with the spirit of the New Jersey Blues. They were a volunteer militia
of farm-boys with muscled arms, hardened by stacking lichen-encrusted stone walls,
who walked away from weeping mothers for a chance to test their courage.
I still hear the echoing thump of boots mired in dried cow dung
marching in close-order drill. A sergeant with mutton-cheek whiskers
barks out a jumble of orders: Shoulder arms! Lock and load muskets,
fix bayonets! Forward march!
Seeking relief from the drudgery of dawn to dusk farm routine, soldiers cheerfully
march off, singing “Hang Jeff Davis to a sour apple tree…” Innocent, they have no
idea of the baptism of fire that lies ahead in the unspeakable carnage of the battlefield.
But canteens rattle as empty as the will to fight. Terrified and homesick between
tedious stretches of boredom, they wait for orders. Nothing ever works as planned.
blistered feet refuse to walk another step.
They are soon immersed in a mystic sea of smoke and blood facing violent
skirmishes and rolling crashes of engagement under a blazing sun.
A deserter hides on his back in a field of Queen Anne’s Lace, comforted by a glimpse
of an opalescent milky-blue sky.
Each must struggle with the fear-driven impulse to run the other way,
as many do, shamed with a load in the back of their pants.
Behind the whir of bullets from a Gatling Gun, steel ramrods clank and clang,
jammed into hot rifle barrels. The pulsating thunder of cannons unnerve even
those who choose not to flee. Scarlet flames envelope trees in a whirling wind,
scorched leaves float down on bodies unable to move.
Violence ensues in perfect pandemonium. Volleys of musketry leave blood-spattered
en falling like snow down on warm ground. The entire world’s pain is squandered on
the stillness of an open field, tawny ghosts hover over survivors, grave-diggers for each
other under an indifferent sky. Meandering hogs feed on the un-gathered dead.
A gangrenous stink of putrefaction lingers, ignored by swarms of mosquitoes and a
plague of flies. Vultures scavenge on torn bodies and rivulets of blood.
Survivors limp home with missing limbs, eyes, and no way to describe the shared
incommunicable experience of war.
Milton P. Ehrlich, Ph.D. is an 84-year-old psychologist and a veteran of the Korean War. He has published numerous poems in such periodicals as "Descant," "Wisconsin Review," "Toronto Quarterly Review," "Christian Science Monitor," "Huffington Post," and the "New York Times."