Charles Goodlett, of Zionsville, Ind., captures the sense of helplessness and grief so many of us are feeling as Covid-19 strikes our friends and our heroes. If you would like to submit a posting for Clearing the Fog, contact us here.
We heard last night that John Prine succumbed to COVID-19 in Nashville, having been critically ill for at least a week. It shocked and saddened me and elicited a melancholic reflection back 50 years, reminding me how much his music, especially his first album in 1970, infused my entry into young adulthood.
When I was a senior in high school and just coming of age in the tumultuous era of Vietnam War protests, culture wars, Nixon, drugs, and the shock of assassinations, riots, Kent State, and paranoia, this album shed resonating light on the hardships of everyday people with humor, irony, and grit.
“Sam Stone” is a gut punch about the consequences of Vietnam combat, heroin addiction, and PTSD. The carefree pleasure of getting high and “just trying to have me some fun” was the theme of “Illegal Smile.” “Spanish Pipedream” described a deserting soldier's escapist dream. “Hello in There” offered an unforgettable immersion into the loneliness of growing old. And, of course, who can forget the mocking sarcasm directed at hypocritical Christian patriotism in the chorus of the song whose title is its first line:
But your flag decal won’t get you into Heaven anymore
They’re already overcrowded from your dirty little war
Now Jesus don’t like killin’, no matter what the reason’s for
And your flag decal won’t get you into Heaven anymore
"Six O’clock News" reminds us of the life story behind the shocking destruction of a young man. And then there's the anthem for all rebellious Kentuckians (and a rage against Mr. Peabody’s corporate environmental destruction well before anyone ever mentioned global warming), a favorite of so many, “Paradise”:
The coal company came with the world’s largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man
So Daddy, won’t ya take me back to Muhlenberg County,
Down by the Green River, where Paradise lay.
I’m sorry my son, but your too late in asking,
Mr. Peabody’s coal train done hauled it away.
Listen to my 6-minute tribute, featuring one of Prine's most frequently performed songs, “Angel from Montgomery.”
Prine was a singer-songwriter with a legendary cult following who served up folk tales of biting humor—all told in stories about people, the truth unvarnished with searing insights and hilarious wit. He captured life’s humor and made it more interesting and fun for all of us.
Perhaps the most hilariously ironic statement of independence in all of folk/rock is the first verse of “Sweet Revenge” from his album of the same name:
I got kicked off of Noah's Ark
I turn my cheek to unkind remarks
There was two of everything
But one of me
And when the rains came tumbling down
I held my breath and I stood my ground
And I watched that ship go sailing
Out to sea
John, we are all mourning your death while poignantly celebrating your life by singing along with you one more time, with a tearful twinkle in our eyes.
[offered by Sallie Showalter]
In late March, soon after the news broke of John Prine's diagnosis, my friend Peter Berres of Lexington, Ky., eloquent and sage writer about the Vietnam conflict, sent me a Prine performance of "Hello in There."
In Berres' words:
"Forty-five years of bringing, at least, a tear to my eye each and every time I listened (hundreds to thousands?). This seems like one of the most poignant performances, in my mind. I suppose it may have something to do with our times and situation.
Been watching this daily for several weeks. Now, with news of his diagnosis, watching has transformed into treasuring this performance, this song, this man..."
Peggy Cooper, of northern Kentucky, is the co-editor of Celebrate a Community, soon to be reprinted by Murky Press.
Celebrate a Community began as a group project. It grew out of an effort to celebrate the Sesquicentennial of Fayetteville, Ohio. Fifty years before, my co-editor, Harold Showalter, had organized the Centennial Celebration of this small rural community.
That celebration was a powerful influence on many of us younger folks. Suddenly, fifty years later, we were the generation that would decide if our community’s history was still important enough to commemorate and remember.
My brother-in-law asked a few weeks ago why all of these old stories are important. He couldn’t see any value in things said and done long ago. I mumbled some response that would convince no one of the importance of the task.
