Papa’s Trial. Chapter Four, The War in Europe

Chapter 4: The War in Europe

It was all so vivid.

“Brummie and I drew our last paychecks from the Star on April 30, and we met Charlie Hopkins and Carl Edgar, who were waiting to be called up too, and we all went up to Michigan to do some fishing. But we just about got there when my father forwarded a telegram from the Red Cross telling us we had to be in New York City by May 8th. So off we went, in time to get ourselves outfitted and march in the 75,000-man parade that President Wilson reviewed, and on May 21st, we were loaded onto a ship named Chicago. We had an easy trip, we landed in Bordeaux, and they shipped us to Paris to await further orders.”

“Where you promptly went looking for trouble. Tell the court about Big Bertha.”

He grinned, enjoying the memory. “Big Bertha, yeah. The Germans had this long cannon that could shoot 50 miles, or 70 miles, or something, and they were using it to shell Paris. The idea was to panic the Parisians, I suppose. Well, I had spent the winter chasing around in ambulances and fire trucks, so I did what came naturally. Brummie and I hired a taxi and spent a couple of hours chasing around, heading wherever we thought a shell had exploded. After a while a shell hit real near us, and the driver didn’t want to do it any more. But we’d had a lot of fun, while it lasted.”

“No doubt. And then?”

“As soon as they got 150 of us together, they shipped us to Milan, and made all the ambulance drivers soto-tenentes – that’s second lieutenant – and they broke us into groups of 25. My group got Section Four, Schio, which we started calling the Schio Country Club. We were assigned to drive the old Fiat ambulances up and down those steep mountain roads.”

Drily: “And you found this insufficiently hazardous.”

“Mr. Prosecutor, I was 18 years old. What did I know? I had grown up reading Teddy Roosevelt on manly combat and all that. I didn’t intend to spend the war just looking at mountains. So when they asked for volunteers to man emergency canteens on the Piave River, I stepped up. In fact, everybody did. We were each put in charge of a canteen, and I got Fossalta.”

“Please tell the court about the canteens.”

“Since there weren’t any American troops on the Italian front, the Red Cross was there partly to show the flag. We ran canteens where the Italian troops could rest. It would be some house a little bit back from the lines, a couple of miles, far enough to be safe for them. We’d have a room with tables and writing paper, and counters where we served coffee and candy and cigarettes and stuff.”

“Which was still insufficiently hazardous for you. So you decided to get nearer to the action.”

He sighed. “Yeah, I did. I wasn’t sky-larking. I was doing my job; it’s just that I was closer than I needed to be. I would load up with chocolates and cigarettes at night and bicycle up to the trenches, so I could hand them out among the men who couldn’t get back to the canteen. The poor bastards were plenty grateful, believe me. They liked it that I was putting myself in danger for their sake, and they liked that I was trying to learn their language, and they could see I liked being around them. They wanted to know why I was there instead of somewhere safer. The young American, they called me. They had decided I was born under a lucky star, but then on the fourth night, just after midnight, a mortar shell came in, killed the guy next to me, killed the guy on the other side of me, and wounded another guy, and I got my legs filled with shrapnel, and I got buried like the others.”


“Not like six feet under, just a thick spray of thrown dirt, like being sprayed with water by a boat passing by. But I didn’t notice being buried, because the shock blew me right out of my body.” He paused. “I never romanced that aspect of it, notice. Not in A Farewell to Arms, not anywhere. That should tell you something.”

“Which is?”

“Boys’ fiction was more like valiant death-bed speeches. Nobody wrote about getting your soul blown out of your body and then returning. So it wasn’t anything I romanticized.”

“Mr. Hemingway, nobody in this courtroom will find your story hard to believe, obviously. Tell the court how you experienced it.”

“One minute we were talking and keeping our heads down, and the next minute I, the soul, was flying away from my wounded body, and then I’m hesitating, and I get reeled back in, and I’m lying there covered with dirt. There’s nobody else around but the one wounded man, and I figure I’ll be a hero, so I pick him up and try for the back trenches. My legs feel strange – I know I’m hurt – but they work. Automatically I do what the romantic novels say heroes do: I pick up the soldier in a fireman’s carry and I head for the back trenches. But I got a machine gun bullet in my knee, and I went down, and I would have died there, if the stretcher bearers hadn’t gotten to us.

