Touching the Past: In Honor of Veterans

The way led down a paved road, then another mile on a rough road past a farmhouse, then off the road altogether along a rutted lane that disappeared into the woods.  Two turnings later the path stopped in a forest clearing.  Two men, one the head of the local veterans’ association, the other whose family lived on the farm in 1944, led two other men deep into the forest, over fallen logs and through thick underbrush, stopping beneath a canopy of beeches, where one said ‘Il était ici.’

France England 2015 023

With that, Keith Kisner had come to the place where his uncle died in February, 1944, shot down in a B-17 over eastern France.  Keith knelt, prayed, and placed Texas and American flags in the forest, and remembered his uncle, Sergeant Zeb Kisner, a nineteen year old who died in World War II.

Touching the past is important in order to understand from whence we came and who we are. Web-based ancestral searches and government data bases put at our fingertips the quest for names and places.  It took just four Google searches of Sergeant Kisner’s name to find not only his aircraft number and date of loss but even the location and name of the farm where he fell to his death.   Thereafter one e-mail and a telephone call to a nearby French tourist office led to a veterans’ association that would help find the farm and the family who had lived there.   At this point it was no longer a question of whether it was possible to find Keith’s uncle; it now was a question of honoring the pledge to remember him.

Thomas Graves, Jr., the author’s uncle, was an infantry private in World War I.  He died in battle one month before the armistice of November 11, 1918, in an infantry attack against a machine gun nest near the village cemetery of St. Étienne á Arnes, near Reims, France.   The way there led past ancient German trenches and across open land.  The difficulty was not in finding precisely where he died but in walking into a field of ripening barley to kneel, sift earth through fingers, stare across the flat landscape, and try to imagine the courage it must have taken to cut barbed wire under machine gun fire, and to die.  Private Graves and the men who died with him were buried in the same village cemetery that they had been ordered to capture.  Another hero, another American and Texas flag in the bruised soil of France.

Sergeant Kisner and Private Graves had more in common than dying for the United States, in France, in world wars.  They were not married men.  They had no children to follow in their steps.  No obituaries of their lives or deeds have been found.  Their names were rarely mentioned, if at all, by the brothers and sisters they left behind, as if talking about them would be too painful.  But, if no one spoke of them, who would remember them?  In their case, they had one more thing in common, nephews, Keith and this author, best friends who, upon realizing these shared pasts, committed to find where they died and to tell their stories.

The quest for meaning in life is primal; no one wants to be forgotten.  The faint traces of bloody palm prints on caves that house the bones of ancient combatants say to the ages that “It was here I died.”  Letters to loved ones, written before battle and buttoned into pockets, are the palm prints of modern war.  In turn, to give meaning to lives sacrificed means that we must not let them be forgotten.   Finding Sergeant Kisner’s and Private Graves’ last places on earth meant that they would be remembered.

France England 2015 061

The final stop on this journey to remember them was the Meuse-Argonne American Military Cemetery in Romagne, France, where Private Graves and those who died with him were reburied in 1920. It is the largest American military cemetery in Europe, and the least visited.  It is serene and quiet, set amidst linden trees with the cool breezes of eastern France that gently recall Horace’s line “Dulce et decorum pro patrie mori, It is sweet and right to die for one’s country.”

This journey to give thanks for their service cost us far less than Sergeant Kisner and Private Graves paid to render it.  The catch in my throat, the whispered words ‘My God, how did they do it?’ will remain long after the journey has faded.  In some humbling way kneeling, touching the ground they touched, planting their flags and giving thanks for them was a healing experience.

It was right, and sweet, to remember them.  Their past now is with us.

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St. Crispin’s Day, 600 years on: We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.

Henry V

October 25 is St. Crispin’s Day, originally celebrated for a cobbler who was martyred by the Romans in AD 286 but in modern times known for the startling English victory over the vastly larger French army at Azincourt on October 24, 1415.  For the English, the victory at Azincourt has been among the greatest of victories, the proof that a few men with bows, led by a charismatic Henry V, could defeat thousands of French knights in armor on horseback who, unfortunately for them, were too weighed down and jammed together to fight.  The victory was celebrated then but not for long; the French under Joan of Arc went on to rally in the next decades and win the Hundred Years War.  Not until Shakespeare took on the task of making the Tudors appear to be legitimate through their illegitimate Beaufort ancestors did Azincourt enjoy a resurrection with his lines, spoken (in the play) by a boyish King Henry to his troops who had wished for more soldiers.  Henry supposedly said that they were lucky it was just them:

From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

It would be almost impossible to create a more vivid image of the battle than Shakespeare has done (“… once more into the breach….”), words that have inspired English teachers and rear-area commanders for four hundred years.  The French, of course, don’t celebrate the battle with as much zest as the British, but the battle site itself is not much of an image.  It is a wheat field alongside which little plywood archers in painted Robin Hood costumes aim for the sky.   The nearby town of Azincourt today is a French farming hamlet, little visited except by British schoolboys.   As for Saint Crispin himself, even his feast day has been abandoned, removed by the Second Vatican Council in 1965.

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On the Nightstand: Autumn (book) leaves….

hAPPY fALL

 

            Autumn.  It’s a wonderful autumn, with cooler days (from the hundreds down to the nineties), changing leaves (brown, from lack of water), and wildly confused garden flowers that are uncertain whether to bloom or die, so do a bit of both.  But before we know it, there’ll be jack o’lanterns on the lawns, dark cats and owls slipping through the scary nights, tots dressed like princesses and skeletons in search of free candy, and the aromas of cassoulet and red beans with rice, simmering on the stove.  Thanksgiving and Christmas will be on us before we know it.

I personally celebrated the arrival of autumn by going to Phoenix, Arizona to see the leaves change and to smell the smoke of a thousand fires and look for the scarecrows in the fields.  I was misinformed – Phoenix is in the desert.  All I saw was rocks, interspersed with cactus.  And, this is important, I spent a few days with some wonderful writers, who inspire me with their works and with their cheery optimism.  So, what better time to start piling up books to read during the ever-longer nights?  I can’t think of one.  So, on to another episode of On the Nightstand.

