Conversations July 13, 2010

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

12:30 AM. Papa, let’s talk about your wounding, the out-of-body (or near-death) experience, the aftermath including light, letters, and Agnes, and fear.

All good topics. [Hemingway biographer Carlos] Baker has his uses.

All right. Your first unasked question is — how much of the story as understood is accurate. You’ve read that I carried a man to safety, and you’ve read that it would have been impossible, and you’ve read that I started to, then was hit again and fell and was carried in. You have become wary of anything I said anytime, because of my tendency to spin yarns about my life and exploits. In fact it was this very tendency and your dismay about it that helped hook us up a few years ago. So I’ll try to stick to the trail of the truth.

I was where I didn’t have to be, but was legitimately. That is, I was in the line at Fossalta voluntarily but I wasn’t exactly sky-larking. I was doing my job; it’s just that I was closer than I needed to be.

Anybody who wants to know, knows that in the middle of the night, out of the darkness, a mortar blast from the Austrian side hit where I was. It killed the guy next to me, killed the guy on the other side of me, and wounded me and another. It shredded my legs with shrapnel — mostly my right leg. Fortunately the junk they were filling their shells with was mostly little stuff — at least, that’s what hit me — so even though I get more than 200 pieces in me, most of them were pretty small. You can see they’d have to be, or they’d have taken my legs off, or the right one, anyway.

Still, the body isn’t built to handle that kind of punishment. I got buried in thrown dirt like the others, but that doesn’t mean a couple feet of it, it means a thick spray like you might get sprayed with water by a boat passing you close by. Only it was dirt and mud and stone, not water.

I didn’t notice, because I was on my way out. The shock of the impact, of all that inexplicable pain out of nowhere, of the sheer blood-pressure tide internally, blew me right out of my body. I never romanced that aspect of it, notice. Even in the pages I wrote after my African disaster in the 1950s, when I speculated about the soul, I said what had happened but I didn’t embellish. That should tell you something.

It tells me you didn’t think anybody would believe it.

It tells you more. It also didn’t have any place in a boy’s dream of glory. Nobody wrote of near-death experiences the way they really happened. It was all hairs’-breadth escapes, or valiant death bed speeches, or silent farewells. Nobody wrote about boys getting their souls blown out of their bodies and then getting a second chance at life. So it wasn’t anything I romanticized. Every boy had read about wounds, though they were always clean glamorous wounds, not that kind of maiming that a serious wound really is, so boys romanticized that too. Death, wounding — especially with a romantic limp — were all part of daydreams, the way impossible loves and broken hearts were. Near-dying wasn’t.

I remembered it. One minute I was in the trench with the others, talking and keeping our heads down, and the next my soul was flying away from my body — and that needs to be said right. It wasn’t that my soul was flying away from me. I, the soul, was flying away from the shredded body I had been living in. I was going out — in the same way Carl [Jung] experienced it in his experience in 1944, a long quarter century later — and then, just like him so many years later, I was coming back. I wasn’t aware of any reason for it. It wasn’t like somebody was working on me and brought me back, and I don’t remember any consultations my soul had with anybody. It’s just, one minute I’m in the trench, and then I’m flying out of my wounded body, and then I’m hesitating, at the end of my long tether, then I get reeled back in and I’m covered with dirt and pushing myself up out of it, and my legs are on fire with those red-hot needles all through them, and I see I need to get myself taken care of. There’s nobody else around but the one wounded man, and Boy Scout that I am — not literally, it’s just an expression — I figure I’ll be a hero, so I pick him up and try for the back trenches. My legs are on fire, like I said, but they work, and I am too busy to calculate whether I could walk let alone carry somebody. Well, I didn’t carry him very far, and I don’t know if I could have anyway, but I got hit with a machine gun bullet in my knee — making a mess of it — and in my foot that I didn’t notice. I was down and I would have died there whenever I bled out, if the stretcher bearers hadn’t gotten to us.

You know — you have read — that my tunic was covered with the other man’s blood, and they thought it was mine, and if it had been, I have been a hopeless case. But I convinced them, in a foreign language, just after I’d been shredded and then hit again, that I wasn’t to be left for dead. Try that sometime, for drama, at 18 years old.

Then I had them take my pants off, because I had to know. Wounded-hero stories, and valor in action and all that romantic shit we had been fed all my young life was one thing. Being afraid my legs were ruined and I was going to lose one, was a different thing. July 8, 1918 was when I learned what all those lying stories about the glamour of war were worth. But they told me it wasn’t as bad as I was afraid of, and they patted me and told me I was going to be okay, and it was better to be in a hospital than in the trenches anyway, and they took me out of the lines, and that was my experience with battle. A hell of an efficient way to learn about warfare. Go to the front and get wounded right away and still be convalescent when the war ended.

