On J.F.K., Memory and the Nuns

by John Samuel Tieman

Et introibo ad altare Dei: ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam.
“And I will go to the altar of God, to God, the joy of my youth.”

As I began 8th grade, my greatest existential conundrum revolved around whether nuns wore brassieres. And, if so, why?

When I was a boy, I attended a small, Catholic grade school. I thought that world timeless. Nuns in wimples. Daily mass. Incense. And, like all things that seem timeless, it was fleeting.

It’s hard to say when that world ended. But November 22nd, 1963, will do.

University City is a small, inner suburb of St. Louis. Small as it is, there are those of us who love it. Christ The King School, C. K. S. to those in the know, was (and still is) also a small place. In 1963, it was Old School Catholic. I was an altar boy. Mass every day before school. Stations Of The Cross every day after school during Lent. Latin. Almost every grade was taught by a nun. It was a world that seemed as immutable as a medieval hymn. A world that had always been thus.

Aside from my immediate family, and a few family friends, the Sisters Of Mercy were the most important adults in my life. I’ve heard tales of kids abused, smacked with rulers. While I will not dismiss their suffering, my experience was one of comfort and nurturance. Christ The King School provided stability, predictability, purpose.

The nuns were strong, capable, educated. And anachronistic. Their world was crumbling. Vatican II and the feminist movement would challenge their lifestyle irrevocably.

But, in 1963, nuns were still all long black habits punctuated by a stark white wimples. It was still a day when a daughter, who became a Carmelite, trumped the daughter who married a millionaire stock broker.

Into this world came John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Young. Glamorous. And Catholic. Catholic as St. Louis is – it is a city named for a saint, after all – I was not immune to anti-Catholicism. The Lutherans down the street would not let me play with their sons, because I was Roman Catholic. Once, in central Missouri, when we ate at a “Restricted” restaurant, my mother, in hushed tones, told me to not say anything overtly Catholic. “Restricted” meant no Blacks, no Jews, and no Catholics. So J. F. K. was a kind of vindication, a coming of age for Catholics. Then one day someone shot that young man.

On that Friday fifty years ago, we kids came in from our mid-day recess. It was immediately clear that something bad had happened. Sister Mary Amabilis, who was both our teacher and the principal, told us to sit quietly, and left us for, perhaps, half an hour. We could sense her seriousness, her anxiety, as she and the other nuns gathered in the hallway, as they chatted in whispers.
Then, shortly after one, the announcement.

Since is was a parish school, meaning everyone lived within blocks, we were dismissed early.

Thus were we introduced to a terrible truth. We didn’t learn it all at once. It was more like the way a small spoon of incense, poured over a single coal, fills a church. And gradually dissipates. People die. Lives change. Even the One, Holy, Catholic And Apostolic Church changes. Today, there is not a single nun teaching at that school.

Yet, when so many folks are gone, when things are broken, shattered, the memories remain like souls, their resurrections. Even after fifty years, the incense, the Latin, the ink wells, the Palmer Method, the uniforms, the Angelus bells. And those nuns, their strength, their intelligence, their holiness. These recollections no madman’s bullet can shatter.

Old Soldiers

by John Samuel Tieman

Many years ago, I made the acquaintance of Howard Nemerov. I don’t want this to sound any larger than it was — acquaintance is just the right word. He lived down the street from me here, in St. Louis. Sometimes we’d talk of war, World War II for him, Vietnam for me. I remember once saying how I always felt like my service was a failure, that somehow I had failed The Manhood Test. It was one of the first times I’d ever been aggressively honest about my trauma. He admitted having the same feelings. “It’s amazing how war can make us feel like a failure, even when all we failed to do was get ourselves killed.”

And, of course, we spoke of poetry. I have for decades meditated on an off-handed comment he made. “I have no imagination.” At first, I was uncomprehending. Years later, as I walked across the campus of Washington University, years after he’d passed, I saw Nemerov’s old office window. There were the gingko trees he wrote about in his poetry. He didn’t imagine anything. He just looked out the window. That act of looking took no imagination. The art was in his craft.

This poem below records an event that happened in 1970. My first night in the 4th Infantry Division, North Vietnamese sappers blew-up twenty-one helicopters. Welcome to The Nam. The next night, we watched “Puff The Magic Dragon”, a Douglas AC-47 gunship, killed these N. V. A. maybe a half-a-mile from the camp. This gunship carried three mini-guns, Gatling guns, which fired so many rounds, 6,000 rounds a minute, that it was said that they put one bullet in every square inch of an area the size of a football field. These mini-guns don’t even sound like a rat-a-tat-tat machine gun. It’s more like wwwwhhhaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhh, so many bullets firing so fast that they are indistinguishable. The next morning, a patrol didn’t find any bodies, just body-sized splotches of blood.

I wanted to capture the fact that my feelings were a combination of relief and awe. It is a cliché to say that soldiers are always afraid. No doubt many are. But I wasn’t afraid. And I wasn’t brave. This untitled poem records the night in The Nam that I became dissociative.

I have struggled for decades with my own reaction formation, which is a near-pacifist stance. I hate war. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t find it arousing. Hence, “it’s finally time” to tell a story that I, for decades, didn’t want to know about myself.

Years after the war, it’s finally time,
our first sergeant retired,
our outpost plowed under,
the secrets no longer the news, that we tell
the story and tell it again until we hear
what we hated to know:
that we admired the arc of the tracer,
that we admired the splotches of blood.


The Party of “No!”

by John Samuel Tieman

If Democrats want an emotionally charged, yet meaningful bumper sticker, I suggest, “Republican = Anarchy + Nihilism.”

I am not anti-Republican. Nor am I anti-conservative. I am anti-anarchy. I am anti-nihilism. Our republic is based upon dialogue and compromise among groups committed to loyal opposition. In other words, I am fond of the African poet, Atukwei Okai, who wrote, “Between me and my God / There are only eleven commandments; / The eleventh says: Thou shalt not / Bury thy brother alive.” This is my point.

This is what I hate. “My No. 1 objective for 2016 is to make sure we don’t have another Democrat governor in Missouri.” Those words were spoken by Catherine Hanaway, former Speaker of the Missouri House, a recent candidate for Missouri Secretary Of State, and current U. S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri. The “No. 1 objective” is opposition for the sake of opposition, negation for the sake of negation. There’s no sense that the state should have as its highest priority poverty, jobs, infrastructure. “My No. 1 objective for 2016 is to make sure we don’t have…” Hanaway is hardly unique. I could have chosen from dozens of similar quotes made at the local, state or national levels.

A couple of quick definitions. When I say anarchy, I refer to a society without a publicly supported government. When I say nihilism, I mean the negation of various aspects of life that give existence meaning. If this seems abstract, it has practical consequences. Taken together, these mean “No!” to almost everything. “No!” to public health care. “No!” to helping the poor. “No!” to the maintenance of bridges and roads. “No!” to dialogue and compromise. “No!” for the sake of negation itself.

Conservativism has never been about negation. Conservatism is a positive vision of, among other things, tradition, ritual, responsible hierarchy, noblesse oblige, family, small government, fiscal austerity, devotion to place, peace through strength, homage to the past. In other words, a “Yes!” Nowhere in this vision is the sense that, in order to be a Republican, one must adhere exclusively to ultra-right Christian dogma. Nor is there the sense that government can do absolutely nothing of value. Indeed, conservativism, at its finest, is an optimistic vision of both the individual and the community.

The problem is not conservativism. The problem is the Republican Party. It is easy to argue that the Republican Party has been hijacked by the Tea Party. There is much truth to that. But, if the Republican Party cannot immunize itself from a nihilistic and anarchistic far right, it becomes a national problem that affects us all, right and left. Why? Representative democracy is a dialogue informed by loyal opposition. “No!” is not a dialogue. “No!” is not diplomacy. “No!” is not fiscal responsibility. “No!” is not a nutrition program. “No!” is the impossibility of governance, and, indeed, the impossibility of hope.

Like an addiction, there can be no recovery without an admission that there is a problem. Denial merely postpones the inevitable reckoning. I am not wise enough to offer solutions to a party of which I am not even a member. I leave that to others who are better schooled in such matters. But this is a problem that affects us all. In the broadest sense, this anarchy, this nihilism, does not simply threaten this or that bill, this or that policy. It threatens our very vision of what it means to have government, our very vision of what it means to have hope.

