Copyright ©2015 by Thomas M. Gannon
A rowhouse in South Philly,
Home of cheesesteaks and hoagies,
Phillies and Flyers and Eagles.
The front steps, cement, four of them
Shared with the house next door.
An enclosed porch, mostly window,
Unheated, cold in the winter.
Below it, two small windows,
Set into the russet brick face of the cellar,
Each with its black metal grate.
The windows open only once or twice a year,
When the coal truck rumbles up and
Backs onto the sidewalk.
My mother opens a window from within.
The driver pulls a grate aside,
Inserts the tongue of his chute
Through the open window
So the coal will flow
Into the bin below.
He pulls a lever and the coal begins to pour,
Thousands of black chunks, a ton of them,
Down the chute and into the bin,
There to rest, quiet, dirty, dusty,
Until my father shovels it
Into the furnace’s fiery mouth
On cold winter nights.
It is my earliest memory.
I cannot explain why it stays with me,
But it does.
The grates on the cellar windows,
They are central to it.
I had had, I guessed, a soft childhood,
The cosseted first-born.
I was on the sidewalk
In front of our house that day
At play with other children.
(Our street teemed with children in those days
When V-mails arrived from an uncle at Anzio.)
Did I trip or was I pushed?
It could have been a push.
Some of the neighborhood children
Thought a push from behind a fun thing.
I do not remember, and it does not matter.
Whatever the cause,
I found myself hurtling, face first,
Towards the cellar windows and their black grates.
Face met grate,
The grate hard, rigid, unyielding,
And with the pain,
Not much pain, but enough,
This small world of mine,
It was not what I thought it to be.
“CCD,” they call it,
for Confraternity of Christian Doctrine
(Whatever a confraternity is),
Part of American Catholicism’s
Modest bowl of alphabet soup,
Religious instruction for Catholic children
Not enrolled in parochial schools,
Released for an hour
From their public schools
In the middle of the school day,
A church-state accommodation.
The children are registered by parents
Keeping a marital promise to raise their children
In the One True Faith.
In this middle-class suburban community,
The CCD teachers are seminarians,
Aspirants for the priesthood
In their early to mid-twenties,
Grateful for contact with human beings
Other than faculty members and each other.
Welcoming the weekly escape
From the seminary’s isolation and
Its intellectual universe of bleak abstraction,
Philosophy courses, so many of them
Channeling Aristotle through Thomas Aquinas –
Essence and existence,
Matter and form,
Substance and accident.
Ontology and epistemology,
Cosmology and natural theology
Compressed into triple theses
Hundreds of years old.
Only a few professors, the daring ones,
Gingerly present insights
From European phenomenology,
From Marcel and Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty,
Wondering if Rome will object.
The highlight of the CCD program:
Individual counseling sessions,
Personal contact with students
Beyond the religious instruction
In which the students show little interest.
“Leave the session open,” the director says:
“Whatever they want to talk about,
Whatever is on their minds.”
A seminarian anticipates his first interview
With a member of his Eighth Grade class.
He thinks of the problems
The young man may face,
Problems that may rise to the surface
An alcoholic father,
A mother sunk in depression,
A tyrannical teacher,
The torments of adolescent sexuality,
Even obstacles to belief in God.
Visions of famed spiritual conversations
Flood his mind –
Ambrose converting Augustine,
Ignatius Loyola inspiring Francis Xavier.
Who knows? This may be another
In that long, graced line.
The student – blond, sharp-featured,
Lean, wiry, athletic, thirteen years old –
Responds without hesitation
To the seminarians’s invitation
To say what is on his mind.
“There is one thing,” the boy says.
The seminarian catches his breath,
Alert for a revelation.
“See, I’m a runner,” the boy says.
“And if I can just get my time
For the eight hundred
Down to two-ten
That would be big, really big.”
“Two-ten?” the seminarian asks, puzzled.
“Two minutes, ten seconds,” the boy explains.
“My time. For eight hundred meters.
I’m at two-twenty now,
But I know I can do better.”
“Oh. Yes,” the seminarian says,
Feeling, not for the first time,
An other-worldly fool.
So, no alcoholic father or
Depressed mother or tyrannical teacher or
Teen-aged sexual angst.
