The Visitable Past: A Wartime Memoir by Leon Edel, University of Hawaii at Manoa |, Hardcover | Barnes & Noble
The Visitable Past: A Wartime Memoir

The Visitable Past: A Wartime Memoir

by Leon Edel

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University of Hawaii Press, The
Publication date:
Biography Monographs Series
Product dimensions:
6.28(w) x 9.26(h) x 0.83(d)

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Chapter One


I was thirty-five when I was drafted into the American Army on July 12, 1943. The century's second world war had been under way for almost four years. At the time I was working for a media oddity called PM, a newspaper which took no advertisements. It was printed on coated stock and sold for ten cents, a high price in that era of penny sheets—a kind of daily version of Time, but more liberal, pro-Roosevelt. I had been through a rather long journalistic apprenticeship starting in high school, when I worked one summer on a small town newspaper in Saskatchewan. Born in Pittsburgh in 1907, I had been taken in 1910 to Canada's western frontier by my Russian-Jewish parents. They had fled Russian pogroms, and in leaving America were fleeing one of the nation's recurrent depressions.

    When on June 26, 1943, I received the draft board's notice, the formal presidential summons to serve the land of my birth, I was startled. Early middle age, I had believed, protected me from service. I also believed I had a double nationality. I used my Canadian identification documents in Montreal, and my American birth certificate in New York. But Canada hadn't called me, and in 1943, the U.S. did. I certainly felt I was nothing like a soldier. By inclination I was a pacifist, over-educated for barbaric struggle. I had a doctorate from the University of Paris, and certain literary aspirations. Besides, I couldn't see myself in uniform.

    I could claim no exemptions. I was married but childless; I had no apparent physical disabilities. When Ilooked into the question of age, I discovered that the draft, which had begun with twenty-one-year-olds, was reaching out in both directions. Eighteen-year-olds were now being called, and some of the more up-to-date generals argued a motorized army could call on older men as well. And we now know that given Hitler's massive military force, the American military leadership needed large reserves. If the President wasn't scraping the bottom of the barrel when he summoned me in 1943, though, he was digging down as deep as possible. I thought myself—what with the stresses of deadline pressure, irregular meals, continual smoking, and a certain amount of indiscriminate drinking—to be rather a poor physical specimen, a possible disgrace to any uniform. As a newsman, I at one time had acquired a duodenal ulcer, and more recently was showing signs of a tachycardic heart. Still, I could be considered as ripe as the young for certain kinds of service. How ripe remained to be seen.

* * *

On July 9, when I reported for induction, the doctors took my medical history. Naked in the chilly cubbyholes where I was examined, I moved from one doctor to another. My bodily orifices were inspected. I was pounded and tapped—auscultated was their word—and generally pronounced healthy. The ulcer history didn't bother them. I telephoned my newspaper to say I was in the Army's clutches.

    I was escorted with some fellow recruits to an army hospital at Fort Jay, on Governors Island off the southern tip of Manhattan, for X-rays. We wore purple hospital robes and swapped stories about draft boards, draft dodging, exemptions, fantasy options. My companions were young —truck drivers, blue-collar workers, and a Brooklyn taxi driver, an Englishman. I was the only "intellectual" among them. One young man, I think a salesman, who knew he was a serious ulcer case, passed around forbidden fruit that might underline his disability—a box of excellent cigars, and a bottle of whiskey. Since we weren't patients, the nurses paid little attention to us. With a wink at me as he lit his second cigar, the young man said, "Good for what ails you, eh?" The idea wouldn't have occurred to my impractical self. Still, I took his suggestion. I cautiously puffed to see what a good capitalistic cigar would do to me, and sipped my whiskey gratefully. The next morning, when we were X-rayed, the young man was promptly dismissed. As for me, I drank the prescribed barium, faced the fluoroscope, and was pronounced fit.

    I had mixed feelings, and an inner sense of alarm. Nor was the fear of a possible battlefield softened by the realization that violent deaths also awaited civilians in the bombed cities. I filled out forms. Then we were escorted to a large bare room, where we were lined up and took the oath of allegiance. I had never before taken a loyalty oath. In Canada we simply sang "God Save the King." I felt a bit of a fraud as I repeated America's solemn words. My former loyalties were profound, and Canada had been in the war since 1939.

    I knew little American history. I was well versed, however, in Canada's—the Old Regime when France had ruled; the Franco-British wars, with Wolfe and Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham; the defeat of the Americans in 1812. Earlier came the histories of the adventuring fur companies, the resilience of the Iroquois and the Cree. I shared the general attitude of superiority assumed by Anglo-Canadians toward Americans, and the insistence of the French that they were the only genuine Canadiens.

    Moreover, I had learned during my Montreal years to dislike America's big business, its politics, its arrogance, and the general national boastings. The British parliamentary system seemed to me tidier, more civilized. In later years, I used to tease Edmund Wilson, a startling Anglophobe considering his saturation in English literature, by saying that in Canada parliament questioned the prime minister, whereas in the United States, it was the American press that questioned the President. As for the American tourists who came to Canada during prohibition, I considered them a bunch of hopeless drunks.

