Editor Kelly Grey Carlisle Managing Editor Nipuni Gomes Assistant Editors Julia Camp Karina Duran Jennifer Jussel Maria Teresa Kamel Alexsandra Rojas Emily Wood
All staff members participate in the reading and selection of work and the production of the magazine. 1966 is published with the support of Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas and its English Department. 1
Founding Editors: Mallory Conder, Paul Cuclis, Michael Garatoni, Spenser Stevens, and Matthew Stieb. The copyrights of all text and images contained in this magazine belong to their respective authors. Image credits: Front cover, back cover, pages 19-20, 37, 44, 61, Karina Duran. Pages 3-4, Celeste Macias. 27-28, Amani Canada. 42, Subrat Mahapatra. 45-46, Ben Carlisle.
Volume 5 Issue 1 Summer 2017
James Halford We Want Them Alive
Patti See His Shirt Was Always Tucked In
Jacob Slichter Stick Control
Pascha Sotolongo I've Got Gordon Ralfe's Number
Erin Pushman Purple Heart
Amanda Bales In the American Red Cross Studio for Portrait Masks, Paris, 1917
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We Want Them Alive
“Blessed are they that mourn; for they shall be comforted.” Matthew 5:4
Mexico City was a dream half remembered. Over time, the surreal megalopolis of legend had been eroding the real memories with its volcanoes and earthquakes and pyramids and cathedrals and twenty million souls two thousand meters over sea-level. But now I saw familiar landmarks and street corners: the post office at Echegaray where I once mailed a box of books home, the mini-van with its smashed windows taped together that I’d taken to Chapultepec every day for a month. Bouncing over potholes on the way from the airport to my in-laws’ house in the northern suburbs, I rolled down my window to get the full effect of the foul air and snarling traffic. With every impression – the bus-sized tricolour flag fluttering above the ash-grey overpass, the fire twirler hustling motorists at a red light, the scent of charred pork wafting from a taco stand – I recovered
another piece of the real city I’d seen, four years ago. My mother-in-law1 turned in her seat, asking questions faster than Rocío and I could answer: “Hija, how was the flight? Will they extend your work contract in Australia? How long until James finishes his doctorate?” Rocío’s father glanced back at us in the central rear-view mirror. “They look exhausted,” he said, sounding the horn at a car cutting in front of us. “Stop bothering them. Let them eat something and have a rest.” “Are you hungry?” asked Rocío’s mother. “Did you eat on the flight? Do you want chiles rellenos for dinner or should we go out?” “Whatever’s least trouble, suegra.” As soon as you’re in a relationship with a Mexican, their parents become your in-laws (suegros), and you become their son or daughter-in-law (nuero/a). No real equivalent to the English term “partner” exists for the phase between boyfriend and husband, because marriage is an assumed step in Catholic Mexico. Rocío and I had only been engaged for two months, but I’d been calling
her parents my suegros since we started living together in Australia – somewhat scandalously – about five years earlier. It wasn’t long until my mother-in-law asked to see the engagement ring, a cheap brass thing from the Oxfam store made of the recycled casing of a bomb shell that we’d chosen because, like us, it was an exploded thing remade. On seeing it, she clasped her daughter’s hand with the kind of fierce love that is difficult to distinguish from fear. Tears shone in her brown eyes. “So it’s true?” Her hair was grey now, and was cropped shorter than the last time I’d seen her. She had stopped dyeing it at about the same time she left part-time medical practice for full retirement. 1. I've omitted my mother and father-in-law's names here out of respect for their privacy, not anything to do with our relationship. They have always been kind to me, even when they had good reason not to be.
Since then, she’d been taking courses in all kinds of things at private colleges around town: psychoanalysis, homeopathy, landscape painting – studying frantically for a few months before jumping to the next thing. It wasn’t hard to see how her oldest daughter getting married and settling permanently in Australia might represent a kind of loss to her. Her husband had been slow to leave full-time work; no grandchildren had yet arrived; and her other two adult children lived in the US. “Yes, it’s true,” I told her. “But we haven’t set a date yet. We wanted to talk to you first.” © It was nearly midday by the time we awoke. From the upstairs bedroom, we could smell wet eucalyptus leaves in the park behind the house. Until we emerged from the darkened room, it was possible to imagine we were still in Australia. But downstairs, the smell of frijoles and corn tortillas on the stove brought us unmistakably into the here-and-now. As we ate breakfast, the drizzle subsided, and hummingbirds appeared in the garden, buzzing around the feeder we’d left as a parting gift last visit. Once we’d eaten, Rocío and her mother let Lola the bulldog out, and raced into the garden where they flipped her on her back in the damp grass and tickled her tummy. Her father and I watched through the window, washing and drying the dishes between us. “I hear you’ve stopped teaching,” I said. “Yes, a couple of months back. The maths department at the Politecnico gave me a nice send off. Thirty years, I was there.” “What will you do now?” “The city isn’t a good place to retire: the pollution, the traffic, the insecurity. We’ve been talking about moving to a smaller town, but we can’t agree where. You remember how she was nagging me about Acapulco last time? She likes the warm weather. But Guerrero is very dangerous right now. I’d prefer Patzcuaro.” “Isn’t it dangerous there, too?” “Well, at any rate, we need to wait for my pension to be approved before we can decide.” We sat down to drink café de olla at the kitchen table, where the progressive newspaper, La Jornada, was spread out before us. Now that he’s retired, my father-in-law reads it from cover to cover most days. He discusses the news in long, immaculate Spanish sentences, as if he is leading a class discussion, making a point of describing both sides of an argument before venturing his own view – a habit that is almost unheard of in Mexico’s violently polarised media. “You’re visiting us at a very difficult time for the country,” he said. “It would be better if you didn’t go out this afternoon.” He warned that clashes between police and protestors might make it dangerous for Rocío and me to revisit Mexico City’s historic central plaza, the Zócalo, as we’d planned.
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“Are the marches about Ayotzinapa? I’d like to go.” “It really isn’t safe. Protests here aren’t like in Australia.” Rocío had told me that in 1968, as a young university lecturer, he’d defied his own father to participate in Mexico City’s biggest ever demonstrations. Forty years on, though, his first instincts were protective. ©
The protests were indeed about Ayotzinapa. On 26 September, 2014, in the state of Guerrero in Mexico’s southwest, municipal police picked up forty-three young male student protestors from the Ayotzinapa Normal School. They were never heard from again. The mayor of Iguala, where the mass disappearance took place, skipped town in the aftermath. He was accused of masterminding the attack, motivated by a long-standing grudge against activist students from the all-boys school. Mass graves were then discovered in the hills. But forensic testing revealed none of the remains found there corresponded with the missing students. By late October, when we arrived, people were criticising the federal investigation into the mass disappearance just as harshly as the complicity of municipal authorities. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto dragged his heels for nearly six weeks before agreeing to meet the disappeared students’ parents, at Los Pinos, his residence in Mexico City, on October 29. But the meeting, which took place at about the same time our flight was landing, only enflamed the situation. In footage leaked online, one father, Felipe de la Cruz, can be seen standing over the seated president and his colleagues, furiously berating them. He describes how his nineteen-year-old son, Ángel, narrowly escaped the fate of the forty-three by hiding behind a truck as police shot his best friend dead, and loaded the rest into patrol cars. Later, when Ángel took another wounded friend to hospital, they were refused treatment, and soldiers told them: “This is what you get. This is what happens to you for doing what you’re doing.” “We’ve reached the limits of tolerance and patience,” De la Cruz shouts at Peña Nieto in the video, with the president nodding along gravely like a scolded schoolboy. “We are demanding an immediate response, as Mexicans, from you, our president … Now that you’ve seen the anger of each and every parent, I hope that, like us, you can’t sleep soundly at night.” There was no immediate response. Following the meeting, the other parents voiced their anger to the national media: “¡Hijo de su puta madre!” said Mario César González: “Sons of whores! … They say our boys are dead. It’s a sick joke.” “I’m pissed off with this fucking government,” said another father, who didn’t give his name. “And with all the people who are still asleep because nothing has happened to them. They’re crouching down hiding letting it happen.” But Mexico was beginning to wake up. As the November Day of the Dead festivities ap-
proached, solidarity marches demanding Peña Nieto take action were building in numbers around the country. “Vivos se los llevaron. Vivos los queremos,” the protestors chanted, carrying stark, banner-sized, black-and-white portraits of the forty-three missing young men: “They were taken alive. We want them alive.” © Rocío and I did go out that afternoon, but not to the Zócalo. Instead, we borrowed my mother-in-law’s little grey Chevy and drove to University City in the far south. Behind the wheel, she leaned forward, concentrating on the traffic and potholes, following an especially circuitous route to avoid avenues often blocked by protests. “I know you think they’re exaggerating, but they feel responsible for you because you’re not from here. Worrying is how they show they care.” “I think your mother hates me.” “Give her some time. She’ll come around.” Rocío’s alma mater, the National Autonomous University of Mexico (or UNAM) is the oldest and most prestigious public university in the country. Each year for the Day of the Dead, the various faculties celebrate the life of a great Mexican. In 2014, the students decorated the rim of an extinct volcano on campus with enormous, brightly coloured reproductions of Frida Kahlo’s paintings, made of rice and beans. References to the disappeared students were woven throughout: “We’re missing 43.” Framed in this way, the still-born children, twisted bodies, and gaping wounds in Kahlo’s artwork gestured outward beyond the campus. Everywhere we went in Mexico, we couldn’t shake the sense of something terrible happening offstage. © The forty-three young men whose 2014 disappearance sparked Mexico’s biggest protests for forty years were from a very different background to my father-in-law and the urban university students who protested in 1968. They were trainee teachers (normalistas) at a rural school in Guerrero, one of Mexico’s poorest states. Normales Rurales (normal schools) like Ayotzinapa have a long tradition of social protest that extends back through the guerrilla struggles of the 1960s and 1970s to the 1910 revolution. Their demands echo those of Emiliano Zapata in the twentieth century’s first revolution: agricultural assistance, land redistribution, universal education and suffrage, and eight hour workdays. The poor have long had to fight for these things in Mexico, but protest has become more dangerous recently, with civilians often caught in the crossfire between the drug cartels, their rivals, and the Mexican state. Since 2006, more than 164,000 people have been killed or disappeared in the so-called drug war. The conflict has cost the US government more than 2.5 billion dollars in military aid. It is astonishing that this kind of money continues to be thrown at the Mexican
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military given their abject failure to shut down the cartels and their history of excesses targeting civilians. In 1968, during the infamous massacre at Tlatelolco in Mexico City, army and government-supported paramilitaries opened fire on unarmed protestors, killing as many as three-hundred people. In the 1971 “Halconazo,” outside the Santo Tomás campus of the National Polytechnic in the capital, para-militaries again opened fire on protestors. It is not uncommon in Mexico for commemorations of past violence to spark fresh violence. Annual memorials for Tlateloco and the Halconazo often spark new clashes between protestors and authorities. The night the Ayotzinapa students disappeared, for example, they were collecting donations and organising transport for a trip to the capital in October to attend a memorial for the victims of the 1968 massacre. Given this history, when federal investigators cleared the military and federal police of all responsibility in the 2014 Ayotzinapa case, few Mexicans believed them. Authorities blamed the disappearance and presumed execution of the forty-three students on members of a local drug cartel and a few rogue elements in the municipal police. But everyone knew the corruption ran higher than that. The slogan: “Fue el estado. It was the state,” was soon daubed on walls across the country. ©
After leaving the university, we met a couple of Rocío’s old work colleagues at a cantina, a cavernous place full of dusty bullfighters’ outfits in cabinets, where the waiter brought a tray of quesadillas every time you bought a beer. María and Lupe were tough, worldly, no-nonsense Mexican women in their fifties, both divorced and remarried with mixed families. They were not going to be easily charmed by a blue-eyed foreigner. When Rocío disappeared to the bathroom, they pounced. “Marriage, huh? I hope you’re serious this time,” said María, slicing a threatening finger across her throat. “If you break her heart again, we’ll find you and take you out cartel style.” “I guess you heard some bad stories about me.” “We heard you freaked out when she wanted to get married. That you called the whole thing off without any warning after four years living together.” Lupe scowled like a pantomime villain and pounded the knuckles of her right hand into her opposite palm. She took a long swig from her foaming pint glass, and smacked her lips. “We took her out drinking at this very cantina, when she came home to Mexico. We were ready to kill you when we heard. It still isn’t too late.” “That was a big mistake. An enormous mistake. But we have a second chance now. Things are better – even our therapist says so.” “Your therapist? Forget your therapist,” said María. “What about her parents? Have you explained to them what happened? Have you explained to them why they should trust you?” “How?” Lupe slammed the tabletop, slopping our beers. “You can’t just turn up and pretend it didn’t happen. You have to reassure them you’re going
to take care of their daughter… I assume you asked her father’s permission before you proposed?” I stared at them in guilty silence. Maria shook her head: “They must think you’re an hijo de puta.” “I think her mother does. But what can I do? The damage is already done.” “It’s very important in Mexico to ask your suegros for their daughter’s hand,” said Lupe. “Isn’t it too late?” “Hombre, this is the perfect time,” María broke in. “You must buy them a very expensive bottle of tequila.” “Yes,” said Lupe, “You must say to them: ‘Estimadímo Señor, estimadísima señora, I have learned it is the custom in this country to ask the suegros for their daughter’s hand. Forgive my impertinence. Please accept this humble gift.’” When Rocío returned, Lupe and María explained they were coaching me on how to smooth things over with my parents-in-law, and how to court a Mexican woman properly. They started requesting romantic songs from a trio of old timers with guitars who’d come into the bar, and they improvised an elaborate speech to my in-laws over the music, riffing off the song lyrics: “Your daughter is a precious stone, Señor, a jewel of incalculable value. Give me her hand, I beg you…” Once the scolding was done, we laughed, drank, and sang together for three hours. By the time we left, they were teasing us about our wedding night and listing names for our firstborn. © Rocío’s parents were relieved when we returned home that night. A car had been set alight downtown. Demonstrators insisted the masked perpetrators were paid by the police to justify dispersing the crowd with water cannons. Bigger protests were expected any day. It was a good time to leave town. Next morning, we’d set out early to drop Lola the bulldog in the care of relatives. Then we’d make a road trip together, all four of us, to Patzcuaro, my father-in-law’s hometown, 350 kilometres north-west of the capital, where we’d pay our respects to the ancestors during the Day of the Dead. That night, I sat up reading the family copy of The Night of Tlatelolco by Elena Poniatowska. The author dedicates this work of oral history to her brother, Jan, who was killed in the 1968 massacre. Her account of the protests that year, through its selective collage of testimonial interviews, presents: “a movement of pure and incorruptible men” to whom “no homage … is excessive.” It might be an idealised picture of the protestors, but it is also a powerful one. For the most part participants tell the story in their own words: a political prisoner describes being interrogated and tortured; parents tell of their fears for their activist children. Poniatwoska’s only overt authorial intervention comes at the very beginning, where she paints a dreamlike picture of the protestors as she sees them in memory:
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They are many. They come on foot, laughing. They come down Melchor Ocampo, Reforma, Juarez, Cinco de Mayo, young men and women linking arms in protest with the same joy they showed only a few days ago at the fair … they close in on the Plaza de las Tres Culturas [the site of the massacre]… they come toward me with hands holding banners, childlike hands because death makes hands childlike … all my life I will hear their steps advancing. Now eight-two, Poniatowska is still protesting against the violent repression of young, unarmed protestors. Only a few days before we arrived in Mexico, this tiny, frail woman, addressed a huge crowd in the Zócalo, for nearly half an hour. Her speech consisted of a brief, precise description of all forty-three disappeared students from Ayotzinapa: “Felipe Arnulfo Rosa, from a peasant family in the municipality of Ayutla is 20-years-old. He has a scar on the back of his neck from falling over backwards as a child.” “They call 19-year-old Carlos Lorenzo Hernandez Munoz ‘the little bean’ … When they asked for blood donors in Tixtla he was first in line.” And she concluded by echoing the Ayotzinapa parents’ demand: “They were taken alive, we want them alive.” Those words rung out across the country as the Day of the Dead approached. In Iguala, protestors torched the corrupt mayor’s office and spray-painted the slogan on its charred remains. But we were travelling north, away from all that. ©
My father-in-law played Rachmaninov on the stereo as he drove his grey station wagon away from the strife-torn capital towards his hometown. He’d marched back in 1968, but he was older now, waiting on his first pension payment. In the backseat, with Lola the bulldog squirming in my lap, I wondered what it would take to make him to march again. As we passed from the Federal District into Mexico State, urban sprawl gave way to fields of golden maize with dense green knots of cactus dotted throughout. A stall near the turn off for the pyramids of Teotihuacan was selling ant’s eggs. We dropped Lola with Rocio’s uncle then swung onto the newly built Circuito Mexiquense, heading west for the state of Michoacán. Although we were travelling further from Guerrero where the mass disappearance took place, and from Mexico City where the biggest protests would occur, Michoacán was far from conflict free. On the road to Patzcuaro, we saw a small protest at a toll booth. Four scrawny young men in t-shirts and baseball caps stood in front of it, waving an indecipherable black banner. They were in their early twenties, but small for their age, without masks or weapons. They shouted slogans we couldn’t hear properly over the traffic noise. “This booth has been taken,’ said one of them as we approached. “Don’t pay the toll.” He was out of breath, his face pockmarked with acne. “Thank you, young man,” said my father-in-law, handing over a coin.
