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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Flashbacks

The Soul of My Soldier selections

February 2020

These are selections from my book, The Soul of My Soldier, about being a military wife. Some pieces—prose or poetry—were tough to write and some tough, even for me, to read. Some are about my looking at what my perceptions are of what I have see in my husband. Others are from stories and events military spouses, parents, or even children told me. All are from the reflective perspective of me, a military spouse.

The Soul of My Soldier. Familius, Sanger, CA, 2015.

The poem, "Quilt of Valor" is not in The Soul of My Soldier. It is one I wrote later after my husband received a Quilt of Valor, a quilt made for war veterans from World War II to the present. The organization has a website, https://www.qovf.org.


The Camel

Donna said, Tell me about your camel.

It was June 2009 at an inn on Kachemak Bay, Alaska.

My camel. I live in Alaska. She’s from Chicago, the wife of a poet, and it’s her first trip here. People ask me lots of strange questions. Do you have electricity? Running water? An indoor toilet? My camel—do I also have a camel? There used to be camels in Alaska. Camels, mastodons, tigers, and migrating peoples. I have a 145-pound dog, an Akbash, which people ask about. Do I have a camel too?

Seeing my confusion, she said “The camel. The camel around your neck.” She touched her neck.

I touch my gold camel. “My husband brought it back to me when he came home from the Gulf War.” After the now-usual thank you for his service, she asked how he was.

Fine. From this one. He was not fine after two years in Vietnam. As I was partway through a story about him, her eyes brimmed with tears.

In 2004, I decided to wear the camel, another necklace, and the earrings he brought back for me until all are back from Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s my daily reminder we have people at war.

The following spring, and ever since, many people have asked about my camel. Odd because no one had asked in the five years before.

I wear my camel because it was a gift from my husband. I wear my camel so I remember and think about those who are at war. I wear my camel as a tribute to those who serve in a war zone.


The Wall

The Wall
teems with life. People walk
reflections in color
against line after line of names
Ulysses Battle, +John M. Brucher, Rodney M. Chapman,
Virgil C. Combs, John P. Cook, Gerald A. Gray, …

I want to be alone

to respect the names of those who died
in field, en route, in hospital,
in mud of delta, in jungles of the Highlands
under hands of doctors of twenty-eight,
nurses twenty-two and surgical techs in their teens
or surgeons who triaged on the floor in the corner
while others saved someone else's son.

Your name is not there
and that has made all the difference in my life.

Last year Emmanuel, a taxi driver, took
me to The Wall. Go, go see your husband's friends.
I left everything on the seat.
Ran past the walk turned to blurt a cry of tears
as the black granite V cut the gut of ground,
caught my eye, and punched my lungs.
I tipped him all I had, $8 for a $12 fare.
I'd have tipped him $50 if I'd had it.

Today my husband lives
and nameless, countless others too.
I know no name on that Wall but they are
husbands, fathers, brothers, sons,
comrades-in-arms.
In that black granite gut of a V, also lies
my husband’s innocence and that of his comrades.

James Carlson, Layne Clifton, James L. Hull, Paul Sheer…


The Second Wall

A wall holds you,
keeps you in one piece
for others to see—

until the day our two-year-old
grandson said
“I love you Grandpa Goose.”

You wept at his
unconditional
love.


Flash of Light

We live in a small, 900 square-foot house in the middle of a forest. Our kitchen appears big because it has five windows and two doors, but the floor space is 10 by 10 feet.

My husband and I stood at the stove as I checked the homemade noodles and he tended the stir-fry of smoked black cod and vegetables. It was late fall and we’d already had a few feet of snow. Suddenly, the deep new snow silently fell off the roof, reflecting the kitchen lights as it went down. It would land with a thud, but not before Robert responded to what he saw. He startled.

“Wow,” he said. “I thought that was the flash that you see right before a bomb goes off.” He paused then turned to me and said with that twinkle in his eyes, “Now I don’t want you to think I have PTSD because of that.”

I teased, “Whatever would make me think that?” We bumped hips with a grin and leaned into one another as we put the finishing touches on dinner.

It’s been 43 years since Viet Cong bombs exploded around him. Left alone and not reconditioned, Pavlovian conditioning hangs around for a long time…a lifetime. I hadn’t noticed any flash. Nor did I know till then that there was a flash of light a fraction of a second before a bomb explodes.


How Boys Become Men

When the soldier cries, he sheds no tears.

I.

Your mother thought you were a pyromaniac.
A friend assured her all boys are
until they turn into men
who build good fires.
Watch him stand before his primal flame.

Home on leave, you had your 19th birthday in Iraq.
You drive with an M-16 on the floor of the front seat
leaning up against the passenger door.

Terrifying the town
But no one asks you why

You stop your car to talk to me.
How good it is to see you,
How’s your family? You ask.
How are you? I ask.

I killed a 12-year-old boy.
It’s good to be back.
I killed a 12-year-old boy.
I’m home for two weeks.
I killed a 12-year-old boy.
I’m going to the park.

Home on leave. A week ago you were in Baghdad streets
shooting at people, being shot at.
You did not leave those streets when you stepped off
the plane into the woods of Alaska.
What do you see behind the trees in the forests you played in as a boy?

You’re 19. I weep for you
until you learn to weep for yourself.
Till then, World, hold him in the palm of your heart.

II.

Your mother tells me you guard a colonel.
That must be safe, I reassure her. No one’s going to let anything happen to a colonel.

