Monday, October 19, 2009

Monday's Poetry: "Troop Train" Reflections on the Greatest Generation

by Pa Rock
Proud Son

My father, Garland Eugene Macy, was born eighty-five years ago today in rural Newton County, Missouri. He was born into poverty and grew up, like many rural kids at the time, not realizing just how poor his family actually was. My dad, when just a very young boy, put some of the food on the family table by trapping rabbits. He also made some spending money doing farm work for the neighbors and his numerous relatives who had hardscrabble farms close by.

My grandfather, Charles "Chalk" Eugene Macy, also did farm work and had a couple of milk cows. He had a horse and buggy that he would occasionally drive several miles into Neosho and Seneca, but more often than not he and my grandmother, Hazel Josephine (Nutt) Macy would catch rides into town in the cars of obliging neighbors. The family never owned a car, and Chalk and Hazel never learned to drive.

All of that was happening during the Great Depression. Probably the three definitive periods of my father's life were the Great Depression, World War II, and the post war economic boom in the United States, a time when many of the nation's poor whites successfully transitioned into the middle class.

My dad learned to struggle, and scrimp, and save during the Depression. Many of the values that form his character came from that period. Until quite recently, for instance, he was adamant that the only measure of success was money. He is beginning to soften some on that gage of success now - and can admit that happiness and personal satisfaction are also contributing factors to living a successful life - but money is still mighty important!

Dad attended a small rural school (Westview) that only went to grade ten. When he completed tenth grade, he moved to Neosho, lived with relatives, got a job, and finished high school. In 1942, shortly after graduating, he entered the U.S. Army Air Corps.

The Second World War took my father out of the sticks of Newton County and showed him the world. He served in the European Theatre (seeing both London and Paris) and eventually attained the rank of staff sergeant. (I can still remember his cousins always referring to him as "Sarge" because he was the only one of their number who achieved the status of becoming a sergeant.) Dad was seriously wounded during a training exercise and received the Purple Heart.

When the war ended, my dad rolled up his sleeves and went to work. He owned several businesses over the years, and likes to brag that he and my mother only rented a house one time - and then only briefly. In fact, over the years he accumulated several rental houses of his own. He was successful on his own terms, made lots of money, and has held on to much of it!

Today he lives by himself in a house that is much too large, drives where he needs to go, and relishes the opportunity to get out and "fix" something. He doesn't walk as well as he once did, and I worry that he will suffer a fall that will limit his mobility - but mentally he remains razor sharp. He likes following the stock market and reading westerns.

Today's poem, "Troop Train," is respectfully dedicated to my father. He tells a funny story about getting into some minor difficulty during basic training and, as punishment, having to peel potatoes on a troop train all the way from St. Louis, Missouri, to St. Petersburg, Florida. (I'm certain that it wasn't funny at the time!)

Troop Train
by Karl Shapiro

It stops the town we come through. Workers raise
Their oily arms in good salute and grin.
Kids scream as at a circus. Business men
Glance hopefully and go their measured way.
And women standing at their dumbstruck door
More slowly wave and seem to warn us back,
As if a tear blinding the course of war
Might once dissolve our iron in their sweet wish.

Fruit of the world, O clustered on ourselves
We hang as from a cornucopia
In total friendliness, with faces bunched
To spray the streets with catcalls and with leers.
A bottle smashes on the moving ties
And eyes fixed on a lady smiling pink
Stretch like a rubber-band and snap and sting
The mouth that wants the drink-of-water kiss.

And on through the crummy continents and days,
Deliberate, grimy, slightly drunk we crawl,
The good-bad boys of circumstance and chance,
Whose bucket-helmets bang the empty wall
Where twist the murdered bodies of our packs
Next to the guns that only seem themselves.
And distance like a strap adjusted shrinks,
tightens across the shoulder and holds firm.

Here is a deck of cards; out of this hand
Dealer, deal me my luck, a pair of bulls,
The right to draw a flush, the one-eyed jack.
Diamonds and hearts are red but spades are black,
And spades are spades and clubs are clovers - black.
But deal me winners, souvenirs of peace.
This stands to reason and arithmetic,
Luck also travels and not all come back.

Trains lead to ships and ships to death or trains,
And trains to death or trucks, and trucks to death,
Or trucks lead to the march, the march to death,
Or that survival which is all our hope;
And death leads back to trucks and trains and ships,
But life leads to the march, O flag! at last
The place of life found after trains and death -
Nightfall of nations brilliant after war.

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