War and I
By Ruth E. Grauert, 1996
War had involved me while I was in utero, for my mother tells of being displayed to the WWI draft board to validate my father's deferment. Then for my first Christmas, 1919, there were no ornaments for my tree, Germany being the purveyor of such. I still have the one serving bottle of Créme de Cocoa which served instead. In 1932, I wrote a 200-line poem declaiming the horrors of war in bloody and monstrous language full of the lofty hyperbole of adolescent imagination. Along with many of my peers, I was an oxymoron, a militant pacifist. (How did we get that way? From All Quiet on the Western Front?) That poem won the essay prize in my high school and the local paper published it with pride. I was thirteen years old.
Some time later I received a letter from a pen pal in Germany whom I had met on a summer trip with my family. The letter detailed the Anschluss, the glories of conquering. I know now that what I felt was alienation, but at that time I just knew it made me sick. Despite the questioning and urging of my family, I never wrote to him again. Years later (in the fifties) I learned that he had been killed ("for the Glory of Fatherland") in the invasion of Poland. I was neither sad nor glad. Is justice emotionally neutral?
In 1935, I entered college still the pacifist. All during my college years intimations of horror filtered into my worldthe pounding oratory of Der FührerItaly ravaging EthiopiaMussolini's offensive jawJapan devastating first the Korean peninsula then Chinathe Spanish revolution (Communism as the good guy)the strictures of totalitarian rule (keep your mouth shut; do as you are told or youll wind up in prison or worse, worse never being quite defined.) Kristallnacht (the imagined sound of a million shards in the making, the imagined terror of the persecuted)the beautiful boys in the German propaganda posters (no one was ever that handsome). Although mine was a conservative college (we had no chapter of The Young Communists League), the rebel souls got together and discussed (endlessly) what we may do to counteract the horror that was brewing in Europe. We all knew that we must do away with Hitler before it was too late, but the very best we could contrive and get away with it (as we were not yet in the martyr mode) was to put ground glass in Hitler's spinach. This was not the superficial, smartass attempt at humor it may seem, but rather a scream of absolute helplessness in the face of incomprehensible horror.
Come the spring of 1941, the Reserves were told to be ready. In June I was in a Red Cross Aquatic Camp with some 500 others, at least 75 percent young men, when midway through the course the Reserves were called up.
My older cousin belonged to the Naval Reserves. Just as we sat down to Thanksgiving dinner in 1941 he received a telegram with his orders. He was ordered to report at midnight with a scrub bucket and various other unimaginable items, all of which were not readily available, all stores being closed for the holiday. He had to scurry all day to procure them. None of us questioned any item, no matter how exotic, and we did our best to help find them. Why did the navy need scrub buckets? We didn't know it, but we were just a few short days from Pearl Harbor.
I remember that day of infamy in dark patches. We were up before dawn on Forrest Avenue in Hartford, Connecticut (where I was teaching school) to go to NYC to attend the debut of one of our housemates in an afternoon concert at Town Hall. Several of us were in the dark kitchen. I remember Irena's long, red fingernails picking a used coffee filter paper out of the grounds in the sink drain, Paul with his attention on the radio while he ate mechanically, Bobsie telling us over and over that of course Paul would volunteer and be a commissioned officer, and Betty cleaning up everything even before we had finished. Somehow we all had to be busy. That got us through that day. The car radio was on all the way to NYC. It rained and rained and the pounding images of the reports of Pearl Harbor followed the beat of the windshield wipers. I remember that in the heated auditorium we smelled of damp wool. I suppose the concert was passable. I don't remember.
