“What I Remember of World War II” by Dan Gerber

Dan Gerber


I was born the day before the first
air raid on Briton and, of course, remember

nothing of that. But I remember
everything that was spoken about

the war and the way people looked
when they spoke about it. I remember

the German prisoner-of-war camp in
our little town, only a few blocks

from our house, remember from the
black and white newsreel film, the

Nazi Stuka dive bombers, screaming
through sirens fixed on their wings

to make their deadly terror even
more terrible to those about to die

and to those who remembered the
terrified dying, and the scars, if only

in the memories of those telling it and
the names from the radio and the

ink-soaked names on the front
pages of the newspapers I picked up

from the sidewalk—Al Alamein,
Corregidor, Saipan, Tarawa, Bastogne,

Buchenwald, Guadalcanal, Dresden, Iwo
Jima, The Bulge, Hiroshima, Dunkirk,

remember the young men in khaki
who came to our house to see my sister,

the off-duty guards from the prison camp
who came to drink and play pinochle

with my mother and Martha, my nanny—
my father away in Washington for the war—

the jokes and laughter through
the haze of Camels and Lucky Strikes,

and the blue stars in the windows of
families with fathers, husbands, and sons

away in the war and two of those stars
turning gold for Mrs. Jackson across

the street whose husband’s destroyer went down
in the Coral Sea, and Mrs. Keller, catty-

corner to our house, whose son Jack
burned up in the sky over Dresden,

the fox holes I dug in the sand at
our cottage where I waited for the Jap

ships to loom up on the far Lake Michigan
horizon, remember the piercing blue

of the morning glories against the
whitewashed fence out our kitchen

door where I stood when I heard
on the radio of a great bomb

dropped on Japan, and a few days
later, when my mother gave me the

key to open a neighbor’s cottage for
two men delivering a mattress and

how the one walking backwards as
he carried the front end of it said,

“Hey kid, did you hear, the war’s
over?” And I ran back up the long drive,

the road so much longer and the
gravel deeper, running home to

tell my mom that now everything
would be all right, forever.

from Rattle #67, Spring 2020


Dan Gerber: “When I was twelve years old, miserable and lonely, living away from home in a place I didn’t want to be, I read a poem—Walter De La Mare’s ‘The Listeners’—that filled me with mystery and, for a while, took me beyond my wretched little self and saved me with the idea that I might make something out of words that could create, in myself at least, the feeling and the vision I’d received from that poem. Poetry made me want to go on living back then, and it still does.”

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