The Wind-Grieved Ghost

The dreams started after i flung my pistol into the connect-icut River. It was mine to fling: I was, I suppose, the only World War II Marine who had had to buy his own weapon. My .45 was stolen and hidden by a demented corporal the day before we shoved off for Okinawa, and the battalion commander regretfully told me that there was no provision for such a crisis. He promised me the rifle of the first man to fall on the beach. Somehow unreassured, I bought a Colt from a supply sergeant who would never be close enough to the front line even to hear the artillery. The transaction was illegal, of course, but I had a receipt for thirty-five dollars, and afterward I kept the gun. It lay, unloaded and uncleaned, in the back of a file cabinet for twenty-three years, until Bob Kennedy was killed. Then, on impulse, in a revulsion against all weapons, I threw it away. That, I thought, severed my last link with the war. Kilroy, for me, was no longer there.

Then the nightmares began. I have always had an odd dream life. I can waken, interrupting a dream; go to the toilet, return to bed, fall asleep, and pick up the same dream from where I left off. I can dream of playing tennis and wake up with tennis elbow. I seldom have more than one drink, yet sometimes I dream I am roaring drunk and waken with a hangover. It lasts less than twenty seconds, but I am reaching for the aspirin bottle when I come to my senses. Once, after dreaming that I had climbed the Matterhorn, I awoke exhausted. My new, recurrent nightmares were unique, however. Ordinarily I dream in color; these incubi were chiaroscuros, stark black and white, like old movies. Under a Magellanic Cloud, the stars like chipped diamonds, stood a dark, shell-torn hill, its slopes soggy with gobs bearing the unmistakable clotting pattern of fresh blood. The air was rank with the stench of feces and decomposing flesh, and the cratered surface looked like hell with the fire out. Two men were trudging upward from opposite sides. One, wearing muddy battle dungarees and the camouflaged helmet cover that we wore to distinguish us from army infantrymen, was the scrawny, Atabrine-yellow, cocky young Sergeant of Marines who had borne my name in 1945. The other was the portly, balding, Brooks-Brothered man who bears it today.

They met on the crest, facing each other in the night like mirror and object. But their moods were very different. The older man, ravaged by the artillery of time, the outside corners of his eyes drawn down with the hooded lids of age, was diffident, unsure of himself. The Sergeant's eyes, on the other hand, flamed like wildfire. He angrily demanded an accounting of what had happened in the third of a century since he had laid down his arms. Promises had been made to him; he had expected a nobler America and, for himself, a more purposeful career than the pursuit of lost causes: Adlai Stevenson, John Kennedy, Bob Kennedy, Martin Luther King — all of them irretrievably, irredeemably, irrevocably gone. So the Sergeant felt betrayed. He hadn't anticipated that his country would be transformed into what it has become, nor his generation into docile old men who greedily follow the Dow-Jones average and carry their wives' pocketbooks around Europe. As in most dreams, his wrath was implied, not said, but the old man's protestations were spoken. Indeed, that is how each nightmare ended, with me talking myself awake. Then I would lie in darkness, trembling beneath the sheet, wondering who was right, the uncompromising Sergeant or the compromiser he had become. Here was the ultimate generation gap: a man divided against his own youth. Troubled, I saw no way to heal the split. Kilroy had returned, and this was his revenge.

It was ironic. For years I had been trying to write about the war, always in vain. It lay too deep; I couldn't reach it. But I had known it must be there. A man is all the people he has been. Some recollections never die. They lie in one's subconscious, squirreled away, biding their time. Now mine were surfacing in this disconcerting manner. It had, I knew, happened to others. Siegfried Sassoon wrote of his “queer craving to revisit the past and give the modern world the slip,” and Sassoon's remembrances of World War I had been, if anything, gorier than mine. I also knew that, like most of my countrymen, I am prone to search for meaning in the uncon-summated past. “America,” John Brooks observed, “has a habit of regretting a dream just lost, and resolving to capture it next time.” One thinks of Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Frost's “road not taken,” Willa Cather's lost lady, and Thomas Wolfe: “Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten … lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door. Where? When? O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.”