If this is your first visit to On the Nightstand, the books we review are rated by how well they keep you awake.  A 20 watt book helps you drop right off (unless it’s so bad that you stay awake to nit-pick it to death) and a 100 watt book keeps you awake all night, turning page after page after page.  With that, let’s see what’s …

                                                                  On the Nightstand

Just Finished:

Fiction:

       Us, by David Nicholls.   This is a romance, plain and not so simple.  Douglas, on page one, listens as his wife, Connie, says “I think our marriage has run its course.  Douglas, I think I want to leave you.”  After twenty years of loving, caring, and raising their son Albie, Connie drops the bomb that she still is the free spirit artist who ditched Angelo the artist to marry Doug the professor.   Doug seizes on the words I think and sets about the business of saving his marriage, a task not made easy by Albie, who thinks Doug is a philistine on matters of art, literature, architecture, and politics, yet isn’t too proud to want Doug to foot the bills.  Nicholls is the author of One Day , and this is a worthy follow – on.  90 watts

        When we Were Orphans, Kazuo Ishiguro.   London detective Christopher Banks becomes the most celebrated solver of mysteries since Sherlock Holmes, but his most challenging case takes him back to Shanghai, where he lived as a young boy until the day when his parents disappeared.   He returns to solve the diplomatic dispute between the city’s leaders and the Japanese, who are on the verge of war, but the object of his quest is really to find his missing parents, a search that is frequently interrupted by the demands of a grateful host.  In each of his novels, Ishiguro writes of something that is just beyond reach, and Orphans continues his experiment into the unanswerable question of how to recover from life-changing loss.  85 watts.

     Crusoe’s Daughter, by Jane Gardam, author of Old Filth.  She is just fun, no matter what she writes.  In this early Whitbread winner, the author’s favorite, we live with Polly Flint who at age 6 is dropped off by her seafaring father to stay with two spinster aunts and their rough-at-the-edges housekeeper.  Polly is soon orphaned when her father perishes at sea; she stays the rest of her life, immersed in Robinson Crusoe and his life of self-privation after being marooned.  To say more would spoil your reading of this essential book.  100 watts.

             Non-Fiction

      Storm over the Land, Carl Sandburg.  This is Sandburg’s unannotated history of Lincoln in the Civil War. It is written in a somewhat dated but very populist voice, moving from event to event and anecdote to anecdote in a driven manner that ends, of course, with the murder of the President shortly before the last rebel army in the field advises the confederacy to ask for terms.  It is a kindly volume, unsparing in its sad criticism of the foolishness of the south’s rush to war and the equal foolishness in the north to not engage in war for much of the first three years.   80 watts.

Meuse – Argonne, 1918 (America’s Deadliest Battle), by Robert H. Ferrell.   Despite its clunky subtitle, this is a very penetrating and scholarly work written by a professor at Indiana University.   With solid support in the military records, Ferrell demonstrates that the United States was not ready to enter World War I in April, 1917, and continued to be not ready until after the war, at the cost of 117,000 deaths and twice that many wounded, almost half of which were sustained in the last six weeks of the war when most American troops went into combat for the first time.  Forgotten today by most Americans, the Meuse – Argonne remains the largest battle in American military history, with more than 1,200,000 doughboys in combat.  It was so large that every household knew, personally, someone who fought there, most of whom had been trained for bayonet warfare in what they soon were to learn was a war of machine guns and artillery.  The book is a riveting 100 watts. If you detest military history, American history, or the relentless grind of confusing combat, this book is so well written that it still is a solid 90 watts. One century after the launch of the First Great War, this book reminds us that, sadly, we have forgotten why we went, in the words of the camp tune of the day,  over there.

     They Called Them Soldier Boys, by Gregory Ball, the history of the 71st Brigade, 36th Division, in World War I.  This is a rare study of a battle that in many ways would shape the experiences of the men who would lead Texas in the next forty years.  Dr. Ball has correlated the demographics and anecdotes of the 5000 cowboys and farmers from North Texas who found themselves swept up in World War I, only to be set down on the brutal Hindenburg line near Reims, France, where for four years the Germans and French had killed each other in an area not much larger than present-day San Antonio, Texas.  Although it depends heavily on the division’s own after-action report and newspapers of the period and suffers from a lack of accounting for the experiences of the larger armies around them, in particular the French Fourth Army (Army Group Center) to which it was attached, it is thorough and troubling, a history that should be read to understand Texas’ mis-placed sense of exceptionalism and victimization that continues a century later.   85 watts.

In the Queue:

     Here is what is stacked up next to my nightlight.  One of them is a carry-over, something I intended to read sooner but got waylaid by something else burbling to the top of the nightstand.  All in good time…

 

Letters from Liberia:  The Adventures of an Ebola Medical Volunteer, Dr. Joe Spann, MD.  I think I have a pretty good idea what this is about….

A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan.

The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro, which is set in an apocalyptic post-Roman era, post-Arthurian era dawn of the Viking invasions in England.

The Children Act, by Ian McEwan, author of Atonement and Saturday, and

The Watchers, by Stephen Alford, a history of Queen Elizabeth I’s spies who for more than forty years worked in the shadows to save her from the religious plots against her life.

And there will be more.

Please send me a comment or an email about these reviews or nearly anything else to do with letters, books, or the literary world.  If there’s a book you want me to review, send it to me or let me know (no guarantees; I’m writing, teaching, and fighting for desk space with JuneBug the writing cat).  If there’s a book you think the world should know about, mention it here or on my FB page, Jack Woodville London, and we’ll let the world know.

Until next time, so long.   Now for some pumpkin pie….

Jack

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Hammock Days

Limeade

Hammock days.   The roses of spring have become the scorched blossoms of July.  The view from my writing desk captures little heat waves shimmering across the lawn where deer are so languid that they sleep in broad daylight, not fifty feet away, on hot, dry grass.  It’s summer.

But, all is not lost.   A hammock, slung in the shade between the branches of an ancient oak tree, a little folding table with a pitcher of limeade, and a stack of books.  And, even though a folding table and a hammock are not a bed and a nightstand, in late July and early August they work the same – I am riveted by a book, turning page after page, or the book puts me to sleep.   That is a win-win.  So, on to another episode of On the Nightstand. 

If this is your first visit to On the Nightstand, the books we review are rated by how well they keep you awake.  A 20 watt book helps you drop right off (unless it’s so bad that you stay awake nit-picking) and a 100 watt book keeps you awake all night (or, in this episode, all afternoon).  This month is an eclectic mix of things Pacific, things not so pacific, and old friends revisited.  With that, let’s see what’s …

On the Nightstand

Just Finished:

Fragrant Harbor, John Lanchester.   In a departure from his Euro-centric novels, Lanchester writes of Hong Kong before World War II, during the Japanese occupation, and through to the hand-off of the British colony to the Chinese.  But, in his remarkable way, he finds a point of view that is perfect.  Tom Stewart has no prospects in England so sets out by tramp steamer for far-away Hong Kong.  He is joined by a bank employee, a devoted couple, and two nuns, one of whom teaches him Chinese as the ship makes its way to the Orient.  He finds work in a bank, which makes him useful to the Japanese when they take over, but also puts him in between the suddenly-captured English and the Chinese underclass of the island, and … one of the nuns.   I’ll not say more. This is a 95 watt book!