Having had a chance to consider the question, I would now ask if he would mind being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s dementia. Of course he would! None of us would choose such a disease—death, a little bit at a time, as our memories and all that is important and meaningful slips away forever. Communities can suffer from a kind of Alzheimer’s, too, and the effect is just as devastating for the stricken community as it is for the stricken individual.
Remembering is important to who we are, as individuals or as a society. Sadly, the importance of history often goes unrecognized until it is too late to claim it. I am proud to have been a part of the effort to preserve our sense of community.
The Bourbon County Courthouse, which was destroyed by fire on October 19, 1901, just eight months after the arched gate at the bottom right was used to lynch George Carter. The citizens of Paris preserved the iron gate after the fire and it still stands adjacent to a historic building in downtown Paris.
As I’ve worked on my novel over the past three years, I’ve dedicated large chunks of time to researching or writing about the first half of the 20th century. I’ve tried to grasp the cultural and societal impact of two World Wars, the Great Depression, the rise of labor unions, and expanded access to telephones and automobiles. I’ve thought about how different parts of the country—from Miami to Toledo to the coal towns of Eastern Kentucky—responded to those changes.
That’s a tall order, and I’m certain I’ve barely scratched the surface of all I need to know. Nonetheless, I’ve frequently found myself immersed in another place and time—worlds that one would think are quite different from our 21st-century reality.
So I was somewhat surprised when I opened the Sunday Herald-Leader on November 24 and discovered two articles on the opinion page addressing a theme that runs through my novel. In one, Western Kentucky native LaTonia Jones writes about her youth in Paducah, where she played innocently in the cool grass on the very site where two black men, Brack Kinley and Luther Durrett, were lynched on October 13, 1916. In the other, University of Kentucky Ph.D. candidate Carson Benn recognizes the 100th anniversary of the efforts of the citizens of Corbin, Ky., on October 30, 1919, to expel all the black residents from their town.
Unfortunately, the term “lynching,” and all the ugly and unforgivable history it represents, has recently been a part of our national conversation. And it was only a few short months ago that we were talking about sending certain people in our country back where they came from.
It appears that in the 100+ years that have intervened since the events memorialized in these articles we have progressed very little. That we would resurrect these expressions and use them for personal advancement is unthinkable. That we still shy away from the conversations necessary to address simmering resentments is inexcusable. Can we ever find a way to embrace all our fellow citizens equally and justly?
My grandfather, whose life is fictionalized in Next Train Out, worked at a pharmacy in Corbin in 1914. In a scene in the novel, he returns to Corbin in 1934 and reflects on this shameful event in the town’s history, an event he views through the lens of a World War I veteran who trained alongside black recruits. At this point, he has also spent a lifetime coming to grips with the perverted justice he witnessed as an eight-year-old boy in Paris, Ky.—the same sort of justice that LaTonia Jones’ ancestors witnessed.
Evidently we still have much to learn from our history. Almost despite ourselves, we continue to find ways to inflict harm on each other, wittingly or unwittingly. And that is why it is so important that Ms. Jones and Mr. Benn and others continue to remind us of our past. Burying it will only let the cancer grow. Bringing it into the light, as is the goal of the Sunup Initiative in Corbin, is how we may best be able to change course.
Although Lawrenceburg was my parents’ hometown, I don’t have many memories of the place before my family moved there when I was seven. I know we came for visits, despite the arduous two-day drive. Typically, however, we would stay at the rambling farmhouse of my Goodlett cousins in southern Franklin County. As we neared our destination, I would wake up in the back seat of the old Plymouth Valiant, peer out the window at the white board fence loping along the road, and know that we were almost there.
I do remember one fateful trip, however, when we were planning to stay with my McWilliams cousins in Lawrenceburg. That trip was special: we were taking the train. I remember being picked up from school—another oddity, since my sister and I always walked to and from school—before we headed to the train station. Sometime en route, as the train rumbled west, I developed the mumps. I don’t remember too much more about the visit, but I’m sure it was not the family gathering anyone had anticipated.
