Willard “Sonny” Burns and Tom “Gunner” Casselman, Korean War vets and former classmates, reunite on the train ride home to Indianapolis. Despite their shared history, the two young men could not be more different: Sonny had been an introverted, bookish student, whereas Gunner had been the consummate Casanova and athlete—and a popular source of macho pride throughout the high school. Reunited by the pains of war, they go in search of finding love, rebuilding their lives, and shedding the repressive expectations of their families.
As Sonny and Gunner seek their true passions, the stage is set for a wounded, gripping account of disillusionment and self-discovery as seen through the lens of the conservative Midwest in the summer of 1954. Rendered in honest prose, national bestseller Going All the Way expertly and astutely captures the joys and struggles of working-class Middle America, and the risks of challenging the status quo. Author Dan Wakefield crafts this enduring coming-of-age tale with fluidity, grace, and deep humanity.
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About the Author
Dan Wakefield (b. 1932) is the author of the bestselling novels Going All the Way and Starting Over, which were both adapted into feature films. His memoirs include New York in the Fifties, which was made into a documentary film of the same name, and Returning: A Spiritual Journey, praised by Bill Moyers as “one of the most important memoirs of the spirit I have ever read.” Wakefield created the NBC prime time series James at 15, and wrote the screenplay for Going All the Way, starring Ben Affleck. He edited and wrote the introduction for Kurt Vonnegut Letters as well as If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Vonnegut’s Advice to the Young. Visit Wakefield online at www.danwakefield.com and www.vonnegutsoldestlivingfriend.com.
Read an Excerpt
Going All the Way
By Dan Wakefield
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1973 Dan Wakefield
All rights reserved.
When the two soldiers boarded the train at St. Louis they caught one another's eyes for a moment in a mutually questioning gaze that broke off teasingly short of recognition, like a dream not quite recalled. The short, boyish-looking soldier moved away into the crowd, his apple cheeks burning brighter, as if they had just been shined, and he climbed in a coach farther down. Something about the face of that other soldier he had seen hinted of the past, and that was precisely what the young man wished to avoid on this of all days, which he felt marked the start of a whole new part of his life — the "real part," he hoped. Settling into a seat by a window, he closed his eyes and breathed in deeply as the train jolted forward, nosing into the future, unlimited.
As soon as the conductor took his ticket he started for the club car, hoping for something that would cool as well as calm him. The air-conditioning system was on the blink, and it was one of those muggy, midwestern days in May when everything seems to stick to you. Women fanned themselves with newspapers and babies bawled in the thick heat.
The young soldier had to make his way through seven coaches to get to the club car, pressing on the airlock door of each one with all his might and trying not to show any sign of the exertion it took before he broke through the sealed barrier with a foom of triumph. By the time he reached his destination his arms felt like spaghetti. He determined he would begin the daily push-ups and other basic exercises he had promised himself to continue on his own after basic training but never kept up. Now that he was done with the Army and his real life was beginning, he was going to do those things, he was going to discipline himself.
He ordered a Schlitz and started to undo the button of his collar that was so tight it felt like a string cutting his neck, but then he saw the long tan legs of the blonde. He pulled his tie tighter into place and tried to center it, smiling as he choked. The girl seemed like an omen to him of the phase of his life that was now beginning, a time in which well-tanned and lovely women would be his rightful due. When the Schlitz came, he lifted the cool can to his lips in a private toast, but his trembling hand tipped it too quickly and some of the beer went drooling down his chin, pretty as a madman's spittle.