Sailor Man, by Del Staecker, is a unique contribution to the study of naval warfare. First, Sailor Man focuses not on a particular battle, such as Leyte Gulf or Okinawa, or even on a particular warship, such as the Lexington or the Enterprise. It instead focuses on an ordinary seaman, J.P. Nunnally, whose primary job on-board was to helm a Higgins boat loaded with soldiers, marines, ammunition or supplies and get it from the USS Fuller onto Japanese-held beaches, from Bougainville to Okinawa. Second, it focuses on what it means to give one’s life for one’s country, but suffer instead of a hero’s death the slow destruction of body and spirit by post-traumatic stress disorder and the anesthesia of alcohol. Naval warfare is not designed to provide a teenager the tools for a successful civilian life, and Staecker has written a gripping account of just how much damage a sailor can absorb from watching suicide bombers kill his shipmates, seeing the next Higgins boat over explode with loss of all hands, and to absorb the never-ending blasts of shelling and aircraft attacks. We as a nation owed J.P. a better reward for his sacrifice and we as readers owe it to Mr. Staecker to read this excellent book.  80 watts.

Dead Wake, by Erik Larson, is the story of the last crossing of the Lusitania in 1915.   Larson segues between stories of Captain Turner, the captain of the ship, and Kptl. Schweiger, the commander of German submarine U-20, as the two vessels close in on one another in paths converging from New York and Germany, meeting as they did near Queenstown, off the southern Irish coast.  Larson has unearthed that the Lusitania was more than a passenger ship.  She carried a load of munitions for the British army, and British naval intelligence had tracked the U-20 around Ireland as the German raider sank boat after boat, yet made no effort to alert the Lusitania to change course or to send warships to escort her to port.  U-20 sinks the liner and almost three-fourths of the souls on board become…. souls.  Larson also succeeds in peering deep into the passenger list of both victims and survivors, including Vanderbilts and infants, expectant mothers and diplomats.   Unfortunately, he also wanders off into President Wilson’s love life and the Zimmerman Telegram but fails to connect them to the Lusitania sinking in a persuasive way.  80 watts.

The Zimmerman Telegram, by Barbara Tuchman.   Reading Dead Wake dovetailed with my current immersion in World War I and led me to dust off my 1979 (!) copy of this penetrating study of what really happened when Germany tried to seduce Mexico into joining the war against the hated gringos.  Ms. Tuchman stands on the podium of brilliant narrative historians, along with Simon Schama and Rick Atkinson.   Her work not only illuminates how British spies intercepted and verified the German telegram to the consul in Mexico and also arranged for it to be ‘re-intercepted’ by the US so as to deflect that the British were reading everything the Germans wrote, but also how Japan itself was flirting with Carranza to establish a port and military base in Baja California.  To this she adds insight into how badly President Wilson bungled relations with Mexico, from the naval occupation of Vera Cruz to the fruitless search for Pancho Villa.   This is a brilliant book.  Period.  100 watts.

Cosi Fan Tutti, by Michael Dibdin.   This is my first read of a very popular British crime novelist whose hero, Inspector Zen, is a beleaguered Italian police detective who sets out to avoid getting tangled up in one crime but winds up solving another.  On this occasion he has been exiled to Naples, where he doesn’t fit in with the local force but does help his landlady deal with the fact of her two daughters’ mismatched love of two low grade hoodlums.   Fortunately for all, he also cracks the case of who has been inflicting vigilante justice on local Mafiosi (by squashing them in garbage trucks….), rescues an American sailor who is trying to sell a purloined copy of a forthcoming video game, and discovers that his mother had an affair…..   Great for crime readers and Italophiles, not so great for purists.    60 watts.

And, as long as we’re talking about brilliant books, herewith

The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson.   This is my novel of the year and perhaps my book of the year.  I may qualify that as a ‘so far,’ but it will take some phenomenal writing to enter the ring with this riveting story of Jun Do, a North Korean tunnel fighter whose job is to dig under South Korea in the darkness, always, and fight any enemies who discover the tunnel.  He is given this high-mortality job by the Great Leader because Jun Do grew up in an orphanage and therefore will have no family to mourn him when he, like all tunnel fighters, dies.  Instead, Jun Do succeeds so well that he is promoted to sneaking across the sea to Japan to kidnap an opera singer for the Great Leader and becomes a Hero.  He is rewarded with English lessons and promoted to become a spy whose sole task is to listen to English language radio communications, where he begins to hear unbelievable things.  Space shuttles.  Women rowing across the Pacific.  Shipmates who would defect…   And that’s only the beginning of this stunning book.  A 100 watt book only because that is my highest rating.

And, to wrap it up, What Happened to You Lazy Lou? By David Bristow.   Not a lot of people in the US have been to Carlton Scroop. In fact, I think not a lot of British subjects have been to Carlton Scroop, situated as it is between Honington and Caythorpe.  But I’ve been there, and I am a devotee of airplanes and of World War II and, as it happens, of crash reconstruction.   Knowing this, my friend Louis Charalambous ran across this little self-published book and sent it to me.   Accepting the limits of unedited work, this book is a delight, albeit a sad one, for Mr. Bristow’s grandmother was only one hundred yards away when an American B-24 Liberator and a C-109 (tanker version of the B-24) collided during a training flight at Carlton Scroop in 1944.   The Lazy Lou was a war horse that had been in so much combat that it may no longer have been airworthy; the C-109 was new.  The Lazy Lou was commanded by a beloved combat pilot and the C-109 by a hot shot who, survivor accounts show, zoomed in at 300 feet above ground level to fly in formation off the wing of the Lazy Lou.  Sadly, and predictably, the American Military cemetery at Madingly is their final resting place.   To me, this is a 90 watt book.   If you can find a copy, you’ll enjoy it.

In the Queue:

Summer may not be long enough.  I have some great books on the nightstand.   For beginners, there’s

Us, by David Nicholls, the author of the great book and pretty good movie, One Day.

Meuse – Argonne, 1918 (America’s Deadliest Battle), by Robert H. Ferrell.   I said I was beginning to immerse into World War I.  In doing so, I’m bewildered by how little there is regarding not only America’s contribution to the war but how virtually nothing is written about the largest battle in American history, and one in which more American soldiers died than in any other engagement in our past, the Meuse-Argonne offensive in eastern France.  I’m really looking forward to this, and to

They Called Them Soldier Boys, by Gregory Ball, the history of the 71st Brigade, 36th Division, in World War I.  I’ve read Dr. Ball’s dissertation on a related subject, so have very high hopes for this work of history.

When we Were Orphans, Kazuo Ishiguro, author of The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go.

Crusoe’s Daughter, by Jane Gardam, author of Old Filth.

A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan.

And there will be more.  Now for some limeade.

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Over there: Dulce et Decorum Est

France England 2015 048

Among the rows and rows of graves and amidst the linden trees of the Meuse-Argonne American Military Cemetery the cool breezes of eastern France gently suggest the lines from Horace that ‘It is sweet and right to die for one’s country,’ Dulce et decorum pro patrie mori. The cemetery, in Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, is the largest American military cemetery in Europe, the last post for more than 14,000 of our ancestors who died in the last two months of World War I.  It is serene and quiet, respectfully folded into rolling hills.  The nearest cities, Sedan and Verdun, are not on the way to or from anywhere in particular unless, perhaps, one is leading a German army into France.

