Sunday, June 18, 2006

My Father: He Didn't Like War Trophies

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingLast week, when I was at the courthouse searching a title, a pleasant young man introduced himself to me as a District Attorney's intern. He was writing a history about all of Northampton County's DAs, and wondered what I could tell him about my dad. Not much. I could no longer remember when my dad had even died or how old he had been. That night, I read a few things Vonnegut had to say. He wrote that my Dad didn't like war trophies. That says a lot. Now I remember. Happy Father's Day, Dad!
Vonnegut, (from Slaughterhouse Five):

When I was somewhat younger, working on my famous Dresden book, I asked an old war buddy named Bernard V. O'Hare if I could come to see him. He was a district attorney in Pennsylvania. I was a writer on Cape Cod. We had been privates in the war, infantry scouts. We had never expected to make any money after the war, but we were doing quite well.

I had the Bell Telephone Company find him for me. They are wonderful that way. I have this disease late at night sometimes, involving alcohol and the telephone. I get drunk, and I drive my wife away with a breath like mustard gas and roses. And then, speaking gravely and elegantly into the telephone, I ask the telephone operators to connect me with this friend or that one, from whom I have not heard in years.

I got O'Hare on the line in this way. He is short and I am tall. We were Mutt and Jeff in the war. We were captured together in the war. I told him who I was on the telephone. He had no trouble believing it. He was up. He was reading. Everybody else in his house was asleep.

"Listen--" I said, "I'm writing this book about Dresden. I'd like some help remembering stuff. I wonder if I could come down and see you, and we could drink and talk and remember."

He was unenthusiastic. He said he couldn't remember much. He told me, though, to come ahead.

"I think the climax of the book will be the execution of poor old Edgar Derby," I said. "The irony is so great. A whole city gets burned down, and thousands and thousands of people are killed. And then this one American foot soldier is arrested in the ruins for taking a teapot. And he's given a regular trial, and then he's shot by a firing squad."

"Um," said O'Hare.

"Don't you think that's really where the climax should come?"

"I don't know anything about it," he said. "That's your trade, not mine."


* * *
As a trafficker in climaxes and thrills and characterization and wonderful dialogue and suspense and confrontations, I had outlined the Dresden story many times. The best outline I ever made, or anyway the prettiest one, was on the back of a roll of wallpaper.

I used my daughter's crayons, a different color for each main character. One end of the wallpaper was the beginning of the story, and the other end was the end, and then there was all that middle part, which was the middle. And the blue line met the red line and then the yellow line, and the yellow line stopped because the character represented by the yellow line was dead. And so on. The destruction of Dresden was represented by a vertical band of orange cross-hatching, and all the lines that were still alive passed through it, came out the other side.

The end, where all the lines stopped, was a beetfield on the Elbe, outside of Halle. The rain was coming down. The war in Europe had been over for a couple of weeks. We were formed in ranks, with Russian soldiers guarding us -- Englishmen, Americans, Dutchmen, Belgians, Frenchmen, Canadians, South Africans, New Zealanders, Australians, thousands of us about to stop being prisoners of war.

And on the other side of the field were thousands of Russians and Poles and Yugoslavians and so on guarded by American soldiers. An exchange was made there in the rain -- one for one. O'Hare and I climbed into the back of an American truck with a lot of others. O'Hare didn't have any souvenirs. Almost everybody else did. I had a ceremonial Luftwaffe saber, still do. The rabid little American I call Paul Lazzaro in this book had about a quart of diamonds and emeralds and rubies and so on. He had taken these from dead people in the cellars of Dresden. So it goes.

An idiotic Englishman, who had lost all his teeth somewhere, had his souvenir in a canvas bag. The bag was resting on my insteps. He would peek into the bag every now and then, and he would roll his eyes and swivel his scrawny neck, trying to catch people looking covetously at his bag. And he would bounce the bag on my insteps.

I thought this bouncing was accidental. But I was mistaken. He had to show somebody what was in the bag, and he had decided he could trust me. He caught my eye, winked, opened the bag. There was a plaster model of the Eiffel Tower in there. It was painted gold. It had a clock in it.

"There's a smashin' thing," he said.

And we were flown to a rest camp in France, where we were fed chocolate malted milkshakes and other rich foods until we were all covered with baby fat. Then we were sent home, and I married a pretty girl who was covered with baby fat, too.

And we had babies.

And they're all grown up now, and I'm an old fart with his memories and his Pall Malls. My name is Yon Yonson, I work in Wisconsin, I work in a lumbermill there.

Sometimes I try to call up old girl friends on the telephone late at night, after my wife has gone to bed. "Operator, I wonder if you could give me the number of a Mrs. So-and-So. I think she lives at such-and-such."

"I'm sorry, sir. There is no such listing."

"Thanks, Operator. Thanks just the same."

And I let the dog out, or I let him in, and we talk some. I let him know I like him, and he lets me know he likes me. He doesn't mind the smell of mustard gas and roses.

"You're all right, Sandy," I'll say to the dog. "You know that, Sandy? You're O.K."

