In 2008, while working for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, I traveled to Mississippi, as a “released staff” to the AFL-CIO to cover the unions’ campaign for Ronnie Musgrove, a Democrat, running for U.S. Senate.
While there, I helped organize a rally at the state capitol in Jackson, bringing union activists from across the state to attend an appearance by then-U.S. Senator Jim Webb (D-Va.) in support of Musgrove. On that day, I witnessed this riveting exchange.
Jackson and Beirut
Jim Webb went straight to the veterans,
black American Legionnaires in full regalia,
good ole boys in fatigue jackets.
His was no feigned respect, but
empathy, sturdy as the cornerstone
of Jackson’s War Memorial,
where the junior senator from Virginia came
to introduce a candidate for Mississippi’s seat,
empathy burnt into his identity on the rice paddies in Vietnam,
honed in novels of blood, pain and sacrifice,
on and off the battlefield,
respect burnished in the boxing ring,
fused with the pride of a marine
who barged into Harvard Law School,
rose to Secretary of the Navy,
stood in his son’s combat boots,
challenging a president and his war of choice.
He reached out to grasp the hand of one of the vets, a postal worker.
The senator might as well have been a ghost.
Recoiling, the postal worker said, “We’ve met before.”
Their eyes met, brimming with a power that left me,
who never served, an outsider, a voyeur.
The postal worker returned after Webb finished his endorsement.
He explained his quick retreat in three words.
“First Battalion, Beirut.”
Now, in their eyes, I saw the pain of 241 families.
On that mild October day in Mississippi,
their warrior’s bond was complete and I,
shivered in the explosive grief.
Len Shindel began working at Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point Plant in 1973, where he was a union activist and elected representative in local unions of the United Steelworkers, frequently publishing newsletters about issues confronting his co-workers. His nonfiction and poetry have been published in the “Other Voices” section of the Baltimore Evening Sun, The Pearl, The Mill Hunk Herald, Pig Iron, Labor Notes and other publications. After leaving Sparrows Point in 2002, Shindel, a father of three and grandfather of seven, began working as a communication specialist for an international union based in Washington, D.C. The International Labor Communications Association frequently rewarded his writing. He retired in 2016. Today he enjoys writing, cross-country skiing, kayaking, hiking, fly-fishing, and fighting for a more peaceful, sustainable and safe world for his grandchildren and their generation. Shindel is currently working on a book about the Garrett County Roads Workers Strike of 1970 www.garrettroadstrike.com.