Conversations September 24, 2010

Friday, September 24, 2010

4 AM. Not so good. Was awakened at 2:30 or sometime like that — off to the recliner, but a few minutes later I was at the computer, then back to sleep. But now up again, so how much sleep could I have gotten? Even though I am brewing coffee, I can see a need more sleep. Back to the recliner, I guess.

5:15 AM. Trying again. What was that all about?

You’re getting a handle on it. You can’t — though you always do — expect overnight miracles.

Why not?

Let’s put it this way, then. Even after a miracle, you have to learn to manage things. If you woke up with a tripled IQ or a new sense, you have to learn to manage it.

Well, I’m not convinced. I have a big and long day ahead of me, and I hope I’m up to it.

So let’s talk. I did use your method of sort-of-daydreaming, and it did work — I put together tonight’s talk in a couple of hours of work. So — are you ready to move on with your description of the factors in talking with you?

Not quite where we’re going. We could go there if you prefer.

No, I just couldn’t remember where we are and what we are doing. Seems to me we’ve spent a week on how to deal with physical problems. Two weeks. But looking back — I see that last Friday I was talking to you, Ernest, and you said I should look through the Submarine Manual ONI put out during the war. I’ve done that.

And you just got a sense you hadn’t had before, didn’t you.

Yes I did. It’s sort of comparing two unknowns, because I didn’t experience either, but I suddenly realized, you in your 40s, during the war, must have been much like my father during the war, and I’m going to call dad in too, being that you’ve met a couple of years ago with me as the common ground.

[FD Sr.] Starting to get the hang of it?

Every year, I see how much I owe you, dad, and I see that among our family it was as if we were a person-group — we did hold the ring together, but maybe not that well or by all that much. We certainly were disparate elements.

[EH] All right, you’re going to have to make clear to people what’s happening. That means, spelling it out as we go.

Yes. Just as I’d had a sense of the young Hemingway by remembering my cousin Charlie, so this time I got a sense of Hemingway in the Q-Boat era by sort of imagining my father with his friends. Dad in his 20s working in the shipyard, a man among men, sharing their lives and their amusements, their prejudices and loyalties, in a way I’ve never been able to do because I was never one of the boys in that way. But it gave me a sudden vivid sense of Ernest during the war in the Caribbean, a member of the team even if the driving force, gambling, drinking, competing innocuously — hard to spell out what it is that I just got.

And then you jumped from the life I led that was more like Hemingway’s to the life we shared, or didn’t share, because you and I were so different that we couldn’t really see each other usually except through a haze of irritation.

And judgment. Yes. You had so many excellences that weren’t obvious because all I could see were the things that weren’t there that I needed — the understanding of who and what I was, for one thing. And of course there I was, covering up to beat the band.

[EH] The point for the moment is that between you and your father, you understand aspects of me that people sometimes miss. I wasn’t either/or, I was both. Or maybe both/neither.

Perhaps you should spell that out, rather than me doing it.

By 1941 I was famous and rich; I had succeeded at my craft and I had accomplished what I wanted to accomplish in terms of bringing American literature back to a true course. It hadn’t played out yet, but it was in the works. People were writing truer, and their very imitation of my style meant that even when they didn’t know what I was doing — even when they wouldn’t have agreed with what I was doing — they were continuing to undermine that over-refined, ornate deadened prose I’d set out to overthrow. (Not that I’d known that’s what I was doing on any conscious level. We always focus on smaller things than that; it is the end-result of many years of work on smaller things that accomplishes the bigger ones.)

I was living a rich life, and if I hadn’t been a craftsman dedicated to his work, I could have become nothing but a wastrel, a parasite, one of the empty bored rich. But I was a craftsman, and that kept me focused.

The war came. No shock to me, of course. Hadn’t I’ve been predicting it? Didn’t predict Pearl Harbor, though! Never dreamed the incompetents in Washington would lose us our fleet before the war started for us.

But to stay on the subject —

First I edited Men At War, and that was a huge, massive job, unappreciated. I’d spent a couple of arduous months in the Pacific with Marty in 1941, and that had gotten me peripherally involved with the government, and the military in particular. Then, when Men At War was finished, there was the crook factory as a project, and then the Q-boat idea.