I refuse to sound the death knell. But I do mourn for the party of Jack Danforth, Gerald Ford, David Brooks and, for that matter, many in my family. There is an old saying in politics. While a politician may only win 51% of the vote, he or she represents 100% of the district. The demand upon that politician, the demand upon all of us, is for an openness to, and a respect for, differing views, interests and hopes. But the Republican Party has become the party of “No!” “No!” to any positive vision of government. “No!” to anything except the most narcissistic vision of individualism. And I do mourn.


Red State

by John Samuel Tieman

All this talk about red states and blue states reminds me of one of my favorite historical quotes. When asked in 1860 about secession, old Judge Petigru responded that secession will never work for his home state, because “South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.”

Some things never change.


The Joke, The Tense, The Stare

by John Samuel Tieman

I’ve given more thought to a psychiatrist, whose work I’ve always admired, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. I’d like to add three stages of recovery to her five stages of grief.

My father-in-law just died. Phoebe’s father, Mario Cirio, died peacefully in his sleep. He was 93. I am not being clichéd, as one often is at these times, when I say that Mario was one of the kindest, gentlest and generous men I’ve ever known. I am deeply saddened by the loss, but profoundly grateful for the ways in which he enriched our lives.

That said, in the short term, it’s anti-climatic. He left his body to St. Louis University’s medical school. There will be a memorial service in the near future, but there is no funeral to arrange. There’s no hurry about the obit. We’ve notified family, friends. There’s paperwork. But no drama. Mostly it’s just us, the sadness, and Phoebe’s three stages of recovery.

The first stage is the first joke. Two or so days after Mario’s death, I said to my beloved, “Jesus, Phoebe, your whole life has turned into a Tammy Wynette song. Your mother died less than a year ago. Then your father died. You just had major surgery, with a shoulder replacement to come next month. You have bad teeth. You’re just lucky you don’t have a dog to die, or a pick-up truck to break-down.” For the first time in days, she laughed.

The second stage is the change of tense. It is that simple moment. “I wonder if Dad is – I mean was, was – I wonder if Dad was…”

The third stage is even simpler than the second. As we drive home from the bank, as we feed the birds in the yard, as we fold the laundry, my wife grows quiet. And simply stares into the distance. I wait. I don’t need to ask.

in my Nam dream

by John Samuel Tieman

the army drafts me back to the war
I’m the oldest corporal in the 4th Infantry
I curse my neighbors who are all my father
the barracks is French
I beg my wife not to leave me
the Red Alert siren turns to an alarm
Phoebe is surprised I would ask


Allowing for a bit of poetic license, this is in essence a dream I had night before last. I’ve been home from that war for forty-three years. I learned in therapy that, while the pain fades, the wound remains.

But about that poetic license. And about that dream. The controlling image is my war. The dream is about abandonment, and the subject, my greatest fear.

In the actual dream, my love is disrupted, as is my work, as are my friendships. The barracks is a school in which I taught many years ago. There’s no work in that barracks/school, just disorientation. The French barracks image I take from an actual abandoned Foreign Legion barracks in which I spent a night in The Nam. I use a flat statement, ‘the barracks is French’, in which the disorientation is implied. In the dream, I simply turn my back on my father, who abandoned me when I was ten. I didn’t curse my neighbors and friends in the dream. I debated them, the end result being that they leave. I conflate these two bits into a single image, throw out the dream debate and throw in ‘curse’ for drama of the image and the hardness of the c and the r, the hiss of the s. The Red Alert siren turning into the alarm clock, that’s pure poetry aided by associational logic, the purpose being a transition to wakefulness. Phoebe comforts me in the dream. When I actually awoke, she really said almost nothing beyond, “I’ve got another hour to sleep” or some such.

For many years, I used to dwell upon Vietnam. In its many variations, this nightmare was a response to that trauma. Today, just now, I really don’t think that much about the facts of the war. But the emotions — the emotions are forever.

Ann Richards

by John Samuel Tieman

I’ve never understood how the people of Texas could have elected George W. Bush over Ann Richards for governor back in the 90’s. Perhaps they got tired of her rancorous wit and wanted to have a simpleton instead. I remember Michael Moore made a film called “TV Nation” in which he went around to all 50 governors to see if he could get a hug. When he approached Ann Richards, she said, “Son, I just lost my re-election. I don’t have to hug you. Hell, I don’t even have to pretend that I like you anymore.” Then, to her everlasting credit, she gave him a hug.


Education And The Politics Of Shaming

By John Samuel Tieman

A fellow teacher, a friend from California, asked a question of a workshop presenter. The teacher began in a self-deprecating manner, but the presenter immediately interrupted, saying, “There are no stupid questions, only stupid teachers.”

An art teacher, in rural Missouri, was told at a faculty meeting that her subject was not important, because art was not on the state examination.

A young friend was a principal in a large Eastern district. She wearied of being publicly humiliated for her school’s low standardized test scores. Why? Her’s was an alternative school for children with emotional disorders and learning disabilities. She now teaches in a small private school in rural Vermont.

During the recent Chicago teachers’ strike, I was struck by the educators’ repeated call for “Respect”. There were many issues. But “We want respect!” was the mantra.

Public education is an oppressed profession. This oppression is not about poor working conditions, rowdy students, or even low pay. Some misfortune is expected everywhere. This oppression takes the form of shaming. No one gets their teacher’s certificate, only to be forced to deliver “teacher proof education”, lessons that are entirely scripted from “Hello” to “Good-bye.” Shaming is the most underestimated condition in public education today.

There is no one issue that accounts for this humiliation. It must be viewed as a gestalt, a totality, what amounts to a system of shaming.

A principal works a year without a contract. Part of the justification for giving standardized tests is that teachers’ observations are not trusted. A first year teacher has 177 students, and one free period every other day. Professional development is generally inane. A sixth grade teacher weeps outside her room, because that class has 42 students. Teachers have to answer for the economic conditions of Wisconsin. A high school lost two-thirds of its staff due to cut-backs, although the student population is steady. Because of test scores, states conclude that schools will be closed, districts discontinued, that these educators will never amount to anything. These instances are drawn from folks I know around the country. A similar list could be drawn from almost any one school.

I could fill a dozen pages with hundreds of such instances, no one of which would account for this sense of humiliation. But put it all together.

Shaming is not about a fault. Shaming says that there is something elementally wrong with the person. What makes shaming so damaging is that the central message is not about a fault. Shaming is about how the person is elementally constituted. It is the difference between “You didn’t prepare that lesson well”, and “You’re stupid and will never amount to anything.” Of vital importance here is the fact that shame is not just about an aspect of the self. It is about the whole of the self. It is not about a poorly prepared lesson plan. The whole of the self is stupid. Allow me to illustrate this difference on a most personal level.

Around the middle of last September, Tomyko refused to call me “Sir”. It was not so much what he said, as much as the insolent attitude he took before the whole class. So I gave him three days in-house suspension. But I worried about our relationship. As I wrote him up in the hallway, away from the gaze of the other students, I quietly explained my feelings – not my actions, my feelings. Knowing he knows the expression, I used the cliché, “hate the sin but love the sinner”. Although I did not say it, I distinguished for him the difference between guilt and shame, the guilt, in a very few words, being about the deed, whereas shame is about the person. Just before he went to the office, I added, ‘We’re still cool, right?’ He gave me “a bump”, a kind of handshake. To insure the continuance of our dialogue, I visited him in “in-house”. I left him a book, the one we were reading in class. My hope was that the book acted as an object that signified our relationship, even though I was not present. Tomyko became an A student. Perhaps more importantly, on several occasions he chose to confide in me several significant personal problems. Had I shamed him, our relationship undoubtedly would not have continued on any level except the most pro forma.

Public education is an oppressed profession. One source of oppression is shaming. “Respect” is easily said. But to dismantle this shaming, that will take a national dialogue.

Elegy for an Age

by John Samuel Tieman

I almost did my dissertation on post-modernism, but in the end decided to opt for a Ph. D. rather than a bullet in my head. But one thesis I had was that post-modernism is a critique rather than a fixed position. And it is a critique of Romanticism, Modernism being redefined by me as a sub-set of Romanticism. We dismantle what was — but that is very different from saying we have a fixed vision of what is, or what is to be. Post-modernism is, in a sense, a reflection upon the pain of transition. We know we are in transition, but have no idea what we are transitioning to. In the words of poor Ophelia, “Lord, we know what we are, but not what we may be.”