And thereby you got the opportunity to spend months absorbing soldiers’ tales and seeing their attitudes, and storing up knowing, like Jack London in the bars in the Yukon, filling up with stories or the materials for stories to bring back to the world.

Oh yes, and I see the point. I could easily have gone over, spent half a year doing my job, never getting hurt, and gone home unsatisfied that I’d ever really gotten to the war. What kind of material for stories would I have had? Who would have wanted to read stories about ambulance-driving? Or I could have served for months and gotten hurt near the end, too late to hear so many stories and absorb so much atmosphere. Or I could have gotten killed and stayed killed, I guess, and somebody else would have had to change the way people wrote and read and thought. It was a good plan, if you want to look at it that way. But I’m afraid I wasn’t quite looking at it like that in July, 1918.

I’ll quote the letter you wrote to your father in 1918 that Baker cites on page 52.

[“It does give you an awfully satisfactory feeling to be wounded,” said Ernest. “There are no heroes in this war…. All the heroes are dead…. Dying is a very simple thing. I’ve looked at death and really I know. If I should have died, it would have been … quite the easiest thing I ever did…. And how much better to die in all the happy period of undisillusioned youth, to go out in a blaze of light, than to have your body worn out and old and illusions shattered.”]

How much of that was true and how much of it was what you thought you ought to be feeling?

In a way, I didn’t know then. I was still all illusions; you don’t get illusions knocked out of you all at once no matter how hard the knock. There’s always more. It was true enough as far as I knew then.

Meaning, it’s what you thought you thought?

More like, it’s what I believed, but it didn’t say a lot of things I had been learning fast but wasn’t ready to say or even admit. It would be years before we turned against the war when we saw what had really gone into it, and what had really come out of it. So you can’t expect me to be admitting that I was wondering, even in the middle of the night, if it had been so smart to get into the war when I didn’t need to, or go to the trenches and get wounded when I didn’t need to do that either. My father hadn’t wanted me to go, he knowing the difference between his father’s true stories of heroic battles in the Civil War and the chances of having my young life snuffed out unnecessarily — for there were plenty of boys ready and eager to find a way to get into the war. So I couldn’t very well say, “the illusions I absorbed weren’t true, or anyway were dangerous, and you were smarter about it than I was.” And anyway, it wasn’t all that clear, inside me, for now that it was over, I was proud. I’d been wounded because I’d been at the front, and by my own choice. I had tried to save a life, and it was witnessed, and I got a medal for it. I’d stood up like a man, in other words. If I hadn’t charged enemy positions and saved battles that were being lost and done all sorts of boys-dream stunts, well, my real wounding was worth a lot of imagined stories about how it was going to be. And, I wasn’t a boy the way I had been just a few months before.

I have read that for months you had to have a light burning at night or you could not sleep. I have felt I understood, but I’d like you to speak to it.

Your conscious mind is one thing, but as Robert Graves said, it is your solar mind, your daytime mind. At night you’re ruled by a different part of you. That’s when the moon comes out. Now, these are analogies, but that doesn’t make them untrue. I had Jake say, it’s awfully easy to be hard-boiled in the daytime, but the night is a different thing.

My other mind — or maybe you could think of it as my body’s reaction — something knew I had been there in the dark and death came out of the darkness without warning. Yes, we knew we were being shelled, of course, but until you’ve been hit once, your only experience of shelling is that it’s a lot of noise and commotion that often injures and kills other people. It’s what I said about bull fighters — the key is how they are after they’ve once been gored and know they aren’t invincible and incapable of being badly hurt or killed. It’s only then that you see what they’re made of really.

But, the point here is that death and pain and possible mutilation came out of the darkness, and that’s what my body knew, and for the rest of my life, but especially for the first couple of years, darkness meant danger and suffering, and who can sleep with the body manning the outposts against imminent attack? So yes, it was a good long time I slept with the lights on, and if I wasn’t proud of it, I wasn’t ashamed of it either — and actually I was a little proud of it, in a way; it showed that my medals and my wound-stripe and my service itself hadn’t come free. But it certainly put an end to thinking that war was glorious.

A good thing to know, even at the price.

There’s not much point in volunteering to be wounded in an industrial accident. War can be necessary sometimes and people can do things that make you proud to be part of the same species as them — but in a while you realize that the things that struck you as glorious don’t have a lot to do with striking damaging blows, but of enduring, and using skill, and daring. In other words, you’re proud of a man for what he could rise to, not to what he could sink to. You see plenty of both.

It has been an hour and a half, and I’d better close up shop for the moment. Thanks, Papa.

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