Paul did become a lieutenant just as Bobsie predicted. (He was a White Russian refugee who had, as a boy, been trained in a British Military School in Egypt.) We all gave blood as often as they would let us. I was recruited to lecture my fellow school teachers on emergency first aid and learned that there are no persons harder to teach than teachers who seem impelled to ape the clowning behavior of their junior high school pupils, my own principal included. We organized everything we could think of, including Artists for the War Relief of Russia. We (the Nikolais Dance Company of which I was a member) danced at a benefit performance, which included a film showing soldiers ravaging frozen villages and villagers and the stoic, sorry retreat of the defeated. It turned out, ironically, that the film was not of the German army foray toward Leningrad, but of the Russian army invading Finland the prior season, and that the sorry retreaters were Finns, not Russians. The sponsors didn't seem to know or care. The event raised the target amount of money anyway. That I remember the film speaks for the impact it must have had. It was my first insight into Europe at war.
Nikolais was drafted, his company left in other hands (Truda Kashman and Anna Sokolow). We performed Victory Garden dances for women's clubs, anything to be a part of the war effort. We all talked of doing more than what we were doing. I did some time study in one of the factories since they thought that, as a dancer of some training with a mathematics minor in college, I should be able to chart the efficiency of motion. One of our friends (Evelyn) became a welder in the Portland, Maine shipyards. I thought of joining the Marine Corps.
My father's employees in his NYC business were recruited. He himself was working to provide wire marking devices for our aircraft. (Many of our planes were lost because damaged electrical connections could not be speedily repaired.) Mother visited me in Hartford. Don't join the Marines. Come to NYC. Your father needs help with his war effort. So I did and so did some of my Hartford pals (Olga and Rosie). Housing being what it was I had a room in my parent's home in Jersey City. I paid $15.00 a week.
Stanley, my sailor cousin was on leave when he got word that a German U-boat sunk his ship (the USS Borie). His grief for his dead shipmates and his ship exploded in a torrent of if. If he had been there, it would not have happened (why was he on leave anyway?). That torrent lasted until exhaustion put his loss to rest. We did not completely abandon the future, although we went from one kind of service to another in a sort of automatic state. Nothing much was real. I just couldn't let it in, for that would have devastated me, except, when on occasion, it hit me in the face.
I walked from my home at 83 Sanford Place to the Hoboken Ferry and from its NYC slip to West Broadway. (If I took the trolley or bus, the commute cost 23 cents.) I rememberhow vividly I remember!that once while ferrying across the Hudson on the way to work, the first hospital ship from the European Theater to enter New York Harbor crossed our bow. There was not a sound to be heard on that crowded ferry deck, not a sound but the whooshing of the plowed water. Many of the men around me (mostly middle-aged or older) stood in silent attention watching that ship with tears streaming down their cheeks and their right hands over their hearts.
We all worked long hours. When I worked overtime, I came from New York City by Tube (as we called the PATH trains then) and then I used the bus to 83 Sanford Place. One day a week that trip was really aggravating. That was when the bus was usually crowded with powdered ladies from Brooklyn on their way to play Bingo. They hogged all the seats while fatigued men who had been working at hard labor for a long shift had to stand. I vented, albeit silently, my pent-up rage on those thoughtless, idle ladies. It never occurred to me that Bingo was their way of surviving, just as raging was mine.
And by way of surviving I hoarded my gas coupons so that I could get to New Hampshire on occasion to confer with friend Frances, for we continued to plan to open a summer arts camp in Maine, come peace. Come Peace. Come Peace.
Our work at West Broadway consisted in part of cutting wide rolls of variously colored hot transfer paper into narrow rolls. (These were used to stamp numbers on wires so that when a cable was severed in aerial combat the individual wires could easily be properly reconnected.) Inevitably there were wasted off-cuts. These we hoarded for the day when we would be free to celebrate. By the time Germany surrendered we had six barrels full which we unfurled, one joyous roll after the other, over the celebrating crowds that passed under our fourth-story windows. We watched some fellows collect big armfuls of those streamers to use somewhere else (perhaps at the official V-E Day celebration). The war in Europe was over and we had that one grand day of release. For weeks afterwards we would see wads of our colored paper in alleys and gutters, sometimes far from our work place, reminding us that we did have that joy once, although the war in the Pacific was still darkly with us.
