A Professor’s Journal: A poem honoring veterans, military service

The rhythms of the academic term sometimes result for me in a bittersweet spasm of relief and regret as the semester winds down toward Veterans Day on Monday and the Thanksgiving break in another week. This time of the term inevitably brings with it thoughts of my mother and father, those two saints who watched with me – over me – through my own undergraduate and graduate travails and triumphs.

The approach of Thanksgiving certainly brings with it the anticipation of a celebration of thanks shared with family and friends, but now we must celebrate without the company of my mother and father or my wife, Evelyn’s, mother and father.

When my mother died in August 2006, my father had been gone for over 12 years. James Wesley Bolin died on June 6, 1994, the 50th anniversary of D-Day. My father served in the Pacific theater during World War II, as a pharmacy mate on a troop transport ship. Of course, World War II was a watershed event in my father’s life, having rarely left his home county in Tennessee before signing up for the navy before Pearl Harbor.

My father stayed on board that troop transport ship for two-and-a-half years, carrying U. S. troops to exotic places such as Tongataboo and Okinawa. During that time, he only set foot on dry ground for shore leaves two times, once in Sydney, Australia and once in Wellington, New Zealand.

In New Zealand, Dad wandered into an old used book shop and picked up a volume of the “Selected Verse” of the English poet, Alfred Noyes.

That small leather-bound book is now one of my most prized possessions, and it contains the poem “Distant Voices,” a poem that my friend and fellow historian, Dr. Kenneth M. Startup, read at my father’s funeral. And this is the poem that I read to my students on the last day of class with each passing semester:

 

“Distant Voices”

 

Remember the house of thy father,

When the palaces open before thee,

And the music would make thee forget.

When the cities are glittering around thee.

Remember the lamp in the evening,

The loneliness and the peace.

 

When the deep things that cannot be spoken

Are drowned in a riot of laughter,

And the proud wine foams in thy cup;

In the day when thy wealth is upon thee,

Remember the path through the pine-wood,

Remember the ways of thy peace.

 

Remember – remember – remember –

When the cares of this world and its treasure

Have dulled the swift eyes of thy youth;

When beauty and longing forsake thee,

And there is no hope in the darkness,

And the soul is drowned in the flesh;

 

Turn, then, to the house of thy boyhood,

To the sea and the hills that would heal thee,

To the voices of those thou hast lost.

The still small voices that loved thee,

Whispering out of the silence,

Remember – remember – remember –

 

Remember the house of thy father,

Remember the paths of thy peace.

 

I read the poem for my own sake, to help me remember the home and the life that my mother and father marked out for me. But I also read the poem for the sake of my students. I want you to learn the content, the course material, very much. But I also want you to leave my class with another realization.

If, however, you could go away from class with the understanding that remembering is important, that the act of remembering is crucial for your own well-being, for your own sakes; if you only come away from my class with that understanding, then the time we spend together will be worthwhile.

 

Column by Duane Bolin, professor of history.