To my father, the Doctor, on the seventieth anniversary of his birth.

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This is a poem, and it's quite long, so I put it behind a cut.

If you like it... I'm glad.

The Doctor, I believe, will like it.

In any case, I love him very much. This is for him.

To my father, the Doctor, on the seventieth anniversary of his birth.

He climbs down the stairs of the Pleasant Street house,
quiet as you can be on stairs designed to squeak
exactly when you don't want them to, when people sleep.
and he, the man, husband and father creeps
down before dawn on a cold Fort Kent morning.
Winter is ice and snow and bitter wind up there -- it tears
across the house and steals the heat
from old glass windows, wavy with age
and so he slips down the stairs, around the corner
and down into the cold, dark basement,
where the wood is corded along the walls, stacked by him
in autumn months before it's needed, before it's cold
against the day when bitter cold comes again, all too soon.
He takes up two or three split logs and carries
them to the heavy iron door
of the furnace. He opens it, and looks within,
seeing the coals and embers left behind. Judging.
What will they need? Paper? Kindling? Just the wood?
He twists old newspapers into knots, to burn fast and hot
but not burn out before it's done. Tosses them in,
then planks, then logs,
stirs and blows with bellows until he sees them catch.
Closes the door, adjusts the flue
and brings fire to the house while his family still sleeps.

At nineteen he went to war.
A boy becoming a man in service to his country
caught defending a distant land, going willingly
before they had to ask. He joined the Air Force.
Airman, Corporal. Sergeant.
He fixed the guns on silver jets.
Long tubes and barrels recessed into ports
made streamlined, to reduce the drag on the plane.
In the evenings he sat in smoky Japanese beer halls
and played trivia games and name that tune.
Winning records for knowing the names
of music, of musicians, jazz and swing.
Drinking and laughing, supporting the men
who flew silver eagles into the blue
and brought death to aggressors with the guns Dad knew.
Twenty five years later he would teach his son
how to clean a shotgun. Looking down the open barrel
seeing the light gleam on all sides, a silver slide.
Well kept, well oiled. Rags on wires pushed through
to the far end, turned as needed,
blue metal well cared for. Wooden stock warm in the hand.
Ancient rituals of the man and his weapons.
Cared for with all the skill born
of a thousand automobiles serviced and checked.
He was a man of letters, philosophy--
Professor. Dean. Doctor Burns.
But on the weekends he would wear his old tee shirt,
a Giants ball cap, a layer of grease,
crawling under his car, changing oil and filters,
checking the timing and the spark and the fluids,
knowing the ways of machines and men
who drove them sometimes a little too hard.

In class he spoke with a sure voice,
knowing his references, his materials, bringing to others
the fruits of decades of love of the written word.
Poetry and prose, essay and story, Ransom and Le Carré.
Never upset, always in control,
wearing his professor's sweater and sipping tea,
straight up -- red tea, in a mug from his office,
or if need be a white styrofoam cup from the lounge.
Deep red tea, the bag pinched between thumb and forefinger
hot and scalding, but endured with a smile. He told them
of significance and thesis and imagery and style
marking down Harbrace handbook notes on their papers
and reinforcing their Strunk and White, enduring
the repetitive rebellions that every new generation
was sure they were the first to whip up -- challenging
the autocratic authority of the expert -- the sage
who stood at the front of the class with arguments
someone came up with every damn year,
and the Sage refused to get upset, even though
they tried their level best to make him mad, accusing
Shakespeare and Spenser and Dickens and Hemingway
of horrible crimes against humanity.
He never seemed to mind. He simply smiled
that slightly smug smile
and said, without actually saying it,
That's interesting. That's a point.
Support it. Cite your answers. Build your argument.
Convince me, if you can. If not, shut up.

His exact words were always the same:
"There might be a paper in that."

He climbs down stairs again and again.
Down into the cold bowels of the Pleasant Street house.
Find the wood, feed the fire.
Always feed the fire.

After the fire is going he goes upstairs
and walks the dog and has a little breakfast.
He listens to NPR and prepares the morning
for his children, sleeping still, but all too soon awake.
He makes them tea, like his, but with milk
just like his Aunt had made for him as a boy.
Tea'n'milk. The warm brown tea his children love
as he loves them, so very much. He's so proud.
A daughter, woodscolt wiry, strong and fast,
a dancer, a performer, an athlete, a leader.
She will be the first one up. The one who matches him.
The one who skis with him, and jogs with him.
The one who looks him in the eye and challenges him
to keep going. Come on, old man! she says,
never meaning it.
He's not old.
He'll never be old.
Then he'll go and speak to his son,
the daydreamer, the creator, the speaker
who loves his bed a little too much in the morning.
Who never stands when he could sit,
and never sits when he could lie,
but who gets excited by
his father's words, the books and letters.
Creating, shaping, writing, singing
using the tools his father sharpened,
insisting he use them right, and well,
a father whose pride seemed to swell
in both his children -- so proud, so proud.
He is quick to support, quick to defend
his children from stupid, venal men.
His wife joins him, the children off to school.
Beautiful, funny, smart, quick.
Strong, so strong, always ready to fight
for a cause that needed fighting. So proud he was,
so proud.

