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A Literary Memoir
By Bruce Jay Friedman
Biblioasis Copyright © 2011
Bruce Jay Friedman
All right reserved.
Chapter One "New Yukkeh, they tahd and Proustian. We goan be bold and Tolstoyan."
From an inspirational speech to the author by Capt. George B. Leonard, editor of Air Training magazine.
It's been alleged by some – a few, and certainly not an entire horde of enthusiasts – that I've had a glittering career. For a writer, that is. If so, I never stopped to examine it. It was always on to the next story, the next adventure or, more than likely, the next mortgage payment. Now, with the lights dimming a bit, it might be time to consider that this career I've been cobbling together – none of it planned – might actually have had a touch of glitter to it.
It all began for me, in a literary sense, during the Korean War. We weren't quite part of the Great Generation, having missed out on World War II by a decade or so. Still, I thought of us as being a reasonably great generation. There was a war going on, albeit a dreary affair. The Korean War had very little panache to it. It was mostly about huddling on hillsides, blowing on your hands and losing toes to frostbite. There would be no heroic storming of the beaches at Anzio, with John Wayne egging us on. Still, it was a war, the only one we had. The country called, and off we went, with no thought of slipping across the border to hunker down in Ontario until it blew over. The questioning would come later, with the war that followed.
I was finishing up a degree in Journalism at the University of Missouri in 1951, awaiting the call to be drafted, then shipped across the Pacific and no doubt expected to shoot Koreans. I could barely find Korea on the map and had no wish to shoot at its inhabitants. On the contrary, my fantasy was that one of their finest sharpshooters would be lurking in a tree, prepared to pick me off the moment I stepped off the plane. Such ego. And that would be it for me, at twenty-one, the only vestige of my literary life being an essay I'd written for a freshman English class on Hemingway's Lost Generation.
"Were they really all that lost?" I'd asked, in a precociously revisionist spirit. "Or were they just swanning around, pretending to be lost?"
It was a glum time for me. In a devil-may-care spirit, I threw away what little money I had in all-night poker games and had a spiritless affair with a Stephens College history major. As we made love, or what passed for it, she said: "You don't really care much for this, do you?"
I took the last of my journalism classes, which required that I memorize the names of editors of turn-of-the-century farming weeklies. I was also expected to sprint through the halls carrying hot linotype from a printer to the editor of the local newspaper. As an elective, I'd taken a course in Serbo-Croatian cabals; here again, the cabals were carried off at the turn of the century. And thus would I go to my grave, fortified by a knowledge of turn-of-the-century farming weeklies and Serbo-Croatian cabals.
Sensing my desolate state, my mother arranged to meet me in Chicago and to see to it that I had a pleasant weekend before facing whatever darkness lay ahead.
"You need some fun in your system," is the way she put it.
"Fun" was the operative word in her life. As she lay dying, on a couch, in 1973, wearing a bathrobe and puffing on one of her beloved Chesterfield cigarettes, she said: "Don't have any sympathy for me, darling. I've had my fun."
There we were in 1951 Chicago, which might not be the coldest place on earth, but in my experience it might as well have been. Despite the best efforts of the Drake Hotel to keep us comfortable, I felt chilled to the bone for the entire weekend. Years later, on an assignment for The Saturday Evening Post, I almost froze to death standing alongside Lake Michigan, wearing a thin raincoat and waiting to investigate a murder with a pair of late-arriving homicide detectives.
Yet for all of what I found to be the unforgiving weather, Chicago, for Saul Bellow, was the only city. (No doubt the residents of Irkutsk have the same sense of local pride.) I met the Nobelist – and the pride of Chicago – only once, in the sixties, standing behind him in a movie-line in Manhattan. He recognized me. He later claimed to have discovered me, publishing my story "The All-American" in his magazine, The Noble Savage. None of this was true, although he'd read the story in my agent Candida Donadio's office, enjoyed it and may have considered publishing it.
His only words to me in the movie-line were: "How can you live in this hellhole?"
As for the Chicago visit, my mother meant well, although some might question her choice of activities to amuse me. We had dinner the first night at the Gold Coast apartment of a childhood friend of hers named Munko who had enriched himself by scalping tickets to hot Chicago musicals. As a demonstration of his new affluence, he carved off slices of rare roast beef, holding up each one to be admired.
"You must have made a lot of money, didn't you, Munko?" my mother said.
"Yes, I did, Molly," he said with satisfaction, then carved off a few more slices.