The official in the booth had left the boom gate open. He waved us through, not even looking up from his newspaper, as we passed without paying. Just beyond the unarmed protestors’ picket-line, we saw eight black-clad soldiers with machine guns in the back of a pickup truck. It was easy to imagine the situation turning ugly, as it had in Guerrero. © For many of us in more fortunate circumstances, it is hard to imagine a social context so desperate that parents and teachers encourage high-school age students to hijack buses and block highways. Yet that is the context for the Ayotzinapa Normal School. It is located an hour’s drive from Chilpancingo, the capital of Guerrero state, and two hour’s drive from Iguala. For a week before the mass disappearance, the students (I have to fight the temptation to call them boys) had been stockpiling stolen vehicles and petrol at their school for their planned protest in Mexico City. They went into Iguala that night, by their own admission, to commandeer public buses. Just before 9:30 pm, municipal police began to pursue two buses the students had taken from Iguala’s central station. When a police truck blocked the road, some of the students disembarked to try and push it out of the way. Blurry footage, shot by one of the survivors on his mobile phone, captures what happened next. Three or four panicked voices shout in darkness: “No tenemos armas, we’re unarmed. Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!” Then a muffled boom like a director’s clapboard snapped shut, a wildly lurching camera, heavy breathing, and the blurred red headlights of a bus whose motor can be heard idling in the background. “Ya mataron a uno,” cries the camera holder, his accent a countrified drawl. “They’ve killed one.” Silence. The camera swings across grainy blackness, falling eventually upon a prone form lying in the road behind a police car. After the initial attack, the students still on the bus were loaded into patrol cars and taken away by police, the missing eventually totalling forty-three. Some of those in the street escaped. When they informed classmates at the school of the shooting, a second, crazy-brave convoy of buses was sent to Iguala, arriving at about 11 pm. Around midnight, the reinforcements, who were being interviewed by local press at the scene of the first shooting, were fired upon from long range by unidentified men in trucks. Three Ayotzinapa students and three bystanders died that night, in addition to the mass disappearance. Their bodies were left untouched in the street for many hours by a population too scared to intervene. © The image of the dead left in the Iguala streets reminded me of a passage from Malcolm Lowry’s
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classic 1947 novel about the Mexican Day of the Dead, Under the Volcano. As Rocío’s father drove west, squinting into the fast-sinking autumn sun, I dug out my copy and re-read the scene. Lowry’s alcoholic British consul is taking the bus from Querétaro to Tomalin with his idealistic young friend, Hugh, to watch a bullfight, when a wounded indian, who has been robbed, is discovered dying by the roadside. Hugh is twenty-nine. An orphan with an inherited fortune, he’s fled Cambridge out of disgust with the British class system, refashioned himself as a socialist, and drifted around the world in search of a cause (the year is 1938 and he’s flirting with the idea of martyrdom for the Spanish republic). Naturally, upon discovering the dying man, he is all for hauling him aboard the bus and taking him to hospital. Hugh is overruled, however, by the worldly consul, who warns him, taking a swig from his flask, that: “you’ll only get hauled into jail and entangled with red tape.” As the bus departs, leaving the Indian to die, Hugh studies the impassive faces of the Mexicans on board, wondering why they have not taken action: No one could be more courageous than a Mexican. But this was not clearly a situation demanding courage ... the most patent and final obstacle to doing something about the indian was this discovery that it wasn’t one’s own business, but someone else’s. He finally attributes their passivity to the lived memory of violence: Ah, how sensible were these old women ... who had made a silent communal decision to have nothing to do with the whole affair ... Perhaps they remembered the days of revolution in the valley, the blackened buildings, the communication cut off, those crucified and gored in the bullring … There was no callousness in their faces, no cruelty. Death they knew, better than the law, and their memories were long. ©
In Patzcuaro, a special Day of the Dead market had been set up in the Plaza Don Vasco de Quiroga. The local Purépecha people still affectionately refer to the first bishop of Michoacán state as “Tata Vasco” (father Vasco). His statue was decorated for the occasion with the giant, butterfly-shaped nets used by fisherman on nearby Patzcuaro lake. Orange cempasuchit petals (marigolds) were scattered in a circle around the fountain. Among the market stalls, my mother-in-law explained how to differentiate between cheap, factory-made textiles and proper handicrafts. She was hunting a present for my parents. “Do you think they’d like this one?” she kept saying, holding up one or another exquisitely embroidered table cloth or shawl. “Yes, very much.” But this wasn’t a decision to be rushed. Mum and Dad had sent them a hand-written letter welcoming Rocío to the family, and a USB stick full of photos of her celebrating various occasions
with us in Australia. Now, we worked our way clockwise around the plaza, seeking the perfect reply. It became clear, once negotiations began in earnest, that a second circuit would be required. My father-in-law and I retired to the bar. Over a cold Negra Modelo, he proudly described a little of the region’s history. Don Vasco was brought to Michoacán in 1530 to clean up after the conquistador, Nuño de Guzman. First as a judge, later as bishop, Quiroga tried to resolve the Purépechas’ complaints in accordance with his humanist conception of justice. With Patzcuaro as his new capital, he established a series of indigenous villages, modelled after Thomas More’s Utopia. The Purépecha were granted self-governance and were encouraged to develop handicrafts that would help them survive economically. Vasco de Quiroga’s model of “soft colonisation,” put into practice on a small-scale in Michoacán, never spread to the rest of Mexico, as he hoped. But an administrative system based on Utopian principles survived his death by three hundred years in the villages he founded. Sadly, as Rocío’s father pointed out, finishing his drink, Michoacán is nowadays better known as the birthplace of Mexico’s drug war. At its outset in 2006, more than seven thousand troops were deployed here to combat the cartels. The most powerful of these, La Familia Michoacana, responded by bowling five severed heads across the floor of a crowded nightclub. © “Death they knew, better than the law, and their memories were long,” Lowry had written of the Mexicans. That same deeply ingrained lack of faith in the rule of law has been evident in the public response to the Ayotzinapa case. The official government theory was first put forward in November 2014 by then Attorney General, Jesús Murillo Karam, who was dismissed a few months later for his unsatisfactory handling of the investigation. His office, however, has persisted with the same explanation. They claim that the corrupt mayor of Iguala, José Luis Abarca (from the ruling PRI’s rival party, the PRD) ordered local police to intercept the students to prevent them protesting at a function hosted by his wife. Iguala’s former first lady, Maria de los Ángeles Pineda, has been revealed to have family ties to the main local drug cartel, Guerreros Unidos (United Warriors). Police are believed to have handed the forty-three students over to members of United Warriors, who mistook them for members of a rival gang, the Rojos, and transported them in trucks to a garbage dump at Cocula that was regularly used to dispose of bodies. “They killed them,” Murillo Karam told the Ayotzinapa parents at a meeting in an empty aircraft hangar at Tulancingo airport, shortly before he was dismissed. “They threw them into a ravine, they followed them down, they lit a fire that lasted fifteen hours, they burned them. Later they collected the remains, they put them in black plastic bags, and they threw them off a bridge into the San Juan River..” Not one person I spoke to in Mexico believed him.
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© The women returned from the market bearing a set of delicate white-lace place mats for my parents, and a bouquet of marigolds for the Mexican ancestors. Soon it would be time to lay the flowers in the crypt of the cathedral. But first we made our way to the beautiful old courtyard house where my father-in-law grew up, all high, crumbling, white-washed walls and dark, bare, shuttered rooms. It had been empty for five years since Rocío’s grandfather died. For a long time, my father-in-law and his two siblings thought they would hand the house down to the younger generation. But in 2014 they reluctantly put it on the market. It was unwise, they decided, to hold onto the house out of sentiment, in such a dangerous region. The central courtyard contained an overgrown grassy area where cattle once grazed, and a small orchard. Whenever Rocío’s grandfather visited Mexico City he would bring the family a bag of fresh lemons or figs. He used to bathe each morning with a bucket of cold water from the
trough where the animals drank. Once, in winter, he broke the ice with a shovel and commanded his young son to wash himself with icy water, until his mother cried: “You’re going to kill your boy!” Rocío’s grandfather was a tough man by all accounts. Among the flower pots we found his rusty old knife; the serrated blade was inscribed: “Vanity, all is vanity.” Yet his granddaughters also remember him smiling as he allowed them to beat him, time-after-time, at checkers. Between the bathroom and the main bedroom, was a handrail. After separating from his wife in middle age, he lived alone for the rest of his life in the huge empty house – a place full of stories that are not mine to tell. At the back of the garden was a separate, half-finished, two storey dwelling. The building was meant to be guest quarters for his three children, who had all moved to the capital to attend university, much as his grandchildren, Rocío and her two siblings, would all move abroad. A dispute with the builders meant the guest quarters were never finished. We climbed a set of unrailed stairs to the second floor and looked over the red roofs of Patzcuaro toward Bishop Quiroga’s vanished lakeside Utopia. The clean air tasted marvellous after Mexico City. In the street outside, a security camera turned silently atop a tall pole. There were signs someone had been there before us. Empty beer bottles were scattered over the balcony, and I found a length of cut-off garden hose from a home-made bong. Over the fence, in the neighbours’ yard, roosters clucked in cages. While the house sat empty, the neighbours had held cockfights in the backyard without asking permission. Now the property was on the market, the real estate agent had requested the birds be kept off the property. “I hope it sells soon,” said my father-in-law, there on the balcony. But he lingered as though it was hard for him to leave. © In Patzcuaro cathedral that afternoon, we descended into the crypt. Cleaners were sweeping and
mopping the floor in preparation for hundreds of visitors that night. My father-in-law led us along a narrow passageway of floor-to-ceiling vaults: the dead stacked densely, one on top of the other. With a key, he opened a safe in the wall. Inside was a square, wooden container, little larger than a shoe box, containing his father’s ashes. He picked it up, held it in his hands, and bowed his head. Though they’d invited me, I felt uncomfortable. I felt I was intruding. Death and grieving are rarely so public in my culture. Stooping under the low roof, I rounded a corner. I thought I was giving them their privacy, but now I suspect I was avoiding imagining what it is like to lose someone you love, and the knowledge that one day I will know. Briefly alone, for the first time in weeks, I blundered into a vertiginous corridor, very brightly lit, where the dead seemed to go on forever. How would the parents of the disappeared feel that night, I wondered, as the rest of the country laid marigolds in cemeteries and crypts? How could they mourn without a body to anchor their grief in space and time? Today, the first of November, was the day of the innocents, and was dedicated to the memory of children who had died. © If the government’s version of events was being heavily scrutinised back in 2014, it has now been completely discredited. A group of independent forensics experts from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the GIEI, found the bodies of the 43 could not possibly have been burned in the Cocula dumpsite as the Mexican government claim. Their 608-page final report found insufficient evidence to prove there had been a fire of the magnitude necessary to burn a single body – let alone the inferno required to reduce such a large number of corpses to ashes. The GIEI also found evidence that the confessions from gang members on which the government based its version of events may have been extracted by torture. The careful coordination of the attack and its targeting of civilians contrasted starkly with past gang violence in the region. Reading between the lines of the experts’ carefully worded report, a different scenario emerges. It seems likely that the students unwittingly brought on the attack by hijacking a bus carrying a shipment of narcotics bound for the US (federal investigators excluded a fifth hijacked bus from their investigation despite numerous witness accounts). Evidence suggests that all captured buses were carefully monitored by Federal police and the army across the night in question. Both agencies were present during the attacks by municipal police and at the very least did nothing to prevent them. It is most likely the bodies were burned in a crematorium so as not to leave a trace, the report states – stopping just short of a direct accusation. But Jorge Antonio Montemayor Aldrete, a physicist at the UNAM, has had no such reservations. He argues the corpses could only have been burned at one of the military bases in the area – several of which are equipped with crematoriums. Aldrete has invited the Guerrero military bases near Iguala to disprove his theory by producing their gas bills. None have complied. © A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
Shortly before midnight, in the cathedral over the crypt, the Michoacán symphony orchestra performed Brahms’s German Requiem. Above the orchestra and the altar with its suffering Mexican Christ, the Virgin of Health wore a red gown embossed with glittering jewels. Behind her glass case, the gown’s long train extended to the back wall, above head height, so that the faithful could walk beneath it. The fabric was hung with hundreds of tiny aluminium figures, bent in the posture of prayer, each one a request for the Virgin’s intercession. Tonight, though, there was an orchestra at her feet instead of the usual petitioners. Since the concert was free, people from across the social spectrum were in attendance, from tourists and expatriates to local families. As the choir sang, Rocío traced the German text in the program with her finger, allowing me to follow the Spanish translation alongside. Along with her two siblings, she had attended the German international school in Mexico City. On the strength of that education, all three had gone on to university studies abroad, and had established professional careers in the US or Australia. This was the Mexican dream. But what kind of dream is it that scatters a family across three countries? I had not realised, until this trip, how painful the separation was for all of them. There are many ways to lose your children. A heavy mood hung over the rest of the audience, despite the requiem’s promise of redemption. I realised many in the crowd would have had loved ones murdered or disappeared in recent years. Their grief was powerfully present. Half way through, a young couple entered. They were in their late teens, about the age of the missing students from Ayotzinapa, and both had their faces painted as skeletons. The young man wore a waistcoat, the woman an ankle-length yellow dress. Down the aisle of the cathedral they came, arms linked like death’s wedding march. They weren’t part of the show, only late arrivals, but all eyes turned toward them. Even once they found seats, everyone’s eyes kept stealing back to the pair of beautiful young skeletons, who had entered to the blare of brass. The final verses seemed directed to them: For the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed... When my mother-in-law caught me drying my eyes. W e smiled at each other. © 17
Three weeks later, we returned to Mexico City. It was nearly time for us to go home to Australia. While were in Michoacan, the fugitive mayor of Iguala and his wife had been captured in a dramatic three am raid, and the capital had been rocked by massive protests. President Peña Nieto was at the G20 summit in my hometown of Brisbane, Australia. A local bar owner who posted Facebook photos of himself with the glamorous Mexican first lady, quickly removed them following abuse from Mexican expatriates:
“Shame on you. Her husband is a fucking murderer. He has blood on his hands.” Meanwhile, in Mexico, protestors screamed for his resignation, and masked men set fire to the 150-year-old wooden door of the national palace. Preoccupied with the chaos around us, we’d kept our talk of personal matters light. I hadn’t yet brought up the engagement with Rocío’s parents. On our last night, I finally wrestled control of the kitchen from my mother-in-law, and was able to prepare a special meal. “Necesito hablarles de algo importante,” I said as we sat down before four steaming bowls of Thai red curry. “I need to talk to you about something important.” I didn’t buy them fancy tequila or address her father as Estimadísimo señor. Even so, I felt María and Lupe would have approved. I told Rocío’s parents that I was sorry I had caused her pain in the past; that I wouldn’t make the same mistake twice; that I was committed to her and wanted, with their blessing, to spend my life by her side. The food was cold before any of us ate. My father-in-law replied with a short speech and presented me with a letter for my parents he’d written using Google Translate. “Australia… Australia is so far away,” said my-mother-in-law. But she composed herself and gave us her blessing. They both did.
