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In memory of Robert Malcolm Christian Jr.
1945-1969 (Killed in Vietnam)

2002-2003 Kris Rosenberg

"Thirty Two" from Listen to the Warm
by Rod McKuen

Remember and March
First aid.
Last rites.
The hour-to-hour way we live.
God is in our minds every time we hit the trench;
an hour later true-time takes over
and fills us up with love remembered
or good-time love to come.

I killed a man today.
The only thing I'd hurt before
was you one time while making love
and then I only kissed too hard.

How does it feel to kill?
Like dying lonesome and unloved yourself,
Like cutting living grass,
or losing all your marbles
in a match that wasn't right.

They are not dummies
on an infiltration field
the silent enemy breathes too.
Someone should have told me that
before I ran that endless field.

When true-time takes me over now
after God has held my mind awhile,
I think of love. I love my fellow man
perhaps a little more today.
Tomorrow I'll go gently then
and give the other side a chance.

(Random House, New York, 1967)


Who Can Waltz When a March Plays?

"July 9, 1967
Marine Corps Bootcamp
San Diego

..."They let us go to church today. Most of the guys cried. I had tears just streaming off my nose into my lap during the silent prayer. I don't know what it was that got into everybody; maybe that it was the first chance we had to think in two weeks; maybe the thought of church back home, and the thought of looking at several hundred young men and knowing a lot of them are going to die for something they don't know much about...knowing we are being conditioned and trained to do something without thinking..." do something without thinking...tough for a boy brought up to think for himself...

When he was a little boy he collected snakes and frogs and birds...not dead things mounted on wood, but live things he could get to know, injured creatures he could take in and commune with. He loved life. He could put out his hand and catch a butterfly; it would sit on his hand for a few moments, long enough for him to examine the color and the structure.

Once when he was six he rushed in. Two things, he exclaimed, that he had always wanted had happened to him: "I caught a lizard and a trainman waved at me." Always is not so very long when you're six.

I remember watching him late one afternoon playing on the lakeshore, all alone, dipping into the water, building in the gray sand, squinting his dark velvet eyes up at a passing bird, humming a tune of his own. He seemed to be listening to something inside himself, something no one else could hear. And a beautiful, aching wonder almost suffocated me. I thought, if we don't lose our children to death, we lose them to life. Either way the child is gone forever.

That year I wrote a poemI was always writing poems; I didn't show him this one ever.

Weep on for his first struggle,
Pity thus,
The son youll bear
To such wargods as us.

Shed tears upon his feet
As Christ's were bare,
And dry his dampened toes
With locks of hair

When he heard that I had polio, he said,

"My sister always prays for me. Now I'll pray for her."

Simple for a little boy.

He played every game with all of him. He played ping-pong left-handed without letting his opponent know that he wasn't a lefty at all. The more challenge the more fun...that was the game of life. He loved music and study and children. He laughed and made other people laugh, too. His laugh was deep and hearty.

As he grew older I turned to him in trouble as he so often had turned to me. Once I said, "It's a rough climb, this life." And he, with a quick, warm hug, answered, "But think how beautiful when you get to the top."

He swam and sailed and played tennis and bridge and rode horses. His face was intense with concentration at chess. He was beautiful flying off a high rock into the lake or skiing on one ski, his dark eyes alight with just the fun, the delight of what his own body would do. His body he recognized as a gift.

And then, he was a man.

Finally, there was a girl. They were young. The wedding plans were made. Together they went to the church to begin the process. It was there she told him that she had decided not to go through with it. He felt betrayed; at home he rolled on the floor groaning in agony, aching in his heart and soul. Society says big boys don't cry, but he was a real man and he wasn't afraid to cry.

Still, life didn't blunt his edges, dull his sparkling spirit, or destroy his idealism. Humanity could disappoint him, but he didn't want to tear it all down.

In sixteen years of school he made only A's in math. He worked full-time all through college. It was great to be independent. He bought a little car and hundreds of records. A good job was waiting for him at graduation. And then, actually before the end of the semester, he was drafted. The Army said he wouldn't be called for 60 days, so he joined the Marines. How could he put his life on hold and wait, he asked, for months? He couldn't take the job in all good faith. Oh, please don't let them take you. Please stay. We'll go into the mountains. We'll have a good time.

