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Nazareth, Pa., United States

Saturday, June 14, 2008

My Father Did Not Like War Trophies

Last 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."
(Blogger's Note: Originally published 6/18/06).


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

bernie, glad to see you never miss an opportunity to make yourself look more human by drawing attention to others. . .

Bernie O'Hare said...

I have deleted an OT rant about Northampton County.

Bernie O'Hare said...

bernie, glad to see you never miss an opportunity to make yourself look more human by drawing attention to others. . .

Yeah, I write about my father arouund Father's Day. How terrible of me! Team Casey awakens from its slumber.

Anonymous said...

Nice post. Best to you on Fathers Day, Bernie. Would love a status on your daughter if you're willing.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Thanks. I heard from Katie about a week ago. She's on Baghdad, tells me it's very hot and they work her about 17 hrs per day six days per week. She tells me she actually has her own room, does mostly office stuff and goes on no patrols. I hope that last part is true. I'll ask her to write a few words to folks here in the LV.

Dottie Niklos did make sure that a care package was sent her way, and Katie shared it with her fellow soldiers. Please thank Dottie if you see her.

Thanks for asking about Katie.

Bill said...

Thanks for this bit of American history.

I sincerely and truly pray that as a belated Fathers Day gift you get your daughter back safe and sound as soon as is possible!

WhetherVain said...

Bernie...this link will provide you with a piece of family history that my Dad (whose handwriting is apparent) had saved. Since my affection (yes, I liked (read: respected)) him - even though I was afraid of him as a child) was similar to my Dad's, I kept this.

A very special memory for me is when we both shared a special moment at Malvern when I broke down like a baby when relating my unrealized love for my own father in his attempts to lead others to AA, when he himself was unable to stay on the wagon himself.

That weekend, I wrote both my father and yours a personal letter expressing the love and appreciation evident in their parenting of us.

I'm sure glad I did.

Bill said...

Nice to see the recovery connections here on Fathers Day.

Recovery has saved a number of lives near and dear to me (including my own).

Anonymous said...

Happy Father's Day to you! Investing in your grandson the way that you do is more than enough to show that you are a good hearted person who cares about others even at your own comfort. Annonymous 5:45PM needs to pull the rock down over his head tight and stay there until he gets a real life.

Oh, for Pete's sake! said...

Happy Father's Day, Mr. O'Hare.

Thank you for sharing this story with us. It was an amazing read.

Glenn said...

seems like the men who don't like war trophies are gone, replaced by the phony macho war men like bush, cheney, rumsfeld, the supreme court members appointed by bush, all the neocons, etc. they should have read Slaughterhouse 5 and learned its lessons.

thanks for the post, i hope your daughter safely comes home soon.