Oct. 1, 2006


by Ted McMahon

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Poem: "Grapefruit" Ted McMahon from The Uses of Imperfection. © Cat 'n Dog Productions. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


My grandfather got up early to section grapefruit.
I know because I got up quietly to watch.
He was tall. His hairless shins stuck out
below his bathrobe, down to leather slippers.
The house was quiet, sun just up, ticking of
the grandfather clock tall in the corner.

The grapefruit were always sectioned just so,
nestled in clear nubbled bowls used
for nothing else, with half a maraschino
centered bleeding slowly into
soft pale triangles of fruit.
It was special grapefruit, Indian River,
not to be had back home.

Doves cooed outside and the last night-breeze
Rustled the palms against the eaves.
He turned to see me, pale light flashing
off his glasses
and smiled.

I remember as I work my knife along the
membrane separating sections.
It's dawn. The doves and palms are far away.
I don't use cherries anymore.
The clock is digital
and no one is watching.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of author Tim O'Brien, born in Worthington, Minnesota. He was the son of an insurance salesman and an elementary school teacher. He was a loner as a kid and spent most of his time practicing magic tricks in the mirror. One day, he stumbled on some clippings of articles that his father had published in The New York Times about fighting in Iwo Jima and Okinawa. He'd never known that his father had been a writer, and the discovery made him want to write too.

But when he went to college, he decided to go into politics instead. He participated in peace vigils and protest marches, and he majored in political science. He hoped to join the state department and become a governmental opponent of war. When he graduated, he applied to Harvard University, but that summer he got drafted to fight in Vietnam. When he learned that he would be assigned to the infantry, he thought it was a mistake. He said, "Even when I was getting on the plane for boot camp, I couldn't believe any of it was happening to me, someone who hated Boy Scouts and bugs and rifles."

Before he went off to Vietnam, he was spending the day in northern Minnesota and had the chance to cross the border into Canada, but he decided not to. He hated every minute of his experience in Vietnam, but by the end of his tour, he had published several articles about his experience in newspapers. O'Brien said that the transition back to civilian life was more abrupt than he could have imagined. He said, "They process you out of the army in about two hours—say the pledge of allegiance, get in a taxicab, get on a plane, take off your uniform in the toilet, and fly to Minnesota. It was over, in a day and a half—from Vietnam, to Seattle, to Minnesota. It was fast and effortless, just like gliding out of a nightmare."

O'Brien had never taken a journalism class or a writing workshop in his life, but he got a job at The Washington Post and then quickly published a memoir of his experiences in Vietnam called If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home (1973).

Since then, most of his books have dealt with Vietnam in one way or another. He said, "In a war story there is a built-in life and death importance, one that a writer would have to construct otherwise. When you start a story saying, 'It was a hot day,' and you know it's a war story, the hot day has all sorts of reverberations that wouldn't be there if it were set on a beach in Miami."

O'Brien is perhaps best known for his book The Things They Carried (1990), a series of linked short stories about a group of soldiers in Vietnam, including a soldier named Tim O'Brien. The title story, which begins the collection, is among the most widely anthologized short stories in contemporary American literature.

"The Things They Carried" begins, "First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey. They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack. In the late afternoon, after a day's march, he would dig his foxhole, wash his hands under a canteen, unwrap the letters, hold them with the tips of his fingers, and spend the last hour of light pretending."

O'Brien is also the author of Tomcat in Love (1998) and July, July (2002).

O'Brien said, "Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember but the story."

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