Home on leave, you display six photos of buddies killed.
I sly a shot to your mother, mocking myself, as I slow my walk, [no break]
Seeing I was dead wrong.

Shot glass in front of each photo.
You place the seventh glass
—or is it the first—
in the middle before the unit emblem.

You fill each one.
Down a toast for your comrades from the shot glass in the middle.
Go to the first photo. Say something about him.
Offer a silent prayer. Pour his shot on the ground.
Down the row in one more farewell to each.
I wish their families could see you honor them.
I glance at my husband, a three-year two-war veteran—
your mentor you say, calling your mother from Iraq for his phone number.
Tears brim his eyes.

I went to Russia and Ukraine a month later.
Told several in both countries. Ah! The mothers nodded,
That is how our soldiers honor their dead in the field and once home:
Slavic tradition in a US Army platoon.

Mourn the dead
Bring the troops home.
I do not want to see mothers, sisters, wives, daughters,
brothers, fathers and sons weep
Till they learn to nest their tears in the palms of their hearts.


Salt Licks

There has to be a better road
than to send young men—
flowers flourishing at the beginning of bloom—
to war
to return home to bawl like babies
or sob like a mother who has just lost her child.

I grow weary of tending my husband’s tears
in buckets and jars around the house.


Innocence Shattered

In memory of Jim Carlson

Out of uniform
he sat on the edge of his childhood.
Wept.
Shook
wept more.

Where is the boy who stood in the sand
in awe of the desert, ocean,
vastness of space?
He sits on the edge of his bed
mourning his friend.

Jim lay wounded—
he asked for Robbie.
The Army did what they could
to get his hometown buddy there, but
as Robbie walked to the helicopter word came

Jim had died.

Once home six months later,
he walked to visit the grieving mother.
Did he die for a reason, she asked.
He could not answer because there is
no reason in randomness.

He crept home, his soul too
weighted to walk, sat in the bathroom
three days sobbing.
What was its purpose? Why did he die?
Why do I live? His family,
not knowing what to do,
remained downstairs,
waited for him to get off the edge of his precipice,
waited for the boy they had sent to war to come home.
But the tears never dried. They just stopped
running down his cheeks.


The Weight of

As he stands in the OR
lifts the weight
of a dead body off the table,
his hands
feel grey, detach from him.

I sit at my desk
reach my hands to its surface
stop above the life-
less body in the war zone’s
surgery. I lift him
as my pale young hands
—immersed in aura—
shimmer,
detach from my arms.
He takes my hands with him
to float beyond today.


Sleep

A small, orphaned Afghan girl
in an orange top and shorts
bears a half moon scar across her shaved scalp.
She sleeps against his shoulder and neck.

He sleeps, too, in a large soft blue plastic armchair
a bulk of an Air Force Master Sergeant who
comes every night to hold
the little girl who whimpers in anyone else’s arms.

How do we understand love spoken only through touch
—across language and culture?
Does he have a daughter this age?
Will he dream about the little Afghan girl
as his child grows older?
How do we know whom to trust when we sleep?


IEDs

I stopped by Mary Anne’s house to pick up something. She is the mother of one of five from our town of 365 souls deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. While there, I asked her how Chris was.

“Oh, fine.”

“What’s he doing now?” He had been part of a small group guarding a colonel, but I knew his MOS had changed.

“ He’s still disarming IUDs.”

“IED, Mary Anne! IED! Improvised Explosive Device. An IUD is an intrauterine device,” I said still laughing.

“Oh whatever,” she replied.

It took her more than a year to tell Chris. I think she should have told him while he was still in Iraq; those fellows need all the humor they can get. When she finally told him, he looked at her, shook his head, and smiled slightly.

A few years have passed and Mary Anne and I still do not see one another without a chuckle. No hi, just a laugh or chuckle.


Comforting the Remnants of My Soldier

The rats of war
chewed pieces out of you.
I hold you at night
Covering the holes with my skin.


Universality

It’s larger than our marriage
larger than the sum of us.
The universe walks into our room,
Lies down on the bed—
Takes form as
mastodon, whale or planet,
wraps around the in and out of us,
never leaves.
Curls in the corner and naps
as we walk our daily lives.


Blinders

Brown leather blinders—

Drive the block ahead.
Thank God the road hasn’t changed.
Red light—
Turn left when green. Turn left when green…

A horn blasted.

Oh.
I’m still here
He is gone.

Let me cry against your pillow

when I get home from work.
I haven’t changed the pillowcase:
It still smells of you.


Quilt of Valor

His eyes glaze—
he returns to Pleiku––Dong Tam—
to schoolmates who did not come home—

He left the room—returned to the jungle.
Did not hear what the quilt maker started to say.
His face turned red from heat.
His wife knew better than to interrupt.
She saw his actions controlled, his urges squelched
as he trailed back—
thanked the quilt maker, but
No thank you, someone needs it
more than I.

Would you like to see it before she leaves? his wife asked.
It’s made? She brought it? Yes, I’ll see it.
It’s beautiful! Yes, I’ll keep it. I thought it would be
Full of military…the 325th and…and things and symbols.
But take off my oak leaf and caduceus.

His wife jumped at the order.
Put valor and honor back in the heartwood box
secreted in company with his other retired insignia,
the box of honor that sits in her study,
the heartwood box he does not know she keeps.

I am honored. He crossed the room
to shake the quilt maker’s hand,
moved to hug his appreciation.

He took his quilt to his childhood home,
the home he deployed from—returned to—
placed it carefully
on the guestroom bed.
Chose peaceful paintings for the walls as
one more part of him came home.

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