You’ve read now that it was a part of a vast effort by the government to overcome an urgent need, that came about because of the government’s stupidity and lack of foresight, of course — as usual. Sinking U-boats in the North Atlantic and not considering that maybe we’d wind up at war with them! And not asking, if we were at war, what would subs do to us! But anyway, we were needed and we were glad to participate. It was my idea to carry it a little farther, and be ready to attack a sub if we got the chance. They went along, it not costing them anything in particular to do so, being that it was a few civilians and one Navy man risking their lives if it came to that. (Yes, [Don] Saxon was a Marine, but so what?)

The point of this is, there I was for all those months, dead serious but having our fun as we went along. I was one of the boys — they were all my friends — but I was the captain, and it was an easy fit for all of us. So, we drank and we played cards and we finished and we practiced and we lived together for a long, long time on a very small boat, and the relationship between me and them as men was much like the one you saw with your father and his friends in his 50s. I mean, it gives you an insight.

And, like you, dad had an extra dimension.

Yes. It wasn’t so much that I was a writer as that I was a reader, or rather that I lived so much in my mind as well as so much in my body. I was their equal in what we could do as men, but I was also a resident of another world they didn’t know. This sounds a bit highfalutin and I don’t mean it to. It is simply that I spanned a broader span.

Yes, and I got the sense of it when I remembered dad, the reader among his friends.

[FD Sr.] If you could have let me teach you the things I knew, you wouldn’t have lived so much in your mind alone, and maybe I could have followed you in your world, too. But then, if you hadn’t lived a one-sided life, you wouldn’t be what you are now.

Oh, I see it, all right. Life uses all our problems and even our failures, doesn’t it?

[EH] It’s mostly a matter of intuitive sympathy. We find our way toward each other — or away from each other, for that matter — by an automatic set of reactions that are continuously testing the acid/alkaline balance, or the salty/fresh balance, or the hot/cold — whatever analogy you like. And who do you suppose does the weighing and comparing?

I know that one too. The guys upstairs — our own particular upstairs component, I mean — move us this way and that, helping us stumble into this or that influence, giving us opportunities to decide how we’re going to react. Do we need to say any more about your Q-boat time, Ernest?

You got what I wanted you to get. It was my last time as a man among men. Europe was different, and then after the war I was never the same. Concussions aren’t good for you. Neither is prolonged strain physical and spiritual, for of course it is hard to be among fighting men who are going to die around you day by day. And it was hard being there more or less under false pretenses. What did I care about Colliers? I was researching my next book. And yet even as I researched, I saw, or felt, that it wasn’t going to be the same.

Care to say more?

You already know what I’m going to say. If you read Across The River And Into The Trees you’ll see my profound weariness and distaste for the whole business. It was necessary, because losing a war is worse than winning it, but there wasn’t anything glamorous or shining about it. I wasn’t 19 anymore. I loved the men and we all hated what we were doing, and we hated the fuck-ups who had made it necessary.

Anyway, in Cuba I was captain of my own little ship, responsible for our operations, and we did what we were required to do, and more. In Europe the only thing I did that was worth doing, I had to lie about and deny, and anyway it only lasted a month or so. The rest was observing. I was always a good observer, but after a while you got sick of it.

And after the war there was no equivalent to the Q-boat experience.

That’s right — and nobody has ever realized it! They think of me as a writer, and they look at the war as a desert or as research, and they forget the man who had that dimension that they — the writers — don’t necessarily have. And if you hadn’t had your father as a model, you wouldn’t have known it even second-hand, because your life too was one-sided.

Well, we’ll put out the word and see if it gives anybody a better sense of you. Ernest, dad, I love you both.

And we are living in you, you know, as you are living in us.

I hadn’t thought of it that way. That’s true for everybody isn’t it?

That’s a big question. Ask your guys on another day, but you do remember your catechism about the communion of saints.

Only vaguely. I can look it up, I guess. Okay, till next time.

One thought on “Conversations September 24, 2010

  1. Frank,
    What a beautiful expression of the dance of parent and child you have shared here. I can say this expressed some of what I felt about my father as well, a man’s man. Took me a while to understand him and appreciate his part in the whole especially around mother who was coming up against it.

    Thank you for putting this into words! Hemingway in the mix adds another dimension.

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