Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Body of an American, from Nineteen-Nineteen,

by John Dos Passos

Whereasthe  Congressoftheunitedstates  byaconcurrentresolutionadoptedon  the4thdayofmarch  last-authorizedthe  Secretaryofwar to cause to be brought to theunitedstatesthe body of an American  whowasa- memberoftheAmericanexpeditionaryforceineuropewholosthis lifeduringtheworldwarandwhoseidentityhas- not beenestablish for burial inthememorialamphitheatreofthe nationalcemeteryatarlingtonvirginia

            In the tarpaper morgue at Chalons-sur-Marne in the reek of cloride of lime and the dead, they picked out the pine box that held all that was left of

            enie menie minie moe plenty of other pine boxes stacked up there containing what they’d scraped up of Richard Roe

            and other person or persons unknown.  Only one can go.  How did they pick John Doe?

            Make sure he aint a dinge, boys, make sure he ain't a guinea or a kike,[1]

            how can you tell a guy’s a hundredpercent when all you’ve got’s a gunnysack full of bones, bronze buttons stamped with the screaming eagle and a pair of roll puttees?

            . . . and the gagging chloride and the puky dirtstench of the yearold dead . . .

The day withal was too meaningful and tragic for applause.  Silence, tears, songs and prayer, muffled drums and soft music were the instrumentalities today of national approbation.

            John Doe was born (thudding din of blood of love into the shuddering soar of a man and a woman alone indeed together lurching into

            and ninemonths sick drowse waking into scared agony and the pain and blood and mess of birth).  John Doe was born

            and raised in Brooklyn, in Memphis, near the lakefront in Cleveland, Ohio, in the stench of the stockyards in Chi, on Beacon Hill, in an old brick house in Alexandria Virginia, on Telegraph Hill, in a halftimbered Tudor cottage in Portland the city of roses,

            in the Lying-In Hospital old Morgan[2] endowed on Stuyvesant Square,

            across the railroad tracks, out near the country club, in a shack cabin tenement apartmenthouse exclusive residential suburb;

            scion of one of the best families in the social register, won first prize in the baby parade at Coronado Beach, was marbles champion of the Little Rock grammarschools, crack basketballplayer at the Booneville High, quarterback at the State Reformatory, having saved the sheriff’s kid from drowning in the Little Missouri River was invited to Washington to be photographed shaking hands with the President on the White House steps;—

            though this was a time of morning, such an assemblage necessarily has about it a touch of color.  In the boxes are seen the court uniforms of foreign diplomats, the gold braid of our own and foreign fleets and armies, the black of the conventional morning dress of American statesmen, the varicolored furs and outdoor wrapping garments of mothers and sisters come to mourn, the drab and blue of soldiers and sailors, the glitter of musical instruments and the white and black of a vested choir

            —busboy harveststiff hogcaller boyscout champeen cornshucker of Western Kansas bellhop at the United States Hotel at Saratoga Springs office boy callboy fruiter telephone lineman longshoreman lumberjack plumber’s helper,

            worked for an exterminating company in Union City, filled pipes in an opium joint in Trenton, N.J.

            Y.M.C.A. secretary, express agent, truckdriver, fordmechanic, sold books in Denver Colorado: Madam would you be willing to help a young man work his way through college?

            President Harding, with a reverence seemingly more significant because of his high temporal station, concluded his speech:

            We are met today to pay the impersonal tribute;

the name of him whose body lies before us took flight with his imperishable soul…

as a typical soldier of this representative democracy he fought and died believing in the indisputable justice of his country’s cause . . .

by raising his right hand and asking the thousands with the sound of his voice to join in the prayer:

Our Father which art in heaven hallowed by thy name . . .

Naked he went into the army;

they weighed you, measured you, looked for flat feet, squeezed your penis to see if you had clap, looked up your anus to see if you had piles, counted your teeth, made you cough, listened to your heart and lungs, made you read the letters on the card, charted your urine and your intelligence,

gave you a service record for a future (imperishable soul)

and an identification tag stamped with your serial number to hang around your neck, issued O D[3] regulation equipment, a condiment can and a copy of the articles of war:

Attn’SHUN suck in your gut you c——r[4] wipe that smile off your face eyes right wattja tink dis is a choirch-social? For-war-D’ARCH.