I was surprised when, while researching an article on the army transporting the Gold Star Mothers and Widows of World War I to France in 1932, to visit their sons’ and husbands’ graves, I discovered a photograph of my grandmother, Paralee Witt, at her son’s grave in France.  Thomas Graves was killed in 1918, one month before the end of the war, on the far western end of the Meuse-Argonne front, near St. Étienne á Arnes.   He was never mentioned in my family.

When I told my friend Keith Kisner of my discovery, he revealed that his uncle had died in France as well, in an attack on his B-17 in February, 1944.  Our uncles died within twenty-five miles of each other, albeit in separate wars.  We resolved to find where they died and to pay our respects.  In late May, 2015, we flew to Paris, rented a car, and set out for Sedan.

By all accounts, Zeb Kisner was an East Texas small town boy who persuaded his parents to let him enlist before he was eighteen.   Sergeant Kisner died when the decision was made to send almost 900 bombers to Germany in a daytime raid, escorted by only 139 fighters that could reach Germany and return.  Lost in the statistics of success was that thirty-one bombers were shot down that day, with almost three hundred crew killed or captured.  Sergeant Kisner was the ball-turret gunner; his position was blown away from the plane and he died hurtling to the earth without a parachute.

We located the head of  the local veterans’ association near Sedan who, in turn, found the son of a woman who had lived on Ferme Montgarni in February, 1944.  These gentlemen unhesitatingly stopped what they were doing and took us to the farm.  They walked us deep into the woods where even today one can see that something had happened.France England 2015 023

There, they pointed out, is where Keith’s uncle died.  It was humbling to stand with him as he placed American and Texas flags on the lonely forest floor. Our French friends could not have been kinder to us or more grateful for Sergeant Kisner’s sacrifice.

Thomas Graves was a railroad clerk before being called to the infantry as a doughboy.  His first action was the battle in which he died in a tangle of barbed wire during a foot attack across almost open farmland to take the village of Saint Étienne-á-Arnes.  His unit, the 36th Infantry Division, had been detached from the First American Army and reattached to the infamous Fourth French army; the Fourth had suffered a mutiny at Chemin des Dames Ridge because its leaders repeatedly sent the unit into attacks over open fields against entrenched Germans in appalling conditions.  To get to their jump-off line Private Graves and his unit had to march past the post in Somme-Py where four mutineers had been shot at dawn.  He and 371 others died in the attack on October 8-9.  More than 1200 were wounded.  The road from which they attacked is now gone, the ridge now leveled, and nothing left of the hellish shell craters and mutilated earth but peaceful fields of barley and rapeseed.  There is now however, an American and Texas flag to mark the place where he died.

In the dystopic arithmetic of total war their deaths were probably inevitable and, perhaps, even necessary.  But were they right and sweet?  World War I poet Wilfred Owen, who fought in the horrific trench slaughters of the war, wrote:

               ‘My friend, you would not tell with such high zest,

               To children ardent for some desperate glory,

               The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum estPro patria mori.

From Dulce et Decorum Est, Wilfed Owen, 1917.

Sergeant Kisner was buried in a local cemetery, unmentioned in the news.   The following day’s headlines were about the largest boxing match in the war, at an army base in Africa.  After the war his body was brought home to Texas.

Thomas Graves and the men who died with him were buried in the cemetery of Saint Étienne, along with the German soldiers who died in the attack.  No news accounts of their battle were reported because on that same day the ‘Lost Battalion’ was found in the Argonne Forest and Alvin York heroically captured a German machine gun nest.  After the war Thomas Graves’ body was removed to the newly built American Meuse-Argonne cemetery thirty miles away, where it remains.

France England 2015 056

No obituaries have been found for Zeb Kisner or for Thomas Graves.  If we don’t remember them, who will?

Not only is the Meuse-Argonne cemetery the most serene, it also is one of the loneliest and the most difficult American military cemetery to get to.  The nearest major highway is an hour away.   When Keith and I visited in June, 2015, the guest registry in the cemetery chapel revealed no American visitors, apart from military officer celebrants on Memorial Day, in more than a year.  Before the words ‘Meuse’ and ‘Argonne’ were forgotten, however, they were known to every American home and family because together they referred to the largest, and deadliest, battle in American history.  In less than two months, between September and November, 1918, more than one million American soldiers fought, almost thirty thousand died, and almost one hundred thousand were wounded in the push to end the war to end all wars.  It was so vast that every single person in the United States knew someone who fought in that campaign.   It has been forgotten, difficult to find even in histories of World War I.

We pay very little to be Americans.  None of us is compelled to serve, and few do.  We’re not obligated even to vote, and few do that as well.  Pledging support for the troops is easy when no full-scale war galvanizes the nation.  We’re sincere with our parades on Memorial Day and July 4 and Veterans Day, but as our memories fade not only of World War II and Korea but also of Vietnam, of Bosnia and Afghanistan and even Iraq, we know fewer and fewer who risked all and fewer still who gave all.  Remembrance is a fading duty.

Today, the Meuse-Argonne battle is forgotten.

The B-17 raids on Augsburg are forgotten.

And deaths pro patrie cannot be right, or sweet, if they, too are forgotten.

Jack Woodville London is the author of two World War II novels, Virginia’s War (finalist, Best Novel of the South) and Engaged in War, (Silver Medalist, London Festival of Books),  and of the non-fiction A Novel Approach, (E-Lit Gold Medalist for 2015).  He was educated at the University of Texas, The Fiction Academy of St. Céré, France, and Rewley House, Oxford University, and was the 2011-2012 Military Writers Society of American Author of the Year.

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Courage, And Hope

© Jack Woodville London

i. Courage

     “You men stand at ease.” Colonel Henderson looked at his notepad, scribbled something, then looked back up at the pilot and door gunner standing in front of him in the LZ command post.   “You say you saw civilians on the road? Is that right? About how many?”

     “Eight to ten, Sir. And a water buffalo.” Mr. Thompson, the pilot, a warrant officer, tried to unclench his jaw and release the grip in his hands. He had already broken his flight helmet and was afraid that if he didn’t settle down he wouldn’t make any sense.

     “And then you landed? Is that right?”   He wrote ‘landed’ on his notepad, then looked up again. “Then what?”

     Thompson’s concern proved correct. He had poured out the story so fast that he had got it out wrong.   He took a deep breath and started over.

     “No, Sir. What happened is that we were flying shoelaces over the road and saw the civilians, then we peeled off and saw some wounded and we marked them with smoke.”

