Geary Stearns: Unbidden Memories

I have never talked about these before
And have seldom thought about them,
But there was this sudden sound
And a recent book about Guadalcanal
And the Marines and their tanks there,
Amid the attacking enemy on a sand spit,
And the memories came unbidden.

This morning there was the creaking, squeaking
Rumble of tracks and bogeys of a backhoe
Down in the canyon below the house,
Barely visible through the trees.
And the quick picture came
Of a dirt road in Germany in the Spring of '45
Imprinted with tank tracks
Embedded with lumps of field-gray uniform cloth.

Why do I jump to the image
Of dead GI's laid out on litters, head-to-toe,
In full daylight,
On the right side of the narrow street
Leading down to the Rhine?

We wait in single file to board shallow boats
To paddle across to St Goarhausen.
These are the same kind of boats
That these dead launched hours before
In the stealthy dark for the same passage.
But the river lighted up and well zeroed-in
20's and 88's and what-all,
Denied the secrecy of their assault.

Some early teaching that it is rude to stare at the afflicted
Prompted me to tell the others not to look
While I could not take my eyes off one still body
In water-soaked OD's
Whose only visible sign of hurt
Was the missing first joint of a finger on his left hand.

There is no sense of balancing up a score
To recall the German soldier,
Fully clad, lying on his back,
His gray-green uniform already too hot for the season,
Empurpled, bloated face staring at the sky,
Dead in a field beside the dirt road.

But there is a sense of wonder
In thinking about our "hostess"
(We had deployed our heavy machine guns
At the edge of her terrace high above St Goar)
Frail, dressed in formal black dress, ancient,
Who felt it necessary to explain to me,
OD-clad tourist,
That Die Lorelei, the mythical maidens
Whose seductive songs from the heights
Above St Goarshausen (she pointed)
Lured Rhine sailors to their deaths
On the rocks below.
Did she not know what had happened
Early this morning in the Rhine below?

We all have memories unbidden,
But not forgotten.