed a grenade beneath
the sergeant's pillow,
pin out, waiting for him
and in an hour
the sergeant never had
such meaty blood dreams,
his last dreams

and at dawn could be seen
rubbery chunks of meat
scattered near the mess hall

and a dog
having breakfast

28. Habit

I begin smoking cigarettes

In a month I'm up to
three packs a day

plus a few I bum

29. Bunker

Marijuana dipped in opium oil
makes Lucy in the sky with
diamonds in one claw,
arrows in the other,

more terrifying than the six
North Vietnamese regiments
they said were surrounding
the hill somewhere, out there

"I don't caaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaare!"

screaming down
with that familiar whistle
and exploding
beside a friend of mine
inside the perimeter

At dawn I trudge up
and find a crater
deep as a well
and find psychedelic bits
of shattered brain
smeared across the bunker wall

"One less nigger," says a man,
beginning to laugh

and before that laugh comes out
my rifle is locked and loaded
and on the firing line, and I say
"What was that again?"

He says nothing,
because I'm white,
but not half as white
as he is

30. Whiskey

R&R in Honolulu,
the Eden of the Pacific, they say,
six days to forget the war
and myself

I got to a night club
looking for humanity,
and they refuse me admittance
for being too young
to drink

I go back to my hotel room
where I drink my own whiskey,
until I fall asleep

Who's sponsoring
this cruel dream,
this lost child in Eden?

31. Fifteen Men in Black

Just off Hill 55
fifteen men in black
carrying rifles
run across a wide clearing
toward a tree line

They are the enemy

I load my rifle,
aim in,
and do not fire

32. Meat Dreams

Days left in Vietnam: 0
It is my twentieth birthday

I have died

I have died a thousand times
without ever being part
of a column total,
I have turned on a spit
between dawn and sunset
like a sizzling piece
of meat,
dreaming of digestion
in the aching hungry gut
of America

But why the preoccupation
with meat?
I am as dead
as the copses you tally,
the numbers ringing in my ears,
so why do you not count me
when I stand up to be?

Send me home in a plastic bag,
put me on the proud bird
with the golden tail.
No, I don't need a pillow,
I don't even remember quite
what pillows are,
so I'm sure I won't need one
on this flight

Send me home wrapped in a flag,
wrapped in a bag
with those red, white and blue
printed on the wrapper

And on the twist tie
will you include a note to Mom
explaining my speechlessness,
or should I tell her?

I can still talk, which amazes me,
but not nearly so eloquently
as the language of 2am telegrams
that tell
in twenty-five words or less
that their government issue
human being is no longer
a functional item, we regret
which does not suit
our present needs

Oh say can you see
by the dawn's early light?
I have seen so much
by the light of so many
bleeding, lacerated dawns,
I have been soaked in so many
storms of proud hailstones
big as mortars,
I have thought to myself
so many times
that I was witnessing
the twilight's last gleaming
on those pockmarked hills,
I have taken so many malaria pills,
heard so many brief messages
of impotence,
been bought and sold
over the counter of dead bodies

I am America's sacred cowboy
riding off into the sunset
after a job
Roll out the cannons
and we'll have a blast!

Lyndon Johnson
so far away from
the lodge meeting
in Paris

From the jungle
I watch them discuss
not peace
not even war,
only the shape of the table
beneath the weight
of what everyone had a steak in

And then it was Richard Nixon,
brought to us by
Peace With Honor,
and anyone can see that POWER
begins with P.O.W.

And now the proud bird
with the golden tail is coming
for to calley me home,
dragging me back
over the date line.

But I had a date,
I had a real hot date
with Vietnam
currently 108 degrees
I couldn't break a date like that,
the longest fuck I ever had,
thirteen months long,
a long and heavy
plunging dream of meat

How much difference can there be
between My Lai and My Lay
when the Pentagon is a vagina
and the Washington monument
a phallus?

I wonder when they do it?
When there is a chance
for those two aching organs
to go at it in Washington DC?
Does everyone turn his back?
How else could they produce
so many misshapen children,
so many recurring
American Dreams?


As the jet screams away from the Asian coast
slanting into the ocean black night,
I realize from the cramps
that I am in labor with the new
American Dream,

kicking its way from the blood bath,
clawing through the blind night,
slashing with bayonet through the wall of meat
that contains it,
slashing through the red tape,
through the copies in triplicate,
through the jungle,
slashing through the presidency,
slashing its way out of the womb-like
of America's dying dream
where any boy can grow up to be Burger King
where free stallions are ground up into dog food,
where the cash flow pumps its purple heart
where even the eagle is not safe from slaughter,
that proud bird with the golden tail,
plummeting from its blue sky perch,
crying the death scream of America itself
And as I scream
onto that San Francisco runway,
one-tenth the age of America itself,
I carry with me the dust and the blood,
the fear and the loathing,
I carry with me the mincemeat carcass of my teenage self
and a plastic bag containing the remains
of the American Dream


Robert Borden grew up in the chicago area during the 1950s and 1960s. He served with the First Marine Division in Viet Nam from May of 1968 to June of 1969, mainly in the Da Nang area calculating howto aim large mortars. He was honorably discharged from the USMC in 1969 as a Lance Corporal. Borden began writing poetry in the early 1970s. "Meat Dreams" was written in 1974, more than a year before the end of the war. Despite its similarities, the poem predates the film Apocalypse Now by four years. Borden is also a painter, a prose writer and mural artist. He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee and currently manages an art gallery in New Mexico.

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