Half of him said war could not be right. He rebelled at killing. But he had been taught that we stand up and do our part and don't chicken out and let other people do the dirty jobs for us. Our father had made him into a patriot, taught him about duty and honor, instilled him with pride and courage. He lived in a small town. No one talked of choices. Our country right or wrong. He was caught in a tide too strong to fight.

He went off to bootcamp in just the clothes he wore, as he was ordered to do, taking nothing with him, not even his watch. "I guess that's so you'll all be equal," I suggested, "except for your brain." "That makes me about ten jumps ahead of anyone else," he said, flashing that big smile. He hugged us all hard, and he left.

In his first letter he told about the routine. It was tough, but he had always enjoyed competition. He was meeting "a lot of good guys." And he was keeping everybody entertained: "I'm the funniest guy in the barracks at 6 in the morning."

But all day, every day, he was trained to be a robot, a killer, to act without thinking.

You see that tough Marine? He's my gentle brother.

"Tomorrow I'll Go Gently Then and Give The Other Side a Chance"

"For peace we need more than a moral equivalent of war; we need an intensity equivalent of combat."

William Hocking: The Meaning of Immortality in the Human Experience
(Harper and Brothers 1957)

"Officers' School
Quantico, Virginia
January 12, 1968

"The Marine Corps is inhumane. We learn to sacrifice lower ranking men in order to complete a mission more efficiently. No attempt is made to keep everyone alive, so certain individuals are picked as most likely."

They had seen some bloody movies showing the wounded and the dying in Vietnam. "Some of the guys fainted." Some of the guys fainted. They had to be prepared for this, because this was what they were going to live for real, and this was how they were going to die. This was what they were for now, and this was a preview of how it was going to be. This was resocialization...from people to automatons, who had to learn not to feel in order to keep any sanity at all. Only it couldn't quite be done. People thoughts kept emerging.

"July 10, 1968

Fighting might not be so bad if you had a real cause. There isn't much of a purpose in Vietnam. About 50% of us are just living for today, because they expect to be dead within a year. They are the realists. The rest think they are invincible and some of us probably are. Have you heard "Classical Gas," by Mason Williams? Fantastic."

Eager young boy and confused young man, facing reality. I notice you put yourself in the second fifty percent...

"August 19, 1968

I don't like problems I can't solve either with pencil and paper or with immediate action. Too bad everything that affects me doesn't stem from me. Too many variables to cope with. It is like solving for more than one unknown with only one equation. You can determine what X will do if Y does something, but you don't really know what Y will do. You shouldn't be able to make the right moves and still lose the game."

"October 20, 1968

For Christmas you can send me a good-looking girl in a Care Package. All I really need is a wife and I need that like I need another hole in my head. I wonder which I'll get first. (In response to a facetious question I asked..).. Yes, I have a price, but you can't afford me. I think I'm in love with Goldie on 'Laugh-in.'"

"November 1, 1968

You want ideas for a book? Try my biography. That ought to sell as a comedy. Maybe a tragedy. Well, it has to be something and it sure won't make it as a love story. You could write an article about government inspected houses of prostitution overseas and print that in the 'Presbyterian' or whatever it is you write for. At the same time the servicemen are doing their government-inspected lovemaking, they can have the government check up on their wives. Groovy, huh?"

I am getting sick. There is too much that is bitter and cynical now coming through.

He left in December. Before Christmas he was on his way to Vietnam. He left at home a trunk full of required dress uniforms, never worn, complete with shoes, which he had to make payments on, although they were not to be taken to Vietnam. This seemed to make him as angry as the IRS made me. He left another big boxful in Okinawa. Orders again.

The last days we wrung every drop from every moment; we absorbed him with eyes and ears and hearts. We laughed and loved him and knew we would never see him again. Even as we joyed in each other my heart pulled back. We are playing at this. It is final. Too gentle and too daring...

As though he were destined for that hour from his boyhood, he was special and apart and Mom and I shared a thing about him, an intuition of his fate, unspoken until later, but clearly understood by both of us, and, I was to learn, by others as well.

Hugging me, my body shaking, trembling, shuddering, and tears I wouldn't let out of my eyes, "Sister," he whispered as he held me good-bye,

"I'll be home before you know it."