So Lawrenceburg was still largely a mystery to me when we moved there. One of my early memories was shopping with Joy Mountjoy and Jean Goodlett at The Louisville Store. I remember wandering the aisles of Ben Franklin, awestruck at all the trinkets. I recall hearing about the filming of “The Flim-Flam Man” in town the summer before, disappointed that I had missed all the excitement.
I tagged along with my mother everywhere she went. The Lawrenceburg Bank. Ballard’s Drug Store. Model Market. Her aunt and uncle’s apartment on Jackson Street. That first summer, that’s how I got to know the town.
Recently, members of the Anderson County Historical Society were treated to a montage of film captured by Roy York in the early 1960s: parades through downtown Lawrenceburg, documentation of all the churches and public buildings, the dedication of Beaver Lake. Those of us of a certain age enjoyed catching glimpses of the people and places we remember from that era. It was a long time ago.
Lawrenceburg is a different place now. The 127-Bypass has become a commercial mecca. New neighborhoods have sprouted in every direction. The population has more than quadrupled.
But you still have to stop for the train on North Main Street. The old cemetery is still a beautiful place for a reflective walk. Downtown is once again bustling with places to eat and shop. The churches along Main Street haven’t moved. The courthouse featured in the old movie still stands sentinel.
I’m heading back to Lawrenceburg tomorrow for the Anderson Public Library Book Fest. I hope to chat with some current residents. Perhaps I’ll see some old friends. As I did the research for The Last Resort, I probably learned more about the area’s people and history than I had in the 10 years I lived there. There’s still much to discover, of course. But I know Pud Goodlett and Bobby Cole are happy that the little logbook of their adventures along Salt River has led me to a better understanding of their hometown.
David Hoefer, of Louisville, is the co-editor of The Last Resort. If you would like to submit a blog post for Clearing the Fog, contact us here.
The Last Resort is about young men in the final stages of youth, an all-too-brief period of camaraderie in the leafy, rural backdrop of Anderson County, Kentucky. But that’s not all John Goodlett’s book is about. Pud’s letters home while training to be an infantryman and later witnessing the closing days of World War II present another important part of his story.
In the spring of 1945, he faced the desperate violence of Germany’s failing opposition, as well as the skeletonized horror of a newly liberated concentration camp. Evidence suggests that Pud was a good soldier if not exactly a natural one. In a letter from France dated 6 Feb 1945, he explains to his mother and sister that his life outdoors has prepared him well for living in muddy trenches and handling a rifle. Without doubt he was a successful soldier: he made it home alive, returning to civilian life.
I’ve been reading another, more extensive war memoir of an altogether different character. The book’s English title is Storm of Steel, and its author is Ernst Jünger, a German veteran of trench combat in World War I. By all accounts, Jünger was a natural soldier—born to it and unashamed of the role he played in battle. At the same time, he was a gifted writer, who left us what many consider one of the best accounts of Western Front warfare, that four-year spectacle of death and obliteration.
Storm of Steel is quite unlike the pacifist tracts and novels that were popular in the years following the war’s end. Rather, it is a sharply observant record of the day-to-day tedium, punctuated by chaotic, deafening menace, that defined the conflict, captured by Jünger without sentimentality or celebration.
I bring this up because of a passage early in the book that caught my attention. New to his deployment, Jünger is experiencing shelling from a French position for the first time. His unit is posted by a woods that has yet to be destroyed by the fighting. Of this he writes:
“Towards noon, the artillery fire increased to a kind of savage pounding dance. The flames lit around us incessantly. Black, white, and yellow clouds mingled…And all the time the curious, canary-like twittering of dozens of fuses. With their cut-out shapes, in which the trapped air produced a flute-like trill, they drifted over the long surf of explosions like ticking copper toy clocks or mechanical insects. The odd thing was that the little birds in the forest seemed quite untroubled by the myriad noises; they sat peaceably over the smoke in their battered boughs. In the short intervals of firing, we could hear them singing happily or ardently to one another, if anything even inspired or encouraged by the dreadful noise on all sides” (2004:27-8, trans. by Michael Hofmann).
