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  February 2004
volume 2 number 1
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  home   (archived)
  featured poets
  Pete Justus
  Charlotte O'Brien
  Ratpack Slim
  Imani Tolliver
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Pete Justus February 2004



photo by Dave Nordling

    Pete Justus, founder and co-host of the Rapp Saloon, has been writing poetry for over 30 years. He is the author of two volumes of poetry, Truth, Taps & Time, and The Edge of a Brighter Day.
    Pete is well known in the Southern California poetry community and has been the featured reader at many venues. He teaches European and American history at Westchester High School.




It was so long ago,

Back when I was young and green

That I met those crazy guys

In that out of this world scene.

I had just got off that transport in 'Nam,

Thinking I was so strong and brave.

I still believed all that crap

About the country I came to save.

In a matter of days I was out there

In a place all green except the sky

Meeting these strangers about my age

With a far away distant look in their eyes.

It took me some time to learn the score

And some luck to just stay alive

And as the days went on

I watched them and learned to survive.

At the end of that mission

Most of us came back to Saigon,

Found ourselves some trashy women

And really tied one on.

There was a group of us

That became more like brothers than friends

And we grew close in the jungles

And shuddered as we talked about our ends.

There was Danny and Billy,

Left-handed Larry and Johnny the Mac,

There was Carl and Terry,

And of course, there was the Magic Rat.

Now I hadn't thought about them in years

Until I saw that military funeral on TV,

Until I saw that folded flag passed to the widow,

And that lost look in her eyes for all to see.

The rifles shattered the silence

And Taps quivered over the land

As the coffin stood dark and naked

And that blue starred triangle trembled in her hand.

It took me back to that afternoon,

That awful day so long ago

When I stood and watched my friend's widow

Go through the very same show.

It was so long ago that it slipped behind

All of the cares of the day to day

Until it hardly ever slipped out

Of the place where I had hidden it away.

I got a call from her that Friday.

Her voice was shaking with loss and grief.

She said an army car was in her driveway

As I listened in stunned disbelief.

He had been the surest of us

And the luckiest by far.

He had seemed untouchable

But that officer was getting out of that army car.

Four days later we were in Westwood,

Just blocks from movies bright,

Standing among the countless tombstones

White islands in a sea of green grass light.

And I can still see him standing with that smile,

Laughing about a close call,

Knowing that another foot farther

And there would have been nothing left of him at all.

The flag was stretched above the coffin,

Folded and placed in her shaking hands,

With the comment "From a grateful nation"

Hanging forlornly above the land.

And I sat there thirty years later

Replaying that scene in my head,

That moment when it really hit me.

The Magic Rat was dead.

He got that handle as a kid

From the three initials in his name

And we added the Magic to it

Because he always disappeared when hard work came.

I had gone back to college,

Had kids and a wife,

Buried away those jungle nightmares,

Made something of my life.

And I thought about him

And about the waste and loss,

About all the times we could have shared

About that war's long lingering cost.

He never had a chance

To see his folks grow old,

Never held his son in arms,

Never had his life unfold.

At the time I wasn't sure

What it was really all for

But now I know no matter what,

It cost us so much more.

All those cut off lives

And all those mangled limbs,

All those empty souls left dead inside

All those men living with those sins.

And after all this time

You'd think we'd have paid enough

But the interest on that debt still accrues

And you know it was far too much.

And I can still hear him laughing in the night

Bragging about some conquest sweet,

Smoking that big round joint

As the rain poured down in sheets.

I remember the day Larry bought it.

A mine blast blew him into the air

And pieces of him fell all around

And I whispered a silent desperate prayer.

The Rat and I were best buddies

And some nights we shivered with fear

And the mortars dropped around us

And the shrapnel cut so near.

It was so dark at night

You couldn't see a thing.

All you heard was the jungle movements

And then suddenly the mortars would sing.

Just a blue starred triangle

Passed across the TV screen

Thirty years after all the horror

And I was back into those nightmare dreams.