I am a member of a Church that may well be dying. I write essays and poems that never see a drop of ink. I say to my students, “Go to college,and get a job,” when I know they are not prepared for college, and there are no jobs. Aside from my colleagues, I’m the only person I know who has a pension. I’m the only veteran among my colleagues, and the only veteran among my friends. The corn is dying. Parts of the Mississippi are not navigable. Mere tolerance is what passes these days for liberalism. “Lord, we know what we are, but not what we may be.”


On Cunnilingus And Psychiatry: In Memorium, James Gandolfini

By John Samuel Tieman

Why did my wife and I fall in love with James Gandolfini and his Tony Soprano?

Because art speaks in ways that are at once both clear and unconscious.

We missed the first episode or two. But we heard from buddies that “The Sopranos” is a good show. We’d also heard that it’s written by David Chase, the same guy who wrote large parts of “Northern Exposure”. We’re of the opinion that “Northern Exposure” is one of the best shows ever written. So, sure, we’d give it a look.

I was hooked from the second I heard the opening lyrics –
Woke up this morning, and got yourself a gun.
Mama said you’d be The Chosen One….
She said, you’re one-in-a-million — you got that shotgun shine.
Think about it — born under a bad sign with a blue moon in your eyes.

The real clincher was later in that episode, when Tony, who is in therapy, says, “Uncle Junior and I, we had our problems with the business. But I never should have razzed him about eating pussy. This whole war could have been averted. Cunnilingus and psychiatry brought us to this!”

So every Sunday evening, my wife and I invited Anthony, that lovable sociopath, into our home. We admired the way he cared for his family, the way he was loyal to his colleagues, the way he killed people who needed killing. And he scared us. Sometimes Tony needed killing.

I could give all kinds of technical reasons why “The Sopranos” was great art. Great writing I’ve mentioned. Also, the show had one of the greatest endings big screen or small. But that’s not why my wife and I loved James Gandolfini.

So let me just say – he had great eyes. When he’d get mad, that flash of anger, I know that flash of anger. Gandolfini was a big man, and he played a very physical character. But those eyes. When he loved, hated, softened, hardened. Those eyes.

Artists live unusual lives. So do audiences. Artists paint, write, act, sculpt, compose alone in our small rooms, or on our small stages, and, no matter how popular we are, we never meet even a fraction of the folks who invite our artifacts into our lives. Yet they allow us into their unconscious. They actually let us make them laugh and cry and such.

99.999999999% of the time, we never even meet these people. They never meet us. We communicate using a very narrow vehicle, the artifact. Yet there is communication on the most profound level.

We artists open our unconscious, our loves, our hates, we pour stuff into the artifact, stuff we know is in the artifact, and, if the artifact is ever to become art, stuff we didn’t consciously realize is there. Then something remarkable happens. An audience. An audience who opens their unconscious, their loves, their hates, stuff they know, and stuff they didn’t even realize was in their soul. That’s when the artifact becomes the art. When the unconscious of the artist, carried by the artifact, engages the unconscious of the audience. The art is not in the artist; it’s not in the artifact; it’s not in the audience. It is in the unconscious engagement, the we-ness of the moment that is facilitated by an artifact. Hence, those eyes. Gandolfini’s eyes. Tony’s eyes. Those eyes.

To put it differently – Forget about it! Here’s what Tony taught me.

There is no such thing as art. There is only that moment when the unconscious of the artist touches the unconscious of the audience, the moment of we-ness. It is a moment of which we can speak. But it is a moment we can neither control nor fully understand. It is a relationship that will live on in these folks, a relationship that will search for some resolution neither audience nor artist will ever find. Yet search they will.

In other words, when Tony holds a gun to your head, you don’t look at the gun. You know what the gun will do. You search the guy’s eyes.

While the show was in production, I facilitated a professional development for a school in Jersey City, Tony’s hometown. I asked a teacher there if she’d take a picture of me outside the set for Tony’s strip club/office, the Bada Bing. We didn’t have time. She joked that she was going to photo-shop me into a picture, but we also simply forgot to have any photographs taken. I now rate this among my life’s great regrets.


Miss Freud Returns To The Classroom

Miss Freud Returns To The Classroom:
Toward A Psychoanalytic Literacy Among Educators

by John Samuel Tieman

I am a teacher. The other day, I mentioned to an educational consultant that many of my students were feeling anxiety about the state exams. “You’re a psychologist,” she said, “so give the kids pieces of candy, and just don’t mention the tests.” I was speechless. It quickly became clear that she, among other things, had no sense of what I meant when I said, “Some of the kids are dealing with anxiety by over-stimulating themselves, others act out, others regress, still others seem depressive.” She makes no distinction between a psychologist and a psychoanalytically informed teacher. She’s not unusual. She knows that I studied child and adolescent development at the St. Louis Psychoanalytic Institute, but she doesn’t understand what that means.

No one has The Answer for educational reform. No one is that wise. But I do have one good idea. Not a sweeping, one size fits all reform, but a somewhat conservative, back-to-basics approach that some might find useful in some settings. Psychoanalytic literacy.

Almost all educational psychology these days is cognitive/behavioral. The problem is one of over-emphasis. Pick-up almost any ed. psych. book, and you likely will find only a few pages, sometimes only a few paragraphs, on Sigmund Freud and his followers in the 20th and 21st centuries. Much more space often is devoted to Pavlov, and all those slobbering dogs, than is given to Anna Freud, herself a school teacher and the mother of educational psychology.

The emphasis tends to be on mechanics. Take the current fascination with brain science. Some days, it feels as if all anyone has anymore is a brain, that no one has a mind. As Lemka says in Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll, “What you like about brains, Max, is that they all work in the same way. What you don’t like about minds is that they don’t.”

Educational psychology needs to get back to its roots. We need to honor, and attend to, the emotional lives of teachers and students. The cognitive/behavioral model tends to view the student as a set of behaviors. There is nothing inherently wrong with this partial view. Indeed, it can be quite useful. My concern is to get back to the roots of all educational psychology, the psychoanalytic model, the fullest model, as well as the century of data and application that has followed upon that model.

This cognitive/behavioral approach tends, in practice, to be even narrower than, say, the theories of B. F. Skinner. We educators tend to think of psychology as a branch of problem-solving. The student does this, then you do that. Problem solved. Psychology is purely instrumental. It is the tool, the means to elicit submissive behavior. This is not a healing art. This is not about relationship – it’s a manipulative tool.

Psychoanalytic theory gives teachers a form of literacy, a rich vocabulary with which we experience and express our relationships in school.

I got a visit the other day from Tomyko. I taught him English in middle school. Tomyko was a nice kid. But his future looked bleak. He had what I call ‘the litany of sorrows’. Poor. Occasionally homeless. No known parents. Friends in the Crips. He was experimenting with drugs and sex.

Tomyko was a nice kid, yes, but also a maddening one. Talking. Never doing the work. He made me constantly angry. But, if there is one thing a psychoanalytic orientation has taught me, it is that it’s OK to be angry as long as the relationship is maintained.

We had long talks, Tomyko and I. By applying my psychoanalytic studies, I learned a lot. I learned how to take the kid aside, discipline him, and also make sure that ‘You and I are still cool, right?’ I learned to address the misbehavior, but not attack the person. I learned from Tomyko to listen to the relationship, to the feelings between us. I learned to listen to his longing for a father, and the anger he projected on me, the father figure, the only stable male in his life. I learned to listen to my own feelings. Why do I feel like a scolding father? Or worse, a shaming father? I learned to listen for warning signs. Why do I want Tomyko suspended, transferred, expelled? Above all other things, I learned that, whatever the tensions, the hope is to grow within the relationship, to grow in a way that moves both toward their fullest potential.

Tomyko told me that he’s in the community college. So the story has a happy ending. And while I cannot take credit for the edifice that is his life, I can take credit for a brick or two.


a note to poets growing older

by John Samuel Tieman

the words we didn’t say
I take a bite of my lunch
silence sour and salt

This afternoon I sit on my porch, proud of all I’ve won, thinking of my poor days and how, at my age, the middle class doesn’t look as bad from the inside as it does from the outside. When a mockingbird, all balls on wings, flashes up at my snack, snags a berry, and flies off with an “Own that, asshole!” attitude.

