Steve Mason

"I am a warrior for peace.
And not a gentle man."


A former army captain and decorated Vietnam combat veteran, Steve Mason is Poet Laureate of the Vietnam Veterans of America. He is the author of three collections of poetry: JOHNNY'S SONG--POETRY OF A VIETNAM VETERAN (1986); WARRIOR for PEACE (1988); and THE HUMAN BEING--A WARRIOR'S JOURNEY TOWARD PEACE AND MUTUAL HEALING (1990), Touchstone books, Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York. His poem, "The Wall Within" was delivered as part of the official activities prior to the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial ("The Wall") as a national monument on November 10, 1984. It was entered into the Congressional Record, January 10, 1984.



Delivered at the Shoreham Hotel, Washington, D.C., November 7, 1983, for the First National Convention of the Vietnam Veterans of America. Reprinted here exactly as it was scribbled on the hotel placemats.


I have looked death in the eye
and spat blood
I have faced life squarely
and made love
I am a combat veteran
of Vietnam
And not altogether certain
of my direction,
But sure of myself--
A delegate enroute
to a national convention
And proud to count for more
than my pain;

At 30,000 feet there are
no flat clouds
Which point to the nation's
No calendars to enumerate
a just-right world
of sequential firmness
on-going below,
My unresolved hurt
makes it difficult
to look out this small
round window
And know beyond reason
what time & place
my mind suspends
outboard this aircraft--
I look to see
a mirrored on-board image
of myself
& question with a hard blink
& a sharp eye,
Where are my epaulettes?
Who took the hash marks
from my sleeve?
Damn--it's been a long time
between rides
A long time since I looked out
another aircraft window
& watched real life
Refracted across
the lawns of the world--
Sat helpless as the thick,
plastic window
distorted the courage
of my innocence
So that I might
distinguish capitalist jungles
from communist jungles
at a distance of 6 miles
straight up...

I was a soldier/statesman
on that flight also
Gone to represent my government
in Vietnam
& today I fly to Washington
to represent 35 former statesmen
from that earlier flight
Funny world--
And time won't make
sense of it
But you and I will try...

And I stare unfocused
thru the blur
of bending light
& passing time
& use this porthole-like window
as a rewind button
To blink those just-postwar years back
& know the pain
from which my courage comes
And I begin to feel
the reality of war
debunk the illusion
of my upringing
And I sense that I have quickly become
the shadow man I was--
Detached, alone--
drowning in myself
Stranded like a public hair
in an airport urinal--
Those just-postwar years
when suicide was sad companion
to my nights
& never left a single one--
for at dawn's early light
As if it had been sprung
From the promise of my wallpaper
n a long gone childhood dream
I would be rescued
By my cowboy, cut n'shoot
John Wayne rage--Ha Hah!
Yeh, if it was woeful suicide
that got me thru my nights
it was heroic rage
that swept thru my days.
You know the kind.
I thank God
you and I
are men of passion

& I know that even
the poorest of records
of this madder
than mad world
will show that
Whether suicide or homicide
generally only one life
hangs in the balance,

But indifference manufactures
death on a planetary scale
and calls it something grand
occasionally putting it to music

Maybe that's why
there is no wallpaper
anywhere in the world
for an eight-year-old boy
with pictures of thin, bloodless
waving briefcases
at passing taxicabs--
maybe that's why there's cowboys
on the walls of America
But whether suicide or
homicide or genocide
one day we are all asked
to choose a "cide"

As this convention will ask
my conscience
which side it is on
(on other more brave issues)
And I hope whatever my answer
it will echo in agreement with the voices
of a thousand, thousand veterans

Ah, we can make it happen
you & I
we've still got it to do...
The plane pitched slightly
an errant right elbow
struck me from reverie
The onboard movie was
a romantic comedy,
But the man with
the too pink face
next to me
was pornographic--
nobody seemed to notice, but
me as he masturbated
his pocket computer
with a fantastic combination
of obscene numbers:
2 of these
& one of those
3 of these & not a single one of the
combinations with bottom line results
not concerned with
the human condition
An occasional ecstatic sigh
escaped from his credit card smile

I leaned away from him
Back into my chair
And looking out the window
pushed the fast forward
to consider my own numbers

How 'bout U.S. rangers
jumping onto the airstrip
at 500 feet!

Do you have any idea
what that number marks, sucker?

I hit the rewind again
for a split second
& stopped at 229
Hey, you want numbers
I got numbers
Howse 229 killed
young guys in Lebanon
who found out that death
is the only dream
from which you can't wake screaming
Put that in your wafer-thin
designer computer
Mr. tecnocraft

& I'll talk to you, of tetrytol
& primacord
of lost legs
and long gone grunts

You know something
you sonovabitch
you don't look familiar to me--
Where were you
when we were in Vietnam?
Funny, how many guys
"were ready to go"
whose numbers just
didn't come up
in the lottery

Funnier, most of the guys I knew
weren't ready to go--but went anyway
And then the heavy numbers
jumped at the windows
grabbed at the wings
& shook the plane
Like a cyclone
with the force
of their meaning:
57,000 KIA
248,000 WIA
& then the nausea
which had nothing to dowith air sickness came

As the whispered whimperings
of my reptilian mind
clawed at the cortex
of my reason
"How many of us
did you leave behind?"

My balls turned to jelly
and the guy next to me
belched on his scotch.

You want higher math,
If we left only one MIA/POW
behind--that number & its loss
are incalculable

Thank goodness
the stewardess
told me to straighten-up
for landing
And I thanked her
for her attendance
& especially
for "the real whole milk"
she smiled blankly
I offered lamely
It was an inside joke, you see,
Knowing somewhere
there was an entire generation
of 40-year old stews
who knew what
"real whole milk"
was all about
(and I want to make love
to all of 'em)

And the wheels
rumbled down
As I prepared
to hit the ground running
shuffling to the exit door
I reminded myself to
vote as a representative
not as an individual
And that conscience
without balls
becomes guilt
just as government
without philosophy
becomes only power

The door opened slow & wide
on the day of the Vietnam veterans--blue
& sweet
For men who have ratified
the constitution of this nation
with sweat & blood
And will now help
formulate its philosophy
with pride & truth.
Feeling profound respect
for all our fallen comrades
to the standing ovation
of our now grateful children....


Shared at the Peace Memorial, Old Town, San Diego, Memorial Day, 1984

I just call him Johnny;
like in Johnny went off to war
and Johnny didn't come home.
And remember him,
like Johnny was a helluva ballplayer
and Johnny's folks
moved away that year--
some say, Minnesota;
but his name's still here
not two miles from his old high school
on a Peace Memorial
(which is a funny name for it.)
Sometimes, like today,
we read All the names
some call it "the reading of the names."
Me, I just call it Johnny's Song.
And as much as I love the words,
I've come to really hate the music...