And So To-Day

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And so to-day--they lay him away--
  the boy nobody knows the name of--
  the buck private--the unknown soldier--
  the doughboy who dug under and died
  when they told him to--that's him.

  Down Pennsylvania Avenue to-day the riders go,
  men and boys riding horses, roses in their teeth,
  stems of roses, rose leaf stalks, rose dark leaves--
  the line of the green ends in a red rose flash.

  Skeleton men and boys riding skeleton horses,
  the rib bones shine, the rib bones curve,
  shine with savage, elegant curves--
  a jawbone runs with a long white slant,
  a skull dome runs with a long white arch,
  bone triangles click and rattle,
  elbows, ankles, white line slants--
  shining in the sun, past the White House,
  past the Treasury Building, Army and Navy Buildings,
  on to the mystic white Capitol Dome--
  so they go down Pennsylvania Avenue to-day,
  skeleton men and boys riding skeleton horses,
  stems of roses in their teeth,
  rose dark leaves at their white jaw slants--
  and a horse laugh question nickers and whinnies,
  moans with a whistle out of horse head teeth:
  why? who? where?

  ("The big fish--eat the little fish--
  the little fish--eat the shrimps--
  and the shrimps--eat mud,"--
  said a cadaverous man--with a black umbrella--
  spotted with white polka dots--with a missing
  ear--with a missing foot and arms--
  with a missing sheath of muscles
  singing to the silver sashes of the sun.)

  And so to-day--they lay him away--
  the boy nobody knows the name of--
  the buck private--the unknown soldier--
  the doughboy who dug under and died
  when they told him to--that's him.

  If he picked himself and said, "I am ready to die,"
  if he gave his name and said, "My country, take me,"
  then the baskets of roses to-day are for the Boy,
  the flowers, the songs, the steamboat whistles,
  the proclamations of the honorable orators,
  they are all for the Boy--that's him.

  If the government of the Republic picked him saying,
  "You are wanted, your country takes you"--
  if the Republic put a stethoscope to his heart
  and looked at his teeth and tested his eyes and said,
  "You are a citizen of the Republic and a sound
  animal in all parts and functions--the Republic takes you"--
  then to-day the baskets of flowers are all for the Republic,
  the roses, the songs, the steamboat whistles,
  the proclamations of the honorable orators--
  they are all for the Republic.

  And so to-day--they lay him away--
  and an understanding goes--his long sleep shall be
  under arms and arches near the Capitol Dome--
  there is an authorization--he shall have tomb companions--
  the martyred presidents of the Republic--
  the buck private--the unknown soldier--that's him.

  The man who was war commander of the armies of the Republic
  rides down Pennsylvania Avenue--
  The man who is peace commander of the armies of the Republic
  rides down Pennsylvania Avenue--
  for the sake of the Boy, for the sake of the Republic.

  (And the hoofs of the skeleton horses
  all drum soft on the asphalt footing--
  so soft is the drumming, so soft the roll call
  of the grinning sergeants calling the roll call--
  so soft is it all--a camera man murmurs, "Moonshine.")

  Look--who salutes the coffin--
  lays a wreath of remembrance
  on the box where a buck private
  sleeps a clean dry sleep at last--
  look--it is the highest ranking general
  of the officers of the armies of the Republic.

  (Among pigeon corners of the Congressional Library--they
  file documents quietly, casually, all in a day's work--
  this human document, the buck private nobody knows the
  name of--they file away in granite and steel--with music
  and roses, salutes, proclamations of the honorable

  Across the country, between two ocean shore lines,
  where cities cling to rail and water routes,
  there people and horses stop in their foot tracks,
  cars and wagons stop in their wheel tracks--
  faces at street crossings shine with a silence
  of eggs laid in a row on a pantry shelf--
  among the ways and paths of the flow of the Republic
  faces come to a standstill, sixty clockticks count--
  in the name of the Boy, in the name of the Republic.

