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Saturday, May 23, 2020


by Jimmy Pappas

Source: Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund

Because of this I will weep and wail; I will go about barefoot and naked. I will howl like a jackal and moan like an owl. —Micah 1:8


the page of a book
            can be a leaf
                        can be a butterfly wing

a book in a college dormitory
            on a Saturday night
                        with a young man studying

can be a starting line
            can be a point of departure
                        can be a loaded gun


closing a book
            on a young man studying
                        can be a wormhole

to travel across
            the United States
                         to California

to Vietnam
            to Cambodia
                        to death


I closed the book
on a young man

A bit of light air
grazed my cheek,
pushed me along.

The weight of air
at sea level is 14.7
pounds per square inch,

but what is
            the weight of air
                         with friendship?


How does a young man studying plead?

Like this: Please, guys, I'm in trouble.
I'm gonna flunk out. I need to study.
Please let me do this.

How does a young man ignore his friend's plea?

Like this: Come on, Man. It's Saturday night.
We're going to party. You can study tomorrow.
There's always time.


How do you close a book on a friend who is studying?
Do what I did: Just take the cover and flip it over.


What makes a breeze?
            The warm air of friendship rises.
            The cold air of ignorance settles.


The breeze moved us through an evening of drinking,
through a day of lounging around until thinking became
exhaustion, became another day of forgetting
until you left us and we forgot about what we did.


pages of a book are many butterfly wings


a chance encounter in a Greyhound bus station

you had the smell
            of fear and death

my friend told you not to go
but you were not one to stir a breeze


On May 23rd, 1970, I saw a giant beetle
lying in a Saigon gutter on its back
struggling with its legs to turn over.

That evening I made love to my girl friend
while you were humping the boonies in Cambodia.


I don't know what the breeze told me that night,
but I did know it would always be there at my back.

It whispered in my ear,

                        butterfly wings are leaves

                        leaves of a book are butterfly wings

Something happened. I didn't know what it was.


When I learned about your death,
I could not understand one thing:

How could anyone
            have expected you
                        to kill another human?


I wear my military jacket to get in the mood.
I find your name on the Wall.

I place my
            right knee
            on the ground
I place my
            left arm on
            my left knee

In my right hand I hold a piece of paper
with a handwritten couplet on it:

Over the distance of 10,000 miles I heard your cry
of how very very much you did not want to die.

I set the paper down at the base of the Wall.
I rested my forehead on my arms. I could not pray.
I wanted to cry, but I was unable to.
Instead, I looked up and stared at my reflection.
I placed two fingers against your name on the Wall.

Behind me, elementary school children on field trips
ran through the grass laughing. They have not yet learned
that the world they see today will not be the same world
tomorrow. A breeze will blow and carry them along.
Today they do not understand, tomorrow they will.
They will feel the breeze and understand the butterfly.

One young boy who hangs back,
                        by all the noise,
reminds me of George Fell,
            who must have been
            the gentlest soldier
            who ever lived.

Jimmy Pappas served in South Vietnam during the war as an English instructor with South Vietnamese soldiers in helicopter training. At the same time, George Fell, his friend from college, died in the incursion into Cambodia on May 23, 1970. On that day, commanders announced the death of 190 American soldiers, 500 South Vietnamese soldiers, and 8,000 "enemy troops" in what was described as a "success." One day, several years before that, Jimmy and his friends closed a book on George while he was studying one Saturday night. George flunked out of school, and their paths went in different directions. To this day, George's college friends still love him.