I was back in that firefight,

That day when I was so short,

And the Magic Rat said, "Don't you worry.

You'll be on that transport."

He had another four months to go,

That day that I went back to the world,

And he flashed that smile as I rode away

And said "Be sure and call my girl."

Although I didn't know it at the time

Those were the last words he would say to me.

I called her when I landed and we became friends

And counted the days until he was free.

He was down to eleven days a wakeup

On the day I got her call.

He had said eleven was his lucky number.

Guess it wasn't so lucky after all.

I don't think the thanks of a grateful nation

Would have meant that much to him.

He had no idea why we were fighting.

All he wanted was to get off that limb.

Taps echoed across the emptiness

As I watched that widow clasp that flag,

And I remembered Sherry crying softly,

Remember watching her whole body sag.

Then she reached down to her left

And lifted her baby boy so small

As the tears fell from her eyes

And the rifles cracked their call.

He's a truck driver today

With a wife and kids of his own

But he's another casualty,

A fatherless victim of the seeds we've sown.

Sherry remarried years ago

Although the Magic Rat's still in her heart

We talk on the phone once in awhile

But it still tears her apart.

I thought that the past was buried deeper.

I thought that time had worn it down

But hearing Taps and cracking rifles

Has brought it back around.

That lonely bugle tune

Lingers in my mind

Quivering as it floats through the air

Taking me back to that long ago time.

copyright 2004 Pete Justus



In Cairo

Someone told me she was in Cairo

But I don't remember who.

When she left so long ago

She had no idea what she was going to do.

Then she was so hot and sultry

Like the molten desert heat

With a style that burned brightly

As she rocked to a blazing blurry beat.

She always complained when the Santa Ana's came,

Said she was dying for a breeze.

She said she couldn't wait for the rains to come,

Couldn't wait to put her mind at ease.

And now someone's saying she's in Cairo

Just down the road from pyramids tall,

Just out of sight of ancient wonders,

And I wondered if she was still feeling small.

If you just saw her you had to wonder

How could that beauty burn so bright

But once you got to really know her

You knew she was really running from the night.

She was hiding from that blackness

That lived deep inside her soul,

Hiding from some hurtful lost truths

That made her live her life like she was playing a


The last time that I saw her

She slipped lightly across the dark hardwood floor,

Her tears leaving stains in the grain

As she headed for the door.

The fire was blazing brightly

Casting its flickering shadows across the room.

She stepped out onto the porch

Under a thin, barely visible, new moon.

In an instant she was gone in the darkness

And I knew she was gone for good.

I wished there was something I could have done,

But I had already done all that I could.

Now maybe it wasn't enough

And maybe I could have loved her more

But I don't think I could have ever filled her


That I could have ever kept her from walking out that


There was something in her missing

And there was something so soft and sweet

That made her more than just a lost soul

And yet left her so incomplete.

Every once in a while

We'd find an oasis clear and bright,

We'd shelter in its cooling shade,

And make love all through the night.

Most of the time we were lost though,

Each of us trying to find our way,

The blind leading the blind

With neither of us having very much to say.

And now she's off in Cairo

And I'm wondering why I care.

It's been so long since she's been gone,

Since my fingers ran through her hair.

I was looking at a map of Egypt,

Running my finger down the Nile long,

Tracing the small of her back in my mind,

Humming to an old sweet song.

Somewhere in that big black dot named Cairo

She's living on the edge

And I wonder how's she doing

Navigating her way along that lifelong ledge.

She had a queen's dark eyes

And a smile that burned across the sand

But underneath all of that

Was more old pain then she could stand.

Maybe she's found peace in the desert.

Maybe she's gotten used to its blazing heat.

I know she can still light that fire

And I'm sure she still seems as sweet.

But it's all just speculation.

It's all just wondering about the past,

Wondering about old time memories,

Wondering how long pain can last.

Of course she may not be in Cairo.

It was just something someone said

But it left me wondering about her all over

Just when I thought that dream was dead.

Now I'll go to sleep tonight picturing her

Walking down a crowded street

Burning bright among the brown walled buildings

In the noontime Nile heat.

