Although I didn’t know it as a kid, my grandfather, Eugene (Eugenio) James Martinis—“Jimmy” to his siblings, “Marty” to me—was a Screaming Eagle, a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne. Technically Marty was my step-grandfather, but I didn’t know that, either, and it wouldn’t have mattered to me. When I was six, I visited a petrol station in the Mojave Desert, and the owner, a man that I later learned was my biological grandfather, gave me a mesh baseball cap with “Esso” stitched across the front. It was a cool hat with really loud plastic snaps, and I liked that it smelled like gasoline, but I lost it soon after. There was no relationship behind the gift to make it valuable. Marty, for his part, was aloof and even cold at times, but he was there, and, as it turned out, he gave me one of the most enduring lessons of my childhood.
It would be a stretch to say that I loved Marty. He was too quiet, and he preferred the company of his dogs to my own. But I did like him. He smelled like menthols and coffee beans, and sometimes he would wake up—that’s how I thought of it—and tell a really great joke, like the one about what the Dalmatian said after dinner (“That hit the spots!”). He could do a perfect Foghorn Leghorn impersonation, his Italian spare ribs didn’t fall apart as you were picking them up (but they fell apart perfectly in your mouth), and he always kept the candy jars stocked. He bought us our first VCR, and when “Old Blue,” my dad’s Datsun 510, finally got to the point where he couldn’t resurrect it (Dad had been hotwiring it with paperclips during its final years), Marty gave him his Ford Pinto, a bright orange car we named “Julius,” which Dad kept until 2002, long after Marty was gone—he died of lung cancer in 1991. I never knew Marty well, even as a teenager. By the time I was old enough to value what he gave me and want to know him better, he was sick, and then he was dead.
One day in the summer of 1985, my cousins and I were “playing war”—an awful phrase, but it’s the one we used—in Marty’s front yard, trying to avoid the dandelion flares and dog poop land mines. I had just stormed the beach of the flowerbed when I realized Marty was on the front porch. There was a lit cigarette in his hand, but he wasn’t smoking it. He wasn’t moving at all. To say he was watching me doesn’t quite get it right. He was looking in my direction, but he wasn’t seeing me. I didn’t understand the look on his face. How could I? I was a ten-year-old Mormon kid who’d been raised in a bubble. I hadn’t even seen an R-rated movie. I had no reference for genuine horror. I stepped backwards into the yard, but I was unable to turn my back to him. I stopped about ten feet from the porch and just stood there. I’m sure I couldn’t have articulated this at the time, but I was afraid—not of Marty, like you might expect, but of leaving Marty. That is, I was afraid that if I left, I would hurt him. Something in him would break. I don’t know how long we were there after my cousins had left the yard, but I would have stayed all night if he hadn’t stepped down from the porch and started unbuttoning his flannel shirt.
I don’t claim to be an expert on many subjects, but one thing I know for certain is that you can never be prepared for your grandfather to undress in front of you, especially in his front yard. But that’s what Marty did, without speaking or giving me any clue as to the reason for it. He unbuttoned his shirt and slipped it off, and when he did, I saw what looked like a plait of fine lines pasted to his right side, rising from his hip to his nipple, all the more striking because even though Marty was a dark-haired Italian with a lot of body hair everywhere else, there was no hair on that side of his body. By the time I was beginning to process what I was seeing, Marty had already slipped off his shoes and unbuttoned his pants. He pulled them down and stepped out of them, then stood there in the grass with nothing on but his boxer shorts and his socks. His right leg had similar scarring. In my kid brain, the marks looked like strands of stretched Silly Putty. Years later my mom would tell my about the Battle of the Bulge, how Marty had jumped over Belgium and how only twenty percent of those who jumped with him made it to the ground alive. She would tell me about the phosphorous that ripped his side open and seared the skin, how he had somehow kept fighting and made it out alive. She would tell me about the trip she took with him, first to the Ardennes Forest and then to the military cemetery where Marty’s best friend is buried, and she would show me the campaign medals and the photographs as she told me about how much that trip had helped him—and also how deeply it had hurt him. But on that summer afternoon in 1985, Marty didn’t tell me about those things. In fact, we never spoke of them, though I wish now that we had. On that day, Marty just wanted me to look. He wanted me to see.
