|Publisher:||Little, Brown and Company|
|Product dimensions:||6.40(w) x 9.52(h) x 1.10(d)|
|Age Range:||13 Years|
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Alsace, the Germanized eastern province of France with borders on Germany and Switzerland, has a few large cities like Strasbourg, Nancy, and Colmar, but for the most part it is a land of farms and small towns, a poor place, where in 1944 and 1945 the inhabitants (most of dubious loyalty to the Allied cause) eked out a hard living in picturesque but primitive houses and barns, set in the midst of steaming manure piles. The most impoverished people slept with their animals to keep warm and wore wooden shoes to negotiate the mixture of mud and cow dung that was underfoot during winter and early spring. There was a small town every few miles, and the one I was in on March 12, 1945, was named Obermodern. I was a twenty-year-old second lieutenant, the leader of a rifle platoon in Company F of the 410th Infantry, 103rd Division.
In one officers' bull session at the company command post, the dining room of a house whose family had long before fled the shells that frequently landed in the town, someone commented on the number of American tanks in the vicinity and wondered if an attack was being prepared. Trying to persuade myself, I scoffed at the idea, arguing that we'd never attack again in our sector. Why would we? After all, Patton to our north was outflanking the Siegfried Line, and anything we did in Alsace would be a foolish waste of energy.
Then, melodrama: the company commander entered, just back from a briefing at battalion headquarters. His face was solemn, notable because his accustomed relation to higher authority, while essentially respectful, had in it an element of play. (His normal reaction to any silly order emanating from battalion was "Fuck `em'!") He was bringing back the news that Operation "Undertone" was about to begin, which meant that the whole Seventh Army would go on the attack on March 15. The 103rd Division would be in the lead, and our second battalion--that is, us--had been elected to make the main effort in the initial breakthrough. We were to seize by 9:00 A.M. the town of Gundershoffen, a few miles ahead, and establish there a bridgehead over a small river running through the town, thus securing passage for an armored column that was to pass through us and link up with the Third Army. The theory was that this would envelop numerous German units. After this dire briefing, we four platoon leaders set to work spreading the word among our men, issuing our own orders, checking equipment, and accumulating ammunition and K rations. And trying to keep our own anxieties from showing.
My sergeants received the news with their usual composure. Indeed, it was their skill at controlling emotion that, among other things, had earned them their stripes in the first place. Platoon Sergeant Edward K. Hudson busied himself concealing his fear beneath an elaborately busy act of "checking" on the three squads' material preparedness for attack. At this stage (we'd been in combat four months) we all assumed that no moral, psychological, or spiritual preparation would be necessary. The three squad leaders were excellent young men but all notably different. Sergeant Nelson, from somewhere in Scandinavian America, had a tipped-up nose and looked rather like an elf when he smiled, which was often. He was bright and loyal and courageous. Sergeant Partin, from somewhere in the South, was less bright, but he was solid and entirely trustworthy. Sergeant Engle, another Southerner, now and then constituted a problem, for he was the smartest of all of them. Back in training, Hudson had suggested that I bust him to private for impertinence, and I had. When we went overseas he regained his rank, although he was still given to impudence and sly resistance. But he knew his stuff and could manage his men.
The night before the attack, Hudson and I for the first time slept together, for we were very seldom in a house with a double bed. Fully clothed, we occupied an immense lit matrimonial in the house serving as our platoon headquarters and went to sleep immediately, escaping into lucky oblivion from the menaces promised in the morning. At 3:00 A.M. we got up, strapped on our equipment, and joined the rest of F Company in a small abandoned local cafe for a real breakfast. The company on this occasion included the cooks, whom we'd not seen for months. They had come up during the night with their stoves and pots and pans, and they regaled us with a heartening hot breakfast: biscuits, shit-on-a-shingle, real coffee with canned milk. Noted but made light of were the condemned-men implications of all this.
