Parker's Crossroads, a decisive battle in the Battle of the Bulge four days before Christmas in 1944, was Jack Ebbott's personal "crossroads."
This is his story, which traces his life from its privileged beginning to its tragic conclusion-a journey he had not anticipated; an odyssey of unspeakable horrors, of depravity and suffering as a POW in German prison camps. As a combat medic, he attended to the deaths of his fellow prisoners and was a witness to the abject cruelty of his captors. Jack Ebbott and a group of allied prisoners were taken to a remote rail siding; there, ordered to dig a deep hole in the frozen ground. A boxcar was left at the siding when the hole was dug. The doors were opened, revealing the bodies of children stacked in cordwood. On the threat of death, the prisoners were ordered to bury the children in the hole. A few of the children still flickered with life. Up to this moment, Jack Ebbott thought that he'd witnessed the full extent of his captors' savagery. But this act hurdled beyond it all.
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Revenge of the Golden Lion
By James R. Cooley
Trafford PublishingCopyright © 2014 James R. Cooley
All rights reserved.
The true past departs not; no truth or goodness realized by man ever dies, or can die; but all is still here, and, recognized or not lives and works through endless change.
"If you stick to the facts, Jack old bean, you can't go wrong."
(1980 Mt. Kisco, New York, The Whitehorse Tavern. This is Ogden Santee talking, and we are at a table in the White Horse Tavern in Mt. Kisco, New York.)
"Believe me when I tell you, you don't write a book, you do it. Like building an outhouse or a lobster trap or a roller coaster. A writer, if he's any good, is an inventor who makes something that works, a mechanic so to speak, and a blacksmith with grease up to his elbows, a wrench in his hand, his mind swimming with measurements, and a box full of nuts and bolts by his side. If you look in his toolbox, the first tool out is a hammer, which is the last one in—that's his basic instrument, though he might use it only once in a coon's age. That Goddamned hammer is his security, his last resort, and it's always right there on top of all the other tools."
Ogden Santee has already had too much to drink. I don't drink and never have, but I'm sitting here with him and buying drinks because I've had a notion that I might want to tell something about Parker's Crossroads and the war I was in, and I couldn't think of anybody else to ask about how I should go about it. Ogden Santee is a writer, a few years younger than me, with what seems to be a lot of time on his hands to sit like this with me.
"Listen, Ogden, I'm not saying I want to write a book, for God's sake!"
"A writer has his hammer, too. Do you know what his hammer is? It's indignation! When a part won't go together right, the writer takes out his indignation and bashes the shit out of it until it either goes together or crumbles. It's damned pitiful and shameless, I'll admit, to take a hammer to something you've worked so hard and lovingly to construct, but that's the way it goes ... or doesn't go."
"I'm a lousy mechanic, Ogden. I don't think I could ever be a writer."
"Let me give you an example, old bean. This part of Westchester is riddled with corporation vice presidents. In fact, they're as thick as cantaloupe seeds—the lieutenant colonels of business or, as a friend of mine calls them, 'telephone colonels.' You know, 'Hello. This is colonel so and so.' Well, now these guys are boxes in the organizational chart, for the most part, corporate toadies and hatchet men, memo shufflers and smoke-makers out to conceal all the pointless antics they go through to hold onto their 'name on the door and the Bigalow on the floor.'
"One of these guys squats in flaking palazzo down the road from here with threadbare Persian rugs on the floors and disintegrating, clogged-up bird baths in the garden. He's built like a septic tank and walks like a badger. Hell, you'd think he had crystal balls the way he favors them when he walks. Whenever he says the name of his company, he kind of licks his lips first as though he were getting ready to taste something he shouldn't. But it's hard as hell to find fault with him, though you know damned well he is the worst kind of smug toad. Of course, his wife used to be a party girl for the Nazis during the war, but judging a man by his wife is risky business. Once you get started, it's hard to stop. You could say that he has a philanderer's hairline, the kind that hasn't receded a millimeter in seventy years, but you can't really hold that against a man, since philandering is more of a sport than a vice.
"So, how do you write about this guy? Well, you've simply got to get out the hammer—your indignation. Thank God he has a short haircut or I'd still be searching for a place to focus my indignation. I found it in four square inches on the nape of his neck, a goddamned volume of indignation that I could distill into one inspiringly descriptive word. Do you know what that word is? What I saw, the volumes and volumes I reduced until one word said it all with the eloquence that gave vent to my indignation?"
Ogden Santee is glaring at me low over the table, one eye half-closed and a curl on his lips, looking for all the world like Popeye the Sailorman minus the corncob pipe.
"Well, what do you think that word is?"
