The Oglala Sioux artist and peace man, Ahbleza, was said to ride into battle with nothing but a song. The first two times his adversaries reined in their horses and retreated. The third time they shot him.
We named our daughter after Ahbleza, which means “observer,” or “sees with his heart.” But we softened the spelling to Ablaisia. She now goes by Blaise.
When Blaise was in fourth grade we were talking about religion. I was explaining to her how greatness can blossom out of different spiritual paths. I told her about Ghandi. I told her about John Lennon. I told her about Martin Luther King. She already knew about Jesus and Ahbleza, and what happened to them.
She asked, “What happened to Ghandi?” I told her. “What happened to John Lennon?” I told her. “What happened to Martin Luther King?” I didn’t like where this conversation was going, but I told her.
She looked at me and asked, “Daddy, if you believe in peace and speak out, does that mean somebody is going to kill you?” She’s a mom now, and I still haven’t answered her question.
I wrote this month’s poem, from an interview with Larry Lelito.
A Soldier’s Elegy for Martin Luther King
After 13 months in Vietnam
I was stationed on a naval base
on an island in San Francisco.
There were 35 thousand sailors,
with 83 Marines
guarding the place.
I was a Marine range officer and weapons instructor,
teaching rifle lessons.
A lot of veterans were having a hard time
dealing with Post Traumatic Stress.
After a night on the town
soldiers were having drug influenced
It was not uncommon
to have guys brought back to the base
I never did drugs,
but I spent my time in the Frisco bars.
If I went off the base,
I had to dress in civilian clothes.
If I wore my uniform
people treated me like a war criminal.
Half our barracks was black
and half was white.
As a Sergeant E-5
I was the leader of the white guys.
Black guys were my friends too,
but we’d gang up
and didn’t associate much back and forth.
The command was smart enough
to make the leader of the black guys
and I roommates.
Booney was his nickname.
He was a Marine Corps boxing champion,
and we became good friends.
In his training I ran with him
sometimes 10 miles.
Then Martin Luther King was killed.
I came back to the base in mid-afternoon on April 4, 1968,
and Booney was crying.
Here was a hardcore combat veteran
6’ 6”, weighing 200 pounds
and tough as nails,
crying like a baby.
He told me, “They’ve killed our king.”
I didn’t catch on at first. “What king?”
“Martin Luther King!”
My whole body sank.
I knew we were in deep trouble
in a barracks where everybody was armed.
We kept M-1 rifles and 45 caliber pistols
in our lockers.
I could hear rifles being locked and loaded
out in the squad bay.
Black guys were loading up.
“We can’t let this happen!”
I pleaded to Booney.
“Those guys are my brothers.
We fought together
and lived through a war.”
We had to go out there and take control.
The whole place was in chaos,
and the commanders were gone.
It was up to us
to keep an all-out war from happening
in our barracks.
Everybody was mustering up
getting ready to raise hell,
but we talked our guys down.
We mobilized into a riot patrol squad,
and when our command came back
we headed out
into the streets of San Francisco
to try to quell the violence.
That was awful.
We had holstered 45 caliber pistols
we couldn’t use,
and billy clubs.
We didn’t have helmets
or flak jackets.
We wore cloth utility hats,
and were getting stoned
with bricks and rocks.
After fighting in a civil war in Vietnam,
that I found out many of our populace was against,
now we were in combat
against our own people
in our own country.
I couldn’t take it anymore,
but still had six months left
of my tour of duty
before I could go home.