     Thompson closed his eyes and remembered.  In his mind he again saw the people on the dirt road, as plainly as if he was back there. The village, a hundred yards to the west, had gone up in flames, all the thatched huts on fire. The only stone building in the hamlet, the one with the columns, had been knocked down by artillery fire. He had observed a soldier on the ground pointing a rifle down a well and another dumping a granary of rice into a sewer pit.

     “Sir?” click went his headphones, as his crew chief got on the intercom. “What happened to those people on the road?”   Andreotta meant the people who, not ten minutes before, had been running away.

     Thompson had keyed his microphone to answer, then realized that the peasants now were sprawled all over the path. There were babies, children, women, very old men, the same ones, but now riddled with bullet holes. Even the water buffalo had been shot to death. He rolled the cyclic and pitched downward to swing the helicopter over the road. A wounded woman appeared on the far side of the trees and he lifted the nose to fly toward her.

     “Drop smoke.” 

     His other crewman dropped a green smoke canister near the woman.

     “Dolphin One, this is Scout One,” he spoke over his radio to a larger helicopter flying on top. “Need medevac dustoff.   Girl on the grass.”

     Turn, climb, turn.

     “What the hell?” click

 

     Thompson knew that he was in the headquarters, reporting to the colonel, with his eyes closed, but his mind was still flying over the village, where he saw an infantry captain on the ground run up to the woman, green smoke from the canister drifting near her. The captain kicked her once, then lifted his rifle and put a bullet into her head. Thompson felt himself shaking.

     “We were hovering, Sir. Six, eight feet off the ground, maybe twenty feet away, watching him. He just shot her. She was already wounded. I’d called in a dustoff for her, and this guy shot her.”

     Colonel Henderson made a note on his pad. ‘Smoke.’

     Thompson then had put the helicopter into a short climb, pulled the cyclic, and circled back west of the village, where he saw the ditch. Heads. Legs. Arms. Bodies. The babies’ faces were round, eyes wide, mouths twisted, most still being clutched by their dead mothers.   Some of the bodies in the ditch were writhing.

     “Shark One? This is Scout One.” click   “Relay to Command/Control for me. It looks to me like there’s an awful lot of unnecessary killing going on down there. Something ain’t right about this. There’s bodies everywhere.”

     “Shark One.”

     Thompson had pulled the collective and landed the scout helicopter in front of the ditch. A lieutenant on the ground approached; Thompson pushed his way past Andreotta to get out of the helicopter.

     “What’s going on here, Lieutenant?” he had shouted.

     “This is my business.”

     “What is this? Who are these people?”

     “Just following orders.”

     “Whose orders?”

     “Just following.”

     “But, these are human beings, unarmed civilians, sir.”

     “Look, Thompson, this is my show. I’m in charge here. It ain’t your concern.”

     “Yeah, great job.”

     “You better get back in that chopper and mind your own business.”

     “You ain’t heard the last of this.”

     Thompson had backed away toward the glass canopy of the helicopter, keeping his eyes on the lieutenant and on the writhing ditch just beyond him. A sergeant stepped up to the ditch and fired into it. The bodies stopped writhing.

     ‘Ditch,’ the colonel noted. That god-damned Barker, he thought.   That dumb sonofabitch is flying around in the command / control chopper right on top of this god-damned mess. He looked up at the pilot and his door gunner, a Spec 4 named Colburn. Thompson was in his flight suit, Colburn in his fatigues. They still had blood on their clothes, especially the sleeves. My first day in charge of this fucked-up brigade and they start shooting people in a ditch. He looked at the word again. ‘Ditch.’

     “Did you get their names, Mr. Thompson?”

     Thompson hadn’t even tried to read their name tapes. The lieutenant had been shouting at him while cradling a machine gun across his chest. The soldier who had fired into the ditch was turned away from him. He had gotten into the helicopter and keyed the intercom.

     “Did you see that?”

     “Yessir.”

     “Hang on.”

     They had lifted off and circled back to the west.

     More infantry, M-16s at the ready, was advancing toward a group of women and children who were running toward a bunker on the north side of the village. Thompson scooted just above the trees, turned the helicopter to face the platoon, and landed between it and the fleeing civilians.

     “Dolphin One, this is Scout One. Come in.” click

     “Dolphin One.”

     “I’m down on the northeast corner. Do you see me?”

     “20-20.”

     “Top cover.”

     He said something to Andreotta and Colburn when he got out of the helicopter but what it was just wouldn’t come back into his memory. His two crewmen also stepped out and clutched their M-60s. The civilians made it to the bunker behind his helicopter and huddled. Thompson then had jogged forward to the platoon leader on the ground.

     “Hey,” he had yelled. The helicopter’s main rotor whumped in the air at idle, whump whump, shaking the ground. “Hey, hold your fire. I’m going to try to get these people out of that bunker. Just hold your men here.”

     He hadn’t known that lieutenant either. He should have asked their names, or made a point of looking at their tapes, anything.

     “We can help you get ‘em out, Mister. With a hand grenade.”

     “Just hold your men here. I think I can do better than that.” Thompson had caught his breath, waiting to see if the platoon leader would indeed hold his men in place. The lieutenant jerked his head in a nonchalant direction, toward an NCO; his men relaxed in place. Some sat on the ground, others took out field rations and began to rip the cans open. Thompson then walked back to his helicopter.

     “Stand here,” he said to both Colburn and Andreotta. The crew chief and the door gunner stayed beside the glass canopy while the pilot reached into the console and pulled out his microphone.

     “Dolphin One, this is Scout One.” click “I’m holding in place on the ground. Can you land to evacuate about a dozen civilians? They’re in a bunker right behind my chopper.”

     The larger helicopter didn’t answer over the radio frequency. Instead, Thompson had felt its rotor wash come over him as Dolphin One sat down. He turned back to his crew and said “Cover me.”   He made eye contact, they understood, and Thompson ran to the bunker, then herded the terrified civilians toward Dolphin One, its doors off and rotor turning slowly. Within three minutes all the women and babies and old men were on board.

     “Sir!” Colonel Henderson raised his voice. “Thompson? You okay?” He snapped his fingers and Hugh jerked his consciousness back into the commander’s office in the LZ. “You need some coffee or something? How long you been out there?”

     “About 0700 this morning. We refueled a couple of times. One trip to the hospital, Sir. I’m all right. This is just….”

     “How the hell did you guys get all that blood on you?”

     Dolphin One had lifted off to take the civilians to a safer zone. Scout One had lifted off to return for fuel. The flight path took it directly back over the ditch, where Andreotta had yelled at Thompson.

     “Land, Sir! Hurry!” click “The ditch! Something’s moving!”

     The helicopter was a couple of feet off the ground and settling when Andreotta jumped from his seat and ran. Thompson and Colburn had watched him dig right into the bodies and pull a child out from under a shot-up corpse. The crew chief carried a bloodied lump of baby, clothed in nothing but a pair of underwear, and climbed back into the helicopter. They delivered the child to a field hospital in the division rear area.