Letters came. There was no more music.

"After the first death, there is no other..."
Dylan Thomas

"January 1969
Somewhere near Da Nang

I had my second bath in 18 days today. There are some real cute kids here."

He asked for candy and yo-yo's for them.

"Wednesday? Maybe

Nothing is new. I've had a date with a chick every night. I sit around my own pool and drink beer and eat steak, take a hot shower, go to a movie. Don't forget you owe me a lemon ice-box pie when I get back. What's new with you? I'll finish this maana."

"I don't know whether it's maana or the day after maana

I get lots of mail. Nine letters today. This is my fifth in retaliation or rebuttal or something. Glad you like school. Wish that's where I was. I don't really feel like coming back to the world though."

Look what they've done to my soul... The fight is over. The war goes on. When he gave up and quit feeling like coming back, his fate was sealed.

"March 22, 1969

"This morning I read two books of poetry by Rod McKuen: Listen to the Warm and Stanyon Street and Other Sorrows. Both outstanding. He expresses many of my feelings very well. It is unbelievably hot here and getting hotter. We go tomorrow on a small operation. It's a hell of a war.

"Love, from your good-looking, good-natured, good-humored hero representing the U. S. in beautiful South Vietnam."

He had never been handsome; still, he could poke fun at himself...

There is a confused period here. After three months "in the bush," he has never spoken a word to us about fighting. He is pulled into an office job at this time and tells Mother he is safer than driving on the freeways. He complains of boredom and says he knows we are happier with this setup but he is not. I wrote back: "It's funny how we don't want for other people what they want for themselves." He knew that war stinks, but he had been prepared for it, and others were in the thick of ithis friends. On March 31, he tells me, "I've always been safe and I'm even safer now." But I know that he has not been safe. One of his corporals has returned and visited and told our parents of operations where over half the men were lost.

Suddenly, with no explanation, he is fighting again. Only later did we learn that he had asked to go back to lead his platoon.

"April 1, 1969

I wanted to get your reaction to my first poem. Maybe with your knack you can take the idea and make something of it. I read another Rod McKuenLonesome Cities."

Reading poetry on the front-line! Where did they get these books? Were they all reading and writing poetry, for God's sake? And here was the poem. Jesus, here was the poem:


The orange sun slips to its grave.
Four young men prepare to fight,
The jungle smothered in darkness,
Invisible forms slip through the night.

Beside the trail they halt, silent....alert.
Minutes into hours, wet, cold to the bone.
A sound, barely audible. A turned stone?

Ready! Fire!
Muzzles crash, red, orange, white.
Blinding flashes in the dark, then silence...
Victory! All nine lie still in our sight.

The sun breaks clear
Burning away the mist,
The ambush returns
at funeral pace.
Three men carry a lifeless form.
This is victory? Victory?! In what race?

The poem arrived on Saturday, a warm April day. I sat on the patio of our student housing at Stanford, feeling good. I had a letter in my hand. He was all right. I was joyful. He was alive.

He wasn't. His first poem was his last.

There was one more note, on a torn scrap of brown paper. By the time it arrived, we already knew.

"Life is a narrow vale between the cold and barren peaks of two eternities. We strive in vain to look beyond the heights. We cry aloud, and the only answer is the echo of our wailing cry. From the voiceless lips of the unreplying dead there comes no word; but in the night of death, hope sees a star, and listening love can hear the rustle of a wing." -- Robert Ingersoll at his brother's grave.

The telegram, grotesquely misspelled, said what was left of him would be "prepared, encased, and shipped at no cost" to us! At no cost.

The body was not viewable. At least that's what they meant to sayit was written, "viable." To see what they had done to him was too horrible for our innocent eyes, so we were just to trust what the telegram said.

The nightmare of a lifetime was happening. Flying home in the night and Dad coming out to meet me, holding me and sobbing, and over his shoulder the stillness and the stars.

The sun came up the next day. And the birds sang. I could hardly believe it. I had slept on a sofa on the terrace, seeing the stars. I did sleep. As dawn broke, I thought it was all a nightmare. The fountain bubbled and rippled. Funny that the birds should sing.

We wailed through the hours, sick, sick, sick. Your knees are weak at times like that. Your insides gnaw. Some minutes we were unbelieving and uncomprehending. This is impossible. This cannot be. Life cannot go on without him, as life cannot go on without sunshine. And who would want it to?

