A Civil War Veteran from Indiana
Recalls Visiting with Walt Whitman in a Washington Hospital
— Robert, Krapf, 1993
Even now, as I stare into the fire,
I can see him sitting there, that
lonely old man whose eyes fluttered
like quail roosting beyond the snowy
white bush of his whiskers and hair.
At first when I came to at dusk
and saw him sitting there, through
my fever, I was suspicious. As you
can imagine! What could an old man
want in a ward of wounded and dying
solders that reeked of gangrene
and piss? But when he spoke,
I relaxed. I had never heard
such a voice. His words were salve
to my wound. He talked like one
of us, but somehow gentler.
He asked about my pain, if it was
better. I nodded. When I admitted
I was thirsty, he put water to my
lips. He wanted to know where my
folks lived, whether they’d heard
about my injury. When I shook
my head sideways and mumbled “Indiana,
southern Indiana,” he said: “Oh, yes,
the hills. A Hoosier from the hills!”
He’d once sailed up the Ohio River
past Troy, he said, on his way back
from New Orleans. He wrote a letter
like I’d never read. It arrived like
balm for my mother’s fears, beer
to my father’s thirst for news. Mother
saved it till she died. “Don’t worry,”
he wrote, “your brave son will be back
eating pawpaws soon.” When I got back
enough strength to become a good listener,
he explained he’d gone all the way
from New York to Virginia looking
for his brother George; he’d been wounded
in the first Fredericksburg battle.
My God, how he loved to talk! Sometimes
I wondered who was the patient and who
was the aide. Outside the hospital
at Fredericksburg, he said, he found
“a heap of feet, arms, legs, and hands. . .
Enough to fill a whole horse cart!”
He shook his head, shuddered, and
sort of moaned: “and dead bodies
covered with brown woolen blankets.”
He took a deep breath, then sighed:
“But George was alive and whole.”
Sometimes when he looked into my eyes
from behind that white bush, I thought
I might have once been his brother,
in some other world. I was by no means
the only soldier he visited. He’d come
into the ward coat and trouser pockets
bulging with gifts: apples, oranges,
sweet crackers, figs. Once he came
in carrying a jar of preserved raspberries
“donated by a lady.” A few times I saw
him slip a coin into someone’s moist
palm. Once I saw him lift a twist
of tobacco to an amputee’s jaw.
Many’s the time I watched him tear off
a sheet of paper from a pad, write
while he asked questions at the side
of the bed, and seal a letter into
an envelope. How that man loved
to write! To people from all over!
You’d have thought he was a parent himself.
He once confessed that he’d written many
a tender love letter for the wounded.
That made him chuckle. The night before
I left, he read to me from a book.
I had never heard anything like it.
It was like the person in that book
was talking right to me, had known
me all my life. He spoke my kind
of language. It was beautiful without
being fancy. It was natural as sun,
rain, and snow. The rhythm swelled
like the sea, as I imagined it to sound.
I could see leaves of grass growing
on the graves of soldiers. I could
see a young boy growing up on an island
with an Indian-sounding name. I could
feel the sun on my shoulders, hear
the surf splash on the shore. When his
voice ebbed like that tide, I looked
into his soft eyes, and told him how
good it was. He smiled, thanked me,
said he wrote the book himself.
Watching the fire fade, I can still
hear his salty voice roll like the sea.
Collected from Inward Bound Poetry