Lima Papa - The Poetry of Ben D. Trail

FOREWORD by John Moore

These are the poems of Benard (Ben) D. Trail. He was an Army brat....and a Texas Aggie ROTC type. We were Lieutenants together in Germany, became close friends, and in 1966, lost track of each other for years.

Ben did two back-to-back tours in Vietnam, as an advisor in the Delta, and finally as a sector advisor in Quang Tin Province. He was awarded the Bronze Star for Valor and the CIB. I was with the 1/5th Mech in Quang Tri, and we never met in Vietnam.

Ben left the Army in 1969, forsaking what many said was a promising career. I stayed on, retiring as an O-5 in 1980, and began a second career in law enforcement. Ben returned to Texas A&M, got a Masters degree, and after teaching high school, ended up at Tarrant County Community College in Fort Worth. Although he taught English literature, his first love was poetry. I never knew that.

We got back in touch through a mutual friend in 1989, and on many of my subsequent business trips to Dallas, we got together to share stories. He often sent me his work to review, and I felt privileged to do so. He wrote over 300 poems, many of which we would call "war poems". Over 200 have been published.

Ben was from a military family and was trained as a professional soldier, but I believe he was unable to reconcile the brutality, inequity and human faces of the war he experienced, with the myths of gallantry he learned at A&M. His poetry, instead of serving as a catharsis, only seemed to exacerbate his inner turmoil.

I often chided him to let the war go and encouraged him to write about other, less troubling subjects. He did, and these pieces were excellent (I have included one as the last poem here), but his work kept returning to Vietnam. I believe that the war remained the central issue in his life, long after it was over for others. Perhaps for him as for many of us, that was the dirty little secret of the Vietnam was the most exciting thing we have ever done.

We were to meet New Years 1992 in Dallas, but he failed to show up at my hotel, and didn't answer his phone. His sister called two days later to say he had taken his own life.

Ben's poetry was probably disturbing to readers of academic quarterlies. It is sometimes coarse and profane, full of soldier's jargon, and if you hadn't been there, it wouldn't mean much. I can't imagine a community college student being able to identify with any of it. Maybe that was what finally caught up with Ben....having the gift, but being unable to explain how it was to the uninitiated.

So, it is with some relief, and a belief that he now has a more appreciative audience out there, that I commend these few previously unpublished poems to you.

John Moore

Lima Papa - The Poetry of Ben D. Trail

"VC PHONE HOME" Before area codes, Ma Bell dismembered there was a field telephone. The captured VC officer complete with map case, pistol, haircut, and surly expression (He could have been a fucking field marshal for all we knew) Was tied to a chair, a stick wedged in his mouth by ferret-faced Vietnamese interrogators. Sergeant Hahn put an alligator clip from the phone on the officer's prick and cranked the handle twice. B52s made a person-to-person long distance call on the 1st VC regimental headquarters. That was when you could really reach out and touch someone.
FIREBASE TOAD Here's a poem-for-the-Rat Here's a poem-for-the-Mole Here's a poem-for-the-Badger Here's a poem-for-the-Toad! Rat was good on recon Mole-man loved the tunnels Badger whack'd 'em with his M-79 Toad was a double-digit midget When they went into the Wild Wood, Toad was too short to boogy: "15 days and a wake-up!" So he stood radio watch down in the TOC. Rat keyed back negative sitreps Mole-man checked out a bunker Badger poured bug-juice on his leeches In the TOC, Toad bragged about girlfriends he didn't have---- fast cars he intended to buy when he got back to the World. Like the wind in the willows Charlie rushed through the wire---- Toad wasted 6 sappers before a B-40 rocket blew him away. Rat's fat now, sells cars Mole-man teaches drivers ed Badger got the DSC, stayed-in Toad's up on the Wall Sometimes they go to see him.
ROCK AND ROLL RECON The only "good morning" there ever was in Vietnam was the day we left. Armed Forces Radio did keep the killers hopping to rock-and-roll. We'd recon the Que Son Valley in two light airplanes everyday. Now I won't bullshit you: it was no Ashau, but it was badder than Leech Valley--- a real Charles County, Marlboro Country. Bad things grew in the valley and the Jolly Green Giant was a rescue chopper in Danang. Above the smoking vills, the burned-out tanks, we bopped along with the Four Seasons, "Working my way back to you, babe." The Mamas and the Papas were "California Dreamin" and so were our pilots as they waggled their wings in time to the music. Only on Xmas did we get serious. We'd sing songs like "Wake the town and kill the people."
LIMA PAPA Nobody on this planet could grin like an ARVN (alive or dead), You almost had to wear sunglasses to block the dazzle of a dozen gold teeth. The big U.S. units called Vietnamese troops "dinks" or "slopes"--- names we resented. We advisors ate boiled chicken, drank Ba Muy Ba with infantrymen who would never rotate home. In radio parlance, they were "Counterpart" or "Lima Papa"----little people. These little people could climb right into your heart. Planning an operation became a Magical Mystery Tour: Distance to the objective? "maybe long time" Where is the enemy? "VC didi mau" How many VC? "beaucoup VC" Agent reports were even more mysterious: "VC as many as stars in sky" "VC maybe two smokes from river" "VC have Chinese advisors" Going to the field was a FUBAR fiasco: Each man carried a weapon bigger than he was. Grinning like Howdy Doody, one poor little bastard looked like a turtle under a mortar base plate shell. The enemy never needed flankers or point men. Hell, they could hear us coming: Each ARVN carried a pig, chicken, or puppy plus a cauldron, all squealing, clucking, barking, banging perfectly in tune to Vietnamese music wailing from 100 transistor radios. And if the enemy had been deaf they still could have smelled us: pomade, after-shave lotion, nuoc mam, the aroma of Salem cigarettes wafted downwind. It didn't matter. Charlie usually had the ops plan, knew our call signs, before we did. The operations had different code names, all heroic, mighty-sounding phrases. We Americans knew better, came up with "Going to Grandmother's House" "Walk-in-the-Sun" "Search and Avoid" You could get killed playing with Charlie but usually by fluke, sometimes by fuck-up: occasionally a sniper understood sight picture and a mine was a mine under anyone's foot. Remember the ARVN who was toting the base plate? His grin disappeared along with his right hand, A booby-trapped bucket blew them away. Dirty ice, the world's slowest flies soldiers wearing Tom Mix hats let's-put-a-centipede-on-Sgt. Hahn's sleeve "maybe we go eat Hawk battalion?" (Dai Uy Te liked his mashed potatoes a la mode.) ARVN's watching Combat and Batman ("Joker Number Ten") the eyeless, amputee Ranger "maybe you souvenir me photograph?" Lima Papa/Lima Papa I shall never forget you. OUT B.D. Trail
If the reader has scrolled this far, you might be interested in the following non-Vietnam piece, which is his best-known work. Perhaps for its bitter irony, Ben's family requested that it be included with his bio at his funeral: HELL TO BE A POET IN TEXAS "Imagery" is a small town near Old Dime Box. a one watertower town, 1-A in Friday night football, one traffic light, one Dairy Queen. "Tarantula" only rhymes with 'spatula" --- not much poetry in hairy spiders hopping roads running from Nowhere to Nothing or tools turning chicken-fried steak cow patties. The most scenic delights bite. Every poisonous snake, scorpion, or tick lives here or has cousins come to visit. The tallest mountain is five foot two. Snow is how you know when to turn off the TV. (after the pilot reaches out to touch the face of God) It's hell being a poet in Texas.

All Poems Copyright © 1996, B.D.Trail

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