Alsace, the Germanized eastern province of France with borders on Germany and Switzerland, has a few large cities like Strasbourg, Nancy, and Colmar, but for the most part it is a land of farms and small towns, a poor place, where in 1944 and 1945 the inhabitants (most of dubious loyalty to the Allied cause) eked out a hard living in picturesque but primitive houses and barns, set in the midst of steaming manure piles. The most impoverished people slept with their animals to keep warm and wore wooden shoes to negotiate the mixture of mud and cow dung that was underfoot during winter and early spring. There was a small town every few miles, and the one I was in on March 12, 1945, was named Obermodern. I was a twenty-year-old second lieutenant, the leader of a rifle platoon in Company F of the 410th Infantry, 103rd Division.
In one officers' bull session at the company command post, the dining room of a house whose family had long before fled the shells that frequently landed in the town, someone commented on the number of American tanks in the vicinity and wondered if an attack was being prepared. Trying to persuade myself, I scoffed at the idea, arguing that we'd never attack again in our sector. Why would we? After all, Patton to our north was outflanking the Siegfried Line, and anything we did in Alsace would be a foolish waste of energy.
Then, melodrama: the company commander entered, just back from a briefing at battalion headquarters. His face was solemn, notable because his accustomed relation to higher authority, while essentially respectful, had in it an element of play. (His normal reaction to any silly order emanating from battalion was "Fuck 'em!") He was bringing back the news that Operation "Undertone" was about to begin, which meant that the whole Seventh Army would go on the attack on March 15. The 103rd Division would be in the lead, and our second battalion--that is, us--had been elected to make the main effort in the initial breakthrough. We were to seize by 9:00 A.M. the town of Gundershoffen, a few miles ahead, and establish there a bridgehead over a small river running through the town, thus securing passage for an armored column that was to pass through us and link up with the Third Army. The theory was that this would envelop numerous German units. After this dire briefing, we four platoon leaders set to work spreading the word among our men, issuing our own orders, checking equipment, and accumulating ammunition and K rations. And trying to keep our own anxieties from showing.
My sergeants received the news with their usual composure. Indeed, it was their skill at controlling emotion that, among other things, had earned them their stripes in the first place. Platoon Sergeant Edward K. Hudson busied himself concealing his fear beneath an elaborately busy act of "checking" on the three squads' material preparedness for attack. At this stage (we'd been in combat four months) we all assumed that no moral, psychological, or spiritual preparation would be necessary. The three squad leaders were excellent young men but all notably different. Sergeant Nelson, from somewhere in Scandinavian America, had a tipped-up nose and looked rather like an elf when he smiled, which was often. He was bright and loyal and courageous. Sergeant Partin, from somewhere in the South, was less bright, but he was solid and entirely trustworthy. Sergeant Engle, another Southerner, now and then constituted a problem, for he was the smartest of all of them. Back in training, Hudson had suggested that I bust him to private for impertinence, and I had. When we went overseas he regained his rank, although he was still given to impudence and sly resistance. But he knew his stuff and could manage his men.
The night before the attack, Hudson and I for the first time slept together, for we were very seldom in a house with a double bed. Fully clothed, we occupied an immense lit matrimonial in the house serving as our platoon headquarters and went to sleep immediately, escaping into lucky oblivion from the menaces promised in the morning. At 3:00 A.M. we got up, strapped on our equipment, and joined the rest of F Company in a small abandoned local cafe for a real breakfast. The company on this occasion included the cooks, whom we'd not seen for months. They had come up during the night with their stoves and pots and pans, and they regaled us with a heartening hot breakfast: biscuits, shit-on-a-shingle, real coffee with canned milk. Noted but made light of were the condemned-men implications of all this.
H-Hour is 6:30. By that time we've marched two or three miles in darkness and arrived at the edge of a woods on a hill overlooking a shallow valley with a narrow river. As the light comes up, I suddenly recognize the place I'm standing as the setting-off point of two failed night patrols I've led my platoon on. Not a happy augury of success now. At 6:30, seven hundred guns open up behind us, laying down a fifteen-minute barrage in front and also informing the Germans that we are about to attack. As the barrage ends, we notice a tiny figure zigzagging back from the battlefield-to-be. It proves to be a combat engineer, who has been out there some time in the dark, getting ready to ignite the smoke pots, which are now belching a blinding, choking white chemical smoke designed to conceal us as we attack.
As we get ready to move forward, because of the trees I can see only three or four men of my platoon, disposed along the front of the woods at ten-yard intervals. They look toward me with white faces. Although I think I am no more scared than usual, this time my mouth is dry and it seems hard to get my breath. I hear a whistle blast behind and step forward, shouting in a loud, would-be firm voice, "Let's go!" We step off and soon we are running downhill. We don't think of the mines we might be stepping on, and luckily we don't meet any. But the adjacent units have a less happy experience: they run into a field filled with wooden Schu-mines, and many feet and lower legs are blown off. One man in Company G to our left lost his foot that day, and later he noted a home truth familiar to us all: "Sooner or later you're going to get it in combat. You can't roll the dice every day and not get waxed."
The smoke, which almost blinded us and made us cough and curse, I now realized was to conceal exactly where we were crossing the river. I don't remember how we did it. A single footbridge, emplaced in the night by the engineers? Long logs thrown across the banks? Whatever, we got across and, still running, were soon in the midst of a small town our artillery had just destroyed, leaving flocks of audibly angry poultry and many Germans, freshly killed. We kept going and, breathing hard now and gesturing toward the rear the German prisoners who came up to us, crying, cringing, gibbering--the artillery had done its unimaginably cruel work--we reached the top of a low hill overlooking a compact woods. The Germans had by now got their artillery firing, and shells landed among us. Being lazy and inept, we did not immediately dig in but lay out in the open for an hour, cowering from the shells and wondering what to do.
Finally the order came down to cross an eight-foot-high road embankment and assemble on the other side, away from the enemy. We did this by platoons. By this time the road was a machine-gun target, and as each man plunged frantically across, he occasioned a burst. I was not terribly scared by the artillery shells, which clearly weren't being observed but only fired mechanically according to some prearranged plan. What terrified me was the obviously observed machine-gun fire I'd have to race crossing the road. The two scouts and Hudson had gone first and got across safely, and I sent the others over one by one, remaining behind until I should have to go over myself. Noticing my hesitancy, a sharp-eyed lieutenant colonel warned me to get myself together or I'd be in a lot of trouble. Thus rebuked, I took a deep breath, climbed up the embankment, scuttered across the asphalt where the machine-gun bullets were striking off sparks, and tumbled, unhit, down the embankment on the other side. The lieutenant colonel had accurately diagnosed the cause of my delay--sheer unofficer-like terror.
We now had the embankment between us and the Germans in the woods, which we were going to have to clear. It was already well past the 9:00 deadline for arriving at the bridgehead town. In fact, it was now three in the afternoon and the orders from battalion to get moving became increasingly impatient, shrill, and, finally, insulting. In the absence of reconnaissance, which might have suggested a more clever tactical solution, the quickest way to take the woods, it was clear, was by sudden direct assault. That day we had two heavy machine guns with the company, directed by Second Lieutenant Raymond Biedrzycki (pronounced Bedricki), a phlegmatic former sergeant recently field commissioned. On a whistle signal from F Company commander, these were suddenly lifted to the top of the embankment and began traversing fire along the near edge of the woods, while we, bayonets fixed, climbed up and over, cursing and yelling and firing at the woods as we ran. It was very like going over the top in the Great War, an effect enhanced by the two water-cooled machine guns on their heavy tripods firing continuously over our heads. They were Model 1917, exactly the same as in the First World War. From this frontal attack on a prepared German position, I expected a ghastly carnage of the Great War type, but nearing the woods and looking back over the field we'd just crossed, expecting to see there the bodies of the dead and wounded, I saw nothing but an occasional gas mask and folded raincoat, discarded in the rush.