Yesterday I spent the day grading final exams, doing the math, praying some day some kid sends me her first symphony. I opened my bag lunch, pulled out a wing, when it dawns on me that it all comes down to an empty belly, a body part, that saying Grace, for this critter, is the same as its Black Mass.

Which is to say that this morning I found a Mass card for an old friend dead now 17 years. I don’t know where the time went sitting here all afternoon. We’ve spent our days, my friends, lost in all the forms, pouring the concrete we hope will never dry, draining the swamp, filling the coffin, being the blank screen, praying like a priest who needs to be defrocked, praying for a vision or at least something in the eye.

Finally this evening and I will unlatch the front door, wait for the sound of the leaves beneath her feet. Meaning it comes down to this. Nothing goes away. Even in the darkness, we can write about the light.

late night candlelight
city power grid is down
in the indigo
a silhouette – our neighbor
nursing her child


War Story

By John Samuel Tieman

It’s official — I am an American hero. Not long ago, an R. O. T. C. outfit wanted to make a display featuring local veterans. I can’t turn down fellow teachers – that and I just like these folks – so I gave them my photo and my medals, my “rack”, for their display. I finally saw the display yesterday. There I am, under the heading “An American Hero”.

I sometimes think that the first duty of every war veteran is forgive him- or herself.

There is another awkward moment known to most Vietnam veterans. In my case, a student asks, “Dr. Tieman, did you ever kill anyone? You write about war all the time. Something bad must have happened.”

I used to equivocate. Make a joke. Change the subject. Or just lie.

The honest answer is, “Yes.” Once. By accident, sort of. But there are two stories. The second one ends with an accidental death. The first one begins with murder.

I’ll tell you what I remember, what I think I remember, what I heard, what I learned.

I was a musician. A parade soldier. Clarinet and saxophone. To this day, I love a rousing Sousa march. I didn’t have a dangerous job. Indeed, if I had only spent my service in the States, I’d look back on it all this with some degree of fondness. But, during the last part of my active duty, I went to Vietnam. The 4th Infantry Division Band. True, I did not have a dangerous job. But it was a dangerous time, the Cambodian Invasion, in a very dangerous place, the Central Highlands. In the States, my job was often fun. In The Nam, I was in over a hundred rocket and ground attacks. Some attacks simply annoyed us, a single rocket in the middle of the night. Other times, my friends died.

Then there were times when we were our own enemy.

Late summer, early evening, 1970. I was twenty years old. I remember (curious that I’d remember this) it was cloudy. I was walking up a dirt road that ran in front of our hooch. I passed these three fellows. Two were trying to calm the guy in the middle. The guy in the middle said nothing. He was seething, Even at that moment, his rage was remarkable, the subsequent events notwithstanding. It is worth noting this, because being angry in The Nam normally didn’t merit notice.

I learned decades later, from our piano player, Dick Bittner, that this guy had been to see the chaplain. The chaplain had refused to see him. Dick Bittner is of the opinion that subsequent events could have been avoided if the chaplain would have shown more compassion. Who knows? When I saw him, he was indeed coming from the direction of the chaplain’s quarters. He was heading for Charlie Company, an infantry unit catty-corner across this field, an old rice paddy, from the band. When Charlie Company was in from the bush, I used to smoke dope with those guys in that dried up paddy.

Perhaps an hour later, after sunset anyway, I was talking with Parsons and Novak. They were the chaplain’s assistants, “The God Squad”. Nice guys. I sometimes bunked with Parsons. They did mention the angry guy. But mostly we just sat around chatting about this and that. I was sitting on the ground.

Then there was a quick burst of M-16. Maybe three or four rounds. Close. Real close. Meters from here. We froze, stared at each other. Then a lot of shots.

I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t brave. I didn’t feel anything. I switched that part of me off.

I didn’t go into action so much as I switched on the automatic part of me.

I leapt to my feet. The others remained in the hooch, more stunned than anything else. Perhaps they were still having the feelings I had turned off. I got my helmet, locked and loaded my M-16. I took a position behind a sand bag wall slightly above and to the east of the field.

That’s where I saw him.

I heard later two stories. In The Nam, I heard that the guy, the angry guy, killed four people, including the two I saw with him. Years later, Dick Bittner told me that he murdered his 1st sergeant. These two versions are not mutually exclusive. In any case, murder.

Then he retreated to the field, the old rice paddy. Right in front of me.

I could see exactly where he was, despite the blackness, the moonless cloudy night. I saw his muzzle flashes. I was slightly more than ninety degrees to his right, and, as I said, slightly above him, behind a sand bag wall. Perhaps a hundred or so meters away. I doubt if he even knew I was there.

I was an Expert Rifleman. This was an easy shot.

I wanted to shoot. I was ready to shoot. I withheld my fire. The angry guy was firing into the night, and it was clear that other grunts, very close by, were hunting him. But I wasn’t sure where they were. No sooner did I have this thought when I saw a grunt in the dark, not five meters in front of the angry guy, open up. Full automatic. Virtually point blank.

The whole incident, from first shot to last, took a few minutes.

I learned something about myself that night. A lot of folks wonder if they could shoot someone. I’m not one of those folks.

I spent the next three decades wanting to not know that about myself.

Some time later, I’m not sure how long, weeks, I was on guard. I had two weapons, my M-16 and an M-79. I was still pretty new to The Nam, and somewhat unaccustomed to the M-79 grenade launcher, having only fired it a few times. The ground in front of our guard tower was a free fire zone. Meaning I could shoot anything anytime I wanted. Our standing orders were, “If it moves, shoot it.” A lot of guys took target practice there. That and firing randomly kept the enemy sappers, who infiltrated from the nearby village, An Khe, uncertain as to any pattern of fire. I decided to give myself some target practice.

Years later, I told the whole story in a poem.

War Story

After I got out of The Nam
I made up some tales, some
mostly jokes —
One time we’re tokin’ —
One time the whores —
because nobody made any movies
about how we’re heroes.
So now I’m told
You’re a good guy, John,
Welcome Home, Pal!
So now I’ll tell one
last story. One night
on guard
I’m the new guy so
I decide I’d try my M-79.
Now an M-79 launches a grenade
a little farther than you can
hit a good home run.
I aim for this field.
Bingo — a good shoot.
But the wind figures
in different, a freak
drifts the hit
into this village.
Where it kills this kid.
Except for the scream
that’s the unadorned story.


Nothing ever came of this incident. I believe it was counted as a “confirmed kill”, thus turning an accident into a dead Viet Cong. In truth, in that area, most of the locals were Viet Cong or Viet Cong sympathizers. Not that any of that matters to me now.

I spent the next thirty years begging God to forgive me. Only to realize finally that it was not God who was withholding forgiveness. I sometimes wished I had killed either no one at all, or a thousand people. Because one man has a face, a family, a history and a scream.

These two incidents, these lives, these deaths, live on in me. They search for some resolution I know I will never find. Yet search I will.

In therapy, I learned, finally, that despite all the tall tales, all the jokes, despite all the “You wouldn’t believe what I saw this one night in The Nam …”, I will never recall Vietnam and not, in the quiet that follows, be sad.

The years and the therapy have helped. I don’t hear the scream anymore. But now and then, between newspaper stories on Saturday morning, or driving down Forest Park Parkway, or, like now, staring at a computer screen and wondering what I’ll write next, now and then I see those muzzle flashes. And I take aim.


“War Story” first appeared in the Cimarron Review of the University Of Oklahoma, and was reprinted in two chapbooks, Morning Prayers, published by The Pittsburgh Quarterly OnLine, and A Concise Biography Of Original Sin, published by BkMk Press of the University Of Missouri At Kansas City.


Meeting Margaret Thatcher

by John Samuel Tieman

Did I ever tell you about the time I met Margaret Thatcher?

Harold Wilson arranged for me to do an interview at 10 Downing Street. I was researching my master’s thesis in British history at Oxford in 1978.

I really had no idea what to expect. Compared to the White House, 10 Downing Street is very unassuming. I was shown into a small vestibule. I remember smoking a cigarette, and putting it out in a small plate. While smoking, I admired a painting. I suddenly realized I was staring at a Gains borough. I didn’t want to think about what I’d just put my cigarette out in.