© As I write, nearly two years on from the mass disappearance in Iguala, only one of the forty-three missing has been confirmed dead by forensic evidence. “I wish they’d left my son dead on the ground so I could fetch him,” said the young man’s father, Ezequiel Mora. “But all they’ve left me is a shard of bone and a molar.” The parents of the remaining forty-two, lacking physical evidence of this kind, continue the search. “I don’t feel that my son is dead,” María Concepción Tlatempa told journalists. “When something happens, you feel it in your heart, and I don’t feel anything.” President Peña Nieto, for his part, has warned that Mexico must not “remain trapped” in the tragedy, and has urged its citizens to “move on.” But the same lack of closure that has made it impossible for the parents to accept their sons are dead, has kept the story alive. The Ayotzinapa case has not only brought unparalleled international attention to corruption, impunity, and mass human-rights violations in Mexico, it has broadened protest into less-radical sectors of Mexican society. When Rocío’s parents arrived in Brisbane for our wedding in June 2015, my mother-in-law told me she’d stopped changing from one short course to another, and had settled on a two-year diploma in thanatology – the scientific study of the needs of the dying and their families. Since there didn’t seem to be a quiet corner of the country to retire to, they were planning to stay in the capital for the moment. They’d recently participated in several protests. Along with tens of thousands of ordinary Mexicans – not radicals, not revolutionaries – they had marched on the Zócalo.
A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
His Shirt Was Always Tucked In
Patti See A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
My ninety-year-old father and I share a disdain for long obituaries. We have other things in common. Frizzy hair. The inability to drive past anything free by the side of the road. Crying during The Waltons. Both of us read obituaries daily—those in our thin small town newspaper and in our thicker nearby big city newspaper. He looks for people he knows; I look for stories. A blatant lack of humility, before or after death, is one of my dad’s triggers. He ridicules a stranger’s four-column obit: “He did this, blah, blah, blah....” As a writer, I know anything told in six hundred words would be better at three hundred. Or as Woody Allen learned from a particularly adept New Yorker editor, his humor pieces would be funnier if he left out some of the jokes. There is an art to omission. Dad dislikes long obituaries for the same reason he hates long sermons: we get the picture. ©
My father was forty-two when I was born. I’m the youngest of eight spanning nearly twenty years of babies. I didn’t realize till I was past forty-two how much Dad and I are alike. We didn’t really talk to each other till my mom got sick. Not that there was any unease; Dad simply let Mom do all of the talking. On the rare occasion when he actually answered the telephone, he’d talk for twenty seconds and say, “Here’s your mom.” After Alzheimer’s hijacked Mom’s mind and then her voice, Dad stepped up. Not only did he cook and clean for the two of them—quite the feat for a dude in his early eighties—he also seemed to take her place as family busybody. He told stories I’d never heard before, and he genuinely wanted to know the dull details of my life. He talked. A lot. He even gossiped once in a while. At eighty-nine, three years after my mom died, it seemed that Dad would succumb to the effects of a life well-lived. In small-town Wisconsin, that means that as a younger man, he ate and drank and smoked as much as he liked. Emphysema (now better known as COPD), diabetes, congestive heart failure, chronic anemia, and severe sleep apnea were slowing him down. No euphemisms. He was dying. One morning last summer I awoke in a panic: I haven’t written his obituary. We’d recently celebrated his eighty-nine-and-a-half birthday at my house. I hung radio station bumper stickers (89.5!) from recessed lights and ceiling fans along with photos of him throughout his almost ninety years. We planned his party for months, but he couldn’t join us because he was in the hospital with another bout of pneumonia. Soon he’d go to a nursing home for rehab; then a sleep study which determined he stopped breathing seventy times an hour; then home, on oxygen full-time and a CPAP machine that saved his life over and over again each night. His color was gray. He tired easily. I believed this was the end. Joe was born at home on the farm to Peter and Othilia (Schulhauser) See on January 18, 1926, the third of four children. During the Great Depression he lost his life’s savings, $12.12, when the local bank collapsed. He moved to Chippewa Falls in 1947 for a job on the Soo Line Railroad, and he was a “Southsider” ever since. He worked his way up from switchman to yardmaster over thirty-eight years and continued to love all things “Soo” even after he retired. Joe was a proud union member. He
married Virgiline Weinfurter on September 1, 1948. They celebrated sixty-four years together before her death in 2012. A year after I wrote those lines, he’s still kickin’ and living in his own home. He turned ninety in January—the milestone he looked forward to. Almost as soon as he’d blown out his candles at his birthday bash, he told me, “I think I can make it to ninety-one.” Then in February his appendix ruptured. Given his age and heart/lung condition, surgery was not an option. All of my siblings and some of our children came home to say goodbye. I finally finished that obituary I’d started so many months ago. I was ready to let Dad go. For ninety years, a farm boy from Junction City was a busy part of this world. He finally petered out on... Only a select few would know these are Joe See phrases: “I’m always busy,” he’d say. Or about a small appliance that even he couldn’t fix: “It just petered out.” Over many weeks, doctors flushed the sepsis from his body, and slowly he got better. He’s a tough old bird. There is no other explanation. © Recently Dad’s ninety-two-year-old neighbor died. As always, he and I discuss the obituary. “Don’t worry,” I tell Dad. “Yours isn’t that long.” He smiles. “It’s just right. Not too long. Not too short.” “You wrote it already?” he asks. “Finished it after your appendix burst. You want to see it?” He shakes his head. A week later, we’re sitting at his kitchen table again. He says, “So anyway. What about my obituary?” “You said you didn’t want to see it,” I say. “I didn’t say yes, and I didn’t say no.” This is Joe-See-coy. He’s 90.5. He can say and do whatever he likes, including change his mind. He says, “Now the answer is yes.” “Okay,” I say. A few days later, I print and fold it up as if I’m going to mail it. I tape across the fold and write “For your eyes only.” I don’t want him to share it with anyone who visits, the way he does with every email, card, invitation or letter he receives. He and I sit at his table on a Saturday morning. He’s in his summer pin-striped robe; I’m in my cut off jean shorts. Perhaps all my life our outfits have defined our roles to each other. He’s the patriarch; I’m the “baby” of the family, even as I near fifty years old. A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
He reads the outside of my folded paper, then he picks at the tape. “Nope,” I say. “Not until I leave.” This is weird enough, I don’t have to say. “Hmph,” he grunts. He rubs his finger over the tape. “I know you’re curious, but I don’t want to be here as you read it. And I don’t want everyone to have a say in what to add or take out. Only you, okay?” Dying by committee is what it often felt like throughout my mom’s illness. I don’t want to deal with that again. He nods and then sneaks a peek inside the paper without breaking the seal. He says, “Well, where’s a picture of me? Don’tcha need a picture?” He chuckles. I tell him he can choose. I suggest the same church directory photo of him and my mom, the one we cropped him out of for her obituary. It’s downright creepy when there’s a stray family member’s arm or spouse’s ear in the departed’s obit pic. In the photo I suggest, Mom and Dad are far enough apart that each could be cropped out easily. We talk about whatever might have happened in the twenty hours since I last visited. How much rain in his rain gauge? Who stopped by last night? Then we sit and read the paper together. I see him every day. Sometimes it’s impossible to generate anything new to say, so we read or watch TV reruns. As I back my car out of his driveway, I know he’s breaking the seal on his obituary. © Dad will never know the difficulty I had in condensing ninety plus years into three hundred words, till only the most precise details remain. He gave blood religiously, and he voted in every election. His shirt was always tucked in.
That last line is my father: not only his style of dress, but his attitude. He wouldn’t be seen with his shirt tails hanging out, or even with his dress or work shirt sloppily hanging off his belt. How many of us kids were embarrassed time and again when Dad “discreetly” (?!) turned away from the conversation, dropped “trou” enough for just a bit of his whitey tighties to show—no matter who was there—and tucked in his shirt. When my twenty-five-year-old son was a small boy he once said to me, “You know what would be really funny? Grandpa Joe in a t-shirt.” Had anyone ever seen Joe See in anything but a button down, usually plaid, shirt? I realize that the details in his obituary are what Dad would never say about himself. Nor would he confess: He liked a bad joke and a good story. But anyone who met Joe See will nod knowingly at this line. Historically the obituary (from the Latin “obit”—death) was a legacy to honor aristocrats. Not until the late twentieth century did the “common man” obituary arise. Eventually this led to a
celebration of ordinary people with folksy tributes, thus the list of usually three items the deceased enjoyed. In our local paper, it’s often Green Bay Packers, something else, and grandchildren. © Obituary writing is an art, like any genre, but this suspension bridge between poetry and nonfiction has been reduced to asking loved ones to “fill in the blank” about the deceased (she liked collecting humming bird figurines, gardening, and the Brewers). Another common practice is to “prearrange” funerals and obituaries. I can’t help but think writing your own obituary is akin to giving yourself a nickname. What we may say about ourselves is never the legacy others might see. Joe was a hands-on father when it was uncommon for dads to change diapers, wash clothes, or make “spit curls” in their daughters’ hair. Still, he knew his place in the See house. He often told his kids, “Ask your mother.” Joe was a hard worker who was always up to something: making cribbage boards out of toilet seats, re-webbing lawn chairs in his garage or fiddling with flowers. He donated countless time and money to Holy Ghost parish, and he was part of a small, dedicated group that started the church picnic in 1975. He was active in the Knights of Columbus and cleaned more smelt than he cared to remember. Joe loved a bargain, and he was saving and reusing long before it was a trend. He could make something out of nothing, and he could fix just about anything. He started every Joe See tale with “so anyway.” Death and grief expert Stephen Levine wrote, “In the funeral home we put rouge on death. Even in the casket we deny our transiency.” Sharing my dad’s obituary with him was a way to wipe away death’s “rouge” and acknowledge the extraordinary goodness in his long but quite ordinary life. Dad knows better than anyone: we are all just passing through. I ended his obit with a non-traditional suggestion since we both agreed many years ago that very few mourners actually donate to the choice of the deceased. Contributions on Joe’s behalf can be made as follows: slip a few extra bucks in the church collection; donate blood, especially if you’re a rare type like Joe; go to a thrift sale and pay the asking price; make something crafty, and give it away; have one more for the road. Levine also said, “The only service one can do in a very real sense, whether in serving the dying or those who are healing themselves, is to remind people of their true nature—the uninjured, the deathless—which is the very source of healing.” More than anything, I tried to portray my father’s “true nature” in his obituary.