H-Hour is 6:30. By that time we've marched two or three miles in darkness and arrived at the edge of a woods on a hill overlooking a shallow valley with a narrow river. As the light comes up, I suddenly recognize the place I'm standing as the setting-off point of two failed night patrols I've led my platoon on. Not a happy augury of success now. At 6:30, seven hundred guns open up behind us, laying down a fifteen-minute barrage in front and also informing the Germans that we are about to attack. As the barrage ends, we notice a tiny figure zigzagging back from the battlefield-to-be. It proves to be a combat engineer, who has been out there some time in the dark, getting ready to ignite the smoke pots, which are now belching a blinding, choking white chemical smoke designed to conceal us as we attack. As we get ready to move forward, because of the trees I can see only three or four men of my platoon, disposed along the front of the woods at ten-yard intervals. They look toward me with white faces. Although I think I am no more scared than usual, this time my mouth is dry and it seems hard to get my breath. I hear a whistle blast behind and step forward, shouting in a loud, would-be firm voice, "Let's go!" We step off and soon we are running downhill. We don't think of the mines we might be stepping on, and luckily we don't meet any. But the adjacent units have a less happy experience: they run into a field filled with wooden Schu-mines, and many feet and lower legs are blown off. One man in Company G to our left lost his foot that day, and later he noted a home truth familiar to us all: "Sooner or later you're going to get it in combat. You can't roll the dice every day and not get waxed."
The smoke, which almost blinded us and made us cough and curse, I now realized was to conceal exactly where we were crossing the river. I don't remember how we did it. A single footbridge, emplaced in the night by the engineers? Long logs thrown across the banks? Whatever, we got across and, still running, were soon in the midst of a small town our artillery had just destroyed, leaving flocks of audibly angry poultry and many Germans, freshly killed. We kept going and, breathing hard now and gesturing toward the rear the German prisoners who came up to us, crying, cringing, gibbering--the artillery had done its unimaginably cruel work--we reached the top of a low hill overlooking a compact woods. The Germans had by now got their artillery firing, and shells landed among us. Being lazy and inept, we did not immediately dig in but lay out in the open for an hour, cowering from the shells and wondering what to do.
Finally the order came down to cross an eight-foot-high road embankment and assemble on the other side, away from the enemy. We did this by platoons. By this time the road was a machine-gun target, and as each man plunged frantically across, he occasioned a burst. I was not terribly scared by the artillery shells, which clearly weren't being observed but only fired mechanically according to some prearranged plan. What terrified me was the obviously observed machine-gun fire I'd have to race crossing the road. The two scouts and Hudson had gone first and got across safely, and I sent the others over one by one, remaining behind until I should have to go over myself. Noticing my hesitancy, a sharp-eyed lieutenant colonel warned me to get myself together or I'd be in a lot of trouble. Thus rebuked, I took a deep breath, climbed up the embankment, scuttered across the asphalt where the machine-gun bullets were striking off sparks, and tumbled, unhit, down the embankment on the other side. The lieutenant colonel had accurately diagnosed the cause of my delay--sheer unofficer-like terror.
We now had the embankment between us and the Germans in the woods, which we were going to have to clear. It was already well past the 9:00 deadline for arriving at the bridgehead town. In fact, it was now three in the afternoon and the orders from battalion to get moving became increasingly impatient, shrill, and, finally, insulting. In the absence of reconnaissance, which might have suggested a more clever tactical solution, the quickest way to take the woods, it was clear, was by sudden direct assault. That day we had two heavy machine guns with the company, directed by Second Lieutenant Raymond Biedrzycki (pronounced Bedricki), a phlegmatic former sergeant recently field commissioned. On a whistle signal from F Company commander, these were suddenly lifted to the top of the embankment and began traversing fire along the near edge of the woods, while we, bayonets fixed, climbed up and over, cursing and yelling and firing at the woods as we ran. It was very like going over the top in the Great War, an effect enhanced by the two water-cooled machine guns on their heavy tripods firing continuously over our heads. They were Model 1917, exactly the same as in the First World War. From this frontal attack on a prepared German position, I expected a ghastly carnage of the Great War type, but nearing the woods and looking back over the field we'd just crossed, expecting to see there the bodies of the dead and wounded, I saw nothing but an occasional gas mask and folded raincoat, discarded in the rush.