The front door opens, and in suddenly comes James Callaghan and his cabinet, followed by the shadow cabinet. What I remember about Margaret Thatcher is her smile and her handshake — they weren’t so much automatic and facile as they were spring loaded.

I did the interview for my thesis. I went to exit. As soon as I walked out, there were cameras, a bank of microphones — I felt like saying, “Well, I’m glad to see there’s such interest in my master’s thesis. Footnotes are going fine …”. But my appearance was quickly followed by a look of disappointment on the part of the reporters. It turns out that, at that hour, Britain was negotiating the transition of the colony of Rhodesia into the independent nation of Zimbabwe. That, and Tieman was researching his thesis in British history.


Letter to Ada Limon

by John Samuel Tieman

Dear Ada,
Years ago, when I was young, I taught school on the island of Dominica. One day, I read to the students Alan Dugan’s “Love Song: I And Thou”. Immediately after class, a student asked me to recite the ending of the poem for him —

I can nail my left palm
to the left-hand crosspiece but
I can’t do everything myself.
I need a hand to nail the right,
a help, a love, a you, a wife.

I recited it several times until he had it memorized.

A few moments later, as I walked to my next class, I passed that young man. He was speaking to his girlfriend. I overheard him say, “I can nail my left palm …”.

I swore I would write Dugan about that. I even found his post office box. And, like so many young people, I thought there was plenty of time.

And then I read that Dugan died. So today I’m writing to you — although we’ve never met — because a poetry reading — one you organized — is happening once again in my classroom.

Patrick Kramer, a gifted student teacher, is doing a lesson on spoken word poetry. I normally supervise him from a distance, so to say. But today, the room to which I often retreat is in use.

So I’m in the back of my classroom. I figure I’ll work on grades. Then Mr. Kramer begins a tape of a poetry reading, a reading you organized in 2009 in the Bowery. He plays three poems, compelling stuff. I stop my grading.

The assignment is for the kids to write, and present, their own poems. A couple of kids present very interesting poems. Then a young woman burns my inner ear with her words about her suicide attempt.

Did you ever think you’d inspire black kids and immigrant kids in St. Louis?


Looking for Inspiration

by John Samuel Tieman

I sometimes think I wasted a lot of years looking for inspiration, when all I needed to do was simply open my eyes.

mother and suckling
boy at the bus stop on Pine
she notes the dawn and
wonders what the day will bring
besides milk and sleep and light

I have almost no imagination. Easily my best known poem was inspired by a shadow.

we undress for love
and for ten seconds the dusk
makes us young again

That haiku was published in Japan in translation in the millions. And it was inspired by nothing beyond what it says. I love my wife. I love her body. Twilight and I wish we were young.

I used to think that all poems were inspired by a great sunset, a cataclysmic earthquake, the death of a young athlete. In Vietnam, I saw a sunset that made even the birds pause. In 1985, I survived the Mexico City Earthquake. A student died on the soccer field last year. And I got from these not a single line of poetry. Then — then yesterday:

in utter silence
I stare out our new picture
window to the street
a basketball rolls by followed
by not a soul …


fade to white

by John Samuel Tieman

my oldest old pal
pulls out a photo album
ripples in a lake

“He was 72. He lived a good, long life,” says a young colleague. I’m 62. I shudder. Folks have been on Death Row longer than 10 years.

I’m not aging gracefully. I’d like to “rage against the dying of the light.” Instead, I read the obituaries. I miss Les.

I kept Les’ obituary. Les and I were in the army together, 1969, 1970. We kept up for the next decade. Then jobs and loves and travel and we lost track, only to be reunited in 2003 or 4 or so. The cigarettes killed Les. I don’t have the skill to get over missing Les. I don’t have the time to build that skill. Sometimes I have a memory, say from my childhood, and I stop. I realize that I’m the only one left.

I’m not afraid of death. I’m an aging narcissist. I’m saddened by the fact that I’ll never make love to Suzanne Pleshette, never march with the Foreign Legion, never pinch hit for the Cardinals. I’m getting used to being the oldest person in the room.

After making love, my wife points out that my beard, and the white sheets, are the same color. It’s like I’m fading into the background.

original art
covers my living room walls
but all I see is
the blank tv screen in which
an old man is reflected


Sometimes The Kursk

by John Samuel Tieman

lonelier I thought
than a frozen ocean’s wharf
a young widow’s moan

Sometimes I love a good disaster story. The noble hero rescues the helpless. The survivor who, against all odds, comes away unscathed. The stoic victims remembered annually. Then sometimes it’s the Kursk.

Capt. Lieut. Dmitri Kolesnikov wasn’t a hero. He wasn’t particularly stoic. I’m not sure how many remember him. Yet there remains the home videos, the wife, the letter.

In his videos, his wife is funny, cute, obviously intelligent. They’re in love. It’s charming. Then he dies. He was aboard the submarine Kursk, which sank in 2000. Kolesnikov and 22 others survived for at least eight hours, if not for days in a cold, cramped and dark room. The submariner’s equivalent of being buried alive. On his body, a letter. “I am writing blindly. So I’ll write by feel.”

“I am writing blindly. So I’ll write by feel.” His words have haunted me for a dozen years. Some say we write in order to know what we think. I think we feel, then a kind of knowing follows. All the rest follows that. All the rest is sometimes writing. There were poems written in Auschwitz. There were messages sent from the Titanic. We feel, we think about what we feel, then all the rest follows and fades. Dmitri Kolesnikov’s letter is barely legible.

“I am writing blindly. So I’ll write by feel.” A dozen years later, and I am compelled to type his words, not because I must write them, not because I must hear them, not because I want to preserve them, but because, in the silence of my study, I must feel them with the tips of my fingers. I never knew Dmitri Kolesnikov. He had a nice smile. A nice wife. Likely a nice guy. But for all I know, he might have been brutish, sadistic, a martinet, a malingerer. What I do know is that once, in a tiny room, sad, afraid, he blindly wrote what he felt. Then he waited to die. Like all the rest of us.

I’ve ten thousand words
I’ll never put in prayer
the gods want the heart


A Modern Haibun

 by John Samuel Tieman 

                                                            another Monday

                                                            again I surrender to

                                                            the whisper of snow

My wife is reading Freud this evening.   I sweep the fireplace, the ashes from Sunday more interesting for what they were.   Phoebe says something I don’t quite catch, something about desire.  

I stare out our picture window.   I inventory our yard.   Pine, twilight, beast, leaf, pulse and fog, raven, root.   In the west, from work, a husband caught on a detour lengthened tonight by longing

A portion of my memoir appears in this month’s Vietnam magazine, and I’m surprised by letters from strangers.   Several veterans had the same job I had.   Others vets were stationed where I was, An Khe, an obscure corner of jungle.   One message from a wife — her husband never talks about our war.

                                                            in this Nam photo

                                                            the burnt torso of a monk

                                                            an enemy monk

                                                            tonight a cigarette glows

                                                            in the dark and is crushed


The Answer

by John Samuel Tieman

When I awoke Saturday, the first thought was, ‘Today is the day that Ruth dies.’

Ruth is my mother-in-law. Thursday, she had a heart attack. Friday, my wife, her daughter, Phoebe, put her in a hospice.

Her hospice is in the country, in southern Illinois, an hour outside St. Louis. The old folks home, where Mario, Ruth’s husband, still lives, is set like an Andrew Wyeth painting, the house on the hill, an empty pasture rolling toward the viewer, only someone old in the foreground rather than a comely model. On the drive, Phoebe and I look across a soy bean field, and see The Arch oddly on the horizon. We stop at the old folks home to pick-up Mario. The hospice is ten minutes from the home.

Mario is ninety-two and blind. Ruth is unresponsive. I have to explain to Mario how his wife looks. Her lips are white. I ask him if he would like to hold her hand. Mario is of that generation of men never trained in reflection or expression. He sits. I put her hand in his. He kisses her hand, and simply says, “Good-bye, Ma.” Then sets his head on the edge of the bed and weeps. Sixty-two years of marriage.

