He raised his head, strode over to my front porch, and extended a handshake. I had heard I was getting a new upstairs neighbor, and there he was standing before me.
Living above me for the better part of this year, “Papa” Jack was a beautiful, troubled soul. Growing up in Virginia, he got into some mishaps and was kicked out of his house at age 14. From there, he worked in the orange fields in Florida, then enlisted in the Army after more run-ins with the law and eventually became a sharpshooter during Vietnam.
“Well, my job was to kill. I did that, then went to bed, everyday,” he told me through saddened eyes.
After the war, he developed severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which overtook the latter years of his life, resulting in alcoholism and drug abuse. Add that to being a roofer for 30 years and his body paid the price. He’d routinely stop by my porch and chat, always wanting to know, “What’s in the news today?”
The last time we crossed paths, he and I sat on the porch and shot the bull. We just talked and watched the world drift by. I’ll never forget his eyes, which were full of regret and loss. He’d light his cigarette, inhale deeply and exhale while leaning back into the musty couch with a sigh.
Before and after becoming a journalist, I’d crossed paths with numerous Vietnam veterans. Not that their stories are better or worse than those from other wars, but their faces and sentiments stuck out more. They didn’t get a “ticker tape” parade upon returning home or were properly diagnosed when something went wrong, physically or mentally. They came back and dealt with themselves and their thoughts, many-a-time alone with nobody to turn to.
I’ve always been an advocate of the phrase, “You may not support the war, but support the troops.” Being 28 years old, from a military family, I’ve seen plenty of my high school classmates enlist and be deployed into Afghanistan and Iraq. Many came home ready to take on the day, while a handful never seemed to ever want to arise from bed again. It’s heartbreaking.
“Papa” Jack carried his traumas with him like a bag of weights. He was broken soul among thousands of similar folks, people we all come across day in and day out. Recently, I was strolling Main Street in downtown Waynesville during their Labor Day weekend “Block Party.” My friend Louie approached me.
“Jack died yesterday, had a heart attack. Dead as a doornail, so I just thought you should know,” he said before disappearing back into the crowd as fast as he appeared.
I’ll never forget “Papa” Jack, and I hope, through this poem, that you won’t either…
“For ‘Papa’ Jack”
He moved like a man carrying two full suitcases
Swaying back and forth, laboring up the stairwell
Back to his sweaty bed and coffee-stained carpet
Sheets unwashed due to a lack of quarters
And lack of energy to make the two-block walk
And sit there at the coin laundry with faces
As ragged, distraught and demoralized
As what he saw every morning in the mirror
Tattoos on his chest of soldiers fallen
And remembered by those, and him
Who was bittersweet about being lucky enough
To not come home in a wooden box
Tattoos on his chest in faded black ink
Covering his heart and lungs
Like marks of past transgressions
And burnt from infinite cigarettes
In shaky hands and lonely lips
Two polished, large sapphire pools
Tucked behind wrinkled flesh
Permanent lines and creases
From rare laughter in a rowdy bar
From often sorrow in an empty room
Another night on sweaty sheets
Another night of fear
From twilight visions he cannot escape
Grab for the bottle
And blur the madness
Head upon his pillow
Eyes upward and out the window
Branches sway in southern winds
One day he won’t wake up alone
A day he’ll never witness from his empty room
For he’ll already be in that wooden box
As tattooed skin, wrinkles and creases
And a broken heart
Will dissolve where only bone remains
The common denominator of a man
Forgotten by the land he was birthed from
1: The inaugural Shining Rock Riverfest will be Sept. 14 at Camp Hope in Cruso.
2: Poet Karen Kay Knauss will discuss her new work The Thorny Truth and Their Civil War on Sept. 14 in Waynesville.
3: The Pickin’ On The Square summer concert series continues with Earl Cowart and the Heart of the South on Sept. 14 in Franklin.
4: Seven Clans Rodeo runs from Sept. 13-15 in Cherokee.
5: The Macon Aero Modelers BBQ will be Sept. 21-22 in Otto.