But the hours just kept coming, unrelenting. There is nothing to do but go on. We build fantasies. We haven't seen for ourselves, so maybe...

We imagine it is a ghastly mistake, and I open the next telegram with the breath gone out of me, hoping, hoping they will say he is alive after all. No, just more misspelled information.

We feel unreal. We are stunned. Then it pours in like a black ocean of misery with force. But these days are not the worst. The worst are to come.

In a week the big metal box came. Our mother stood patting the flag that draped it, talking to her baby of long ago, sobbing and talking and touching the flag. We wanted to see him, to hold him. "It's better this way," the visitors kept saying.

Better?! I am outraged. It is not better than anything. This could not be better, for this is the worst hell. God damn the whole world, nothing is better. Nothing will ever be better. Nothing matters. Nothing is. There is nothing.

I am proud of my mother and father. They get up daily. They bathe and they dress. From my room I can hear my mother moaning in her bath. They make coffee for all their guests. They speak when spoken to. They move through the patterns. My Dad walks round and round and round outside the house fast. He goes to pieces only in his bed. "My boy, my boy, they have killed my boy."

Friends come. If you come and we cry, do not feel that you have added to our grief. You cannot add or subtract just now. You only form the little steps that form our days. Days that have to be. When we cry we release the terrible hurt; we spill it out. We do not diminish it, but we express it. I see people as though I am not people. I watch from far off.

Don't say, "How are you?" Again and again they say it: HOW ARE YOU? What am I supposed to say? Don't laugh unless we laugh. Don't chit chat and pretend this is a tea party. Don't try to shut us up or cheer us up. Don't waste money on flowers. Don't push your theology off on us, telling us God took him because we loved him too much. God didn't take him. We did it. We all did it together.

Where, my brother, are you? No, not where, but are you? When I sit in your room in the quietness and speak to you, what is that presence I feel?

He left his old hat behind, of course. He and Richard each had one alike. Why did he have to leave it? It was part of him. His body was part of him, but as the hat was not himself, so the body was not himself, but only infused with him. The hat was nothing until he owned it and used it and gave it character. So the body was only what he gave it.

His body that he used and moved and spoke through. And he had laughed, because he could make that body do great things. Until someone else got the use of it...The hat hangs in the closet on a hook. The closet smells like him. The room feels like him. He is everywhere in it and it is hushed.

Why does God leave us wandering around with no certainty and no knowledge? Is God, after all, death? If each of us gives and struggles, only in the end to die... But what of birth? What of springtime? We planted him in springtime like a bulb.

We need only that God is, that love and life is, eternal in some way, meaningful. I only need that my brother is. Oh, for God's sake, not that he is alive in memory. What bitter consolation. That he is.

What is truth? The star sends light, then dies before we see the light. A letter comes, a letter of realness after his death, before the knowledge of it.

On Saturday I had been happy as I read my letter, a funny letter. And I sat in the sunshine and dashed off funny replies and mailed them right no one. He was already dead. Like the star, he was dead, but he had not died to us. What was the moment of his death? Time changes around the earth; across the sea is yesterday and tomorrow is already.

Is life so shadowy that a tiny object can obliterate it? We weep over our photographs of a small boy. That boy was already gone forever...we had already lost him. Where was our boy gone? Into the man. Where is the man gone? Into the...

I agonize over a death so young. Does that mean I think life does have worth? This moment it doesn't seem so. I would so love to be dead, not suffering this suffering, oblivious to this agony.

The thing he had to do was die. The thing I have to do is live. Which is harder, I do not know. Death is peace, at least, much more we hope. His face, his voice, never again? Molecules change. Can they be reconstructed into him?

He was taught, "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, and pray for them..." We taught him unreservedly that there is life after death, good life. I said to him at a moment when he was searching for purpose, "To find your life, lose it." Oh, I didn't mean it that way. If he has gone plummeting off into eternity on some faith in our words, into nothingness perhaps...Have we pushed him into an abyss?

Still he had a certain freedom in being daring enough to offer life, to run out eagerly to meet death. I do not grieve out of loss for his presence this momentthere have been joyful moments without himbut in contemplation of a future in which his brightness is no more. We hurt for the way he died, the ugliness of a world in which such a person can have his head blown off. Grief is for what we have known which has ceased to be.

