Apr. 9, 2012

Old Guys

by Wesley McNair

Driving beyond a turn in the mist
of a certain morning, you'll find them
beside a men-at-work sign,
standing around with their caps on
like penguins, all bellies and bills.
They'll be watching what the yellow truck
is doing and how. Old guys know trucks,
having spent days on their backs under them
or cars. You've seen the gray face
of the garage mechanic lying on his pallet, old
before his time, and the gray, as he turns
his wrench looking up through the smoke
of his cigarette, around the pupil
of his eye. This comes from concentrating
on things the rest of us refuse
to be bothered with, like the thickening
line of dirt in front of the janitor's
push broom as he goes down the hall, or the same
ten eyelets inspector number four checks
on the shoe, or the box after box
the newspaper man brings to a stop
in the morning dark outside the window
of his car. Becoming expert in such details
is what has made the retired old guy
behind the shopping cart at the discount store
appear so lost. Beside him his large wife,
who's come through poverty and starvation
of feeling, hungry for promises of more
for less, knows just where she is,
and where and who she is sitting by his side
a year or so later in the hospital
as he lies stunned by the failure of his heart
or lung. "Your father" is what she calls him,
wearing her permanent expression
of sadness, and the daughter, obese
and starved herself, calls him "Daddy,"
a child's word, crying for a tenderness
the two of them never knew. Nearby, her husband,
who resembles his father-in-law in spite
of his Elvis sideburns, doesn't say
even to himself what's going on inside him,
only grunts and stares as if the conversation
they were having concerned a missing bolt
or some extra job the higher-ups just gave him
because this is what you do when you're bound,
after an interminable, short life to be an old guy.

"Old Guys" by Wesley McNair, from Lovers of the Lost: New and Selected Poems. © David R. Godine, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1865, General Robert E. Lee (books by this author) surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to the General of the United States Armies, Ulysses S. Grant (books by this author), effectively ending the Civil War.

Lee and Grant's armies had converged in Appomattox, Virginia, and fighting began at dawn; within a few hours, Lee realized his troops were outnumbered and surrounded. His choice was to commit most of them to slaughter and ensure a continuing guerrilla-style war, or to surrender with dignity. "There is nothing left for me to do but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths," he told his staff.

Lee dressed in a crisp, new uniform, including a red silk sash, gloves, and a ceremonial, jeweled sword. He feared that he would be taken as a prisoner of war, he said, and wanted to look his best. Riding his horse Traveller to the front lines, he stood under a flag of truce in full view of the Union army, and requested a meeting with Grant. When the reply came that a meeting would do no good, Lee responded to tell Grant that he wanted to discuss the question of surrender. It was a full hour before a ceasefire was ordered, and almost another before Lee's letter reached Grant.

When he did receive the request, Grant — younger, less experienced, and until just a few years prior an undistinguished soldier and unsuccessful businessman — immediately grasped the importance of the moment. Although President Lincoln had expressly ordered that only he was to negotiate peace and it was Grant's job only to fight, Grant seized the opportunity. Lee, he wrote back, should choose the time and place for their meeting. This gesture allowed Lee to retain a bit of power, and therefore dignity. Grant had no intention of taking him as a prisoner, or anyone else.

Lee's aide found an abandoned brick house in town for the meeting. Lee entered the house alone and waited in the parlor; Grant and a dozen of his generals and officers arrived soon after. Grant, who'd expected only battle when he rose that morning, was dressed in a private's coat splattered with mud.

They had both served in the Mexican-American War, and Grant reminded Lee that they'd once met. They reminisced about it, for almost a half an hour — Grant wrote that he'd been enjoying their talk so much he'd nearly forgotten the reason for their meeting, but he also admitted that he'd been embarrassed to have to bring up the subject of surrender.

Grant assured Lee that the terms of surrender would be simple: Lee's army was to hand over their arms. Grant continued to talk, going on about the prospects for peace and reconciliation, his hopes for a united country.

After the terms had been written and signed, Lee rode slowly back to his camp, where he met soldiers lined up along the road. They were cheering wildly. He began to cry, and as his men saw the tears, their shouts fell silent. Men sobbed. Some fell to their knees; others patted Lee's horse for comfort as he passed.

Grant wrote about his meeting with Lee in his Personal Memoirs (1885):

"What General Lee's feelings were I do not know," he wrote. "As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassible face, it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result, and was too manly to show it. Whatever his feelings, they were entirely concealed from my observation; but my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter, were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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