a Story by John Bart Gerald
THE incident itself didn’t last long. The wall behind his desk was covered with framed awards, commendations, pictures of colonels and generals shaking hands, chiefs of staff, and up top against the flag was out President. The Major said, “Why aren’t you in uniform. Sergeant?” And I said, “I have something to show you, Sir.” “Well what is it Blake?” he said, for in a military way we were friends. With an edge cutting in my hand I pulled the blade down the middle of my chest through the T-shirt arid hair down to the bone. And as the blood sprang into the split flesh I drew another cut across the top of my chest to make a cross. And stood there with the warm seeping down into my pants, looking at him, realizing he would never see me, or any of us.
My mother was an artist from Milwaukee and my father left Charleston. They met at a picnic and went to New York to build their lives together. They had ideals. But my mother painted less when she had children. And my father became very successful in business and protected us. I went to all the good schools, and finally Harvard. My sister made her debut at the Junior League Ball. And at times when I had nothing else I thought back to that world and to those names like symbols of the days when I was better than everyone else.
At the Guard’s Ball the beautiful, intelligent daughter of a paper manufacturer broke down crying with me. I patted her bare back and took her out lor a cup of coffee. We walked down to Lexington Avenue, she barefoot, carrying her shoes though it was midwinter, me with a white turban around my head set with a glass jewel, walked into a drugstore and sat at the counter. She couldn’t stop crying. She kept saying it was a sham, it had no meaning. Everyone on the counter stools was staring at us, and I wanted her to speak more softly.
At first I didn’t do very well at Harvard. I tried hard. I always tried hard, but I felt I had blinders on and didn’t know how to take them off. I was asked to join a club. People in clubs ignored you if you were not. I joined. Mine was regarded as one of the best, if not blue blood or polo-playing particularly. then vaguely intellectual. It was the only one that accepted one or two Jews each year, and I thought that was right. I studied classics and English. I fell in love with an undergraduate actress, and when she was no longer amused, tired of Harvard and myself, I left.
I readied the doorstep of Doctor Schweitzer’s hospital in Lambarene and worked there for close to a year with lepers. But faced with a humanity in the natives as deep or maybe deeper than my own, and afraid of dying or never leaving, I grew hungry for learning just who in hell I was, so I went back to school.
Elections were held around the club’s large banquet table. Three roommates were asked to join and a fourth was not because he had the wrong color. The alumni would have objected. I didn’t want to belong any longer. ‘When I sent in my resignation I was told I couldn’t resign, any more than I could resign from being a gentleman. I was not sure. When the resignation was refused again I walked into the club’s leather-upholstered leather-bound library to the book where members had signed in on election night over the past two hundred years. And I looked through page after page ol neat signatures, finding a President and other names of government, finance, and industry, without a smudge, until I came to my own name and drew a thin line through the name in ink, initialed and dated it.
Not many dub men talked to me again. On the other hand I began studying and learning and didn’t think about the club again for a long time. I finished strong at Harvard, still running a race, and went right into six months with the Air Force Reserve. Since I already knew so much officer material, I wanted to learn what it was like to be an enlisted man. Later I went to monthly meetings, married my girl from college, wrote earnest short stories, and began to teach school.
It was awkward to feel that the war starting was immoral and would ultimately be disastrous to the people of my country, and to belong at the same time to the military. It was awkward teaching that stories and ideals were as real as life’s blood when some of my students would graduate into war. it was awkward paying taxes. It was awkward distrusting my government. I found a number of things awkward. What amazed me was how much awkwardness I could live with.
I was always intrigued by the father of a college friend who became a cabinet minister in one of the countries Hitler conquered until be could no longer face the crimes his own government found expedient and went off to die on the Russian front. I always thought if I had been in Germany in the thirties, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant as I am, I would have had the sense to leave rather than be trapped bv circumstance. But I wouldn’t. I would have stayed long enough to discover whether I was the blind middle class, the Jew, or the storm trooper.
The annual two-week tour of duty was spent learning how to load bombs. After three days I pulled my back lifting and was taken to the base hospital. In the other beds were casualties back from the war zone, men who had played dead, men with parts of their bodies gone. One told what it was like to shoot a woman. Another talked only of prisoners. They told their stories late at night, stories not asked for, told in blood.
At the peace demonstration in Washington, 1 marched and laughed with my friends, with my students, but the wounded were still more real to me. I couldn’t forget them, they knew what the war was. They were sent out to be killed. They knew how strong their rights were even to live. I remembered a black man without legs who looked in my eyes and said, “Don’t go.”
In basic training a friend was ordered to clean out the ovens when the K.P. sergeant found he was Jewish. The ovens were still hot, and he cleaned them out on his hands and knees while I watched. All through training I didn’t say a word. The military taught me how to survive, just survive until it was all over. Because I still hoped to be square with myself. I stared at my cowardice and the moments of compromise so that finally I would not betray myself, I learned the uses of anonymity. I learned stupidity. I learned to keep my mouth shut. I learned men do not obey out of love. I learned to be jovial with a stupid officer. I learned that the military could do what it wanted, and if my rights were protected in regulations, business was carried out Itehind then facade. I learned re sped for sergeants. I learned to be more clever. I knew my fear kept me free as long as and it I was free.
