This Great Society - Writing

 
Illustration: Joel Bentley


Robert Wexelblatt: A Short History of Battle
Illustration: Joel Bentley

 
 

              When Poppy came home, he’d head straight for the shower. There was a special bag for his clothes in the bathroom, a green one with a drawstring. My grandmother wouldn’t look at him before he’d had a shower, not much afterwards either, and she wouldn’t permit me to give him a hug until he was cleaned up. Nana had to give up trying to keep Vye away from him, though. Though it must have been a hundred times stronger to her, Vye cared about the oily smell of my grandfather even less than I did. She was all over Poppy, yipping, paws up, body writhing with joy.
              One day Poppy brought home a test tube of methyl ethyl ketone and told me to take a sniff. “Smells like butterscotch, doesn’t it?” It was more fun to say methyl ethyl ketone than to sniff it. Later, when I studied prosody in English, I realized that methyl ethyl ketone is made of three trochees. That must have been why I liked singing it. METH-yl ETH-yl KE-tone. TA-dum, TA-dum, TA-dum.
              After he’d showered, Poppy would sit down, put his hands on his knees, and ask about my day. I could see how hard he had to work at being patient, and so I learned to make my replies brief. When I finished he’d give me a hug and head for his sanctuary, the cellar. Even on the hottest day, Poppy’s basement was cool and dry, but you could still tell that he worked in a refinery. Of course, Vye followed him, tail swishing from one side of the stairway to the other. When Poppy was around she had eyes for nobody else. I noticed that this bothered my grandmother more than it did me, though Vye was, after all, my dog. One day when I heard Poppy getting out of the shower, I tried an experiment. I showed Vye her leash and promised her a walk. She looked at me almost reproachfully and didn’t budge from the bathroom door.
              Vye was named for Eustacia Vye, a character in The Return of the Native, a novel by Thomas Hardy. My mother loved Thomas Hardy. Dad, on the other hand, was a Joseph Conrad fan. I remember Mother saying that Conrad couldn’t write about women. “They’re just not believable. He doesn’t know a thing about women.” My father shot back, “Thomas Hardy never got out of Wessex and he couldn’t stow ballast, either.”
              Nana’s father was an Englishman, a widower with three daughters. She was the youngest and, despite being the only one born in the United States, considered herself English, and not in the best way. She subscribed to Country Life, a glossy English magazine which had lots of pictures of thatched houses, long rolled lawns, aristocratic foxhunters and gardeners dressed in ties and tweed jackets; it featured articles like “England’s Favorite Village,” “Cottage of the Week” and “The Cream of the Counties.” Nana said she had standards and didn’t like the neighbours, though she never objected to my playing with Susie and Phyllis. She wasn’t unkind to the Millers; I’m not even sure she really disliked them. I think Nana got pleasure simply from disapproving of them. “Common,” she puffed once, loud enough for me to hear. She drank tea in the afternoon, ate hardly anything and kept me on my toes. On one trip to visit her parents, my mother talked about how it was impossible to satisfy Nana. She said that if she got a 99 on a test, Nana had to know what she’d gotten wrong and why.
              “Making your grandmother happy,” my father observed agreeably from behind the wheel, “is a mug’s game, sweetheart.”
              “What do you know about it?” Mother shot back.
              “I know that every time we’ve visited your parents, you and your mother are at each other in less than a half an hour. I’ve checked. Thirty minutes—wanna make a bet?”
              Mother crossed her arms and turned to the window. “Mr. Happy Family.”