In July of that summer (1945) we did find our arts camp and I continued to travel, for the most part by train, back and forth between Maine and NYC, keeping up with the war work (which was decelerating) and planning a future which by then seemed a reality.
I was on the subway from downtown Manhattan to Times Square and Grand Central Terminal to take the train back to Maine. I reached Times Square and got off to take the Shuttle. But no way! The entire world was suddenly reeling and reveling and crowding and noising. I had to ask what happened. The Japanese have surrendered!! There was no way I could get to street level to see for myself. It took me two hours to get to the Shuttle and another hour of waiting to get to Grand Central Station. By that time my scheduled train had long departed. One conductor was very kind. (Why do I remember Grand Central as being a haven of calm?) He put me on a troop train, due to depart in an hour. I do remember those coaches, rattan seats, fixtures from 1910, and absolute silence. On each double seat was a slumbering sailor. I found an unoccupied space and joined the silence.
The United Nations pleased me. Its formulation seemed to promise so much more efficacy than the emasculated League. The Nuremburg trials seemed more than just, after the reports we had of the camps. A friend's father who had served in the Canadian Ambulance Corps had been in the first wave to enter one of the camps. He held no punches in the telling. I felt I had almost been there.
The Korean War, a product of the U.N., was black but seemingly necessary. Was it? Vietnam. I understood those men who went to Canada. Why was revolution and freedom just our thing? I cradled a young woman whose husband was wounded. I understood speaking out. I did not understand giving a hand to those who wounded that husband whose wife I cradled. We were inflicting wounds also. Let's just quit it.
Ireland and Israel. Israel, oh God, Israel! Since before WWI these nations have been mires of small awfulness. Why can't everyone know that everyone has a need and a right to a homeland?
All I can remember since V-J Day is one war or another. Is there never peace? Tibet, Afghanistan, Cambodia, India, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq, Egypt, South Africaall those other liberated African new nations that kill each other and themselves. Honduras and Chile, the Falklands, Argentina, and Serbia and Albania, pieces of the departed Soviet Union. Did I mention the camps in Siberia? The Soviet purges? Somehow the rage of the guillotine and all those beheaded statues around the Notre-Dame de Paris, and the fury of the Little Big Horn have never left us. Over all the world rage and fury surround us.
I have not been a mover and a shaker. I never answered that letter from my pen pal, nor did I suggest ground glass to anyone who might have access to Hitler's spinach. I did not join the marines. I did not speak up on Vietnam. I held my tongue on Israel and Russia. I did petition against Apartheid, but that was easy. In a way I have gone through life in a curtained dream, with the noise and fury that is conflict around and above me just as it was in the Times Square Station the day the Japanese surrendered.
Did I draw a curtain between the world and me? I have no idea. In the Fifties as I directed a dance play, I held on my lap the baby of one of the Beatnik performers. And then another performer gave birth to twins the day after she performed. In the sixties I attended concerts of students in small hotel theaters where ones ticket was a flower. Come the seventies and I toured with the companies whose members, each to his own, did their own thingcooked odorous Japanese goodies in the theatre wings, broke the plate glass of the motel room window to protest a mate's exclusion, abandoned a rented motor scooter in a field in St. Thomas because it ran off the road. After that I attended too many memorial services for young men who have died of AIDS. These acts are a war of sorts, an attempt to find a path to sanity, to consolidate an identity, to escape an intolerable society.
Come the nineties and, in one year, three of my closest friends died. I recognize my mortality with a sense of relief. I need no longer strive. I can relax and give myself to the moment, to whatever need close at hand that I may perceive, to those whom I may touch with whatever sensibility I can muster. There is no longer an imperative.
I walked past the Vietnam Memorial Wall, the endless role of young dead whose violent end made no sense. There is no quiet for him who will not draw that curtain, for what one does not see does not exist. But then I hear my country say, If you don't do as I say, I will slay you. As in a dream comes the vision of that other guy on the other side of that curtain whose gut is slashed open. If we ever wake, we will know that we must, if we can, stop the rage and fury, stop the rage and fury, stop . . .