To be fair about it, he had grown up dirt poor on the streets of Manhattan's lower East Side and had every reason to take pride in being able to carve up slices of roast beef with flamboyance.
We spent the second evening of our visit at a nightclub, joining a group of paraplegics in listening to the music of the Tommy Dorsey orchestra. The wounded veterans kept time to the song selections by tapping their drink mixers on the arms of their wheelchairs. Dorsey, too, had been a Lower East Side friend of my mother's. Several times during his performance, she poked at me and said: "You know how long I know that sonofabitch?"
Such were the highlights of my trip. Still, as she often did, my mother had come to the rescue. I told her my spirits had been lifted – they hadn't. But thus assured, she kissed me on the cheek and off she went to keep an appointment in Manhattan with her corsetière. (She spent a great deal of time at corsetières. I spent many an afternoon with her. I would sit in a waiting room and snappishly page through corsetière industry magazines, which were maddeningly unarousing.)
Do I have a Proustian recollection of my mother's scent as we said goodbye in Chicago? Not particularly, but no doubt it was Shalimar, her signature perfume. For the Boise State academics who keep track of such things, I recorded an hallucinatory version of the weekend in a short story I wrote some years later. It was called – and how could it not be? – "The Good Time."
In a dark mood, I returned to my dorm and dreamed of Korea: the very name rang in my ears and began to sound like an urological disease.
"Stay away from him. He's got Korea."
To demonstrate that there is a great balance wheel to life, years later, I had a highly satisfying romance – to a point – with a lovely Korean woman. Not insignificantly, her pitch black hair, when released, touched the floor. She had also convinced me that she had taken a course on the penis at New York University. Had she? Did it matter? That she'd thought of such a course was enough.
Back at the Missouri dorm, in one of the Last-Minute-Reprieves that were emblematic of my life, the Air Force put out an emergency call for a dozen administrative officers; they were to be given two weeks of military training, then expected to hit the ground firing off memos at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois. I almost broke a leg dashing over to sign up for the program. Somebody Up There not only loved but adored me.
I reported to a campus military barracks and quickly got the hang of dealing with an M-l rifle. Though I demonstrated great skill at disassembling the weapon, I was all at sea when it came to putting it back together. At one point, before a weapons inspection, I got disgusted and kicked all the parts of it under my bed. I told the officer in charge I must have left it at a party. It was a lame excuse. Remarkably, he swallowed it.
Shaky as I was about military matters, I loved being in the Air Force and loved the uniform. I thought it was much more dashing than that of the other services, especially when the cap was worn at a rakish angle. And I loved being a second lieutenant, and the gold shoulder bars that were part of the package. I did a great deal of crisp saluting and continue the practice to this day, greeting the puzzled Chechnyan doormen in our Manhattan building as if they are superior officers. The wings pinned to the lapels of an administrative officer were virtually identical to those worn by heroic fighter pilots. At cocktail lounges in Illinois, when asked about aerial combat, I would look off in the distance with clenched teeth as if my experience was all too painful to recall. Years later, in the eighties, I became friends with the novelist James Salter. ("Brilliant" generally accompanies his name, and rightly so.) Salter had been an authentic air ace, having shot down enemy aircraft in the legendary MIG Alley. I always felt shamed in his presence. In thin defense of myself, I had taken a stab at being a fighter pilot and been laughed out of the examiner's office and told to buy a pair of glasses before I walked off a cliff. Evidently I'd been legally blind for four years at the university. This explained why I could never quite make out what was written on blackboards or understand why people made a fuss over football games when it was impossible to see the activity on the field. Or so it seemed to me. What exactly were they watching?
The Air Force didn't quite know what to do with me. I dashed off a few memos in the morning on behalf of a heavily decorated Captain who grew pale with fear at the idea of having to respond to written correspondence. My use of the word "hitherto" impressed him and made him feel he was in safe hands. I made sure to kick off each memo with a few "hithertos" and an occasional "aforesaid" while he went off to snap at the panties of Air Force secretaries. (Until, later in the day, his somber 300-pound Cherokee wife and four children came to fetch him and take him home.) In the afternoons, I took naps in a supply room. For a brief period and perhaps because of my allegedly rough upbringing in the Bronx, I was asked to put together a platoon and train it in how to deal with angry mobs. The commanding general was fearful that local electricians, dissatisfied with their contracts, would descend upon the base and there would be no one to fight them off. There were plenty of pilots on hand, of course, but it was felt that for all of their dashing appearance, they wouldn't be much good at beating up electricians. I found a surly-looking corporal in the supply room, and gave him a quick briefing ("A mob is not like any other gathering ... It has to be dealt with gingerly before it flies out of control.")
