The History Professor Turns Eighty

a birthday poem
for my father-in-law,
Commander Harry Zeitlin

October 13, 2001

 

Among the unexpected pleasures
of eleven years of marriage
is the privilege of seeing
all of her faces, even the one
that looks just like her father's . . .

The history professor poses
with his wife and family
for his eightieth birthday: imaginary
leather elbows in his scholarly sweater,
invisible pipe jutting from his jaw,
his face lined with centuries
of hardship and suffering and sorrow—

But the lines go deeper than they look.
This historian earned his degree
the hard way: lugging a rifle and field pack
over page after page
of sand and mud and snow, glancing back
along the rumbling column of tanks and trucks
through a haze of dust and fatigue
past troops of cavalry,
battleships under sail, endless ranks
of marching men, all the way back
to the spears and clubs of Stone Age rivalries . . .

This professor learned his history
by making it. His dissertation?
written in bright red blood across the Sahara,
in fiery blossoms of smoke and shrapnel
over Normandy and Flanders
to the Rhine. His diploma?
a case of medals, five bronze stars
and an honorable discharge.
He reached tenure by enduring,
curled up alone with his conscience
in his foxhole at night, till an alert medic
spotted his shivering stare
and took away his pistol, bandolier and grenades.

"The real Harry died on my birthday
that day they put a tag on me and laid me down
in an Army ambulance. I could not see,
I could not hear nor say anything.
I was in a world of my own – just
keep killing, no matter who or what . . ."

And when they sent him home
to his bride of one weekend
after three long years apart,
he wore a face she'd never seen
with an unfathomable silence
sewn behind its seams. His children
memorized his nightmares,
the daily lecture that never varied,
stark truths chalked across
the dark night of his soul:

War is folly. The world is corrupt.
Humankind alone kills for pleasure.
And God, if there is a God,
must have long ago turned His back
on human history.

"How long can you hold on to your sanity,
your sense of right and wrong,
when day and night, rain, mud, cold
or warmth of day, the killings go on,
and you survive a thousand near misses . . ."

The language of death advances
in an orderly way, from "combat fatigue"
to "collateral damage."
The language of life can hardly keep pace
but one by one, the professor's daughters
have come to him to say simply
"Thank you." This year another medal
issued by the people of Normandy
joins the others in his case of honors.

But behind him as he poses in the restaurant
with his children around him,
as the waiter aims another camera,
the flag he fought for goes once more
rippling off to war.
Bombs are falling on the innocent
to avenge the murder of innocents.
A new column of soldiers falls
into formation, eager and proud,
and the murmuring river of history
quickens, approaching another precipice . . .

"With all the men that stood at my side
being shot, torn apart with shrapnel,
mortar fire, grenades, somehow, I can't answer why,
I escaped death a thousand times. But inside,
little by little, I was being destroyed."

The history professor grows weary
under the weight of all he knows.
Like any other day, his birthday
rushes past and is gone, washed away
on history's current.
But through the bone-cold night
burns a warm steady flame: his children
gathered round him in the camera's flash,
the love he gave them pumping on
through their hearts,
the rest forgiven, or at least outgrown
after half a century of living.

Peace is within. The world is a miracle.
Humankind is a vessel for love.
And God, if there is a God,
must have brought him safely
home from the war for a reason. If only
to keep the history professors honest.

 

 

(my Introduction to the book Dear God! (If There Is a God) by Harry Zeitlin)