We were doing fine until we entered the woods. Then, rifle and machine-gun fire began immediately. Many of us were hit before we could throw ourselves down. Shouted orders could not be heard over the noise, and paralyzed by the machine-gun fire an inch above our heads (you could feel the heat of the bullets), we could only hope that someone else was applying some means of relief. Hudson and I, a foot apart, were bellowing at each other in our frustration, anger, and fear. While pressing every inch of me into the ground as tightly as possible, I managed a look to the left, to see one of my men, a stout blond youth, suddenly rise and, kneeling, level his rifle at the machine gun. There was a savage burst of fire, and out of the back of his field jacket, just where, on the other side, his heart would be, flew little clouds of dust, cloth, blood, and human tissue. He was a new replacement whose name I'd not yet learned. Looking to the right, I saw a similar scene: Sergeant Engle stood up to return fire, and the machine gun caught him right in the mouth. He dropped to his knees, and, looking toward Hudson and me, spit out his blood and teeth onto the green forest floor. Thank God, at that point one of my men, quite un-ordered-to, slipped around with a grenade, flanked the machine gun, and destroyed it together with its teenaged operator. Sergeant Engle we could do nothing to help, for we were obeying the order "Leave the wounded to be cared for by the medics and press on." (Magically, he survived, to become, after years of facial reconstruction, an Episcopal minister.)
In shock as we all were--this was by far the worst combat we'd faced so far--we moved forward in the woods, encountering trenches and dugouts the Germans had been preparing for months. Most of them now wanted to surrender, and as we shouted, "Kommen Sie heraus, Hande hoch!" they dragged themselves out, weeping and hoping not to be killed in anger. Many were. Now and then one of our men, annoyed at too much German delay in vacating a position, would throw in a live grenade, saying things like "Here. Divide that among you." Once we began rampaging inside the forest, the conflict turned decidedly unfair. One man recalls, "We did all the shooting. They did all the dying." We must have killed thirty or forty and captured more than that. Some of the captured, we found, were wearing GI woolen trousers, seized from some overrun U.S. quartermaster warehouse, doubtless in the Bulge. It was a tradition of the line that Germans caught with American clothing or equipment be treated harshly. We made these poor scared souls remove their trousers, kicking them severely in their butts to make our point clear.
When we reached the farther side of the woods, we began reorganizing to continue the attack, although it was now well past four o'clock. Along this far edge of the woods there were some large earth-and-log bunkers, once the dormitories of the defending troops. Together with Sergeant Hudson and Lieutenant Biedrzycki, I sat on top of one to plan our next move. Suddenly, off to the left, at the forward edge of the woods, a deafening crack! Then, five seconds later, another, closer. And then, another, still closer. Something like a tank or self-propelled gun was firing systematically across the edge of the woods, and my men were leaping into whatever cover they could find. Many threw themselves into the entrance of the bunker the three of us were on top of, but many couldn't make it: there were cries and shouts, and one man screamed, "They blew my legs off! They blew my legs off!" Hudson, Biedrzycki, and I did not take cover, and the reason is curious. I stayed put because, virtually accused once of cowardice, I didn't want to be seen being ostentatiously prudent a second time. The other two followed my lead in remaining in the open, I imagine because I was the senior and they thought they should follow my lead. Now, curiously, I was thoroughly brave. As the shells came closer and closer, the three of us lay flat: by then there was nothing else to do, for the time to take cover had quite run out. Then, an unspeakably loud metallic clang! right overhead. It was the loudest sound I'd ever heard. I was temporarily deaf, and in the sudden silence I drifted for an instant back to my serene beginning.
The Pasadena I was born into, in 1924, thoroughly deserved its reputation as a highly privileged "suburb"--the word had not yet taken on pejorative overtones. It was a dull, safe, trim little city of some sixty thousand where those who commuted to the tougher Los Angeles eleven miles away returned in the evenings to raise families in gentility and peace.
Southern California was not yet synonymous with shallowness, compulsory "leisure," show business, and sleaze. For many it was a serious place, and Pasadena especially seemed a moral oasis in the midst of the surrounding drink, sex, drugs, and gambling. The tone was that of Midwestern uprightness, and the rules were plain: do not smoke, or drink, or swear, or gamble; attend church; pay your bills immediately; work hard; tell no lies; succeed--and never buy anything on the installment plan. Pasadena, says social historian Kevin Starr,
once upon a time constituted a state of mind. Here the genteel tradition grafted itself onto Southern California circumstances. Pasadena embodied the certainties and pursuits of the white Protestant upper middle classes: education, refinement, a cautiously progressive point of view on social and political issues, all of it modified but not enervated by the sunshine of Southern California. Thus Pasadenans played tennis and golf and spent time at country clubs but they also read books and cared intensely about literature and serious theater.Like Arizona and other salubrious places in the Southwest, California had earned among Eastern physicians a reputation as a warm, dry environment beneficial to tuberculosis patients. In the preantibiotic days when I was young, it was still a haunt of TB sufferers. In the early 1920s a number of local physicians established The Preventorium, an institution for needy tubercular boys from the East. Some hotels--like the Hotel Green--seemed populated entirely by patients, wheeled out on balconies to relish the warm sun and air or pushed slowly around the grounds. Peace and quiet dominated: the number of electric automobiles silently tooling around the streets with old ladies at their joysticks must have set a record for similar towns.
It was a place of some wealth and patrician social responsibility. The streets were immaculate. Because of the benign weather, street crosswalks stayed brightly white for years, and pedestrians had always the right-of-way when crossing. The public schools were superb, a model for the nation, and the city government (run by a city manager, not a mayor) was incorruptible, performing its functions in a tasteful Italian Renaissance domed city hall. The police and fire departments were known for their discipline and efficiency. Churches abounded, and Sunday was spent attending them. There was an impressive public library with eight branches, situated so that no resident would live more than a mile from one. The national yearly per capita average of library books borrowed was four. In Pasadena, it was twelve. Well before the Volstead Act in 1919, Pasadena had made up its mind on the liquor question and prohibited saloons within the city limits. But for all these amenities, an opera house would have been unthinkable: this was a philistine city, and despite its attractiveness, profoundly un-European in its self-satisfied puritanism.
If not entirely Anglo-Saxon, the population seemed distinctly Caucasian. There was, to be sure, a "colored" district, but one never passed through it, nor through the places where the "Mexicans" were said to live. The few Japanese were silent, industrious gardeners working meticulously around upper-middle-class premises. Anyone dropped into Pasadena for the first time might have been tempted to designate it Luckyville, for it seemed to have reached the condition all American places aspired to in the 1920s and 1930s: it was beautiful, peaceful, harmonious, comfortable. If Los Angeles was, sadly, an example of the Real, Pasadena came close to representing the Ideal.