    I was, as is said now, a Euro-centered youth. In my childhood I had been taken with my brother to Tsarist Russia, for a fifteen-month visit to my mother's parents in the Ukrainian town of Rovno. I had also met my father's mother—the widowed Grandmother Dina, who wore her mourning perpetually for Judah Leon Edel, whose name I carried. She looked like Queen Victoria. My childhood reading had been Dickens and the Boys' Own Annual, which was Anglo-Imperial (all for King, Country, and the Church of England), although Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, and Horatio Alger, Jr.'s stories about little American boys rising to success gave me an early sympathetic feeling for some aspects of American life. I had always felt myself, with my exposure to my polyglot parents and their memories of Europe, to be rather cosmopolitan. Though unorthodox, my Jewish upbringing made me feel that warring against the Nazis was self-defense. I also hated Mussolini and Franco, but I didn't consider Stalin as belonging in their cretinous world. I had always regarded him as a Russian tyrant a couple of centuries behind western civilization. A strange and even bizarre personage: a Marxist who thought himself a Tsar.

    After taking the oath of allegiance to the U.S.A., I faced a gentlemanly young corporal, who asked me what service I might want to join. "The Army," I exclaimed, adding "Of course!" I was adamant because I felt it would be better to be on firm ground than on an ocean filled with enemy submarines. Nor had I any desire to venture into death-dealing airplanes: it was dangerous enough being on terra firma. The polite corporal, a graduate of some prep school, clearly thought I was making a mistake. He considered the Navy the most aristocratic branch of the services. Shipboard offered an exclusive society, while land fighting meant sticking your nose into the earth. But my choice placed me in the mainstream of America's citizen army, which is what I wanted. I was to be a plain GI, participating in a vast common national experience within the history of our twentieth century.

    The corporal told me that I was officially on a month's leave "to put my affairs in order." What affairs? I assumed this meant I should make my will. I had no savings, no inheritance. What had I to bestow? And my marriage—seven years of aloofness. My wife too was Jewish, the only child of immigrant parents. We came together in Manhattan out of loneliness, into a disjunctive existence. Our working hours testified to this. I was at the newspaper from 4 p.m. to midnight. She worked in an office from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. We met at odd hours in sleepiness and fatigue, out of a want of tenderness and intimacy. But our union was essentially loveless. Brief physical couplings quickly settled into distancing and silence. She seemed as forlorn as me. We were probably lonelier together than apart. My tendency towards a sedentary, reflective life did not accord with her fondness for hiking and swimming. I might say of her truly that she was a "good sort." If this sounds condescending, she could say the same of me.

    We never managed to create a genuine domesticity out of our three little rooms, the one-person kitchenette, and the narrow bathroom at the top of fifty broad steps in our converted Manhattan brownstone. We had few meals together. We had minimal furniture. The bedroom was narrow and dark, the "living room" served for our limited activities. Its light came from a rectangular side window that looked down on sad backyards, a couple of wizened trees, and the dingy rears of other brownstones. We had a relic of a fireplace. On chilly nights, when we could afford to buy wood, we lit a cheering fire for a couple of hours. But the yellow flames merely created a logging for space and elegance.

    A small room was attached to our "living room," I presume for the child we were supposed to have. I used it as my study, with its couple of shelves of books and a large, cheap, second-hand desk, the kind you pick up in New York after any election. Its drawers were stuffed with unfinished jottings. I still nourished the dream of some day becoming a writer. I usually got a running start—when I had an idea—and then lost my pace. My excuse was that my night work offered me little sleep. I didn't have the peace of mind for writing. What I really needed—the time would come for me to see this—was more self-confidence. At thirty-five I had behind me fifteen years of study, of competent journalism. But I had never overcome certain immaturities and provincialisms. I remained a country boy—afraid of girls, afraid of the world.

* * *

I went to Martha's Vineyard for a couple of weeks before reporting for duty. My wife couldn't join me—she had to stick to her job—and I confess I preferred to vacation alone. Before leaving Manhattan I looked for some reading, and spotted on a shelf the fat paperback of Tolstoy's War and Peace. Just the book for me, I said, laughing. I would choose that! I belonged to another age, and he had gone back for his subject to the Napoleonic era, long before his own time. I told myself the obvious: all wars are simply different forms of killing. Then I wondered at my bookish self, my need for books. I would do better during this furlough to chase girls. Many came to the island in quest of company. But I wasn't the chasing sort. I had a monogamous conscience. My intellect interfered with my senses: I had a Puritan rearing. On the Vineyard I could give myself over to the sensuous calms and crashings of the ocean, the comforting sun-warmed dunes, the call of the seabirds, the quiet descendants of Indians at Gay Head.