The family gathers. We’re alternately chatty with life and denial, then quiet as we listen for Ruth’s next breathe.

the answer

my mother-in-law
R. C., 1923 – 2012

there’s no climate change in a hospice
the shadows the same the year round
the only sign of autumn is some kid’s hand turkey
taped next to the hand sanitizer on the wall
the wall is marred by a poorly moved bed
even death is dull when it’s measured

four breaths a minute
three then
there’s no memory in a hospice
no Kilroy died here! and So did Red!
there’s only the folks in charge of death
the chaplain, the daughter and the poet

but that’s how I learned what’s a death rattle
the nun who stops praying
the daughter who drops a book
the charge nurse who whispers This is it


Art, Politics And Aztecs

by Phoebe Ann Cirio and John Samuel Tieman

Nothing feels benign anymore. That’s the lesson of terrorism. Planes used to be safe — flying used to be fun! So were movies and restaurants.

Everything feels wrong. We can land a rover on Mars, but our kids can’t pass math. We esteem yesterday over today and tomorrow. Major religions seem rigid. Many folks find life black and white. Then there’s the hate, the violence. It seems like one day there’s a shooting, and the next there’s an execution . America can’t even invade the right country anymore. Life seems overwhelming.

How do we approach all this? How do we approach all this safely?

Not long ago, we were in Mexico City. There is something quite evocative about standing before the Chacmool, a sacrificial altar. A human sacrificial altar. It reminds us of New York City.

A few years ago, we spent a week in New York City. We especially wanted to see the exhibit of Aztec art at the Guggenheim Museum.

We had lunch at the Tavern On The Green, a fashionable restaurant in Central Park. We sat next to a delightful group of eight women. They were high school classmates. To celebrate a birthday, they had flown in from all over the country. There was much photographing and joking. Their friendliness overtook our corner of the restaurant. And while we were not in their party, they were impossible not to notice.

Especially when, as suddenly as a tsunami, their conversation turned to the World Trade Center. They all knew someone who had died. One spoke of a neighbor, another of a brother-in-law. With anxiety still in her voice, the teacher told how she watched the towers collapse from her classroom. Most poignantly, the retiree added, “It’s different now that I live in Florida. Those people aren’t like us. They aren’t always on alert.”

The ladies at the neighboring table know something about fear.

The Aztecs ruled their region by terrorizing their neighbors. They were a rigid society. They were feared and despised by their neighbors, upon whom they constantly warred. But the aim of their “Flowery Wars” was not slaughter. They captured their opponents for human sacrifice.

That’s what’s so engaging about the Aztecs. In the town where Ground Zero is being reconstructed, we identify with the sacrificial victim.

The sacrifice was bent backward over the Chacmool, the altar. The victim’s arms, legs and head were held firmly by five priests. A sixth priest quickly and expertly plunges an obsidian knife between the terrified victim’s ribs. He twists the knife, spreads the ribs. A sacrifice is considered well done when the priest holds aloft the still-beating heart.

In a hostile universe, daily human sacrifice was needed to appease the gods. Sacrifice was a common part of minor ritual. On the other hand, thousands were sacrificed during the dedication of the Templo Mayor in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, today’s Mexico City.

But such sacrifice also earned the Aztecs the hatred of their neighbors, who were easy for Hernan Cortez to recruit. The Aztec empire ruled central and southern Mexico for about 300 years. But their reign ended swiftly upon the arrival of Conquistadores in 1519.

There was much to learn from an exhibit of Aztec art set in the town where there occurred the greatest loss of life due to a terrorist attack on American soil.

The Aztecs felt inferior to others. They esteemed their ancestors over themselves. Their theology was demanding. Life was black and white. The living were haunted by the dead, and they needed to appease the terrifying gods with human sacrifice. Xipe Totec, their god of fertility, was honored and appeased by priests who draped themselves in the skins of the sacrificed. They wore these skins until they virtually rotted off. Priests so clothed reminded the citizens that they were never safe from the demands of the gods. The Aztecs inhabited a world they found terrifying, and coped by becoming terrifying themselves.

Today, the Aztecs are reduced from their grandeur. We no longer have to fear them. We can go to the museum, and see the beautiful and frightening artifacts of a once dangerous people. Unlike the enemy who brought down the Twin Towers, the Aztecs no longer need be feared. Here at least we can be reassured that some fearsome enemies can be stopped.

Now we have a different enemy, one that we cannot see coming. Terrorism lurks in the most benign places, so that nothing feels benign anymore. (Where will we be vulnerable next? The food supply? Our french fries?) We have become afraid and vulnerable.

There was much reassurance offered by that exhibit. When we identify with the victims of the Aztecs, then we participate in an internal drama. We imagine capture and death, but we evade it. This time we get to leave unscathed. The ladies at the adjoining table remembered, again, years and months later, the ones who did not survive the attack. The Aztec exhibit engaged us in an imaginative trip into the terror. But this time we walk away.

Phoebe Ann Cirio is a psychoanalyst in private practice. John Samuel Tieman is a regular contributer to Coal Hill Review. They are married, and live in St. Louis.



by John Samuel Tieman

Everyone has a 9/11 story. To tell the truth, I don’t have a story. I have a record of feelings.

I was teaching 7th grade in St. Louis when The World Trade Center and Pentagon were bombed. Apparently, our administrators had some debate about whether or not to show this over our TVs. But how can we soften the trauma by veiling it?

At first, it was all a bit confusing. Perhaps I am a bit of a rube, but, since I’m not from New York City, I’ve never paid any attention to the World Trade Center. When it first came on the TV, I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. Then, when the film showed the collapse of the first tower — we were watching recordings about an hour after it actually happened — all the smoke confused me. What’s going on? But then I saw the Pentagon. After my years in the army, in Vietnam, I damn sure knew what that was.

My kids were scared. “Are they going to bomb us? Will they fly a plane into the Arch? What about our school? …”

We watched the TV for a bit more. The news was fragmented. The same news clips repeated. It was time to turn-off the TV. Not because the news is sketchy, but because I saw the dissociation in my students’ eyes. My job was to assure them that life will carry-on for us. We will be sad. We will be scared. But no one will harm Dr. Tieman’s class; no one will bomb our school. As always, I will be here at 6:30 AM. Tomorrow, we will begin the next lesson.

Then there were, and still are, the other feelings. I’m a native Midwesterner, a St. Louisan. But I don’t hate New York. Except as the setting for “NYPD Blue”, I’m simply unfamiliar with it. My wife and I take The New York Times on the weekend, but I never read the local bits. So my connections are tenuous.

After a couple of weeks, I noticed that The Times started running extended obituaries for the 9/11 dead. I didn’t think much of it. Till one caught my eye one Saturday.

To be honest, I paused because the woman in the photo was cute. So I read on. She was a well educated, successful business woman. Every Thanksgiving, she threw a party in her apartment, because her balcony was immediately above the street where the big Macy’s parade balloons are inflated.

I imagined having a friend who threw such a party, me sitting on that balcony, sipping coffee, munching a bagel, staring at a two storied Big Bird. I remember the sadness I felt that day — I still imagine the emptiness where this woman used to be — that sadness has yet to leave me.



by John Samuel Tieman

          I no longer know the Vietnam War.   I only feel it. 

          I am in D. C. for a conference.   I’m staying at the Renaissance Hotel on 9th.   But I am drawn to Panel 49W, Line 035.   Robert O. Bumiller.   The Vietnam Memorial. 

          I walk the length of the Mall from east to west.   I’m only vaguely aware of everything around me.   Capital Building.   Washington Monument.   Tourists.   Smithsonian.   Lincoln.   Vaguely aware.   I free associate.   I remember a lot of guys who died in the Nam.   One guy was shot right in front of me.   But Rob … 

          I grew up with Rob.   Rob’s mom and my mom went to school together.   They stayed lifelong friends.   Rob and I, we were childhood companions. 

          Rob grew up in wealth.   But he was crazy wild.   Couldn’t stay in school.   Finally, he was drafted, and sent to the 1st Cavalry Division.   11B20, infantry rifleman, “straight leg grunt” we used to say.   In August of ’68, he had the back of his head shot off.   He was just short of his 21st birthday.   He lived long enough to call home one last time from a hospital ship.   That’s where they sent folks when they were sure to die, a ship.   Anyone with a chance got flown to Japan.   Rob’s dad picked-up that phone.   That call killed Carl, the dad, as sure as a bullet to the brain.

