According to the Racine Country Military Record Archive, a John J. Kroes enlisted as a private in the Air Corps on October 30, 1942, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. What stands out in his inscription are the commas. Between John Kroes’s first name and his father’s name, between his father’s name and his mother’s home are a series of half-moons, half-hearts, half-throated commas, like memos from the dead: delay just this. Read this slowly. Wait. As if an answer to the question of why—why write your name knowing it would be erased; or why write your name on something that was being sent to kill. As if there is an animal desire to see our names—the image of ourselves writ small, a tiny mirror, a father’s ghosted body, a history—carved on any blank surface. Our names, little lighthouses of graffiti, signal from their dark—cave wall, tree, gas station bathroom, school desk, church pew, bomb. There are no blank surfaces.
There are, by my count, nine names on the bomb. My grandfather’s name isn’t here. But might have been. Or so goes one version of American History told in my family: after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he was one of the first soldiers on the ground and the radiation, invisible as gravity, killed him twenty-five years later. And so it’s not too big a stretch to imagine him alongside these other men signing his name on the aluminum sheet tail, then watching the B-52 disappear above the Pacific.
In another photo, not part of any national archive and displayed nowhere as far as I know, not in the house of my aunt or my mother—I’ve never seen it and take its existence only as hand-me-down gospel—my grandfather stands on a pile of rubble with a skull in his hand. Smile, frown, fear, some look of dulled awe or terror, I’m not sure. Quickly following the famous lines, Hamlet says, skull-handed, of poor Yorick, “…he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is!” The it unnamed, unspoken—grave, death, afterlife where the body is just bone and the name of the man becomes the fact of his absence. Maybe the photo never existed. Maybe the cancer that killed him was just a coincidence.
Joshua Rivkin is currently a writing fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA. A former Stegner Fellow in Poetry, his work has appeared in VQR, Slate, Southern Review, Best New Poets, and elsewhere.