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I figured he’d never mention it again. Then a week after dropping off his sealed obit, Dad says to me, “You know that church picnic I started?” “Yeah.” I know he won’t offer a critique, but he will make corrections. “It was in 1971 not ’75.” “Okay,” I say. “Anything else you want me to change?” “I can’t think of a thing,” he says. “Looks real good.” © It’s merely a coincidence that within a month of sharing the obituary with Dad, his doctor tells him he no longer needs oxygen. Dad thinks he’s gotten away with something. He’s not naïve enough to believe he’s cheated Mr. Death but at least put him off awhile longer. I realize Dad’s still a sick man, but he seems brighter. More sparkle and less gray. The respiratory company comes to pick up his compressor and spare tanks. No oxygen means he can ride with me the two hours to Uncle Robert’s funeral. He and Dad married sisters, and they spent much of their early married lives together. Mom and Dad and their kids travelled each summer with Robert and Bernice’s family. This was long before I was born, when each couple had seven kids and each cousin had a partner. When I consider four adults and fourteen young children I think of “crowd control” not a week’s vacation. Back then Dad was younger than I am now; because of our age difference he was always old to me. Now he’s one of the last surviving men in his family and my mom’s, and somehow that makes me think of him as younger. He could easily pass for seventy-five. His mind is beyond sharp. Recently we passed a farmer’s field with six-foot tall, hand painted wooden roosters for sale. I slow down so Dad can see them. “Wouldn’t it be funny if I bought one for Bruce?” I ask. My husband loathes lawn ornaments, and my dad knows it. We both laugh and laugh. “Get him two,” Dad says. His eyes twinkle. “Tell him they are Bruce-sters.” The word play of a seventy-five-year old. ©
Today I offer to press Dad’s trousers and help him pick out a shirt for Uncle Robert’s funeral. While I’m in his basement laundry room waiting for the iron to heat up, I fold the ten pairs of underwear I washed on Saturday. He still has a few pairs of “whitey-tighties” left, though they are so washed out they are more like “dingy-loosies.” Once I bleached a bucket of his white briefs so long they became a stew of cotton, and I had to sneak all of them in the garbage. I started doing his laundry last year after he came home from rehab and could no longer walk the steps to the basement. After a week of dealing with graying whites, I suggested colored underwear.
“I wear white,” he said. “How about black?” I pitched. “No bleach needed.” For his ninetieth birthday I gave him a multipack that included bright blue. He never complained. These details will not go in his obituary. Today when I carry up the laundry and his creased dress pants I say, “If only Mom could see you in blue underwear.” “If only,” Dad says.
A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
Every couple of years, I embark on an intensified regime of practicing the drums. I play for hours a day over the course of several months, determined to take my skill to the next level. Musicians call this woodshedding, an apt term for drummers since an hour or more at the drums will cover your pant legs with drumstick splinters. As I improve, however, I also navigate anxieties about my drumming that have been with me since I started playing. After my band, Semisonic, stopped touring in 2001, I had recurring dreams in which I was about to take the stage with my band mates, whereupon they turned to tell me, “You’re going to remain backstage and practice.” Five months ago, in August of 2016, my band booked a show for early January 2017, our first show in years. As I prepared, I was haunted by those dreams and the anxieties that billowed through them. I sat down at my practice pad with my sticks and confronted an old truism: Rust never sleeps. © RLRLRLRLRLRLRLRL This is the first exercise in Stick Control for the Snare Drummer by George Lawrence Stone, a book drummers refer to as Stick Control and sometimes "Stone," forty-six pages of sticking patterns designed to develop a drummer’s hands. The exercises themselves are a series of notes, each note marked with an L or R, denoting the left and right sticks. LRLRLRLRLRLRLRLR This is the second exercise, and though it is essentially the same pattern as the first — constant alternation between hands — Stone recognized that for right-handed drummers, this second pattern was slightly harder, because it’s easier to lead with the stronger hand. The Stick Control exercises thus promote balance and fluid evenness. As one progresses through them, the patterns become drumming tongue twisters. LRRLRRRLRLLRLLLR
Stone instructs drummers to practice each exercise twenty or more times in a row before proceeding to the next. It might take half an hour to get through a page of twenty-four exercises, and if you cultivate an ear for evenness, you can spend your whole drumming life revisiting any of its pages. This eighty-year-old book, which tops the drum book category on Amazon, is so universally embraced by drummers of all levels that I have posted Stone’s author photo on the Facebook pages of drummer friends on their birthdays. All of them recognize it. I have three copies of Stick Control, two of them fairly worn, these in addition to the half dozen that disintegrated with use. Dozens of other drum method books, some of them great, sit on my
shelf, but none compare to Stick Control for axiomatic simplicity. With my sticks in hand and the clicks of my computer’s metronome in my ear, I follow Stone’s exercises back to my beginner’s mind, drawn into deeper awareness of what relaxed and evenhanded sticking feels like. My awareness of musical time magnifies, and as I notice the slight compressions and expansions of the spaces between the notes, I adjust, not merely aligning my sticks with the metronome but striving to embody the metronome, to become an organic time-keeping machine. When my muscles tighten, I soften my hands and slow my breath until I rediscover the deep form of relaxation needed to pass through the transition state to perfect synchronization with the metronome. This not only sharpens my awareness of time, it allows me to practice becoming part of something beyond myself. © Drummers have used Stick Control for various purposes. Most have greater speed and dexterity in mind. As a young drummer, however, I was drawn to a different agenda—perfecting my sense of time. Each exercise presented an opportunity to practice the iconic evenness found on the R&B and funk records that had captured my teenaged imagination. Consider Andrew Smith’s opening snare fill on “Midnight Train to Georgia.” Anyone who has played the first exercise in Stone’s book can execute it. RLRL R L But who could render that simple pattern as beautifully as Smith? “Bah-bah-bah-bah BAP BAP!” The drumming I loved expressed musical time with sensitivity beyond metronomic perfection. Metronomic evenness was not the destination, merely a stop along the journey to the sublime. So I developed a regimen that began with thirty to sixty minutes of Stick Control practiced with a metronome followed by an hour or more of playing along with favorite recordings. Could I match Benny Benjamin’s jumping grooves on all of those Motown hits? The heartbreaking thud that Earl Young laid down on Philly soul classics? The ticklish funk that Clyde Stubblefield slipped under James Brown? When I started playing rock music, I studied John Bonham’s swagger, Charlie Watts’s drunken stumble, and Ringo’s lilt. By emulating the drumming of my heroes, I found my drumming voice. Meanwhile, my drum peers became faster and faster. By my early thirties, my drumming had diverged considerably from theirs. I took pride in how well I could lay down a groove and shape a song, but I worried about my relative lack of speed and dexterity. I comforted myself with the thought that I had chosen better priorities. While the majority of fellow musicians oohed and aahed over my speedier peers, the songwriters I knew took notice of my groove and song sense. Indeed, it was these strengths that attracted my future band mates, Dan and John. We formed a trio called Semisonic, and our songs relied on groove and concision, exactly what I had practiced.
A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
© Soon after we began playing shows, record executives began to court us. Over the course of two years, we were wined, dined, signed, and after the release of our first album, touring the country. We shared stages with other bands and walked through backstage hallways crammed with other musicians and label suits. Inevitably, the conversations made their way to drumming. Who had the fastest sticks? The fastest feet? Who played the most complex polyrhythms? None of this mattered to me, except that it did. From offstage, I saw other drummers blaze around their kits, wowing the fans as well as the musicians and suits who stood around me. When a drummer whipped off some incredible flourish, I’d feel a tap on my shoulder. “Did you see that, Jake? Did you see it?!” Yes, yes I did. In an unconscious surrender, I asked some dynamo drummers for exercises that might increase my speed. I practiced and discovered that what one practices, one plays. After two weeks of these new chop-building exercises, my hands and feet, though barely faster, could not restrain themselves from filling every musical nook and cranny. Where I had once played understated fills that preserved musical space, I now filled that space with grabs for attention. It worked. The fist-pumping guys in the front rows pointed at me and whooped, seizing the mood of the room from the quieter listeners a few rows back, with their thoughtful smiles and gently swiveling hips. After the shows, I strutted through the backstage corridors with arms bowed, as if to advertise the newfound muscularity of my drumming. The suits nodded their rising approval. But as I lay down in my tour-bus bunk and we rolled on to the next city, my musical conscience whispered to me. “You’re becoming an asshole on the drums.” I gradually returned to my groove-keeping ways. My dalliance with speed, however, had emerged from the sense I had more to say on the drums. What was it, and how would I learn to say it? ©
I started by thinking about drum fills, those moments when a drummer leaves the beat and plays a flourish, often around the entire drum set. I went through my record collection and compiled recordings of my favorite fills, most of them a few seconds in length — Mick Waller’s opening snare hits in Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May,” Andy Newmark’s arresting strikes during the pauses in “Anticipation,” Russ Kunkel’s tom-tom delirium in the choruses of “Fire and Rain,” 125 fills in all. I burned these onto CDs and listened. During this same period, I was writing road diaries about Semisonic’s adventures and posting them on the band’s website, an endeavor that inspired me to revisit some classic writing texts. One day, as I flipped through The Elements of Style, I thought to myself, “Wow. This might be the best book ever written about drumming.” More drummers needed to “avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute.”
Suddenly, I began to hear drummers as artists who made rhetorical moves—creating enjambments (Russ Kunkel in the outro of “Fire and Rain”), stretching out ellipses (Andy Newmark in the chorus pauses of “Anticipation”), and inserting line breaks (Ringo in the second verse of “A Day in the Life”). These were all instances of speaking clearly to others, not babbling to oneself. Fills, I discovered, could embody wit. A simple, well-placed “Wham!” on the floor tom could crack up my band mates. So could an unexpected interruption—the right one—a drum fill that plowed through the middle of a phrase, turning things momentarily upside down. Or perhaps a giant hole, where I delayed a drum entrance by a couple of beats in order to create a temporary sense of the bottom having fallen out. Dan and John looked back at me during shows in approving laughter, enjoying the sense of me wisecracking from the drums. © In 2001, after sales for our third album faltered, Semisonic began a hiatus. As the empty days unfolded before me, I brushed the drumstick shards from my pants and sat down to write a memoir about my journey through the show business machinery. Where the writer in me wondered how to proceed, the drummer leaned in to guide. “Chop that opening. Remember the impatience of radio listeners.” Each day, a new observation. “Write a single, not an eight-minute album track.” As I typed, the subtleties of grooves, syncopation, and fills and how they created musical meaning came back to me as I felt the pulse of each sentence roll off the keys, the iambs and trochees and dactyls at play, the gathering logic of rhythm at work. I could accent this point, suspend that one, and use all manner of punctuation to stretch . . . things . . . out . . . or—as if abandoning a steady beat for a fill on the tom toms—interrupt, turn, and crash. Further insights followed. As the chapters accumulated, a familiar pattern revealed itself: verse-chorus-verse-chorus-verse-chorus. The verse chapters captured private interactions—the band’s formation, our dinners with record executives, our explorations in the recording studio. The chorus chapters depicted the public moments—the release of our albums, the shows, the media coverage. My musical instincts spoke up. “Shorten the later verses and make the choruses longer and louder.” I tweaked the end of the second verse, quieting it into a momentary pause out of which the second chorus, describing the band’s sudden rise to fame, might explode. The more I wrote, the more obvious it became that any number of writing problems could be framed in musical terms. Scenes that reprised earlier ones wanted elaborations, much as one adds a tambourine and background vocals to a later song verse. Where I introduced a new character or theme, my arranger's instincts told me to simplify the moment of entrance and allow the elaboration to follow. During one of my later drafts, I realized the book needed a bridge, a change of key, a shift in tonality, something that might call the verses and choruses into question. The book had relied on the narrator’s self-deprecating humor, but in order to tell the whole story it needed to capture the brief moment when my quest for superstardom did not look ridiculous but felt pracA Journal of Creative Nonfiction
tically assured. So I placed a bridge before the final chorus, again relying on musical instincts to compensate for my writing inexperience. Finally, when it came time to stop tweaking and declare the book finished, I recalled the sensation of handing over albums. As much as we musicians want to capture perfection, the flaws in our performances, the notes slightly out of tune or rushed, often reveal our soul. Indeed, my favorite recordings captured wonderful messes, the loose slop of Mick Waller’s drumming on “Maggie May” for instance, which had more to say than all the tidy drumming in the world. So it might be, I conceded, with writing. The passages in my book that felt the most revealing were messy, and yet when I attempted to neaten them, the writing flattened. Handing over my manuscript meant accepting that I had replaced my fantasy of the book—rich and flawless—with something imperfect but real. I comforted myself by recalling how a band walks out of the studio, with a flawed album that speaks for them far more than the airbrushed perfection of their fantasies ever could. © Insights from writing aside, I nevertheless found myself seized by a recurring desire to become an unquestioned monster drummer. Sometimes, I’d go wide with my woodshedding. After a few days of Stick Control, a surge of ambition and impatience would inspire me add Stone’s second book, Accents and Rebounds, and Jim Chapin’s Advanced Techniques for the Modern Drummer. Soon I’d order other books: Master Studies by Joe Morello, Bass Drum Control by Colin Bailey, 4-Way Coordination by Dahlgren and Fine, Progressive Steps to Syncopation by Ted Reed, The Art of Bop Drumming by John Riley, African Rhythms and Independence for Drumset by Mokhtar Samba. I’d practice the first pages of each, imagining myself radically transformed across all dimensions of my drumming. My practice regime would expand to five or more hours a day until, somewhere around day ten, I’d collapse and shove my practice pad back into its dusty corner. Eventually, I’d tell myself, “The important thing is to drum.” RLRLRLRLRLRLRLRL
Practice is the art of removing effort. Practice teaches us to relax into focus, and it requires only that we show up. Avoiding my practice pad or writing desk because “I don’t feel inspired” gets things exactly backwards, for only by showing up at my desk or practice pad can I learn to relax into the focus that uncovers inspiration. © As I began to prepare for Semisonic’s January reunion shows I recognized that the short window of time demanded a narrow practice agenda. I settled on increasing my speed, the aspect of my
drumming that, for right or wrong, nagged at me. Seated at my practice pad, I spent the first week refreshing my understanding of stick mechanics, how gravity and the stick’s rebound can do a significant amount of the work. With my thumb and forefinger, I created a fulcrum in which the stick balanced to facilitate the easiest rebound possible. My right hand was much more proficient at this than my left, and I compared my left and right grips to remove any discrepancies. As I played, I scanned for unnecessary motion and tension. My pinkies kept fluttering out. My forearms tensed, prompting me to recall Stone’s instructions to practice “at all times with relaxed muscles, stopping at the slightest feeling of tension.” I adjusted and traced the tension upstream, through my forearms up to my shoulders, even down my thighs and feet, slowing and adjusting to relax muscles far removed from the sticks. I found tension in my jaw, and most of all in my brain. And behold, as I isolated and relaxed these various points of tension, my sticks sped up. All of this work took place on a practice pad. I delayed practicing at a full drum set for a couple of months, perhaps hoping that when I finally did, my faster sticks would unveil a brand new me. And indeed when I sat down at drum set, my sticks danced with newfound speed and confidence. A little too much confidence, actually—they thrust themselves into every musical space, crowding the ends of phrases. I recalled how years earlier I had failed to police this tendency, so now when my fills overran, I re-performed simpler versions that protected the silence. Though faster, my hands still could not blaze around my kit. Still, I saw signs of improved clarity and decisiveness—a brief flash around the kit, a more clearly audible diddle at the start of a fill, a surer dig into the floor tom as it dueled with my snare. And I recalled that this is what always happens. I never transform into a butterfly, only a nimbler version of the caterpillar I was. I hear myself as someone who drums in his reading glasses and cardigan. Likewise, years of writing have not transformed me into the literary alchemist I long to be. My sentences never transmute into Proustian gold; I simply shape the same old lead with greater skill and learn to appreciate the subtle nature of its luster. This is how practice says to an artist, “Here you are. What do you think?” Through practice, we learn to get out of our own way, but only in these past few months did I realize that the most obstructive effort is not physical or mental but spiritual—the desire to become some other drummer, some other writer, some other person. I will always recognize my drumming as mine. To accept rather than flinch at this obvious truth requires practice. Thus, in the final week before the show, when I noticed myself wondering, “How good am I now?,” when I noticed myself pining after the flashy moves of other drummers, I paused and noticed how my posture had invariably slumped in defeat. I sat up, pulled my shoulders back and down, relaxed my face, and played into the sense of being myself on the drums. © On New Year's Day, I did my laundry and packed my bags. The next day, as I sat in my aisle seat high above Lakes Erie, Huron, and Michigan, I gave a final listen to the songs we’d perform. I A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