It was tuberculosis that caused my father, Paul Fussell (I am officially Jr.), to be born in Pasadena in the first place. Without that, he would have been a native of Wallingford, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia, and would probably have become a member of the Pennsylvania bar. His mother, Sara Haswell, had married Edwin Neal Fussell, the son of a local physician. Edwin was variously a typesetter, a traveling cigar merchant, and a post-office inspector. He and Sara had had one son, Edwin Briggs Fussell, before a doctor diagnosed the young father's tuberculosis and advised an immediate move to a warmer climate. At great sacrifice but hopefully, the Fussell family moved to Pasadena, where Sara's husband soon died. But not before a second son, my father, was born. Sara Fussell, early widowed and with no income to speak of, brought up her two boys on the minuscule salary of a grade school teacher, augmented, in due course, by the small ad hoc earnings of her boys. My father, for example, sold aluminum kitchen ware door-to-door. His brother grew fonder of drinking, smoking, and swearing than Pasadena and his mother approved of, and after high school he took off for Seattle, where he embarked on a lifelong career as an editorial writer for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Unlike his brother, who stayed in Pasadena and looked after his mother, E. B. Fussell became a fervent Democrat and conservationist, throwing himself into the populist battle against the "lumber interests."
In those days very few young people continued their education past high school, and in those days a high school education, in a well-to-do place like Pasadena, was effective preparation for a life not only of worldly success but of judgment. For example, Edmund Burke's On Conciliation with the Colonies, not the easiest work of thought and rhetoric for adolescents, was widely taught in high schools. And discussed and debated. Today it's seldom read even in "universities." When I was a boy my father was my only relative who'd graduated not just from a university (California, 1917), but from a law school as well (Boldt Hall). In those places he distinguished himself as a notable hard worker and puritan--his chastity and sobriety were the wonder of his friends--and he was conspicuous as a debater and quick thinker. Not long ago, I was told by one of his former law partners, Secretary of State Warren Christopher, that my father possessed "the quickest mind of any man I've known."
Their law firm was O'Melveny & Myers in Los Angeles, and my father devoted himself to corporation law. When he was born in 1895, California had been a state of the Union for only forty-five years--aristocratic Spanish families were still to be met with--and there was a great deal of incorporating to be done, of such new enterprises as the real estate business and soon the film industry, and later, the aircraft-building companies. And always, of course, oil.
He rose rapidly in the law and was soon financially stable. Then comfortable. Then rich--one reason, together with the benignity of Pasadena, that Paul Fussell Jr. was so easily insulated from the real world. Raised by a hyperstrict mother, my father did not drink or smoke, nor did he gamble or swear. Indeed, I heard him swear only once. When I was in junior high school I committed some misdemeanor with a bean blower, as I recall. When he heard of it, he grew red and permitted a "Damn" to escape his lips, an offense never to be repeated. When Santa Anita "Park" was built, he strenuously objected to the pari-mutuel activity there. When he had to attend parties where drinking was going on, he stuck resolutely to ginger ale. Although he finally had to tolerate his children's cigarettes, he never smoked at all, barring some preposterous experiments with a pipe when he was a boy ordnance officer in the First World War. What he did do was work, to support his mother and his own family. You did that sort of thing then, especially if you came from Pennsylvania church stock, both Presbyterian and Quaker.
The intellectual and social superiority of Father's family to Mother's was always assumed. It had produced, we were told, a flock of teachers and physicians, and one distant relative, William Shepherd, was said to have been in the boat when Washington crossed the Delaware to harass the British at the Battle of Trenton in 1776. The Fussell family claimed artistic distinction as well. It was proud that a great-uncle of mine, Charles L. Fussell, had been a student of Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
Because they were less given to such social bragging and self-satisfaction, I knew less about Mother's side of the family than Father's. Wilhma Wilson Sill was born in 1894 in Bloomington, Illinois. If one of my grandfathers was a casualty of tuberculosis, the other was a casualty of mass production. Mother's father, William David Sill, was early employed as a carriage trimmer: that meant that with his own hands he put the fringe on top of surreys and installed the upholstery. The rise of the automobile industry ruined that trade, and father, mother, and beautiful blonde girl-child moved all the way west to new possibilities in Pasadena. Here, her father performed a series of odd jobs like house painting and carpentry while she attended high school and, for a short while, the University of California at Berkeley. (Her college ukulele, a conventional fixture in those raccoon-coat days, became one of my toys.) She knew my father at high school and college, and their acquaintance ended in marriage and the birth of three children: Edwin in 1922, two years later Paul Jr., and Florence in 1926.
Mother's parents were extremely modest and kind. Her mother we kids denominated Marblenanna for her practice of giving us marbles when we visited. (Father's mother was Chickinanna: she, like so many others in those days, raised chickens.) Grandfather Sill, tall and slender with a white mustache, projected the dignity of a quietly decent, very private working man. I never saw him wearing anything but a three-piece salt-and-pepper suit. (The idea of him dressed in anything like "leisure wear" is quite unthinkable.) We children loved both the elder Sills in a way we never could the punctilious, didactic, constantly fault-finding Chickinanna. In the conventional style of mothers-in-law, she took every opportunity to demean and humiliate the alien woman who had had the impertinence to marry her son. Regardless, we liked visiting Chickinanna because of the cuckoo clock in her living room, from which the little bird appeared regularly to flap its wooden wings and to "cuckoo" the time. Every night, the clock was wound up by pulling to the top two cast-iron weights shaped like elongated pinecones. In the style of the period was a conviction of my mother's sustained by her mother-in-law, namely, the persuasion that she was distinctly subordinate to her husband and properly devoted not to matters of moment but to details of feeding, laundry, and minor discipline, with an occasional revel at a women's club. Mother always asserted that she stemmed from Irish stock, partly, I suspect, to annoy Anglophile Father.
My earliest and most innocent memories are of our first house, a small bungalow on Pasadena's Waldo Avenue, a modest street on the Los Angeles side of town and thus fine for commuting. This house had not had the benefit, unlike our later ones, of thoroughly snobbish zoning ordinances, and nearby were laundries, commercial garages, and auto-parts and repair businesses. Snapshot evidence indicates how vigorously under the sidewalk peppertrees Ed and I played out with tricycles and wagons a mimic version of Southern California automobile culture. There's little evidence that we ever played with our sister.
In this house, still in a crib, I conceived a similarity in form, if not function, between a size D flashlight battery and a jar of Vaseline. There, in the backyard, I once witnessed the silent movement, in and out of each other's coils, of a nest of black snakes. Not yet acquainted with the lore of snakes, I wasn't at all afraid of them. They looked to me as harmless as a basket of kittens. But there was one frightening moment in my earliest years. A black maid had lit the gas oven carelessly, and the resulting explosion had burned off her eyebrows and lashes without causing further damage. Her appearance scared me, and I had to be comforted and assured that she was really all right.
From overheard gossip we children were able to understand that a "depression" was underway, but we didn't know enough economics or sociology to wonder at our father's choosing, just now, to build a costly, luxurious upper-middle-class house on the other, and much better, side of town, where instead of auto-repair shops, one found Cal Tech and the Huntington Library. This new house was an eloquent registration of Father's sentimental Anglophilia. Where did a young Californian pick up such a thing? Partly in law school, of course, as he spent lonely nights over Blackstone's Commentaries and mastered Coke upon Littleton. But partly also from the several months he spent at Trinity College, Cambridge, after the First World War had ended with thousands of idle American soldiers in Europe and little shipping to bring them home. Many were put to studious waiting, at Oxford, Cambridge, and the Sorbonne, a novel experience of learned civility few forgot. Ever after, Father displayed in his oak-paneled "den" a print of the Great Court of Trinity and carved wood plaques displaying the "arms," in bright red and white, of that college and of the university. Not to be outdone in the social-class competition, Mother displayed in the hall her own family's "coat of arms," attained from a mail-order company. It featured a shield, with crossed weapons, ribbons, and a helmet on top, and below, the motto Tam Fidus, Quam Fixus, satirically translated by my brother as the motto of an early repairman, "I am Fidus who fixes."
