Last Wednesday, September 2, was the seventieth anniversary of what used to be called V-J Day, the day World War Two came to an end with the official surrender of Imperial Japan. I suppose only folks my age and older still take note of that distant event, and when I think about it I'm surprised that I recall it so well, since I was only a fortnight or so away from my sixth birthday. But the memory is vivid nonetheless. I am with my dad on Pack Square in Asheville, North Carolina. A formation of B-25 Mitchell medium bombers is flying over us at low level, a treat for me, then a rabid worshipper of military aviation. I admire the clean lines of the planes, which in my memory wear war paint of olive drab above and sky-blue beneath, though in actuality they must have been aluminum silver--my still-lingering knowledge of the arcana of the United States Army Air Force tells me the changeover from camouflage had occurred sometime early in the previous year.
Memory, of course, is notoriously unreliable where details are concerned and I'm vexed that I can't recall whether the B-25s were camouflaged or silver; but whatever their colors, I recall how the sight of them transfixed me with admiration and excitement. Nor can I say for sure whether I'm right in thinking that as they passed over the square they dumped loads of confetti on us. I hope I'm right about that. It would have been fitting after the long ordeal we had just passed through. For I couldn't then remember a time when we hadn't been at war.
I had been born the year Hitler's German army marched into Austria and launched the struggle in Europe, and when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, I was two months past my third birthday. So up to the age of six every day of my life began with the morning papers spread on the breakfast table and my mom and dad soberly discussing the latest war bulletins. Two of my uncles were in the service--one in the 101st Airborne and the other in the Signal Corps, both assigned to Europe. My dad, a Methodist minister, was exempt. I was glad of that, because all of us knew someone who had lost a relative to the war. I loved my uncles and could not bear the thought of either of them in mortal danger.
Today it is nearly unimaginable that whole nations--millions and millions of people--could declare war on one another and fight until one side or the other suffered total, calamitous defeat. And it is wholly unimaginable that one such war could have been won by the use of atomic weapons killing tens of thousands at a stroke. Of course in more recent years the United States has fought wars in Korea, Vietnam and in Iraq and Afghanistan but in various ways all these conflicts were limited by strategic and geographic considerations and were ended mainly by political and diplomatic means. Today we are more familiar with small, vexing, ambiguous wars with groups of jihadis and terrorists who seem to have sprung improbably from medieval times into our own. For nation-states to array against each other with all the resources of the industrial age seems to us a concept lost to history. But in the twentieth century it happened not once but twice; thus I grew up during the bloodiest time in human history.
Those breakfast-table conversations between mom and dad were about places and events that were meaningless to a small boy--The Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, the Battle of the Bulge, Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Kursk, Stalingrad, Okinawa. They were about enemies whose ferocity was beyond calculation and against whose well-drilled, fanatical battalions our army of drafted soda jerks, farmers' boys, taxi drivers, salesmen, plumbers and carpenters seemed to have small hope of victory. The impression I received was that we in America and our allies were engaged in a mortal struggle between civilization and barbarism, between absolute good and absolute evil. And the evil we confronted was not the sin my dad preached against on Sunday mornings--ordinary, venal, comparatively inconsiderable transgressions born of greed, selfishness or lust--it was a grade of wholesale evil that threatened to consume the world, to obliterate entire populations, to wipe out all of human progress. Every day at the breakfast table I learned how committed certain kinds of people were to destroying everything we held dear. I still remember the battle maps displayed on the front pages of those papers, black-and-white patterns of lines and symbols that meant nothing to me but to mom and dad represented the advance or retreat, the success or failure of whole armies. At night the civil defense authorities would test the air raid sirens and I would awaken in terror to the weird, wobbling howls, thinking the Japanese or the Nazis were invading. Mom would hurry to my bedroom and hold me, comfort me, as I sobbed. But she couldn't comfort me; I knew the evil ones were coming
Yet, as I have written in another place, in daylight, on those mornings at the breakfast table, mom always insisted to me--against this background of daily horror--that most people were good at heart, that if we all lived virtuous lives we would be rewarded after death with life everlasting, that all would eventually turn out well. Her well-intended words, together with my dad's weekly sermons about the primacy of kindness, love and tolerance, urged me to believe that goodness would eventually prevail though every day's news pounded home the message that, instead, pure evil was transcendent in the world. So I became, and have remained, obsessed with evil and strangely attracted to the idea of warfare.
When I began to write fiction I delved into darksome regions. I wrote a novel about the Texas gunman John Wesley Hardin, not irrelevantly another son of a Methodist minister, who in Reconstruction Texas and elsewhere shot down an estimated forty-six individuals before being assassinated himself. Hardin in my novel was a figure of sheer evil but absolutely convinced his every act was right and just. Was this a conflation of my mother's seeming distillation of positive good persisting in, or coexisting with, absolute evil? I wrote a novel about a medieval knight who slew an archbishop and fornicated and murdered his way across Europe and the Middle East but was also both fascinated and repelled by the hypocrisy of the established church. Was this some twisted version of my own conflation of faith and doubt, or my sick fantasy about what might have been the spiritual trials my father might have passed through? I wrote a series of novels about my family's forebears during the American Civil War in Western North Carolina--stories rife with degeneracy, murder, pillage, torture; and another about a maternal ancestor engaged in the sordid conflict of the American Revolution in the South. Turning then to nonfiction, I wrote an account of three Hispanic serial killers who murdered their way across Colorado Territory in 1863, killing an estimated 32 Anglos. Even now I'm engaged in writing about a bloody range war in 19th-century Colorado, in which a judge was assassinated in his own courtroom and numbers of men were lynched.
What has this obsession with violence, warfare and death been but an effort, half conscious and half-unconscious, to reconcile the irreconcilable, to somehow come to grips with my mother's message of sweetness and light propounded against a backdrop of the world's bloodiest century? I have written in an earlier blog how, in my first efforts at storytelling, I created a Western hero named Buck Duck, an improbable figure who resembled Disney's Donald Duck but wore a ten-gallon hat, two guns and spurs on his webbed feet. Buck never shot the guns out of the bad-guys' hands the way Roy Rogers and Gene Autry did. He shot them dead just like John Wesley Hardin, and he didn't shoot them just once, he shot them multiple times. Mom was dismayed by Buck; she urged me to write about Jesus.
But much as I admired the loving image of Jesus, I had to admit He wouldn't have lasted long in Dodge City or Tombstone.
TO BE CONTINUED