Nature abides; the birds carry on despite the groundswell of violence, without the ability to penetrate any realm beyond immediate circumstance. Observations like these reimagine war as a kind of stupid, background static.
This passage made me think about Pud, who faced down his own difficulties in war. It recasts the contrast between a delight-filled ramble in the woods and a dangerous, cold night in a foxhole as a single, somewhat enigmatic incident. This compression of tranquility and anxiety, of blessedness and its withdrawal, summarizes the power that we also detect in John Goodlett’s journals and letters.
A little further into Storm of Steel there’s a second passage that illustrates nature’s eternal return:
“Rank weeds climb up and through barbed wire, symptomatic of a new and different type of flora taking on the fallow fields [between the front lines]. Wild flowers, of a sort that generally make only an occasional appearance in grain fields, dominate the scene; here and there even bushes and shrubs have taken hold. The paths too are overgrown, but easily identified by the presence on them of round-leaved plantains. Bird life thrives in such wilderness, partridges for instance, whose curious cries we often hear at night, or larks, whose choir starts up at first light over trenches” (ibid.:41).
Ecological succession unfolds even in the most forbidding circumstances. Nature is that stubbornest of all habits.
Storm of Steel is worth your time (though not without some gruesome moments). Jünger knew the fear of war but never the fear of writing about it. By giving us a polished but truthful account, he goes beyond the moralism that actually detracts from depictions of the Devil’s great gift to humanity.
When I was in second grade, I vividly remember coming home and declaring to my mother that I intended to marry my classmate David Oldham. He was handsome, smart, and debonair (or at least that’s how I recall him more than 50 years later).
My mother frowned. Always the pragmatist, never the romantic, she said, “But you can’t marry David, Sallie. He’s colored.”
I was outraged. I was defiant. I thought my mother was just trying to deny me the wedded bliss that I imagined. But it was Baltimore in 1966. Loving v. Virginia wouldn’t be decided until 1967. Mother knew best.
The following spring I watched as the city bused black children from their inner-city homes to P.S. 212, my school in northeast Baltimore. Even at seven years old I could feel their terror. They couldn’t sit comfortably in their seats. Their wide eyes darted around the room. They didn’t speak.
I was gone shortly after that—before the end of the school year and before the Baltimore riots—whisked away to my own foreign world in Kentucky. I did not go easily. I hid in my bedroom closet, hoping my mother would leave me behind so I could stay near my friends.
These memories have come back recently as the nation has flirted with another conversation about busing. We’re talking again about reparations. And this month we’re acknowledging the 400th anniversary of the first African slaves being brought to our shores.
As I’ve dug into my family history over the past few years, I’ve discovered evidence that the ancestors of at least three of my four grandparents owned slaves. They all lived in Kentucky or Virginia or Tennessee. Most of the families had come to this land from Great Britain well before we had gained our independence. I don’t know that any of my ancestors were sizable landowners, but they evidently elected to use slave labor to keep the household or small farm running.
At first, I was shocked. Then I felt resigned. Those of us whose families have been here longest may have the most to explain. While everyone in this country benefited from slave labor, we are the ones who claimed ownership of other human beings. We are the ones who were here to grumble and complain as each new ethnic group came to this country fleeing famine or religious persecution or genocide. Or arrived here simply seeking a better life.
Today we malign the immigrants who knock on our door looking for refuge, for work, for a future. We blame the ills of this country on the “huddled masses” who come here seeking hope, while we quietly benefit from the work only they are willing to do.
But perhaps it’s not recent immigrants, but those of us whose ancestors arrived here earliest who carry the biggest burden. We’re the ones who now need to demonstrate what we can offer this country. How we can make it whole. How we can repay the gifts we’ve received. That’s our public charge.
