hen they ran out of Boy Scout cookies they gave me the elongated Girl Scout kind and shoved me down the sleepy block bereft of gender. I got my share of cackles — “Are you a girl?” — but youthful enthusiasm kept shame at bay. Shielded from vulgarity, I told all in sight that I liked the butter-flavored girl cookies. No doubt about it.
My best client, the old man on Porter Street, preferred the creamy little sandwich bars. “Delish,” he said, and as a reward handed me a poem, my first.
The old man served with the air force in World War II. He lived alone in a pea-soup colored apartment with a kitchenette that smelled of aging miscellany and unkempt fruit. The kitchenette was where he paid me for the afternoon paper I delivered, as well as for the “delish” creamy sandwich bars. “Girls are better at cookies,” he said.
Appropriateness changes over time. Imagine a boy with an old man in a dim apartment, probing his photo albums, listening to his tall tales — who’d stand for it now, in an age that conjugates the septic to satisfy craving? No matter.
The old man flew P-40s in China; that was his first tour. He later learned to use “the big hot pistol,” rotating machine guns bulbously riveted to double-chinned Flying Fortresses. “Coney Island in the sky, with all that metal twirling!” There, all that was tentative disintegrated. “You got shot down or jumped, or you landed. Wasn’t much else. And mostly there was no time to jump.”
Crews painted lusty graffiti on their bombers’ bruised hulls — pretty girls with gamey faces, leering smiles, firm curves, “cookie box girls but with more parts,” said the old man, who showed me pictures. “In the Mood,” read one inscription; “Miss, Please!” another. I was wonder-struck, so much so he sought to distract me.
“This is Pound,” he said, handing me carbon paper with the typed poem. I was bewildered. Quickness was not yet an informed reflex.
Pound, he explained, was the author’s name — “like how much you weigh.” I finally read the poem — titled “In a Station of the Metro” — on my way home: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd; Petals on a wet black bough.”
That was it. The whole poem. Silly, I thought.
I didn’t know the word “apparition” but looked it up in my American Heritage dictionary. I wanted to sell the old man more creamy sandwich bars. I also wanted to see more photographs of men camped around propellers, near wiry guns, under the provocative curves of painted girls. Mollify adults and maybe they’ll reveal their language, or toss you a ladder. I badly wanted to clamber out of my baby self.
Many poets, said the old man, wrongly befriended glory. “Why, read some of them about the Great War and you’d think it was just some kind of sunset!” Pound got to the point, he said. No funny stuff. “He’s in a subway stop, OK? He sees all the people milling around. They remind him of something… of flower petals on a limb that’s been rained on. That’s it. One image. It’s a haiku.”
He then bought two more boxes of creamy sandwich bars. When I asked to see more war paraphernalia, he extracted a Purple Heart — “from flack over Hamburg” — and a neat slice of tin — “I cut this from a wing of a Jap Zero, in the Philippines. We found them wrecked when the Japs pulled back.”
After the war, the old man taught high school English in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He moved to Washington to tend to his ailing mother, who died at 108. “I saw so many kids go before their 19th birthdays and my mother, well, she lasts a century. Go figure, my boy.”
Together, we munched on butter cookies and creamy sandwich bars. “Delish,” I said, and he grinned.
On the floor were books by the dozens, mostly histories. No one cleaned up. “I have my principles,” he said, though I never knew quite what he meant.
On occasion he’d rap his knuckles at the front page as if the newspaper had struck him first. In those days, American B-52 bombers commuted daily to North Vietnam, dropping whole wars full of bombs. “They’ll never get it. You can only rescue friends. We can afford not to know better because bombs are so obvious. The politicians and generals still read the glory poets. If they read at all.”
Before he left, the old man gave me a second poem, typed on a smudged carbon sheet like the first. I saw just the words “rand” and “ball.” “Here,” he said, “this one’s about war… the way it is. Plain and simple. Not a bit of nonsense in it. No dissembling.”
The word “dissembling” stuck with me. “Disassemble,” I thought, or maybe “disable,” or perhaps “dismember” — I couldn’t remember. Nor did I bother looking it up. I pocketed the poem and forgot it. No more Girl Scout cookies arrived that season, and next time they did the old man was gone. His neighbor said she thought he’d returned to Pennsylvania.
Twenty-four years later, sifting through boxes of clothes retrieved from the Jurassic of adolescence, I found the shriveled paper with the words “rand” and “ball,” and finally read the second poem, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” by Randall Jarrell.
This is all of how it goes:
“From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from the dream of life.
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.”