We do not grieve today for want of a person who will be born, but only after knowing him for a while. Where is the unborn? Where are the dead?

At every turn he took the way of danger. His was the perilous blend of gentleness and daring which does not long survive. Why did you do this to us, my brother? Who has the right to give his life when our souls are so bound up together?

Why didn't I say, "Be careful"? That is not what you say to a hero going to battle. That is the thing you say to a little boy climbing a tree or crossing the street. Why did I not scream and lie down on the floor and plead, "Please do not go"? Why did I not bash in his leg when he was twelve to make him "unfit"? But I knew he had the right to think for himself, to live, to die his own death. Yet others influenced him. Who is free? Who can waltz when a march plays? When the goals were missing, he went on playing the game.

I do not want to learn to live without him. I want him back. We all saw so clearly. Yet we stood and watched him go. Others were shaping him. Our men are not free to live and we are not free to keep them. Then what is free?

Half a dozen young men wrote saying, "He was my brother." Not "like a brother," but "was my brother."

Remember and March
First aid.
Last rites."Vietnam, July 1969

"There is no patriotism in this war. All we're doing is trying to protect each other and stay alive. Men like Lieutenant Bob come along once in a million years. We both knew that our survival depended upon two things: the ability of our men and politics. Bob made his men the best. He did his part. We all are. We are waiting for that other half...All we can do, as the Marines say, is remember and continue to march. I am proud to say that once in my lifetime, I had a brother.

Larry Kline. Lt., USMC"

I am, too.

"He will not return to me; I must go to him."
David, of his dead son (Old Testament)

I walk in the sun. I welcome being cold, so that I can feel becoming warm again, cherishing such tiny satisfactions of the flesh, feeling them as new, because I feel so little else but him. Is this reality or was the other reality? Is reality out there or within me?

He is, if anything, more a part of my life than when he lived, because he influences everything now, every waking moment and many sleeping visions, each piece of music, every face in the crowd, each thing he would have loved or laughed at. I see a figure standing just as he stood and I rush, beyond my consciousness, toward him, heart thudding, then sinking as I draw near and see. I look even into the eyes of a tiny frog along my path. Where is God, I ask?

My body is pained from adjusting from one activity to another, from sleeping to waking, from home to school, dinner to after dinner, bath to after batheach transition taking more than I have. Each new activity, however small, requires renewed facing of the awful fact. Only going to bed has a sweet feel. I curl up and let oblivion take over, smothering my wounded thoughts. The comforts are birdsong and starlight. For with them I know there is something out there that I do not comprehend.

At night I lie in bed concentrating on just one star, desperately hoping, yet hopeless still, of fathoming the mystery. Are there sights and sounds all round which we do not hear and see? We know there are other animals who do see and hear what we cannot. Nature is filled with illusions, deceptionsthat the earth is flat, that we are standing still, that the sun rises. Yet none of these 'apparents' are true. And what seems dead and lifeless, a cold bit of metal for instance, is energy, moving molecules. And where, bird, did you get your instinct?

My brother, are you behind me or before me? Your memory seems to be from the past, yet I am moving inevitably toward death, wherein you are. That is future not past. You are both, the beginning and the end. You took such a large piece of me with you and I kept such a large piece of you here with me. I am pulled apart and will not let you go. Little brother, I want to stay behind with you, but I cannot help you. I cannot find you. And others are waiting....

"The widely accepted view that mind is physical is not only without proof but without a hypothesis, simply a scientific act of faith."
J.B. Rhine: The Reach of the Mind

(William Sloane, Associates, New York, 1947)

Some days I weep for what he'll miss, my brother who died in that war in spring. I see beauty in the morning and I ache because he is not here. I cannot imagine anything more lovely than what he misses.

Other days I think he is the blessed one, to escape this confusion. It is as though all of us are imprisoned and crying for the one who got free, just because we can no longer see or hear him. He stopped this world and got off.

After three months, there were some moments when he was not part of every thought; still my self continued to be tormented by an awareness of loss, my own loss, despair of my parents, of my children. Had he, after all, lost, or had he at last "got to the top"?