Tim Cooper, of Oakdale, Minn., reminds us of the human truths we can uncover from personal letters. If you would like to submit a blog post for Clearing the Fog, contact us here.
A couple of years into my pursuit of an undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota, I was threatened with summary expulsion. No, it wasn’t my grades; I had finagled my way into the honors program and maintained high marks. And no, it wasn’t my youthful predilection to juvenile delinquency—I was too busy studying to sustain that lifestyle. Rather, as the registrar’s office curtly informed me, I had failed to declare a major prior to the onset of my junior year.
Two days before the deadline, I met with a professor who would become a mentor and friend until the end of his life. Professor Paul L. Murphy—constitutional historian; social-justice advocate; Pulitzer Prize finalist; and gentleman—took an early interest in me. Professor Murphy and his wife would often invite me to dinner at their home where I was accepted as a “sibling” to his two daughters. What he saw in me, I don’t know. But his guidance in any number of issues always gave me clarity.
What did he say?
“Timothy,” he intoned, “what academic major other than history will allow you to read, analyze, and discuss other people’s letters and diaries?” It wasn’t advice, it was an observation. And I was sold. The next afternoon, 30 minutes before being asked to pack my bags, I entered “history” as my major.
I haven’t looked back.
Nor did I think much about this incident until the passing of my grandmother some years later. When my father and I cleaned out her home after her death, we found stacks of notebooks comprising my grandmother’s diary, which she had maintained from the age of 8. Her entries were initially written in Gaelic, the tongue of her native Ireland, and then suddenly transformed into proper English after she settled in the U.S. as a young immigrant. Finally, barely 10 days before cancer’s ultimate victory, she just as suddenly returned to her native language. Indeed, this recapitulation to Gaelic happened mid-sentence. Her final entries were all in Gaelic.
When I read those diaries, I recalled Professor Murphy’s observation.
Recently, I again remembered my mentor’s words when Sallie Showalter forwarded to me a file of her father’s correspondence from the Harvard Forest’s archival collections. I cannot describe the excitement I had scanning through Pud’s letters. Let me try to explain.
In them we see the arc of his relationships with family and friends, as well as his professional interactions and scientific observations. But more importantly we see the development of a “voice,” of an academic rueful and wry one minute, proper and scholarly the next. I read them and felt as if this absent and unknown man, a man I have known of since I was 15 years old but never met, was speaking to me. And I like him, enormously. I understand his world-vision, his striving, and his occasional self-doubt. But it is his humor—and his horrible handwriting—that sing to me.
Letters and diaries do that to you.
So let me end in a plea. In the next few days, I ask you to recover paper and pencil or pen, envelope, and stamp. Think of a loved one, a family member, a friend, or an acquaintance. Write that person a heart-felt letter in your own hand and post it by “snail-mail.” The subject doesn’t matter. It can be humorous or serious, gossipy or informative, apologetic or explanatory.
An unexpected letter may mean more to the recipient than you can anticipate. And you never know what historian will relish your words in some unimagined future.
Ed.--On June 23, 1955, Pud and his colleague John T. Hack were chased off a mountain near Bridgewater, Va., while doing work for the U.S. Geological Survey. They encountered eight other bears while conducting their research, but only one—a mother with two cubs—"attacked." The incident was enshrined in a local newspaper, in family lore, and--as in the following examples--in Pud's own self-deprecating humor.
In the following excerpt from a letter dated June 20, 1956, Pud tries to reassure Dr. Hugh Raup, the director of Harvard Forest who was out of the country for the summer, that all is well at the Forest during his absence.
It’s like a geode I’ve successfully cracked open but haven’t yet had the chance to examine. It’s waiting there expectantly, with all its sparkling treasure, this ancient trunk with its broken clasps and brittle leather straps.
