The Hero Crosses the Threshold

Jean Nolan Banner

“After all, you might postulate, Socrates himself/Was an infantryman, wearing leather with nameless stains,/On latrine duty, chewing olives, pursuing the elf/Called the soul as he chatted. Serene, undismayed/He lived and stayed sane . . .”— Jean Carroll Nolan

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By Jean Carroll Nolan

“The Dying Galatian.”

“The Dying Galatian.”

“. . . yet once, ages ago, they had been everywhere and had seen everything, and nothing that happened to them thereafter meant anything much. All that was real had taken place when they were young; everything after that had simply been a process of waiting for death . . .”—Bruce Catton, Preface,  Mr. Lincoln’s Army

“It’s funny to be so young, and old at the same time.”—John Nolan, looking at the picture of himself in a bar in the Philippines, taken approximately September of 1969, R & R from Vietnam.

Jean NolanSEASIDE California—(Weekly Hubris)—August 2017—When my husband went to Vietnam, in 1969, he was a beautiful boy of 22, who played guitar and sang Bob Dylan and the Clancy Brothers in a lovely baritone. He read a lot, for a person with severe dyslexia, his tastes ranging from Omar Khayyam to John O’Hara, and he was a raconteur par excellence, with a huge, infectious laugh. He had wonderful posture, more a result of attending a Catholic prep school than being a member of the Marine Corps, and he loved to drink. We were madly in love, in a literal sense. We could not wait to tell each other everything that had happened during the day, and to sanctify our love with lovemaking. I was 19, and we had been married a year and a half when he left. I wrote him every day, sealing the letters with a signet and blue, green, or purple wax. Letters came from him, requesting books, pillows, a fan, underwear. Boxes were sent, containing all that was requested, plus salami, crackers, kippers, cheese. He built a desk in his hooch, with shelves. As my brother noted at the time, John acted like an old soldier, creating comfort where little existed, and making the best of the heat and sand and humidity that surrounded him.

He was stationed in Da Nang, at Marble Mountain Air Base, with Squadron 364, the Purple Foxes, part of the First Marine Air Wing. He was a helicopter mechanic, specializing in the CH-46, a twin rotor Sikorsky model. The mechanics doubled as gunners and crew chiefs, but he had said he would not volunteer for flying missions and, in my innocence, I believed him. He arrived in country (people who served there never say “Nam,” but always “in country”) in late May of 1969.  By mid-June,  he was a crew chief, primarily flying Medevac missions. On July 21, he received his first Single Mission Air Medal, (equivalent to a Bronze Star) and, by August, I could tell, reading his letters, that he was beginning to go slightly mad. He was sent on R & R to The Philippines, where the black-and-white photo below was taken, and it is possible already to read thousand-yard stare in the gorgeous face.

In Olongapo City, The Philippines, September 1969, on R&R.

John Nolan (R), in Olongapo City, The Philippines, September 1969, on R&R.

He flew constantly, racking up a total of 800-plus missions, and accruing 37 strike/flight Air Medals, and two single mission awards. He had no sense of politics, and undoubtedly would have had more medals had he cozied up to people. That is not his style, and never was.

He came home, 23 years old, still beautiful, still capable of funniness, but changed, unalterably. Don’t misunderstand me. We had a good life. Next March, we will mark our 50th wedding anniversary, and we have two children whom we not only love, but like: we would be friends with them even if we weren’t related. We continued to read and discuss, to talk and make love, to adopt creatures and lavish love on them, and to make music.

But, a part of him never came back. Reading Catton, as reading Homer, one sees that this is not a unique situation. Painful, difficult, and maddening sometimes, but not unique. It is to the part of him, and the others like him throughout history, stranded in the past, forever 22, seeing what was too hard to see, fighting in a war he knew was a waste even then, that this poem is dedicated.

John in late summer, 1969, with YK1, "The Widowmaker."

John in late summer, 1969, with YK1, “The Widowmaker.”

