A Marine reminds us that even amateur poetry can possess power

By JAYSON JACOBY, Baker City Herald December 24, 2008 02:21 pm

It’s all too easy to sulk these days, so dire are the dispatches which daily pummel even the casual consumer of news.

The news business depends on bad tidings, of course — the assorted awfulness that afflicts our world is as essential to the media as forage is to the cattle rancher.

People complain that they’re bludgeoned by this onslaught of negativity but I think they’d miss it if went away altogether. We are, most of us, attracted by stories of disaster and despair — mainly, I suspect, because they remind us that no matter how rotten we thought things were going for us, we’re better off than those poor people who were just on TV.

This is at best a meager and brief sort of solace, but accept it.

The tenor of things has turned particularly pessimistic, it seems to me, during the second half of 2008.

There has been but little respite since the start of summer. First fuel prices rose to unprecedented heights, then the housing and financial markets sunk to levels unimaginable mere months before.

Just recently, though, weather, that old reliable troublemaker, has shoved presidential succession and economic recession from the tops of front pages, and seized control of television cameras.

There’s significance in this, it seems to me, something more than our collective fascination with scenes of cars sliding across ice-skimmed streets and slamming into all manner of unyielding obstacles.

When the biggest story going is whether people can get to the grocery store today, it simply rings false to me the notion that our country lies on the verge of catastrophe.

It wasn’t so long ago that the specter which truly frightened us was not that a storm would close the factory outlet stores a week before Christmas, but that some lunatic would fly an airliner into a skyscraper.

Which thought brings me to the real inspiration for this column.

A few days ago a letter arrived here at the Herald. It was sent to me by a local woman whose son is a paratrooper in the U.S. Army.

She asked that we print a poem which a friend had e-mailed to her.

“Many of our sons and daughters, husbands and wives, and fathers and mothers are now serving in the armed forces,” the mother wrote. “And, many will be away from home this Christmas season. Please remember them in your prayers!”

As poems go this one, which was written by a U.S. Marine, is no prize-winner.

But even a writer who lacks the talents of a Yeats or a Frost or a Dickinson can extract from plain words a sort of power.

Maybe you could even call it magic.

’Twas the night before Christmas,

he lived all alone,

in a one-bedroom house made of

plaster and stone.

I had come down the chimney

with presents to give,

and to see just who

in this home did live.

I looked all about,

a strange sight I did see,

no tinsel, no presents,

not even a tree.

No stockings by mantle,

just boots filled with sand,

on the wall hung pictures

of far distant lands.

With medals and badges,

awards of all kinds,

a sober thought

came through my mind.

For this house was different,

it was dark and dreary,

I found the home of a soldier,

once I could see clearly.

The soldier lay sleeping,

silent, alone,

curled up on the floor

in this one-bedroom home.

The face was so gentle,

the room in such disorder,

not how I pictured

A United States soldier.

Was this the hero

of whom I’d just read?

Curled up on a poncho,

the floor for a bed?

I realized the families

that I saw this night,

owed their lives to these soldiers

who were willing to fight.

Soon round the world,

the children would play,

and grownups would celebrate

a bright Christmas day.

They all enjoyed freedom

each month of the year,

because of the soldiers,

like the one lying here.

I couldn’t help wonder

how many lay alone,

on a cold Christmas Eve

in a land far from home.

The very thought

brought a tear to my eye,

I dropped to my knees

and started to cry.

The soldier awakened

and I heard a rough voice,

‘Santa don’t cry,

this life is my choice.”

“I fight for freedom,

I don’t ask for more,

my life is my God,

my country, my corps.”

The soldier rolled over

and drifted to sleep,

I couldn’t control it,

I continued to weep.

I kept watch for hours,

so silent and still

and we both shivered

from the cold night’s chill.

I didn’t want to leave

on that cold, dark night,

this guardian of honor

so willing to fight.

Then the soldier rolled over,

with a voice soft and pure,

whispered, “carry on, Santa,

it’s Christmas day, all is secure.”

One look at my watch,

and I knew he was right,

“Merry Christmas, my friend,

and to all a good night.”

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.