Letter to the Lost
By Tom Sheehan
Dear Big John and Little John and Billy and Hughie Menzies and Londo and Eddie McCarthy and Breda and Kujawski and the comrade I carried to his death whose name I never knew and all the others I pray for every night yet, the men of the 31st Infantry Regiment and brother outfits of the 17th Regiment and the 32nd Regiment and the 49th Field Artillery Battalion, and all the comrades and all the wars.
Every reading I’ve done for more than 67 years simply begins this way: John Maciag was all bone, knees, elbows, and jaw, hated his rifle, proficient at killing, wanted home so badly it burned his soul. We leaned up that mountain near Yangu, frightened. War’s hurricane tore our ranks, trees of us lifted by roots. I came running down three days later. Like cordwood the bodies were piled between two stakes, all Korean but that jaw of John Maciag I saw, a log of birch among the pine. The sergeant yelled to move on. I said no, maybe never. I am going to sit and think about John Maciag’s forever, whose fuel he is, what the flames of him will light. Perhaps he will burn the glory of man or God.
When asked to read to celebrate my new book of memoirs, I wanted to let the audience enter the cubicle where the work came from. This is what I told them: I’ll celebrate with you by telling you what I know. I’ll tell you how it is with me. This is what I know. This is what I am and what has made me:
Just behind the retina and a small way back is a little room. It has a secret door and passageways and keywords other than Sesame. If you’re lucky enough to get inside that room, at the right time, there’s ignition, there’s light, there’s a flare, now and then there is a pure incandescence like a white phosphorous shell at detonation. It’s the core room of memories, the memory bank holding everything you’ve ever known, ever seen, ever felt, ever dislodged spurting with energy. The casual, shadowy and intermittent presences you usually know are microscope-beset, become most immediate. For those glorious moments, the splendid people rush back into your life carrying all their baggage, the Silver Streak unloaded, Boston’s old South Station alive, bursting seams.