You sit beside a fire on the outskirts
of the smokejumper camp at Gila Box.
The roar of the inferno doesn’t sound miles away.
A white cowboy with scars on his neck,
dressed like it’s still the late 1800s,
tells you how your father saved his life.
You can see the trachea tube in his throat,
blood soaked dust on a gurney.
You can see your father drinking
bourbon after the neck is mended.
A hand on your shoulder, a low voice:
Why are you still here?
I told you this is a white boy’s graveyard.
You shake your head without a word.
You do not turn to face the voice
and face you know belongs
to the San Carlos Apache Vietnam veteran.
You can see the helicopters in which he’s flown
above the Gila and A Lưới Mountains.
You can see him jumping to silence
flames with thoughts of those unleashed
for a government that has wronged his people
for all its history, and you
can’t even face him, much less
tell him why you’ve remained.
You can’t bear to see the managed fire
that must be reflected in his eyes,
as it is in those of the grinning white cowboy
across the fire from you both.
Paul Mairet is a poet and educator who currently teaches in Michigan Tech’s English Language Institute. He also works as an assistant to poet and writer David Mura and is ever grateful to him, Wang Ping, and Kristin Naca for their mentorship.
Photograph of defoliation with Agent Orange in Vietnam, author unknown.