when Martin Luther King walked Auburn Avenue,
Pete Lanza worked as “Breaker Boy”
in Pennsylvania coal mines, at 20-years old,
blasted “Kraut” machine gun nests from bunkers,
helped French occupiers drive Viet Minh out of tunnels.
And after eighty (+) dry years, Nor’easter storms,
kidney failure, and endless hemodialysis,
Pete spoke with terminally ill Vet, Woodrow Scott,
who lived across Gino Merli Veterans Center’s
whitewashed hallway, room number 113.
Woodrow repetitively told corny jokes,
uncontrollably passed gas,
boasted about Jackie Robinson
and a mysterious interior land, called
the Lost Continent of Conscience.
One Spring afternoon,
Nurse Marina came around, gave Pete
Bayer aspirin and a tiny plastic water cup,
said, “Bottoms up handsome,
Doc says aspirin protects hearts under attack.”
Unsure he wanted to continue-on much more,
Pete tilted head back, swallowed, near choked,
noted salad dressing stain upon baby blue pajama top.
He tried to remember Woodrow’s silly joke
about the rabbi, Catholic priest, and a Mullah,
stranded upon ocean raft…, what each did to survive!
Pete rose from wheel chair, staggered,
he remembered Giuseppe and Pinocchio.
He noted how respectable parents early lessons
and one’s chosen occupation can easily backfire,
a pure conscience turned into smoldering
Lebanon wood, road to decency barricaded.
“I did not choose Nursing Home internment…,
I’d rather perish in either a battlefield fox hole
or in Trump casino,” he thought.
Pete longed to return home, perhaps fall down
forever upon his wall-to-wall carpeted floor.
He recalled Woodrow’s silly joke
about a businessman turned into a Kingsnake
and who swallowed entire body.
Goaded by Percocet, nothing else to do,
Pete swallowed frail legs, belly, torso, and head.
he moved through a messy moral maze,
was challenged by a Buddhist monk
who decades ago, lit himself afire on a Saigon street.
The monk asked, “Do you know the way to My Lai?”
Pete frowned, replied,
“Yes siree – Woodrow’s funny chicken crossed
those dirt streets one too many times…,
do you mind telling me what this journey’s all about?”
The monk disappeared, and Pete emerged from
an opening in the Iceland sea.
In view, October 1986, superpower battleships side by side,
Hammer and Sickle, Old Glory flags rippled in wind.1
A rainbow appeared in dense fog,
Pete heard V.I.P. voices talk about
abolishing nuclear weapons –
Let 1.8 million savages enter New City of Jerusalem,
let Zionist archaeologists tunnel beneath
Al Aqsa Mosque, Dome of the Rock.
Profoundly exhausted by long inner journey,
“Ah, I found the Lost Continent of Conscience!”
But he thought deeper, asked the fog,
“Is it really possible for people
who never heard of Pinocchio and Gorbachev
to draw closer to one another?”
Pete tried to itemize what mattered most.
Pacemaker, his wedding band, afternoon bingo,
hot biscuits, a visit from divorced daughter Nancy.
Percocet effect wore off,
Pete passed through tunnel labyrinth checkpoints,
safely returned to hallway wheel chair.
His pride about having survived Black Lung
and America’s War Against Tunnel Rats diminished.
Suddenly, Woodrow and trusty “walker”
appeared in hallway, “You were A.W.O.L. for quite
a while,” said Woodrow.
Groggy, Pete came to, diaper needed change.
Woodrow cracked another joke;
this time, a new one about Snow White’s
unplanned pregnancy, multiple dwarf paternity.
Pete laughed, Woodrow looked him in eye,
said,” Hey Doughboy, while you were gone tunneling,
someone named Captain Westy stopped by to collect
your unpaid American Legion monthly dues…
Westy warned you ain’t ‘gonna get an Honor Guard
at funeral service if dues ain’t paid up.”2
Pete swooned, ashamed, consulted conscience,
he thought about what mattered most:
“Either pay Legion dues or keep some money
aside to help support Nancy and pregnant Snow White?”
- There are albeit magical international situations which often stick in an average person’s memory. One such for me, the October 1986 meeting of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev at sea, off coast of Reykjavik, Iceland. The summit goal, complete nuclear disarmament, and I watched the remarkable water-borne event on T.V. As if directed by Steven Spielberg, CNN cameras focused upon a vivid rainbow which appeared in the cold sky. However, President Reagan’s alternative Star Wars (“Strategic Defense Initiative”) security plan intervened, and Superpower nuclear disarmament was NOT found inside pot at rainbow end. [↩]
- In April 2001, when my father Charlie lay dying in the Taylor Nursing Home, a wounded veteran of WWII, Pacific Theater, he received a letter (at his home) from the local American Legion where he was a member for over ten years. The letter explained how Charlie’s monthly dues payments were late, and indicated if such situation continued, he would NOT get a military Honor Guard at his wake. A proud US Army P.F.C., I never told my father about the letter, lapsed V.F.W. Dues, and the disturbing warning. [↩]