“My tunic was covered with the other man’s blood, and they thought it was mine. They were saying, `Poor Ernie, he’s done for,’ because they thought I’d gotten a chest wound. I didn’t have a lot of Italian, but I was able to convince them that I wasn’t to be left for dead. Try that sometime, for drama, at 18 years old. I had them take my pants off, because I had to know. 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.”

He was reliving it now.

“The thing is, you don’t know what the surgeons are going to be able to do or not do, and you’re holding on to your ideas of how a man acts, and you’ve never been nearly as scared as you are, although you are trying hard not to show it. So then they have to carry me on a stretcher, and it takes so long! The stretcher-bearers hit the dirt with me twice, and then we come to this shed with no roof, and we have to wait for an ambulance. So we wait. For hours. And by then the pain has come in, a fast tide that keeps mounting and mounting and never ebbs but keeps on building and it gets to be all you can do to hold on.”

“No pain-killers, Mr. Hemingway?”

“They’ve given me morphine, but the morphine doesn’t kill the pain. You don’t want to cry and beg somebody to make it stop, because when the heroes you’ve read about get hurt it never says they cried or were terrified of consequences: They took it with a smile or a stiff upper lip. And if you’re still a teenage kid, maybe you don’t realize right away that it isn’t how a man feels that counts in such a situation, but how he acts. So maybe you disappoint yourself, and you spend the rest of your life coming to grips with the fact that you weren’t able to feel the way the real heroes feel when they get hurt. And if you start thinking maybe you aren’t what you wanted to be, then you have to try harder to be it. And this puts you on shaky ground, because maybe you aren’t a wounded hero, you’re a scared kid a long way from home who wants his mother.”

“And then?”

“Well, then it’s consequences. The ambulance gets me to the field hospital, and they operate and take out a few of the biggest pieces of shrapnel, and mostly they wait for me to regain enough strength to be moved, because they want to keep the field hospitals cleared out. They put me on a train to Milan on July 15th, and we get there on the 18th at 6 a.m. Slow train.”

“And so you went from being newly arrived Red Cross volunteer to wounded veteran in six weeks.”

“Yeah. Pretty efficient, wouldn’t you say? Other guys spend years in the trenches and nobody ever notices. I leave home in May and before my birthday I’m in the headlines as the first American wounded on the Italian front.”

“In point of fact, Mr. Hemingway, were you the first American wounded there?”

He shrugged. “It’s a matter of interpretation. McKey got killed before me, but nobody got wounded and survived. That’s too technical for newspapers to explain. They just left it that I was the first. I’ll tell you one thing, though. The night of July 8, 1918, was when I learned what all those lying stories about the glamour of war were worth.”

“So, Mr. Hemingway, in Milan you were taken to the new American Red Cross hospital.”

“It was new as a hospital, but it was only the fourth floor an old building. Yeah, I was one of the first patients. When I got there, they had eighteen nurses and just four patients.”

And all the court could hear him remember: (And it was clean and cool, and they were efficient and they spoke English. And then when the doctors have patched you up and you are through with the worst of it, the terror and the shame that you’ll never admit, then you are in this heaven, all these women taking care of you. By then you’re not in the same kind of merciless overwhelming pain, but a sort of intense fluctuating ache that isn’t any worse than a headache compared to a fractured skull. And you are back in control of yourself, because they aren’t going to take off your leg, and you aren’t going to be a cripple, and it looks to other people like you’re sort of a hero.)

“Tell the court about your operation.”

“Which one? I must have had a dozen.”

“The first one at the hospital. The one the worried you the most.”

“That was the day after I got there. They x-rayed me, and counted more than 200 pieces of shrapnel, even after the field hospital took out the half-dozen biggest ones. They found the machine-gun bullet behind my kneecap, and they found one in my foot that nobody had noticed. So they went in to take out the bullets and look around to see how bad the damage was.”

“Before the operation began, you told the doctor that if you didn’t come through, you wanted one of the nurses to get your back pay. Why was that?”

What a romantic boy he had been! “They had been nice to me. It seemed like the thing to do.”

“Did you really think you might not survive the operation, or was this a gesture out of novels?”

“I don’t know. What I was really worried about was, I didn’t want them taking my leg off.”

“Was that a realistic possibility?”

“You mean, was I exaggerating for dramatic effect? You try lying there, wondering what 200 pieces of shrapnel had chewed up.”

“I did not mean to imply –.”

“Two hundred pieces of hot metal, and that’s not counting the two bullets. Nobody in that hospital knew what the doctors were going to find when they opened me up. There was going to be nerve damage, muscle damage, who knows what. Until they poked around, nobody was going to know if I could keep that leg or not.”

