War Baby

This essay, which served as the introductory chapter of my memoirs collection, was written in the late 1990s. At the time there was a reinvigoration of the 1980s punk culture which, from the perspective of someone raised in the 1950s, was a strange admixture of violent symbolism and latter-day hippie values. At the time, I was struggling with my own moral dialectic over abstract ideas of peace and violence.

I was a war baby, conceived on or near VE Day and born in December 1945 just months after the surrender of Japan. My father was in the Navy, a chief yeoman’s mate on a sea going tug out of Norfolk, looking for U-boats, rescuing sailors from hurricanes. My mother was a Navy clerical worker; she met my father in the Navy. My mother’s brother, Uncle Sonny, was a sailor: one of the unlucky ones who saw too much, experienced more war than human tolerance allows. He drank, broke up his marriage, left my cousins fatherless, drifted, drank more. I always liked him. He seemed more real than most men. My brother joined the Navy out of high school. My mother beamed with pride when he went to the Naval Academy Preparatory School. She so much wanted a son to become a naval officer, but he got married to a WAVE instead. He cruised the world, including a tour as member of the “Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club.” My folks couldn’t afford to send me to college without assistance, so I had to find a scholarship. I got one through the Navy ROTC; went to the University of New Mexico and spent the summer in San Diego at North Island Naval Air Station. I learned about anti-submarine warfare, flew in planes, went on ships, learned how to be a sailor. Then I dropped out, let my hair grow, learned how to play the guitar, then got drafted into the Army, and went to war.

I was born in the Naval hospital in Key West, though my grandma always said I had crawled out of a conch shell on the beach. She gave me conch shells for my birthdays. My father said I was born at Hemingway’s old table at Sloppy Joe’s. But I was born in the Navy. A baby sailor who was the baby of sailors in a family of sailors. A sailor baby who got drafted and became a soldier. My mother called me a “war baby.” I never thought of myself as a soldier or a sailor. As life unfolded I thought I was a writer, an artist, a photographer, a scientist, an anthropologist, a lover, a spouse, a father, a hippie, a freak, a professor. I never thought of myself as a war baby, except as a cute idea, a statement of demography, a generational positioning at the advance guard of the baby boom. Now I think of war a lot, and I realize I have always thought of war a lot. It’s like breathing; you don’t think about it because you’re already thinking about it. It’s the scenery, the background, the context of everything else, so you don’t pay it much attention. But I have always been at war; even at war with war.

Maybe that especially. In the 60s we called it “peace,” but I’m not sure any of us—us being war babies, boomers—know what peace is. We tried to create it as an antithesis of war, rather than simply its absence, and as an antithesis of war, it, too, became war: a war of soul-force, of moral high ground, of freaks versus pigs, the doves against the hawks. In our recent maturity we have practiced other wars: wars for justice, social equity, clean air. Business-people wars and environmental wars and feminist wars and anti-homophobe wars and wars on poverty and more wars on war. We have never been without war.

Germany surrendered and Japan prostrated itself in the glare of the nukes, but war didn’t end in 1945. Within moments we were embroiled in the Cold War, the Korean War, the War of Falling Dominos, Vietnam, Cuba, Grenada, and on and on. And there were the oil wars, from latter-day Suez crises to Desert Storm, and peace-keeping wars like Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo. The Cold War grew until the end of the 40s and then flourished through the entirety of the 50s. My childhood memories are dominated by Saturday matinees with re-runs of WWII newsreels and current newsreels of Korean battles, of Ike and Monty and Mac and all the other generals governing our provinces in Japan and Germany, beating back the Yellow Menace, the Red Menace, running the government, advising us to build bomb shelters. Kids’ movies were likely to be about some Menace, even the little Green Menace from Mars! America saved the world every time.

Every year was marked by a succession of parades filled with soldiers and sailors, tanks, jeeps, kids trying to blow Taps and not doing so well, and older kids giving 21-gun salutes. Then we fought the big war again when they held the Nuremberg trials and again when they caught Eichmann. Every evening for years, it seemed, the television showed the black smoke of the chimneys at Auschwitz, the captured Nazi films of bulldozers burying Jews by the thousands, and the skeletal hollow-eyed ghostly survivors, if they could even be called that. We began every morning with the Pledge of Allegiance, with the civilians’ salute, the hand to the heart. The same salute we used when they sang the national anthem at ball games—rockets’ red glare, bombs bursting in air—and which we assumed for the sour blowing of taps and the rifle salutes on Decoration Day, July 4th, and Armistice Day. I played the drums in the marching band, in a martial uniform with braids hanging from epaulets, and brass buttons and white gloves and a billed hat. The drum beat huge bruises on my leg as we marched and tapped out the cadences of war on every holiday and at every firemen’s parade and high school football game. Our civic recreation was patterned after 19th-century infantry maneuvers.

It was always during nap time in the first grade—usually on Mondays—that the sirens would go off and we had to get under our desks and wait for the world to blow up. I was a junior in high school the night we all went to bed with our hearts breaking our chests and our teeth grinding themselves to dust because Kennedy stared down Khrushchev and a bunch of Russian guys and a bunch of American guys put their keys in the slots and their fingers on the buttons and we all knew the last war had finally come.

