American Poem

Today, he's a faceless gray-headed American who pays his taxes and plays with grandkids. He is a forgotten hero in a ten-gallon hat. A God’s-honest patriot.

Jim is wearing a cowboy hat, suspenders. Sometimes he sells tomatoes on the side of an old two-lane highway.

He’s sitting in a folding chair. His brim is pushed upward. Jim is smoker-skinny, and his belt looks too big.

He is my friend’s uncle, and his tomatoes look suspicious.

“Are these HOME-grown?” I ask.

“Yessir.”

The tomatoes are pink and blemish-free. They look like industrial candle wax.

“Did YOU grow them?” I ask.

He winks. “Friend of mine.”

But of course.

We talk. He’s been wanting to talk. He heard I’m a writer. He tells me he is a writer.

Since the third grade, he’s written over seven hundred poems. Maybe more.

His poems are mostly for his own reflection. Though he’s written poetry for local papers—a few funerals and birthdays.

He recites one. It’s about rows of peanuts, blue skies, and a dying mother. My kind of poetry.

But he never got a chance to pursue a career in writing. When the Vietnam draft enacted, he joined. Instead of poetry, he learned how to jump out of airplanes.

“Killing changes you,” he says, “You’re trained to think of your enemy as nothing but a target, not human. Just how it is.”

All I can do is nod.

“But then,” he goes on. “You’re back home, you get to thinking about their mothers and such. And it messes with you.”

When he arrived stateside, he wasn’t the same. The guilt was crippling. Not for killing, but for surviving. His best friends met their ends before his eyes.

His first week home, he slept outdoors. Sleeping inside made him nervous.

And he had no interest in writing—it was hard enough just making conversation at a supermarket.

So he read.

He tells me his favorite book is the King James Bible. His other favorite authors: Whitman, Eliot, and Emerson.

You don’t meet many cussing cowboys who read Whitman for kicks.

One night, while reading, he had an idea.

“Decided I didn’t wanna be ME anymore. I wanted to be reborn. Figured, ‘Hell, I’m gonna give myself a clean start.’”

So he started calling himself Jim.

His whole life, he’d been Robert, but he’d worn out that name overseas.

He laid Robert’s dog-tags to rest and re-baptized himself into a normal life.

He got on with living, and it wasn’t easy. He wrote a little; cried a lot. He got married. He had a family.

Today, he’s a faceless gray-headed American who pays his taxes and plays with grandkids. He is a forgotten hero in a ten-gallon hat. A God’s-honest patriot.

And now he puts the shuck to out-of-town travelers, selling factory-farm-grown tomatoes for homegrown prices.

I ask if he has a favorite poem.

He recites one without even thinking. He says the lyrics have helped him survive the hardest periods of his life. And battlefields.

His voice is slow. I’ve heard this poem before. It’s one I’ve always liked.

The last line is my favorite:

“For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.”

Amen.

18 comments

  1. Lynn - May 3, 2017 1:57 pm

    I knew a Robert, too, that wore that name out in Vietnam. He died 13 months ago from Agent Orange health problems. Rest In Peace, Robert.

    Reply
  2. Martha - May 3, 2017 1:57 pm

    I swear, Sean, every word you write makes me ponder…

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  3. Chris Darden - May 3, 2017 2:15 pm

    Makes me wonder how many poets I run into every day. Great story.

    Reply
  4. Claudia - May 3, 2017 2:43 pm

    I read you every day…. often aloud to my husband… a former English teacher. We both marvel at your insights and the simple elegance of your writing. I am often in tears by the time I get to the end of your musings. I am so glad our mutual friends Lyle and Sherry introduced you to us. God Bless you.

    Reply
  5. Jennifer Mary Lee - May 3, 2017 3:41 pm

    Your words keep me focused, and grounded. And thankful. Bet you bought a tomato anyway!

    Reply
  6. Judy Riley - May 3, 2017 4:02 pm

    Gave me chills!!!

    Reply
  7. Diann - May 3, 2017 6:10 pm

    I just recently started reading your posts and now I look forward to them. I love the part, “Today he’s a faceless gray-haired American……”. Lord let us never forget those heros and their sacrifices so that we can do things like this- the freedom for you to write and us to enjoy. Thank you for reminding us about the freedom we so take for granted.

    Reply
  8. Sam Hunneman - May 3, 2017 8:31 pm

    What a wonderful way to turn things around around. Long live Jim!

    Reply
  9. Cathi Russell - May 3, 2017 9:28 pm

    I think Jim sounds like a great guy!

    Reply
  10. Bobbie - May 4, 2017 1:11 am

    I have one of those lost souls for a hubby….I totally understand “Jim”.