Then I introduced him to the platoon.
"You'll find that José here is an expert in dealing with angry mobs."
Off I went then, once again, to take my treasured naps.
I think of my literary career as having officially begun soon afterward, with an invitation to join the staff of a new magazine called Air Training. It was headed up by a pilot named George B. Leonard, a tall and lanky Southern gentleman with a bookish background and a high sense of drama. (He was later to become an iconic figure in West Coast counter-culture.)
When I met him at his office, he fell back, as though in shock.
"This incredible," he said. "You old Tom Wolfe himself, back from the grave, ready to start kickin' and fussin', and preparin' to plant your big boots on the literary map of America. Why, Tom, you old hell-raiser, welcome back."
I found this flattering, though I assured Leonard that I was just a young man who had barely gotten out of the gate as a writer, my "Hemingway's Lost Generation" essay notwithstanding.
"You tebbly modest," said Leonard, "as befits a young man of your enormous capabilities."
Leonard was obsessed with The New Yorker magazine and had somehow taken it into his head that Air Training would be competitive with the legendary weekly.
"New Yukkeh, they tahd and Proustian." he said. "We goan be bold and Tolstoian."
Then, as if he was addressing the staff of the fabled magazine, he put an arm around my shoulder, raised a fist and cried out a challenge:
"Editors of the New Yukkeh, with your Toke (of the Town) and your long skinny columns of tahp, slahly desahned, of coase, to be phallic and sexual ... Heah mah voice. Friedman and ah comin' for you, and we goan whip your tahd and pretentious ass."
Then he picked up a copy of the celebrated magazine and shook his head in puzzlement, as if he couldn't understand the appeal of such a publication.
"New Yukkeh," he said, holding his nose. "Pee yew."
As absurd as it sounds, I found all of this to be inspiring. With Leonard's supportive arm around my shoulder, I could hear "John Brown's Body" being chanted in the distance. I had no idea of how an obscure training magazine could hold its own, much less overtake, the iconic home of Ross and Benchley and Thurber – and now J.D. Salinger. But so inspiring was Capt. George B. Leonard that I was willing to give it a try.
I joined a staff made up of a former Chicago bridge tender named Jack O'Callaghan, the folksinger Will Holt, who was to become a famed cabaret performer, and a quartet of gays and lesbians who made up the art department. (With regard to homosexuals at the time, the policy of the Air Force was Don't Even Think About It.) The staff photographer was a career master sergeant of Mexican descent named Joe Colazzo. A short stocky man with wavy black hair and thick red lips, he had, after a struggle, fallen in love with the new Rolleiflex camera that had replaced his beloved, albeit cumbersome, Speed Graphic.
"I love m' little Rollei" he would say, stroking it in its leather case. "It will help me to take great fo-toes."
His main function was to track down women at the base and, for the purpose of morale, to take what were then called "cheesecake" pictures of them. His style was a bit heavy-handed. Pointing his camera, he would say, "You're so darned cute. If you could just turn around slightly so I can get a better angle on them sweet little titties." Yet I don't recall a single one of the subjects objecting to his style. He had a 5-year-old son at home he referred to as "little Hendry." Often, in the middle of a photo shoot, he would lower his head in shame and say: "What is wrong with me? Little Hendry is home waitin' for me, and here I am talkin' titties."
My first effort for the magazine was a column called "Air Force Fables." In the opening episode, a serviceman appears in a barracks carrying a magic wand and announces: "I am your fairy sergeant." No sooner had the first issue been distributed than a cable came in from an infuriated colonel in Pyongyang saying: "What's gotten into you people? Don't you realize we're fighting a war over here? There are shells falling all about us. And this Friedman of yours is giving us fairy sergeants. In the name of decency, STOP FABLES."
Stop them we did, though my literary education continued. The bridge-tending O'Callaghan instructed me in the sensory appeal of simple foods, often taken for granted.
"Toast" he would say," then close his eyes and lick his lips as if he'd just taken a bite of a slice. "Warm, crunchy, delicious toast. The cozy smell of it. Ummmm."
Excerpted from Lucky Bruce by Bruce Jay Friedman Copyright © 2011
by Bruce Jay Friedman . Excerpted by permission of Biblioasis. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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