Not surprisingly, this first house Father had built for his family aped a compact British manor house, as understood in Southern California. Outside, it featured dark brown beams against light brown stucco with a shingled porte cochere, diamond-paned leaded windows, and servants' quarters--that is, a maid's room with bath. The lot was not large enough for such authentic touches as sheep to keep the grass cut or a fake ruined Gothic tower in the distance, but we did have such luxuries as a stagnant water-lily pool in the backyard, together with a sundial on a fluted concrete pedestal. In its quiet and secure "British" way, the house made an anti-California statement, nestled as it was between two more conventional "Spanish"-style houses with white plaster facades, colored tiles, and terra-cotta roofs.
While father was an "attorney"--he seldom referred to himself as a lawyer--our neighbors in the Spanish-style houses were, on the one side, a society dentist and, on the other, the owner of a flourishing lumberyard. We got along well with the no-nonsense lumberyard man, but the dentist was not in great favor with our teetotal family, for he gave stylish and noisy cocktail parties in his large screened porch in back, and the smell of gin was often perceptible way over in our yard. Sometimes the giggling and shrieking didn't stop until late at night. Other than this cluster of three houses, our street was remarkably empty, vacant lots, largely devoid of trees, stretching endlessly in all directions.
Father was too busy and sensible to go in for the pseudomystical line that California was other than another state of the Union, full of promise, all right, but without very strong metaphoric meaning. For him, it was not a place for exotic dream fulfillment but for profitable investment. For a short while he found himself in a group called Native Sons of the Golden West, but the lapel pin of this organization, complete with sturdy golden bear, he kept buried in his shirt-stud box. He died in 1973, providentially escaping the California that seemed to offer a natural theater for sillies like Zsa Zsa Gabor and crazies like Patricia Hearst. I doubt that he knew that Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy lived nearby and seemed to many to establish the appropriate California tone. For Father, California was a place more like, say, Oregon than Oz. It was a place for grown-ups well past the mental age when life could be conceived of as an animated cartoon, or the state imagined as a magnet for every pothead, drunk, egotist, and eccentric in the United States, an El Dorado of fools, Charles Mansons, and O. J. Simpsons.
Father was always formal, and except at the beach, he wore a dark blue or gray suit. His normal spoken idiom seemed to combine the genteel-euphemistic with the legal. He was fond of saying "save" instead of "except," and in identifying people in group snapshots by writing in white ink on the black pages of photo albums, he'd specify himself not as PF but as Self. He was not exactly a philistine, but he had virtually no interest in art or any music but light classics and operettas like The Desert Song. His views of painting and sculpture adhered to the strictly representational. He could stomach a bit of impressionism, but painting in cubist and surrealist modes struck him as simply "perverted." Some of his pronunciations marked him as careful and slightly archaic. "Chocolate" became chack-let, and in "doctorate" (a word he loved), he gave the final syllable the sound of ate. As he aged, "language" became langridge. As his abstention from profanity might imply--obscenity was simply unthinkable--he controlled anger, and he was amazingly good-natured, and to his relatives, including his children, astonishingly kind and generous. To his issue, stock certificates and trust funds became familiar, and there were large and unadvertised benefactions to charities and colleges.
But to me, his and my mother's greatest gift was a constant moral emphasis. This or that film was forbidden as "not suitable." Lying, stealing, cruelty, damaging property were sins not to be toyed with or easily expiated. The idea of conscience was to Mother as real as the idea of the soul. The two were innate and intimately related to each other. For me, there's no difficulty following Auden's advice to himself in "A Lullaby":
praise your parents who gave youThat "English" house was our family headquarters until the end of the Second World War, and we children grew used to space and comfort. Each of us had a bedroom, and in mine, the largest, there was room for, ultimately, a film and magic-show "theater," a darkroom, and a print shop, in addition to a double-deck bunk, where I entertained overnight guests. The house was only two blocks from an excellent grammar school, to which we walked with ease, the weather being usually benign, requiring no wraps, overshoes, or similar "East Coast" impedimenta. At Hamilton School it would seem that the main emphasis was on "creative" work, and my memories are less of the multiplication tables (which I never really mastered) than of poster paints, easels, and pots of clay covered with damp cloths. One unforgettable event was a kite-flying competition, with the kites made and decorated by ourselves.
a Super-Ego of strength
that saved you so much bother.
I loved this school without reservation until the bugle-blowing humiliation. Somehow, I found myself furnished with a bugle and with it the obligation to play every morning "To the Colors" at the base of the school flagpole while Old Glory was slowly pulled to the top by two boys--who broke into uncontrollable giggles when they perceived that I couldn't play the bugle at all. I had grossly insufficient lung power, and nothing came out but a series of fartlike toots, in the proper rhythm but all on the same "note." Finally I was relieved of this daily humiliation by some music lover tossing a marble down the bell of the bugle. It stuck and entirely resisted removal, and that was the end of bugle blowing. After this shame-making proceeding (it must have lasted two weeks), I became less enthusiastic about infantine group life and its invitations to show off.
But there were other humiliations not my fault. One Halloween my loving mother decided that I should be costumed as Mickey Mouse. A whiz with the Singer, she ran up an outfit involving black tights, outsize shoes and gloves, and a little pair of red shorts with two large yellow buttons in front that made me cringe with shame.
It was at this school that several unattractive aspects of my character became apparent, at least to me. One was impatience and boredom, leading to anger at the slowness of others. In a class in "painting," I was once publicly shamed for applying paint without waiting for the undercoat to dry.
Miss Weatherhead: "Class, remember what I told you. Wet paint upon wet paint does what?"I also lied very often, and was often found out. It was that habit, together with my physical and intellectual vanity, that triggered one memorable occasion.
Class (in delighted unison): "SMEARS!"
The desks we were assigned were arranged in permanent files, with about eight desks lined up behind one another. They all looked the same, and it was not easy to remember which desk was one's own. Behind me sat a very cute blonde girl I had a crush on, a feeling I imagined she reciprocated, and in spades, since I was really, I knew, better looking even than she was. She was extremely proud of one of her possessions her doting parents had given her, a green fountain pen that wrote with green ink.
One day I was thrilled, if not exactly surprised, to find that she had secretly made me a present of this precious thing, placing it without explanation (none, I conceived, was needed) in the drawer of my desk. When no one was looking I slipped it into my pocket, elevated by all the erotic and social self-satisfactions a ten-year-old could be expected to feel at such a loving gift. But the next day, all was revealed: the teacher announced that the girl's treasured pen was not in her desk drawer--she was crying bitterly--and had anyone seen it? Silence. And on my part, horror. Impossible to confess what had happened, that she had merely mistaken my desk for her own, for then my intense self love would be revealed to all. The search for the pen went on for several days, during which I saw with terror some faint stains of green ink on my fingers. Finally, afraid that it would somehow be discovered at home rolled up among the clean handkerchiefs in my dresser drawer, I seized a moment when no one was around and buried it in a vacant lot behind our house.
