Monday, July 04, 2005

Dedication (A More Personal One)

Both Christopher Hitchens and Martin Amis, in their defences of Philip Larkin's underlying humanity, reference a morbid objet occupying a place of honor on the mantleplace in Larkin's childhood abode.

Larkin was raised by an admirer of fascism. In a sense, it was inevitable that he became such a reactionary. Philip Larkin was Margaret Thatcher's favorite poet, and frequently snarled in private at women and blacks. Still, he was a complex man; and Hitchens and Amis were right to fight the blowback that the posthumous publication of his letters caused. Larkin was rightwing, and slices of him are ugly indeed, but as a whole, he's not the cartoonish supervillain that certain of the Left liked to draw him as.

As I read both of them instance the Nazi statuette on the elder Larkin's mantle, I knew a certain pang. In the house in which I grew up, there were several Nazi relics on the upper shelf of the trophy case in the living room. But unlike in the Larkin home, these objects were not displayed with admiration; rather, they were displayed as a reminder.

Philip Larkin was raised by a Naziphile, a fascist wannabe. I was raised by a fascist killer. My (maternal) grandfather was a Screaming Eagle; fought at Bastogne, Berchtesgaden, and was part of the occupation.

Naturally, I was always full of impudent questions, despite my grandmother's gentle hints that I respect the subject. "Grampa, how'd you get that hat?" The hat was a German Officer's cap. "I pointed my gun at him and he gave it to me." Yeah, right.

When he was out in the fields, I'd climb up and bring the hat down, along with the various medals. I particularly liked looking at the ski-trooper's medals, which were a heavy silver and cloisonne'. I'd also study the most gruesome relic: a small metal plaque (face down, it was always kept) of Adolf Hitler. Then I would go upstairs and dig into his own medals box, imagine myself wearing his Sergeant stripes, being the "good guys" and killing the Nazis.

He didn't encourage this sort of thing, but neither did he discourage it.

Getting anything out of him regarding the war was like pulling teeth. He just wouldn't talk about it. But occasionally something would come out. I'd hurt my chest, somehow, working on my cousin's farm. I was complaining about the pain when I'd laugh or cough, and that's when he commiserated by telling me he'd cracked every rib on one side of his chest from a hard parachute landing, "I landed right on a goddamned sugar beet."

Another time, I asked him if he'd seen any of the concentration camps, if he'd helped to free any of them. His eyes, already vivid blue but now almost supernaturally so in the way that dying people's sometimes are, became vacant and I knew immediately that he had seen them. He answered, "Yeah, and you couldn't believe any of those poor people were still living. Skin and bones." He stopped the conversation, but such as it was, there was even more gravity in his voice than usual. I don't know which camp it was.

Once, hothead that I am, I said something along the lines of "I'd have killed all those goddamned Germans." At least, I think I was that crude. He was mild: "Once, we were escorting POWs, and an officer took off [ran away]. One of our guys shot him in the back. I don't think I could have done that."

But he almost let the cat out of the bag, too. Or, in this case, the soap out of the sock. How the subject came up, I have no idea, but he said that GI soap was so hard that it was a great weapon. In so many words (and in an "in theory" tone) he said, when stealth was required, a bar of GI soap in a sock, when swung to the back of a German's head, was an efficient murder weapon. And that was that. As I remember such slivers of history, now through an adult's consciousness, I know why, for instance, that line of conversation ended even more abruptly than usual. He didn't want me to absorb the fact that he'd killed.

My grandfather was 18 year old cannon fodder. He was hurried through his last year of school, as many were, so that he could be trained. His family was dirt poor; his older brother was serving in Italy; their father had served in WWI. My Grandfather was named after Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. He made it through alive, all right, but he was emotionally and physically scarred from it, as I imagine all were in one way or another.

