At the Vietnam Memorial
by George Bilgere
The last time I saw Paul Castle
it was printed in gold on the wall
above the showers in the boys’
locker room, next to the school
record for the mile. I don’t recall
his time, but the year was 1968
and I can look across the infield
of memory to see him on the track,
legs flashing, body bending slightly
beyond the pack of runners at his back.
He couldn’t spare a word for me,
two years younger, junior varsity,
and hardly worth the waste of breath.
He owned the hallways, a cool blonde
at his side, and aimed his interests
further down the line than we could guess.
Now, reading the name again,
I see us standing in the showers,
naked kids beneath his larger,
comprehensive force—the ones who trail
obscurely, in the wake of the swift,
like my shadow on this gleaming wall.
I’ve never known why I have always been so interested in the Vietnam War and the Vietnam War-era. It’s probably some combination of the fact that my father and uncle were both in ‘Nam back in the mid-1960s and I am a kid of the 1980s, the decade where it seemed that every other movie being made was about the war. Or maybe it’s because I’ve always known that this war was different than the others that we’d fought in the 20th Century, especially when it came to the homefront and since I’m the product of a couple of Baby Boomers, I have always had an interest in the history of post-WWII America and the rise of the suburbs to prominence in our society (I also watch Mad Men).
Alas, I don’t teach much literature about the Vietnam War, or about America, because being a sophomore English teacher, my curriculum’s focus is on “world” literature (though I admit to playing fast and loose with that). I do, however, teach one of the best war novels of all time, All Quiet on the Western Front, and when I do, I not only bring out poetry from the World War I era, but I make sure to share the above piece by George Bilgere, which was introduced to me by a student a couple of years ago who read it for our Poetry Out Loud competition (and killed it, too).
It is a great way for me to link to literature about war that involves my students’ own country and relatively recent history and also drives home the point I repeatedly make about Paul Baumer–he is only a couple of years older than the students in my class who are reading the book. Plus, there’s the fact that Paul Castle is the big man on campus … THE guy.
“That’s who wound up going to war and dying,” I tell them, trying to toe the line between getting the point across and saying anything that would get me accused of “liberal indoctrination.” For some of them, this helps get the point across, especially since I teach in a school where the idea of the “big man on campus” is still a concept that’s very alive and well; for others, it’s in one ear out the other, as it is with everything, I guess.
But on a holiday like this, it’s important to remember what’s lost in war and the last stanza of the poem speaks to that “larger, comprehensive force” in a way that is so succinct and yet so complex.