Hometown Tour after the Base Shuts Down

posted May 18, 2010

Our current arrangements, designed for the Cold War, must give way.
Our enemy is constantly adapting and so must we

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s testimony to the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, March 2005

See these houses made after each other, the beige and indigo
dittoes of dittoes with ridged, rectangular shutters

exposing every bedroom, including my mother’s?
All this space was farm. Slaves once raced

to Quakers through the underground halls.
Now there’s a recall: groundwater holding onto history

via tetra-chloro-ethylene. How pristine it sounds,
unlike lead the EPA found. If we backtrack

from the cul-de-sac, I’ll show you why. There:
people retire in those condos now, built faster

than the barbed wire could fall, but this land mass
was once a no-trespass zone. Old folks roam

down the mile-long landing strip and pass
by a tower that once propped up a jet.

They stroll along the acres of grass, once clean
and short as Peter Jennings’ hair. It’s grown mean;

it furls into the fencing. And now the world’s
fastest centrifuge collects dust. To think the steel arm

spun Neil Armstrong into forty G’s. Now we have this:
retirement bliss for Warminster’s elderly, and the houses—

oh, the houses facing one another, like spouses
bowing to acres and chemical names, playing a game

of whisper-down-the-lane. No, that’s not right.
Though the driveways resemble tongues, nobody talks.

The owners are old, empty-nested. They bought
these plots in the seventies. The steady, thunderous planes

were then a thousand hands sweeping them safe,
and children bounced balls until they’d deflate.

Jenny, Jim: parents called common names as cinematic
Russia stained ice-gray and wrong, and the A-bomb

hung like Jesus above the baby-booming pews.
We gen-exers snicker at a dead-end feud

titled, simply, Cold. But damn it, this street
is personal. See the third house on the left, the bird-

blue, red-bricked, beige-doored ditto? My mother
keeps painting the wallpaper over and over, ecru

on off-white on butter on blue, and adding little bow
to little bow on the banister with no one to show

but Peter Jennings on the Nightly News. When Jennings died
my mother cried for weeks, and when she stopped, she met

a millennial silence: the empty, jet-free sky,
like a vanished radio station. Members of the great

generation now slurp their soup in the old folks’ home.
My mother, the grown kid of their years, pulls a curtain aside,

sees a new bride move onto her Drive. On warm days,
she hears, not the whirling centrifugal sphere,

but a ball bounced by a new boy on the street—it’s a shame,
but—she doesn’t know very well. Wutz-is-name?

Heather Kirn's nonfiction has been noted in The Best American Essays, and published by such journals as Prairie Schooner, Florida Review, and Colorado Review. Her poems have appeared most recently in Alaska Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, and Cincinnati Review. She lives and teaches in Berkeley, California, where she's at work on a memoir about her two years teaching in a west Baltimore high school.

We’ve published two more poems by Kirn: “L'esprit de L'escalier” and “Loser Flare.”