Mercifully, the girl wasn't looking at him. He wiped fiercely at his chin and the front of his tie and jacket, then calmed himself with a long, carefully aimed draught of the beer. There was an empty seat on one side of the girl, and on the other side was an old guy around forty wearing a shiny suit with one of those diamond Shriners pins in the lapel, obviously no competition. The girl looked cool and athletic — not in a volleyball or field-hockey way, but in something graceful, like swimming. She would glide through the water with long, arching strokes, no thrashing around, just a little foam raised prettily by the rhythmic flutter of her delicate feet. The young man pulled out his cigarettes, trying to devise a good opening line. What do you think about Senator McCarthy and the Red menace? No, that could just start an argument. Never open with religion or politics, that was the oldest rule of all. What do you think of Marlon Brando? Did you like The Catcher in the Rye? Is Dave Brubeck really art? Will the mambo last? Have I seen you someplace before? Do you want to fuck?
He could think of nothing witty or original and had almost finished the beer. The near-empty can made a nervous rattle on the circular chromium serving stand. The young man decided to order another and promised himself that when he finished the second one he would go and sit down by the girl whether he had thought of a sharp opening line or not. It took him some time to get the attention of the old colored waiter, and he feared the girl might notice his lack of success. Once she stared right at him and smiled, but he looked away, pretending not to notice. When the waiter finally brought the beer, he gave him an extra large tip, hoping to establish good relations for the future, but the old guy merely grunted when he pocketed the change. No matter, the beer was cold, and the soldier could feel his determination blooming within himself, nurtured by the Schlitz. He would soon be ready. He would stride with casual confidence across the aisle, slip into the seat beside the girl, and say whatever first came to his mind.
Just then a big guy in a wild sport shirt that said "Waikiki" all over it entered the car, cased the scene, and plopped down right in the empty seat beside the girl. The guy had tattoos on his forearms, which probably meant he was dumb. The soldier consoled himself with the thought that the poor guy didn't have a chance.
"Talk about your early summer heat," the tattooed man said loudly to the girl, "I bet it's hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk."
How corny could you get? The soldier really felt embarrassed for the poor guy, and he hoped the girl didn't brush him off too bad. But the girl was smiling.
"In St. Louis, I bet you could," she said.
They laughed — together. The guy ordered drinks for him and the girl, and soon they were chattering away like old pals. The soldier tried not to hear them. He tried to think of important things, like the Future, not some silly broad on a train you could pick up just by giving her a stale old line about the weather.
What burned him up most was the guy wasn't even a serviceman. It didn't seem fair. The young man had hoped that when he went in the Army he'd be able to pick up all the girls he wanted, just by being in uniform. As a kid he had seen all those World War II movies where an ordinary GI could go to the Stage Door Canteen and dance the night away with Judy Garland, or maybe just walk down the street and have June Allyson pop out from behind some shrubbery and say, "Hi, soldier," and walk off with him into the sunset. Of course, you could guess what happened in the sunset, even with nice girls like June Allyson. It didn't mean they were bad, it meant they were patriotic. But Korea wasn't the kind of a war that got you laid for being in it. The young man had worn his uniform for two years, and it hadn't done shit for him. The only broad who said, "Hi, soldier," to him was a dumpy old babe around forty at the USO in Kansas City. She gave him some oatmeal cookies that crumbled in his hand.
The war wasn't really a war — a "police action" some of the papers called it — and nobody gave much of a damn about it except for the politicians and the military men and of course the guys who got drafted and all their relatives. Being a soldier during that half-assed war was like being on a team in a sport that drew no crowds, except for the players' own parents and friends. The young man had got a much bigger kick out of World War II, when he served on "The Homefront" as a kid collecting scrap metal and tinfoil and raising a "Victory Garden" of radishes and carrots that nobody ate, and learning to be an "air-raid spotter" so that if the Nazis decided to bomb Indianapolis — thereby knocking out the very heart of the nation — he would be able to stand on the roof of the Broad Ripple lumberyard and spot the Stukas and the Messerschmidts as they dove toward such cultural targets as the Soldiers and Sailors Monument or the world-famous Indianapolis Speedway. World War II had been a fun war, full of glamour and glory, but Korea was just a bore, a national nuisance, drab as olive. His whole generation had been stuck with it, but somehow the young man took it as a personal piece of bad luck. Just the sort of thing that was always happening to him.