              Poppy had a small refrigerator in the cellar that he kept stocked with six-packs of Ortliebs. There was a small wooden desk where he did the Jumble and worked out plans for the things he made and a workbench with lots of tools, including a power saw I wasn’t supposed to go anywhere near. There was an old radio and a narrow bed where Poppy took naps and usually slept at night. He said it was cooler down in the basement.
              I usually spent Sundays in the cellar with Poppy and Vye. We listened to the baseball games on the radio. I’d take down a glass of Nana’s homemade lemonade; Vye slurped water from a soup bowl; Poppy drank Ortliebs and sometimes smoked a cigar.
              I was dropped at my grandparents’ house exactly two months after the fall of Saigon. The next Saturday night, there was a news program on about Vietnam. Nana switched it right off. Even I knew that nobody wanted to hear about Vietnam.
              The next day I went down in the basement with Poppy. Nana had failed to persuade either of us to go to church with her. “A pair of heathens,” she said. Put out, she said that she’d be visiting her sister after church and we could get our own breakfast and lunch too. Poppy made pancakes and bacon and then we took Vye to the park. We bought huge submarine sandwiches for lunch and took them down the basement to eat and listened to the ball game. It wasn’t close. Poppy drank a lot of Ortliebs. Maybe it was that sliver of the Vietnam story the night before or perhaps the beer made him moody, but for the only time I can remember, he talked about the War. He didn’t say much. Poppy never said much about anything, though somehow he always spoke with deep feeling, even if you had to guess at what his feelings were. I’d heard a little about what he’d done in the War from my mother. For instance, I knew where he’d been stationed. He’d joined up in 1942 and had been sent to an air base in Texas and then, right after he married Nana in October of 1943, another one on Cape Cod where they spent a snowy winter in a little clapboard cottage. That was their honeymoon, I guess. I’d supposed it must have been awful. No family or friends and a foot of snow on a bleak peninsula in wartime, everything nice either unavailable or rationed. But Nana loved living in that house—maybe she thought of it as Cape Cod’s Favourite Cottage. When I asked her about it she smiled and declared that the winter of 1943 was probably the happiest time of her life. She told me all about that tiny snowbound house, described the gray clapboard on the outside and every room on the inside. Poppy was a mechanic assigned to a training squadron at a base called Otis, which Nana said was named for a Boston surgeon who was also a pilot. Dad told me the kind of planes he’d serviced: the two-engine Mitchell bombers used in the famous Doolittle Raid, B-25s. Poppy hated the planes, my father told me. He said Poppy called them “crates.”
              That Sunday afternoon, in his cups, Poppy looked at the wall and said, “So many crashes. Cleaning up the messes was the worst.” Then he shook his head and shut up, but his silence and the look on his face after he’d said “the worst” made me imagine terrible explosions, horrible noises and fires in which young men were turned into charred, unrecognizable smears before they’d even learned how to drop a single bomb. My friends’ grandfathers were mostly in the War too. They never talked about it either but they all had souvenirs in their basements, pistols, flags, helmets, canteens. Billy Kelly showed Brenda and me this Japanese bayonet his father kept in a special box. It was very long. With relish, he explained what the little gutter on the blade was for. Billy wanted to frighten us and he did.
              Poppy didn’t mention the War again, but one day he sat down next to me while I was paging through the World Atlas I’d taken from the bookshelf in my mother’s old room which was mine for the summer. He pointed at the book and said, “Not a square foot that hasn’t been fought over. Battles everywhere … except for the poles, I guess. Too cold.”

