Fort Leonard Wood, July 1970

Sergeant Darden marched us to the range,
fatigues starched blade-sharp even in the heat
of a Missouri summer, shades correct,
brim of his DI hat gently grinning.

No grin in Sergeant Darden as he taught us
how to aim and fire our M-16s,
most of us getting on a westbound plane
in five more months, him trying to get us ready
who wouldn’t ever, couldn’t ever be:
try as he might, some of our names were still
going to end up on a monument.
He did the best job that we let him do,
and took ten spoons of sugar in his coffee.

“Put your nose right up against the charging
lever, make that rear sight big. You’ll see—
Expert,” he barked, exhorting us, “don’t mind
no kick, you be all right.”
                                                      I sprawled face down
and stuck my nose up tight against the metal,
the rear sight close as it could get, big as
a clock face, the front pin like matching hands
that pointed to six-thirty. It seemed like
I couldn’t miss that way, although my nose
got red and powder lingered in my nostrils.

Weeks later, most of us days from the jungle,
we saw him for the last time, his smooth face
expressionless. He wished us luck, then fell
us out, and headed off toward next week’s crop
of troops. But he walked by me close enough
that I could smell the congolene above
the heat, and said, resigned and quiet, “Son,
you were the only one that paid attention.”

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 6, on page 33
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