Poetry 138: Lonely Eagles by Marilyn Nelson

for Daniel “Chappie” James, General USAF
and for the 332d Fighter Group


Being black in America
was the Original Catch,
so no one was surprised
by 22:
The segregated airstrips,
separate camps.
They did the jobs
they’d been trained to do.

Black ground crews kept them in the air;
black flight surgeons kept them alive;
the whole Group removed their headgear
when another pilot died.

They were known by their names:
“Ace” and “Lucky,”
“Sky-hawk Johnny,” “Mr. Death.”
And by their positions and planes.
Red Leader to Yellow Wing-man,
do you copy?

If you could find a fresh egg
you bought it and hid it
in your dopp-kit or your boot
until you could eat it alone.
On the night before a mission
you gave a buddy
your hiding-places
as solemnly
as a man dictating
his will.
There’s a chocolate bar
in my Bible;
my whiskey bottle
is inside my bedroll.

In beat-up Flying Tigers
that had seen action in Burma,
they shot down three German jets.
They were the only outfit
in the American Air Corps
to sink a destroyer
with fighter planes.
Fighter planes with names
like “By Request.”
Sometimes the radios
didn’t even work.

They called themselves
“Hell from Heaven.”
This Spookwaffe.
My father’s old friends.

It was always
maximum effort:
A whole squadron
of brother-men
raced across the tarmac
and mounted their planes.

My tent-mate was a guy named Starks.
The funny thing about me and Starks
was that my air mattress leaked,
and Starks’ didn’t.
Every time we went up,
I gave my mattress to Starks
and put his on my cot.

One day we were strafing a train.
Strafing’s bad news:
you have to fly so low and slow
you’re a pretty clear target.
My other wing-man and I
exhausted our ammunition and got out.
I recognized Starks
by his red tail
and his rudder’s trim-tabs.
He couldn’t pull up his nose.
He dived into the train
and bought the farm.

I found his chocolate,
three eggs, and a full fifth
of his hoarded-up whiskey.
I used his mattress
for the rest of my tour.

It still bothers me, sometimes:
I was sleeping
on his breath.

This weeks poem was suggested by Jim Champion. If you would like to suggest a poem for inclusion in this series then please email me at richard@middlewaysociety.org.

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

About Richard Flanagan

I’m an Operating Department Practitioner who works for my local NHS trust in Shropshire, UK. I’m married with two young children (plus two dogs and a corn snake) and am currently undertaking an Open University degree in History. I listen to a lot of music of all genres, but especially Rock (Punk, Alternative etc.) and enjoy cooking, eating and drinking. Although I don’t consider myself to be a Buddhist I am interested in some Buddhist ideas and practices. As such, I was briefly active with Secular Buddhism UK and it was through that group that I came to be involved with the Middle Way Society.

2 thoughts on “Poetry 138: Lonely Eagles by Marilyn Nelson

  1. Bearing in mind the state of race relations in 1940s USA it may have seemed best for the war effort and for these black airmen to have a squadron of their own so as to avoid any conflict that a racially-mixed squadron might have fostered. I think that if I’d been a black airman at the time I might have thought so too.

    As a slightly sentimental vignette of soldierly comradeship and closeness, and the sort of laconic humanity that war draws out in people, it’s worth a read, and it has an authentic historicity that appeals to us ‘old-timers’ for whom literature like this has some direct resonance. I’m struggling to decipher dopp-kit, I think -pp may have to do with personal property, it’s a minor irritation, associated in my mind with a slight sense of being excluded, an outsider, or, rather, a non-insider.

    Recognising that and seeing its relevance to the race issue, and my response to the poem, is the only association I can see to the Middle Way at this time, more may arise after I’ve had time to digest, assimilate and integrate.

  2. PS Looking again at the photograph, the aircraft and the airmen’s uniforms, it occurs to me that the poem dates back to the 1950s or 1960s, perhaps the Korean conflict, not to WW2. That doesn’t significantly alter its impact on me, other than to have me put my recollections at a different distance and angle.

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