I’ve never posted this poem here, but today seems an appropriate day. I wrote it when my brother Keith was serving as a civilian contractor, driving trucks in Iraq, and he told me they weren’t allowed to stop when people ran in the road because of the threat of IEDs (improvised explosive devices). Please note that what happens to the trucker in the poem is something that I imagined, not that my brother experienced. Keith died last December of COVID-19, so now for me personally, this poem relates to two of the great tragedies in our country’s recent history.
I. The Fireman
He never knows what wakes him—
the click of the furnace,
the dull scrape of a snowplow in the street,
his wife’s soft sigh—
but once awakened, he hears explosions,
the loud percussive impact of a body hitting street,
bursting in a wet and heavy instant
like a monstrous water balloon
or a dropped melon.
Like a repeating loop of newsreel,
he sees them jump from the towering pyre
and try to keep on running,
arms pumping, legs striding through the smoky sky
as they plummet to eternity.
And he who could not save them,
nor the comrades lost in the Twin Towers’ fall,
keeps faith by living with the burden of memory—
the smell of burning flesh and fuel
the acrid taste of powdered concrete—
and waits for it to crush him
so he can join the others.
II. The Trucker
The snores are loud in a tent of 40 men,
shaking him from sleep
just as the roar of jet engines
must have vibrated the tower windows
right before the impact.
Eighteen hours he drove that day,
hauling steak, detergent, and stacks of mail
to an army base near Fallujah.
As he returned,
a barefoot boy in dirty clothes,
scrambled over the gravel shoulder
and onto the single-lane highway.
The boy held out his hands before him
in the universal gesture for “Stop”
and squeezed shut his eyes.
the convoy neither slowed nor turned
but drove straight forward to avoid ambush.
His was the truck that hit the slender body,
the initial thud of impact
followed by a bump as he ran over a yielding mass,
each set of wheels encountering less and less of a barrier.
Now he lies on his cot, trying not to shudder,
and tells himself the boy would have grown to be a terrorist,
so that killing him was like squashing a baby scorpion.
Above the snores of his tent mates,
comes the high-pitched hum of an overworked heater.
And hearing its whine, he imagines
that somewhere in the desert,
a brother or uncle or cousin
wails over a broken body
and vows jihad.
Copyright: Ruth Hull Chatlien. May not be reprinted or published without the author’s written permission.