The Death of the G.A.R.
(A rhyme for Memorial Day)

By MacKinlay Kantor

as seen in the
June 1939 issue of
The Ladies Home Journal
background by Norman Rockwell


Now they are gone from Webster City.
Mr. Lee was the last to go
(Coffin damp with the snowballs' snow,
Coffin damp with the lilacs' pity),
E. N. Lee was the last to go
To narrow quarters with flag above,
And the soft tattoo of the mourning dove. . . .
He lies at ease in the burying ground,
While a comrade tells of his Vicksburg wound.

And another mutters of Malvern Hill
Or Shiloh Church or Andersonville,
Musket or tent or rebel shout-
But the tardiest soldier is mustered out.
They are gone, they are gone, and more is the pity
For the great-grandchildren of Webster City.

Daughters and sons of the chromium age,
Grasp this moment and hold this page,
And let me describe the homely ration
That fed the belly of half our nation.
There was something about them you cannot know-
But it lived before you began to grow,
And it made the soil that we rear you in.
(The shrill machines have shredded it thin.)
It was sweet as maple and gold as wheat
And it lived in every Northern street;
It gave us manna we cannot give
No matter how long God lets us live.

It is past, it is vanished and cut clean off,
And only a relic stays to cough
And remind us all of the sundry riches
We stowed in our early childhood niches.
This story stemmed from a buggy wheel
And a pacing mare and a shaving mug
And the keen straight edge of a razor's steel,
And it lived in every tobacco plug-
In an argument in the courthouse yard-
In the horehound candy at Kearns's store,
In cubebsand lanterns and buckets of lard-
In the lovely things that are here no more,
The things we thought were ugly before.

I am talking about the G. A. R.,
That some of you think is a big bronze star
Kept in a desk that grandpa used,
And by worthy sentiment thrice-abused.
But the G. A. R. was more than that-
More than a cord on a battered hat-
More than a ghost or a rural fairy
That sleeps up there in the cemetery.

It was stuff that we who witness its death
Will miss as long as God gives us breath:
The frosty cheek and the black molasses,
And the fudge that grandfather always stole-
And where did you put my fishing pole?
And hurry along to your Sunday-school classes!-
The Templar charm and the celluloid collar,
The Cross of Gold and the silver dollar-
And Teddy will run for another term.
And I won't support Bill Bryan again.
And I was always a Cleveland man!
Here lay the ripe dissension's germ,
But all forgotten and washed away
Whenever the Comrades met in May.

We count the tracks of the tribal old
Over the windy ridge of time
Through fire that burned-on a Piltdown wold
To the first man stirrings within the slime.
There is worship for Chinese ancestors,
There is blessing for elder sainted monk. . . .
Shall we who gazed at the harness stores
Lock our past in a haircloth trunk?

Partly legend and partly lie,
And partly pure as the Maytime sky-
This was the Army that we had.
It was saved and shriven and could not die,
And it had a song that would drive you mad:
Limping under the shade of oak
With picket fences to hem it in,
Its drummers beat and its fifers spoke
(And the beard grew out of the shrunken chin).
The song of the Army comes to mind,
Telling the tale we never find
Now that the drums no longer din. . . .
These are the things that we will miss:
The big bear hug and the whiskery kiss,
The room with a sagging, painted shutter,
The asthma sound and the midnight mutter,
And the trousers hanging across a chair,
And the thought that grandfather sleeps in there-
The Odd Fellow pin and the Indian story,
And the grave in Washington Territory.

Sons and daughters of radio,
E. N. Lee was the last to go!
You knew not him or his shaggy brother
But they were kinder than many another.
Wesley Martin and George S. Neel-
They were a dream you cannot feel. . . .
Captain Landers and Parker Banks-
Gone to manage the mystic ranks. . . .
Sons and daughters, award your thanks
To the black cigars and the oyster suppers,
To the coffee mills and the leather cruppers
And all of the worn American treasure
That you and your age can never measure.

Now they are gone from Webster City
And most of the other towns as well.
Daughters and sons, to you our pity,
For we have a story you cannot tell.

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