My later hatred of compulsory "physical education" I can date from Hamilton School. Once we were commanded to remove our shoes and grasp a marble in the toes of each foot to carry across the floor. My marbles wouldn't stay picked up, and hostile questions were asked as to why I couldn't perform this simple exercise. But if I failed there, I managed to succeed elsewhere, especially in reading and spelling, and spelling was still taken very seriously as an intellectual achievement. My distinction in the language arts resulted in my skipping a grade, gratifying at the time but ironically a lifelong curse, making me always a year younger than everyone else wherever I found myself, especially the army.
But to Hamilton School I owe a great deal, not least because it inadvertently provided my first orgasm, suggesting thereby some of the delight and wonder available in the future. It was when I was about twelve, enjoying a bus excursion to the Los Angeles County Museum, a fascinating eclectic showcase of Indian artifacts, early Hollywood memorabilia (Chaplin's large black shoes, for one thing), and prehistoric animal skeletons dragged from the La Brea tar pits. The afternoon, which I'd enjoyed mightily, was over and it was time to return to the bus. I was late and fearful of a reprimand, and I ran breathlessly down a hill to the bus below. Suddenly, I was seized by the oddest, most magical, most powerful, most delicious spasm of pleasure in my loins. There was no ejaculation, but an unmistakable foretaste of something valuable, mysterious, and profoundly private. When my friends asked why I looked so odd, I knew I'd felt something I could never convey to them. Had Gods--in whom I didn't believe--visited me with a sign of His love and power? Or was I some sort of freak, destined to hover always on the outskirts of humanity?
There was no audible answer then or later, for Mother and Father were as shy as I was in bringing up such topics. Indeed, in those days, no one seemed willing to explain intimate details, and those of us who did learn (sort of) had our schoolmates for teachers. Public school teachers never dealt with such topics, and certainly Sunday school teachers did not.
Urged by Chickinanna, the family attended the Pasadena Presbyterian Church regularly, where we were regaled with fairly dignified music and high-class sermons by our venerable Scottish minister. To sustain group piety during the week, there were also dismal "Father-Son" suppers on Wednesdays, with group singing of "Marching Along Together" and similar Kiwanis favorites. These occasions might have been a good time for a bit of instruction in sexual hygiene, but no such thing took place. These meetings were conducted by a very nasty Christian Education young man with curly yellow hair and a goody-goody rhetoric passing belief. Cocoa was served, and its being made with water instead of milk established for me a model of Protestant meanness, confirmed later at numerous church sales as I noticed the absolutely minimal padding vouchsafed the expensive pot holders on sale, making them quite useless, tokens merely of fraud and pretentiousness. Could it be that churches cheated, like virtually everyone else? I'm afraid this early acquaintance with the Scottish Presbyterian spirit, as I understood it, quite turned me off not just church for life but Scotland as well. I found it easy to embrace the formulation Scotland is to England as Alabama is to Connecticut. Unfair, admittedly, but I can't help it, and perhaps the fault is less mine than Pasadena's.
After church, Chickinanna accompanied us home for quite a fair imitation of the British Victorian Sunday: no games, with card games especially to be watched out for; improving reading and very quiet outdoor activity barely permitted. At noon, a stultifying family dinner, consisting of overcooked vegetables, roast potatoes, and an overdone lamb roast. Chickinanna's contributions to the conversation were largely attempts to mend the pronunciation and language of her grandchildren, thus implicitly reproving her daughter-in-law's slackness in performing an essential duty. Don't say "Cream uv Wheat." Say "Cream ov Wheat." Never utter such indelicacies as "belly," or even "shirttail." The postprandial comment "Boy, I'm full" was especially warned against. As a result of this campaign, I became acquainted early with the whole lexicon of gentility and euphemism. Don't speak of cancer, speak of "a tumor." When you say "This room seems rather close," what you are understood to mean is "Someone's farted in here." As Chickinanna's instructions went on over the years, it was easy to understand why Father's brother had taken to Seattle, liberal journalism, cigars, and an occasional drink. By the time I grew up, the only thing Presbyterianism needed to blacken it forever in my view was the totalitarian-puritan mind and behavior of John Foster Dulles, the humorless Presbyterian secretary of state from Princeton. To this day I can't pass a Presbyterian church anywhere without a crushing feeling that boredom, rigidity, and fraud lurk inside.
My boyhood was excessively happy, but now and then this idyll was compromised by unpleasantness. Mother had read somewhere that a cause of juvenile misbehavior was the accumulation of unclean matter in the bowels, and that a timely enema was an aid to virtue. It was enema time whenever I'd engaged in particularly heinous conduct, like throwing kumquats at passing cars or stabbing to death the toads that flourished in our backyard pond with the bayonet-shaped tines of the gardening fork. After a while I didn't need to do anything wrong to earn a disciplinary enema. But I loved Mother regardless and could never have suspected that something was perhaps psychologically curious here. In those days boys assumed that what their parents did was right, and wouldn't have thought of suspecting in them ignorance, sadism, or simply error. If my anger at these enemas lasted more than an hour or so, it could be laid to rest when Mother came to my bedside to hear my "Now I lay me down to sleep.
If Mother tended to our clothing, feeding, and bowels, Dad supervised the operations of our minds. He made it clear that reading was not just a pastime like basketball or playing with tops but an obligation never to be neglected. Our household took in (for Mother) Reader's Digest, the Ladies' Home Journal, and the Saturday Evening Post, which Dad also read sometimes, especially when a comical story about the tractor salesman Alexander Botts appeared. For himself, he took the Atlantic in the days when a table of contents on the front cover was a sufficient come-on, an illustration being thought quite unnecessary and insulting to the intelligence of the Atlantic audience. But his weekly mainstay was Time, which he read religiously from its first number until his death. Life magazine he scorned, designating this pioneer of "photojournalism" "a magazine for people who can't read." Among the favorite reading of his children was one of his brightest investments, the multivolume Book of Knowledge. Originally published in England in 1912, this set was constantly revised and updated and given an increasingly American tone. The last revised edition, of 1966, contained almost four million words. Its articles were arranged not alphabetically but by topic, retailing notable facts about geology, biology, botany, anthropology, literature (heavy British emphasis), art history, travel, distinguished men and women, poetry (narrative, heroic, and sentimental), even an introduction to elementary French. One of my favorite selections, as I spent hours reading on my belly on the carpet, was "Things to Make and Do" (how to put on magic shows, make a cigar-box guitar, raise bees). Everything that would fascinate a preadolescent boy or girl was there, and the three of us read and reread these volumes constantly.
But just as Dad allowed himself a respite from Time and the law to frolic in P. G. Wodehouse, I turned often to lighter stuff, particularly Penrod and Penrod and Sam, which I knew almost by heart. Soon Ed and I became devotees of the Big Little Books, which conveyed the adventures of Superman and similar comic-strip characters, as well as books about more plausible people like Jerry Todd and Poppy Ott, boy detectives whose exploits ran to about forty bright red volumes. One of the best, I remember, involved the disappearance of a mummy from the museum of a small college and the acute processes of "deduction" Jerry and Poppy employed to get it back. And one evening each week or so Dad would designate Library Night, and the whole family would go off and spend a couple of hours at the nearby branch library. It was a breakthrough when I learned that you could actually buy books and own them forever instead of borrowing and then returning them. Matching Ed's and my passion for boys' adventure stories was Florence's devotion to a novel by Mariel Brady, Genevieve Gertrude (1928), which introduced us all to the important distinction between Funny Ha-Ha and Funny Peculiar.
