The Lost Brigade
My Uncle Donald always knew the weather.
“Had to, during the war,” he told me, “in Alaska,”
as we stood on the steps of our cabin in New Hampshire,
this strange, middle-aged man and I,
scanning the skies for Zeroes—
“I hear ‘em. Doncha? Doncha, through the clouds?”—
but I heard nothing, saw only the lake, its surface
the color of pewter before a storm, and my uncle
cupping his troubled brow with his hands
like a soldier with field glasses, his blue eyes blank
and far, far away.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .He’d been a member, I learned years later,
of “The Lost Brigade,” the men shipped to the Arctic
in 1942 to guard the Aleutians, those stepping-stones
the ancient Asians crossed centuries ago,
and on Umnak Island Uncle Don gazed west for months
toward Kiska, the island base of the Japanese
fifty miles away.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Taking turns in twelve-hour shifts,
he and the others of “The Lost Brigade” stared across an open tundra
seemingly forever, watching for cracks, some small fracture
in the steel-gray weld of sea and sky, blinded finally
by all they did not see, like the farmers out here in Illinois
after weeks of plowing the empty, late fall fields,
staring into their coffee, silent, numbed
by so much nothing. Forgotten on Umnak for nearly two years,
Private Donald Heffernan went insane, had to be shipped
back to the States, and by the state,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .“He saw God’s foot on the treadle of the Loom,”
Melville says of Pip, the cabin-boy swept from the Pequod
into the sea, gone mad from that immensity. And my uncle?—
a priest without beads, mumbling to himself, an old man now
in his dead parents’ house on St. Pete Beach
where he’s piled a fort of old papers
deep as snow on any tundra, and boarded up the doors.
From there last week, hurricane season, they dragged him off
screaming about devils in the distance
to a locked ward at the Florida V.A., a room without windows.
Donald’s had enough of sky
though he knows the weather, the gathering clouds
a squadron’s thunder
so far away.
by Bruce Guernsey, First Published in TriQuarterly. Reprinted in From Rain: Poems, 1970-2010.
Editor’s Note: Impeccable narrative poetry sucks the reader into the story. In this poem, we learn that absence can drive one mad as surely as a life filled too much.