“The Hero Crosses the Threshold”

(For John)

By Jean Carroll Nolan

In classical literature, in myth, in song
The hero approaches the threshold with trepidation.
Not ecstatic but anxious the small and strong
Alike are cowed by destiny’s intimation
Of mortality. Each endures alone
The cooling of courage, dragged from the heart’s hot core
Like particular dust in the wild arterial drone,
To nourish extremitieschilly feet. The more
Public, articulate hands may grasp the blade
Twitching, while the mind proposes wonders;
Yet even an epic protagonist, arrayed
In magic armor fears the step that sunders
Him from the bonds of the real. It is the sweet
And terrible gift of the gods, a formal pride
That renders him sufficiently indiscreet
To cross the line. Once he has so denied
Self-preservation, for war, for God, for game
All other states of being seem sadly tame

In ancient times, it appears it was understood
That when one returned to everyday occupations,
To farm and to family, the outcome was seldom good.
Few left the plain before Troy to resume their stations
Without tragic results. Agamemnon and Ajax both
Fell, the former a victim, the latter quite mad
And a killer. The audience of the time was loath
To condemn either man, knowing each had been fire-clad
In Ilion dodging the arrows Apollo sent flying.
You could say the entire argument crashes to earth
When once it’s admitted the men who scripted the dying
Onstage were all veterans, educated since birth
To believe that a citizen’s duty might lie in campaigns,
After all, you might postulate, Socrates himself
Was an infantryman, wearing leather with nameless stains,
On latrine duty, chewing olives, pursuing the elf
Called the soul as he chatted. Serene, undismayed
He lived and stayed sane, dying only with Athens’ aid.
Poets and pirates, soldiers of our Revolution,
Even the men who walked up the hill to the wall
At Gettysburg went on to find a civilian solution.
But what of the soul that feeds not on honey, but gall?
What of Beowulf, walking home through the wood,
When Grendel lay slain, bled out on the granular sand?
While trees and the wind celebrated the victory of good
Did the hero’s menos mince down the blade in his hand,
To whirl with the ghosts of the dead in a victory dance?
Or was it trapped in the echoing vault of his heart,
A stowaway stranded, denied the barest chance
Of flight? Did he know already his path lay apart?
Blood-blind, throat open, swollen with madness and glory,
He strode through the night, howling raw joy to the sky.
Not even a hero is gifted to know his own story,
Had he done so, he might well have thought it a good time to die.
For how does one find a way back from Valhalla’s height
When courage has kissed one, and shepherded one through the fight?

Regarding the image of the Classical sculpture used to illustrate this poem (from Wikipedia): The Dying Gaul, also called The Dying Galatian (in Italian, Galata Morente) or The Dying Gladiator, is an ancient Roman marble copy of a lost Hellenistic sculpture, thought to have been originally executed in  bronze. The original may have been commissioned between 230 and 220 BC by Attalus I of  Pergamon to celebrate his victory over the Galatians, the Celtic or Gaulish people of parts of Anatolia. The identity of the sculptor of the original is unknown, but it has been suggested that Epigonus, a court sculptor of the Attalid dynasty of Pergamon, may have been the creator. Until the 20th century, the copy was most commonly known as The Dying Gladiator on the assumption that it depicted a wounded gladiator in a Roman amphitheater. Scholars had identified it as a Gaul or Galatian by the mid-19th century, but it took many decades for the new title to achieve popular acceptance (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dying_Gaul).

About Jean Carroll Nolan

Jean Carroll Nolan lives in Seaside, California (next door to Monterey), with her husband of 46 years, two dogs, and too many books. She enjoys music (singing, listening, playing three chords on the guitar), reading, and writing poetry, thinking about working in the garden, and cooking on feast days. She reads a good deal, everything from military history to Robert Parker, and loves old films. She considers herself a liberal and a patriot, and sees no dichotomy there. She supports animal rescue projects (racehorses and pit bulls, in particular), volunteers with an adult literacy program, and believes courtesy and kindness have power to reshape the world. She adores her two adult children and her daughter-in-law, and is desperately in love with her grandchildren, Brody and Sarah, and her grand-dogs, Wayne and Murphy. She enjoys finding and appreciating the miraculous in the everyday. She first discovered this gift in subway stations in Chicago, observing former field mice who (amazingly) not only survived, but thrived on the track bed below the trains. (Author photos: John Nolan)

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17 Responses to The Hero Crosses the Threshold

  1. Julie says:

    Beautiful writing by a beautiful person. What a wonderful legacy to leave for your family!

  2. Elizabeth Boleman-Herring says:

    Jean, as you know by now, you write like an Anglophone angel…..

  3. Jennifer Miller says:

    Thank you Jean – a beautiful gift!

  4. diana says:

    Very moving, beautifully felt and executed

  5. Mary Laura Jones says:

    Dear Jean,

    Thank you for this awesome piece of writing. You have inspired me to start a second writing group in hopes of encouraging life reflections such as yours in myself and others.

    Mary Laura

  6. Jean says:

    Thank you all for your kindness.