Old men forget how intense taste and smell were before sex eclipsed them as delightful sensations. For boys, taste and smell were crucial ways of knowing the world before gentility forbade their use, at least in public. What boy can forget the taste of tennis-racket strings or violin-bow resin, or the tar used for road repairs? Wool tastes different from cotton, and both from paper, and paper from cardboard; licking wood is nothing like licking a tennis ball, and the rubber strings inside a golf ball taste entirely different from rubber bands. Until the practice fell under family prohibition, one smelled every dish of food, extensively, before tasting it. The conventions of popular folklore depict growing boys as tough and insensitive, but my friends and I spent hours registering our unaffected disgust at the loathsome language and imagery of adult health advertising. "Are you pained by stomach GAS?" "PILES: Don't be cut!" "RUPTURED? Thousands Thank God for the New Magic Truss." Our disgust often took physical form, moving us to actual nausea, in a way a few years of adult coarsening and cynicism would make a mere memory.
Secretly sensitive as they are, boys hate to be touched by strangers. This fact made my fortnightly haircuts an agony, especially when the barber folded my ears back crudely and painfully or carelessly nicked a mole whose tenderness he'd been specifically warned about. I've found that it wasn't until the haircutting classes spun off a subgroup designated Hairstylists that subtlety and art began to attend their procedures. Before that, all barbers seemed to me close to morons, and of the clumsiest sort. The sign of their union, glass and gilt and depending from a little chain, suggested their offensiveness:
it proclaimed. That's a significant bit of Americana: everything must pay. The pretentious-genteel and illiterate well instead of good is worth study too. The haircuts visited on boys in those days looked intentionally humiliating: too short on the back and sides, when we all wanted to resemble the full-haired boys in English or even "historical" movies. The American boys' haircut seemed to me a visible counterpart of the disciplinary enema.
Locked into the American late twentieth century like this, with no experience yet of Europe, how did I acquire the rudiments of a primitive historical sense? Partly by plowing through the vast collection of Victorian artifacts stored in Chickinanna's attic. There could be found wonders stranded by time: magic lanterns with kerosene lamps and glass slides, as well as stereoscopes with hundreds of double views of the pyramids and sphinx and forgotten world's fairs and exotic animals and people. In that attic I discovered long-disused children's toys in tin, not plastic, wood-burning sets, even a printer's cut constituting the top-of-the-front-page logo of a onetime boys' newspaper, The Enterprise, produced by Edwin Neal or perhaps Charles Fussell. Later, I appropriated it for a home-produced newspaper of my own.
Indulging my developing passion for the past, Father allowed me, after considerable teasing, to explore his "Army Trunk" stored in our attic. In the war (no question yet about which one), as a junior officer of ordnance, his duty, finally, was to preside over an ammunition dump near Bordeaux. This entailed riding a horse daily around the perimeter, and, as far as I could ascertain, little else. But there in a footlocker in the attic was all his stuff, complete except for a sidearm. In that war officers had to buy their equipment, including helmet and gas mask, and it was all there, carefully laid up in mothballs: high shoes, puttees (both leather and wool), breeches, Sam Browne belt, jackets, and insignia, together with a notebook dating from father's passage through an Officer Candidate School, containing copious details about various kinds of artillery shells and explosives, all wonderfully hard to believe as subjects once significant to this notably peace-loving man.
As I examined and of course tried on these items, it was strikingly clear that they would be wonderful for play. Thus in one neighboring vacant lot my friends and I dug a system of three-foot-deep trenches, roofed with boards, old newspapers, and dirt, and lit by candles. Here we played trench warfare, bombarding one another's positions with dirt clods, blowing whistles to signal attacks, and coming as close as possible to miming the actualities of the Western Front as we'd seen them depicted in books. There, kitted out in Dad's uniform, with helmet and gas-mask carrier in place, I played boy officer, uncannily foreshadowing my destiny.
It was axiomatic among the Pasadena gentry that in the summer the heat made residence there physically--and socially--impossible. And the temperature did stay in the nineties for weeks at a time in a day when only movie theaters were beginning to install air conditioning. Cool summerhouses were indicated, and Father bought one, at Balboa, right on the ocean an hour and a half's drive away. There we spent every summer for fifteen years or so, years of absolute ecstasy for me as I sailed, rowed, attended wienie roasts, joined nighttime scavenger hunts, roamed the immense, largely deserted beach, and cultivated a special set of summer friendships centered on the Newport Harbor Yacht Club. Newport Beach had not yet become stylish, nor Orange County, where it was situated, a byword for political reaction, and the summer population was notably middle class, unsophisticated and unpretentious, with many families coming from the citrus and ranching areas of Riverside and San Bernardino.
The beach house, white clapboard with green trim, had many bedrooms and "sleeping porches"--it included the inevitable maid's room--and it was often filled with Pasadena friends. Dad bought it furnished, and among the furnishings was a large hand-cranked "His Master's Voice" Victrola with some records: "Lover, Come Back to Me," the "Anvil Chorus," and a "Negro" number, "Climbin' Up the Golden Stairs." Indoors, there was little to do but play cards (on weekdays only), and since poker chips were forbidden, we used kitchen matches. Of course America, like the rest of the civilized world, was still distinctly "sexist," and no explanation was needed when Dad supplied each of us boys with a twelve-foot sailboat, which we raced every weekend, while Florence had to be content with a ten-foot rowboat. Balboa was managed by a vigorous chamber of commerce, which was perpetually stimulating tourism by devising "events." The Flight of the Snowbirds was one. This was a sailboat race involving over a hundred children's boats at once--a farcical proceeding, really, but said by watchers on shore to be very pretty. The Tournament of Lights was another tourist enticer. Here, owners of yachts were invited to compete for trophies by dressing their vessels in lights and being towed slowly around the bay to the wonder of onlookers. Florence and I once won a prize by transforming her rowboat into a tropical scene with plywood palm trees and monkeys, lighting the whole thing with floodlights powered by car batteries and playing on a wind-up phonograph "Sweet Leilani."
Another event was Pirate Days, featuring a mock-up of a pirate ship built on the ocean beach, populated without pay by a horde of shouting boys comprising a large part of the young male population of Balboa. I was allowed to tie a red bandanna around my head, remove my shirt, apply colored-pencil tattoos, and sport a rubber dagger in my belt. All these civic publicity events I enjoyed mightily, and I realize now how exciting a part of my prewar idyll they were.
Not least as a cause of delight at the beach was secretly learning to smoke cigarettes. Low brands like Wings cost only a dime, and no one supervised or even observed the relation between underage boys and cigarette machines. I took my smokes out on the wide ocean beach, and hiding the materials from the parents was a large part of the whole joyous exercise. The smell of cheap tobacco will bring back instantly idle Balboa afternoons when I smoked on the beach and returning home, imagined that Sen-Sen would cover my crime. The eucalyptus smell of the salve Noxema, which soothed my sunburn, evokes paradisal boyhood as well, like the scent of the thin army blankets we were allowed to build ad hoc tents out of on the beach. Cooking chicken thighs recently, I caught the exact aroma of a Balboa wienie roast, when the fire was ready and the first wienies were deployed above it on long forks with wooden handles. The wienies split and crackled, and were finally encased in buns and devoured, with Cokes and orange sodas, by a crowd of always barefoot but nicely dressed middle-class quasi guttersnipes.