“Naturally, it worried you.”

Worried me?” He gave a snort of derisive laughter. “Yeah, it worried me. I was scared stiff. You know my story `The Tradesman’s Return’? Harry Morgan is a tough guy, but I have him worried that his gunshot wounds are going to cost him his arm. He says, `I got a lot of use for that arm.’ When I wrote that story in the 1930s, one thing I was remembering was waiting for that operation.”

“Fortunately you did not lose your leg, and further operations repaired much of the damage. But those operations must have been very painful.”

“They were.”

“There are stories of you using a pen knife to take out some of the smaller pieces yourself as they were forced to the surface.”

“That wasn’t any big deal. They hurt, and I was glad to get rid of them as best I could.  The doctors never did get them all, you know. I carried them all my life. Sometimes they would shift and play hell with the nerves around them. It came with the territory, like having to wear a knee brace.”

“In a letter that you wrote your father in 1918, you said, `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.’”

“Truer than I knew.”

“Yes, but at the time, how much of that was what you thought you ought to be feeling?”

“Well, Mr. Prosecutor, I don’t know. What I said was true enough, but I couldn’t bring myself to say, `You were right, dad, you were smarter about the war than I was.’ And anyway, I wasn’t all that clear how I felt, because now that it was over, I was proud. I had been wounded because I’d been at the front. I had tried to save a life, and I was going to get a medal for it. I had stood up like a man, in other words. And if the war had continued, I would have been back driving ambulances in 1919, after I had finished recuperating. As it was, I was in the hospital, convalescing, when the armistice with Austria was signed, the week before the armistice with Germany.”

“Thank you, Mr. Hemingway, you may step down for the moment. Your honor, we now come to the second wound the defendant experienced as a boy with the Red Cross in Italy. The prosecution calls Agnes von Kurowsky Stanfield.”


But then he subsided.

The prosecutor, however, chose to respond. “Mr. Hemingway, we all recognize that this procedure can be painful, but painful procedures are sometimes necessary. We are probing for the same reason surgeons probe, so that you may heal. That is our only interest in the matter.”


Agnes looked the way she had in those golden few months, even to the nurse’s uniform. Seeing her after Hadley, after Pauline, after Martha, even after Mary – not to mention Jane Mason and Ava Gardner and the Kraut – she was still pretty, still had that mischievous sweetness he had loved, but she looked surprisingly ordinary. And yet the heart connection was still there. Looking at her, a part of himself that he had tried to kill came back to life. She smiled at him, and it was as though nothing had come between them, not his wives and her husbands, not her Dear John letter, not the years, not his own bitterness. He couldn’t help it. The 19-year-old inside him broke through. “No hits, no runs, no errors,” he blurted out, and they were both laughing, remembering.

“Mrs. Stanfield,” The prosecutor said in a dry, amused voice, “I take it that you and the defendant recognize each other. Would you summarize for the court what happened between Agnes von Kurowsky and Ernest Hemingway in the latter half of the year 1918?”

“I suppose everybody knows some part of it, after Ernie’s novel. I was a Red Cross nurse, just arrived, assigned to the new hospital in Milan. He won our hearts, pretending that getting wounded was just a nuisance. Don’t ever let anybody tell you he wasn’t brave. We nurses had plenty of chances to compare patients’ attitudes, and we knew.”

“So, tell us about the romance that developed.”

“I suppose everybody knows about that too. Ernie was terrifically handsome and vital, with all that energy. As soon as he could get on his feet and hobble around, after all those weeks when he couldn’t even stand up, he wanted to go out and do something.” She shrugged. “Being cooped up in a hospital can get as boring for nurses as for patients. We were allowed to escort convalescent patients, so he and I would go walking around town, or would  go to the races, or would find something amusing to do. But even before that – well, he was very ardent, and I suppose I was young for my age, even though I was eight years older than he was. He swept me off my feet, you could say, and before I really knew it, we considered ourselves engaged. He was going to go home and get well and find a way to support me, and then I would join him and we would get married.”

“And when did you begin to wish you had not agreed to do that?”

“Almost right away. It was a very bad decision, and I knew it the first time I was out of his presence for a few days. It was a shipboard romance. I was too old for him. And besides, I really wasn’t ready to settle down. I wanted to go places and do things.”

“However, you let him go home thinking that you would soon be married.”