    Reply
  11. Elizabeth - May 4, 2017 2:38 pm

    Well Sean, this one got to me. First I got goose bumps and then I got teary eyed. I was born in ’58 so my younger years were spent watching scenes of the Vietnam War on our black and white tv. I didn’t lose any of my generation to the war firsthand. But I know adults who served who had childtrn, and I had teachers who served who lost friends. Firsthand I’ve seen the effects of this war on the adults and on their children. I hear the stories of their parents nightmares keeping them up half the night and the physical struggling with their parents as they thrash. Then, as if the war wasn’t enough of a hell, these brave young men come home to be shamed and spit on. The human race astounds me with how evil we are to one another instead of trying to be uplifting. At least I find a daily dose of uplifting with your sweet stories where you actually take the time to talk to people and touch our hearts with their stories. Meanwhile, I will continue to pray my favorite poem that says, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

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  12. Ann - June 27, 2017 9:52 am

    I love your stories of our LA lower Alabama and North Florida. My father was one of those Roberts in your story. His nightmares came from Korea. He passed in Dec. Of 2015. He still had nightmares of the war until his death. My mother could not sleep in the same bed for fear of his fighting in his sleep. Keep on writing your insightful stories.

    Reply
  13. Deanna J - June 27, 2017 12:47 pm

    I have a Robert, he is my brother, God took his hand and carried him through!

    Thank you!

    Reply
  14. Peggy Black - June 27, 2017 12:48 pm

    Thank you, Sean. So much damage is done by killing in war. Philosophers and medical folk have written reams about the damage of Vietnam, but your simple “It messes with you” says it all. Common folk and their deeds are forgotten, but the poet loving, faith filled souls live on.

    Reply
  15. Sylvia Williams - June 27, 2017 12:50 pm

    Sean,
    This one reminds me of my neighbor across the street. Bill, was a retired Army Ranger Colonel who loved and fought for his country. Looking out my kitchen window every morning, I watched Bill salute the flag that waved on his front lawn. When it rained he proudly and correctly brought the flag down but only until the rained stopped. Afterwards, he proudly put the flag back in the wind and in its proper place. I remember watching Bill teach his 4 year old grandson how to salute the flag, It made me smile. I told his wife after he passed, how I watched Bill out my kitchen window salute the flag and teach his grandson respect for the flag. She misses him everyday and so do I. Everybody needs a Bill to brighten their day.

    Reply
  16. Leo Larkin - June 27, 2017 3:33 pm

    My daughter-in-law, Lisa, sent me you writing. She is married to my son, Shane Adkins, singer-song-writer and international champion finger style-guitarist. I am also a musician and writer. I loved your writing and would like to have it sent by email. My name is Leo but I am a lady. I have lots of stories about that as my daddy raised me like a son.

    Thank you so much,

    Leo Larkin

    Reply
  17. Sandra - June 27, 2017 4:37 pm

    It’s mind boggling how many faceless gray-headed Americans there are out there paying taxes, playing with grandkids, feeling forgotten. Heros? Maybe not in the traditional sense of the world. Patriots? Definitely. God bless those who fought then, like Robert. We owe you so, so much. God bless those who fight now with their vote(s) to maintain our country’s most precious ways of life: today, tomorrow, and every day after that.

    Reply
  18. Don Chancy - June 27, 2017 11:13 pm

    Sean. Thank you for bringing back so many cherished memories from my growing up in Slocomb. Makes me realize again my parents did out thought. I share my thoughts with you that are so much part of that experience. Hope it will add some smiles to your day as you have to mine.

    I know it’s almost Mothers Day and with honor and respect for my deceased mom that I love, I have many thoughts of my father. I woke up thinking about things he taught me.. some without his even knowing. Like, smoking is not good for you, especially Camel unfiltered stolen from his pack. The school principal didn’t know anything about spanking. A 56 Ford with 3 speed on the column and overdrive will do 110 in the right hands around the circle in Dothan, Al.
    He was a lineman for the same company that I have been working with for many years. Serving people was important. Didn’t matter if they had a pedigree or not. That’s still true. Climbing a cresote pole was as important as climbing the corporate ladder. Sometimes, the only light you have to see what you need to do, is 40 feet below you on top of a green and yellow truck, but you still do the work. The customer is always right, except when they are wrong and you gently make sure they understand that. The ability to catch fish with a cast net or a cane pole is very satisfying and rewarding. You can feed many people from a cast net, with a little bread. Shucking oysters around an outdoor fire when it is cold can’t be beat. Shooting doves and quail in a field or pine thicket in South Alabama is a good way to learn to focus. Caged bird’s don’t have the heart.
    Our message at church this past Sunday was from John 10. The sheep know the Shepard. The Shepard works to provide and protect the sheep. That was his calling, not to sit back and let someone else try to steal his flock. He served. This was Jesus. He is the King. He is the leader by being a servant. My calling has to be to the same to finish this journey called life.
    Dad didn’t know his life lessons to me and my brothers were making us realize God wants a servant heart in all we do. To be a servant, a Shepard, is the greatest thing we can do.
    Thanks Dad

    Reply

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