That's grim fare for a child, no doubt sweetened by the pulpy promise of Uris and Wouk; like most Americans, as William Dean Howells noted, I still preferred my tragedies with happy endings. And not for me the local wars of either Texas or the Deep South. I was bored by literary accounts of the Alamo and the Civil War, though this distinction, in which I eschewed provincial battles for the European fronts of modern war, had more to do with my father than with any sense of regional shame or estrangement. Because he had returned unscathed from "his" warwhich had, astonishingly, managed to take place before I existedI needed to know everything about it. The legacies of World War II were part of the story that mattered most: a home for my unfolding consciousness, with a good-and-evil plot that offered the last vestige of innocence in America.
Our fathers had come home to a nation infused with relief and ideological certainty, two commodities that would never again be in such abundance. Buoyed by the ticker-tape parades and necessary fictions that allowed them to go on, they could look beyond the devastation to a future that promised, at least on the surface, protection from the past. The lines had been so thoroughly drawn by the rise of Nazi Germany and the aggression of Japan that our response was accompanied by a sort of mandatory amnesiait was essential, if not easy, to overlook the legacies of a Great War two decades earlier, in what was billed as the War to End All Wars.
Now we had Kilroy instead of doughboys; now we had the liberation of the camps to justify and amend the casualty lists. And we had Dresden, too, instead of Ypres, but that was a subplot best neglected. If the campaigns in Europe had demonstrated America's valor, the ones embellished by Hollywood and Madison Avenue confirmed it. The darker story, found in classics like The Best Years of Our Lives and The Naked and the Dead, would outlive the boosterism of the postwar years, eventually becoming part of the elegiac truth about war and modern history. But for now, before the fences went up, we were still a land of suburban war games and toy bombers, where the Nazis always got what was coming and where nobody good ever diedexcept maybe for a few minutes, only to be resurrected as the other side's troop commander. Our dads were heroesall of them were heroes, it seemedand it was our tender burden to be the little soldiers who had made it all worthwhile.
Huddled there in my barracks on the basement floor of the Mary E. Bivins Library, I envisioned myself to be of particularly steely character. Otherwise, how could I bear the horrors of Normandy, or the lousy C rations that awaited me each day? I lived for such extended fantasies, believing that the canned peaches and tinned beef I read about were the food of giantsand that consuming them, in my imaginary way, would nourish me as well. This empathic identification guided me in the real world as often as it transported me into the next. I'd heard all about the fish-and-chips, wrapped in newspaper and sold for a dime, that my father had subsisted on in England; though he described them as dreadful, I ordered them every time I had the chance. Because the grunts in my war novels were, like him, card sharks and betting men, I made him play me at gin rummy or casino until I dropped off to sleep at the kitchen table. It was hardly a parental sacrifice: In the card games and dominoes we both loved, he was already grooming a straight man for his pastimes. He had begun teaching me the bones of arithmetic when I was about four, trying to outfox me by making change for a quarter. I assumed this, too, was part of what made a good soldier: Laugh and shake your head as part of the bluff, never look away from your opponent, and never bet the farm.
Excerpted from A Strong West Wind by Gail Caldwell Copyright © 2006 by Gail Caldwell. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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