BY MARTIN KICH
My Father at Work
My father was a union man.
For most of his last twenty-seven years,
he worked in a munitions plant.
High on the long brick building
there were yellow letters–
A M M U N I T I O N.
The plant was located
on a cliff above the river.
On the street side,
it was surrounded by a high fence
topped with rolled barbed wire.
At the gate were guards,
crewcutted and big shouldered,
whose waists hung heavily
with very polished holsters.
One had a small tattoo
of an exotic dancer
behind his right ear.
When my father died,
he was sixth in seniority.
When he was younger,
he was for a long while
Chief Steward of the Local.
During the war in Nam,
when three full shifts
were working, our phone
used to ring sometimes
at four or five in the morning.
Mostly it was some guy
sent home for being drunk
who had sobered up enough
to want something done about it.
Like my father, they were all vets—
of the Second War, Korea,
or, increasingly, of Nam itself.
My mother refused to say
that my father was not at home.
I was inside the plant several times.
Until his eyes wore out from the heat,
my father moved the shells
through a half-dozen to a dozen furnaces
set at different temperatures.
He would lift them out with tongs,
drop them onto a wire rack,
and roll them to the next furnace.
His forearms were like Popeye’s.
I would look over the pipe railing
down the three stories
to the flatcars shunting,
full of the silver shell casings,
like sardines when the lid
had been removed from the tin.
The men who worked with my father
were loud and very friendly with me
in a somehow dangerous way.
Seven years before he died,
my father had the first stroke.
When he went back to work,
they put him painting signs
with a stencil and a sprayer.
We would sit on the back porch
between work and supper,
and he would explain the importance
of keeping the stencil straight
and flush to the metal housing.
A week after my father died,
I went to clean out his locker.
Inside, I found a new hammer,
four screwdrivers with yellow
and black plastic handles,
a map of New Jersey,
and a dozen and a half baseball caps
stacked one inside the other,
all rock-hard with paint.
When I was a boy,
two dark bookcases stood in the hallway
that ran through the center of the house.
At the end of one of the bottom shelves
was a history of the 5th Marine Division.
My father’s name appeared nowhere
but among the long roster in the back.
I used to sit for hours under a small lamp
and search the ship and battle photos
for a face that might be his.
All my father ever said was,
“I never killed anyone. I drove a truck.”
It was not until years after his death
that an uncle mentioned in passing
that on Iwo Jima, my father
had driven ammunition
from the black beach to the fighting.
He had been in the second wave
on the first day, and he had sat
on top of death
for the whole six weeks
without getting a scratch.
My uncle said, “When it was finally over,
I think that your dad decided
going to bother him again.”
Of course, he could not have seen
Something Like Nostalgia
After the war,
my father tended bar
at Jimmy’s, a neighborhood
beer joint in his small hometown.
It catered to miners
and still opened at five in the morning
and closed at nine at night.
My mother had a photograph
of the two of them sitting at the bar.
She had cut off the bottom of the photo
so that they were visible only
from the waist up.
She explained to my wife that,
from “drinking the profits,”
my father had gotten too fat
to be sitting on a barstool.
When we were almost
of legal age, my brother
and I drove to Jimmy’s.
The barroom was as bright
as a kitchen, and the barmaid
looked like a housewife.
There were three old couples
at the tables, and a guy
in a Maytag uniform
sitting on a stool
at the far end of the bar.
The barmaid refused to serve us
more than two beers
because we had no IDs.
When I asked,
she said yes, she remembered
our father’s name
but, though she screwed up her face
in trying, she could not
match it to a face.
I light the room, a match, a cigarette.
The clock on the wall measures air pressure;
the cricket on the screen has slowed with the cooling of summer.
The far thunder figures not enough in the painting on the wall, where
three grouse sit startled in the snow.
They used to hang such eyes by the neck in a cat at night from the fence
by the school. In the morning the girls would run to the hedge to barf with little sounds.
The priest who went to school with my mother is dead.
I remember that he always turned his head to say “Good Morning.”
I will write that I am sorry at the news:
he said a quick mass; he had an easy way with men and
the eyes that women want in brothers, sons, neighbors’ husbands,
and their priests; he made a boy glad to be what
becomes a photograph
that is not forgotten.
My father wrote me one letter; I was lying in a bed in a room with
a high window. I had lost count of time
in the sky’s slow game of gray and black. My father was not well.
l have moved his letter to secrecy among my books.
l play a game of guess and wait. Tonight it will not rain. I will listen
until I cannot sleep.
[This last poem was originally published in College English, Vol. 45, No. 4 (Apr., 1983), p. 361.]