Nov. 11, 2007

Driving with Uncle Bailey

by David Lee Garrison

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Poem: "Driving with Uncle Bailey" by David Lee Garrison, from Sweeping the Cemetery: New and Selected Poems. © Browser Books Publishing, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Driving with Uncle Bailey

Driving so slowly that a policeman
pulls him over and sniffs,
Uncle Bailey fumbles for his license,
then volunteers his social security card
and brags I've been collecting
benefits for over thirty years!

He survived the Depression
on his job as a rural postman,
now he jerks his old Ford to a stop
and rolls down the window
before he remembers
he has no mail to deliver.
Are you a Democrat or a Republican?
he asks, pretending
that he has halted to make sure
no liberals get a free ride.

Did I ever tell you I'm a war hero?
he laughs. Sworn in,
then discharged a few hours later
because World War I had ended,
he's the oldest veteran in the county,
grand marshal of the November parade.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1918 that the First World War came to an end. It's now considered one of the most wasteful and meaningless wars in human history, fought mainly because Austria, Serbia, Germany, Russia, France, and Great Britain got caught up in a tangle of alliances and none of them wanted to back down from a fight.

But nobody realized how the brutal the war would be, especially with the introduction of modern weapons like the machine gun, which could fire 600 bullets per minute. The machine gun turned the war into a long and intensely bloody stalemate. Most of the fighting took place along the Western front, stretching for 475 miles through Belgium and France, with about 10,000 soldiers per mile. Each side dug trenches for cover and then each tried to charge the other side, only to be mowed down by machine gun fire. There were numerous battles in which entire squadrons were wiped out in minutes. Some 260,000 French soldiers were killed in just the first month of fighting. On just one day in 1916, more than 50,000 British troops were killed without advancing a single foot. By the end of the war, on this day in 1918, 9 million soldiers had died and 21 million were wounded.

It has long been thought that the United States helped end the war by getting involved in 1917, but most historians believe that all the armies involved were ready to collapse — especially after the flu epidemic hit in 1918 — and the Germans just happened to collapse first. Rudyard Kipling was one of the millions of parents to lose a son in the war, and he wrote a poem about it that consisted of two lines: "If any question why we died, / Tell them because our fathers lied."

It's the birthday of a writer who was also a veteran, Kurt Vonnegut, (books by this author) born in Indianapolis (1922). He was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge and was forced to work in a Dresden factory producing vitamin-enriched malt syrup for pregnant women. He slept in a meat locker three stories underground, and that was the only reason he survived the firebombing on the night of February 13, 1945, when British and American bombers ignited a firestorm that killed almost all the city's inhabitants in two hours. When they walked outside, Vonnegut and his fellow prisoners were just about the only living people in the city. They were then forced by the Germans to help clean up the bodies.

Vonnegut spent the next two decades writing science fiction, but he knew he wanted to write about his experiences in Dresden, and finally did in his novel Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), about a man named Billy Pilgrim who believes that he experiences the events of his life out of order, including his service during World War II, the firebombing of Dresden, and his kidnapping by aliens. He decides there is no such thing as time, and everything has already happened, so there's really nothing to worry about.

Kurt Vonnegut, who also wrote Cat's Cradle (1963), God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965), Breakfast of Champions (1973), and many other books. He once said, "If you make people laugh or cry about little black marks on sheets of white paper, what is that but a practical joke? All the great story lines are great practical jokes that people fall for over and over again."

It's the birthday of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, (books by this author) born in Moscow (1821), whose career as a writer was just taking off when he was arrested for conspiring to publish socialist pamphlets. He and his friends were blindfolded and brought before a firing squad, assuming they only had moments left to live, only to be pardoned at the last minute by the Czar. Dostoyevsky spent the next four years doing hard labor in a Siberian prison, and it was there that he decided that all radical political ideas were essentially inhumane.

He struggled for years after he got out of prison, gambling and getting into debt, but he finally put all his ideas about radical politics into his first great novel, Crime and Punishment (1866), about a young intellectual named Raskolnikov who is struggling to get by and pay his bills and decides one day to murder an old pawnbroker woman, because he thinks he will do better things with the money than she will. But he winds up having to murder the woman's sister as well, and spends the rest of the novel trying to justify the murders to himself with various philosophical and political theories.

Dostoyevsky's went on to write many other novels, including The Idiot (1868), The Possessed (1872), and The Brothers Karamazov (1880). He died in 1881, and it was only after the Russian Revolution in 1917 that people realized how accurately he had predicted the way the leaders of the Communist government would use their high ideals to justify the murder and imprisonment of innocent people. Joseph Stalin later said, "Nobody understands human psychology like Dostoyevsky, and that's why I've banned him."

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