     ‘Quaing Ngai –   hospital’ the colonel wrote on his notepad. He looked out the window of his command post. My Lai wasn’t more than two kilometers away, on the plain toward the Pinkville estuary. He gazed at the smoke rising from burned hooches and, he suspected, bodies.   He had flown over the village himself after Barker ordered the cease fire but he hadn’t seen the numbers of bodies described by the pilot now standing in front of him.

     “Trees, Sir. The ditch was right up against the trees. Unless your helicopter was low, west of the trees, and facing east it would have been hard to see them.”

     “So that’s why I just saw the VC bodies on the road?”

     “I don’t know about VC, Sir. I just saw babies and women.”

     “Do you know anything about the VC count, Mr. Thompson? Or the weapons cache?” Lieutenant Colonel Barker had radioed a body count of one hundred twenty-eight dead VC and a bunch of weapons.   It had been a good day, except that Colonel Henderson hadn’t seen one hundred twenty-eight VC bodies either.

     “Okay, Mr. Thompson. Thank you. Will you step outside a moment? You stay, Specialist.”

     Thompson saluted the new brigade commander and turned to leave. He, too, could see the smoke still rising in a plume above My Lai. A Chinook was landing on the pad just outside the command post. The Dolphins had flown back to Quaing Ngai. It seemed stark, and humid.

     “At ease, Specialist. You were door gunner, is that right?” Henderson looked at Colburn, sized him up, saw a scared nineteen year old.

     “Yes, Sir.”

     “That stuff Mr. Thompson was saying, about the bodies in the ditch and shooting that woman.   Is that true?”

     “Yes, Sir. I think there must have been more than fifty bodies in the ditch, Sir. Plus what we saw on the road.”

     ’50 – 60 in ditch’ he wrote on the notepad. ‘Plus road.’

     “And that soldier shooting into the ditch?”

     “I heard a shot, Sir, but my seat is at an angle to the pilot so I didn’t actually see the man shoot.”

     “And the dustoff for the civilians?”

     “Yes, Sir. We landed. Mr. Thompson got out and stopped the men on the ground. We called in one of the Hueys and it took them off. Then we landed and picked up the baby and took it to the hospital. Then Mr. Thompson said we had to come report this.”

     Henderson thought for a moment, then called out through the door for Thompson to come back inside.

     “Men, thank you for reporting this. I’ll look into it. That’s all.” He stiffened and waited for them to salute. They saluted. “And men? I’ll tell you what. It took a lot of courage for you to come in and report this. A lot of courage. Thanks.”

     “You’re welcome, Sir.”

ii. Hope

     Henderson waited until the pilot and the door gunner left his command post. He looked out his window and watched them walk back to the scout helicopter, wondering if they were in any shape to fly. He heard sounds on the other side of the partition, a duty clerk typing away, his XO talking to a logistics officer about resupply, some chatter about intelligence reports from Pinkville. He closed his door, walked back to the desk and picked up his notepad.

     He tore his notes into tiny pieces, then lit them with his Zippo lighter. They burned to ashes. He crushed the ashes in his hand.

     Hope, he thought. I hope to God this never gets out.

     Then he called the duty clerk in. It was time to bring Lieutenant Colonel Barker into the CP so that they could write up the VC body count.


 

Author’s Note: Thompson, Colburn and Andreotta were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for their heroic work at My Lai. Andreotta was killed by a sniper less than a month after My Lai. Thompson and Colburn were broken up as a crew shortly afterward. Lieutenant Colonel Barker died in a mid-air collision in Vietnam.  Hugh Thompson died in 2006, with Larry Colburn at his side.

Because of the deaths and because of the destruction of Colonel Henderson’s notes, some of the dialogue is fictionalized, although drawn entirely from Thompson’s, Colburn’s, and Henderson’s testimony of the events at Colonel Henderson’s, Captain Medina’s, and Lieutenant Calley’s trials and on the congressional report of the My Lai investigation.

 

 

Jack Woodville London 

Jack Woodville London is an author in Austin, Texas. Jack studied creative writing at Oxford University and the Academy of Fiction, St. Céré, France. His articles, reviews, and historical commentaries have been published in On Patrol (Journal of the USO military service organization), Stars and Stripes, Dispatches, (Journal of the Military Writers Society of America), The Huffington Post, Austin American Statesman, and civilian and military newspapers throughout the United States and Europe. He was honored as Author of the Year (2011-2012) by the Military Writers Society of America and is a member of and on the Awards Committee of the Center for Fiction, New York City.

His first two novels, Virginia’s War and Engaged in War, won recognition and awards in contests ranging from Best Novel of the South, Romantic Novels with a Twist, and Historical Fiction, Silver Medal in the London (England) Literary Festival, and overall winner, Indie Excellence Award (2013).   His fiction work in progress will complete that series; its working title is Children of a Good War.

His third book, A Novel Approach, released in September 2014, is a short and light-hearted work on the craft and conventions of writing, designed to help writers who are setting out on the path to writing their first book. It won the eLit 2015 gold medal for books on the craft of writing.

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On the Nightstand: This Might be a Good Story…

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It’s spring.  Roses are blooming, the irises and Copper Canyon daisies are filling out and sending musky little scents through the study window.  Junebug is crawling around the garden stalking some pitiful creature.   My nightstand runneth over.   In short, what better time to pick up a book and see whether it eases you into a springtime nap or rivets your attention from first page to last? 

In this episode we look at books and authors who have won.  There is a Pulitzer, a Nobel, and a Booker Prize, plus some nominations that in any year except the year of their publication would likely have won themselves.  If this is your first trip to On the Nightstand, the books we review are rated by how well they keep you awake.  A 20 watt book helps you drop right off (unless its writing is so bad that you stay awake nit-picking) and a 100 watt book keeps you awake all night.  With that, let’s see what’s …

On the Nightstand
Just Finished:

Let’s start with This Might be a Good Story, Jon Mark Beilue.  This volume contains more than fifty short investigative stories of good people doing good things, of bad people getting second chances, and of people who could be you and me and, well, life happens.  In Town Gives Back to its Own we learn that the town of Groom surprised Paula Brown by giving her a new home, buying and rebuilding a fixer-up and moving her in, wheelchair and all, just before winter.  There are stories of trying the life of a beggar to see what it’s like, of  the funeral of five actors killed in a car wreck, of an 80 year old who adopts a blind 14 year old, then loses everything in a fire.  Of going to help orphans in Haiti but winding up in a foreign jail.  This book is 90 watts of chocolate chips and potato chips, little bites that are so good you can’t stop at just one.