stepped off the plane in Minneapolis, which had been covered by a thin glaze of freezing rain, determined to enjoy myself. At our rehearsal space, my band mates greeted me with hugs, and after a few minutes, I took my place behind the drum set. The drums we had rented for the week were slightly larger than what I was used to, so the first half hour of jamming together involved a bit of repositioning the tom-toms and lowering the cymbal stands. Soon, I felt at home. My hands did not blaze, but I held the band together. Over the course of those first two hours, I dished out a couple of fills and moves that caught smiles. The week, I knew, would only improve our ensemble playing and ease my comfort. The adrenaline of being on stage would add a final boost to my performance. I had prepared well. After we adjourned for the night, our soundman, Brad, drove me to a restaurant close to the apartment I had rented for the week. “Sounds like you’ve been putting in some metronome hours,” he told me. I smiled. “Yeah, I’ve been practicing a lot.” It sounded neither boastful nor apologetic, only clear and true. “Don’t laugh at me if I slip and fall on my ass,” I joked as I closed the door and waddled across the icy road and into the restaurant. The bartender took my takeout order, and I called my wife, Suzanne, to report on the day, a report aimed at my ears more than hers. Things had ‘gone well,’ the drumming ‘felt fine,’ we ‘were finding our way.’ The bartender produced my to-go bag, Suzanne and I said our goodbyes, I paid and stepped out into the night. And my foot kept going. In a timeless moment I still revisit, my body hung in the air as my eyes looked up into the moonless night. I hit the ice hard and pain shot through both hands. I doubled over. After a minute, I caught my breath and grimaced as I looked at my gloved hands and tried to hold a pair of imaginary drumsticks. Neither hand could. Neither could close or fully open. I made it to my feet, and my hands hung painfully limp from my arms. A friend drove me to a hospital, and the doctors told me I had broken my left wrist and sprained my right. I nodded, as if my listening might eventually wake me from this terrible dream. The next day, after a flurry of calls and the cancelling of the shows, I met with Dan and John. All of us were stunned. “I practiced so much,” I said as I looked down at my swollen hands. Dan, however, assured me. “You’ll hang on to those gains.” I wanted to believe him, but how could it be true? Rust never sleeps. Surely my hands will be slower in late February than they were up until the split second I hung midair above the icy sidewalk. © Back in Brooklyn, my left forearm and wrist wrapped in a cast, I sat on the couch, eyeing my lonely drum pad. What could I do for my drumming during the six-week healing period? Gather more drum fills? Do a lot of walking and listening to music? I picked up a small book, Thich Nhat Hanh’s How to Sit, a book about mindfulness meditation.
Many of us spend a lot of time sitting—too much time. We sit at our jobs, we sit at our computers . . . To sit, in this book, means to sit in such a way that you enjoy sitting, to sit in a relaxed way, with your mind awake, calm, and clear. This is what we call sitting, and it takes some training and practice. I was struck by the obvious relevance to drumming. Sit in such a way that you feel completely at ease. Relax every muscle in your body, including the muscles in your face. The best way to relax the muscles in your face is to smile gently as you breathe in and out. Don’t make a great effort, or struggle, or fight as you sit. Let go of everything. How well this aligned with what I’ve learned about practice. Stick Control invites surrender. In order to gain control of the sticks, one must let go. How to Sit points to the next step, to escape the distraction of judgment and find rest in being. “We don’t need to control our mind, body, and breath. We can just be there for them.” And thus, without picking up my sticks, I have begun to practice for the shows that are now rescheduled for June. I sit, spinal column straight, as Hanh advises, muscles relaxed, and then I reach out and press ‘start’ on my meditation timer and my attention is absorbed by the sound of a bell. I bring the gentle smile Hanh speaks of to my face and breathe in. Breathe out. I fill and empty my lungs—my diaphragm, the metronome—and soon I am thinking about what I didn’t get done today. Then I notice my posture has collapsed. I sit up straight again, and find that gentle smile. Breathe in. Out. In. Out. “I am new at this,” I think. “I will learn to focus. I need to learn this new way of relaxing. Imagine how good I might be at this when . . .” Evaluation. Again, my posture has begun to cave. Again, I sit up straight. And start again. In. Out. In. Out.
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I've Got Gordon Ralfe's Number
Cross Burned Near Theater Jacksonville, Fla, March 28–A seven-foot wooden cross, wrapped in kerosene-soaked burlap containing live shotgun shells was burned shortly before midnight beside a theater showing the motion picture “A Patch of Blue.” Sidney Poitier, the Negro actor, is in the picture. Several of the shells went off but no one was hit.
—The New York Times March 29, 1966
My first crush was Kevin. We were in the same classroom at Henry F. Kite Elementary School in Jacksonville. “You mean the cripple?” I have no clear memory of my cousin’s face as she said this, but I’m sure she did one of those lopsided smirks that always made me feel stupid. Kevin had a slight limp, but he wasn’t “crippled.” He did look sickly, though, with the sort of limpid pale skin you could almost see through and big brown eyes forever glistening with quiet awe, like he’d spied a far off ghost. Looking back now, I imagine Kevin probably had soft teeth. He looked malnourished and slightly backwoods. This was the shabby school, after all, its student body a rag-tag passel of poor Whites and African‑Americans, kids whose parents soaked their heads in turpentine to get rid of the lice. But when I was six, I didn’t notice whether or not Kevin had soft teeth or the wan complexion of a catfish eater. I just liked his placid face and quiet manner. As for the limp, it only helped. First grade was traumatic. In two weeks time, I’d been called a “cracker” by one kid, “nigger-lips” by another, and during a misguided relay race, my bottom lip burst into rivers of blood in a head-on collision with a classmate. Kevin’s tranquility, the slow careful movements of his body appealed to me. His chin-length, stick-straight hair barely even ruffled when he walked. He knew the meaning of stillness. Once when the class had been particularly noisy, Miss Logan made us put our heads down on our desks and played “Muskrat Love” until we were quiet. How I hated that song. She allowed us to leave for recess one by one based upon how calm and composed we were. Kevin and I were the first ones permitted to go. I thought it was fate. I have no memories of Kevin after that day however. Eventually the school year ended, and I moved away leaving Kevin and his limp to the admiring eyes of other little girls. Of course, I’ve had many crushes since first grade. Who hasn’t? There was Luke Skywalker whom my cousin convinced me was signing autographs at Big Star grocery store near my home– right there on the crappy side of Jacksonville. I got my seven-year-old self all spruced up and rode to the store with my snickering cousin who laughed openly when the ruse was up. I gave her a damn fierce cold shoulder the rest of the day. Ah well, I liked Han Solo better anyway. Over the
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years, my crushes piled up, and I kept them sorted away inside my head or heart—wherever—like folded laundry. There was Sherlock Holmes so cold and cerebral, but, aside from a minor cocaine addiction, honorable and altruistic too. At twelve, I read Jane Eyre and fell for Mr. Rochester—not the cocky pre-fire Rochester who can be rather an ass, mind you— but the Rochester whom the flames leave mostly blind, physically disabled, and a great deal better for it. Television eventually added one to the list with Star Trek’s Spock. Really, I largely hated Star Trek, but there was only one television in the house, and my father ruled it. We’d rush off to the theatre to see the Star Trek films too. The whole Klingon, Romulan, shirtless Kirk thing seemed pretty goofy to me, but somewhere along the line, Spock got to me: green skin, pointy ears, skull-cap hair and all. What can I say? None of these crushes, however—not one of them—compares with the abiding crush of my life: Gordon Ralfe. Seventh grade. It was a school day, and I was home alone watching television. I missed a lot of school growing up, so I’m not sure if I was sick or just dodging something unpleasant, class pictures perhaps. I recall the sun slanting warmly through the front blinds and my cat lazing on the floor, but maybe that’s just romantic fancy. I had my feet tucked beneath me on the sofa when an old movie came on, and not to be overly dramatic, but that movie changed things for me. Like a tender vine, it entwined itself amongst the nascent fibers of my thinking and valuing, of my mental framework for making sense of a burgeoning adult world. A Patch of Blue premiered in December of 1965, well before I was born. Until that sunny day I camped out on the sofa instead of attending school, I had never even heard of it. In the film, Sidney Poitier plays Gordon Ralfe, a young professional who befriends a poor white blind girl played by newcomer Elizabeth Hartman. And this girl, Selena, isn’t just poor. As Ralfe’s brother observes, she comes from a trash heap. “Well she isn’t trash,” Ralfe replies, and you’ve got to love him for his discernment. The trash heap itself (played by a brilliantly detestable Shelley Winters) is a bloated, abusive, racist, sometimes prostitute who delights in wrecking everything Selena treasures. Gordon Ralfe understands Selena’s situation right away. He’s no dummy. He can tell she’s—as he so lovingly puts it—“much sinned against,” and so he sets about saving her. As I’m watching the film, the house around me silent except for the actors’ voices and my cat’s steady breathing, my eyes stretch wide, and I have a kind of revelation. I mean it. Something in my head or heart—wherever—says, ah, so this is what manhood can look like. It can look this placid and controlled, this selfless and self-possessed, this noble and lustless, this beautiful and liquid. Like a gazelle, I thought. I watched Ralfe’s thin brown hands string cheap beads for necklaces and handle cans of Campbell’s soup with unspeakable grace. So that’s what a man’s hands can look like. And most of all, I admired his lack of concupiscence. Ralfe is no lusty muscled roller of big cigars. He is covered, suited, and ordered inside himself. He possesses no shadow side, no secret vices, no closet perversions, and yet, he’s no square. All of this, to my young mind, was an achingly beautiful thing. Impossible? Maybe . . . but maybe not. Two decades prior to the day I played hooky, A Patch of Blue debuted to considerably less en-
thusiasm. Critics labeled it “mawkish” or “melodramatic.” One called it “a batch of glue.” Indeed the film’s own newspaper advertisement featured a sketch of a rather white-looking Poitier and blissful Hartman holding hands and running through a park beneath a caption that read: “Can you Lose Your Heart to a Motion Picture?” Okay, so that is pretty sticky. Yet the loudest of the film’s naysayers decried not its sentimentality but its lack of political muscle. It’s flabby on race, they complained, calling Gordon Ralfe a “whitewashed negro.” In a particularly biting review, Ernest Callenbach grumbled that the film’s “implicit moral is that affection between a Negro man and a white girl is all right so long as the girl is blind, ignorant, undeveloped, and 18 years old. We will have got somewhere when she’s a bright 25-year-old sexpot who knows what she’s doing.” Yikes. There are many more just like that, just that snarky and dismissive of the film as too little too late amidst the righteous indignation of the Civil Rights sixties. And yet . . . Just before midnight on March 28, 1966, a seven-foot cross erupted in flames, and the concussions of shotgun shells thundered through Jacksonville—all to protest the depiction of love between a “whitewashed negro” and an ignorant, blind, white girl. Either Poitier hadn’t been whitewashed enough or Hartman’s Selena needed to be even blinder for those good ole Florida boys to rest easy. This KKK-style protest becomes even more striking when we consider that southern audiences weren’t even seeing the entire film. No, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer actually cut the eight-second kissing scene (as unimpassioned as it is) from all copies of the film destined for southern venues. Those kerosene flames must have leapt and glowed wildly against the clear dark sky of early spring in north Florida. © Like many young girls, I began noticing the whistles and stares of boys when I was young enough for them to scare me, young enough that I hadn’t yet imagined myself the object of anyone’s gaze, let alone that of a whole group of boys posing outside the local Winn Dixie, ratcheting up their skinny muscles into little bulges of hopeful virility. Or that of the older boy in my apartment complex who one day observed how easily he could unzip the long line of teeth holding together my 80’s style romper. Worse, the leers and comments sometimes came not from boys but from men: tall, hairy, aged men who must have had jobs and wives and children and lawnmowers. They said, “You sure are pretty, little lady” or “If you get any cuter, I don’t know what I’ll do” and grinned like they weren’t creepy. Soon, I wanted to hide myself away. Their lingering eyes left a nasty film on my skin that never quite wore off. Moments like that, moments that only last the time it takes to unwrap a stick of gum, change you forever. I would grow into a young woman who was herself sinned against, though it’s taken decades for me to recognize all the transgressions. After all, girls are supposed to draw boys, aren’t they? And isn’t it natural that boys—acting out of a profound sense of sexual prerogative—insist? How many times boys, guys, men pushed and shoved against my resistance, tried to get me alone, drunk, A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
to catch me unawares. Even in groups—where girls are supposed to be safe—there was the stray pinch or grope, the unabashed attempt to see up or down clothing wherever it buckled and folded. At sixteen, working in an ice cream shop, I was suddenly kissed on the mouth by a guy, a stranger, who had simply walked in and leaned over the counter. Without even a “hello.” That was also the year I fended off the advances of an aggressive date who said later, “I practically raped you,” with a laugh. Or in college, sleeping on a friend’s sofa. Her boyfriend coming to me in the middle of the night. Me locking my elbows against him, telling him to go back to bed. Annoyed, he responded, “Why don’t you just let me do what I want to do?” As if such a question were reasonable. Seventeen. At a party. “Still a virgin?” someone says. “How can that be? You’re an endangered species.” I’m endangered? Honestly, it’s a blessing I remember so little. Stumbling outside in the muggy Florida night, tripping over exposed tree roots. Awaking in a van, someone’s van, a strange van. I think it was white. Awaking to searing pain, nausea, him. Everyone knows you can’t consent when you’re unconscious. Not everyone cares. I start to cry and sink down into darkness. Later, I’m pulling on my underwear, but I can’t recall standing up or climbing down out of the van—though I must have done those things. There is the empty yard, the creeping mist, the Spanish moss motionless in the still night. A world familiar and terrible. ©
How are such evils to be countered? Where does hope live in the wake of our individual (and collective) apocalypses? No matter how dark the nights, how stunned the mornings, eventually my mind–dazed and reeling–staggered back to Ralfe, always back to him. If only. How different things would be if only he’d show up and save me from the world of men so unlike him. I was too young or naïve or stupid to imagine saving myself. Of course I understood that like Spock and Rochester, Ralfe was a fictional character. Sidney Poitier gave him a lovely form and voice, but Ralfe was just a creative vapor. I knew that. But still, I thought, maybe he’s out there somewhere. Well, not him precisely, but maybe there is a Gordon Ralfe of sorts out there for me. Shortly after I saw the film, I began carrying his number in my wallet, “just for fun,” I laughed to myself: 555-3268. Though the temptation gathered in my fingers, I never dialed. Naturally I knew he wouldn’t pick up—I wasn’t insane—but that didn’t mean I wanted to have the experience of him not picking up. Who needs that? For years, Gordon Ralfe’s number went everywhere I did. For hours upon hours, I could indulge my maudlin fantasy of holding his hand in the park or shopping with him for groceries, and that slip of paper in my wallet sort of kept the “possibility” alive. But one day, just after the gut-wrenching funeral of my twenty-year old aunt, one of my cousins slid her sly green eyes my way and, with obvious relish, fired one well turned question: “Would you ever marry a black man?” The casualness of her voice belied the steely spark in her eyes. I felt my heart pound as my other cousins turned to look at me, waiting to see if I would pass the test. I knew how paranoid they were.
