Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

Dawn Potter: Duet for Uncle Paul


First Voice


Vibrating with sinusitis and a gum infection,

I shift from one foot to the other

as my father, your big brother,


creaks down onto his painful knees,

and bumbles with a key and a lock.

He is talking so fast that his words tangle.


“See, here in this cedar chest, see

this secret compartment? I know you’ll

want to see it, my mother put it there,

I just found it, you’ll want to see it.”


I am desperate for a bathroom and for sleep,

and I do not want to see whatever it is

my father has found in the hope chest.


But he waggles the wrong key into the lock

and then, finally, the right one,

and then “Look at this!”


He holds up a tiny faded garment.

“My brother’s baby sweater,” he crows.


I nod and smile.

I am appalled at myself.




Second Voice


Search: Paul D. Potter


First lieutenant

Infantry unit commander

Green Beret

Forward Operating Base 4

Command and Control North

Military Assistance Command Vietnam—Studies and Observation Group

Fifth Special Forces Group

United States Army Vietnam


Killed in action, August 23, 1968




First Voice


It’s true that I have often spoken of you,

wailing “my uncle, my uncle,”

as if you were a doll I’d lost in the mud.


Everything I have done in your name

has been childish.




Second Voice


Army records note that Paul D. Potter

was an unmarried Presbyterian

from Monmouth County, New Jersey.


His niece’s records note that he once ate

four helpings of mashed potatoes.


Also, his crewcut was buzzy like dog hair

when she rubbed it with her palm.




First Voice


I was three years old when you died.

I was eleven years old when the war “ended.”

Everything I know about your war

arises from ignorance.


I never carried a peace sign.

I never bowed my head in grief.


What I did

was pedal my tricycle

up and down the driveway.



Second Voice


Search: Military Assistance Command Vietnam—Studies and Observation Group


“Highly classified, multi-service

United States special operations unit

conducting covert unconventional





First Voice


You were the youngest of three.

You went to Rutgers.

You joined the ROTC.

Your smile was so wide


it seemed to split your face in two.




Second Voice


Search: Military Assistance Command Vietnam—Studies and Observation Group


“To execute intensified harassment, diversion,

political pressure, capture of prisoners,

physical destruction, acquisition of intel,

generation of propaganda against NVN

to carry out ops”




First Voice


Whatever it was that you were doing

you did in Quang Nam Province.


[Insert crisp photographs of white-sand beaches, ancient shrines,

mountainsides, jungle birds, rice paddies]


[Insert blurred photographs of razor wire, bodies, mud, bodies,

a burning burning screaming toddler]




Second Voice


Search: Military Assistance Command Vietnam—Studies and Observation Group


“They kept the American people from knowing the details.”




First Voice


According to my father,

I sang “Goodnight, My Someone”

from The Music Man into a tape recorder

so that you could listen to my toddler’s

rendition of Shirley Jones while you did

whatever it was you were doing in Quang Nam Province.




Second Voice


High school activities: basketball, football, chorale, honor society


Teachers “remember him fondly as a good student,

a fine athlete and most importantly

a very fine gentleman.”


Yearbook quotation: “To do him any wrong was to beget

A kindness from him.”

—Alfred, Lord Tennyson




First Voice


Whatever it was that you were doing

in Quang Nam Province did not,

I am guessing, involve

being a very fine gentleman.


I could be wrong, though.

Whatever it was that you were doing

may have required you to be one.


Still, I do think it’s odd that you copied out only

a fragment of that Tennyson quotation.

What made you erase the last half of the final line—

the part that reads “ . . . for his heart was rich”?




Second Voice


Search: Military Assistance Command Vietnam—Studies and Observation Group


“1968 was a black year.”




First Voice


On the anniversary of your death,

your mother would sometimes drive to Bordentown

and drink two or three martinis


and then telephone my dad.

She always shouted into the receiver.

It was easy to hear everything she said.


Probably she was telling my father you were a hero.

Or that he was a Communist.


I worked hard,

very hard,

not to listen.




Second Voice


Place: Command and Control North

Event: Promotion Board gathering

Situation: Special Forces galore.

Everyone is drunk. Security is lax.


According to Pat,

“the NVA had good intelligence from inside the camp

which helped them pick that night for the attack.”


According to Tilt,

“SF troops reacted slowly

because there was too much boozing.”


According to Spider,

“Lt. Potter took the room

that Pat and I had wanted.”


According to Red,

“Sometime after 0100 all hell broke loose.”


According to Tilt,

Pat saw “a young officer

impaled by a jagged piece of two-by-four

that a satchel charge blew through his chest,

literally nailing him to the bed.”




First Voice


Tell me why

you left the Quartermaster Corps

to lead an infantry platoon.


Tell me what it’s like

to parachute into the fogbanks of Laos.


Tell me why

the Army claims you were killed in action

when what you really did

was die with your heart impaled to a bed.




Second Voice


According to Tilt,

on the morning after the carnage at CCN

Special Forces troops at the compound

“tracked two NVA soldiers

to an outside latrine.”


According to one officer,

“the NVA killed themselves with a frag grenade.”


According to another officer,

“the SF troops opened fire on the latrine.”


According to Tilt,

the troops might have been

“venting pent-up anger.”




First Voice


Your mother once told me I was lucky

I had a few talents

because I would never be pretty.


Then she told my sister

it was a good thing she had beauty

because she had zero talents.


So I suppose it’s no surprise

that I never imagined her on her knees,

alone in a bedroom,

opening a secret compartment

in her chipped and pitted hope chest

and hiding away the memory

of her son.




Second Voice


According to Lieutenant General Pearson,

“the enemy was tough, versatile,

tenacious and cunning.”


“He was difficult to find and identify.”




First Voice


I want to believe

that your heart was rich.


I know this is childish.


I know

yet I want to believe.




Second Voice


Search: Paul D. Potter


Length of service in Vietnam: 8 months


Age at time of incident: 23




First Voice


I want to invent a noble ending to this tale.


I want to claim that ignorance

—yours . . . mine—

is not guilt.


I want to imagine

that we did not know

what we were doing


when we closed our ears.




Second Voice


According to Tolstoy,

“when the body lay,

dressed and washed

in the coffin on the table,


every one came to take leave of him,

and every one cried.”




First Voice


Forgive me


for waiting so long

to listen.


Copyright 2017 Dawn Potter

Dawn Potter is a writer, poet, and musician who lives in Portland, Maine.

3 comments on “Dawn Potter: Duet for Uncle Paul

  1. Dawn Potter
    February 10, 2019

    Al, thanks for reaching out. His death was devastating to so many. My father has never recovered. I’m glad to imagine Paul next to you on the bus. My relationship to him was entirely childish, but I feel so responsible for his memory. My guess is that you do too.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Al Zeller
    February 9, 2019

    I was in basic training with your uncle when he joined the army on 14 August 1964. We sat together on the bus to Ft. Dix, NJ and were in the same basic training company. His serial number ended in 32 and mine in 33. He was the best soldier I ever knew and his death was devastating.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. schoolmarmsite
    December 27, 2017

    There are no words….

    Liked by 1 person

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This entry was posted on December 26, 2017 by in Poetry and tagged , , .

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