Author: DB Cox
Location: South Carolina
DB Cox is a blues musician/writer from South Carolina. His writing has appeared in Underground Voices, Thunder Sandwich, Dublin Quarterly, Aesthetica, Bonfire, Gator Springs Gazette, Heat City Review, Snow Monkey, Southern Hum, Southern Gothic,
He has had three books of poetry published: Passing For Blue
(published by Rank Stranger Press), Lowdown,
and Ordinary Sorrows
(published by Pudding House Publications). Main Street Rag has just published his first
full-length poetry collection, Empty Frames
Road Like a River
The gray bus drifts up an off-ramp somewhere outside Skidmore, Missouri. We're moving toward the second show of the day. Two is nothing new. It's 1968, and business is good. Behind me, the trumpet man blows quietly into his horn, warming up. He has his solo down cold—all heart & soul. Miles couldn't play Taps any sadder. All of our moves are choreographed in One Of The Few-Dress Blue precision.
How many miles have we made in the last month? How many hours on this gray bus, riding the blue highways of Tennessee, Arkansas, and Missouri, burying fellow marines shipped back home, back to the "World," in flag-draped caskets, courtesy of the KIA Travel Bureau.
Kids from Pleasantville, Tennessee; Evening Shade, Arkansas; Skidmore, Missouri; unfortunate sons who had died in alien-sounding places like Pleiku, Pleime, Dak To, My Khe, My Lai, An Loc. Mostly low-ranking grunts: privates, lance corporals, and corporals who never lived to see their twenty-first birthdays. Killed by automatic weapons, artillery, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, mines, booby traps, and "friendly fire," the military euphemism of all euphemisms.
One friendly fire casualty that we're burying has hair down to his shoulders, something unheard of in the Corps. We're all curious about this hippy marine, so we ask the guy who had escorted the body back home about this monumental breach of USMC protocol.
The story was that no one knew much about him. He spent most of his time in the bush, and had the reputation of being one of the finest killing machines the Marines had ever turned out. Whenever he did venture into base camp, no one had the balls to talk to him about haircuts, or much of anything else. The rumor was that the friendly fire mishap had been deliberate—a setup. Dr. Frankenstein had lost control of his monster.
After you've been doing military funerals for awhile, the dead faces all start to look the same, with all of the essential information removed: face pale and shiny like a dime store doll, beard beginning to break through the makeup, life sucked out of the eyes, gray-blue fish belly lips. Gazing into a coffin was like looking into a dark crystal ball. You start to realize that you might be catching a glimpse of your future.
Sometimes I would try to shut out the whole picture. I'd think about crazy things, like Roadrunner cartoons on a Saturday morning—Wily Coyote catching hell, electrocution, burnt to ashes, falling from cliffs, flattened out on the road, dynamited into tiny pieces that hang in the air for a second, then fall apart like a broken plate, then he's up again and whole and back in the game.
Sometimes I leaned out so far I almost slipped over the edge. If you're around them long enough, the dead will start to speak. They'll say, "Put yourself in our place."
We are sitting on the bus in front of the Mount Zion Baptist Church, in the small town of Kingsland, Arkansas, just killing time, waiting for the service to start, when the father of the deceased marine steps on the bus. The dark suit he's wearing shows about three days worth of wrinkles, and you can't miss the strong smell of liquor. He stands in the aisle, bloodshot eyes scanning the seats. He has an expectant look on his face, as if he might find his son sitting next to one of his dress-blue comrades. After a few seconds, he seems to regain some composure, and with a noticeable effort says, "Thank you all for coming." He turns to step off the bus, and then stops. He looks back at us and says loudly enough so we'll all hear, "It's all madness, you know, the whole damned thing." Then he's gone.
I believe each of us saw our own father's face, and heard our own father's voice in those few words. I'm also sure this man caught a glimpse of his son in every one of our faces, and that last line he added was just for us.
Later, at the cemetery, we get the news that he has collapsed while getting into the family limousine. With his wife along, the driver heads straight for the nearest hospital. We had to go on with the funeral without them. After we've folded the flag into a sharp triangle, I present it to the Lieutenant, and he places it on one of the vacant chairs at graveside.
The bugler plays Taps in the distance—echoed notes falling like slow rain on an empty star-spangled folding chair. Then just when I think things can't get any worse, a long-winded Baptist preacher tries his best to make it seem like this kid's death was some kind of "holy war" sacrifice.
"Oh Gawd, help us to learn to look to you in these troubled times. Help us to better understand the death of this young man—a Christian soldier in service against thine enemies ... nada, nada, blah, blah ..." Colossal bullshit.
I know this will be the one that will remain in my brain. Circumstances so grim that years from now, when I replay this scene, it will seem like an old black and white movie—one of those life-changing days when you give up things you can never get back.
After it's all over, I stand and look out over the well-kept terrain of the cemetery. A passing breeze lifts dead leaves from the grass and drops them against the ordered rows of headstones. I know that I have spent too much time balanced on a ledge of indifference, making vain attempts at trying to stamp some kind of meaning on this pointless game of a thousand cuts, where the only difference is who gets the grease.
Sooner or later, you get the picture, something you've really known all along. Nobody's kidding nobody about where this highway goes.
We climb back on the long, gray bus and we're gone. We used to think we had it made out here—always in motion. Everybody knows you can't hit a moving target. Just keep the conscience clean and don't fool with the machine. Now we understand that this road is like a river of black water—pulling us on, farther and faster, all bound for that vanishing point, somewhere in the heat-shadowed distance.