Sometimes I'll turn on the radio and listen to a talk program from Boston or New York. I can't stand recorded music if I've been drinking a good deal.

Sooner or later I go to bed, and my wife asks me what time it is. She always has to know the time. Sometimes I don't know, and I say, "Search me."

I think about my education sometimes. I went to the University of Chicago for a while after the Second World War. I was a student in the Department of Anthropology. At that time, they were teaching that there was absolutely no difference between anybody. They may be teaching that still.

Another thing they taught was that nobody was ridiculous or bad or disgusting. Shortly before my father died, he said to me, "You know -- you never wrote a story with a villain in it."

I told him that was one of the things I learned in college after the war.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

When I made it back to California from North Korea in 1953, and looked around me in San Franciso, I could see not evidence that there had even been a war: All I could see around me was prosperity everwhere.

I was still aboard ship in the Sea of Japan off the coast of North Korea when the captain announced that U.S. President Ike Eisenhower and U.S.S.R. Premier Joe Stalin had just signed a truce ending hostilities between North and South Korea.

I was stunned. I couldn't believe that a "police action" that had cost 50,000 American casualties, most of them dead, had ended in a "truce" - in what American poet Thomas Eliot, describing the end of the world in his his poem "J. Alfred Prufrock," lamented "ended with a whimper, not with a bang."

That experience was why, a decase after discharge from the Navy and working for the Army as a Department of Defense civilian at Redstone Arsenal, Huntsville, Alabama, I could not support the Viet Nam War.

I knew from my own personal experience in Korea that only a relative few would be called on the sacrifice while the overwhelming majority of their fellow Americans prospered.

My own personal sacrifice in Korea had been the contraction of tuberculosis, common in the confined living quarters aboard ship, a disability that ended my military career.

This is why I opposed the first Iraqi War and the one now, as I remember the words of Federalist Alexander Hamilton, a staunch believer in a strong central government, who is buried in the little cemetery of Christ Church, in the shadows of the World Trade Center: "A garrison state," meaning one continuously prepared for war, "cannot survice."

I believe that our country cannot survive the "knock and announce" Supreme Court decision, split 5-4, with former Third Circuit Court of Appeals judge Sam Alito casting the decisive "swing' vote violating our Constitution's 4th Amendment Bill of Rights protection against unlawful entry and seizure - a decision condemend even by The Express-Times editorial in today's edition.

Or the decision by Alito's fellow New Jersyan and Third Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Michael Chertoff.

Chertoff, of course, is now Secretary of Shame of the Homeland Security Department and overseer of FEMA, who bungled the twin tragedies of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and who denied HSD funds to New York City for the protection of its port.

Chertoff succeeds as Secretary of HSD former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, who stpped down because, in his words, he had a family to suuport and children to educate and could not live on his $170,000-a-year HSD salary.

Yesterday I posted a the link to the New York Times article exposing how Ridge is profiting in the private sector from his influence as the Secretary of HSD.

What I find interesting is that the NYT while exposing other private-sector and federal-government officials profiting from HSD, like U.S. Senator Asa Hutchinson of Arkasas, the publisher of "all the news that's fit to print" is dumb-struck when it comes to long-time Ridge and Republican-Party campaign contributor Blank, Rome, Comisky, and McCauley.

Blank Rome is the Philadelphia law firm that serves as Northampton County's bond counsel through the firm's partner Jeff Blumenfeld.

Blank Rome's bond business with Northampton County is so brisk that the firm has established a branch office in Allentown.

The managing partner of this branch is a member of the board of directors of Embassy Bank, "the bank without borders."

Embassy, Lafayette-Ambassador, Wachovia, Sovereign, Nazareth and other banks in the Land of Oz that passes for the "Lehigh Valley" may have profited from the swaption refundings or refinancings of Northampton County's and Blank Rome's bonds.

Such profiteering or "money-launering" may explain why Northampton County refunded $67 million, the exact cost of its courthouse and prison expansion, of its 2001 $111 million omnibus bond.

I attended the December 6, 2005, Northampton County Council meeting and objected to its approval that evening of the fiscal-year 2005-2006 budget that to balance requred $1.9 million received from Blank Rome for the $67 million refunding through the risky swapping of interest rates.

The refunding was arranged by Northampton County Director of Fiscal Affairs Jean Mateff and her chief accountant.

The county approved the budget long before the December 31, 2005, deadline as provided for by law, in time to take advantage of the multi-million Las Vegas Sands Initial Public Offering (IPO)of December 15, 2005.

In fact, the December 6, 2005, date gave Northampton County time to transfer funds from the $111 million bond regulated by the Securities and Exchange Commission into the less stringently regulated OTC refunded bonds.

These OTC bonds were available for purchase even prior to the December 6, 2005, Las Vegas Sands December 15, 2005, IPO date.

Bernie O'Hare said...

At least Eisenhower was honest. I suspect we'll declare we won, pull out, and then stand by and watch the blood bath as we've done so many times before.