No great crisis of faith or morals,
No dark night of the adolescent soul.
Two-ten in the eight hundred meters,
At thirteen, all that really matters.
Something big, really big.
Fresh out of college,
Economics major, French minor.
Wait for greetings from the President, or
Join the Guard.
In the end, an easy decision.
He joined the Guard.
Six months of active duty, then
Two weeks of summer camp and
A weekend a month for a term of years.
A drag, to be sure, but
Better an armory in the suburbs than
A rice paddy in the Delta,
Hunting for Victor Charlie,
Being hunted by him.
Active duty in Georgia,
At Fort McPherson, Third Army Headquarters,
The Circle A Ranch the soldiers called it,
After the shoulder patch.
George Patton long dead, but
His army still renowned,
Racing across France
In the high summer of Forty-Four,
Relieving the Screaming Eagles
At Bastogne in December.
The duty at McPherson was easy
Once his commanding officer learned that
He could shoot a basketball.
More play than work after that.
Sports a big thing in the Army.
Only one gut-tightening moment.
Detailed as prisoner-chaser,
He stood guard, shotgun in hand,
Over a dozen miscreants
Dispatched from the stockade
To pick up golf course trash.
In his mind a nagging question:
What if one of them ran?
Could he pull the trigger,
Shoot something other than a basketball?
He did not know,
Did not wish to know.
His wish became a prayer:
Please God, don’t let any of them run.
God heard his prayer,
Smiled upon him, and
Was gracious to him.
No one ran.
The clean-up over,
He returned the prisoners to the stockade,
Drenched in his own perspiration,
A great weight lifting from his shoulders as
He handed over the last prisoner.
On his way back to the barracks,
He thought, strangely, of Camus,
Who also knew the absurd.
It is early on a Thursday morning,
And the great weekly scavenger hunt resumes.
In their battered and aged pickup trucks
Small brown hooded men
Prowl the suburban neighborhoods of
One of America’s richest counties.
Their hunt must begin in darkness because
Three waves of county trucks
Will be coming soon
For the yard waste,
The fallen leaves and broken branches,
For the recycling,
The paper and plastic and glass and tin,
And finally for the trash itself.
They have come from the south,
These small brown men,
From Mexico and Salvador and Guatemala,
And they have learned that the streets
Are not paved with gold, but
They have also learned that
Small windfalls can appear at lawn edges,
The no longer wanted,
Perhaps never needed
Stuff of the American middle class.
Tables and chairs and three-wheeled bikes,
Clock radios and television sets,
Toasters and microwaves,
Even the insulated copper wires that
Tied the electronic devices to power.
For the hunters who deal
In scrap metal, there is
The occasional jackpot,
A big gas grill that has
Outlived its usefulness.
To wrestle a big gas grill
Into the bed of a pickup truck
At six o’clock on a Thursday morning,
That is the making of
A very good day.
Church of mismatched towers,
A memorial Mass has just ended,
The mourners clustered in small groups
On the broad, sunlit plaza
In front of the church
Near the monumental Fountain of the Four Bishops,
The plaza bordered by tree-lined sidewalks,
Elegant shops, crowded cafes.
To enter the church is to move
From daylight to semi-darkness,
Where the air is alive with organ music.
No matter that the Mass is over,
The organist continues to play,
His mammoth instrument,
With its five keyboards,
The grandest in Europe.
Beyond the entrance,
Flanking the center aisle,
Two enormous half-clamshells:
Outsized gifts from a fabled city on the Adriatic,
Serving now as fonts for holy water.
Off to the right,
The Chapel of the Holy Angels.
Delacroix worked here,
Painting two giant murals,
Scenes from Genesis and Second Maccabees,
Jacob grappling with one angel,
Two others driving Heliodorus from Jerusalem’s Temple.
On the floor of the nave, the famous gnomon,
The one that tourists, readers of a famous novel,
Come to see, but the brass strip leading to the obelisk,
Catching rays of sunlight,
Tells only of solstices and equinoxes,
Not Priories of Sion.
On either side of the nave,
Beneath the soaring, many-vaulted ceiling,
A museum’s worth of statuary
In front of the supporting columns.
Behind the main altar,
The Lady Chapel,
The floodlit statue of Madonna and Child
Aglow in pink marble.
