A Wake on the Santa Barbara Pier

by Thomas J. Scheff (May 2010)


Sundays the tourists, seeking cheer,
stroll on our local pier.
They pass, in plain view
A memorial quite new
for our soldiers who died
in the war against Iraq this year:

Sunday mornings we vets install
A mock cemetery with three thousand crosses,
And take it down Sunday nights,
Sisyphus-like, a moveable bier.
Laid out like a real graveyard,
it covers the beach
to the right of the pier.
 
We are in the sand by the pier,
talking with those who come near.
Most either don't look,
As if in a trance,
or give only a sidelong glance.

But many stop, look at the crosses far and near
then at the books of the dead
Laid out as leaves on our railing,
beside the rail of the pier.

They look at me, puzzled. "Which war?"
"Iraq." I say. Which war!
 
Some leave at this point.
Most, though, look again
at the names of the dead.
"What for?"

"To honor our dead." I say.
Beside the rail of our pier
They take their first long look,
The tumblers roll open a lock.
I can see in their faces
Signs of surprise, grief or shock.

They wake to a thought
like a line from T.S. Eliot
Who borrowed it from Dante:
"I had not thought death had undone so many."
 
They knew before they looked
that our soldiers were dying in Iraq.
But they didn't know they knew.
Or more to the point,
They didn't feel what they knew.
They hadn’t felt that death had undone so many.

Somehow the great size of the mock graveyard
its earthy concreteness,
has forced them to feel the pain
they didn't want to feel.
They had been soldiering on,
Avoiding the thought and the pain.
 
But now they are transformed,
Made new by feeling.
We are suddenly bonded together
Connecting as persons.
Many tell me their hopes and fears
about someone in the service,
How they yearn for them to come back
To walk on beaches with piers.

Some ask to come down
to walk among the crosses,
to add flowers or photos.
They want to feel
To feel more of their losses.

Some ask if they can help
or give money. They give generously.
Some cry.
All of those who get this far
speak from the heart:
"Thank you for doing this."
"Its good of you, its wonderful."
"God bless."

Heart to heart with a stranger,
for them an unexpected encounter.
Neither their politics nor mine
seem to matter. We are united by feeling.
I have the sense of a first tiny step
On the long road to healing.
 
I say to myself
"How could they not know and feel?"

But then I remember my first time.
My fellow vet Bob
had asked me to put nametags on the crosses.

I read the names and ages,
crawling in the sand
Between stations of the crosses,
Most are young, I didn't know,
didn't know their ages.
Didn’t feel our losses.
Hadn’t read the pages.
 
I return to where Bob is writing tags
for the young soldiers who died last week.
"Do you want to put up more?"
"Give me a minute, I didn’t know..."

But I can't finish.
I cry instead, convulsed with pain,
sobbing, wet with many a tear.
Hidden grief has struck deep.
I wake from my long sleep.
In this moment by the rail of the pier

I had not thought death
had undone so many,
had not thought,
so young, so many.
 
I have protested this war
since it was just an idea, 
Sure that I knew what I knew
and felt what I felt.
But I didn’t know.
 
I am just another tourist,
blindsided by long rows of crosses,
struck by lightning on the road to Damascus.
I learned that we must all mourn our losses.      
We must all mourn our losses.
At a wake by the pier.
 

[I gratefully acknowledge help with this poem from my niece Stacy Scheff.]
 
Thomas J. Scheff is Professor Emeritus, Dept. of Sociology, at the University of California at Santa Barbara.


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