Please speak in whispers, the old soldier said.
Where you are standing is hallowed ground.
5 E-14. You won’t have to kneel to read his name –
then again, you might.
..........................................At last, in this sudden rain,
I touch them gently,
the white raised letters of your name –
one of 58,000 – across this chosen field.
I see them clearly in another time
sitting behind you in Mrs. Jones’s fourth grade class,
the awkward penciled letters
on a borrowed sheet of Lucky Star notebook paper.
It is January and your bare toes are showing
in shoes you try to hide beneath your desk.
I’m wondering if you forgot your lunch again,
if you will play Indian down by the creek
until the bell rings.
You had no use for Alice and Jerry
who wore shoes in the summer,
who never caught a fish on a crawdad tail,
played hooky, swam naked in the pine hole
or felt the sting of the teacher’s paddle.
You would never go to the senior prom
or have a sweetheart wear your high school ring.
Our principal said you were wasting your time.
Join the armed forces! he roared.
Do something for your country.
At eighteen, you traded the cap and gown
for an M-14 and the uniform of the Third Marines.
Two years later, without Algebra I, Beowulf or Macbeth,
you finished your assignment:
Operation Rough Rider – KIA, Quang Nam.
I stand, mute and unworthy, to salute you.
And with a single backward glance
knowing that because of you – and thousands
named and unknown,
I am free to go, beyond our rain-drenched flag
and this field of sojourning spirits
to places you will never go,
but ever in the shadow of where you have been.