WE WERE SOLDIERS
© Tom McIlveen
Winner, 2016 Boyup Brook Country Music Festival, Boyup Brook WA.
I remember the day when we left the old farm
with our suitcases packed to the brim.
My Dad had an overcoat under each arm,
which was challenging, even for him.
He was hardly the type to be fussing with clothes
in the midst of a woman’s domain…
but doing the best that he could I suppose,
as he trudged through the mud, in the rain.
Though the weather was foul, he was eager to leave
on that cold and despicable day.
If I hadn’t been so enthralled and naïve,
I’d have probably opted to stay.
We had scrambled for seats in the back of the car,
as excited as we were in awe…
of travelling somewhere secluded and far
from wherever we’d ventured before.
There were tears from the girls, but we boys didn’t cry …
we were soldiers according to Dad ̶
and soldiers are masters at saying goodbye,
even when they are fearful and sad.
I remember the way he had tried to disguise
the emotions that men shouldn’t feel…
and how he had hidden the tears in his eyes,
as he steadied his hands on the wheel.
He had drifted behind an invisible cloud
which had left him marooned in a haze
of sadness diffused in a shadowy shroud
for the term of his natural days.
It was almost as though he was wearing a mask
to prepare him for what was to be…
a curtain, to mantle the terrible task
of discarding my siblings and me.
He had tried to explain what had happened to Mum,
as we drove through that long afternoon.
He said she was sick and unable to come
and would probably visit us soon.
I had known by the tone of his voice he had lied
to conceal what I knew to be true ̶
and something inside of me shrivelled and died,
when the orphanage came into view.
It had stood like a sinister stark silhouette
in a tragic Shakespearean play,
and branded an image I’ll never forget
till I’m finally mouldered away.
There was something peculiar and menacing there ̶
an intangible ominous sign;
a chill that pervaded the afternoon air,
that was eerie and hard to define.
When the Mother Superior beckoned us in,
she had welcomed us all with a smile,
and told us that once we were purged of all sin,
we could sleep in the Chapel awhile.
She complained that the blankets were tattered in threads,
but should keep us comparably warm,
as there was a desperate shortage of beds
in the Children’s Provisional Dorm.
I remember my father’s uneasy embrace
at the sound of the janitor’s bell…
the harrowing look of despair on his face
as he bid us a final farewell.
When reality struck, it had cut like a knife,
which had pierced me right down to the bone,
and left me to bleed for the rest of my life
from a heart that would harden to stone.
I was only a boy and as guileless and green
as a pup in a litter of strays,
and found it so hard to conform to routine
and astringent, draconian ways.
When the wind used to howl through the hallways at night,
I would cringe in the darkness and hide,
and wonder if Dad would remember to write
and forgive me…whenever I cried.
I have kids of my own and a family now,
in a world that is wholesome and good,
and wonder at times why I solemnly vow
to indulge in them more than I should.
There’ll be sorrow and tears from the girls when I die
and my soul is set homeward and free…
but boys will be masters at saying goodbye ̶
like their grandfather was before me.