I survived. At times I was impressed by my lack of statute as the war continued to escalate and civilian casualties rose and the other country and her people were destroyed. And out own men were killed for a mistake. In five years of monthly meetings i became a sergeant. And went out to the firing range with the rest of the guys and shot expert with such a splitting headache I could barely see the target.
I wanted to avoid prison. In civilian life I did not break any law or sign a pledge to. When my students asked if they should go to jail. I turned them back to their own consciences. Because I would not go to jail. I did not want to go. All I had to do was oversleep my monthly meetings to face disciplinary call-up. Refusal meant military prison. I had lived through it many times in my head, but I didn’t think I could live through the years in prison. They kept me running. The only price I had to pay for my freedom was the continual admission of my own cowardice.
I preferred not to look at it that way. I explored areas of my life where I secretly considered myself a hero. I thought at times I was a hero to my marriage, though that was not fair to my wife. I remembered my moments with the c ivil rights movement. especially as I believed more and more in man’s right to live free. I remembered walking through the Alabama countryside singing “Before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave, and go home to the Lord and be free.” And being thrown in jail for breaking no law at all, and beaten for it.
It was hard to admit I preferred heroism without hav ing to pay too much too often. Christ, whom I admired, only went up on his cross once. I wondered if I didn’t admire more the TV or movie hero who could make a career out of heroic acts. I liked myself less, i dreamed of prison and the Air force confused in the same dream.
At times I thought I was too hard on myself. At my monthly meetings I only sat and watc hed Driver Safety lectures, or played with wooden dummies, in military prison I would have emptied garbage cans for the wai effort, I saw others like, me. And if it was hard to do absolutely nothing tor a bad war, I was doing no harm. Wooden bombs weren’t real bombs. But then one supported the system finally or one did not, as a fighting man, a reservist, Or civilian. Those closer to the flame just took more risk in getting burned.
I decided the argument with a note to myself. “Men don’t choose to spend five years in jail. They go because they have to follow their conscience. Whatever it says about me I still have the choice.” J always had the choice. Life offered me so many choices, my difficulty was in choosing. I hoped I would never have to confront this choice. I knew if I did I would learn something that frightened me.
wot: began the pork chops and spinach. I sat at the kitchen table with the late paper before me, and looked through the list of activated reserve units until I found my unit’s name. Then I read an account of the latest incident when there was some doubt who was telling the truth.
I asked Linda not to answer the phone because I wanted time to think before I was caught up in the network binding me to the military. Maybe I was caught already. I went to the bedroom and lay down. My mind began a useless meandering of logic through the alternatives before me.
I was aware of a slow steady pulse of survival beating under the surface of my life. Linda’s aunt in Montreal would hide me, then find me a job up north or passage out. We had some good friends in Canada. I would be AWOL, then a deserter. I laughed suddenly. I was always realizing I was American, no great patriot hut the country was part of myself. I couldn’t ignore it. I couldn’t resign from my whole life. I couldn’t resign from myself.
Then I thought serving might not be so bad. I was paid fairly well and the officers left me alone. I liked the people in my unit. I might not be sent to the war zone. And maybe I could switch into administrative work and not load the bombs myself. That’s what I thought.
I knew if I served two years straight in the Air Force, it wouldn’t matter from then on what I thought was right or wrong because 1 would have to accept in my heart I would do anything, or be part of anything. And then my sense of right and wrong wasn’t worth ninth. My whole life wasn’t worth much. And the words I used were worth nothing. I grasped at that and tried to accept. I wanted to actcpt it. I couldn’t go to jail. Not just because I would lose Linda and life, but prison was my private terror, as il I had lived with it since the day I was bom. Until my thoughts broke down and I was thrown back on several incidents which I suddenly saw very i leat ly because they were all 1 had left.
I was matching over the bridge out of Selma into the Alabama countryside with my legs trembling, afraid someone would shoot at us from the woods. I was huddled on the cement floor while the cons kicked me. I sat on that floor scared of the jailers, scared of the cons, their razors, taking my wedding ring, what went on behind the blankets they stretched around their steel bunks and threatened me with, scared I wouldn’t get out, scared I would start screaming and never stop. I never left that jail in Alabama completely. The prison was still in my head. J used to pray, “God let me be free.”
When I left the hospital in Africa, Schweitzer gave me a letter for the authorities. I never gave it to the government. I kept it in the back of my journal. Because it said I was a good and honest person, with the Doctor’s cramped signature at the bottom of the page. Because the words said I was worth something, when I wasn’t always sure. I remembered “reverence for life,” and all the cliches fashionable people associated with the old man. But I saw him trying to work them out in life, awkward and clumsily at times, as out of place as organ music in the jungle night, a man trying to make his conscience real.
I remembered saying the Lord’s Prayer hundreds of times in my boarding-school chapel. And my tutor at college whose blood was literature. And Linda looking at me in the days when we were in love. She was standing by the door looking at me. The phone rang and rang and rang.
Once in a bad time my father gave me a piece of paper with Ins father’s name on it and his father’s father, back six or seven generations of ministers and doctors in small Southern towns. And my father said, “You’ll he all right. We always have been. And you’re one of us.”
She stood by the bed crying. I wanted to comfort her but there wasn’t anything to say. She kept touching me. She didn’t ask what I was going to do. When I was ready I hugged her as strong as I could but I didn’t feel her. There was a knot tied in my chest pulling tighter and tighter and tighter. I said “See you.” And when I walked out the door I fell into America.