It was his first war, when he was only 20.
He served during three conflicts.
But it was that first war that marked him.
It started when we found the box of his medals and
we told him that he was a hero.
He became angry. He rejected the label with scorn.
He told us…
That he knew heroic men.
But that he was not one of them.
First you get scared and you stay scared.
You are frightened for so long and so relentlessly.
That you get angry and you stay angry.
You are angry for so long and so relentlessly.
That you get stupid.
You start to take risks.
You do crazy things that you would never have imagined.
And if those crazy things don’t get you killed,
well then, they give you medals.
But it was all just because you were afraid.
And you didn’t want to be there.
You could not believe that you WERE there.
How the hell did it happen?
You were pissed at yourself, and the enemy, and your mission,
and the cold, and the dirt and the bullets, and the goddam army!
He said the good war movies got a lot of it right.
At least the newer ones.
But he said they couldn’t get at his deepest memory of it all.
He told us of the smell of his own skin
and of the men around him in the foxholes.
The Major told them to put the torn and worn uniforms that they had been
wearing for months into a pile.
A gigantic pile of filthy fabric.
And they doused it with kerosene to burn the stench and the lice.
And they all got cold showers.
And fresh uniforms were on the way.
But the new uniforms never got there.
Each man had to pick through the pile of kerosene soaked garments.
Trying to find something close to the right size.
With correct rank and insignia.
He said he spent two more months in another man’s clothes.
And that it took a week before the stink was his own again,
even through the stench of kerosene.
But they were grateful.
At least the fuel killed the lice.
He said the cold that winter was worse than the artillery.
The shells came in waves.
There were lulls and valleys in the action.
But the cold was constant.
He said you got worried if it stopped hurting.
That meant the cold was winning.
So you would shake and stomp to bring back the pain
that told you that you were still alive.
And then he showed us his three belly buttons from the bullet wounds.
But this time he wasn’t being silly like every time before.
This time he was in earnest.
For the first time he was bearing witness.
It wasn’t a punchline anymore.
He told us all of these things almost quietly.
Quickly, and with an embarrassment bordering on shame.
But also some stubborn pride.
He just wanted us to know.
That he was not a hero.
Rick Christiansen has been a stand-up comic, an actor, director of the improvisational comedy group, The Underground, and a corporate executive. His work can be found in the archives of Oddball Magazine, Muddy River Poetry Review and other publications. He has poems forthcoming in Dumpster Fire Press and his poem “Killing Bob Dylan” has been selected for a Fall 2021 anthology by Alien Buddha Press. He is a member of the St. Louis Writers Guild. Rick lives in Missouri near his eight grandchildren and with his basset hound Annie.