"You like the races, huh?" the tattooed guy was asking the blonde. The soldier didn't want to hear about it. He got out the rolled-up copy of the latest Newsweek magazine he had stuck in his hip pocket, and plunged into it right at the hardest part, foreign affairs. As well as doing daily exercises in the fruitful, new life that the young man was going to begin, he had also promised himself he would keep his mind in trim, stay up on things, be alert and informed, and as part of this resolution he planned to read Newsweek magazine each and every week, not just the sports and entertainment sections but the world and national news and the art and literary parts. Most everyone read Time, and the young man figured he might have a little edge by being a Newsweek reader, might just be a little more in the know than your average citizen.
The big world news was about the "crisis" of the Fall of Dienbienphu, the French bastion in part of the Commie Orient. It sounded pretty bad. The magazine said that
While it might turn out to be only a heroic incident in the continuing struggle to contain aggressive communism, it might prove to be the cataclysmic event that would trigger a chain reaction culminating eventually in a third world war — this time an atomic war of unimaginable deadliness and devastation.
Fuck it all. More of his kind of luck — the next world war not only wouldn't be any fun, it would probably kill everybody. He often had this feeling that maybe if he ever got settled down, married to a great, sexy-looking babe who was also very tender and motherly — sort of a cross between Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, and old Jane Gallagher of The Catcher in the Rye — and he had a great job that paid a lot of money and a couple of beautiful kids and had just moved into a cozy house with a lot of fireplaces and a white picket fence, he would go out to pick up the mail and look up in the sky and see a monstrous mushroom-shaped cloud, and that would be the end. He regarded the Hbomb too as a personal menace, a weapon uniquely and insidiously devised to scare the shit out of him, until it finally blew him to smithereens.
He couldn't finish the article about the latest world crisis, and he flipped through the magazine in search of some less depressing stuff. "Business Trends" said that the Atomic Energy Commission was encouraging colleges to expand their courses in "nuclear studies." Senator Joe McCarthy was fighting with the Army, making more of his famous "points of order," trying to scare everyone about the Reds in government. The first jet transport plane was almost finished. Roger Bannister had broken the four-minute mile. That was something, but the soldier already knew about that. He turned to the book section, hoping to improve his mind. There was a story about some philosopher who a lot of eggheads thought was hot stuff. It said:
Sören Kierkegaard, a melancholy Dane of a century ago, is a triple-threat hero among modern intellectuals. He unwittingly fathered the gloomy philosophy of Existentialism. He anticipated the rise of modern remorse by developing a twentieth-century sense of guilt in the heyday of the optimistic nineteenth. ...
Shit. The soldier figured he was even born in the wrong damn century. The century of gloom and guilt. Wouldn't you know it? He finished his beer and looked up to see if he could flag down the grumpy, indifferent waiter. A foom of the air-compression door announced the entrance of somebody new in the club car, and the young man turned to look.
At the entrance to the car was the soldier whose face had floated up to haunt him from the steam of the hissing train on the platform. He was tall, built in an angular way with broad shoulders that sloped in a V to a narrow waist and hips, and long, slightly bowed legs. His face was lean and dark from the kind of a beard that never quite shaves completely away, leaving a permanent five-o'clock shadow. The face was naggingly familiar to the chubby young soldier who was staring at him, and yet he couldn't quite place it. The tall soldier started walking forward, when the train gave a sudden lurch that sent beer cans skittering precariously over the chrome tables in a general clatter, and something fell and smashed behind the bar. It was the sort of jolt that usually sent anyone who was walking down the aisle reeling into the lap of some stranger, but the tall soldier seemed to catch the very motion of the car with his hips, feinted with it, and continued on, his expression unchanging, his rolling gait with the feet pointing inward moving ahead, ready for anything. It was with the movement that the graceful soldier revealed his identity, for it was the same elusive, flowing sort of move that had so often evaded enemy tacklers, the natural action of the greatest broken-field runner in the history of Shortley High.
