Each day started like any other day in the Summer of 1961, but on this particular day, I ran into a good friend, Avery Wilder. Everyone called her Boogie because she loved to dance. Boogie could wear out a pair of ballet flats quicker than green grass through a goose. Boogie had just stolen a car from the Piggly Wiggly parking lot and stopped to pick me up as I walked to work at the A-One Printing company. The stolen car was a 1954 dazzling cherry red Hudson Hornet convertible.

I was a young man of fifteen, and Boogie was an older woman of twenty-one who became my friend when I pulled her little brother out of the deep end of the public swimming pool. Boogie’s hair was as bright as the car she had shoplifted, only with more of an orange tint, and her face was scatter-shot with freckles. She was not the kind of woman you would see walking around the swimming pool in jewelry, and she drove that old Hudson fast and furious—like a caffeinated squirrel on roller skates. Boogie wanted to know if I would like to skip work and go on an adventure. So, I leaned on the driver’s side door and said. “What kind of adventure, Boog?”

“Don’t call me Boog, or I’ll snatch you bald-headed.

“Well,” I said, “Okay, Boogie.”

“Boy, you are about to get on my last nerve. You do not get to call me Boog, Boogie, or any other obnoxious nicknames you can think of, got it?

“Sure thing, Wilder.”

She sighed a long, slow exhale. Then, she shook her head and said, “Make up our mind. Are you in or out?”

It took me only a short time to decide that going on an adventure with Boogie would be much more fun than going to work. The tires squealed and smoked as Boogie punched me hard on the arm and yelled, “Hi-Yo, Silver, Kemosabe!”

So, Boogie and I started our adventure and little did I know what I was getting into. Boogie found an empty house out on Woodlawn Road that she had been casing for the past week, and we entered through the back door. While she was rifling the bedrooms upstairs for valuables, I was downstairs in the study, trying to decide if I wanted to pocket a silver letter opener, when I came across a veritable treasure—a book of poetry by Walt Whitman. A book that would irrevocably and forever change my life.

As I flipped through the book, one poem, in particular, caught my eye.|

O Captain! My Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! Heart! Heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

The words filled my mind with macabre images that, even today, sixty years later, I can still visualize late in the evening. Of course, I had no idea what the poem was about. Still, I know it played on my conscience enough to influence me to leave without the silver letter opener. Boogie explained the poem to me after we left the scene of my one and only attempt at being a cat burglar. But it wasn’t Whitman’s dark elegy that had captured my mind. It was the rhythm of the words as they rolled off my tongue.’ O Captain! My Captain! Our fearful trip is done.’ The words sang to me, created these ghastly portraits in my psyche, and filled my heart with promise.

Later, as I sat in Ms. Nina Ferrill’s senior English class and listened to her read from Alfred Lord Tennyson, Rudyard Kipling, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, my mind would keep the beat and recreate the portraits and feelings of their words. Poetry opened my heart to my own artistic interests. Ms. Ferrill may have been in her fifties, but like most high school-aged boys, I thought she must be in her eighties.

I also believed Ms. Ferrill’s funny bone had been surgically removed when she received her teaching degree. I only ever saw her laugh once. She was sitting at the back of the classroom with the so-called delinquents as different students took turns reading boring reports they had copied from an ancient World Book Encyclopedia—the original Artificial Intelligence. During one of these sleep-inducing performances, she mumbled just loud enough to hear, “Jesus Christ.” My friend, Adair, promptly replied, “Name dropper.” That’s when we all realized she still had her funny bone.

When I asked Miss Ferrill if we would read Walt Whitman, she immediately crushed me by explaining that the school board had determined that Walt Whitman’s works were unsuitable for high school-aged students and would not be part of the curriculum. I pressed her for an answer as to why, but she deftly sidestepped all my questions.

A few years later, when I returned from Vietnam, I ran into Ms. Ferrill. We talked about the war and her students. She was pleased to learn that the Captain was my constant companion in Vietnam. When the war became surreal, and fear would seep into me like some virus or unknown plague, I told her I could always count on the Captain to bring me some consolation from the madness. I explained that Whitman’s poetry seemed to read like a new verse every time I read it. She smiled and nodded, “That is what all good literature accomplishes.”

“If it’s good literature,” I asked her, “why, then, did the school board ban the study of Walt Whitman?’