God on the Rocks, Jane Gardam.  This slender novel, a 1978 Booker nominee, is the story of 10 year old Margaret Marsh who slowly comes to realize that her father is a zealot, her mother is a woman who married security instead of risk, her governess is a flake, and that the strange family in the mansion behind the No Trespassing sign knows a great deal about art but little about life.  Then one day Margaret’s father wades out into the ocean to preach the gospel….  85 watts.

The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell, a Booker nominee in 2014.  David Mitchell is a magnificent writer;  Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet are previous Best of the Year in past installments of On the Nightstand.   Holly, a teenage girl, runs away from home and, unbeknownst to her, her six year old brother disappears the same day.  She has a seventh sense, to see through people who, as it happens, are trying to save the world from Hugo Lamb, a Cambridge youth who cheats his friends, robs his god father on his death bed, and hides from hoodlums beating up his mates over the failure to pay for prostitutes before casting his lot with some time-travelling demons who are trying to take over the world from Holly’s time-traveling good guys.  Good writing but not, for me, a good story.  75 watts.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan.  Winner of the 2014 Booker, this novel spans the life of an Australian doctor swept up in WWII only to become a POW on the infamous Burma highway, the railroad being built to the deep north by Japan that is run by a savage guard.  We follow the tragedies of the girl back home, the cobbers who are worked to death, the mindlessly- cruel guards, and the post-war Australia and Japan that they came back to, all I’m afraid, without successfully investing us in any of them.  It is a bit of Bridge on the River Kwai for Aussies and, I’m afraid, too sweeping in its scope to stay with a story arc.  80 watts.

Suspended Sentences, Patrick Modiano, is a stunning book.  Nobel Prize winner Modiano has written three novellas of life in France between the 1930s and 1980s, magically recreating the senses of a world that is just outside one’s reach and memory. He writes of parents who, for reasons not explained, are not there, of a photographer who takes remarkable images of people he doesn’t want to see again, of a haphazard inquiry into the suicides of a young couple that was obviously a murder, taking us to streets that no longer exist, buildings replaced by office blocks, names of people that might be remembered.    Suspended Sentences is like going home after fifty years and almost (but not quite) remembering who eloped with whom, who joined the army and never came back, of the babysitter who took care of you, or was it her brother or sister, of memories and events that are just beyond your grasp. 100 watts.

The Driver’s Seat, Muriel Spark.   With images of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Ballad of Peckam Rye, I eagerly raced through this tiny novel whose size, as it happens, turns out to be the best thing about it.   It is the story of a woman named Lise who consciously sets out to leave her safe job, go on holiday to a foreign country where she can act out of character as a temptress, and get herself murdered.  I detested this book.  It might keep you awake but you will be angry with yourself for letting it do so.  No watts, none at all.

In the queue:

It is possible that the next installment may have an eastern flavor.

I am eagerly awaiting Del Staecker’s new book, Sailor Man, the story of a boy who enlisted in the Navy at age 16, only to find himself in every major World War II battle in the Pacific in the march toward Japan.

To that add Fragrant Harbor, John Lanchester’s novel of a young Englishman who in 1935 leaves home for Hong Kong, where he learns the banking trade just as that outpost of empire is overrun by Japan in the first days of World War II.

To that add The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, the Pulitzer Prize winning story of a North Korean boy who, because he is an orphan, is detailed as a dark tunnel fighter in Our Beloved Leader’s underground incursions underneath South Korea, a job at which he is so good that he is rewarded with the post of kidnapper of opera stars from Japan….

And….

Four Hours in My Lai, by Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim, the account of the army’s darkest day in the Vietnam war and of the attempts to cover up the murder of over three hundred civilians.

Enjoy your Spring.  I have to go rescue a gecko from Junebug.

Jack

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A Short History of Time, and Motion

© 2015 Jack Woodville London

     “That’s no good,” he said.  “You have to stretch the ITB to open up the adductor magnus and gastrocnemius.  They’re key to glycogen replacement.”  He demonstrated, then smiled knowingly while I tried to follow.  “And don’t bounce.   Posers bounce.”

     I put one heel on the picnic bench and set my back foot on the ground, then leaned to stretch my leg muscles, whatever they might be called.  He turned his head away.

     “Okay, the goal is to maintain HR at around 150, building to 175.  At 220 minus — how old are you?  Forty.  Right, today’s the big day.  Okay, 220 minus 40, we’ll say 180.”  He looked at me and the corners of his mouth curled.  “We’re aiming for VO2 max over 140,” he continued.  I must have looked stumped.  He showed me his watch, reminiscent of the instrument panel of a 747.  “Your oxygen consumption.  You should have one of these.  It also gives you GCT, cadence, and vertical oscillation.  Do you pronate?”

     I didn’t know.

     “You look like a pronator. Your shoes okay?”  His mock concern targeted my cheap New Balances, clunky cousins of his orange Mizuno Waves.  He jogged to the edge of the parking lot, then stopped and glared at my feet.  “And re-do your laces. Let me show you.”  He sat me down on the pavement and re-tied my shoes.  I hated my sister for marrying him.

     “Now, keep up.   We’ll just do some easy hills, maybe a fartlek or two at a 7:30 pace, then speed up.  No more than eight miles.”  He took off and soon disappeared over the crest of the country lane.  I didn’t see him again for over an hour.

     I jogged along, the sun beaming down on a cloudless day.  The last of the spring flowers were a blur of blues and reds, plumbagos and poppies creeping up through thick green wheat fields.  In the distance a red barn stood on a knoll, sentinel to a herd of grazing milk cows.  A ribbon of trees marked a stream that separated meadows from fruit orchards where pink blossoms floated in the branches.  I estimated my HR at no more than a hundred or so, my VO2 equal to the stress zone of a quiet child painting with watercolors.  My ground contact, cadence, and vertical oscillation befitted a leisurely afternoon in the country.  I heard the barking of a dog.

     At the crest of the next hill I looked down onto a farmstead, a dilapidated house and barn and a struggling vegetable garden shaded by untended elms.  The huge, frenzied hound, of a breed known to runners as a ‘BFD,’ barked and jumped upward from the base of an elm tree, snapping at a long pink leg that dangled nervously from the branches.  A chewed orange Mizuno Wave lay at the beast’s paws.  Sensing grave danger, I found a dirt path that led around behind the farm and barn, into the field on the other side, then back to the lane.  The detour took no more than five minutes and, soon, the barking was well behind me.  My HR returned to no more than a hundred and five and, without a single fartlek to disrupt my glycogen stores, I jogged slowly back to the pub.

     I was having a second pint when I heard the unmistakable racket of an internal combustion engine in need of a muffler.  A cloud of diesel fumes cloaked an ancient pickup driving down toward me from the hill a hundred yards away.  It rattled to a stop and Harry got out of the passenger-side door, hobbling along with a Mizuno on one foot and the other in his hand.  He slammed the door and the truck roared away in a cloud of dust.