We were a bunch of half Cubans, some of whom worked hard at disavowing our own non-whiteness. Sure, both my grandmother and my father had been called niggers, and sure we grew up in an area of the South that tended to lump together Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, African Americans, all the nonwhites as “the same bad.” But whatever their reasons, I think some in the family still did what they could to be “just white.” No Latinos here. I was fortunate, however. My parents wouldn’t have blinked at the complexion of anyone I brought home, so I turned to my cousin and with a liberal dose of adolescent melodrama declared, “Sure . . . if I loved him. If he loved me back.” Cue the crickets. No one said a word. Well, I guess they all knew what to think of me after that. I would have said as much even if it hadn’t been for Gordon Ralfe, but the impossibility of betraying him made the truth something dear . . . if a tad self-important. It was after that strained exchange with my cousins, however, that I stopped carrying his number. Somehow the conversation about whom I would or would not marry in my real future life forced me to confront the silly fiction of Ralfe and his phone number. It was time to grow up. © I recently watched A Patch of Blue again for the first time in years and marveled as much as if not more than I did as a young girl. Sidney Poitier’s physical beauty is just as striking as ever, but even more stunning is his portrayal of a strong, intelligent, wise man who is not driven by self-love or barely contained lust for the female body. Where exactly can one find such a portrayal of late? Sure, we could talk about how whitewashed he is or isn’t (is equanimity really a white trait?). We could explore the racial implications of his lack of sexuality in the film or of Selena’s blindness, how that catered to the limitations of white audiences of the sixties, but I wasn’t alive in the sixties, and all I see when I watch Gordon Ralfe is what’s almost entirely missing from today’s movies: the noble man. Ralfe’s lack of concern over the relative hotness of the women around him (he doesn’t seem to be looking for that twenty-five-year-old sexpot, Mr. Callenbach) isn’t a source of comedy in the film as it would be now. It doesn’t make him a freak or a pod person or a Vulcan, but just a man driven by ideals that rise above our baser instincts. Sex and so-called hotness now sell everything from sandwiches to tires; they occupy our minds, populate our fictions to a degree that borders on ludicrous, and “hot” may well be the most overused word in the English language. Why should a man be exciting? Why do some women find danger attractive? What could be dumber than going after the bad boy? I once had the bad boy come after me. He drove a white van and in a single night hollowed a deep dark cave and cast me into it. For years, I sought the daylight. Safety, it turns out, is vastly underrated. Critics be damned. I’ll take Gordon Ralfe. I’ll take the suits, the classical music, the tidy apartment, the conservative hair, the clean socks, the pristine A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
manners, the lyrical voice. I’ll take his composure, his moral indignation, his self-possession, his humanity and intellect. His nobility. So I’ve got his number, but I’ve not called it yet, because, after all, it isn’t real. It’s locked away in my heart or head—wherever—like a story I used to tell myself.
Right before my grandfather walked my mother down the aisle for her wedding, he said: Okay, Baby, shoulders back, head up, just like the Nuremberg trials. The wedding had not seemed like the Nuremberg trials to my mother, who, in August, 1970, was a nineteen-year-old bride: nervous, delighted, anxious to walk down the aisle. She has never known what compelled her father, almost a quarter of a century after the war and the war crimes tribunal—on the verge of walking this momentous walk with his oldest daughter—to speak of the Nuremberg Trials. I imagine the two of them standing in the seconds before the entire church stood and turned toward them: Grandpa dressed in a rented tuxedo extending his arm, my mother’s white organza cuff resting on his sleeve, her lace-trimmed veil brushing his back, the smell of her gardenia bouquet wafting. Then: Nuremberg, Nazi war crimes, Hermann Goering. Grandpa only spoke that one sentence—just like the Nuremberg Trials—without pretense or warning, as though the statement required no further explanation. Most of what my grandfather has said about the war has come this way: strangely, in a few breaths, almost in passing, like he wanted to forget the words before they finished coming out. My mother has always wanted to know more about her father’s early life, especially his life “in the war.” Yet I have never known my mother to directly ask Grandpa anything about that life. “Your Grandpa was there,” my mother would say if a World War II movie came out or an important anniversary rolled around: D-Day, Nuremberg, The Battle of the Bulge. “Your Grandpa was part of that. He was injured in battle and earned a Purple Heart.” As children, my brother and I took turns wearing different pieces of Grandpa’s olive drab infantry helmet—the lining and the steel bowl—and rolling down the hill in our backyard. We weren’t allowed to wear the helmet when Grandpa came to our house, and when we wanted to ask Grandpa questions about being a real soldier, Mom said we couldn’t. I imagined Grandpa as a war hero like the ones in the movies, but with bushier eyebrows. When I learned about World War II in school, I raised my hand and said, “My grandpa was there.” In fifth grade, I had to give an oral presentation for history class. I chose World War II as my topic and planned to bring in Grandpa’s helmet as a visual aid. When I asked my mother if I could call Grandpa up to interview him, she told me this story: When she was a kid, she and her best friend, Brucie Precuti, played war almost all the time. She owned a toy pistol with a mother-of-pearl handle and used it to shoot pretend Nazis, enemy paratroopers, and spies. For weeks and weeks, my mother asked my grandfather to tell her what it was like in the war, what he did and whom he shot. My grandfather ignored her, saying nothing, walking away, or making the sound he makes when he wants to dismiss something—an aspirated version of “shit,” no pronunciation of the “i.” Shit, you don’t want to hear nothing about all that. One afternoon, though, my mother pestered my grandfather with her war questions while he was drinking a cup of coffee in the kitchen. He’d just come home from working a double shift at the steel mill (midnight and first), and he was tired. “You want to know what it’s like” Grandpa asked, surprising my mother, who hadn’t expected him to answer. “I’ll tell you what it’s like: It’s like
you’re a-trying to eat your dinner, but it isn’t very good, comes out of an old tin is all. You’re eating anyway because you’re hungry, and you don’t know when you’ll get another chance to eat. But you’re eating with dead bodies and dead cows all around you. Some are blown up; some are rotting up. And the whole time they’ve got them big guns firing off all around.” “That’s why you can’t ask your Grandpa about the war,” my mother said. “He doesn’t want to think about it.” Still, my mother has gathered scraps of her father’s story. Some he has told her—those odd phrases tossed off here and there. Some she discovered on her own, studying the war and working Grandpa into what she learned. Some my mother imbibed from her mother, to whom Grandpa confided certain facts (just facts, nothing ugly or intimate—name, rank, and serial number sort of stuff) in the first flush of love after combat. My mother took these scraps piecemeal, as they came, and fed them, piecemeal, to my brother and me. © When Adam and I hit our late twenties, we became curious about Grandpa’s life. By then I imagined him a boy-soldier who’d acted bravely and importantly, fought to keep the free world free, came home with a medal or two pinned to his chest. I couldn’t understand why he didn’t tell us the details. Adam and I went over every scrap we learned from our mother, trying to lay it all out, make something solid. We started not just listening more closely to Grandpa, but waiting for his talk about the war. When his words did come, they came just the way they did to our mother: landing when we weren’t expecting them, touching down in a few phrases, lifting off again. Later when we tried to recall them, we almost wondered if we’d heard them at all. “I carried that radio for a time. Carried that radio on my back and a .45 and a Tommy gun. Even had me a P.38. Shit. Ran around a-carrying all that stuff.” When Grandpa’s words came my way, I tried to hold them long enough to write down later. If Adam was with me, we threw our eyes toward each other and breathed as quietly as we could, waiting. But however much I wanted Grandpa to say more about the war and to say it more often, I never pressed him; I didn’t want to push Grandpa anywhere he didn’t want to go, or anger him, or pull from him stories it wasn’t my right to take. What needled me then was not that Grandpa wouldn’t talk about the war, but that he would only half-talk, muttering a sentence or two, then setting his jaw in a way that made me think I shouldn’t ask questions. ©
I’ve seen my Grandfather’s Purple Heart—once—in an old bedroom, dim because the bulb suspended from the ceiling was not turned on and dimmer still because the daylight coming in through the window was filtered once by a closed green curtain, again by the dust over the curtain, and again by the dust in the room. I remember my mother’s hands more than I remember the purple heart—her hands sliding the lid off a small, thin box then sliding it back again—and the
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awed sound inside her whisper when she said, “This was your grandfather’s; he got this in the war.” We stood inside my great-grandmother’s house, and I must have been around five because I was just on the cusp of being able to remember details like a green curtain, dust on a floor. We’d sort of snuck into that room, sidling in when everyone else was sitting on the porch. Filling the room were two beds, a double and a twin, and both were covered in decrepit boxes, scarred tins, and piecework quilts—the old kind, made from the scraps of worn out shirts and dresses, which in their turn, had been made from the printed patterns of feed sacks. The Purple Heart stayed for a while, holed up in that house in the North Carolina Smokey Mountains, close to the Tennessee border, in a wide hollow—a holler—running through a place known simply as Bluff. Bluff isn’t a town, just a sparsely populated area hunkered on the western base of Bluff Mountain, a scattering of ridges and hollers—some cleared for field or pasture but most running green and thick with a forest whose underbrush lies supple and fragrant with boxwood and mountain laurel. Grandpa left Bluff after the war—going up north to find work in the steel mills—and didn’t live there again until he retired. I don’t know what happened to the Purple Heart after my great grandmother died, and Grandpa packed up her things and fixed up the house of his childhood, ripping out the wormy chestnut floors and covering the log walls with sheetrock and siding. “It’s much better now, Baby,” Grandpa says about the house. To be a child like Grandpa was, there in one of those Bluff houses during the twenties and thirties, meant wearing shirts made out of feed sacks, going barefoot until winter when your shoes came as hand-me-downs; banking the fire at night before sleep; never seeing an automobile except the one driven by Doc Kimberly, who only visited when somebody seemed at risk of dying; and having no real sense of poverty because everyone else around was just as poor. “We got by,” Grandpa says about his life before the war. “We had to. Didn’t know nothing else; didn’t mind it.” Grandpa still speaks partly in the old way, the dialect the Scotch-Irish settlers brought with them into the Smokey Mountains. The dialect thrived for generations because no one came carrying in a new one. Grandpa’s way of speaking is still rhythmic, lyrical; the phrases and sentences rising and falling like songs. It still rings with pronunciations long dead to the rest of the world—the aspirated h before it, the t attached to the end of once, the soft a prefixed to ing verbs, the deepened phonemes. But Grandpa has lost a little of the old speech, his dialect just perceptively different from the dialect of his relatives who never left Bluff. The older my grandpa gets, the more he uses the language of his childhood and the more he speaks of World War II. Each time I hear Grandpa’s language, I want to crawl inside the voice, write its rhythm around me, so I won’t forget. That war in that dialect: I want to commit it to paper, show it around. Sometimes I think of the Allied leaflets dropped on Germany during the final offensive, straight from S.H.A.E.F. (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces) to the common people: “Civilians must help to end the fighting.” I imagine the words falling on everyone, the language of the era soaking in.