           There’s a kiosk just before I get to The Wall.   This guy sells all these Nam knick-knacks, bumper stickers, buttons and such.   We chat.   I notice Vietnam magazine.   I’m startled, frankly, because I’m this month’s featured veteran.   My narcissism compels me to tell the guy this.   Suddenly, I’m signing autographs.   But it’s not like it’s flattering.   It’s awkward.   I’m a pretty obscure writer.   I rarely see my writing outside my own study.   I’m unaccustomed to signing autographs, and I don’t know how to do this gracefully.   So I just stop.   One guy shyly looks at me, the magazine in hand.   I should offer, but I just walk away. 

          Panel 49W is about halfway down the right.   Line 035 is about half-way up The Wall.   I don’t pray.   

          I touch his name.   I remember joking with Rob in the kitchen.   Setting off sparklers on the 4th of July.   How he hated Oscar, his middle name.   How Rob and another friend, Doug, drove me to our high school one snowy day.   I let go of his name. 

          I move down a few panels to 1970, the year I was in the Nam.   Hank.   Pete.   Greaser.   Others.   I don’t pick-out their names.   It is enough to know they are here. 

          On the way back to the Renaissance, at the corner of 9th and G Streets, there’s a beggar in a fatigue jacket.   He stops me, stands right in front of me, stares at my lapel pin, my Vietnam Service Ribbon.   He asks, “Brother, do you know me?”   I give him a dollar.   He thanks me.   “But do you know me?”



by John Samuel Tieman

One of the mysteries of marriage is watching
Phoebe revise. I’ve seen her take a thirty page draft

and just throw the whole thing out. All of it.
And start over. The ideas are all there and greatly

clarified. But the words she throws out.
What she keeps is the clarity of thought.

For my part, I stand in awe. She jokes
how revision starts with bloodshed.


For A War Buddy

by John Samuel Tieman

7 December
St. Louis, 8:00 AM

Dear Dick,
It occurs to me that I got home from Vietnam, and out of the army, forty years ago today. Indeed, at this very hour. My major sensation is not so much sadness or nostalgia as much as — forty years! Forty years. My God, I was only twenty at the time I got home from the war. Where did forty years go …

I’m saddened, but hardly surprised, to hear that you never discuss the war with your wife, Jan. The other day, I was watching some show, and this war veteran said that he has memories he never shares. I was about to congratulate myself, thinking ‘Well, at least I’m not like that’, when, somewhat startled, I said instead right out loud, ‘Oh my god, I’m one of those guys.’ There’s just stuff I never discuss. It’s not that I can’t. It’s just too painful.

When I first got out, I thought going to the university would help me put the war behind me. But it didn’t. I just felt isolated. Anytime I would tell a story, it was usually wild, often laughable, exaggerated, that sort of thing. I never talked about the real pain. I knew my wife, Phoebe, at the time a dear friend, for four years before I even told her I was a veteran.

But, of course, the war didn’t go away. I remember one evening when it occurred to me that I had actually gone twenty-four hours without dwelling on Vietnam — and I don’t mean musing, I mean dwelling. Then I realized that evening that I had been home for three years.

One week, when I was an undergraduate at SMU, I wondered if I could remember accurately my time in the Nam. So, as I lay in bed, just before I’d fall sleep, I relived the war day-by-day. I did this for a few nights. I could recall every single day. I can’t do that anymore. But all I have to do is hear “Taps”, and I find myself, at times, overwhelmed by a sadness so precise that I know it will never go away.

Sometimes the memories are light. Like the time Nance nicknamed me “Buddha”, my Nam name, because of the way I was sitting on the ground when I first met him. Other times, like that night that guy murdered those folks in Charlie Company, in forty years I’ve talked to two people about that. You and my therapist.

Now I’ll tell you something I only told my therapist. When they finally cornered that grunt, that murderer, in that little field just below us, I could see his muzzle flashes as he held off his pursuers. He was so busy with the guys right in front of him that he didn’t know I was directly to his right. I had a clear shot. But it was so dark that I wasn’t sure who was around him, or where. I held my fire. Seconds later, this other guy blew him away.

I learned something that night, something I didn’t want to know. A lot of folks wonder whether they could kill somebody. I’m not one of those folks. And I spent the next two decades – with drugs and sex and booze – trying to unknow that about myself. That and so much more …

Finally, I did my work in therapy. I learned many things about myself. Among them, I simply learned to live with all that sadness. When I recall Vietnam, there are a whole range of feelings, from laughter to horror. But what I needed to learn was, perhaps, the simplest lesson: that whatever other feelings I may have, I will never recall that war and not be sad.


A Conversation in Poetry

by John Samuel Tieman

Walter Bargen, Missouri’s first Poet Laureate, is the author of five books of poetry. I met Walter when we served on the Literature Panel of the Missouri Arts Council. This exchange happened over the internet from 20 – 22 October 2011.


after making love
by a small and nameless stream
she misses Pine Street



All day in bright sun
Willow leaves
Reflect upon the water.

Car window down
Autumn leaves on the driver’s seat
Going places.



this pigeon is caught
in my class — it shits on my
grade book then escapes



Late for its final meeting
A dragonfly
Skims autumn’s dark surface.



even the robin
left it untouched – the one
raisin on our porch



On the first turn
the engine purrs.
Time to let the cat out.


To Celebrate The Sacrifice Of The Hero

 by John Samuel Tieman

I guarantee that this week, the week of Veteran’s Day, someone someplace will say, “We celebrate the sacrifice made by the hero in uniform.”

This is an essay about language, especially the words celebrate, sacrifice and hero. Ironically, the very terms Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day are confused. Veteran’s Day is for all those who served in the uniformed services. Memorial Day is for those who died. It is just as well that we confuse these terms. It reminds us of how few people actually serve, how these two days have more to do with barbecues than actual heroes.

No official word is adequate to describe war, and certainly not the word celebrate. I am at a loss to understand what there is to celebrate in a war. Except for the soldiers and their families, nobody today sacrifices. There’s no war tax, no rationing. As for hero, the word is so overused as to be meaningless. I recently heard a local TV channel use hero to describe someone who rescues puppies.

Nobody will celebrate that Stan, a veteran of the Air Force, dropped out of university because of the pain in his right foot, which had been crushed when a missile dropped on it. Stan didn’t sacrifice for his country. The accident, according to Stan, was meaningless. A winch broke, and front half of his foot was smashed.

Nor will anyone remember what Cal sacrificed. Cal was Bob’s dad. Cal died of a broken heart as sure as his son died of a gunshot in The Nam. Bob had his head blown off, because a rifle misfired in what the army termed a “misadventure”. His father did not celebrate.

Mark, from the south side of Chicago, was smart, quiet, unpretentious. We shared a barracks in Basic Training. His name is on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. No one calls him hero. He was drafted. He didn’t win any medals. Mark didn’t sacrifice his life: his life was torn from him.

There was a fellow I once walked past in Vietnam. He was on guard duty. I passed close enough to chat for a second. He died that night. He was killed while guarding the Finance Company of the 4th Infantry Division. You don’t think of accountants dying in a war. Yet die he did. I didn’t know him. But I remember him. He wasn’t a hero. I heard later that he fell asleep on guard duty. There is nothing to celebrate, though there is much to mourn.

Perhaps, because I am a war veteran, I have more to remember than most. That said, I will not remember the war dead, or my brother and sister veterans, any more this week than I remember them any other week. Besides, the act of remembering is a solitary thing. It doesn’t do the remembered any good or ill. But the words, by which we record the memory, the words matter. Sacrifice is too sacred a word. As for celebrate, there’s nothing to celebrate. It’s war. Heroes, yes, there are, in fact, heroes. But mostly there are just sad, scared, lonely young men and women, the heroes included. Perhaps the only word that really matters any more is remember.

So let me say a few last words, one last memory.

I left Vietnam in December of 1970. I used my G. I. Bill to go to Southern Methodist University. In my senior year, 1975, the North Vietnamese invaded the South. My old base camp, An Khe, fell without a fight. I remember the very night I heard the news.

I thought of Williams Bridge. Williams Bridge spanned a small river in An Khe. Specialist 4th Class Eric Williams died while building that bridge. I never met him. He died four years before my tour of duty. He was not a hero. He did not sacrifice his life. He drowned in an accident.

As I watched the news that night in 1975, I thought about the death of Specialist Williams. Somewhere, in all that grief, were all the deaths, Americans, Vietnamese, the French and all the rest. But I fixed on The Sp. 4 Eric Williams Bridge. And I wept bitterly. Because it was all in vain. There was nothing to celebrate.