    I sank into the Tolstoy novel on the beach, or in a deck chair in front of my hilltop inn, caught up in the human relations of his story, interwoven with commentaries on the nature of armies. Above all, there were the great writer's broodings on causality. I arrived at Prince Andrei. "Why are you going to war?" he is asked. Because he "must," he says. But aristocratic Andrei wasn't drafted like me. Finally he says, "I'm going because this life I'm leading here—this life is—not to my taste." Wasn't I—deep down—doing the same? For unknown reasons I now yielded to a national summons which I might have resisted in various ways. I could have fought it on grounds of my pacifism, or sought a medic's job. The draft, however, offered me a chance to escape from everything—everything save the threat of death.

    I seemed more than willing to leave it to the government or the Army to take care of my existence. Another voice, however, whispered, "There are moral responsibilities in this life as well as material ones. What of your wife?" As for her, my departure for war could be no excuse for raising the subject of what our marriage meant. This belonged to the future. Now I would go and do my duty, such as it might be. Becoming a soldier was an act of colossal avoidance.

* * *

I returned from the Vineyard and spent a few anxious days, mostly alone, deep in my fancies. I sorted my few books, looked into the desk drawer filled with unfinished writings, and closed it promptly. Would I ever see it again? I postponed my farewell to my parents to the last minute. They lived in a small detached apartment in my brother's house in Queens. A longish subway ride. The cars were half empty. I traveled as if I too were empty of all feeling save a melancholy that had seeped into my bones. I tried more agreeable thoughts. The rattling subway reminded me of a little journey four months earlier to Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania. I had been invited to say a few words about Henry James at the noted women's college—the first occasion when an institution took note of my earlier Jamesian writings. The centenary of James's birth was being observed, and the college took pride in being one of the very few in America that obtained a commencement lecture from the novelist in 1905, during his much publicized return to the U.S. My mind suddenly sees the face of a youngish poet named Wystan Auden, also invited on that occasion to read a recent poem describing his feelings at the Cambridge grave of Henry James. My notes say I found him "a sort of codfish Englishman seeming only half interested and in reality rather bored." But I add "I think this must be a mask. Every now and then a rather likable face pushes through." My talk was brief and full of my earliest affection for James, long before I decided to write his life. I felt it to be an irony that I was leaving for the Army at the moment when a revival in James's reputation was beginning.

    The hour spent with my parents. Both had fright in their eyes. Their oldest son was ending up a soldier, and soldiers still meant to them the marauding Tsarist military that killed Jews. Mother was dry-eyed but full of doom; my father's gentle words were a request that I write often and take good care of myself. They kissed me; they cried. My younger brother wasn't present—he was detained at City College, where he taught philosophy. We exchanged farewells by phone.

    I awoke early the next day, August 2, 1943, placed a few essentials plus the bulging Tolstoy in a small container. My wife and I had little to say to one another. We silently drank coffee, adrift in our divided selves. I managed to consume a piece of dry toast. I blurted out a goodbye, then gave her a frozen kiss, which she returned. As I descended the long stairway, I heard the door click shut. The subway was noisily crowded. Early morning New York was going to work. I was going to a war. Pennsylvania Station wasn't far away. Twenty minutes later I descended stairs to the lower floor. Draftees drifted in—sad, silent faces. Some of the men fell asleep. I attempted to go on with Tolstoy. But my eyes refused to be attentive.

    An hour or two later a Long Island train turned up. My eyes watched passing fields and houses, till I somehow became the train, and its monotonous clatter. Then, at some point in the early afternoon, for a split second I saw a small pool of water, gleaming in the middle distance. A single moment of brightness, piercing the day's frozen feelings. Years later in the Hague, I would seek out Vermeer's view of the city of Delft. A painted little patch of yellow wall, which Proust mentions in his great novel of remembrance, reached out for my eyes. And suddenly, so too did that little reflecting puddle, glimpsed at the first hour of military initiation. Memory at work.

    At Long Island's Camp Upton fate intervened. I recognized a man behind a desk. He was drafted from my newspaper, where he worked in the legal department. He left his desk, told me to stick to this line, and he would take care of me. "We must put down every particular," he said, "It can make a great difference." My education, my journalism, the languages I speak, all aspects of my career, my Franco-Canadian background. He lingered over details. What was my salary at the paper? The Army needed to know. He particularly emphasized my being a linguist. He kept others waiting—"There, we've got you properly identified." He wished me luck. After this—it was now late afternoon and I was exhausted—we were conducted into a classroom. "A little exam," said a fat staff sergeant, "You're back in school." He handed me a printed form. I'd never taken an IQ test before. I started plodding through the questions, answering them in their sequence. Later I learned this was a mistake. You were meant to skip around. No time to ponder. Before long a buzzer sounded. I was only half finished. I knew I'd failed. I asked an officer if I would be able to take it again. He said yes. I should apply as soon as I got to the next camp.

    The following morning we're once more on a train. I now have a duffel bag full of gear. I'm dressed in khaki. My external transformation seems complete. I have the outer appearance of a soldier: my military education is about to begin.

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