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.

11 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…

    Reply
  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.

    Reply

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