History Finds Him (1918)
My mother’s father was a reckless boy.
And made the Augusta newspapers with his bicycle,
Breaking three bones in three months.
On his third try he slid beneath a horse-drawn hearse
Riding on the brick- paved streets in the city of cotton mills.
He and his tribe of boys followed the big fire
that swept down Greene Street,
burning the houses of rich and poor to ashes.
When the wind swung round, the gang of boys followed
As it drove a tornado of flame up Broad Street.
Irish but not Catholic, Cal was born
the grandson of a blacksmith who served in the Confederate cavalry.
Cal’s father Joshua was a poor harness maker.
But his mother Carrie inherited enough when her father died
To send Cal to the boys’ Catholic school where he trained as a mechanic.
He took to it well.
By then, his father, Joshua, was too frail and
Most times too drunk to work.
No one needed harnesses anymore
and the cotton mills were killers of men’s souls,
So the old man fished in the river for sturgeon,
Packed their eggs in ice from the new ice house
and sent them on the rails: caviar for New York and Baltimore.
The Great War came on
and cotton was king again.
The mills were hiring,
but paid no better than the county poor farm.
The boy was still too young to soldier.
He turned eighteen as the war ended.
His mother said he was too bright and too small
to grind out his life at the looms.
So she found her son job with the post office
taking mail out to Camp Wheeler,
where returning doughboys were being mustered-
jubilant boys, fresh from their victory in France,
restless in their khakis,
but soon racked with Spanish flu.
One in every three died without glory,
far from their mothers.
Cal would stop his bicycle at the barbed -wire gate
and throw the canvas mail sacks over.
The air wreaked with the smell of burning flesh
As he watched as the bodies of the dead
Were cast into the fire, their letters unread.
The boy became a man and left the city,
Bound for some small place
Where history might not find him.