We were doing fine until we entered the woods. Then, rifle and machine-gun fire began immediately. Many of us were hit before we could throw ourselves down. Shouted orders could not be heard over the noise, and paralyzed by the machine-gun fire an inch above our heads (you could feel the heat of the bullets), we could only hope that someone else was applying some means of relief. Hudson and I, a foot apart, were bellowing at each other in our frustration, anger, and fear. While pressing every inch of me into the ground as tightly as possible, I managed a look to the left, to see one of my men, a stout blond youth, suddenly rise and, kneeling, level his rifle at the machine gun. There was a savage burst of fire, and out of the back of his field jacket, just where, on the other side, his heart would be, flew little clouds of dust, cloth, blood, and human tissue. He was a new replacement whose name I'd not yet learned. Looking to the right, I saw a similar scene: Sergeant Engle stood up to return fire, and the machine gun caught him right in the mouth. He dropped to his knees, and, looking toward Hudson and me, spit out his blood and teeth onto the green forest floor. Thank God, at that point one of my men, quite un-ordered-to, slipped around with a grenade, flanked the machine gun, and destroyed it together with its teenaged operator. Sergeant Engle we could do nothing to help, for we were obeying the order "Leave the wounded to be cared for by the medics and press on." (Magically, he survived, to become, after years of facial reconstruction, an Episcopal minister.)
In shock as we all were--this was by far the worst combat we'd faced so far--we moved forward in the woods, encountering trenches and dugouts the Germans had been preparing for months. Most of them now wanted to surrender, and as we shouted, "Kommen Sie heraus, Hande hoch!" they dragged themselves out, weeping and hoping not to be killed in anger. Many were. Now and then one of our men, annoyed at too much German delay in vacating a position, would throw in a live grenade, saying things like "Here. Divide that among you." Once we began rampaging inside the forest, the conflict turned decidedly unfair. One man recalls, "We did all the shooting. They did all the dying." We must have killed thirty or forty and captured more than that. Some of the captured, we found, were wearing GI woolen trousers, seized from some overrun U.S. quartermaster warehouse, doubtless in the Bulge. It was a tradition of the line that Germans caught with American clothing or equipment be treated harshly. We made these poor scared souls remove their trousers, kicking them severely in their butts to make our point clear.
When we reached the farther side of the woods, we began reorganizing to continue the attack, although it was now well past four o'clock. Along this far edge of the woods there were some large earth-and-log bunkers, once the dormitories of the defending troops. Together with Sergeant Hudson and Lieutenant Biedrzycki, I sat on top of one to plan our next move. Suddenly, off to the left, at the forward edge of the woods, a deafening crack! Then, five seconds later, another, closer. And then, another, still closer. Something like a tank or self-propelled gun was firing systematically across the edge of the woods, and my men were leaping into whatever cover they could find. Many threw themselves into the entrance of the bunker the three of us were on top of, but many couldn't make it: there were cries and shouts, and one man screamed, "They blew my legs off! They blew my legs off!" Hudson, Biedrzycki, and I did not take cover, and the reason is curious. I stayed put because, virtually accused once of cowardice, I didn't want to be seen being ostentatiously prudent a second time. The other two followed my lead in remaining in the open, I imagine because I was the senior and they thought they should follow my lead. Now, curiously, I was thoroughly brave. As the shells came closer and closer, the three of us lay flat: by then there was nothing else to do, for the time to take cover had quite run out. Then, an unspeakably loud metallic clang! right overhead. It was the loudest sound I'd ever heard. I was temporarily deaf, and in the sudden silence I drifted for an instant back to my serene beginning.
The Pasadena I was born into, in 1924, thoroughly deserved its reputation as a highly privileged "suburb"--the word had not yet taken on pejorative overtones. It was a dull, safe, trim little city of some sixty thousand where those who commuted to the tougher Los Angeles eleven miles away returned in the evenings to raise families in gentility and peace.
Southern California was not yet synonymous with shallowness, compulsory "leisure," show business, and sleaze. For many it was a serious place, and Pasadena especially seemed a moral oasis in the midst of the surrounding drink, sex, drugs, and gambling. The tone was that of Midwestern uprightness, and the rules were plain: do not smoke, or drink, or swear, or gamble; attend church; pay your bills immediately; work hard; tell no lies; succeed--and never buy anything on the installment plan. Pasadena, says social historian Kevin Starr.
once upon a time constituted a state of mind. Here the genteel tradition grafted itself onto Southern California circumstances. Pasadena embodied the certainties and pursuits of the white Protestant upper middle classes: education, refinement, a cautiously progressive point of view on social and political issues, all of it modified but not enervated by the sunshine of Southern California. Thus Pasadenans played tennis and golf and spent time at country clubs but they also read books and cared intensely about literature and serious theater.