When I lose my Grandpa, I’ll lose his stories and his language, too. © “You know, they made a good cider over there,” Grandpa said. “Hard apple cider, ‘cider’ they called it, hard.” I knew “over there” meant Europe, during the war. We were sitting at the kitchen table. I’d just poured a glass of red table wine for each of us, to go with our spaghetti—a recipe I learned from my mother, who learned it from my grandmother, who was not Italian but made spaghetti regularly because Grandpa liked it, and she could make a lot of it for not very much money. “Hard cider. Kept it in them barrels tucked up in their barns. You’d drink what you could, naturally. Tasted good too. If you could fill your canteen up with that, buddy, you’d be set for a while.” I imagine Grandpa traipsing through the farms of France, some ruined and some still standing. The standing ones: soft hay lofts, the remnants of crops, the window panes still intact and clean looking. A barn with a promising barrel, the thought of how it would taste. “But then the army said the Germans were a-poisoning those barrels, so we couldn’t drink it no more.” “What did you drink then?” “Water.” He told me the cider story a few years ago, around the time I turned thirty and started to notice the growing push to document the real, personal histories of World War II veterans—the books and oral histories, documentaries and miniseries. I’ve watched and read every story I can. Consuming them makes me anxious. There is a common fascination with that war and its soldiers, and there is a palpable press to get the stories out before we lose the generation who remembers. But where is my Grandfather’s story? None of what I see or read seems close enough to him. That September, on a Saturday afternoon when the sun still rode high and warm, Grandpa went into the kitchen to get himself a snack (some pieces of a sliced garden tomato and a leftover biscuit) and I followed. “Sit down, Baby,” Grandpa said. “I’m just a-having me some tomato is all. More in there, now, you want some.” When I sat down with a tomato, Grandpa handed me his knife, and I thought, for maybe the hundredth time that day, how thin the skin on his hands had gotten, how swollen the knuckles underneath. I sliced my tomato without words, and Grandpa began talking. Without preamble, we went back to the war, or, Grandpa went back, and I tried to follow him. “I was back in there once, there in France, you know. Back in that old country—farms and everything, like we had them here. Naturally, there’s country people everywhere. Them old farms, some had a spring, like we did back in here; some had a well. We went all through there, you know. Went wherever the Army told you to go. They’d have us stop sometimes, when there was some place we could get to, clean up some. One old place had a cabin and a well. I was in there a-washing, looked up, saw old Ford Price from down on Spring Creek.” A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
Grandpa took another bite of tomato biscuit and did not say more. I imagined separate battalions converging on the same stretch of abandoned farmland in the French countryside, the cabin with the well, the flash of recognition, the hey-oh, there, Ford! Why, hey-oh, Walter! By then Grandpa was a Pfc, Private First Class, and he wore his first chevron high up on his sleeve by his shoulder. Ford Price, a mountain boy like Grandpa, would have earned a similar rank. When our tomato biscuits were finished, I asked—this the first question I ever directly asked my grandfather about the war—what he and Ford talked about that day. “Didn’t have much time to talk, Baby. In-and-out, what they wanted. Wanted you to clean up and move out.” It was an innocuous enough question, and he had answered, so I tried another. “Did you see Ford Price again?” “No, Baby. That was the last time I saw old Ford.” I asked Grandpa another question about his meeting with Ford Price, but Grandpa would not answer. “Good tomato,” he said instead. “Won’t get no more this year. Lord, I dread it.” I knew he meant the cold weather soon to come. Not until evening, when I stood on the edge of the porch while Grandpa sat in his chair finishing his last cigarette for the night, and I felt the fall cool settling on the wind, did I realize that Ford Price died before the 30th Infantry Division made it out of France. ©
I wish my mother had taken that Purple Heart. I wish she’d slid it into the wide pocket of her jeans. It’s lost now: how, or even when, my grandpa doesn’t know. Same with his uniforms, the various insignia that marked his ascent through the noncommissioned ranks, the scant letters he wrote home, and any other medals that may or may not have been. Even the “Remember Me” photograph and frame the Army sent his mother, which I remember seeing not more than five years ago, is missing. Grandpa’s dark eyebrows are bushy as ever, and a shock of thick, wavy hair still grows on the top of his head. His hair isn’t brown anymore, but it isn’t pale grey either. Still, the skin stretched so thinly over his high cheekbones makes him look so old. And he is: eighty-four. Grandpa smokes half a pack of American Spirit cigarettes a day, watches CNN, the world news, the local news. He goes to Zion Baptist Church every other Sunday. His parents are buried in the cemetery there, his grandparents in the “old” cemetery, higher up, in Bluff. Grandpa loves peanut butter cups and pineapple pound cake and spaghetti. He calls me “Baby,” and he calls my mother “Baby.” He has survived two sons and twice been a widower. He spent thirty years in a crane lifting steel ingots from a furnace that made them red as burning coals. Once, he bought a decade-old Ford from a man in a bar for twenty dollars. When my mother was a child, he asked her to dial the numbers on the telephone for him. When Adam and I were children, he came to our house for weekend visits and fixed everything that needed fixing and a few things that didn’t. He moved back to Bluff when he was fifty-three. Until climbing up onto the tractor became too difficult, he ploughed up a field-size chunk of bottom land each year to make a garden packed with
Mountain Pride tomatoes and thick pole beans. I know all of these things about him, and it isn’t enough. © “Lord, they walked us to death,” Grandpa said to me in June, a month after he turned 80, when he was tired from working in the yard all day. “All over that place.” I knew he meant Europe, during the war. Grandpa was walking slowly up the porch steps, toward his favorite chair. His hip was bothering him—I could tell because his footsteps caught, and he walked crookedly. Grandpa doesn’t like anyone to see him walk this way—like an old man with a bad hip—so I pretended not to be looking. Grandpa and I spent the day sawing ruined limbs off a small Japanese maple damaged in an Easter frost and dragging the limbs down a steep hill. Grandpa did most of the sawing; I did most of the dragging. Grandpa came down the hill once, towing a limb behind. He staggered coming back up, having to stop and start again in several places, pausing for so long once, I wondered how I could go back down to him and pretend not to help him to the top. After Grandpa reached his chair, I pulled a beer for each of us from a cooler half full of warming water. When I handed Grandpa his bottle, he didn’t seem to mind its warmth. “Had to walk all the time in the Infantry. Walked on nothing too. Lived on them old K-rations till we could get out of the front lines.” I sat down on the old steel glider and reached for my notebook—by then I’d started leaving it out in the open, close to wherever Grandpa and I were, so I could write down what he said while he was saying it. “When you could get off that front line, then you thought you had it good, buddy. You could get some good food and a shower.” “What was that like?” “Took off your clothes at one end, went through and got clean clothes at the other.” “What was it like on the front lines?” “That strafing is a bad business. Germans would fly over and strafe us. Army had planes a-watching for them, naturally, but they couldn’t stop it. That strafing come at us anyway. St. Lo was like that, lots of strafing.” “St. Lo?” I said; I’d never heard Grandpa mention a specific battle before. But Grandpa said, “I’m a-going inside now, Baby. Had enough outside today.” I knew I’d asked him too far into the war. ©
He was a Master Sergeant. To the best of our reckoning, that was Grandpa’s highest rank. Mom says she knows he was a high-ranking noncom; he even had a valet who set out his clothes. My brother thinks he remembers Grandpa saying the words “Master Sergeant, US Army.” Grandpa doesn’t mention rank now, and even though I’ve started asking direct questions, asking this one might be going too far.
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Grandpa enlisted when he was a teenager—“seventeen is all, went in the service when I was seventeen”—one year shy of being able to legally enlist without the written permission of a parent. He went with some cousins one day after their shift at the textile mill: “I was a-working in Spartanburg, in the mill there. Well, I’d been a-working since I was sixteen; you could go to work in the textile mill young in those days…” Spartanburg, South Carolina—Sparkle City, the Lowell of the South—just outside the foothills of the southern Appalachian mountains, where the land drops off into the Piedmont —a big city to a boy from Bluff. It must have seemed exciting, maybe overwhelming, the clattering mills, the telephone and electric lines trailing up and down the city’s hills, the brick streets in the city’s center, the shining cars and smartly dressed men and women, the sparkling lights. Army recruits passed through on their way to Camp Croft. Recruiting posters decorated storefronts and shop counters: What do you want out of life? Adventure • Travel • Education • Good Pay • Promotion • Security There’s a good career for you in the Army Ground Forces. Blue—and sometimes gold—stars hung in the front windows of homes. Girls knitted socks and scarves for the boys overseas and were known to write long, sweet letters to them too. American flags were flying. Recruiting officers were crisply uniformed. And there was the promise of foreign shores. “Everyone wanted to go, didn’t know no better. We was young, that was all. Naturally, you wanted to do things, get out in the world. I went with the rest of them down there. All went and signed up. Moved my birthday up a year. I was born in twenty-six, but I put born in twenty-five. Acted like I was a year older. Seventeen is all, Baby, went in when I was seventeen.” 1943. The war was on. Campbell’s ran magazine ads encouraging women to “Serve Campbell’s Soup as your one hot dish,” perfect “with your victory garden salad.” The Ethyl Corporation warned against being a “sabotire...one who drives unnecessarily and carelessly and wastes rubber.” Ford Motor Company was building four-engine, long-range bombers. Swing was king. Glenn Miller was singing “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree”, and the Andrews Sisters hit was “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” In Bluff, no one knew of swing music (no one had a radio or electricity) and Doc Kimberly still owned the only motorized vehicle around. People still planted, harvested, and canned what they needed. They didn’t have much before the war, and they didn’t have much when it started. When Grandpa enlisted, his mother said nothing because she did not know. Even if she had known, what protest could she have made? Grandpa’s moved birth date didn’t catch up with him until he was already in Europe: “Army found out while I was a-waiting to go over to France, before we crossed the Channel, there, over in England. They gave me a paper. Momma had to sign it, send it back.” I asked Grandpa if he ever wished she wouldn’t have signed the form. “Oh, lots of times, Baby. Many a time.” © I have one photograph of Grandpa during the war. My mother kept it for years and let me make a
copy when I asked to see it last winter; it’s the only war photograph of him we can still find. He’s clean-shaven, wearing his dress greens with a tie, sitting at a table, eating a meal that looks like a very nice dinner—there’s a china teacup near his hand, a fork that glows like silver in his fingers. On the shoulder of his uniform coat, an insignia is just visible—an “O” with an “H” inside, three “Xs” across the middle. I looked at the photograph for years without recognizing the mark on Grandpa’s sleeve. Neither my mother nor I know where or when the photograph was taken, and when I showed it to Grandpa, he said, “I don’t remember none of that.” © Grandpa landed with the Army at Normandy. It is my mother who told me this and told me how there were still bodies suspended in the water he waded through to get to the beach. The first time I read Hemingway’s account of the D-Day landing, I read Grandpa into it: “All over the sea boats were crawling toward France… On the beach on the left where there was no sheltering overhang of shingled bank, the first, second, third, fourth and fifth waves lay where they had fallen….Out a way, rolling in the sea, was a Landing Craft Infantry, and as we came alongside of her I saw a ragged shellhole through the steel plates forward of her pilothouse where an 88-mm. German shell had punched through. Blood was dripping from the shiny edges of the hole into the sea with each roll of the LCI. Her rails and hull had been befouled by seasick men, and her dead were laid forward of her pilothouse.” Twice I tried asking Grandpa about Normandy. The first time he got up and walked away. The second time, when I asked what beach he’d landed on, he said, “I don’t know. After the rest of ‘em. Had to wait in England for the rest of ‘em to go over.” Then Grandpa walked away again, out the door this time, into the wind and sun on the porch. After the rest of them. I left Grandpa’s house that day with the sense his story might stay locked up permanently if I didn’t try harder to pull it out. “What division were you in?” I asked Grandpa the next time I visited. I thought the question would surprise him because I asked it apropos of nothing, but Grandpa’s answer came as though he’d been expecting me to ask, his voice sure and without emotion. “Thirtieth Division. Old Hickory Division they called us. Thirtieth Infantry.” When I got home, I pulled out the photograph. There was the patch on Grandpa’s sleeve—the “O,” the “H,” the “XXX.” I Googled “Old Hickory insignia” just to make sure. An image came up. It matched. The U.S. Army maintains a history of the 30th Infantry, archived and available online. A couple of strategic clicks, and the battle statistics of Grandpa’s division illuminated my computer screen: Grandpa landed on Omaha Beach, and he landed on D/8, 14 June, 1944. By then the Allies had secured Omaha Beach, so Grandpa contended only with the surf, the remaining dead, and whatever other battle detritus had not washed away with the tides. When Grandpa waded toward the beach, holding his Thompson sub machine gun above his head and above the waves the way he’d been taught, no one fired on him. A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
Grandpa’s Normandy campaign began the next day. I cannot find a newspaper or magazine account of the 30th’s activities on this day. Their first engagement with the enemy (on D/9) is not celebrated with the same pomp that surrounds each anniversary of D-Day; their first contact with anti-personnel weapons—bullets and shells—is not documented by the likes of Ernest Hemingway. But Frank Towers, a 30th Infantry Division Veteran, has worked to chronicle the Division’s battle history and make it available online. His writing doesn’t get too personal, describe the battles or name the dead. But it does record events, explain where these men were during the war and what they did. “The 30th Division was committed to its baptism of fire on 15 June 1944,” Towers writes in The War Starts Here for Us; “A few small communities were liberated, the Vire et Taute Canal Crossed.” In "The Battle of St. Lo & The Breakout," Towers explains the Division’s “first introduction to the famous Normandy ‘Hedgerows…’ We never trained for ‘hedgerow fighting’ while we were in England, so this was a new experience for us, and we had to improvise our tactics and defense as we went along.” When Adam and I were teenagers, Grandpa mentioned a sergeant from Tennessee who ran ahead of the other men, waving his pistol in the air above his head and yelling C’mon boys! Awyhooo! I imagine this happening in the first days of battle, which I now know included the taller-than-man walls of piled stones, earth, and thick growing tees and underbrush. When I asked Grandpa if he could tell me about his days of fighting in the Norman countryside, he said, “We’d be the front line, first ones, with everything else all behind you.” I’ve read enough to imagine the German forces dug in on the Norman countryside, manning established machine gun nests with guns zeroed on the hedgerow openings. I asked Grandpa how he did it, kept moving forward, made himself be a soldier. “You just did it. Had to, that was all.” © “Do not talk,” a World War II Unites States Army pamphlet from the Brussels Leave Center says “about your unit or what it is. Do not discuss equipment, losses, or battle experiences. The people of Brussels are very hospitable and will do all they can to make your leave enjoyable. Enjoy yourselves with them but do not tell them anything.” 55
When I asked Grandpa to tell me more about the weapons he fired during the war, I finally understood that the P. 38 he spoke of carrying—along with the .45 and the Thompson submachine gun and the radio on his back—was a Walther P.38, a German Luger. I asked why he carried the Luger, then said “oh, oh,” because I’d heard the foolishness in my own question. Grandpa answered me anyway, looking at me hard and saying: “Took it off a German; why do you think I had it?” “Oh,” I said again. “I understand.” But I didn’t really, and Grandpa told me a little more about his war.
