When it comes to poems written by readers, you could say that I have low expectations. I have read over just over 38 years in journalism.
Often they are worse than appalling. I feel at least half qualified to make such judgments because as an English student I took many poetry classes.
This is how I approached a recent plea by Alton Prillaman for me to read some verses he wrote about veterans. Prillaman, who practiced law in Roanoke for more than 50 years, called this newspaper three times on Monday, to reach me just for this reason.
When we logged in Monday night, he seemed eager to see it released before Veterans Day, which by the way is Friday. (There is a Veterans Day Parade, from Elmwood Park to the Roanoke City Market along Jefferson Street, which begins at 11 a.m. Saturday.)
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I told him I would put some eyes on his efforts, but made no promises. And Prillaman agreed to have no expectations. It arrived in my inbox on Tuesday morning.
Entitled “War No More”, its verse surprised me. It’s damn good. It might even be awesome.
Before we dive in, let me first tell you a bit about the author.
Prillaman, who goes by the name “Al”, is 83 years old. He was born at Lewis-Gale Hospital in 1938 and grew up in Roanoke. Her dad was a typographer here at the Roanoke Times (I didn’t know about that connection until Wednesday). In the long-ago days of hot stamping, typesetting was a highly sought-after blue-collar skill, and its practitioners often received the highest day laborer salaries.)
In 1956, Prillaman graduated from Jefferson High in Roanoke, then from the University of Richmond in 1960, where he was a member of the Army Reserve Officers Training Corps, or ROTC.
After earning a degree in business administration, Prillaman served two years on active duty as a junior officer at Fort Bliss, Texas, where he helped train visiting foreign soldiers in the use of Hawk, Hercules and other types of missiles.
It was still on active duty in the fall of 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. This is the world’s closest to nuclear annihilation so far.
After his stint in the military, Prillamin served in the Army Reserve and worked for a time with insurance giant Allstate. Then he went to law school at Washington and Lee University. He graduated in 1966 and has worked as a general practitioner ever since.
He and his wife, Nancy, have three adult children – two sons who still live in Roanoke and a daughter who lives in Bethesda, Maryland. They also have nine grandchildren.
One of his biggest cases, Prillaman told me, occurred when he portrayed a 9-year-old boy whose leg had to be amputated after unsecured playground equipment fell on the child and crushed him. Prillaman then won a six-figure verdict for his permanently injured client.
As a hobby, Prillaman has long played with worms. He gave me a bundle of 11 poems which he has written over the years and compiled in 2020. He has also written songs.
For a song called “You Can Sing” (1970), Prillaman registered a copyright and showed me this document. He also gave me a CD-recorded version, with Prillaman strumming the guitar and singing. That’s not bad, but if he’s ever expecting a Grammy, Taylor Swift should release him instead.
Anyway, here’s the five-stanza poem he wrote about veterans, titled “War No More” in 1995. It was a joint effort, written by Prillaman and his son, John, when John was a senior at North Cross School. (Today, John Prillaman practices law in his father’s firm.) Here we go:
See the troops proudly lined up,
See their colors, blue and gray,
A million brothers that we will see no more,
See the dough boys in France,
Machine guns replacing spear and spear,
On Flanders Field they fought and won.
See our men in total struggle
A world war for death or life,
I don’t understand, maybe you understand,
See lean and mean special forces,
Sent to fight in the green jungle,
A useless war in a foreign land,
See the troops proudly lined up,
Ready to die without saying anything,
Many are gone as you can see,
Now I’m hardly a literary scholar. It took me eight years to get a four-year college degree. And I still haven’t been able to decode “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, one of TS Eliot’s masterpieces. Or “The Waste Land”, which is increasingly obtuse.
But I’m able to recognize good writing and clever verse when it hits me. And with this one, Prillaman scored.
“War No More” is tightly composed, without a single syllable wasted. It spends just 132 words conjuring up images of American soldiers, their uniforms, their weapons, and the battlefields they fought on, over more than 112 years of American history. This is a very good trick.
It could even be the basis of a folk song. Can’t you almost hear Pete Seeger or Joni Mitchell or Emmylou Harris sing it?
Most haunting of all is the beginning of the fifth and final verse. Notice how Prillaman repeats the very first line of the poem, to kick off the last stanza. It was deliberate, he told me. And his message is clear.
Wars happen again and again. No matter how pointless, stupid, or cruel the last war seems in hindsight, another is just around the corner. Because humanity has been trapped in a cycle that never ends.
The gruesome results are the same every time – mass death and destruction. Except the body count (and grief) increases with the ferocity of modern weaponry.
When you think of the historical pattern, it brings to mind the old line that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”
A few days before Veterans Day 2022, we can thank Al Prillaman for this reminder.
You might want to take the thought with you to Saturday’s parade.
Contact Subway Columnist Dan Casey at 981-3423 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter:.