I still speak to people too loudly. I come by this rudeness innocently. According to the story, everyone who survived a particular battle developed a hearing problem so many years after the fact (too close to howitzers?). Anyway, "hearing problem" is putting it mildly. My grandfather was nearly deaf in one ear, completely so in another. By his own admission, before I was born, in my mom's teenage years especially, he "went crazy" because couldn't hear anything but a steady full-volume static in either ear. Can you imagine? About the time I was born, the VA had developed a restorative surgery, which in his case only partially worked. All my life I had to yell to be heard by him.

So, he was a veteran. But he was not a jingo, or even a nationalist. As I knew him, he was so pacifist and sensitive that he had to lay down after shooting some pest, be it a groundhog in the garden or a weasel around the chickenhouse, or (far worse for him) a wild dog (a dog had saved his life once when he was inside the farm's pig pen). He, unlike about every one of his contemporaries, and nearly every local younger than he, eschewed hunting and fishing. He was mostly apolitical, a populist cynic who was sure that the rich and the politicians were up to no good (he was right). As far as his personal preferences he, being a coin-collector, snickered endlessly over the "Richard Nixon Inflationary Penny" novelty coin that he had. He had real venom toward "that son of a bitch Gerry Ford", and only now after I've read Dan Morgan's Merchants of Grain do I know why. Toward the end of his life he had a few nice things to say about Perot (whose name he would always pronounce with a hard "T").

I don't think he was for Vietnam; the best lesson I ever learned from him is that the other isn't so other: "they are people, too". Sounds facile, I know, but not a bad lesson for a child.

I was reading history textbooks before kindergarten. In an important sense, I owe to him my love of learning as much as I owe my grandmother, who taught me to read as soon as possible. He was a coin collector, as I've mentioned, as well as a connoisseur of Native American relics. I always asked him who it was on those coins, and what they'd done. He could answer such questions well enough. Wanting, of course, to be like him, I decided to collect things too. After several aborted starts (I collected, of all things, batteries) I settled on postage stamps. I quickly noticed that most commonly the people on stamps were also those on coins. But there were so many more people on stamps -- he wasn't so helpful then. When Grampa was asked what, say, Rutherford B. Hayes did, the answer was invariably "he was a horse-thief!". Then I'd have to go find Grandma to get a better answer (the old man's guesses were more true, in the cosmic sense, than he knew).

He and my grandmother saved everything, a bad habit that I've inherited. But it can also be a good habit. I have the .22 Walther German Paratrooper rifle that he shipped back home. I have given the cap to my brother, and his uniform and personal medals to my mom for safe-keeping. But the relics, I keep here, in the same case which is now in my bedroom, and in the same way that he kept them: face down. Some in the family protest, they say I should bury the Nazi medals, especially the Hitler plaque. Selling them is right-out, since the sort that buys them I want no contact with.

I understand the point. But that's exactly why I want to keep them: they are tangible vestiges of evil, that my grandfather and so many others helped to wipe from the world. They are something that I can show my own children, should I ever have any, to let them know that the stuff they hear and read about was true: these bastards did exist, they were fucking concentrated evil, and had to be stopped. WWII was the only decent and just war that we've fought in over a century. And when I pick those medals up, I know it was worth my grandfather, scared and raw and weedy, being shipped along with so many others to probable death so that the evil represented in those medals would not win. I'm proud of him. Especially proud that, while it scarred him, it didnt make him a monster, as war does to so many. Rather, it made him into a non-conformist and quasi-pacifist. He never expressed any regret that I know of, though he did say that if the Army came after him again, they'd have to drag him back by his boots.

The Fourth of July was always his favorite day, with the town picnic and bbq sandwiches and brats like me and my brother in the yard shooting bottle rockets at each other. I wish I could eat some bbq with him right now.

A child couldn't wish for a better grandfather, or for that matter, de facto parent, which is what he was to me. I've fucked-up a lot, but even if I hadn't, I dont think I could ever hope live up to what he did. Thank you so much for teaching me the right things, Grampa.