She gave me a sad look and said, “It was a different time, and fear of parental political pressure kept many worthwhile literary works from being read and discussed in school. But what I would really like to know is, what did you learn about Whitman’s poetry when you were in my class? I know that you were surreptitiously reading his poetry at that time when you should have been reading what had been assigned.”

It took a moment to respond because I had to secretly figure out what Ms. Ferrill meant by ‘surreptitiously.’ Still, I answered, “Hell, I don’t really know, Ms. Ferrill. I would guess that his poetry carried me away, or should I say took me to a place where all my troubles seemed to fade away. You know, like in a dream.”

Ms. Ferrill replied, with just a hint of a smile. “Obviously, your Vietnam experience did nothing to improve your language. But tell me, did your Vietnam experience affect your understanding of Whitman’s poetry?”

After a moment of reflection, I said, “When I think about the Captain, lying on the deck covered in his own blood, I also think about a young Marine we ferried out of the A Shau Valley covered in his own blood, with one blue eye and one green eye. Both eyes were staring into the abyss. He was lying next to a dead North Vietnamese soldier without eyes because his face had been blown off. As our helicopter lifted off, the blood of both young men ran together and formed a small pool between them. When I looked into the pool of blood and saw my reflection, my view of the world changed.

The image returns at some odd times, and I can smell the jungle again and the death. I can see those young men lying in that pool of blood. Then I start to feel like the world is collapsing in on me and I begin to panic. When and why these panic attacks are going to happen is not something I can control. You told us one time, when we were reading Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, 'Once the feral dogs of war were unleashed, they remain with us always. No one will ever return from war untouched and whole.' You were right.

Since I have been home, people think of me as some kind of war hero or a ‘baby killer.’ I am neither. Whitman told us through his poetry how important it is to have heroes in our lives. Not the comic book type of heroes, but the kind of heroic qualities found in everyday folks. The kind of heroic qualities we see all around us. The guy who is constantly getting knocked down but keeps getting back up, the single mom who makes sure her children get something to eat before she does, and countless others who stand up to adversity or injustice on a daily basis. So, Whitman has given me a deeper understanding of a real hero. A real hero exhibits those qualities that we want to be a part of our best selves.”

Ms. Ferrill said, “Are you implying that those young men who sacrificed their lives for their country are no more heroic than those who pick up garbage for a living? I feel certain that the mothers, fathers, and those who served with them in combat would feel quite differently.”

“You have a point, Ms. Ferrill, but since we are being hypothetical, consider this. Most ordinary people are making sacrifices just by putting the needs of their families above their own. Just like the countless young men who have gone off to war since we first climbed out of caves looking for something to eat and a warm place to make love. Sacrifice for others, no matter the circumstance, is a heroic quality.

I also know that I will never convince anyone that the heroic qualities of ordinary people are equal to those of soldiers in combat. The myth of the warrior is just too complex. But recognizing heroic qualities in others can also serve as a reminder that heroism is not limited to famous figures or larger-than-life personalities but can be found in everyday people who demonstrate courage, compassion, and selflessness in the face of adversity or in the service of others. Celebrating and recognizing these qualities can help to build a culture of appreciation and gratitude. Something I believe both our countries desperately need after that terrible war.”

Then, with an Elizabeth Taylor steely-eyed Cleopatra look on her face that I remembered seeing when I was about to be sent to the principal’s office, she said, “You said others have tried to define you as either a war hero or a baby killer. I would like to know if you consider yourself a hero?”

“No, ma’am, I don’t consider myself a hero. But there have been many heroes in my life.”

Ms. Ferrill looked at me momentarily, then replied, “I do not think you know yourself as well as you think, young man. You should continue to explore and understand yourself. Now, as far as Mr. Whitman is concerned, you will be happy to know that a new school board has approved Walt Whitman to be part of next year’s curriculum.”

Then she raised both eyebrows above her antique Pince-Nez glasses. “Which means I will need that copy of Whitman’s works that you and Ms. Boogie Wilder borrowed from my home years ago."

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About the Author

Charles Templeton is the author of the best-selling, surreal historical novel, Boot: A Sorta Novel of Vietnam. When he is not singing at the Metropolitan Opera, you can find him in Eureka Springs, where he is currently an editor/publisher at eMerge, an online literary magazine. Charles wakes up daily and is thankful for the opportunity to offer creative literature to a diverse audience from emerging and established authors. He knows that whatever vicissitudes life throws at him, it will always be better than shovelin’ shit in the South China Sea.