Vietnam, 2011

Cu Chi military cemetery
Cu Chi military cemetery

The shape of military grave markers will vary from culture to culture, but the common denominator in each military cemetery is the endless, numbing repetition of those markers, receding to a vanishing point at the horizon.

I have heard several variations on the story, but broadly, in 1868, a group of Southern women laying flowers on Confederate graves decided to also honor the Union dead, left so far from home. Word of this got around and the conciliatory nature of the act led to a poem by Frances Miles French, “The Blue and the Gray,” the last stanza of which is:

No more shall the war cry sever,
    Or the winding rivers be red;
They banish our anger forever
    When they laurel the graves of our dead!
        Under the sod and the dew,
            Waiting the judgment-day,
        Love and tears for the Blue,
            Tears and love for the Gray.

Memorial Day became a national remembrance for all those who made the ultimate sacrifice. That story reminded me of seeing this military cemetery near Ho Chi Minh City, for thousands of Viet Cong dead, with a bench for resting, placed by American soldiers who fought them there.

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Saguaro NP, AZ, 2000

Growing up in the exurban Savannah area, I lived in a world of green–lots of trees large and small, forests and tree farms–and blue–skies, and water from rivers to marsh to ocean. In the 1950s, my formative years, the morality tales of the day were disguised as western motif books, movies, and TV shows, most often scripted with a White Hat/Black Hat ethical simplicity. Maybe some of our complications today derive from a failure to teach ambiguity.

That sort of philosophizing, though, is from later in life, looking back. At the time, the lens of that genre was showing me something else, an alien landscape that was often red or purple or brown, with vast expanses of open space, and great variations in elevation, with supernatural flora. I was fascinated by the western landscape. I longed to see it, be in it.

Now, all these years later, I have had many opportunities to see much of it, in its many forms–deserts to buttes, canyons to mountains, Death Valley to Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon to the Tetons, Devil’s Tower to Custer’s last stand–and I am still fascinated by it, but the real experiences of it have taught me something the passive viewing could never have driven home. It can be a long way between water, even with a motorized vehicle and a multitude of gas station/convenience stores, and how dangerous and unforgiving a place it can be. Also, growing up in the high humidity of the southeast, I sometimes feel I must have grown hidden gills to adapt to breathing moisture. The result is that, in the arid air of the southwest, I can do about a week before my dry, cracking skin becomes rough and sometimes painful.

We all live with a point of view, and having that flipped upside down can be good for the soul, but a little bruising to the ego.

I was leading a small group photography workshop in Monument Valley, with a Navajo guide. As we chatted we discovered we had served in the military about the same time, me in the Army, he in the Marine Corps, based at Camp Lejuene, NC. He said he was glad to get out and get back home; I understand the draw of “home” no matter what or where, but I also heard some dislike of North Carolina in his comments, and asked why. He said, “Too many trees. Out here, I can see what’s coming from a long way off.”

I get that.

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Fort Myers, FL 1944-45

She would have been 17 or 18 when she made this photograph, a “pin up” for her soldier, so far away in India. At 16 she had met and married a soldier from Buckingham Field, an Army Air Corps airfield just outside Fort Myers. He was 26. I’m sure some eyebrows were raised, but, true to their vows, only death parted them, and, by their beliefs, reunited them.

When Dad got his orders for India he was first sent to Maine, then NYC, and then Miami Beach, after starting in Fort Myers. Mom immediately made plans to get there and stay until he left, taking the Greyhound (or it might have been Trailways) to Miami. But she missed the last shuttle to the beach for the evening.

(In hindsight it doesn’t seem like it was that long of a list, but Mom had a few “absolutely not, under any circumstances” scenarios set down for me. Hitchhiking was high up the list.)

So, stuck in Miami in the early evening, in a town full of servicemen heading off to war, she stuck out her thumb. A 2nd Lt. driving a convertible stopped and picked her up, drove her to where she knew Dad was hanging out, went inside, and said, “Sgt. Durrence I have something for you outside.”

They got a room, and wound up having a few more weeks together; he would report for duty every morning. She knew he was shipping out the night he didn’t come home, but they managed to say goodbye through the post fence, and then didn’t see each other again for almost a year and a half, until the war was over.

Happy Mothers’ Day Mom.

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Haarlem, The Netherlands, 2021

Street art

One of the various newsletters and digests I read most days is “The Free Press” on Substack. I like it well enough to pay a voluntary subscription fee. Articles most days are from a variety of individuals and viewpoints, usually informative even when I don’t agree, but my favorite two days are regular features–on Friday Nellie Bowles does a recap of the week’s articles, with just the right (to me) balance between humor, snark, and just flat out calling BS sometimes, and on Sunday Douglas Murray does “Things Worth Remembering,” about poetry.

Today’s (Sunday 5/7/2023) poem “The Truly Great” was from Stephen Spender, about whom Murray says, “If his own poetry has any life after him, it will probably be this single poem. Which is fine. One poem is more than most people will leave behind. Perhaps it is appropriate that a poem about great poets should come from someone who must have known he was not among their number.”

It reminds me of my admiration for artists of all media who resist the efforts the world throws at them to make them normal, whatever that means to them, whatever it costs them.

I think continually of those who were truly great.

Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history

Through corridors of light, where the hours are suns,

Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition

Was that their lips, still touched with fire,

Should tell of the Spirit, clothed from head to foot in song.

And who hoarded from the Spring branches

The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.

What is precious, is never to forget

The essential delight of the blood drawn from ageless springs

Breaking through rocks in worlds before our earth.

Never to deny its pleasure in the morning simple light

Nor its grave evening demand for love.

Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother

With noise and fog, the flowering of the spirit.

Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields,

See how these names are fêted by the waving grass

And by the streamers of white cloud

And whispers of wind in the listening sky.

The names of those who in their lives fought for life,

Who wore at their hearts the fire’s center.

Born of the sun, they traveled a short while toward the sun

And left the vivid air signed with their honor.

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