  (A million faces a thousand miles from Pennsylvania Avenue
  stay frozen with a look, a clocktick, a moment--
  skeleton riders on skeleton horses--the nickering high horse
  the whinny and the howl up Pennsylvania Avenue:
  who? why? where?)

  (So people far from the asphalt footing of Pennsylvania
  Avenue look, wonder, mumble--the riding white-jaw
  phantoms ride hi-eeee, hi-eeee, hi-yi, hi-yi, hi-eeee--
  the proclamations of the honorable orators mix with the
  top-sergeants whistling the roll call.)

  If when the clockticks counted sixty,
  when the heartbeats of the Republic
  came to a stop for a minute,
  if the Boy had happened to sit up,
  happening to sit up as Lazarus sat up, in the story,
  then the first shivering language to drip off his mouth
  might have come as, "Thank God," or "Am I dreaming?"
  or "What the hell" or "When do we eat?"
  or "Kill 'em, kill 'em, the...."
  or "Was that ... a rat ... ran over my face?"
  or "For Christ's sake, gimme water, gimme water,"
  or "Blub blub, bloo bloo...."
  or any bubbles of shell shock gibberish
  from the gashes of No Man's Land.

  Maybe some buddy knows,
  some sister, mother, sweetheart,
  maybe some girl who sat with him once
  when a two-horn silver moon
  slid on the peak of a house-roof gable,
  and promises lived in the air of the night,
  when the air was filled with promises,
  when any little slip-shoe lovey
  could pick a promise out of the air.

  "Feed it to 'em,
  they lap it up,
  bull ... bull ... bull,"
  Said a movie news reel camera man,
  Said a Washington newspaper correspondent,
  Said a baggage handler lugging a trunk,
  Said a two-a-day vaudeville juggler,
  Said a hanky-pank selling jumping-jacks.
  "Hokum--they lap it up," said the bunch.

  And a tall scar-face ball player,
  Played out as a ball player,
  Made a speech of his own for the hero boy,
  Sent an earful of his own to the dead buck private:
  "It's all safe now, buddy,
  Safe when you say yes,
  Safe for the yes-men."

  He was a tall scar-face battler
  With his face in a newspaper
  Reading want ads, reading jokes,
  Reading love, murder, politics,
  Jumping from jokes back to the want ads,
  Reading the want ads first and last,
  The letters of the word JOB, "J-O-B,"
  Burnt like a shot of bootleg booze
  In the bones of his head--
  In the wish of his scar-face eyes.

  The honorable orators,
  Always the honorable orators,
  Buttoning the buttons on their prinz alberts,
  Pronouncing the syllables "sac-ri-fice,"
  Juggling those bitter salt-soaked syllables--
  Do they ever gag with hot ashes in their mouths?
  Do their tongues ever shrivel with a pain of fire
  Across those simple syllables "sac-ri-fice"?

  (There was one orator people far off saw.
  He had on a gunnysack shirt over his bones,
  And he lifted an elbow socket over his head,
  And he lifted a skinny signal finger.
  And he had nothing to say, nothing easy--
  He mentioned ten million men, mentioned them as having gone west,
  mentioned them as shoving up the daisies.
  We could write it all on a postage stamp, what he said.
  He said it and quit and faded away,
  A gunnysack shirt on his bones.)

  Stars of the night sky,
  did you see that phantom fadeout,
  did you see those phantom riders,
  skeleton riders on skeleton horses,
  stems of roses in their teeth,
  rose leaves red on white-jaw slants,
  grinning along on Pennsylvania Avenue,
  the top-sergeants calling roll calls--
  did their horses nicker a horse laugh?
  did the ghosts of the boney battalions
  move out and on, up the Potomac, over on the Ohio
  and out to the Mississippi, the Missouri, the Red River,
  and down to the Rio Grande, and on to the Yazoo,
  over to the Chattahoochee and up to the Rappahannock?
  did you see 'em, stars of the night sky?

  And so to-day--they lay him away--
  the boy nobody knows the name of--
  they lay him away in granite and steel--
  with music and roses--under a flag--
  under a sky of promises.

© Carl Sandburg