Like Arizona and other salubrious places in the Southwest, California had earned among Eastern physicians a reputation as a warm, dry environment beneficial to tuberculosis patients. In the preantibiotic days when I was young, it was still a haunt of TB sufferers. In the early 1920s a number of local physicians established The Preventorium, an institution for needy tubercular boys from the East. Some hotels--like the Hotel Green--seemed populated entirely by patients, wheeled out on balconies to relish the warm sun and air or pushed slowly around the grounds. Peace and quiet dominated: the number of electric automobiles silently tooling around the streets with old ladies at their joysticks must have set a record for similar towns.
It was a place of some wealth and patrician social responsibility. The streets were immaculate. Because of the benign weather, street crosswalks stayed brightly white for years, and pedestrians had always the right-of-way when crossing. The public schools were superb, a model for the nation, and the city government (run by a city manager, not a mayor) was incorruptible, performing its functions in a tasteful Italian Renaissance domed city hall. The police and fire departments were known for their discipline and efficiency. Churches abounded, and Sunday was spent attending them. There was an impressive public library with eight branches, situated so that no resident would live more than a mile from one. The national yearly per capita average of library books borrowed was four. In Pasadena, it was twelve. Well before the Volstead Act in 1919, Pasadena had made up its mind on the liquor question and prohibited saloons within the city limits. But for all these amenities, an opera house would have been unthinkable: this was a philistine city, and despite its attractiveness, profoundly un-European in its self-satisfied puritanism.
If not entirely Anglo-Saxon, the population seemed distinctly Caucasian. There was, to be sure, a "colored" district, but one never passed through it, nor through the places where the "Mexicans" were said to live. The few Japanese were silent, industrious gardeners working meticulously around upper-middle-class premises. Anyone dropped into Pasadena for the first time might have been tempted to designate it Luckyville, for it seemed to have reached the condition all American places aspired to in the 1920s and 1930s: it was beautiful, peaceful, harmonious, comfortable. If Los Angeles was, sadly, an example of the Real, Pasadena came close to representing the Ideal.
It was tuberculosis that caused my father, Paul Fussell (I am officially Jr.), to be born in Pasadena in the first place. Without that, he would have been a native of Wallingford, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia, and would probably have become a member of the Pennsylvania bar. His mother, Sara Haswell, had married Edwin Neal Fussell, the son of a local physician. Edwin was variously a typesetter, a traveling cigar merchant, and a post-office inspector. He and Sara had had one son, Edwin Briggs Fussell, before a doctor diagnosed the young father's tuberculosis and advised an immediate move to a warmer climate. At great sacrifice but hopefully, the Fussell family moved to Pasadena, where Sara's husband soon died. But not before a second son, my father, was born. Sara Fussell, early widowed and with no income to speak of, brought up her two boys on the minuscule salary of a grade school teacher, augmented, in due course, by the small ad hoc earnings of her boys. My father, for example, sold aluminum kitchen ware door-to-door. His brother grew fonder of drinking, smoking, and swearing than Pasadena and his mother approved of, and after high school he took off for Seattle, where he embarked on a lifelong career as an editorial writer for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Unlike his brother, who stayed in Pasadena and looked after his mother, E. B. Fussell became a fervent Democrat and conservationist, throwing himself into the populist battle against the "lumber interests."
In those days very few young people continued their education past high school, and in those days a high school education, in a well-to-do place like Pasadena, was effective preparation for a life not only of worldly success but of judgment. For example, Edmund Burke's On Conciliation with the Colonies, not the easiest work of thought and rhetoric for adolescents, was widely taught in high schools. And discussed and debated. Today it's seldom read even in "universities." When I was a boy my father was my only relative who'd graduated not just from a university (California, 1917), but from a law school as well (Boldt Hall). In those places he distinguished himself as a notable hard worker and puritan--his chastity and sobriety were the wonder of his friends--and he was conspicuous as a debater and quick thinker. Not long ago, I was told by one of his former law partners, Secretary of State Warren Christopher, that my father possessed "the quickest mind of any man I've known."
