March 11, 2016
By Peter Neil Carroll
Portside (March 11, 2016)
On February 28 2016, Delmer Berg of northern California died. He was last known veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade--the 2800 American volunteers who fought in the Spanish Civil War. Here is a tribute for them all.
On the first day, Charlie Edwards peeked
over the hill at Jarama, a shot pierced his eye—
Pennsylvania, all anyone knew about Edwards
and he should have kept his head down,
notorious Number One.
Uncounted, they fell in olive groves,
in the dry earth of the Aragon,
shell fragments knifed the rabbi’s son,
audacious Wally Burton dueled a marksman
from the other side—and fell.
Surrender raised the score: a Queens boy
saw a fascist slap a prisoner, stood up to help,
got pistoled in the head; two painters
from Greenwich Village for months carried
Goya’s Disasters of War, collapsed under
an olive tree, names added to 800 dead.
Fifteen hundred returned with nightmares,
the wounded Brannan gulped the oven’s gas,
Nurse Hannah jumped off a tenement roof.
The next war gave 24 more their years to sleep
in Normandy, Luzon, India, New Guinea.
Most lived to propagate, became carpenters,
electricians, typesetters, screenwriters, anthropologists,
longshoremen, engineers, agitators, atomic spies,
social workers, florists. The two best poets died
before they were 50; the gay Finn guerrilla
drank to death after a fling with an English laureate.
Later, you name it, someone had it. McLeod a slow
melanoma, Lucid his heart, George the prostate,
Sam dementia. The pancreas caught Moe at 91.
He’d kept the living names on a crossed-off list
that tallied 39, falling fast. Jack the Kid was 90.
When one dies, I ask Milt, do you feel worse
or better? A puzzled face, then joy, saying Sure!
Abe smirks the same, then trips off a step, never
gets up. Dave mutters yes, much better. Each
wants to be last until Del Berg stands alone.
First Sunday every other month, potluck meetings
moved like rusty clockwork for sixty years,
agendas intently argued, raucous, felt like
going to church to youngsters who heard
sermonizing adults dispute the class struggle.
One daughter remembered being summoned
by her school principal, demanding to know
if her folks were Reds. She was 8, replied with
precocious poise: I refuse to tell the answer.
The fathers, veterans of the Spanish Civil War,
loomed as heroes, premature anti-fascists
as they were denounced by the tardy ones.
Many basked in their presence, some resented
their self-importance. They had reason for pride.
In the war against Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco,
what they gave was undeniable, proven by scars
and missing limbs, these the lucky ones who
came home, but disagreements lay close
to the skin, splits as to Stalin, Khrushchev,
the Party, not to say Cuba, Vietnam, Israel.
About Spain they expressed no qualms, loved
to visit Madrid, reunion parties thrown by aged
comrades. Their glamour seemed amazing, men
with limps and canes, adored by Iberian beauties,
toasted by multitudes with paella, brandy, song.
The slender ones, more fluid on their feet, lived
longer, their spirit mixed with jealousy, old men
competing for attention. Their ages rose, numbers
fell. Delmer Berg, deaf as a doornail, reached
100, a thin man, good-hearted, sincere. He liked
the final fuss, last of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.
Peter Neil Carroll is Chair Emeritus of the ALBA, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives and the author of Fracking Dakota: Poems for a Wounded Land (Turning Point Press, 2015). He is Portside’s Poetry Moderator.
Portions of this poem first appeared in Multicultural Echoes (Spring 2015).
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