    Julie, I have come to recognize that writing will be the legacy I leave for my beloveds. Thank you.
    Elizabeth, (whom I think of as “dear leader,” with my tongue tucked cozily in my cheek), I had to look up “Anglophone.” Thank you for building my vocabulary and my ego.
    Jennifer, I am so glad you liked it. Love all around your house.
    Diana, thank you. I respect your work, so the praise is sweet.
    Mary Laura, thank you. You do me great honor. Good luck with the group!

  7. John Maddock-Lyon says:

    Especially moving poem, “the sweet and terrible gift of the gods” from which many veterans and ex-servicewomen and men suffer. Most of us served by volition or not in the armed services were never the same again. It was not a moving from job-to-job, but a life to another life.

  8. Jean says:

    Mr Maddock-Lyon, your comment means a great deal to me. How perfectly you said it; not job to job, but life to life. Thank you. (And thank you for liking that phrase. I am fond of that one, too, though I should not say so!)

  9. Anita Sullivan says:

    Jean, this is so beautifully written in addition to the wisdom and tenderness of the thoughts. It caused me to revisit Rilke’s sixth “Duino Elegy,” at the very end, where he says (in his long, rather overly romantic outpouring about heroes),
    “For whenever the hero stormed through love’s stops, each heartbeat meant for him carried him farther. Already turning around, he stood at the end of smiles, someone else.”

  10. Jean says:

    Anita, thank you so much. I did not know the Rilke quote, and perceive I have reading to do. I treasure both the Rilke and your praise.

  11. Jennifer Carroll says:

    Beautiful Jean. ❤

  12. Jean says:

    Thank you, Ms Jen.

  13. You’re a great storyteller, Jean. I can imagine you sitting with your community around a hearth centuries ago, sharing stories. Today I watched a preview for the PBS documentary on Vietnam by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. It moved me to search for the John and Jean Nolan whom I knew in Chicago when I was married to my first husband, John Barton. So here you are, many lives and many stories later. A poignant moment. Thank you.

  14. Jean says:

    Mary Ann, I am so glad to see you! I have searched, but you were always a far better researcher than I. There is much to catch up on. Are you on FaceBook? How is your son? I know only of Edward, so if there are more, I wish all well. We are in California. Where are you? Thank you so much for both your compliments, and for writing. I would love to hear about your lives since we saw each other. Take care.
    My email is: jcntripod@yahoo.com.

  15. Jean says:

    Well, duh, Mary Ann. I followed the highlighted link. You’re quite a storyteller yourself!

  16. Maggie Nolan says:

    I have read this piece of history – gratefully and am humbled by the poetic mystery and beauty – dedicated to this young man of 22 “and the others like him” with tears in my eyes – the first time and the second and the third. I have not been able to put into words my thoughts and feelings as this young man (for anyone reading this not related to Jean) who departed at 22 for Nam is my brother and his “Abigail” that waited for him on the home front sending packages and letters is my dearest sister, Jean Carroll Nolan. I have loved and admired them both all my life – (Jean from when I met her at 8 years and my brother John since I was old enough to adore my “hero, older brother”). They were both so well read, intelligent, so much in love to this little girl – and both magical characters in a tumultuous, romantic novel in my eyes – still. You both survived – and continue to survive the memories of war and the lingering angst. You have shown in the survival of going back “to farm and family” the joys, shared love and gratefulness in living your appointed lives. No, the story is not unique for thousands upon thousands fight – many never to come home – but to those who do – the grateful loved ones know they will never regain the part “that never comes back”. How beautifully you write, dear one. Your soul so unique and the ability to bear it in this art form- beautifully authentic. To me, you have captured our hearts, our sorrows, our fears, our pride, our admiration for the soldiers and their families with such perfection in your writing, Jean, and also the fear of what may lie in our deepest, darkest area of our hearts. I am, as always, in awe of your mind and talents – thankful for history I did not know of the time “in country” of my brother – not knowing even that he started out as a mechanic. I am thankful for your strength, you following your passion and willingness to reflect with such grace coming up on 50 years of marriage. You are equally the heroine Crossing the Threshold with her “bear cub”, if I remember your lyric correctly. May God bless your writings from here through eternity and may you always cling to your John and he to you with desirous love as you did at 17 and 20 when you met. May the story keep unfolding and your hands keep on writing…..Love you to the moon and back my very talented sister. Mags

  17. Jean says:

    Oh, Mags, thank you. As you know, your love is reciprocated, and you humble me with your praise. We’ll talk, sweets. I am so glad you liked it.

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