And as I drift off into dreams

She'll slip off into the crowds

And fade away into the chaos

As my dreams start to play out loud.

When dawn breaks and the day lies in pieces

I'll see her smile in the light.

I'll pray she's found some kind of answers

To show her the way out of that long dark night.

I'll wonder what she's up to

And I'll wish I had done more

But in the end she's just a memory

Who someone said was walking along the Nile shore.

copyright 2004 Pete Justus



I'm Going To Miss Tigers

I'm going to miss tigers.

Those regal creatures are fading away,

Into the past,

Into photographs in books,

Into documentaries,

Into web sites,

Into stored DNA.

I'm going to miss tigers.

It was a bright blue skied day,

Not the usual L.A. day.

You know, the kind that you can see the air you


Sometimes I think I'm more comfortable

Seeing what I breathe.

I'm sort of used to that,

Not this oxygen rich air

That blows in so rarely

On a bright blue skied day.

In the last second four people were born.

In the last minute 247 more people were born.

In the next hour 14,820 people will be born.

Tomorrow 355,680 people will be added to planet earth.

Next week another 2,489,760 people will join the human


A month from now there will be 9,956,000 new mouths to


By this time next year the earth will groan

Under the weight of 119,472,000 more people.

In the last two seconds eight people were born

And three died.

The air is getting hotter.

The storms are getting wilder.

Spaceship earth is changing.

The first three months of this year

Were the hottest in recorded history.

The oceans are rising

And the polar ice caps are shrinking.

And time is running out.

The air is getting hotter.

I'm going to miss tigers.

Those cunning creatures pacing across the plains,

Are dwindling to a precious few,

In the wild,

In zoos,

In memory,

In photographs,

In the past,

Gone soon and gone for good.

I'm going to miss tigers.

On this glorious planet,

Our only home,

We know of almost two million species

Of living things.

But there may be twice that

Or maybe as many as 100 million.

Species come and species go.

It's been that way here for billions of years.

Survival of the fittest

On this glorious planet.

On the beautiful, good earth

The average life span of a species

Is about one million years

And new species evolve about every million years.

Nice sense of balance

On mother nature's home.

Today the extinction rate is higher,

By a hundred times, maybe,

By a thousand times perhaps

And new species are taking longer to be born

On the beautiful, good earth.

The future of our children

And of theirs
is being played out today

As we grope to cope with global change.

Too many people,

Too many cars,

Too many things to want,

Too many tons of garbage,

Too many plumes of fossil burnt fuel,

Too many mouths to feed,

Too many pesticides,

Too many polluted waterways.

The future of our children.

I'm going to miss tigers.

They move with such ease

In a world made uneasy.

Soon they will move with ease

In my memory,

In tourist taken videotapes,

On CD photo albums,

In the past.

I'm going to miss tigers.

When Christ was born

There were 500 million people on this planet,

Sharing our home,

Sharing its glory,

Sharing His glory.

Today there are six billion

With a "B"

Not so many if you say it fast.

But even saying it fast

Thatís four times where we were a hundred years ago,

Half of where we will be fifty years from now,

And over five and a half billion more than when Christ

was born.

We still share this home,

Mother nature's home, our home, His home

But time is running out.

The earth will survive.

The oceans will survive.

Plants, animals and insects will survive,

But not most of them

And in all likelihood, not us.

The planet went on without dinosaurs,

Survived comets crashing,

And it will survive us.

We will take so much

Before we leave

This home we share.

No more Chinese river dolphins,

No more Hawaiian crows,

No more manatees,

No more strange insects,

No more exotic plants

No more cures for disease from those exotic plants,

No more albatross,

No more tigers.

I'm going to miss tigers.

They have a royal grace when they move.

In my memory,

In old fading photographs

Turning yellow

On abandoned ground,

Blowing in the wind

In my memory,

In the distant past.

I'm going to miss tigers.

But who is going to miss me?

And who is going to miss us?

copyright 2004 Pete Justus