For some reason, the standard adolescent crushes I began to develop--at first, only on boys--occurred at Balboa, never at Pasadena. For several summers I enjoyed a purely platonic passion for one younger boy. Whenever he appeared or indicated a desire to hang around with me, my heart leapt up. There was no sex involved, and we never touched each other. When the film The Prince and the Pauper was shown at a Balboa theater, I was thirteen, and I was simply ravished by the looks and charms of the Hollywood twins who played the two boys. I wrote them a mash note, disguised as a fan letter, and received a photograph in return. (Their "medieval," all-but-page-boy haircuts were exactly what I'd always fantasized for myself, but of course never got.) About these boyish obsessions I felt puzzled, until much later I grew familiar with Gerard Manley Hopkins and A. E. Housman, and preeminently the Virgil of the Second Eclogue, and came to realize how conventional and harmless they were. The passage of time has revealed how little they interfere, ultimately, with fully adult heterosexual life and happy marriages. As I developed, girls soon replaced boys as my passions, but I have never lost my sense of the attractiveness of such boyish characteristics as unexpected sensitivity and vulnerability, as well as courage and loyalty. Clearly, I could never have written the chapter "Soldier Boys" in The Great War and Modern Memory without this adolescent experience, nor identified myself in so many ways with Robert Graves, in his roles both as a student and a young infantry officer. When after my war I read in Graves's Good-Bye to All That of his falling in innocent love with a younger boy at Charterhouse School, and found his view that after five months of combat duty, a front-line officer is used up, neurasthenic beyond saving, I felt I was reading not his autobiography but mine. He also wrote about meeting by accident his schoolboy crush long after, in adulthood, and he emphasized how clumsy, ugly, and charmless an adult he'd grown into. I had the same experience with my young friend. I saw him with his wife many decades later and could think only of the words of Ogden Nash,
The trouble with a kitten isBut I anticipate, and must get back to my prewar world of "youth's primordial bliss," as Kingsley Amis has put it, a world I barely understood until much later, when I began to encounter literary pastoral and to experience Eden, as mediated by Milton.
Eventually it becomes a
The beach house was also the theater of my early musical operations. I don't mean pounding away at the out-of-tune upright left by the previous owners, but something more genteel. Mother was "musical" in a highly amateur way. As a pianist she could read scores and play them at sight, and she was notably susceptible to sentimental performance. Once she took me to the Pasadena Playhouse to hear a recital by the Russian cellist Gregor Piatagorsky. He played soulfully, and his dark good looks were no impediment to Mother's admiration. One summer at Balboa, she decided that I must master the cello. A teacher, Mr. Edward Burns, was found in nearby Santa Ana. He was on his uppers, employed only in a WPA orchestra consisting of out-of-work musicians on the musical dole. He was delighted to help us buy a cello for me and come to Balboa once a week to initiate me into its mysteries. He was a good teacher, and after a bit of instruction and much practice, I could perform, Mother accompanying, a Mendelssohn cello concerto to plausible effect, if with excessive sentimental vibrato, a Burns specialty he passed on to all his students. "Make it sing," "Play it with soul," were his frequent injunctions. Playing the cello was fun, although daily practicing was not, and for the next several years I played in school orchestras and chamber groups, but not terribly well, for I never really learned to read music (it was the multiplication tables all over again) and was faking most of the time.
The first student orchestra I played in was at my next school, McKinley Junior High School. Like other "progressive" cities, in 1928 Pasadena had adopted for its public schools the six-four-four plan. This meant that a pupil spent six instead of eight years at grammar school, then four years at a junior high school, and finally attended a junior college for either two years (for the college bound) or four (for those earning associate degrees and going to work right away). At McKinley, the student orchestra specialized in the "Poet and Peasant Overture," over and over, but we also rendered the "Light Cavalry Overture," "My Little Gypsy Sweetheart," and my favorite, the Fest March from Tannhauser, act 3, scene 4, with its nifty cello part. My four-year experience with this orchestra and with the tenor clef accustomed me to the support line in music, and today the melody line in any music interests me less than the bass and baritone background. Thus in college I chose to play the tuba and the sousaphone, which, unlike the bugle, had large mouthpieces requiring minimal lip muscle.
At McKinley the academic work was serious and not easy. Idle by nature and experience, I now had to confront not clay and poster paint but Latin, algebra, geometry, and history. I slid through English easily, largely through the kindness and skill of the teacher, Mr. Bishop, from whom I learned that if you know your stuff, you can get away with unidiomatic stunts like "At the end of the play Cleopatra suicides." In 1936 Great Britain was still a highly important, unbankrupt imperial power, and what happened there was still interesting to Americans. When Edward VIII abdicated in December, Mr. Bishop regarded the moment as significant enough to justify installing a radio in his classroom to enable the assembled twelve- and thirteen-year-olds to hear the outgoing monarch say, "We all have a new King. . . . God bless you all. God save the King." But Mr. Bishop's easygoing approach and interest in the real world contrasted with the pedagogic rigor of Miss Riley, the Latin teacher, whose courses I barely passed and in whose classroom I suffered numerous defeats:
"Will you translate the next lines for us, Paul?"But McKinley had a vocational as well as an academic emphasis, and there I was lucky to be inducted into the arts of pleasurable work with my hands. Boys were required to take a "shop" each year: wood, printing, sheet metal, and mechanical drawing. I joyously learned to measure, cut, sand, nail, and glue wood; to set type in a composing stick and to run off and correct proofs; to cut, bend, solder, and rivet sheet metal; and to write letters and figures according to the conventions of architectural and mechanical blueprints. And I learned something equally important, namely, to respect the shop teachers as much as the others. Both kinds had knowledge and a mastery of technique, and both impressed me as professionals: none was silly or superficial or cynical about the work. All made us want to do well, whether making artifacts like a wooden file box, a faultless printed copy of a fourline poem, a kitchen flour scoop (mother proudly used mine all her life), or a blueprint for a storefront ready for the builders.
"I'm sorry. I'm not prepared."
(Long pause, with tight pursing of lips and reaching for her gradebook.) "That's unfortunate."
My favorite place was the print shop, presided over by Mr. McNary. The main school font of type was twelve-point Caslon Old Style, and we were exercised in setting up "The day is done," which Mr. McNary knew would produce instructive comical versions like "The pay is gone" and "The bay is pone." Much later, I wondered where these shop teachers came from. Was able, calm, tolerant Mr. McNary a printer who had gone into teaching, or a teacher who'd learned, surprisingly well, printing? The fonts of type we worked with became for me archetypes of beauty and deserved longevity, never forgotten. Later, when one publisher kindly asked me what bodytype I'd prefer for one of my books, I chose Caslon Old Style. I've always been ravished by the dignity of the numeral 1 in this font. It's not an Arabic numeral but a "Roman" one, a small capital I, and for me it stands as a near-secret aesthetic rebuke to "efficiency," scientism, and the more utilitarian elements of modernism.