Banquan. Uruk. Verdun. Dapur. Ayleford. Swold. Halys. Yanling. Bi Ju. Lake Regilius. Megiddo. Soissons. Didgori. Fujigawa. Mühldorf. Acre. White Plains.

              My parents “weren’t getting along at the moment.” Those were my mother’s exact words, as if what was happening were a minor, temporary hiccup in the smooth tick-tocking of our family life, like catching a hem on the edge of a table. That was the reason I’d been to sent to spend the summer with Nana and Poppy. If I would just leave them alone together they’d work things out—that seemed to be the idea that was meant to reassure me. But of course I read it less soothingly: if my absence was necessary for things to go right, then wasn’t my presence what made them go wrong?
              Not Getting Along involved loud arguments and cold silences that felt like a handful of broken glass. Our house filled up with bad electricity. Sometimes their voices got so loud that Vye hid under my bed, the way she did during thunderstorms. Sometimes I felt like getting down there with her.
              Late one night about a week after school let out, they started lobbing grenades at each other, one of which was me. She was too young to have had me. But it was her decision, wasn’t it? Everything I did wrong was because of him or because of her and everything I did right was vice versa. She’d given up so much. She was fantasizing and he was only doing what was necessary. Hadn’t he noticed that the world had changed for women? Well, it hadn’t changed for fathers.
              Of course they thought I was sleeping, but I couldn’t help hearing them and when I couldn’t stand it any more I pulled on my sneakers, slipped down the stairs and ran out the back door. It was dark outside, but all I could think of was getting away. I took off down the middle of the street, though I didn’t get far. Dad caught me in an angry hug.
              The first time I witnessed a real fight was in third grade. At recess two boys—older boys, not in my class—started pushing each other and then yelling bad words. Their friends urged them on. One made a fist, then the other. I noticed that they were ferociously focused, but at the same time on the verge of losing control, either too mad to feel fear or too afraid of showing it. The asphalt of the schoolyard could have been the dusty plain of Troy.

Solferino. Poltava. Aboukir. Schevengingen. Jaipur. White Plains. Assaye. Vertières. Sitka. The Wilderness. Renfrew. Grozny. Posada. Oporto. Derne. Ulm. Mactan. Gujrat. Carabobo. Chios. Toungoo.

              Phyllis Miller invited me over to play one of those board games that are supposed to miniaturize reality for children, Life or Monopoly. I wasn’t surprised when she worked her way around to asking.
              “So, how long do you think you’re going to stay?”
              “Don’t know.”
              She frowned at the board as if it were the game she was concentrating on, not the harder task of tactful prying. “Your mom and dad—they’re, what? traveling?”
              “Nope, not traveling.”
              “Well, then?”
              “They’re not getting along at the moment.”
              I was startled and offended when Phyllis giggled.
              “What’s funny?”
              “You mean they’re getting divorced.”
              “Divorced?”
              “Well, it’s what they say, isn’t it? Not getting along?”
              It was just what I thought but, up until then, not in a way I had to acknowledge. I preferred to imagine them, house cleared of me and Vye, fighting it out until somebody won or there was at least an armistice. I sensed that the battle between my parents was rooted more deeply than I could fathom; but the tension, even the arguments, were familiar and, while they lasted, hopeful. After all, as long as the battle went on there could be a conference, a settlement with fountain pens and handshakes all around. Divorce might end the battle, but it wasn’t a peace, or at least not the right kind.

Culloden. Saratoga. Salamis. Lepanto. Longwoods. Big Sandy Creek. Cumae. Potidaea. Changping. Casalecchio. Leuven. Bad Axe. San Petricio. Canton. Palo Alto. Ban Dong. Junín. Issus. Lund. Lapua. Batin. Tippecanoe. Frankenhausen.