Beyond the columns on both sides,
Broad aisles lead past side chapels,
A dozen or more,
Named after long-dead saints,
Some fronted by banks of flickering candles,
Evidence of lingering devotion
In the Church’s eldest daughter,
Even as the tide of secularism
Continues its inexorable advance.
At length a side chapel
So dimly-lit it is easily overlooked.
Mort pour la France,
The inscription on a wall says,
And on gray stone panel
After gray stone panel,
Beneath and beside it
As the chapel’s other walls
Wrap around the altar,
Columns of names descend,
Men of the parish, hundreds of them,
Who died for France in the War
To End All Wars.
Behind the names, of necessity
Hundreds of families,
Spouses, children, parents,
Left in desolation
As industrial-scale warfare
On the Marne, the Meuse, the Somme,
In the Artois and at Verdun,
On the Chemin des Dames,
Turned the Luxembourg Quarter
Into a vast plain of mourning.
The panels echo other names,
Those inscribed on the mass graves
That lie to the east,
Dotting the French and Belgian countrysides
From the North Sea to Switzerland,
The Western Front,
Where the butchery took place.
The panels serve too as
Mute witness to the exhaustion
That left the nation too war-weary to resist
When the Germans marched again.
Visitors depart, and the murals and clamshells,
The statuary and the gnomon,
They fade from memory,
But the panels, the long columns of names remain,
A somber reminder that
There is more to this church and its history,
More to France and its history,
More to life itself
Than Fodor’s tells the tourist.
A Monday night in February,
The Verizon Center three-quarters full.
Notre Dame is in town,
But the Fighting Irish have left their game
Back in northern Indiana.
Georgetown’s Hoyas, long, lean, limber,
Take them to school.
Midway through the second half,
The margin reaches twenty.
Hundreds begin the trek upwards,
From their seats to the exit portals.
A pass sails out of bounds, and a whistle blows.
From the scorer’s table, a signal to the referees.
A commercial imperative, a television timeout.
As the teams withdraw to their benches,
A line of people emerges from an aisle
Near the Georgetown student section,
Files onto the court,
Mostly young men, a few young women.
The men, it turns out, are wounded veterans
From America’s Twenty First Century wars;
The women escort the more grievously hurt.
No athletes there, so many of them maimed,
Missing an arm, a leg, even both legs.
They hobble on crutches, propel wheelchairs.
Their artificial limbs, silvery tubes
Suitable for Star Wars robots,
Gleam in the bright arena lights.
Some of the men are unmaimed,
But their frozen faces suggest deep injuries within,
To the brain, to the soul, hidden wounds that lead to
Depression and addiction and suicide.
The public address announcer directs the crowd’s attention
To the file of veterans and their escorts,
Now arranged in a ragged line at mid-court.
He identifies the veterans, names the conflicts
In which they received their wounds.
Noble abstractions, those names, floating in the ether
Above the sand and the heat and the makeshift bombs.
They are honored guests of Georgetown, the announcer says.
He requests a round of applause,
In recognition of their service, their sacrifice.
He makes no reference to the armchair Napoleons,
The think-tank field marshals
Who sent the young men on the court
To places they would call the Sandbox and the Stan,
Where the earth erupted beneath them
In truly great balls of fire and pillars of oily smoke,
Splintering bone, shredding flesh.
The dwindling crowd rises dutifully to its feet,
begins to applaud.
The veterans and escorts, curiously vulnerable,
Stand at mid-court as the applause washes over them.
After ten seconds or so, the applause begins to fade,
Dies out. It has been polite, not too long, not too loud.
Roars following pretty Georgetown baskets have been louder.
For a while, the veterans and escorts linger at mid-court,
As if waiting for something else, but there is nothing else.
At length they realize: the tribute is over.
They turn and straggle off the court,
Retracing the route they took when entering,
Enveloped by anti-climax.
As the last of the file clears the court, a horn sounds.
The players leave their sideline huddles.
The Georgetown cheerleaders begin a new set of acrobatics.
Georgetown’s bulldog mascot mangles a shoebox
Labeled “Notre Dame.”
Another signal from the scorer’s table.
The commercials have ended, for a while at least.
The referees blow their whistles.
Play may now resume.