Elijah Imlay


Elijah Imlay











For the sake of freedom, we do what needs to be done

from down in the ditch to dropping from the air.

To be all we can be until the war is won,

we sacrifice without remorse because we care.


(The 101st Airborne Marching Band, dressed in jungle fatigues, maneuvers among craters and tank ruts. Dreemer, a clarinet player, stumbles and falls. He lands next to a Vietnamese woman squatting by the side of the road with corn and watermelon.)




Number 1 GI, watch out!

You want watermelon?

For you, today’s too hot.




Eyes right!


(A bird colonel returns Candy’s salute from his porch as the Band plays Spirit of the 101st,.  Then the colonel reenters his house.)


At ease!  (Dreemer sneaks back in line with a piece of watermelon.)




Dreemer, you’re dripping blood,

or is it watermelon juice?

When you trip in a tank rut

and ram your clarinet

into the roof of your mouth,

you get something sweet for it.

(shaking his head)

God must take care of you.




Shall I take a bow? (He bows.)

There’s a flap of skin

hanging from the hole

where the reed dug in. (laughs)

I like to laugh through pain,

be happy without a reason,

grateful for wind and sun

and the gift of this mama-san.

Bodies have much in common:

bones from the earth,

blood from water, skin

to hold them together,

but I’ll never forget her face.

I gave her a U.S. dollar

to honor her loving-kindness.




Yes, you are also kind

like my people are

when they are not at war.

I CANNOT laugh through pain,

not while so many suffer.

You smile, yet I see tears (touches his cheek).

There’s a poem in the pocket

of every soldier

from the north or the south

in this civil war.

I think you are a poet.




We are the children of sorrow,

the new-born and the dying,

the soldier and the farmer,

the eyelids of a river,

the dragon that brings rain.

We cannot laugh through pain,

not while so many suffer.


We are the children of sorrow,

the teacher and the healer,

the ghost without a grave.

Dull brains get rid of light,

and smiles bring it back

on a quick or quiet breath,

when we’re happy for no reason.


We are the children of sorrow

who rub ashes on our faces

by a bamboo water wheel,

farmers riding the backs

of blue water buffalo,

so strong and hard-working,

the symbol of Viet Nam.




You still my Number 1 GI.

Next time you won’t fall down. (winks at him)

You come back for more!


(Mama-San leaves and the band returns.)




Monks protested the war

by setting themselves on fire.

They believe there’s more

than one chance at life.




Like a cat, I got nine lives.

Couple of close calls in Chicago,

but seven to go (Laughs).

Play your piccolo!

Or talk to Dreemer.  Dreemer,

you know! That’s all I’ll say.




Buddhists wear their bodies like robes

and burn them for peace.




If you suppose these monks

ain’t afraid to die,

you a lyin’ son of a bitch.

When laughter wants to cry,

you never stop sweatin’

in the Nam unless you’re dead.

Don’t babble or I be bettin’

on you to watch your skull

decompose on your bed

if you look into a mirror

at the wrong time.  In war,

forget how your mother fed

the beggars at your door.


Summers in Chicago

street vendors sell watermelon.

Ain’t no one gets blown up.

Here, don’t give the peace sign, hippy!

If you hesitate to shoot,

you’ll come home in a bag.


(Mama-San returns.)




Number 1 GIs, stay, don’t go!

Corn on the cob is from America,

North and South, and came by ship

hundreds of years ago.

Same with watermelon!

Same here as in Chicago.




Number 1 mama-san,

you do not praise war

or the gold beads of history

to finger or change hands,

or the moan of forced prayer

from an alien faith,

or the land claimed by colonists.

I like what you say

about the corn we share

from the Americas

and the blood of watermelon

instead of fallen soldiers,

and wish I were free

to sleep without fear

on the breast of this land.


(The band marches back to the parade ground.)


HAWKINS, SAX PLAYER (speaking to Dreemer)


At Camp Evans, a Bird Colonel picked a random trombone player alongside

infantry to load ammo under fire onto aircraft headed for the Ho Chi Minh Trail.




Sounds like McCannon! We met in Oakland, waiting for a flight, but he had orders to report to the band at Camp Eagle a couple of months ago.




That don’t mean nothin’. Don’t think the colonel cares that musicians are exempt

from Advanced Infantry Training.




Hey, Wilder, did you hear the song the mama-san and I made up?  She’s speaks good English and looks more like a baby-san.




She gave you watermelon, but she’s no baby-san.  I saw some gray hair.  You were singing to yourself, not with her.  She disappeared.  You know it’s really hot, and you’ve had a hard day. Let’s get a cold drink.




Rumor has it before a judge’s order

to join up or go to jail, Candy wore

a cowboy hat and drove a Caddy.


MISTER CANDY (soliloquy)


Three girls, one room,

sixty men back from chow

Soldiers line up.

Officers get first pick.

Women without makeup,

baby-faced farm girls

hired to iron clothes

and fold uniforms,

fold their bodies to fit GI’s.

Five dollars a blow job,

ten for more. I keep time,

promising no crabs, no lice,

nothing a shot can’t fix.




For the sake of freedom, we do what needs to be done

from down in the ditch to dropping from the air.

To be all we can be until the war is won,

we sacrifice without remorse because we care.











Elijah Imlay’s first book of poems, Monsoon Blues, was published in 2011. He has conducted writing workshops for veterans of war through Poets & Writers, Inc. and PEN Center USA. He is the recipient of three Artist Fellowship Awards from the City of Ventura, California, has won honorable mentions for the 2006 Ruskin Art Club/Red Hen Press Award, the 2004 Robinson Jeffers Tor House Prize, and the 2002 Ann Stanford Poetry Prize. As a social worker, he gives professional workshops on the treatment of anxiety and trauma.  Imlay teaches web courses on meditation for the Institute of Applied Meditation and guides individual and group retreats.  He lives in Ventura, California.

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