John Doe

and Richard Roe and other person or persons unknown

drilled hiked, manual of arms, ate slum,[5] learned to salute, to soldier, to loaf in the latrines, forbidden to smoke on deck, overseas guard duty, forty men and eight horses,[6] shortarm inspection[7] and the ping of shrapnel and the shrill bullets combing the air and the sorehead woodpeckers the machineguns mud cooties gasmasks and the itch.

Say feller tell me how I can get back to my outfit.

John Doe had a head

for twentyodd years intensely the nerves of the eyes the ears the palate the tongue the fingers the toes the armpits, the nerves warmfeeling under the skin charged the coiled brain with hurt sweet warm cold mine must don’t sayings print headlines:

Thou shalt not the multiplication table long division, Now is the time for all good men knocks but once at a young man’s door, It’s a great life if Ish gebibbel,[8] The first five years’ll be the Safety First, Suppose a hun tried to rape you’re my country right or wrong, Catch ‘em young, What he don’t know wont treat ‘em rough, Tell ‘m nothing, He got what was coming to him he got his, This is a white man’s country, Kick the bucket, Gone west, If you don’t like it you can croak him

Say buddy cant you tell me how I can get back to my outfit?

Cant help jumpin when them things go off, give me the trots[9] them things do.  I lost my identification tag swimmin in the Marne, roughhousin with a guy while we was waitin to be deloused, in bed with a girl name Jeanne (Love moving picture wet French postcard dream began with saltpeter[10] in the coffee and ended at the propho[11] station);—

Say soldier for chrissake cant you tell me how I can get back to my outfit?

            John Doe’s

            heart pumped blood:

            alive thudding silence of blood in your ears

            down in the clearing in the Oregon forest[12] where the punkins were punkincolor pouring into the blood through the eyes and the fallcolored trees and the bronze hoopers were hopping through the dry grass, where tiny striped snails hung on the underside of the blades and the flies hummed, wasps droned, bumble-bees buzzed, and the woods smelt of wine and mushrooms and apples, homey smell of fall pouring into the blood,

            and I dropped the tin hat and the sweaty pack and lay flat with the dogday sun licking my throat and adamsapple and the tight skin over the breastbone.

            The shell had his number on it.

            The blood ran into the ground.

            The service record dropped out of the filing cabinet when the quartermaster sergeant got blotto that time they had to pack up and leave the billets in a hurry.

            The identification tag was in the bottom of the Marne.

            The blood ran into the ground, the brains oozed out of the cracked skull and were licked up by the trenchrats, the belly swelled and raised a generation of blue-bottle flies.

            and the incorruptible skeleton,

            and the scraps of dried viscera and skin bundled in khaki

            they took to Chalons-sur-Marne

            and laid it out neat in a pine coffin

            and took it home to God’s Country on a battleship

            and buried in a sarcophagus in the Memorial Amphitheatre in the Arlington National Cemetery

            and draped the Old Glory over it

            and the bugler played taps

            and Mr. Harding prayed to God and the diplomats and the generals and the admirals and the brasshats and the politicians and the handsomely dressed ladies out of the society column of the Washington Post stood up solemn

            and thought how beautiful sad Old Glory God’s Country it was go have the bugler play taps and the three volleys made their ears ring.

            Where his chest ought to have been they pinned

            the Congressional Medal, the D.S.C.,[13] the Medaille Militaire, the Belgian Croix de Guerre, the Italian gold medal, the Vitutea Militara sent by Queen Marie of Rumania, the Czechoslovak war cross, the Virtuti Militari of the Poles, a wreath sent by Hamilton Fish, Jr., of New York,[14] and a little wampum presented by a deputation of Arizona redskins in warpaint and feathers.  All the Washingtonians brought flowers.

            Woodrow Wilson brought a bouquet of poppies.


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