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Dancing Words

The Combat Zone
By Robert S. Foote, M.D.

"Let us cross over the river,
and rest under the shade of the trees."
—The last words of
Lieutenant General
Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson,
Confederate States of America,
Guinea Station, Va.,
May 10, 1863

* * *

On a bad day it's like hitting the beach
At Omaha, or Anzio—
Deceptive rocking, gentle
Slowing of the LCI,
Soft groan of opening ramps, then
Sudden cacophony—
A dozen shouted orders:
"Morphine!" "Lidocaine!"
"I need help here!"
"Start a central line!"
"Ringer's, wide open!"
"There's no time—get O negative!"
"Mannitol! Mannitol!"

Red hot fragments of information
Streaking through the air like
   ricocheting bullets,
Automatic fire of monitors,
Rush of uniformed figures into the gaps,
Crackling staccato of breathless voices
   on the radios,
Always with bad news:
"Pressure 60, not responding . . ."
Suddenly a mortar lands—
"V fib! V fib!"
I take the posture of command:
"Fire back," I shout,
"Defib him now!"
I hear the thud of force on flesh
As the chest is pierced with fire,
See the violent recoil—
The monitor shoots back: V fib—
"Again!" I shout,
"Load and fire again!"
"All clear!" Boom! The charge strikes
Then, as the smoke clears:
"Wide complex, brady now."
I seize a different weapon—
"Atropine!" I say,
The ancient poison,

Struggling to hold this bridge
At any cost.

Outside, the drone of chopper engine
Rises to a roar, the blades beat down
   the air
Descending from the boundless sky
For a hot offload.
In a moment through the doors
Will roll the broken body
That an hour ago was on her way to
Meanwhile, every room is full,
And every bed a battlefield:
Here lies an infant, inconsolable,
Learning the cruelty of the world;
Here the miracle of fingers,
Turned to useless chunks of flesh
By the spinning saw;
Here the pain-contorted face of
   dislocated joint,
A howling vision from the torture cells
Of Torquemada;
Here the grinding vice of fracture,
Panic of no breath,
Nausea's despair,
Confusion of old age,
Restless agony of stone,
Seizure's pointless struggle with itself,
Fever's poisoned ravings,
Scarlet flood of hemorrhage,
Brutal physics of deceleration,
Dark mystery of the belly's ache,
Murmurs and the shouts of madness—

Assaulted from every direction,
Outnumbered by afflictions,
I am an aging soldier fighting for
Lee at Petersburg,
Cleburne on the bloody Franklin plain—
Knowing how a battle can be lost,
But the war never won, and never

I turn to face the enemy again.

Far off, I see an old man with a cane,
Resting on a bench,
Telling in the peaceful solace
Of sun-dappled shade
Stories to carefree children
Of the raging struggles
In the heart of battles long ago.

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