It’s not just on Memorial Day that I remember Marty. Because of what he gave me, I think of him most often in my teaching. I remember him, for example, when sophomores wrestle with Wilfred Owen and argue with each other—as they should—about whether it is sweet and glorious to die for the fatherland. Marty, horrified at seeing me pull imaginary pins from pinecones and lob them over the retaining wall, was teaching me the very thing that Wilfred Owen was trying to get across to Jessie Pope—namely that war is not a game, that there is a dreadful cost, and that it is, therefore, obscene to rhyme the words “gun” and “fun” in a poem, to wave a poetic white feather at a child or to promise him glory in the bouncing rhythm of a playground song. I think of him when my students read Siegfried Sassoon’s “They” and discuss how soldiers are changed by war, or when I play Kenneth Branagh’s recording of Owen’s “The Send-off” and students sit in silence, unable to speak at the thought of those “too few” returning soldiers, who “creep back, silent…along half-known roads.” And in those moments I also think, as they do, of those who have not returned, from either World War or the many wars that have followed—those eighty percent of Marty’s division who jumped into the darkness above Belgium and never took another breath on solid ground, or the eleven men of Travis Williams’s squad who died in Iraq.
When they do speak, I listen as my students debate important questions, like whether or not these are “anti-war poems,” and what that even means, or whether it is possible to speak out against war but still support the troops. Students find the answers to these questions in the writing itself. They discover, for example, that Sassoon, in his famous letter of 1917, is writing on behalf of the troops, and that his love for them was such that he eventually rejoined them at the front to fight in what he believed to be a mismanaged war. These poets were not cowards or political commentators or armchair critics who didn’t know what they were talking about. Both Sassoon and Owen were awarded the Military Cross. Both left Craiglockhart War Hospital and returned to the front. Sometimes students are moved to tears when they read Owen’s “Strange Meeting,” a poem where the speaker goes down into a trench and, as it becomes the underworld, comes face to face with a soldier he has killed. They are moved not just because the dead soldier speaks of the deeds he might have accomplished and the poems he might have written had he survived, but because they know what Owen did not: that the poem is a prophecy. Owen would be killed in action a week before the Armistice.
To my knowledge Marty never spoke out against WWII or any other war. In fact, my mother tells me he encouraged her to join the Air Force, believing that it would be a good life for her. By showing me his scars, I don’t think he intended for me to question the justness of his cause, or at least I don’t think that was his primary motivation. I think, instead, he wanted me to feel a gravity I had never felt before. And sometimes I share this story with my students because I want them to feel it, too. The dead are not something to trifle with or to use as political leverage. They were here, and now they are dead, and their absence should weigh on us. It should make us ask hard questions about the way they died and the reasons they died. It should make us question the ideology that sent them there. I watch, for example, as students find themselves confronted (and seduced) by the romantic (and familiar) nationalism of Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier," a poem that leads them to a discussion about the ideology of American exceptionalism. I don't tell them what to think. That's not what teaching is about. Teaching is about starting a conversation, the way Marty did that afternoon even without using words. I don’t think I’ll ever know what he saw as he looked at me “playing war” that afternoon, but I imagine he saw ghosts, maybe the ghost of his best friend. I'm speculating, and I wish I knew for sure, but I know enough to let the experience weigh on me and work in me. There is gravity to sacrifice, and there is also aftermath. As difficult as that aftermath can be for me to face, it was more difficult for Marty, so I try to carry the experience in all its visceral reality and complexity, and I try to approach my reading and teaching of poetry with the same commitment. In the words of the Welsh poet Alun Lewis, in my mind the greatest poet of the Second World War, “Across scorched hills and trampled crops / The soldiers straggle by. / History staggers in their wake.”