Another year, another winter,
logs for the fire, keep the house warm.

Grey haired, mustached, an institution
at the institution he served. Fighting the fights
that others quailed from. Supporting his friends,
reducing banality, stupidity. Challenging the Valley,
bringing them letters and knowledge. Saying as clearly
as he could, day after day, year after year,
"this matters."
Sometimes they heard. Sometimes they didn't.
But students who balked in their Freshmen years
returned again and again to learn at his feet,
loving him as he loved them, one and all, demanding
they perform, they prove, they cite, they show
their work. Banishing muddled theses and thinking
and sharpening students into scholars. As they grew
they knew their teachers and called them by their names.
Chuck. Bill. Paul. Wendy.
But always Doctor Burns.
Always Doctor Burns.

Always healthy, always taking care,
finding the foods that keep you alive longer. Keeping
the family secure and safe, through wheat germ
cottage cheese. One year the magazines said
"oils and fats," so it was cheese and mayonnaise.
Banished the next, made way for a fistful of pills
vitamins he took, vitamins he prepared,
for his family to take.
Down the stairs he trod in the morning.
Grab the log, feed the fire,
warm the house another day.
Always he drove, into the night
on long trips the family would take, children asleep,
wife asleep,
he turned on the late night AM radio,
finding William B, and the Milkman's Matinee.
Hearing the songs of his youth once more,
just like in Japan, in the evenings, the gun oil under his fingernails.
Watching his children grow (so proud),
tending and teaching his students and his fires,
keeping the house and minds warm.

Autumn turns to winter, the house on Pleasant Street
becomes a memory, past retirement. New lands, new homes.
His children grown, though close to hand,
his daughter with children of her own, he makes them
tea with milk, one cup each, grandchildren and their mother,
and walks the dogs late into the night as needed.
A quieter life, a life at sea. His boat like his cars, his
to judge and measure. Working to keep going,
change the oil, sand the bottom, strip the iron jenny
spending time to make it right, to make it safe.
Taking vitamins, taking care.
Time keeps pushing. He feels aches
he never used to know on a racquetball court
or ski tow hill.

They add the cast iron stove twelve years
after the retirement, ready to warm
the house without so much oil. They take in a cord
of wood, carried one load at a time,
down into the finished basement, brighter and warmer
than the Fort Kent house, but still.
Still.
Comes the darkened dawn, the house cold,
he creeps downstairs, and into the basement.
The stove is upstairs, he carries the logs
two at a time in weathered hands.
He watches the woodbox slowly empty,
and stops and judges each and every day.
Winters are long, even down here.
And every day the hungry fire burns
more wood, more wood.
He looks, and judges, and smiles that smile,
the same smug smile of the professor, the sergeant
who knew the answers in the dark, who challenged
others to their best (so proud).
He stands and considers how much wood remains,
and smiles. There is still wood yet,
and more fires to build tomorrow.

14 Comments

I think were this poem condensed about 25 times, you would have "Those Winter Sundays" by Robert Hayden.

Good job.

That's beautiful, Eric. I have tears in my eyes. It reminds me of Frost. I love Frost. I think your father will love it.

A tribute any father would love.

Congradulations, Eric.

You win at Websnark.

Not like you didn't make the game, but yeah.

Wow.

Beautiful poem, and that's coming from someone who abhorred poetry in English class. Keep it up.

To my father, the Doctor

Your father's a Time Lord? That explains how you get so much writing done...

Nice work.

Eric Burns for the win.

That was fantastic, and makes me think of my dad. Of course, he was a generation later, born in '43, but replace the tea with coffee and you've pretty much got him--firm but coy, wry but compassionate. He loves guns and loves wood fires and loves medieval literature and loves teaching. He escaped war by being too young for Korea and got too old for Vietnam but even today is a Boy Scout, leading boys to become men.

I'm in his office now, at his computer, about to teach an adjunct section of comp. I still feel myself tiny in his arms even though I've been bigger than him since the age of fourteen. He smiles a lot, and when we talk I feel a mixture of the childish "my father knows everything" and the adult "what about this theory?" all with the guilty indulgence that we're closer mentally, emotionally, spritually, than my mother his wife or my brother his son.

I still walk in his shadow. He still sees me as his greatest pride.

And now I've got a tear in my eye, darnit. Good poem.

Thank you, Eric, for sharing that. It was crisp, and vivid, and wonderful. It reminded me a great deal of my Grandfather. Your art evokes images, connects to memories. It stems from life and gives back to it. You work your art well. I'm sure he'll love it.

My father is totally a Timelord.

Oh holy shit, I can't believe I saw this yesterday and didn't remember that YESTERDAY was MY dad's birthday. I am totally the worst daughter ever.

This is my first time posting, although I've read websnark for about a year now. Thank you. Thank you very much for sharing-that poem brings back memories of my father, and reading it meant a lot to me. The Doctor will love it- I know I do.

Fantastic poetry, sir.

I can see why you love your father. He reminds me of an old English teacher of mine.

Took me a while to post here, simply because, even though I *know* that writers love feedback, well, when confronted with something this good, my first instinct is respectful silence.

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