“Took all we could get. All we could get. Them P.38s used different bullets, but we got us some of them. I used that P.38 in battle too. They didn’t want yuh to, wanted yuh to carry an Army pistol, but I carried it a lot. Carried it a lot.” Maybe Grandpa doesn’t talk more about the war because we don’t know how to talk about the war with him, don’t understand the logic of it—you had a Luger because you took it off a German; you took it off him because he was dead, and you could use it, and because a Luger shot well too. The last time my brother brought his handgun to Grandpa’s house, and they practiced shooting, Adam folded the pistol between both hands and paused after each shot. Grandpa leveled the pistol in his right hand—his left arm hung at his side; he had carried a radio—and fired the round rapidly, one bullet immediately after the other. Grandpa can shoot as if six decades have not passed, as if the memory of this action were lodged in him more deeply and can surface more completely than any words. © Grandpa never said a word about getting injured, but my mother said the injury was a leg wound. During one visit home, I helped my mother clean out the roll top desk in her living room. In the bottom of a drawer, I found a small manila envelope marked in my father’s handwriting: WW II Notif. I pulled two documents from the envelope: my father’s own Vietnam draft registration (dated November 4, 1966) and a Western Union telegram notifying my great-grandmother that my grandfather had been injured in World War II: kvck 31 govt
WUX Washington DC 906 Am 11/4/44
Mrs. Maude D. Waldroup
Regret to inform you your son Pvt first class Walter E. Waldroup was slightly injured in accident twelve October in Germany you will be advised as reports of condition are received.
J A Ulio, The Adj General
The telegram lists no street address and no zip code (because in 1944, residents of Bluff had neither) and arrived when Grandpa had been in Europe for eight months. He was eighteen. I wonder if my great-grandmother was distressed or relieved when she read the news. When I told Grandpa I’d found it, he did not want to see the telegram but said, “Those artillery shells are a bad thing, like a bomb. Spread a lot of shrapnel around.” “What happened?” I persisted. “I was out of it then, buddy,” Grandpa said, extinguishing a cigarette. “I was glad of it too.” A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
“Did you fight again?” “No, Baby.” For Grandpa, the combat ended during an offensive in Germany, two months before the Battle of the Bulge, seven before VE-Day. War stories like Grandpa’s are not part of the documentaries, and the Old Hickory Division isn’t fictionalized in popular war films. ©
After the war, the ticker-tape, the roses and kissing in the streets, Grandpa went to Nuremberg and earned his last promotion, Sergeant of the Guard, a short row of chevrons stacked on his sleeve. “Had to be six feet to be a guard. That’s what they put me on, war crime trials. I posted the guards outside the doors to each cell,” Grandpa said. He reenlisted after he recovered. He has never told me why he decided to re-up, except to say, “Army still had work to be done. Pay was good, fighting was over.” And he was six feet tall. “Palace of Justice, what they called it. Big old place, a pretty place,” he sounded impressed, even as he remembered. I’ve watched the newsreels and looked through photo archives and can see the way the Palace of Justice does look like a palace. Outside, its façade of stone and steles rises grandly over the Nuremberg Streets. Inside, the wood paneling in the courtroom glows in the flash of press bulbs; the flags of the Allied nations hang just so. “Had the prettiest uniforms you ever saw. Wore white helmets, white gloves, white belts, white pistol holsters. That was a good duty; twenty-four hours on and twenty-four off. We had it good, buddy. Private rooms, had our own club and a band there every night. Ate at the Allied Restaurant where the Army cooked for us. Got anything we wanted at the PX.” This all must have seemed like the high life for my grandpa, the twenty-year-old Sergeant of the Guard from Bluff Mountain. The photographs and newsreel clips depicting the main cellblock of the prison at Nuremberg show rows of American soldiers, one guard at each door, the white-helmeted Sergeant of the Guard standing among the others, watching. I’ve looked and looked for Grandpa’s face. Maybe I’ve seen it, maybe not. The images are grainy, the sergeants distant. Grandpa will say nothing more about his participation in the Nuremberg Trials, only that the duty was good, the uniforms sharp, the meals nice, the girls blameless and pretty. He doesn’t speak of the cellblocks or the prisoners. He posted and relieved guards outside Goering’s cell—I know that much. “Yes, I posted his guard,” Grandpa said, when I asked him about Goering. “Posted his guard with all the rest.” I want him to say he looked in there, looked at Goering behind his bars and felt triumphant, or proud, or knew he was participating in history. But he does not. At twenty, he would not have had the perspective I superimpose on him now. He wouldn’t have walked around contemplating his role in bringing war criminals to justice. He may not even have realized the enormity of the crimes. When I press him, Grandpa says on the days he didn’t hand war criminals over to the Honor Guard officer (who had the duty of escorting them into and out of the courtroom) he walked up to the Hall of Justice, courtroom 600, to watch. He was dazzled by the pomp and circumstance of it all, the shining walls, the flags, the brass and uniforms, the way the Honor Guard paraded up and
down the aisle—“shoulders back, head up.” After Goering slipped the cyanide pill between his lips on October 15th, 1946, two hours before his scheduled execution, the Sergeants of the Guard on his detail received demotions. Grandpa got busted down to Corporal or maybe even Private First Class. This is how my mother puts it, “got busted down,” “corporal or Pfc.” This fact, too, she learned from my grandmother, who whispered it to her children, whispered, even though my grandfather was at work. My brother and I want to know the details, know them absolutely, but we would never ask my grandfather—we would never. And searching that far into his service record would seem like a betrayal. “A guard saw Goering twitching on his cot at 10:45,” the New York Times reported, one day after the fact. “Colonel Andrus said glass from a capsule containing the poison was found in Goering’s mouth…The guard did not see Goering put his hand under his blanket and intervened the instant he saw the prisoner twitch, but it was too late.” I used to ask my mother why Grandpa lost his rank. Her answer did not change: “Your grandpa wasn’t even on duty the night Goering took the cyanide. But that’s how the Army worked.” This part of the story, too, my mother learned from her mother. Why, I’d wanted to know, did my grandmother tell the Nuremberg story at all? “She wanted us to know that our dad did something important,” my mother says of my grandmother. “She wanted us to know he was there and earned a good rank.” In all of my research, I have found nothing to contradict this story, and I believe it. “Twentyfour hours on and twenty-four off.” Like the Battle of the Bulge and VE Day, at the moment of the cyanide capsule, my grandfather was somewhere else. But the event stuck with him anyway—one lousy chevron to take home. I imagine Grandpa did not miss posting the Nuremberg guards as much as wearing the shining helmet and white gloves, the matching holster. His guard duty in Nuremberg was the first time in his life he’d had anything so new and fancy to wear, the first time he’d had his own bedroom, been able to eat in nice restaurants, and buy whatever he wanted. “We had it good, buddy. Best duty you could think of.” As Grandpa tells it, Nuremberg was all gilt and pomp and polish, pretty things and pretty times. The easy and esteemed duty of posting and relieving guards. “What do you want out of life?” The posters asked during the war. “There’s a good career for you in the Army Ground Forces.” But not for my grandfather. He lost what all surviving soldiers lose during war. And he lost what he’d gained in the war too—the rank, the good pay, the polish. 58
© December 1946, Grandpa came home. “I was done with it then. Didn’t re-up no more.” If he came home to fanfare, he has never mentioned it. What Grandpa has mentioned is New York City, not parades or ticker tape or kissing girls in the street, but the buildings: “Lord, I seen that place. No, I never need to go back there. Seen enough of it once. Buildings all ways ‘round. Had to stand out in the street and look straight up over your head to see the sky.” Grandpa at twenty: through the A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
war and back again, off the troop ship in New York City, blinking in the December snow; the ocean fading behind him—he was glad to be rid of it—some money in his pocket, a train ticket back to North Carolina. When he got home, it was Christmas, and holly and bittersweet berries were hanging on the walls. Told from the first lacing of his military boots not to talk, my grandfather’s reluctance to discuss the war was nothing peculiar. The boys from that war returned to a country grieving its losses indeed, but grieving them under the warm blanket of Victory!, a country that expected to plunge forward and did. Come home from the war, inhale the air of freedom, get a job, get a house, get a family, get a Ford. Keep going. And that’s what Grandpa did. By New Year’s Day 1947, Grandpa had gone with some cousins up to Detroit where he heard the steel mills were hiring, and he thought he could find something more for himself than he saw waiting for him in Bluff. He got a job in a steel mill, he bought a tie, he met my grandmother, he got married, he bought a house. No, Grandpa’s reluctance to speak about the war wasn’t strange, but his half-talk was. He must have thought of Normandy and Nuremberg, the exploding shells and shiny uniforms. A guy like Grandpa, a scratch-poor farm boy from Bluff, must have been proud of fighting in the war and guarding during the trials. Maybe embarrassed by the loss of his rank? Still miffed at the Army for taking it? What was Grandpa’s half-talk, his odd dropping-in of facts, his saying only so much, if not a way of comparing the war to everything else—just like the Nuremberg Trials? In his eighties, when Grandpa’s step was unsteady, and he walked with a sort of lurch-fallcatch motion, I wondered if Grandpa thought of the war more than he let on. In the kitchen, Grandpa would put out a hand, hold onto a chair he always left pulled out for that purpose.
I know the statistics. One thousand World War II veterans die each day. Their ongoing loss is fueling the push to document their stories. Better to honor the truths of these men now, than to get it wrong later. But Grandpa died—without pretense or warning—on a December night after going to bed, before I finished asking my questions or writing this essay. The Army sent a flag for his coffin, but no one was available to play taps the morning of the funeral. Whether this would have relieved or saddened Grandpa, I do not know. Like my mother, I am piecing together what I can. I have an old, deep pride in knowing my grandfather was there, that he participated. Perhaps I’m hoping to make his half-talk whole, to recreate, at least in language, some of what he lost. I am not the first to do this. After his funeral, I asked my mother why she thought my grandmother had taken the trouble to tell her children about Grandpa’s service in World War II. My mother’s answer was bemused: “Well, those were the facts she wanted to make sure we knew, part of the story my mother told us about our Dad.”
Bibliography Campbells. “Wartime Guide to Summer Meals,” (advertisement), Life, July 19, 1943. Ethyl Corporation. “What’s in a name?” (advertisement), Life, July 19, 1943. Hemingway, Ernest. “Voyage to Victory,” Collier’s, July 22, 1944. Reprinted in By-Line: Ernest Hemingway, ed. William White, 300-313. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1967. Schmidt, Dana Adams. “Guilt is Punished.” The New York Times, October 16, 1946. S.H.A.E.F (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force). The Daily Organ of Supreme Headquarters. “Allied Tanks Smash to Elbe River.” April 12, 1945. (quoted and translated from German in Klaus Kirchner, The Leaflet Collector No.3 Internet Edition. www.propagandaleaflets.com ). Towers, Frank W. “The Battle of St. Lo & The Breakout,” Article posted on The 30th Infantry Division Veterans of WWII. 30th Infantry Division Veterans. http://www.30thinfantry.org/st_lo battle.shtml. “The War Starts Here for Us,” Article posted on The 30th Infantry Division Veterans of WWII. 30th Infantry Division Veterans. http://www.30thinfantry org/st_lo_battle.shtml. United States Army Center of Military History. “Combat Chronicle-30th Infantry Division,” CMH Online. http://www.history.army.mil/lineage/cc/030id.htm. Reproduced from The Army Almanac: A Book of Facts Concerning the Army of the United States, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1950, pp. 510-592. Unites States Army. “Leave Center Brussles, Belgium Reception Center—Parc Du Cinquantenaire Map Ref. N. 8,” Not dated.
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In the American Red Cross Studio for Portrait Masks, Paris, 1917
A wall of white plaster heads. Before them, a soldier. The soldier removes his jaw. We cannot know whether he volunteers to remove his jaw, or whether he is encouraged to remove his jaw, anymore than we can know whether he volunteered to fight or whether he was encouraged to fight, or whether he went over the top or dug-in, or whether he was rushed to aid or left a cold star. The soldier turns profile. We cannot know whether he is prompted, or whether he is proud, anymore than we can know whether his coastline was sculpted by a Mauser or a shell, or whether his teeth and bone enrich the soil of Devil’s Wood or The Mud or The Push or The Bulge or some other place whose name now means Hell. The soldier replaces his jaw, secures it with string behind ears that might still ring, and are now
most useful as anchors for this painted copper plate that lifted him from Siddcup’s blue benches, muffled the gasps of passersby, raised his wife’s eyes above his collar bone. Or maybe he had no wife. Maybe he had a sweetheart. Maybe he was gay. Maybe his love, married or promised, man or woman, died in the war. Maybe he never loved anyone. Maybe he never loved anyone, and maybe now he thinks that no matter how much he may love someone, no one will ever love him. Not like this. Not a half-faced man. The mask may help him walk unmolested among others, but even the blind reach for a lover’s face. Even the blind and handless would hear the screams in the night, feel the sweat and the shaking. Men without lips, cannot kiss; can men who cannot kiss, love?
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Contributors Amanda Bales received her MFA from the University of Alaska. Her work has appeared in theNashville Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Southern Humanities Review, and elsewhere. She teaches at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. James Halford is a writer and critic from Brisbane, Australia. He spent extended periods in Argentina and Mexico during the 2000s, and since then has published fiction, creative non-fiction, and scholarly writing about contemporary Latin America. Recent work can be found in the Sydney Review of Books. Erin Pushman’s essays and feature articles have appeared or are forthcoming in the Gettysburg Review, Confrontation, Breastfeeding Today, Cold Mountain Review, and Segue. Jacob Slichter is the drummer for Semisonic and the author of So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star. He has written for the New York Times and is an occasional contributor to NPR’s Morning Edition. Pascha Sotolongo teaches English at the University of Nebraska where she writes both fiction and nonfiction. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Pleiades, The New Guard (Machigonne Fiction Prize finalist), Saw Palm, Women’s Studies, Frontiers, Ethnic Studies Review, and the Journal of Florida Literature, among others. She has also received the Salem College Penelope Niven Award for Creative Nonfiction. Currently, Pascha is working on a magical realist novel set in Cuba. Patti See’s stories, poems, and essays have appeared in Salon Magazine, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Journal of Developmental Education, the Wisconsin Academy Review, the Southwest Review, HipMama, Inside HigherEd, as well as many other magazines and anthologies. She is the co-editor (with Bruce Taylor) of Higher Learning: Reading and Writing About College, 3rd edition and is the author of a poetry collection, Love's Bluff. She wrote the blog “Our Long Goodbye: One Family’s Experiences with Alzheimer’s,” which has been read in over ninety countries. 63
Featuring work by Amanda Bales, James Halford, Erin Pushman, Patti See, Jacob Slichter, and Pascha Sotolongo.