Volume 5 Number 1-4
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Poetry by Dale Ritterbusch
When It's Late
Sometimes, when it's late
and the house is asleep
except for me
pacing from room to room,
I walk to the backyard,
look out across the ground
by a distant streetlamp.
I remember nights
in some Asian bar
drinking a few exotic beers
that sweat quickly
through the khaki's
We'd walk out late
go back to the base
sleep off as much
of the war as we could.
When you were killed
I drank for days
made love until I
anything but the hot
sun, the red dust
Now, this late
under the circling stars
I see you walking
in the shadows
of these trees
the backyard playthings
of my daughter:
You pick them up--
they are your daughter's,
you have a wife
the rest of her life
with you: It is
this love I see
lost in the shadows
of this night, my
mind turning back
with the chill
of late spring.
This is the loss, the love
I bury each night in the shadows,
turning a spadeful of war
over and over, and always,
in the vigilant spin of this earth
digging it up before morning.
Bien Hoa, 1968
We were talking in this bar
after the fight broke up: music,
the bar girls, the heat--it was
easy to set someone off; it was
like everyone was primed, a charge, a claymore
like that could be set off by static.
Anyway, he said this was something,
ordered another round; "I love this place,"
he said, "just extended--again." He said
for three years before Nam he'd had
training companies; it was "Police
the company area, sergeant," or
"Make sure the troops have the right
pair of boots on" (the ones with the dots
or the ones without), or "Paint the
day-room, sarge," or "Give 'em a
surprise inspection." He'd make them see
the training film twice, just so they got it.
Once he spent two weeks dealing with all
the flak over an NCO who'd hassled
one of the trainee's wives; she'd complained to
the battalion commander. Anyway, no more
training; "Isn't this great?" he said--
the dancer flashed a shot of her pelt. I said, "Yeah,"
and went to the john. I pissed the last two beers
and a hand grabbed my cock, asked if I wanted some
help--I said, "No thanks, maybe next time, but
I'll buy you a drink." She was cute and her
hand felt good. I went back to the bar, ordered
the major a drink, and the chick, and myself.
He yelled, "Isn't this great!"--again. She put her arms
around his waist, shouted something in his ear
over the music. I didn't think anything at the time.
He shouted, as the girl pushed her tongue in his ear,
"I love this fucking war; if it wasn't
for this fucking war, I'd go crazy."
He says, "You've never seen anything
unless you've seen a man hit in the chest
with an RPG round."
I said, "I guess not," and drank on
into the heavy Asian night, weighted and packed.
I thought how many times you could say,
"You've never seen anything unless you've
seen..." and then go on, just fill in
- an F-4 Phantom drop napalm along a tree-line
- an illumination round light up the perimeter
- as night probes catch in the outer defenses
- body bags lined up at the edge of the pad,
- rotors rippling the plastic as they descend
And I said, long after that night, after I'd felt their
names carved in that stone, "You've never seen anything...
For CPT. Paul Bowman KIA VN, 1969
Before you went
we sat at the bar in the Officer's Club
and drank and talked--you said the EOD
course wasn't challenging enough, the war
was going badly, many mistakes were being made.
We talked of tactics till our minds wore out
and then of women--not breasts or legs--not the
common concerns of those lieutenants
sitting over there eyeing that pretty waitress.
We talked of shoulders
and the smooth line that went down the eye
the way that last farewell liqueur
went down our throats. Then two weeks later
you were dead--a letter said it all.
I've hated mail the long years since.
I still love a woman's shoulders--
I watch them always, always;
and some nights when I lie with my wife,
I curl my hands around her shoulders and pull tight--
and see your hands, your heart and lung all shot away,
and somewhere, shoulders, shivering--with your kiss.
Dale Ritterbusch teaches in the English Dept., Univ. of Wisconsin--Whitewater. A collection of Ritterbusch's poetry, Lessons Learned, was published by Viet Nam Generation, Inc. in 1995.