“Mr. Prosecutor, I sent him home. I did everything I could to make sure he would go home!”

“In order to free you from your engagement?”

“No! In order to be sure that he wasn’t still in Italy when I told him. And that wasn’t for my sake, it was for his.”

“Explain, if you would.”

“There was a part of Ernest that was a spoiled child that felt entitled to whatever he wanted. And he had a lazy streak. You might not think so, but he did. He was ambitious, and later in life he proved how hard he could work, but right then, before he had accomplished anything, I thought he was vulnerable to temptation, and there was rich Captain Jim Gamble, offering Ernie a year in Italy together at Gamble’s expense. I knew that Ernie was mighty tempted, and I knew it would ruin him. So I told him I wouldn’t marry him if he didn’t go home and start preparing for a career so he could support me. And he did, and it was the best thing for him.”

Looking at him: “Wasn’t it, Ernie?”

“I wonder if you ever realized how much it hurt, that Dear John.”

“Oh Ernie, of course I realized. And if I hadn’t known at the time, I would have realized it when you killed off Katherine in A Farewell to Arms, and later, when you learned that I was on Key West and you didn’t want to see me. I didn’t make any attempt to see you, did I?”

“Would you tell the court what happened at Key West, Mrs. Stanfield?”

“In the 1930s, I was living in Key West. My married name, Stanfield, wouldn’t mean anything to Ernie, so he didn’t know I was there. But of course I knew he was there. Everyone on Key West did. Well, Lorine Thompson, who was a good friend of Ernie and his wife Pauline, figured out who I was, and came to the library where I was working and asked me if I had any photos from that time. I gave her my war scrapbook, since I didn’t have anyone to leave it to. But Ernie wouldn’t even look at it. Lorine was terribly annoyed at his attitude. I guess she thought he should be less unforgiving.”

Yes, he remembered Lorine’s annoyance.

“Thank you, Mrs. Stanfield.”

And she was gone again, without them having exchanged goodbyes.


“Mr. Hemingway, would you return to the stand? Would you tell the court, if you please, how you experienced your romance? Was this a real-life dress rehearsal for A Farewell to Arms?”

“Let’s get something straight, here. Frederic Henry wasn’t me. Even though Rinaldi called him `baby,’ Frederic Henry was a man, and really I was just a kid.”

“Was Frederic Henry what you wished you had been?”

“No, no, not at all, that totally misses the point of the story. Frederic Henry was a long-term veteran, experienced as a taster of women. He was looking for sex, not love. He was surprised to find himself in love with Katherine. The experience re-educated him, so that he became innocent for the first time. I wasn’t like that at all. If I hadn’t been a starry-eyed kid, I wouldn’t have seen her as my ideal other half. In fact, I wouldn’t have been within 4,000 miles of the Italian front.”

“So you and Agnes fell in love and that experience was right, in the way your war experience wasn’t right.”

“That’s it exactly. The hero-stories didn’t match my experience, but the love stories did. I could reach out and encompass her and be encompassed by her, and it was a very pure, very satisfying love that promised to just keep getting better.”

“Do you think perhaps it turned out for the best?”

“Maybe. But you know, you don’t ever forget your first love. If it doesn’t work out, you either put the whole thing aside as a misinterpretation, or you read it as a betrayal. Either way, maybe you never again are able to give yourself in that complete beautiful unselfish way. When Ag rejected me, I had to kill my love for her, or I couldn’t have stood it. Life killed off the innocent open-hearted boy I had been, and the life Ag and I might have had, and the children we might have brought into the world. That’s why I had to kill off Katherine. But it’s all mixed up with getting wounded in a way that is hard to explain.”

“Explaining  is what we’re here for.”

“Look, you’ve been blown up, badly hurt, in the middle of the night. You died, or you started to die, and you came back not knowing how badly you’ve been hurt. You are scared you’re going to lose your legs, and you’re trying hard not to show it, holding on to your ideas of how a man acts. And then you’re in this heaven, in a clean hospital, and you’re surrounded by these nurses, and some of them aren’t interested in you as any particular person, and then there is one who is. And you give yourself entirely and after a while you find out it didn’t mean to her what it had meant to you. And by the time I could talk about it, I wasn’t that kid anymore, and I had walled her out of my emotional life. The parts of me that had fallen in love with Agnes went away, and I never heard from them again.”

“That was a different kind of wounding, and nobody ever treated you for it because nobody ever really understood what it had done to you.”