So this is the fellow I sought out to give me some pointers on putting together my war stories. Even at the best of times, Ogden Santee is hard to follow, but at times like this ...
"Listen, old scow, and make no mistake about it—why you write your book is just as important as how you put the words down. Hell! Sometimes it can be more important."
"Ogden, I never said I wanted to write a book. I just want some things for my grandchildren to—"
"Phooey! You want them to read? 'Hooray for Grandpaw! He's the big hero who licked the bad Germans single-handed!' Forget about your grandchildren! Let them find out what you did in the war the same as everybody else, by reading John P. Ebbott's book, not Grandpaw's book!"
"Well, I don't care. That is the reason."
"Not good enough, old bean. You've got to come up with a better reason than that for people to read your book."
"But how many times do I have to tell you? I don't want to write a book!"
"Now do you see how important the 'why' of your book is? If you don't have a good reason, then it's easy to give up."
I wonder if all writers have such a wide, "unreasonable" streak in them as Ogden Santee. What I mean is, do they all go along making perfect sense and then suddenly veer off into the tall grass, leaving you behind? One thing seems clear to me: you wouldn't want to spend much time around a person like Ogden Santee for fear his "unreasonableness" would rub off on you.
"You've got to make a decision and stick to it. Either you're going to write a book, or you're not."
What do you do with a man like this?
"Okay, old bean, I'll tell you what. We'll just talk about it. I'll tell you a big secret: the books I haven't written are a hell of a lot better than the ones I have."
"I don't quite understand."
"I mean, the ones I've talked about, thought about, are the real doosies in my otherwise rather humble body of work. This can be one of those ... those doosies."
"You mean, we just talk about what happened to me in the war?"
"Have you got anything better to do?"
"Who? Me? No. What about you?"
"Seeing as how I spend a certain amount of my time in saloons, I can afford to spend that time with you and your ... book."
"Then we won't actually write the book ..."
"No, we'll do it."
Just as I think I'm about to see Ogden Santee's coattails figuratively disappear over the next hill, there he is, rushing toward me with a thought or idea I can grasp and hang on to. This one he has is, as he says, a doosie.
"But, Ogden, where do we start?"
"With a full glass, old bean. A very full glass."
For the moment, the White Horse is out-of-bounds for our first arranged meeting because Ogden Santee has been banned from the place by the bartender. On an evening after we had our first talk, Ogden Santee delivered a long lecture to the patron on the evils of tipping. Everybody thought it was funny, except the waitress and the bartender. According to one of the regulars (a wasted remittance man named Guffy), Ogden Santee called tipping a vile practice, a demeaning act, and a lot of other things that Guffy couldn't remember. He told about the Spanish Civil War when you could get shot for trying to tip a waiter. But the worst that tipping does, according to Ogden Santee, is to elevate the tipper's sense of false self-worth right at the time when, sodden with strong drink, he should be at his "most self-critical best."
So we have selected George's Coach-Light Diner on Main Street, even though Ogden Santee is slightly intimidated by the decor of the place. We slip into a booth along the front windows.
"Doesn't it give you a little twinge, old bean, to be here at the beginning of a new Greek 'age'? This place is decorated with twenty-seven different materials, twelve kinds of marble, both natural and man-made. It beats the hell out of those Hellenistic temples ... inside, anyway."
Ogden Santee orders a double martini, and I have a Coke.
"So, where do we begin, Ogden?"
"Why not right here in Mt. Kisco where we begin?"
"Sure. Whether you know it or not, Mt. Kisco is a very historic place."
"It's a hell of a long way away from the Battle of the Bulge!"
"Hell, Jack, the whole region is oozing with history. James Fennimore Cooper in The Spy says that the cocktail was invented by a tavern keeper named Betty Flannigan in Briarcliff at a place called Four Corners during the Revolutionary War. I mean, that's history!"
"What the hell does that have to do with Parker's Crossroads?"
"What's Parker's Crossroads?"
"In Belgium it's known as Baraque de Fraiture."
"Ahh, that's the battle you were in."
"Yes. The final one."
"In due time, old bean, in due time. First, we have to acquire perspective."
"I don't follow you, Ogden."
"We have to build your case, like trial lawyers do, before we go to trial, so to speak."
"Case? Trial? What in the name of God are you talking about?"
"Here is a question for you: does history make people or do people make history?"
"Right! People are made by history, who then in turn make history, which makes more people, and so on. A chain that, knock on wood, extends on into future centuries."
"That's Formica you knocked on, Ogden, not wood."
"It's okay. The fates are tolerant. So, old bean, you have to be made by history before you can make history. Do you see what I mean?"
"Until then, what?"
