The Many Voices of Wabash

 Steve Charles—Copyeditor Cheri Clark (whose son, Matthew, is a freshman at Wabash) has done remarkable work over the years catching errors in our grammar and suggesting edits for Wabash Magazine, but she rarely comments on the stories themselves. So when Cheri emailed, “Loved the pieces in ‘Voices’” after copyediting that section of the magazine, she got my attention.

Wabash Professor and College Poet Emeritus Donald W. Baker H’57

And I think those writers deserve yours.

We bill the Voices section as “Wabash students, alumni, and faculty engaging the world,” and the six writers published in the current issue didn’t just engage the world, they embraced it, captured it, were amused by it, knocked down by it, angered by it, and blessed by it. There’s as wide a range of emotion in those four pages as is humanly possible.

To celebrate their work in print I thought I’d highlight a piece or two at a time online, starting here with two of the most moving, if darkest, pieces.

The poetry of College poet and Professor Emeritus Donald Baker ’57 and the memoir of John Moynahan ’43 don’t exactly holler “Merry Christmas”, but their service to us as World War II veterans and articulate witnesses to the horrors of war are gifts to us nonetheless, and reminders of why “peace on earth” is mankind’s highest calling, if the most difficult to attain.

Here’s an excerpt called “Attack” from John Moynahan’s Memories: A Ship and a War, followed by Don Baker’s poem, “Formal Application” (recently reprinted in a textbook used by high school and college students, so his work continues to inform a new generation.)

On the first day of November 1944, Lt. John Moynahan was serving aboard the destroyer USS Ammen steaming with the 7th fleet on its way to Leyte Gulf when the ship was attacked by several Japanese aircraft:

We opened fire on signal at several of the closest planes, and I ran back and forth from port to starboard trying to keep track of all the reported bogies. When I looked back to port, the plane that bombed the Killen was trailing smoke and banking toward us! Our port guns kept firing, raking her wings and nose, and she was shooting at us until she hit us. I crouched against the bulkhead near my gunner, Kaufman, and watched the plane come. At the last second, she veered slightly to the right, and I ducked as she hit us. I was surprised the noise was no louder than other battle noises and our five-inch gun firing to port nearly over my head.

Now I had seen war: violent, fearful, terrible war. I felt the fear of a man close to death and experienced the sudden relief one has when he finds he is still alive after all. I witnessed the deep roar of big guns with the accompanying concussion, burnt cork fragments, acrid smoke, blinding flashes…and in between the rhythmic pounding of the 40mms, the nervous chatter of 20mm machine guns. I felt the close proximity of the enemy, and the realization he was intent on destroying me, my friends, and my temporary home. I heard the sudden crushing of metal and, almost as bad, the moment of silence that frequently follows disaster, in which everyone is frozen in place while he convinces himself he is still alive.

Five of our shipmates were killed. Charles “Joe” Helmer, standing 30 feet from me at the time, was hit by the starboard engine and propeller, his body obliterated.

I felt sickened as I looked at the spot where Joe had been. He was my storekeeper, one of two, on whom I was heavily dependent. He was very likable, fast efficient, and now he was gone.

The night was uneventful, but sleep did not come until just before dawn. I slept by my gun station along with others, and I kept trying to accept Joe’s death. When dozing I dreamt of him and he was alive again. All the next day he kept reappearing in my imagination, doing customary things.

The next day we had a burial-at-sea ceremony for the remains, all wrapped in American flags. While the captain was still reading the prescribed words, the general quarters alarm started and the remains went into the sea while we all ran for our battle stations.

This was war, a man’s circus. This was the way death often happens in war, violently, suddenly and unexpectedly. This is what I have now experienced, and I regret that my sons and their sons may also be involved in even more terrible struggles “to make the world a better place.”

John Moynahan ’43, Lieutenant (SC), USNR, edited and excerpted from his diary
Memories: A Ship and a War, originally written in 1945 and published in 2010 by The Institute on World War II and the Human Experience, Florida State University.

Formal Application

I shall begin by learning to throw
the knife, first at trees, until it sticks
in the trunk and quivers every time;

next from a chair, using only wrist
and fingers, at a thing on the ground,
a fresh ant hill or a fallen leaf;

then at a moving object, perhaps
a pine cone swinging on twine, until
I pot it at least twice in three tries.

Meanwhile, I shall be teaching the birds
that the skinny fellow in sneakers
is a source of suet and bread crumbs,

first putting them on a shingle nailed
to a pine tree, next scattering them
on the needles, closer and closer

to my seat, until the proper bird,
a towhee, I think, in black and rust
and gray, takes tossed crumbs six feet away.

Finally, I shall coordinate
conditioned reflex and functional
form and qualify as Modern Man.

You see the splash of blood and feathers
and the blade pinning it to the tree?
It’s called an “Audubon Crucifix.”

The phrase has pleasing (even pious)
connotations, like Arbeit Macht Frei,
“Molotov Cocktail,” and Enola Gay.

—Donald Baker H’57

Originally published in 1982, was reprinted in 2012 in the 5th edition of Sequel: A Handbook for the Critical Analysis of Literature, a textbook widely used in AP high school courses, colleges, and universities.

Read more about Don Baker here.