It arrived yesterday, a mysterious portmanteau that holds within its confines the length and breadth of my great-grandfather’s restless mind and peripatetic wanderings: the sermons outlined, the teachers certified, the schools visited, the marriages performed, the eulogies delivered, the newspaper articles written, the farm business documented. His journal from 1876. Notebooks from his Georgetown College days that include Greek and Latin translations, advanced math, and notes about his roommates’ romances. The camera he took to Europe and the Holy Land in 1911. The pebbles collected from around the world. The 1920 registration card for “Old Danger,” the Ford he never drove. Sheet music and a piano method book. Virtuoso panegyrics to exotic lands.
All of Bro. W. D. Moore’s extraordinary life seems compressed in this chest. Photos, letters, postcards, itineraries, sermons, ledgers.
I’m itching to dig through it, to read every one of the letters and finger each artifact, trying to imagine his life. It may take my lifetime to look through it all. But it’s beckoning me to set aside my plans, ignore my commitments and kneel before this sarcophagus that holds another man’s secrets. What could possibly be more interesting? Or more important?
But, alas, it has to wait. I’m off on another adventure of my own, seeking to learn more about Dudley’s grandson, Martha’s youngest boy, my father. When I return from that journey, I’ll carve out the time to dive into this treasure chest and immerse myself in the minutiae of an uncommon life, a life that spanned nearly 80 years more than 100 years ago.
The trunk arrived after a curiously circuitous journey, after having been lost to the family for a number of years. I had no idea it even existed until a few months ago. It evidently has landed in my home now because others believe I have room to keep it—or, rather, that I will keep it safe. Or perhaps they know I’m a sucker for historical family documents. Whatever it’s tortuous path, it’s here now, for a stay of uncertain duration. Anyone interested is welcome to come visit and pan for gold.
As I’m able, I’ll share items from its contents that I think might interest you. Let me tease you with one of my favorites: a rare informal photo of the respected and beloved itinerant preacher.
Some people use a metal detector to find hidden treasure from the past. In fact, Rick and I talked to one such fellow the other day as we were loading our bikes in the car after a short ride through the Bluegrass countryside. Rick, never shy about approaching a stranger, asked the young man, Rob Mattingly, if he had found anything of interest there on the grounds of Great Crossing Park in Scott County.
That launched a far-reaching conversation that revealed, among other things, Mattingly’s startling grasp of regional and family history as well as his specific knowledge of glass bottles from 1870 to 1910. He had even done some searches on property in the Gilberts Creek area of Anderson and Mercer Counties. After hearing a brief summary of how his early family settled in Marion, Washington, and Nelson counties, we decided if he wasn’t related to the Goodletts he may well be related to the McClures—Charleen Goodlett’s family.
A couple of weeks before that excursion, Rick and I had joined cousins Sandy Goodlett and Ben Birdwhistell as we examined the amazing collection of a native Lawrenceburg resident, Brent Hawkins. Brent’s treasure trove of historical photos, maps, documents, whiskey bottles, and furniture—all related to Lawrenceburg and Anderson County—nearly knocked us off our feet. Most of his artifacts had been collected the old-fashioned way: by talking to area residents, expressing an interest in their family histories, and attending estate sales. Once we were able to focus our over-stimulated senses, we concentrated on the old steamer trunk full of memorabilia that once belonged to our great-grandfather, Bro. W. D. Moore. Watch for more about those findings in an upcoming blog.
Nearly a year ago, Murky Press’ resident archaeologist, David Hoefer, using one of the tools of all contemporary scientists and historians—the online search—stumbled across another family relic: my father’s paper titled “Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey.” Written in 1948, that term paper—identified as a “book”—is now preserved at the Harvard Botany Libraries. We know not why or how it found its home there. It’s more of a history of bourbon distilling in the U.S. than it is an examination of the plants used in the distilling process. But, in light of the purpose of the university’s Economic Botany Library, it does make sense: “The Economic Botany Library…specializes in materials related to economic botany or the commercial exploitation of plants. Subject areas cover ethnobotany, medicinal plants, hallucinogens and narcotics, crop plants, edible and poisonous plants, herbals and other rare pre-Linnean works….”
