It was a graduation party, maybe; I must have been about ten,–so, mid 1960’s. A guy who worked with my father was holding forth on the horrors of World War Two.
“I saw my buddies die on either side of me,” Dad’s co-worker said. “It was only by the grace of God and the luck of fate that I made it. Make no mistake, kids: war is hell.” He picked up his cigarette from the ashtray next to him, flicked the ashes, and he sighed. Then he took a long inhale and stared mournfully off into space.
Within moments, my parents had packed us into the old Buick, and we were on the way home. My father was so angry he couldn’t speak.
When we pulled up at a red light, Dad took a deep breath, and then he said, “That bastard was a typewriter jockey for the duration. He never left the States.”
There was a shocked silence in the car; Dad seldom used any kind of nasty language. As the light changed, he turned around to look at us.
“Believe me,” he said, “anyone who’s really been to war doesn’t talk about it.”
I am reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan, about an Australian surgeon who becomes a latter-day hero for his role in leading his men during their forced labor on the Thai-Burma Death Railway. The surgeon, Dorrigo Evans, is a womanizer, and a failure as a doctor–in his own mind, at least. And as a young man, he had an affair with his uncle’s wife–more than an affair: a great love, while they were bonded to other partners. Evans is not, he himself tells us, a very nice man. He believes he does not deserve his acclaim.
The war narrative, shocking, frightening, weaves in and out of the narrative of Evans’s life, from present, finding him in bed with one of three or four mistresses–wife is still intact and present, too–to past, to the first days of his affair with Amy. We see him in his military encampment, training for war; we see him in conflicts before he is taken prisoner. We see him in the prison camp; after the ranking British commander dies, Evans is next ranking officer.
Evans does as much good as he can; he forces the other officers to throw the pennies their captors pay them for their leadership into a common bin. They pool the pittance to buy as much food as they can, and they share it with the men, who are suffering and dying from various diseases of malnutrition. He works alongside the men; no one is too good to work, he says.
The men love him and call him “the Big Fella.”
Evans is embarrassed by this; he knows the things he does are good, but he questions his motives for doing those things.
One morning, he’s awakened by one of the men bringing him a steaming hunk of gristly steak. A search party commandeered a cow, and they have grilled a steak for the Big Fella.
Evans feels like it is a test; his mouth waters for the meat, but he forces himself to tell the soldier who proffers it to take it away. Give it to the sickest men in the hospital, he orders. The soldier protests, but allows himself to be persuaded.
The Big Fella’s reputation grows.
If I could read a book with my eyes closed, that’s how I’d read this book. In the War narratives, especially, there are pictures–deaths, dismemberment, the incredible evil that regular, ordinary people can perpetrate–that I don’t want to see. Now the words are with me, though, woven into my fabric, and I wonder: what were the things my father saw that he never talked about? What scenes were woven,– scenes lived first-person, not just read in a book–, into his tapestry?
My father-in-law, Angelo, a gentle man who worked hard, and tended his garden and his family, both with great fervor; who loved trains and playing with his grandchildren; who cooked a mean spaghetti sauce and prayed his rosary every day, died last month. He was 94: another World War II veteran. What stories did Angelo, who served on a destroyer, carry to his grave? What scenes did all those quiet men who came back from Europe or the Pacific (or stints in both) and built brick barbecues in their backyards, who shlepped their metal lunchboxes (carefully packed by their wives) to work each day, who tossed baseballs with the sons and taught the daughters to waltz, onetwothree, onetwothree–what scenes played out when they closed their tired eyes at the end of the day?
What must they have thought of all of us, selfish and insular and materialistic, preoccupied with tiny matters when their lives had often teetered on a fulcrum between lucky life and terrifying death?
Did my father ever think, “I went through THAT for THIS?”
I think of the student veterans I have met through work, young men and women who are fierce-eyed and intent on getting educations. I know one young man who dropped a class because another student was rude and unkind to the instructor, and the instructor let the rudeness stand.
“I respect that professor,” said the veteran, “but I couldn’t stay in that class if she wouldn’t respect herself.”
It was like all the frou-frou had been burned off, and only the essential remained for him: he couldn’t be bothered with another student’s silly games.
What had that student veteran seen that seared off all the peripherals?
He’d never say. He and three other students were on a panel at a workshop we had for instructors–it was a workshop about meeting the needs of special groups in the college classroom. Participants awkwardly thanked the student vets–most had been in Afghanistan–for their service, and, in the deafening silence that followed their simple thank you’s, someone asked, earnestly, “What was it like over there?”
Another silence. The student veterans looked at each other; you could see messages being telegraphed; and finally, one spoke.
“It was hot,” he said. “It was hotter than I ever thought it could be.”
The other vets nodded, and they went on to talk about the challenges in the college classroom.
In The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan, maybe, tells us the stories we’d never otherwise hear. It’s not exactly a comfortable book to read, but it surely is riveting.
What does a person do who’s lived through the kinds of evil, the privations, the cruelty, that Dorrigo Evans knew? How does he go on?
Think of the veterans that we know, and the way they lead their lives after. Flanagan shows us one answer. Sadly, there are thousands and thousands of others.
In kind of an odd counterpart, my non-fiction book (do you, too, have to have both a fiction and a non-fiction going at once? I read the non-fiction in the morning, gearing up for the reality of the day; I read the fiction at night, slipping off into the world of dreams) is Marie Kondo’s the life-changing magic of tidying up. Flanagan writes about men surviving on much less than subsistence rations. Kondo talks to our current, opulent state: she tells us how to effectively get rid of our excess stuff.
“Keep only those things that speak to your heart,” she writes. “Then take the plunge and discard all the rest.”
I need her advice; my tidy little house is cluttered, storage spaces packed with things carefully saved that will surely never be used. It’s like I have an uneasy truce with the status quo: “Sure,” a little voice needles, “you’ve got plenty now, but what if…?”
What if… there’s another world war? What kind of calamity am I barricading myself against?
So I read my tidying book in the morning and daydream about neat, sorted, calm spaces. And I read Flanagan’s book at night, and my night-time dreams are filled with explosions and betrayals.