combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 03 Number 04 Fall ©Oct 2005

In My Father's Scrapbook of War
In memoriam mei patris sine quo non
Harold J. Ladouceur (1922-2005)

      An Eastern script,
      Drawn in bleeding ink,
      On the back
      Of a tattered sepia photograph,
      Arrayed in twelve serried columns,
      Like marshalled warriors,
      wartime snapshot of Harold J.
Ladouceur Lingers, as though waiting
      A decipherer,
      An uncoder of its message,
      As mysterious to me today
      As when, a boy, I first scanned it,
      In my father's scrapbook of war,
      Fifty winters past.
      Kanji, katakana, hiragana,
      The characters' names I know.
      Their meanings elude me.
      And yet
      In the years that have slipped by,
      I learned the cuneiform of old Babylon,
      The hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt,
      Engraved on tombs and temples,
      On castles of eternity.
      Greek and Latin,
      All Languages of the dead
      These too I mastered.
      Yet not one word of this script do I know,
      This script not dead, but from one long dead,
      Perhaps for fear
      Over some old pain,
      Deep seated,
      That this calligraphy masks.
      From that photograph,
      From tones time-leveled,
      Issues a small child,
      Naked and uncircumcised,
      On a blanket of swirling designs,
      Of curious and intricate shapes,
      Like the artful tsuba on a katana,
      Those metal hilts on Samurai swords,
      Family crests, mutely signing unbroken lineage,
      Relics of the Muromachi period.
      From that photograph
      Issue a mother, kimono-clad,
      Black-tinted glasses
      Shielding her torment,
      With two children
      Caught in some perplexity,
      Seemingly and forever,
      Writ large on their faces,
      And a bemedaled soldier
      In honorable service to the Emperor Hirohito,
      The Living God,
      With his Nambu light machine gun,
      Standing proud behind them.
      And though
      In my waking hours
      Not one iota
      Of that Eastern script
      Can I construe,
      Many a night
      In my dreams
      I read it flawlessly
      Without hesitation or pause,
      Like some long-rehearsed sectary of Shinto.
      And its cadence is ghostlike,
      The utterance of a skeletal presence,
      Disjointed out of its time and place.
      "If you read these words, six decades hence,
      You are the son of the man who killed me,
      Strangled me one night
      In the kunai grass,
      When the moon rose like a ripe melon,
      Over the Papuan tail of New Guinea.
      Would you have wanted to see,
      With my eyes,
      Your father's face that night
      When he throttled me
      There in the grass,
      Seeing the way his smooth boyish look
      Creased with lines of murderous effort,
      Wore that smile that a corpse assumes
      When the stiffness of death comes?
      And yet, it was I who was dying, not he.
      But some part of the boy died there too,
      Slayer turning to slain,
      All in that single smile of death,
      Risus mortis in your dead Latin.
      Know this,
      That your father wore a mask
      Not over his face,
      Like most men,
      But under.
      As the years sunk ever deeper into his face,
      So too did that mask.
      Would you have wanted to see
      How his Warface
      Rose over mine that night,
      Ascended like some second fatal moon
      Of Mars,
      All catlike
      Yearning to rob me of my breath?
      Would you have wanted to feel his warm hands,
      That always guided and caressed you,
      Shattering the bone in my neck,
      That bone shaped like a dead letter
      In your precious Greek alphabet,
      His warm hands guiding me to my death,
      There in the jungle's drone?
      And the creatures of the air,
      Long before their appointed hour,
      Long before the sun arose,
      Cried out with me.
      We were scouts,
      He and I,
      And even in the jungle's stench
      Our trained senses,
      Heightened by so much death-dealing,
      Smelled each other.
      In the jungle night,
      In the greens without number,
      Butter-man met Fish-oil-man
      In the endless moment of combat,
      And Butter-man killed Fish-oil-man,
      Without quarter,
      In a dark marsh,
      Where leeches gorged heartily on our blood,
      As we grappled,
      Locked together in mortal struggle.
      Know that birds wing their way in New Guinea
      In whose bodies lurk poisons.
      And once, famished, I ate their meat,
      And my lips burned.
      But a comrade taught me
      To rub their flesh with charcoal
      And draw out the searing toxins.
      If only those leeches could have drawn
      The poison out from our bodies,
      The Venom of Hate
      That so long sustained us
      Like some fatal nourishment.
      But I tell you this,
      There is no malice here,
      After life, past death.
      If I could, I would have
      Thrust your father through with my tanto knife
      In one chance instant,
      And then my three sons,
      These sixty winters hence,
      Would be wondering if the blond Western boy
      With his strange two-toned suit,
      And nickeled toy pistol,
      In a photo they clasp,
      Still thought of his long dead father
      Somewhere in the boundless Pacific,
      And whether the anguish
      Of never knowing the place
      Where his father passed
      All alone,
      Save for his killer,
      Still, after all these years,
      Cuts his heart.
      But there is no hatred now.
      Your father has joined me here,
      Where all who were and have been,
      Are void of poison.
      And sometimes we sit together,
      Butter-man and Fish-oil-man,
      Beside an endless shimmering sea,
      And speak of many things,
      But never of the night
      Two moons rose like ripe melons
      Over the Papuan tail of New Guinea,
      And the jungle birds screeched out
      Long before their appointed hour."

by David J. Ladouceur
... who is a teacher and historian, and has previously published creative writing in this magazine, as well as non-fiction in professional journals. He is currently working on a novel, After the War, set in the early 1950's which deals with a veteran who returns from the conflict and shares not only his stories but his ghosts with his son. Born into a military family, Dr Ladouceur is the son of a jungle scout who served in the Pacific Theater from Pearl Harbor through the end of World War Two.

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