              Nana criticized almost everything she saw on television except Cary Grant (“he was really English”), British movies, stories about the Royal family.
              One night there was a clip of the Queen delivering a speech to a group of veterans. “Now that’s real dignity,” Nana said approvingly.
              It occurred to me that Elizabeth II and my grandmother must have been about the same age.
              “What happened to the Queen during the War?” I asked.
              “Oh, she was just marvelous. They all were. Wouldn’t leave London, though they easily could have and the government wanted them to. The Queen—she was just a princess then—joined up, wore the WATS uniform. She didn’t just drive trucks; she became a mechanic. Can you imagine? No wonder all her subjects love her.”
              “They love her because she can fix trucks?”
              Nana bent a rueful glance on me. “There’s a world of difference, dear, between being common and having the common touch.”
              When they moved into that cottage on the Cape, Poppy bought her a dog so she wouldn’t be lonely when he was at the base. It was a Scottish terrier like President Roosevelt’s. Of course she named him Winston. It galled her that Vye should prefer Poppy to her. Winston had been her dog. I saw her furtively slip Vye treats, bribes. Vye gobbled them all up, but stayed by me until Poppy walked through the door.
              During the first week my parents called every night, called together. Mom spoke first, then she’d hand the phone to Dad. How was I? Was I having fun? How was Vye? Did I know how much they missed me? Did I? Oh, so much!
              The second week the calls were less frequent and came separately, which made me wonder whether they were still living together. I didn’t dare ask. I didn’t want to ask them about anything at all, actually. If it was all my fault then it was dangerous to say anything. I might tip the precarious balance, assuming there was one. The less I said the better, I figured.
              In my mother’s old bookcase was an almost complete set of The Universal Standard Encyclopedia, bound in fading red and outdated even when it was bought—one volume at a time—in the 1950s. Thinking of what Poppy had said about how there weren’t any places between the poles that hadn’t been fought over, I took out Volume Two (Argo – Beds) and looked up Battles. The book only listed two: The Battle of the Bulge and The Battle of Nations, which turned out to be the Battle of Leipzig, fought in 1813. Apparently, Funk and Wagnalls didn’t know very much about battles. They said the Battle at Leipzig was decisive for the fall of Napoleon. They didn’t even mention Waterloo and everybody knows about Waterloo.

Agincourt. Tobruk. Teutoberg Forest. Vera Cruz. Malden. Baghdad. Eylau. Revolax. Caldiero. Tudela. Chacabucco. Champaubert. Bari. Talladega. Medina. Detroit. Ostrowa. Belmont. Round Mountain. Cer. Valmaceda.

              My grandparents lived in a small town. One of the few places I was allowed to go on my own was the public library where they let me have a card for the summer. I took out a lot of children’s books; I was especially happy when I found old favorites like Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach and Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a Kind-Family, which I’d outgrown but which was still a pleasure and a comfort. I couldn’t get what Poppy had said about the Atlas out of my mind. The next day I went to the card catalogue and found they had a book called The History of War by Sir John Littleton. I smiled to think how the “Sir” would impress Nana. I found the book in the history section. It was heavy and smelled old and was over six hundred pages long, but it had plenty of maps. I also found Great Battles by John Oliver Swope, another enormous book. I checked out Isaac Asimov’s The Roman Republic and The Roman Empire and also John Gunther’s Landmark book about Alexander the Great to read at home. A whole section of the library was devoted just to World War Two; it was bigger than the entire children’s library.
              Dad had given me what he called spending money, but I hadn’t spent any of it yet. The next morning I went to the supermarket with Nana and bought myself one of those long yellow legal pads and a new ballpoint. Nana didn’t ask why. After lunch I asked if I could go back to the library while she took her nap.
              I piled Arnold Rheinach’s The Crusades, Ramon Teilman’s Conquest of the Indies, and Jane Halloran Leavis’ China in the Period of the Warring States beside me on a long oak table and began taking notes.
              The librarian, a thin man with a scraggly beard who smelled as musty as the old books, sidled over, condescendingly curious. “Doing a research project?” he asked.
              “Mm,” I said, not very respectfully.

Maserfeld. Nicaea. Raab. Hofrsfod. Ostia. Bulgarophygon. Taginae. Ayleford. Lake Regilius. Cumae. Gaugamela. Yanling. Pasargadae. Ascalon. Uji. Pwil Melyn.

