“On Death: A Seventy-Seven Year Perspective”

by Dennis Maulsby


It was the Asian flu year,
that pandemic year
of bleached empty school desks,
chalk dust suspended in stale air,
of acrid antiseptic stink in marble corridors,
crowded beds sheeted with hospital corners.
White smocks, black bibles.

Death sat in the overstuffed chair, muddy feet up on the hassock, tired and impatient, rustling the pages of The Wall Street Journal. I lay on the couch, alternately shivering, swaddled in blankets, and soaked in sweat, covers thrown off. I came closer to meeting the Dark Angel than anyone should as a sixteen-year-old. My illness reached its crisis. The fever must break by morning, or…. As its shadow darkened the room and the soap operas on TV blended one into the other, I grasped for the first time the mortality of my body. Then came anger. It was too early, unfair. I was still a virgin. In 1957 the Asian flu killed two million people.

As I grew older, Death would show up, not only when anticipated, but during the most normal of moments. On the run back from the playground, I was caught in the open by a tornado.

My sports car duked it out with a beer truck at high speed on an icy Minnesota interstate. Such irony, if killed by my favorite beverage. Almost worse was the sight of white foam pulsing out the back and sides of the jack-knifed semi to fertilize the frozen ground. The wind out of the northwest became thick with the feathered scent of malt.

On two occasions, Chicago and Orlando, I experienced emergency landings on crash-truck ringed runways when flying in passenger planes. Yet all these events seemed few and tame after a year in Vietnam.

In a combat zone, Death rides your shoulders—waiting. The constant tension builds to the point you feel relief when the fighting begins.

A machinegun creates a rooster tail of dirt at my pumping heels before a dive into a foxhole. The red dust raised sours my tongue and blends with sweat to form bloody terracotta on my hands and face.

Crawling through elephant grass protected only by the thickness of a GI shirt, mortar rounds walk over me. The explosions, so close, lift and drop my body to their rhythmic drumbeat. The fermented brandy fragrance of wounded earth mixes with the smells of hot iron and nitrates.

A roll out of bed at 0300, my flesh smacks the concrete floor as 120-millimeter rockets shred the motor pool. Its sheet metal sides turned into a cheese grater of intricate shrapnel lacework.

Our jeep departs through the supply depot gate three minutes before the base is overrun. Thick fingers of monsoon rain blind us, slick down hair on head and arms, and invade our private parts. In kindness, it masks us from Viet Cong eyes until we rumble out of the kill zone.

We are not meant to buddy up to Death so often. Our brains become permanently rewired in undesirable ways by near-death experiences. The frequency of suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans, past and present, offers proof of the infection. In my case, the first six months back were filled with hellish, violent, untreatable dreams until I discovered the healing power of creativity, which allowed me to cope. Even fifty-some years later, the memories of war remain fresh, detailed, and in full color, a source of writing material not yet exhausted.

Now, almost every month brings news of friends, relatives, and peers passing for various reasons. I have come full circle immersed in a second deadly pandemic. This one most virulent among the aging. And me at seventy-seven years with a heart condition.

 I hope for another ten years of cogent, physically active life. Yet, there will come a time when the compelling primate fascination for transient fads, the taste of food, and physical pleasure will wane. When all that remains to sustain me for a little while longer is love of family.

Inevitably, those last moments will come when the mind releases its burdens, and the body begins to shut down its weary functions. Then the Dark Angel will arrive, as the old comrade it has always been, to take me in the way I choose.

Old Buffalo — scarred muzzle,
age-ragged hump, broken horn.
At the night’s edge,
stalking hollow eyes

reflect the lone bull’s silhouette.
His heart beats faster,
head lowers, nostrils snort,
eager for this last battle.