Their law firm was O'Melveny & Myers in Los Angeles, and my father devoted himself to corporation law. When he was born in 1895, California had been a state of the Union for only forty-five years--aristocratic Spanish families were still to be met with--and there was a great deal of incorporating to be done, of such new enterprises as the real estate business and soon the film industry, and later, the aircraft-building companies. And always, of course, oil.
He rose rapidly in the law and was soon financially stable. Then comfortable. Then rich--one reason, together with the benignity of Pasadena, that Paul Fussell Jr. was so easily insulated from the real world. Raised by a hyperstrict mother, my father did not drink or smoke, nor did he gamble or swear. Indeed, I heard him swear only once. When I was in junior high school I committed some misdemeanor with a bean blower, as I recall. When he heard of it, he grew red and permitted a "Damn" to escape his lips, an offense never to be repeated. When Santa Anita "Park" was built, he strenuously objected to the pari-mutuel activity there. When he had to attend parties where drinking was going on, he stuck resolutely to ginger ale. Although he finally had to tolerate his children's cigarettes, he never smoked at all, barring some preposterous experiments with a pipe when he was a boy ordnance officer in the First World War. What he did do was work, to support his mother and his own family. You did that sort of thing then, especially if you came from Pennsylvania church stock, both Presbyterian and Quaker.
The intellectual and social superiority of Father's family to Mother's was always assumed. It had produced, we were told, a flock of teachers and physicians, and one distant relative, William Shepherd, was said to have been in the boat when Washington crossed the Delaware to harass the British at the Battle of Trenton in 1776. The Fussell family claimed artistic distinction as well. It was proud that a great-uncle of mine, Charles L. Fussell, had been a student of Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
Because they were less given to such social bragging and self-satisfaction, I knew less about Mother's side of the family than Father's. Wilhma Wilson Sill was born in 1894 in Bloomington, Illinois. If one of my grandfathers was a casualty of tuberculosis, the other was a casualty of mass production. Mother's father, William David Sill, was early employed as a carriage trimmer: that meant that with his own hands he put the fringe on top of surreys and installed the upholstery. The rise of the automobile industry ruined that trade, and father, mother, and beautiful blonde girl-child moved all the way west to new possibilities in Pasadena. Here, her father performed a series of odd jobs like house painting and carpentry while she attended high school and, for a short while, the University of California at Berkeley. (Her college ukulele, a conventional fixture in those raccoon-coat days, became one of my toys.) She knew my father at high school and college, and their acquaintance ended in marriage and the birth of three children: Edwin in 1922, two years later Paul Jr., and Florence in 1926.
Mother's parents were extremely modest and kind. Her mother we kids denominated Marblenanna for her practice of giving us marbles when we visited. (Father's mother was Chickinanna: she, like so many others in those days, raised chickens.) Grandfather Sill, tall and slender with a white mustache, projected the dignity of a quietly decent, very private working man. I never saw him wearing anything but a three-piece salt-and-pepper suit. (The idea of him dressed in anything like "leisure wear" is quite unthinkable.) We children loved both the elder Sills in a way we never could the punctilious, didactic, constantly fault-finding Chickinanna. In the conventional style of mothers-in-law, she took every opportunity to demean and humiliate the alien woman who had had the impertinence to marry her son. Regardless, we liked visiting Chickinanna because of the cockoo clock in her living room, from which the little bird appeared regularly to flap its wooden wings and to "cuckoo" the time. Every night, the clock was wound up by pulling to the top two cast-iron weights shaped like elongated pinecones. In the style of the period was a conviction of my mother's sustained by her mother-in-law, namely, the persuasion that she was distinctly subordinate to her husband and properly devoted not to matters of moment but to details of feeding, laundry, and minor discipline, with an occasional revel at a women's club. Mother always asserted that she stemmed from Irish stock, partly, I suspect, to annoy Anglophile Father.
My earliest and most innocent memories are of our first house, a small bungalow on Pasadena's Waldo Avenue, a modest street on the Los Angeles side of town and thus fine for commuting. This house had not had the benefit, unlike our later ones, of thoroughly snobbish zoning ordinances, and nearby were laundries, commercial garages, and auto-parts and repair businesses. Snapshot evidence indicates how vigorously under the sidewalk peppertrees Ed and I played out with tricycles and wagons a mimic version of Southern California automobile culture. There's little evidence that we ever played with our sister.
