I Always Thought I’d Die
in a nuclear wink, would not have time
to know what hit me. Or, after
distant flashes and the shock waves, slowly
of radiation sickness, combs full of hair,
bleeding from the eyes, fingernails,
nostrils, anus. After the president’s head detonated,
I walked the mile home
from history class,
dusty concrete along Augusta Road, scanning
the sky for the first needle-glints of Russian missiles.
But it was just Oswald, a mere ten years older
than I was, I know now, son of one Robert E. Lee,
a marine, like my father—like Lee O. himself—but dead
before the boy was born.
Young Oswald thought
god was a dog, a star, rats. His smiling chinstrapped
mug looks a lot like my teammates’
Wells and Strobo, who both joined the Corps right
after high school, got themselves killed
in short order. Oswald was in radar, a word
he couldn’t get wrong.
Like my father
he qualified sharpshooter. Like my father
he was honorably discharged. Unlike my father
he didn’t deserve it. He never killed anybody
until he did Kennedy and Tippet. He never
boxed, he never looked like Clark Gable.
My father believed
somebody on the grassy knoll
did it, even though he knew about the trip
to Moscow. He slashed his left wrist. He met
a girl with a Shakespearean handle, fathered
a kid he named after a summer month,
came home a family man, purchased
an Italian rifle
created within a few miles
of the Shroud of Turin. Unlike my father,
who sweated in thick Savannah air hugging
creosote poles, Lee found it hard
to hold a job. I have looked out that window.
Despite what you have heard, it was
an easy shot.
My father killed several men
on what he always called The Island. It wasn’t easy
with an M 1903, certainly not with a bayonet, never
had second thoughts about Hiroshima. They boarded
a stinking troop train for San Diego, waited
all day in the Carolina heat, were ordered
back to barracks.
No A-bomb, no Ronnie Smith,
he said, a million marines, soldiers, sailors, fly boys—
a million would have bought the farm
on the mainland. He figured his number was up,
but, boom, boom, the war was over. He took
his malaria to Chatham County, married an operator
with the middle name Lee,
and sired, as they say,
me. And though my Uncle Don, skinny and jumpy
as Lee Harvey himself, rolled hundreds of warheads
from Travis Field to Hunter Air Force Base
about the time I turned twelve—by convoy right
through the heart of my hometown, down
what is now MLK Boulevard—
looks like I’ll make
three score years and ten. Haven’t been vaporized
or particularly irradiated, far as I know. 1Y’ed out
of Vietnam, despite football. It wasn’t the concussions
or the trick shoulders, knees, arthritic feet, hips, spine.
Blood pressure off the chart, the doc growled.
No Hiroshimas in my lifetime. Not yet.
Poet Laureate of Virginia 2014-2016, Ron Smith is the author of four books of poetry, Running Again in Hollywood Cemetery (University of Central Florida Press, 1988), Moon Road: Poems 1986- 2005 (Louisiana State University Press, 2007), Its Ghostly Workshop (LSU Press, 2013), and The Humility of the Brutes (LSU Press, 2017). His poems have appeared in many periodicals, including The Nation, The Kenyon Review, The Georgia Review, The Southern Review, Five Points, and in many anthologies. His awards include The Guy Owen Prize from Southern Poetry Review and The Theodore Roethke Prize from Poetry Northwest. Ron was an inaugural winner of the $10,000 Carole Weinstein Poetry Prize and subsequently served for ten years as a curator for that prize. He has taught poetry and poetry writing at University of Richmond, Virginia Commonwealth University, and Mary Washington University. He is currently the poetry editor for Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature and Writer-in-Residence at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, VA, where he also holds the George Squires Chair of Distinguished Teaching. His Running Again in Hollywood Cemetery, judged by Margaret Atwood “a close runner-up” for the National Poetry Series Open Competition and by Donald Hall as “the runner-up” for the Samuel French Morse Prize, will soon be issued by MadHat in a handsome second edition.