"I knew this psychiatrist once who told me a story about a prominent criminal lawyer, a guy who could twist a jury around his pinkie with the ease and confidence with which you and I take off our pants. His clients, needless to say, were all guilty of the crimes they'd been charged with. That's why they went to him. One day, by some quirk of malignant fate, he is retained to defend two boys up for Murder One. Just as he is starting to put his case together, he discovers that the boys are not guilty of the crime. This has never happened to him before, so he kind of daydreams his way through the trial, coming to every once in a while when the DA makes a particularly amusing accusation against his clients. The trial ends, and the hotshot defense lawyer mumbles a few platitudes to the jury for his summation. The jury files out and bounces back like a squash ball ... with a guilty verdict. The lawyer can't believe his ears. Guilty? There's been some mistake. These boys are innocent! Well, the slick lawyer who goes bonkers right there in the courtroom has to be carted away in a rubber truck. What do you think the moral of this story is? If you know something you want to convey to another, do so as though you were both learning about it at the same time."
"The kids, Ogden. What happened to the kids?"
"Thanks to some overdue court reforms around that time, just before they were to be executed in the gas chamber, they were granted a new trial, which later proved their innocence."
"So, you see what I mean, Jack old bean, about preparing your 'case'? Don't be overconfident that your story will carry itself all by itself to the 'jury.'"
"Do you? Then tell me, who are you?"
"Who am I? You know who I am, Ogden."
"Tell them. Tell the jury who you are."
"The people who will judge your story. Your peers."
"But there are only the two of us."
"Do you forget, old bean? We're doing a book."
"Oh. Where do I start?"
"Easy. Where did you start being you?"
"You mean ... okay, if you insist. I was born Percy John Ebbott Jr. on August 30, 1925, at the old Sloan Hospital in Manhattan. The first child of Percy J. and Elizabeth Ebbott. But I had my name changed later to John Percy, no 'junior.'"
"What the hell would you do if your schoolmates kept chanting, 'Percy, Percy wants his nursey!'"
"So that was later, after you went to school."
"I guess in my father's time a name like Percy was just a name like any other, a fine English name."
"Percy B. Shelly for openers. The poet."
"No, Ogden, a damned sissy name when it came to me."
"But you weren't a sissy, were you?"
"I was a lot of things, Ogden, but a sissy I was not!"
"I suppose a boy with the name Percy who isn't a sissy has to fight a lot, whether he's good with his dukes or not."
"That's right. I think my parents were worried that I'd develop into an antisocial thug if they didn't change my name."
"Why didn't you just go by your middle name and call yourself P. John Ebbott Jr.?"
"I'm sure my father must have thought about that and realized how awkward it would be to have his name rejected so openly. If I wasn't a 'junior,' then the 'Percy' could hang there in the middle more honorably or something like that."
"Anyway, old bean, what's in a name? Come to think of it, a close friend of mine from college was named Dave Percy Bell. As a gag, Ned Tanen and I used to call him 'Percy-Belle.' At the Bel Air Bay Club out in Los Angeles, Ned and I signed 'Percy-Belle' for drinks at a couple of parties. Of course, we thought it was hilarious. Ah, what scamps we were!"
Ogden Santee is telling a long, disjointed story about some of his youthful escapades with "Percy-Belle" and Ned Tanen.
"Say, Ogden, I hate to interrupt, but I thought we were doing my book, not yours."
"Ah, old bean, you have never had more raison! Where were we? You were born, right?"
"I spent my first four years in Greenwich, Connecticut, and then the family, which had increased with the addition of my brother Peter, moved to Mt. Kisco—to the big house with fifty acres on Crow Hill Road."
"Mt. Kisco, or 'Mt. Muddy' translated from the local Indian dialect of the Delawares. 'Muddy Place' actually, according to Alex Shoumatoff in his book about Westchester County. Ah, old bean, if these old rocks could talk! What would old Chief Katonah say about the deal he made for Bedford or 'Hopp Ground' as the settlers called it in the late 1600s. They swindled him good, about forty-four pounds sterling, some trade goods and a big grin. Do you know that he's buried under a big mound of rocks across from Crossroads Farm? Richard Harding Davis's old place, where the great novelist, story writer, and newspaper man lived and then died on April 11, 1916. The poor bastard was only fifty-two when he keeled over while telephoning a telegram. Listen, old bean, you couldn't have a real war without Richard Harding Davis on the scene to report it. The Balkan Wars in the 90s, the Spanish American War in '98, the Greco-Turkish shindig, the Boer War, of course, and the Russo-Japanese get-together."
"Crossroads Farm is right near where my 'aunt' Alice Gredler lived on Croton Lake Road."
Excerpted from Parker's Crossroads by James R. Cooley. Copyright © 2014 James R. Cooley. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing.
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