I picked out my armageddon hiding place early on. I was a girl of twelve.
On my grandpa’s farm, a gully cut thirty or more feet deep into the red earth of family land. A natural spring bubbled out of the ground there and ran through woods with trees thick as hairs on a dog’s back. Plenty of pines, chinquapin, hickory, hackberry, and oaks, all canopied under a sun that never got through, laying down centuries of seasonal leaves and needles to pad the hard clay.
I hiked into the gully via the stream banks, my shoes sinking into the soft wet sands, stepping over wild ferns and other woodsy plants, climbing over fallen tree trunks, watching out for bad snakes. Country noises sounded all around me: bird alerts, the whippoorwill’s forlorn song, a trembling of leaves in a summer breeze, a cow groan in the distant pasture, a low trickling of water. I stuck my fingernails into the red clay canyon sides for support, dug in with my Keds, balanced, climbed over vertical ruts and rocks, and sat on a hard-dirt outjutting of the earthen gully wall in the cool August ground hole and did some pondering.
I knew war would come. I had seen TV repeats of Khrushchev pounding his shoe on a desktop, screaming that Russia would bury America. I feared the H-bomb and waited for it to be dropped on one of our cities. I read Alas, Babylon, when that really happened. I knew we were preparing weaponry for war. I heard sonic booms of new jets as they flew over my backyard.
Sitting deep at the bottom of that gully the summer before seventh grade, I knew war would come. I looked way up at blue skies filtered through the lace of leaves above, pale green, fluttering peacefully. I was hidden here. I felt safe. No one could find me. After Russia dropped the bomb and then sent their armies marching in through Mexico—that’s how I imagined it happening—I could live here without being exposed to the enemy. There was water to drink. There were nuts and greens in the forest. There were fruit trees nearby. I could live.
A lot of years have passed. I still remember that day as if it were yesterday. I still worry about armageddon. I still believe war will come.
I own that gully now.
My friend Neil O. Jones lost his long battle with lung cancer the last day of January 2017. The Roundtable Writers Group, of which he was a member, spoke at his funeral service on his behalf, doing readings by his favorite authors, as well as original works.
I am honored to have written and read a poem with my friend Susie Dunham. I’m sharing it below in honor of Neil, a fine man who had friends all over the country who came to pay respects. He was blessed to have his writer friends, his “brothers” from the 173rd Airborne Brigade, fellow college professors, the Muletown Hog Chapter of motorcycle friends (a 20-bike tribute! Thanks to Jerry Knox who organized this!), Gerald (T-Bone, childhood friend from Dallas), local friends, children, and grandchildren to gather to celebrate his life.
January 31, 2017
We Lost a Friend
Susie Dunham and Kathy Rhodes
We lost a friend today.
We’ve lost other friends and family to cancer,
but we’ve never lived it so close.
Close enough to see week to week
month to month
year to year.
We saw how it took pieces of you.
Teasing and testing you to
fight harder than you did in the
jungles of Vietnam, to
fight harder to stay alive.
Fifty years ago in that January,
your worst battle of that war,
Operation Junction City,
you fought to keep your brothers safe.
Now in this January,
your worst fight of this war,
you battled with bravery and honor
to stay with the people who
will miss you
that the battle is lost.
This ain’t Nam.
From Neil’s book Brothers, All
“It was then I knew,” you said. “Nothing would ever change. I would get out of this life whatever I could and think of Vietnam only when it attacked me [whenever] it … chose. It was the ghosts of my brothers … It was Agent Orange. There was no escape,” you said. “The mark of the Beast would keep coming back.”
“It is the cancer coming back and building in me that I can’t get away from,” you said.
“Now there is a new way to fight it—a new drug … approved … twenty days before my cancer in progression receives it.
Another battle ahead.
Five decades of war, college, love, children, grandchildren, work, teaching American literature in college, now this—more war,” you said. “I am trying desperately to save myself from the enemy, firing with every weapon I’ve got. I face the deep, unfathomable abysm.
And so it begins.”
And so it ends.
We lost a friend today.
You fought the war back then,
and now near’ four years of battles,
one after the other:
surgeries, chemo rounds, radiation—
new wonder drug!
you left this world
fifty years after you left that old war.
You got out of life what you could.
“Half scholar, half rube,” you said.
Renaissance man, country boy.
You taught the classes.
You rode the mules.
You rode the scoot.
You told the stories.
You wrote the book.
You fought the battles. You did your part.
It’s that, sometimes, in life, what’s supposed to save you does not.
The beast, it turns on you.
Many battles won, but the war rages on.
Maybe you, first in that new cancer treatment,
can help those who come behind.
For in life, what matters most is doing for others, all brothers, and
You won before you lost.
You won before you lost.