     “I said to keep up,” he snapped.  “Did you give up and turn around?”  He scowled in the direction of the server until she brought him a pint.  “You’ll never be a runner if you don’t try to keep up.”  He looked at his super watch to validate his GPS track.  There were red welts on his ankles.  One sock was missing.

     “I’m just not as good as you,” I conceded.  He nodded.  “We’re a bit late so I need to drink up and go.”

     “What’s the rush?”

     “It’s my birthday, remember?  I’m off to pick out my present.”  I rose to leave.  “In time for dinner, remember?  Cake and ice cream?”

     “Then go pick yourself some better shoes,” he sneered.  “Or a Timex GPS, with GCT.” He leaned his back against the picnic table to clarify that as a superior runner his advice should be taken.  I let him down.

     “No, not today.  I was going to go look for one of those runner’s watches, just like yours,” I answered, “but not this time.”  I finished my pint and stood up to say goodbye.

     “Then get something you need,” he smirked.  “You’re too old to buy yourself things you want.”

     “No worries,” I answered.  “I’m doing both. In fact, you’ve inspired me.”  I paused. “I’m going to give myself a BFD.”

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On the Nightstand: Of Winter Days and Longer Nights

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The New Year has arrived with all its baggage.  Chill winds.  Clouds low on the horizon. Garden flowers pleading to be pruned.   Junebug demanding to be let out, then back in, then back out.  But winter is not all grim and wet, by no means.  The shorter days mean longer nights, (not technically, but you know what I mean), and longer nights mean more time to read the books you got for Christmas or, in a pinch, the books still on the stack.

What are these books? And will they keep us awake, turning pages, long past the time to go to sleep?  Let’s see.  Here are mine.

(And, if this is your first On the Nightstand, we rank books by whether they keep us turning the pages at night.   A 100 watt book is a great read.  A 20 watt book is a cheap sedative to help you sleep, and so on…..

Just Finished:

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt.  She is one of the two best American novelists for writing dense, intimate, and vivid scenes and characters you believe you know. The worlds she creates are as clear to the reader as if s/he was living in them.  She also writes a remarkable blend of traditional story arc (protagonist meets problem, finds solution, then ….) and ancient forms, such as Greek plays in which the tragedy of the ending is told on page one.  She is a sorceress, and The Secret History and The Little Friend are equal to Jonathan Frantzen in their capacity to create families, enemies, friends, intrigues, and histories in very tightly packed vignettes while telling a gripping story.  The Goldfinch does so as well but….  It is the story of a thirteen year old caught up in a terrorist tragedy who somehow lands on his feet, then proceeds to make a decade’s worth of bad decisions.  It is the book’s curse that when compared to her other two masterworks,this comes in third.  It must be read, however, and I urge you to do so, but it is her 100 watt light bulb in the firmament of her other two 200 watt halogens.

My Early Life, Winston Churchill.  Memoir as campaign literature, but very good campaign literature.  He traces his privileged but lonely childhood, discomfort with Harrow, and the love of horses that led him to a military career in India and Africa, a career advanced by a combination of pushing himself forward ahead of other officers to get into the next battle and of good family connections, hardly the stuff of democracy. But the stories are good to read, including hopeless efforts to tame the very Afghan valleys that today are the source of tribal terrorism, and his escape from captivity in the Boer War, a self-satisfied tale that may have made conditions much worse for the other officers left behind. It ends at age 25 with his finagling his way into an election with relentless speechifying.  It’s a solid 90 watts, in perspective.

The Lie, Helen Dunmore.   I gobbled this tale of a soldier of the Great War come home to the West Country, and was disappointed.   He finds an ancient and reclusive neighbor woman in her last breaths, watches her die, then cleans up her cottage and moves in without notifying anyone of either fact.  Hmmm.   50 watts, if you like to read soldier tales from the Great War.

They Called Them Soldier Boys, Gregory Ball.  This is the history of the 7th Texas Infantry Regiment in World War I, from the formation of local companies in the Texas Panhandle in 1917, through training in the Texas 36th Infantry Division in Fort Worth for a form of warfare that was obsolete by the time it got to France, to the tragic frontal assaults of St. Etienne and the redemption at Forest Farm.  This is a very narrow subject but if you want to follow doughboys sent to fight in France, this is your book.  It is detailed, accurate, and well-sourced.  100 watts for the faithful.

A House Divided:  the Story of Ike and McCarthy, Donald J. Farinacci.   Don is a superb writer, witness his first history, Truman and MacArthur.  This follow-up history of Eisenhower walking on egg-shells to defuse the volatile and slanderous senator from Wisconsin is a delicate balance of trying to understand Ike’s difficulty in securing the Republican nomination in the face of the Republicans’ most powerful and yet most disgraceful elected official.  I would have liked a bit of work on typography and sourcing, but the story itself is well written and enjoyable.   80 watts.

Armadillo, William Boyd.   My faithful will no doubt roll their eyes at my reviewing yet another Boyd novel, a habit I acquired when a friend gave me Any Human Heart.  Unfortunately, Armadillo let me down.  It is the story of an insurance investigator in London who, surprise, works for a bunch of crooks who lie, cheat, and steal to avoid paying claims, wrecking the lives of others and getting rich in the process.  It also is the story of an insurance adjuster who has the mad dash hots for a woman he sees in the back window of a cab, stalks her, and sets up a place for her to land when her husband turns out to be even worse.   Sorry.  Not his best.   75 watts.  But….

Voices of the Old Sea, Norman Lewis.   I added this to my stack for the sole reason that it was a Norman Lewis book, he who spent World War II in Naples asking well-dressed but impoverished Neapolitans if they were secret fascists, a post for which he was chosen because his commanding officer noticed that he had blue eyes (“the color of truth”). This is risky; not all of his books are so impish.     Voices of the Old Sea, however, is the book he was born to write.   After the war he finds a way to vacation in a fishing village in Spain that has not changed in a thousand years, apart from the men being conscripted into the wrong side of the Spanish Civil War.  They are impoverished, superstitious, isolated, and all communicate verbally by composing impromptu blank verse.  Lewis stays several summers and is accepted into the community in time to witness the miracle of the twentieth century – the collapse of their economy as a black marketer co-opts their labor to turn a ratty villa into a destination for foreign tourists.  It will be hard to top this in 2015 for book of the year.  A pure 100 watts.  Go find a copy and read it.  Do it.

 

And, on my nightstand:

The Flamethrower, Rachel Kushner

The Driver’s Seat, Muriel Spark

Fragrant Harbor, John Lanchester, and ….

The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell.  But you knew that, didn’t you.

See you soon, and stay warm.

 

Jack

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The Letter From a Caring Stranger– Family of Melvin Callaway, August, 1945

A town in Denmark under German occupation put itself at grave risk to honor and respect the sacrifice of Airman Melvin Callaway and, when the war ended, to find his family.

 

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