              Nana taught me to play Hearts. One afternoon she sat down at the kitchen table and asked me for a game. At first, she was quiet and punctiliously competitive. But suddenly she said brightly, “Did I ever tell you that before I married Poppy I had a job?”
              “No. Tell me about it,” I said, seeing that she yearned to. I wasn’t interested in the job so much as in her suddenly warm tone. I’d only heard her sound this way when she spoke about her father, Scottish terriers, the winter of 1943 and the United Kingdom.
              “For two years I worked at RCA.”
              I asked what she did and she said vaguely that she’d been a “clerk.” What she did talk about was how much fun she’d had.
              “The men were all away because of the war. It was just us women. Oh, such gossip—and the jokes! Most of us brought our lunches to save money, not that the cafeteria food wasn’t good. It was really very good, considering all the shortages. Well, when the weather was fine, we’d make a kind of picnic of it. RCA had this big lawn. There was one girl, Leah Fisher. She was a mimic who could do all the movie stars and, of course, Mrs. Roosevelt. We all said she was good enough to be on the radio.”
              Could this be my grandmother? My icy, anglophilic Nana? She’d forgotten about the card game, even about me.
              When I asked why she’d given up the job she looked at me with astonishment. “I got married.”
              “No,” I said. “I mean, why didn’t you go back after the war?”
              “Silly, the men were back and of course then we all had children,” she said in a tone I took to be resentful. At that moment she sounded like my mother when she was angry with my father.

Elchingen. Salamanca. Blaauwberg. Antietam. Belmont. Niquitao. Chesma. Cumaná. Yarmouk. Firaz. Yadong. Civitate. Dunsinane. Trenton. Orontes. Tarawa.

              “I blame your mother,” said Nana as she re-hemmed my red sundress. It might have been written in Latin on her coat of arms. “I told her. I gave her fair warning.”
              Poppy never said a thing about my parents, let alone their problems. Nana, on the other hand, would have loved to gossip with me about them, as if we were picnicking on RCA’s green lawn.
              “What exactly do they argue about?” she wanted to know.
              What could I say? Eustacia Vye versus Lord Jim? Which of them needed more space? Who was too strict with me or not strict enough? Money? Who did the dishes? Even then I sensed the topics were just tips of mammoth icebergs falling away into the depths.
              But I gave Nana an answer, a cruel one. I wanted to defend my parents and hurt her. I said, “Mom’s afraid of becoming like you.”
              Nana drew back, sucked in her breath, put her hand to her mouth. I got up and went outside before she could send me to my room.
              Vye padded after me.

Megiddo. Deres. Dirinyah. Huesca. Saratoga. Palo Alto. Crug Mawr. Ia Drang. Chawinda. Carham. Mu’tah. Akraba. Tianmenling. Panium. Ravenna. Sacramento. Germantown. Leuven. Khe Sanh. Camden.

              When my parents phoned at the end of July, they called together but I could tell it wasn’t because they’d worked things out, at least not in the way I wanted. The funny thing was how alike they sounded giving me the news, how phony and in accord. “We’re so sorry, sweetheart.” “Yes, we’re sorry. But it’s for the best. It’ll be all right. Promise.” “Right. Don’t worry, honey. You’re not to be upset.” “Mommy’s coming to get you next week.” “Yes, it’ll be so wonderful to have you home again.” “You can sleep in your own bed. Tell Vye, OK?” If you didn’t know better you’d have thought they were announcing a peace treaty.

Carham. Neaje. Saule. Craney Island. Bunker Hill. Peleliu. Lize. Ashdod. Agrigentum. Awazu. York. Dak To. Diriyah. Cacabuco. Cook’s Mill. Akhalzic. Cold Harbor.

              My grandfather wasn’t wrong about everywhere having been a battlefield. Was the world a kind of palimpsest, with its peaceful pages written over bloody ones? Was life a series of battles with deceptive intervals in between? Such questions are far too big for a little girl.
              Now I think how all battles end, that, like thunderstorms and blizzards, however depressingly predictable, battles are still abnormal, crises, failures, but short-lived. Yes, the messes must be cleaned up, just as Poppy said, the carnage cleared away. The survivors will wail and keen, and sometimes even avenge themselves. In the end, though, people give up picking through the ruins; they straighten up, look at each other, and try to figure out, if not exactly how to live, then what needs doing the next day.

 

 
This Great Society - Contents

 

This Great Society - Contents