In this house, still in a crib, I conceived a similarity in form, if not function, between a size D flashlight battery and a jar of Vaseline. There, in the backyard, I once witnessed the silent movement, in and out of each other's coils, of a nest of black snakes. Not yet acquainted with the lore of snakes, I wasn't at all afraid of them. They looked to me as harmless as a basket of kittens. But there was one frightening moment in my earliest years. A black maid had lit the gas oven carelessly, and the resulting explosion had burned off her eyebrows and lashes without causing further damage. Her appearance scared me, and I had to be comforted and assured that she was really all right.
From overheard gossip we children were able to understand that a "depression" was underway, but we didn't know enough economics or sociology to wonder at our father's choosing, just now, to build a costly, luxurious upper-middle-class house on the other, and much better, side of town, where instead of auto-repair shops, one found Cal Tech and the Huntington Library. This new house was an eloquent registration of Father's sentimental Anglophilia. Where did a young Californian pick up such a thing? Partly in law school, of course, as he spent lonely nights over Blackstone's Commentaries and mastered Coke upon Littleton. But partly also from the several months he spent at Trinity College, Cambridge, after the First World War had ended with thousands of idle American soldiers in Europe and little shipping to bring them home. Many were put to studious waiting, at Oxford, Cambridge, and the Sorbonne, a novel experience of learned civility few forgot. Ever after, Father displayed in his oak-paneled "den" a print of the Great Court of Trinity and carved wood plaques displaying the "arms," in bright red and white, of that college and of the university. Not to be outdone in the social-class competition, Mother displayed in the hall her own family's "coat of arms," attained from a mail-order company. It featured a shield, with crossed weapons, ribbons, and a helmet on top, and below, the motto Tam Fidus, Quam Fixus, satirically translated by my brother as the motto of an early repairman, "I am Fidus who fixes."
Not surprisingly, this first house Father had built for his family aped a compact British manor house, as understood in Southern California. Outside, it featured dark brown beams against light brown stucco with a shingled porte cochere, diamond-paned leaded windows, and servants' quarters--that is, a maid's room with bath. The lot was not large enough for such authentic touches as sheep to keep the grass cut or a fake ruined Gothic tower in the distance, but we did have such luxuries as a stagnant water-lily pool in the backyard, together with a sundial on a fluted concrete pedestal. In its quiet and secure "British" way, the house made an anti-California statement, nestled as it was between two more conventional "Spanish"-style houses with white plaster facades, colored tiles, and terra-cotta roofs.
While father was an "attorney"--he seldom referred to himself as a lawyer--our neighbors in the Spanish-style houses were, on the one side, a society dentist and, on the other, the owner of a flourishing lumberyard. We got along well with the no-nonsense lumberyard man, but the dentist was not in great favor with our teetotal family, for he gave stylish and noisy cocktail parties in his large screened porch in back, and the smell of gin was often perceptible way over in our yard. Sometimes the giggling and shrieking didn't stop until late at night. Other than this cluster of three houses, our street was remarkably empty, vacant lots, largely devoid of trees, stretching endlessly in all directions.
Father was too busy and sensible to go in for the pseudomystical line that California was other than another state of the Union, full of promise, all right, but without very strong metaphoric meaning. For him, it was not a place for exotic dream fulfillment but for profitable investment. For a short while he found himself in a group called Native Sons of the Golden West, but the lapel pin of this organization, complete with sturdy golden bear, he kept buried in his shirt-stud box. He died in 1973, providentially escaping the California that seemed to offer a natural theater for sillies like Zsa Zsa Gabor and crazies like Patricia Hearst. I doubt that he knew that Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy lived nearby and seemed to many to establish the appropriate California tone. For Father, California was a place more like, say, Oregon than Oz. It was a place for grown-ups well past the mental age when life could be conceived of as an animated cartoon, or the state imagined as a magnet for every pothead, drunk, egotist, and eccentric in the United States, an El Dorado of fools, Charles Mansons, and O. J. Simpsons.
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