Since all of the materials in the botany libraries are non-circulating, we were struggling to get our hands on a copy. That’s when Brad Wilson, Bobby Cole’s son-in-law, stepped in to complete the excavation. A modern intrepid explorer, Brad, who happened to be in Boston for a family matter, crossed the Charles River to visit the Harvard campus in Cambridge and found his way to the proper library. There, with the kind assistance of the library staff, he dug out the infamous paper written by the war-weary, homesick graduate student.
I want to thank Brad for his role in unearthing this piece of family history. And, since I’m writing on D-Day, I want to recognize Bobby Cole and John Allen Moore and Rinky Routt and George McWilliams and Lin Morgan Mountjoy and John D. Goodlette and Vincent Goodlett and Billy Goodlett and John Campbell “Pud” Goodlett and all the other boys of The Last Resort who helped deliver Europe and the Pacific region from tyranny.
With a nod to my father’s four rules for field work*, history is where you find it. It’s personal. It’s regional. And it has implications for the entire world—for all of us. If we don’t honor it, recognize it, study it, and willingly take a few lessons from it, we will not endure.
On this day we honor the remaining veterans of World War II. We honor those who gave their lives on the shores of Normandy and all across the globe during that conflict. And we hope that our country’s leaders will once again consider the lessons that history can teach us.
Perhaps they can learn a thing or two from Rob Mattingly and Brent Hawkins, two average citizens in a red state who have invested hours and hours of their lives getting familiar with the past.
*Abbreviated version of Professor John C. Goodlett’s Four Rules of Field Work:
1. Water, generally, runs downhill.
2. Plants occur where you find them.
3. Never get separated from your lunch.
4. Never go back the same way you came.
For more about the Bond & Lillard Distillery, read Family Spirits.
For more about the discovery of my father's paper on bourbon, and his affection for the spirit, read Bonded to Kentucky.
In memory of Brad Wilson’s mother, Dixie (1937-2019), who raised one heckuva son.
By the time I was 14, I had read Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Pierre Boulle’s The Bridge Over the River Kwai, and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. I don’t think I was particularly precocious or drawn to novels about war. These books just happened to be in my family’s library, and something I can’t possibly recall prompted me to pull them from the shelf. I’m certain I was a little young to fully appreciate the books, and I need to reread them all.
But I can tell you that these fictional representations of two world wars both fascinated and repelled me. I was horrified by the realities and the inanities of war, and reading these books made me militantly anti-war at a very young age.
As I prepared to write my own novel, I had to dig into each of these wars in a little more depth. The primary character, based somewhere between loosely and explicitly on the grandfather I never knew, served in France during World War I and accepted a job as a civilian at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland during World War II.
I had already spent some time digging into WWII while David Hoefer and I were compiling The Last Resort. But, for the novel, I needed to know particulars, especially about the first few months of America’s involvement and how civilians responded to having the country engaged in yet another war.
WWI was much fuzzier for me, so I’ve done some reading over the past couple of years to catch up. I also had the good fortune of multiple visits to an expansive exhibit about the war, curated by Margaret Spratt, at the Hopewell Museum in Paris, Ky., in 2017. And today I attended a screening of the cinematic wizardry that is the film They Shall Not Grow Old, Peter Jackson’s montage of original film footage transformed by vast teams of immensely talented technicians and then overlaid with excerpts from BBC interviews with soldiers who served during the war. The result is a powerful immersion in the trench warfare experienced by tens of thousands of soldiers, many of them absurdly young. I came away wondering what I always do when I gain a clearer understanding of the brutality of war: how anyone survives intact.
I am by no means a scholar of these two wars. I do not have the depth or breadth of understanding of a curious high school student. But I have tried to grasp some kernel of truth about the sacrifices these men made and the moral lassitude that threatened their souls while fighting in a foreign land for reasons that weren’t always clear against men who in so many ways were just like them. If I have any hope of understanding my grandfather’s story, or my father’s story, I have to peer into that ugly maw, if only from the shelter of my comfortable armchair.