The next day was an ordinary weekday. I just went to class. I remember listening to a lecture in Dallas Hall at SMU. And knowing that, of all my classmates, my teachers, friends, people I liked, people I loved, of all those folks, I alone wept for Eric Williams.


How To Make A Zombie

by John Samuel Tieman

Why zombies? Why now? Zombies are everywhere. Wikipedia lists fourteen comic books, eight nonfiction books, over thirty novels and anthologies devoted to zombies. I won’t even count the movies and TV shows.

My favorite is AMC’s “The Walking Dead”, which begins in post-zombie-apocalypse Atlanta. Deputy Sheriff Rick Grimes, played by Andrew Lincoln, awakens from a coma. He finds himself abandoned by the living, and surrounded by the dead. He fights his way to a rural area, where he joins with other survivors in a grim struggle for their lives.

Who are the zombies? Zombies are not our friends. Let’s think about that. Zombies are like us. They are like us in the same way that a mirror image is like us. Zombies bear an uncanny resemblance to the living. But the resemblance is grotesque, a missing leg, half an arm. Then there’s that complexion. Zombies are as singular in their purpose as they are unrelenting. There is no reasoning with a zombie. No amount of mediation will help. They are unintelligent. They are slow-moving. Individually, they are easily defeated, but when they “swarm”, you’re pretty much lunch. Zombies are not our friends.

Or, to be precise, we don’t consider zombies good neighbors. Neighbor is defined by two paradoxical qualities, a degree of familiarity and a degree of distance. The neighbor is both knowable and unknowable. Esperanza and her family have lived catty-corner from me for almost fifteen years. I like Esperanza, and know a lot about her. I know, for example, that she was born in Honduras. But I will never know what it is like to grow up in Central America, to marry a Norteamericano, to become a naturalized citizen.

And that’s what makes neighbors interesting. There’s so much I’ll learn, and so much I’ll never know. That’s not true of zombies. With zombies, we know what they are, and we know everything they will ever be. With the neighbor, this is never that clear. With the neighbor, there is mystery.

And that’s how you make a zombie. First, the concept of neighbor dies. Not the neighbor – the concept of the neighbor. Actually, the zombie who used to live next door, that guy is still staggering around the park. Their home zip codes notwithstanding, zombies are not considered our neighbors. They are the evil other, about whom we know all we need to know. It’s not the zombie who has died. It is, in one sense, the love for the neighbor that has died.

Why zombies? Why now? Because the zombies are everywhere.

Because zombies are Muslim “extremists”. Because zombies are Mexican “illegals”. They are unrelenting and unintelligent. They have no inner life. They look like us, but they have bad complexions. There is no reasoning with them. There is no negotiating with them. Because the problem is not one “illegal”, not one “extremist”. The problem is when they “swarm”. We know what they are. We know all they will ever be. We know what to do. We kill them. We keep them out. If we don’t, they’ll eat us.

This is the world we live in, a world where dialogue is anathema. A recent survey of Tea Partiers revealed that over two-thirds favored candidates who neither compromise nor negotiate. That attitude is hardly exclusive to the right. There are plenty of intractable liberals. Personally, I am neither pro-zombie nor anti-zombie. I simply point out the world in which we live. When Marshall McLuhan first spoke of the global village, we imagined a world filled with neighbors. What we got is a city filled with zombies.

But what do you do with a zombie? In the opening episode of “The Walking Dead”, the deputy sheriff is pursued by a zombie with no legs. She is terrifying. Later in the show, Rick Grimes returns to that zombie. Indeed, he goes out of his way to find her in a suburb of Atlanta. She keeps crawling toward him. She still wants to eat him. But he has a gun. He is no longer threatened by this legless creature. I thought he was going to avenge himself for having been so terrified by her. Instead, he pities her. He says, “I’m sorry this happened to you”. Why? Because this woman, for all her differences, is still his neighbor.

Let me be perfectly clear. I’m not proposing a new immigration policy. I don’t know what to do about terrorism. I’m not that wise. I’m simply saying there are no zombies.


A Story To Occupy The Mind

by John Samuel Tieman

Between me and my God
There are only eleven commandments;
The eleventh says: Thou shalt not
Bury thy brother alive

— Atukwei Okai

Like many Americans, perhaps most Americans, I watch with keen interest the Occupy Wall Street movement and its affiliates, in my case Occupy St. Louis. Like many Americans, perhaps most Americans, I wonder if this movement is ephemeral.

Occupy Wall Street says in its “Statement Of Purpose, “We, the 99 percent, are hereby taking action against the greed and corruption of the richest 1 percent, the bankers, politicians, and corporate persons that govern our nation.” In my experience, the problem with being the 99% is that there are 99 voices all speaking at once. Mass movements are often as exciting as they are confusing. There are 99 sub-texts. In this case, however, there is a clear message. America, it is OK to critique capitalism.

It is OK to critique capitalism. This is an affirmative message in that it encourages reform that mitigates against the worst impulses of capitalism, impulses that have enriched the already rich, impoverished many who were middle class, and further impoverished the already poor. Occupy Wall Street is a reform. Far from being a violent manifesto, the “Statement Of Purpose” endorses nonviolence.

I am reminded of our political ancestors. Roughly one hundred years ago, the British consolidated their social democratic impulses with the trade union movement, the result being the Labour Party. In our country, these same impulses became more fragmented, with the social democratic critique of capitalism, Eugene Debs for instance, becoming a tiny voice, and the union movement becoming both pro-worker and capitalist. Any lingering critique of capitalism was muted by several persecutions of the left, the worst being McCarthyism.

But that’s over now. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, there also fell the fear of the leftist critique. No one worries about the communist take-over. They worry about the corporate take-over of their pension plan, their small business, their family farm. Folks worry about their jobs, their homes, their health.

This is the critique that is not going away. It is a call for reform. But it is reform with a hard edge, because the 99% are clearly saying that capitalism cannot go on like this. If it means class warfare, then let there be class warfare. Folks remember that, from Reagan’s deregulation to Madoff’s larceny, this war was ignited by the 1%.

Embedded in this critique is a clear narrative, a clear story – some people are inordinately rich because some people are inordinately poor. Bob Smith is poor because Bernie Madoff stole his money. Sam Smith got laid off while the CEO got a million dollar bonus. The poor fight the war while Haliburton … . You get the idea. It is a consistent narrative. Nothing sparks reform quite like a good story.

Let me tell another story. I am a Vietnam veteran from a modest background. I am grateful for the G. I. Bill. In large part, it was through the G. I. Bill that I got my bachelor’s degree, my M. A., and my first teacher’s certificate. The G. I. Bill also helped me finance my home. Should I need it, I have health coverage from the Veterans’ Administration, a fact I find comforting. I can say, without hesitation, that the G. I. Bill changed my entire life, as it has changed the lives of millions of veterans. My point being that I am one of millions of citizens who can attest to the fact that large scale governmental programs can do tremendous good.

Folks are not blind to the fact that unchecked government can do harm. But that is not the problem right now. Indeed, in most arguments these days, that’s the red herring. The problem is unchecked capitalism. Thus the gift of Occupy Wall Street – it is OK to critique capitalism.

Someone once said, I think it was Huey Long, that if a guy worked hard and played by the rules, he didn’t want to take away this guy’s first limousine. Long wanted to take away his second limousine. There are practical consequences to a critique of capitalism. Reforms lead to proposals, and proposals lead to laws. Tax the rich. Regulate the corporations. Pay for the wars. But in the spirit of our political ancestors, like Huey Long, this doesn’t mean punish those who have done no more than work hard and play by the rules. It means this. Take care Vince, a janitor, who worked hard, played by the rules, but is now, at age sixty, out of work because a corporate take-over led to his impoverishment.

first published in The St. Louis Beacon

Occupy St. Louis

by John Samuel Tieman

I went to the Occupy St. Louis rally on Friday. There was a lot of excitement in the air. What struck me was the range of folks — housewives, veterans, unionists, an AARP group, students, teachers of course. Not just the usual “Same Six Radicals”, as a friend puts it. I had a number of folks to march with, especially the American Federation Of Teachers, and Veterans For Peace. The unions were well represented, so I marched with the veterans. We shut down Market Street, demonstrated outside Bank of America, then outside The Old Courthouse where the Dred Scott Case was decided, and where slaves used to be sold.