“That’s true. I certainly didn’t. I never was able to trust women in the same way, couldn’t trust my feelings in the same way, for I’d been fooled. After that, I had to be the dominant one so I’d never again get hurt like that. And I was always prepared for them to go.”

“You never considered getting help with it from a professional?”

“I never dared trust any of them.”


“Mr. Hemingway, during your convalescence, you paid close attention to the wounded veterans around you.”

“Well sure. I wanted to fit in and be accepted.”

“And were you in fact accepted?”

Hesitation. “You mean about the time in the hospital in Florence?”

“Yes, Would you explain for the court, please?”

A sigh. “Well, Ag had  been sent down there to deal with some flu cases, and I went down to visit her. I walked into the hospital in uniform, with my medals on my chest, and the guys were laughing at me. Not looking for a fight, just amused, and I could see it.”

“Because even though you had been wounded, and had medals, you weren’t quite a veteran.”

“That’s a good way to put it. I wasn’t quite a veteran. I was like a new recruit in 1864 among men who had been wounded at Gettysburg. The real soldiers saw through me at once. My industrial accident had given me a sort of membership in the club, but it was only an honorary membership.”

“So then in January, 1919, when you arrived in New York with a shipload of wounded veterans, why were you dressed in what looked like an Army uniform, wearing an Italian Army officer’s cape? Why did a reporter for the New York Sun who interviewed you after you limped down the gangplank on your crutches, report that you had served with the Italian army? How did your new friend Eric Dorman-Smith, a veteran of four years of warfare, whom you met while you were both convalescing in Milan, get the impression that you had been wounded while fighting alongside the Italian shock troops, the arditi? The prosecutor waved his notes. “I could continue with other examples.”

But he was a man now, not an easily intimidated boy. “Are you going to let me answer, or are you just going to keep asking more questions?”

“Answer, by all means. Is it not true that you made up stories one after another, reinventing your past, providing yourself a brilliant war record, representing yourself as older, more experienced, and braver than you knew yourself to be?”

“It’s true I was making up stories. I was 19. But you see, in a way, those stories were truer to the real me than what had happened. I had wanted to be with the army. I had wanted to be a soldier among soldiers. Why do you think I was in harm’s way in the first place? There was no reason for a Red Cross man to be at a forward post except wanting to be among the men at the lines. That’s the inner truth that I was – dramatizing, say.”

“Mr. Hemingway, you went to great lengths to get into the war, you were wounded most honorably, and you behaved bravely. No one can take any of that away from you. As you look back, do you regret making up those stories?”

“I know you expect me to say yes, but I can’t, not really. I came out of the hospital in Italy the way Jack London came out of the bars in the Klondike, with no first-hand experience, but a wealth of secondhand experience. What I knew was pain and suffering and irrational fear. Everything else was secondhand. All right, I romanced. I told it as I dreamed it, rather than as it was. But the things that I pretended had happened to me, I knew, even though I knew them only secondhand.”

“And wearing the uniform and the cape, months after you returned home to Chicago?”

“Maybe I needed every prop I could come up with, to help me remember that I was not what everybody thought I was. I was being true to my inner world. I hadn’t been able to get into the army, but I still found a way to get to the front. I did get a taste of that life, and I was paying the consequences. Limping around may be romantic, it is also a damn nuisance. I had suffered a real loss, and it was bearable because it was an honorable war wound. Shouldn’t I use it if I could?”

“One final thing, then, since we are speaking of wounds. Is it not true that for months you had to have a light burning at night or you could not sleep?”

“Yes it is.”

“What was that all about?”

“I’ll tell you. Robert Graves, the poet, said he have a solar mind and a lunar mind. In other words, a daytime mind, logical and prosaic, and a nighttime mind, which sees things entirely differently. In The Sun Also Rises, I had Jake say that it’s easy to be hard-boiled in the daytime, but the night is a different thing. That’s what I was referring to. My daytime mind knew I was home, safe. My nighttime mind knew that death came out of the darkness without warning, death and pain and possible mutilation. 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.”

Intently: “This was the foundation for all the rest of my life.   Being wounded without warning, being the first American casualty in the hospital, listening for months to the real veterans, and sort of feeling that because of my wounds, I was a veteran too, and knowing that I had a whole life to lead that I almost lost: This was the central experience of my life, and it came before I was 20.”

The prosecutor’s pause underlined the statement. Then, “Thank you, Mr. Hemingway. The prosecution calls the defendant’s father, Dr. Clarence Hemingway.”


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