It was Gunner Casselman.
After recognizing him, the young soldier buried his head back in the magazine, knowing a famous guy like that would never remember him, even though they were in the same class at Shortley, and certainly wouldn't have anything to say to him. Casselman sat down in the seat next to him and made a pop of his fingers that brought the sluggish waiter to him like a shot.
"Bring me a Bud, please."
"Yassuh, right away."
It was as if the waiter knew, or sensed, who he was, or that he was Somebody. From the corner of his eye the pudgy young soldier could see Casselman was staring at him, almost squinting, his hand raised before him as if it would help him grab hold of the memory he sought. Then the forefinger shot out straight from Casselman's hand, the thumb cocked back, the way kids make like they're pointing a pistol at you, and Casselman said, "Indianapolis. Shortley!"
The young soldier looked up, feeling his ears go hot, and said, "I went there."
That seemed to accurately describe the unsensational nature of his own time at Shortley, as compared to the glorious record of the Gunner.
Casselman thrust his big hand forward and said, "I'm Tom Casselman," and added, "Class of Forty-eight."
For anyone who went to Shortley, it was sort of like having the President come up to you on the street and say, "I'm Dwight Eisenhower," adding, as if you might not know him, "President of the United States." Then you were supposed to shake hands and say, "I'm John Q. Public."
The young man shook the outstretched hand and said, "I'm Willard Burns."
The waiter brought the beer, taking the small coin Gunner left him with effusive thanks, and Gunner stared again at Burns, like he had X-ray vision, and made that pop of his fingers.
"You're Sonny Burns."
"That's what they called me."
And, he thought ruefully, it was evidently what they still called him; was what they would continue to call him, the little boy-cherub nickname he would be stuck with into old age, a bearded old coot called "Sonny."
"Sure," said Casselman. "Sure, I remember. You were a photographer. Took pictures for the Daily Echo."
"I did some sports stuff you might have seen," Sonny said.
"Right! Action stuff! Damn good!"
Sonny ran a finger between his neck and the collar of his shirt, looking away as he said, "I got some good shots of you in the Southport game, senior year."
"Right! Hey, this is great. Running into you like this."
Sonny couldn't figure out what Casselman could think was so great about it. Unless there was going to be some reelection of high-school class officers and Gunner was looking for votes, Sonny couldn't imagine what use or interest he could have for the guy.
"Been doing some photography myself," said Gunner.
He pulled out a pack of Chesterfields, gave it a sharp tap, and one of them popped out toward Sonny, just the way it happened when someone offered a cigarette in the movies. Whenever Sonny tried it, either none came out or they spilled all over the floor.
"Yeh," Gunner explained, snapping a lighter in front of Sonny, "I just got back from Japan. Stopped off in St. Louis to see an old buddy at Fort Leonard Wood. Anyway, over in Japan, I picked me up a Nikon. I'm not worth a damn yet — mostly shot a lot of tourist-postcard-type stuff, Fuji and the temples and gardens and all that — but I really want to learn."
"That's swell," said Sonny.
He noticed that Gunner had several campaign ribbons, including the Korean theater, and a Purple Heart. The only ribbon Sonny had was the one you got for the Good Conduct Medal. He had the sinking feeling that maybe indeed all of life would turn out to be like high school; the Gunners continuing to be heroes, him going quietly on collecting the boring Good Conduct Medals of life.
"You must have been in combat," he said, nodding at the ribbons.
Gunner shrugged. "Caught a little shrapnel in the ass, that's all."
If you really were a hero you never made a big deal of it. You made it sound routine and unglamorous, like shrugging off a ninety-yard touchdown run as "good luck and good blocking," and in so dismissing such feats they came out sounding even more marvelous.
Excerpted from Going All the Way by Dan Wakefield. Copyright © 1973 Dan Wakefield. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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