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Was It Not Real?
by Pete Justus

Old men standing on the field of battle
Seventy five years after the fight
Gathered again to remember and reminisce
To retouch old friends
And see old foes.

It was a grainy old newsreel film
The men were thin and gray
Many had lost arms and legs
And they moved around Gettysburg in 1938
75 years after the singular event of their lives.

One man said that when they had all passed
They would meet again in heaven
And fight the battle as before
And after it was over they would rise again
And say "Was it not real?"

Ancient figures, with fading sight
Caught in a moment now long gone
And fading rapidly from thought
On the way to being simply notes
In a great book about an ancient war.

Those old men are long gone now.
The last veteran of that war gone in '59
I remember seeing the headline
When I was in San Francisco with my dad
I was 13 at the time.

We were on a trip along the coast
From L.A. to Canada
Seeing things of beauty and awe,
Getting speeding tickets
And making memories that would last to today.

I remember, at the time wondering,
How could anyone be that old?
How could someone alive in my life have lived
And fought in that war?
And I wondered "Was it not real?"

World War II ended a year before I was born
I heard about it, read about it,
Taught about it, thought about it
But it was still only pages in a book,
Words from my dad's memory, grainy film.

My dad and I were waiting for a ferry boat
It was September 1, 1959 on the edge of Puget Sound
It was a cold gray morning
He was reading a story in the paper that was headlined
"World War II started 20 Years Ago Today."

My dad looked up as I watched him read
He had a distant, sad, lost look
He was somewhere else in that instant,
Back in Europe, hearing the news,
Seeing the war's opening bold black headline.

He must have thought about his brother,
Lost in the smoke and ash,
His mother lost in the chaos,
His father in law gone in the horror,
Twenty years gone and I thought "Was it not real?"

Now I'm sitting here
On a cold gray February afternoon,
His picture by my desk,
His half smile in my sister's backyard
In his usual coat and tie.

That must have been 15 years ago,
Maybe even twenty
It goes by so fast
You can't understand that at 13
I'm not sure I get now and I'm almost 55.

He's been gone for nearly 12 years now
I know that for sure
Seems like brief instants in time
But I know how much has gone by,
How much I've gone through.

God willing, I'm going to be old and gray
Like those men at Gettysburg
Like my dad for all those years
I'm already feeling the aches
And seeing the transition in the mirror.
Unlike him, or those ancient warriors
I've been truly blessed.
I have health and wealth,
I've lived in peace and comfort
Watched my folks go from old age.

Still I still see him on that morning
Deep in another place and time
So far from what I could comprehend
Looking into the gathering gray fog of the past
Trying to decide 'Was it not real?'

Just short of 30 years later
He died back in Europe
As far from me on that day
As I was from him on that September morning
With me remembering that trip.

It was early July, 1989
A cold gray summer morning
Waiting for the sky to clear
As it always does in that time of year
Leaving a hot summer afternoon.

I felt a chill as I stood there
Knowing a plane was waiting
Knowing an appointment had to be kept
Knowing that there was no going back
And that there was nothing waiting for me anymore.

I can still see it now.
Us roaring along in that black '58 Impala
The top was down and the sun was hot
Somewhere in Northern California
About to get a speeding ticket.

I remember freezing in that top down car
As night came along the shore of Puget Sound
In the middle of nowhere
Looking for a place to stay
And ending up in a cabin eating crackers and jam for

We'd laugh about that story
Over and over even nearly 30 years later
When our paths crossed
When my life intersected with his
And I used to wonder "Was it not real?"
Time turns everything into memories.
Time takes everything from us
And leaves us wondering where we were
And where we are
And doubting where we are going.

13 years, 20 years, 55 years, 60 years
All gone into the black hole of time
Gone into the abyss that comes along
To take all we leave behind
And all we can hold are those memories.

There's a picture on the living room wall
I took it
He's standing on the other side of that black Chevy,
Looking thin and smiling
Somewhere on that trip, in the past.

There's a picture of him next to it
Taken long before I was born.
He looks like me when I was that young.
The same serious look, the same closed lip smile
The same glasses I used to wear.

Pictures can freeze moments
And they can touch your heart
But they can't reach those places
Only memories really hold
Because in that instant you know.

That old battle really happened
That long ago trip really happened.
That moment reading the paper was real,
It's all real and it's all gone
Except in our memories and our souls.

Except in that part of each of us
That holds the past
Like our body holds our soul
Until we are set free to take flight
Back to those moments that hold so much.

Back to the battlefield,
Back to long gone car trips
Back to crackers and jam in a cabin for dinner
Back to sensing the instant he was gone
Because, even though the past seems a dream.
It was real.
And as I look back
At the end of this long road
When my time has run out,
When I take final stock of my life.

I'll remember that they were real
That he was real,
That I was real,
That it all happened and disappeared into the mist
And as I take that final step I'll really learn.

The truth when I see them in battle,
See him with his brother,
See myself with him,
See my life for what it really was
And I won't have to ask "Was it not real?"

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