When another publisher asked what type I'd like for the large initials at the beginning of chapters in The Great War and Modern Memory, I specified Bodoni Open Face, a favorite of mine for decades. It was Mr. McNary's print shop that told me that whatever I did with my life, it would have to involve words and their public presentation. And in those days there was a special magic about the way writers and printers produced words for an audience. Cold type and desktop methods may be efficient, but if anyone can master them, the trade mystery that used to attend the old journalistic and hot-type world vanishes. And a lot else changes too. John Leonard has confronted the issues. Gone is
an older idea of newspaper work as a craft or trade, not a profession with white-collar civil-service perks like summer homes . . . and private schools for our sensitive children. [Once,] our fingernails were dirty, and we knew the romance of ink, and we lived in the high school print shop and could read the type upside down, and the belching machine seemed somehow to connect brain and word, muscle and idea, hot lead and cool thought, before we got into the information-commodity racket.It wasn't long before I'd set up my own print shop in a well-lit large closet off my bedroom, complete with hand press (with a five-by-eight-inch chase), imposing stone, several fonts of type, composing stick, leads, borders, cuts--the whole works. It all came by freight from the Kelsey Press Co., Meriden, Connecticut, and for years I badgered people to let me print their business cards, labels, flyers, tickets--anything five by eight inches or smaller. Over the years my boyish job-printing business probably recovered less than 1 percent of my investment, but profit was the fiction, not the point. The point was to be a printer, to live amidst type cases, ink, paper, solvent, and lead, tin, and antimony. My behavior here was typical of the way I pursued all my "hobbies"--as my parents to my annoyance tended to refer to my enthusiasms. I was indeed incapable of moderation. I had to hurl myself totally into what I was excited about, impatient of any sort of restraint or good sense.
This long run of boyish happiness was not entirely free of darker moments, but even these did nothing to damage my inbuilt optimism. One bad period lasted for several months. I had been troubled by earaches that seemed to grow more frequent and worse and worse until an infected mastoid was diagnosed, and under ether--which of course made one throw up--I underwent a mastoidectomy at the same hospital where I was born. (Penicillin would have cured the ailment without the surgery, but there was no penicillin then.) As a result I convalesced at home for a semester, keeping in touch with schoolwork by means of a tutor, the amiable, not excessively bright or demanding Mr. Renner, who even brought along a drawing board, T square, and triangles so I could catch up with mechanical drawing. The only permanent damage wrought by this illness was a bit of bone loss behind my right ear. Psychologically, I remained unmarred, and if anything more cheerful and sanguine than ever.
Except for another threat to perfect felicity. I began to grow fat. Avid for soft drinks, hamburgers and hot dogs, candy, cake, ice cream, and Horlick's Malted Milk Tablets, and equally enthusiastic about abstaining from exercise, I became "a soft kid, thirty pounds overweight at the age of fourteen." I'm quoting from David Guy's novel The Autobiography of My Body (1991). His description will do perfectly, for his adolescent situation matches mine in an uncanny way. His father like mine wanted his son to become a lawyer, and like me, when the rest of the boys were joyously developing into athletes, he stayed soft and flabby. As he notes, fat boys try to defend themselves from ridicule and contempt by learning to be funny, and that's rather fun, but, as he adds, there's "a dark side of being fat . . . the big blubbery fifteen-year-old waddling through the locker room with his tiny little dick. Why does nobody ever bring that subject up, the single most obvious fact about fat boys?" My shame there was exactly like Guy's, and the communal shower after gym became a daily torment. All boys suffer from a degree of penis anxiety, and as Farley Mowat has observed, even in adulthood "a primordial fear haunts most men . . . that their organ is smaller than it ought to be." For years I've wondered why suddenly, and without explanation, I quit the Boy Scouts. Lately, I've come to realize that the cause was an announcement that on a forthcoming camping trip, swimming would be done without bathing suits. The degree to which adolescent boys are ashamed that their bodies--the only thing that, at that age, they might be proud of--aren't like some fancied norm has never been sufficiently emphasized. But at least I wasn't as fat as another boy, a genuine freak, cruelly denominated by his classmates Mount Flab.
One physical norm was supplied by the numerous Mexican boys, the Manuels and the Jesuses, at the school. They seemed fully mature to me, with their frequent injunctions to "Chinga tu madre" and their clear success with girls. "Chicano" culture, not to mention Chicana, hadn't yet been deemed worthy of learned attention. The Mexican youths had to struggle through geometry like the rest of us, although they didn't do as well, a fact we others imputed less to native dullness than to their more vivid social and sexual lives. One Mexican boy proudly brought to school an eloquent novelty, an eight-inch statuette of the Blessed Virgin. When reversed, the back side became an eight-inch penis, sculpted in startling detail. Such sophistication was quite beyond the reach of the more fortunate Pasadena boys.
And indeed, Southern California in those days was a place where it was possible for Anglo-Saxon youngsters, especially those from well-to-do families, to feel like aliens. There we were, playing at our pseudo-British culture, while all around us spread the enchilada-and-refritos, day-laboring world with place names like Costa Mesa, San Diego, Los Angeles, Palos Verdes, and the Santas Monica, Barbara, and Ana. No one in my family spoke Spanish at all and I "took" it for two years in junior college and only because I had to study a language and it seemed easier than French or German, and certainly preferable to going on with Latin. There were obviously no Mexican boys or girls attending Miss Travis's Friday afternoon dancing classes, regarded as socially indispensable for the rest of us.
Much as I liked, or at least tolerated, school, most of my pleasures were domestic: collecting stamps, playing with Erector sets and electric trains, making blue ink and other commodities from Gilbert Chemistry Sets, and collecting old newspapers in the area, tying them up, and selling them finally to the junkman, who paid handsomely for each hundred-pound bundle. Like all boys, I was constantly in need of money, and this early effort at profitable recycling was only one of my many attempts to augment the scanty, puritan allowance paid weekly by my father. Every year brought a new wild enthusiasm. Once I went overboard for spinning tops, and once I could think of little else than making from clothespins guns that would shoot wooden matches striking-end first, to hazardous but thrilling effect. Hot weather brought its own special delights: the nightly visit of the ice-cream man's white truck with its tinkling bell, or roller-skating and drinking ice-cold draft root beer at a nearby rink with our nicest maid ever, blonde and buxom Emma Anderson--soon to marry and join the Rosies riveting planes for the Second World War.
One treasure dear to every boy was a Johnson Smith catalog, from a mail-order company in Detroit. This was our source for saucy "novelties" not available in Pasadena: whoopee cushions, dribble glasses, artificial dog turds, and "plate lifters," small flat rubber bladders that could be surreptitiously inflated beneath a tablecloth to rock dinner plates and puzzle diners. "Sending away" for such things involved the excitement of filling out the order form, enclosing the money order, dropping the envelope into the mail slot, and then waiting with mingled anxiety and hope for the plain-wrapped package and the final ecstasy of baffling Chickinanna as her dinner plate wobbled inexplicably and ominously during the canonical Sunday dinner.
This diddling of Chickinanna manifested, I'm sorry to say, the boyish will to power propelling most of my enthusiasms. Even so apparently neutral an activity as printing assumed the act of dominating an audience with words. When later I began to throw myself into putting on magic shows, the object was, as a literary critic might put it, rhetorical--the management of others' perceptions and (if possible) the aggrandizement of my own power over them. My later enthusiasm for something like "press" photography involved the privilege of going where others could not go, resulting in a product that imposed my vision on others. And finally, what was university teaching but a high-class version of something similar? Much later, studying Jacobean drama at Harvard under Harry Levin, I learned to think of this urge as the libido dominandi. If the United States should get into the war, clearly I would have to be in a position to impress and manage others while, in my fantasy, enjoying their admiration. That is, I'd have to become a young officer. But that identity lay ahead. I was only fifteen and the new European war was very far away. Pasadena and Balboa were still entirely secure precincts of Paradise.
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