My Uncle Norman Yelton passed away today. He was the last of his generation in our family, the last of fourteen siblings. I wrote this poem in his honor.
His hands shook a little as he lit his cigarette
his gnarled fingers skillfully flipping the lighter
with a click
A smoke cloud blew upward and
he closed his eyes in pleasure
“Been smokin’ sixty two years
and loved every one of ‘em.”
Then he spoke of the past with a look in his eye
that told me he saw seventy years gone
like it was yesterday.
Days when Roosevelt was President
and swing music was new
and folks rallied around
to defeat a primal evil
and save the world.
He told of getting sick on the victory ship
in the North Atlantic
and how the German torpedo missed them
by fifty yards.
Of how the landing at Normandy
took five of his friends
their lifeblood leeched out
on that grim and sandy shore.
And how they fought the Nazi’s
and the plink of a round against his helmet
of twisting his ankle
and then marching fourteen miles
of sleeping in the mud
for eight straight nights
of being spattered by the brains
of his platoon sergeant
in front of a little church in France
when the Germans opened up with their Mausers.
He killed three of them,
said it was the first time he had told anyone.
He was sick with the flu for two weeks in November
confined to his bed in the field hospital
they told him he almost died of exposure
but he went back as soon as he could
caught up with his comrades at a bridge
where one German tank blocked the road
and Sammy Nelon of Huntsville swam across,
climbed on the tank
and shot the driver with the lieutenant’s .45.
Then he slung a satchel charge into the treads
but it went off before he could get clear.
Sammy was nineteen.
A single tear trickled down.
He looked out the window at the blowing leaves
“This’ll be my last winter. Will you see the antifreeze gets changed?”
A practical people, this greatest generation.
The house was quiet, just the old man and me.
I nodded yes and he nodded too.
The last of his family, the rest all gone
and he alone just waiting
for the final reunion.