I could think of but one solution. I had to revisit the Pacific. One motive was a yen to see the sights in the South Seas I had missed before, which means almost all of them; Napoleon said that his soldiers' only view of Russia was the pack of the man in front, and that was pretty much the case with me. (The only native woman I saw on Guadalcanal had a figure like a seabag. She was suffering from an advanced case of elephantiasis. Hubba hubba.) But the chief reason for going was to try to find what I had lost out there and retrieve it. Not only would I go back to my islands; I would visit all the major battlefields to discover, if possible, what we had done there and why we had done it, the ultimate secrets of time and place and dimension and being. I felt rather apprehensive, for I knew that most of it would be irrational. War is literally unreasonable. Today's youth cannot understand it; mine, I suppose, was the last generation to believe audacity in combat is a virtue. And I don't know why we believed it. The mystery troubled me and baffled me, for some of my actions in the early 1940s make no sense to me now. On Okinawa, on Saturday, June 2, 1945, I suffered a superficial gunshot wound just above my right kneecap and was shipped back to a field hospital. Mine was what we called a “million-dollar wound.” Though I could hear the Long Toms in the distance, I was warm, dry, and safe. My machismo was intact; I was simply hors de combat. The next day I heard that my regiment was going to land behind enemy lines on Oroku Peninsula. I left my cot, jumped hospital, hitchhiked to the front, and made the landing on Monday.

Why had I returned to terror? To be sure, I had been gung ho at the outbreak of war. But I had quickly become a summer soldier and a sunshine patriot. I was indifferent toward rank, and I certainly sought no glory. “We owe God a death,” wrote Shakespeare. So we do, but I hoped God would extend my line of credit indefinitely. I was very young. I hadn't published a short story, fathered a child, or even slept with a girl. And because I am possessed, like most writers, by an intense curiosity, I wanted to stick around until, at the very least, I knew which side had won the war.

So, craftily, I became the least intrepid of warriors, a survivor, not a hero, more terrier than lion. If there was a coward's way I took it. The word hero, to me, is redolent of Nelson Eddy in his Smokey Bear hat, with Jeanette MacDonald shrieking in his ear, or of John Wayne being booed in a Hawaiian hospital by an audience of wounded Marines from Iwo Jima and Okinawa, men who had had macho acts, in a phrase of the day, up their asses to their armpits. To be sure, I was not an inept fighter. I was lean and hard and tough and proud. I had tremendous reserves of stamina. I never bolted. I was a crack shot. I had a shifty, shambling run, and a lovely eye for defilade — for what the Duke of Wellington called “dead ground,” that is, a spot shielded from flat-trajectory enemy fire by a natural obstacle, like a tree or a rock — coupled with a good sense of direction and a better sense of ground. To this day I check emergency exits immediately after registering in a hotel, and in bars you will find me occupying a corner table, with my flanks secure.

But that was the sum of my military skills. I had walked through the valley of the shadow of death and had been terribly frightened. Afterward, those few of us in my unit who had survived received a document from Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal citing us for “gallantry,” “valor,” “tenacity,” and “extraordinary heroism against enemy Japanese forces,” but those shining words didn't really apply to me. Indeed, at times it seemed to me that they applied to no one except the dead. I agreed with Hemingway: “Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.” For us, they had been Buna and Suribachi; the Kokoda Trail and Tarawa; the First Marine Division and the Eleventh Airborne; the Kumusi and the Asa Kawa; December 7, 1941, and V-J Day. I honored them while hating the whole red and ragged business of war.

By the summer of 1978 I knew that I had to return to the islands. I had to find out, and the fact that I couldn't define what I sought merely made the journey inevitable.

So: once more unto the breach.

But first let me introduce myself to myself.

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