I was fourteen when I asked Dad about his beard.
I wanted to know why it was already so grey.
He said, “I have one for every worry, hurt, and fear.
Listen a minute, and I’ll tell you how it got this way:
“I spent two years killing gooks for Lyndon.
The shrink said I was sane, according to the law.
The priest said not to worry, that I was forgiven,
but they never did what I did or saw what I saw.
Your mom kept me sober when she could,
but I don’t remember the 70’s very well.
I fought and drank and was just no good.
It didn’t matter; I’d already been to hell.
“I stopped drinking in 1980, sat down and cried
when Led Zeppelin buried Bonham and disbanded.
In ‘81 I nearly smiled when the Liar nearly died,
but he lived, and they had Hinckley red-handed.
In ’82 the Feds immortalized my fears
with a shiny long wall in Washington D.C.
I had flashbacks and nightmares for over a year,
until well after we took Grenada in ’83.
“Union Carbide killed thousands of Indians in ‘84
while vats of the same poison sat 200 miles from us.
In ’85 the Cola I loved changed forevermore.
I switched to coffee rather than drink that puss.
I’ve gotten plenty of grey hairs, and quite a few
whites, thanks to you and your three brothers.
Your mom has her name on plenty of them too,
but I don’t mind any of them like I do the others.
“And there’s been more reasons for these hairs, boy.
You’ll never know all the things your daddy’s done,
but I’ve fought hard to win every moment of joy.
The scars and grey hairs have just piled up one by one.
Some day you’ll step back and ponder
on how surviving got in the way of living.
You’ll look around, and you’ll wonder
at all the sweat and time you’re giving.”
Dad paused and stared at his miner’s belt.
He looked at me, and then at his hands.
I asked him then what he thought, what he felt.
He said, “Some day you’ll understand.
There are terrible dragons in this world, son,
and no matter how you try, they can’t be beaten.
Be smarter than me. Learn to ride them. Hold on
for dear life and do your best not to get eaten.”
That day I was too young and too dumb to listen or care,
but now I think back often to that day and what he said
when I look at my reflection at night and count the grey hairs
that pile up way too early all over my head.