I am sick of the writers who offer for comfort that his memory lives on. What is that to him? I believe with Tolstoy: "An ultimate annihilation sends its shadow backward and cancels the worth of every present achievement." What can be the meaning of today if there is no tomorrow?

What is the task we are set to anyway? Does the road get brighter or do we merely become accustomed to the darkness? What is the ultimate source of human energy? How is it possible when the body dies that the person lives on? Are we running so deeply in the wrong groove that no matter where or how we search we cannot find answers until we find a new groove? Many undeniable realities are beyond reason or logic or understanding. Love is real. Where is it?

If I examine every inch of a large mural, yet never get far enough away to see the picture in its entirety, I don't know what it's all about. The picture we're in is like that. Larger than our space. When I learn to content myself with a little corner of the puzzle, God picks it up and tosses the pieces in my faceand some are lost and others won't fit.

And it seems so futile to start again. Somewhere we are making a basic, invalid assumption, which, when it is clarified, when the lights go on, reality will be clear. Are our lives dreams in some sense or is there some discrepancy in relative size which we have not taken into account? Or is there something about time that is out of kilter? Are we perhaps not individuals at all but interconnected pieces and parts of some whole?

There is a story in the Old Testament of the prophet Abraham who says God is sending him up into the hills with his son Isaac, to kill him. We are too enlightened today, we think, for that kind of human sacrifice. We wonder how man could have been so blind. But when he gets there, Abraham is given a lamb instead and Isaac is spared. And the innocent lamb is killed.

We look back at the Inquisition, the Crusades, the burning of the Salem witches, persecutions for scientific ideas and for Bible translations, for heresy and for originality, for ethnicity and faith.

A devious path led that daring and gentle boy to a hot noonday in April where wounded Marines were laid out as bait for a trap, encircled by Vietcong, and a tiny piece of metal tore away that beautiful smile forever. And there were forty thousand others. Just to read their names takes more than twenty-four hours. This doesn't count the missing or the maimed. This doesn't count the tortured who survived. This does not count the Vietnamese! We never count the Vietnamese!

We cannot make peace or create anything by brutality, by forcing men not to think. This is a philosophy born of fear; backed into a corner a panic-stricken humanity blunders about in an effort to survive. Still it is a disaster to teach a human being to act without thinking.

Let us not speak of what our young rebels do to our old, but of what our old have done to our young. Let us confess our own guilt, for we are the Abrahams taking the Isaacs of our time up into the mountains. "We came up here on the mountain," we say. "Now we will have to kill Isaac." Tradition before meaning.

A spring morning, 1970

This morning I have peace. I haven't any answers. But I know there are questions the neat accepted answers don't satisfy. I know there is something within me. I feel the spirit. I can laugh after sorrow. I can sing after darkness. I can love. I am part of the springtime of life, affirming new birth after death. A time comes, an aftermath of intense mourning, fully poured out, when there is a deeper-than-ever capacity for beauty. We do not live over our grief, we live with it and through it.

If he had returned, he would have been changed. The boy who left could never return. We must never think only those who lose their lives have lost. Anyone who is taught to kill loses.

His was a rare combinationa zest for each moment with no real goal for the future. As though he knew there would be no future, he never knew anything he wanted to be. He just wanted to get the biggest sailboat he could find and sail 'round the earth forever. Maybe he did.

A gentle boy, who communed with all nature and loved life, was trained in killing, protested to the end, but nevertheless stood up and died like the kind of man he had been taught to be. In a war that had no meanings, he yet found meaning in the love of his fellows. To find a philosophy of life, look into the eyes of other beings. There is a difference in those who orient their lives by logic and those who orient their lives by that elusive something else.

Until we form new choices for the love of our brothers and sisters, until we realize that the sacrifice of thinking and feeling can only be destructive to ourselves as well as those we fight, we will continue to train out of our young people the sensitivities and mercies we have taught them as children. If we are determined to be warlike people, we might as well have Plato's Republic in which some youth are trained from the beginning for fighting and dying, and women are mere objects, and music and passion and sympathy are foolishness to be avoided. And in this case we are damned already.

We have not set our minds and hearts on a goal based on the love which we profess. We don't know what race we are in. We teach ourchildren an ethic of love and fail to build a world in which such an ethic can exist.


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