Boys, by the time they were ten or twelve, got buzz cuts: crews, butches, burrs with white sidewalls, stuck up with Butch Wax or Crisco or Brylcreem. Military haircuts that showed you were a man who had been to war, who was capable and ready and willing to go to war. Soldiers wore their hair short to keep the lice away, and in a world in which nearly all men had been soldiers, boys had to wear their hair short in order to be men, to avoid being sissies. Only two kinds of males wore long hair in my childhood world. One kind was punks, hoodlums, bullies. I thought they were all violent and stupid, poor, working-class sons of coal miners and steel workers and foundry men. They were violent young punks living the truly hard life.  The other kind was just the opposite: the kind people meant when they talked about “long-hair” music. They were effete geniuses, artists, musicians, weirdos of a higher order. I found their images enticing: Leonard Bernstein waving his white trusses in the windstorms of his music, Albert Einstein thinking thoughts unthinkable to others, Albert Schweitzer in exotic lands enduring the unimaginable for selfless service. I dreamed of long hair. I read stories about Wild Bill Hickock with his long golden curls, and I relished my grandma’s tales of selling lotteries at Buffalo Bill’s carnival. Jefferson was my ideal and he wore a ponytail. Washington was the ultimate manly man and had a wig. Sampson had long hair until it got cut off, then he was a weakling. Jesus had long hair, for Christ’s sake. You gonna to call him a sissy?

Like all middle-class American boys of the 40s and 50s I had toy soldiers and toy guns. Metal models of tanks and plastic or balsa-wood models I built of warplanes and warships. When we played, we played cowboys or war or space, and, being the oldest, I got to be sheriff or captain or commander. Boys, men, were supposed to aspire to ranks and wear badges and bars. I read the World Book religiously, and if you had asked me a few years ago I would have told you that I mostly read about collecting colorful postage stamps or how to identify spiders, but I really read about uniforms and insignia and warplanes and ships. I joined first the Cub Scouts then the Boy Scouts, and if you had asked me a few years ago, I would have told you it was about camping, tying knots, survival in the woods, outdoors fun. I remember now that it was about uniforms, ranks, assemblies, salutes, codes, pledges, merit badges, sashes, hazing, hierarchy, and order: preparation for war.

My mother let my hair grow until I was about three years old. When I got my first haircut she put those locks in a cigar box, and she still has them somewhere. Like Samson I lost my power so that I could wear the style of Power. Somewhere there is a photograph of me with a huge head of blue-black curly locks and a sailor suit. I always thought that combination worked fine, but the Navy wouldn’t have appreciated it. I have another photograph of myself at age four, in 1949, with very short hair. My hair stayed short until the autumn of 1964. Nearly every week of childhood included a trip to the barbershop. By the time I was a teenager I came to enjoy those haircuts. Italian barbers would wield straight razors and pretend to be sculpting something unique from your hair, but everyone always looked the same as everyone else when they got out of that barber’s chair. It was fun being talked to like a man by other men cutting your hair or awaiting their turn. Being asked about baseball or politics or which branch of the service I was going to go into. It was attention being paid to you as an individual as the barber deftly carved your head and your identity to be like everyone else’s. My barbers were the Feruzzo brothers.  One of them bought a new Corvette, ran it into a telephone pole. Nobody was hurt, but it made great barbershop conversation. Don’t remember his first name, but he did the best razor cuts.

I dropped out of college at the end of my first year after that first summer I owed the Navy in San Diego, learning the arts of war: how to kill submarines, buying beer out of a machine in the Bachelor Officers Quarters. The fall of  ‘64 I spent back in Pittsburgh hanging out on the campuses of Pitt and Carnegie Tech with the writers, poets, artists, and musicians. I gravitated toward the Bohemian aesthetes. I wrote dense and sophomoric poetry and played Renaissance music and folk music and let my hair grow until it rolled over my ears slightly and brushed the top of my turtlenecks. By the following year my hair had begun to regain its locks of curls, and I had grown a beard and mustache. This was unheard of. I was seen as some sort of anarchist, un-American, foreign-influenced, clearly dangerous. People would stop me in the street and ask if I were a beatnik or a Seventh Day Adventist. Or they’d just throw rocks and say “Get a haircut!” and call me a “sissy.” But then I got drafted. The big deal when you get drafted is the haircut. They line you up and the barbers tease you. They put an electric razor on your head and, without finesse or further discussion, they shave you to peach fuzz. No wonder the barbers of my adolescence thought they were sculpting individual masterpieces with each razor cut.

My high school teachers—at least the male high school teachers—all wore crewcuts and all were veterans and reservists. The first day of a class was always about the same. A crew-cut math teacher or civics teacher or history teacher would come into the room. He would announce that he was a marine or a soldier of some kind and he had fought in Korea or the Philippines, or Iwo Jima, and if anyone wanted to mess with him, now was the time to do it. Now, the first day of class was the time to decide if anyone had the balls to screw with the buzz-cut veteran macho-men teachers. And they would emphasize the point by slamming a book on their desk, or pitching a piece of chalk at some poor coalminer’s kid with long hair and a black leather jacket whose only thoughts were of his Indian motorcycle. Then, when the point had been made that they were tough men you didn’t want to mess with, they’d smile and tell a slightly off-color joke, and everyone would giggle nervously and decide this teacher was okay after all. They would be human and okay to get along with just so long as nobody mouthed off. Just so long as we all sat in our seats, in rows and columns and ranks and files, with our backs straight and our eyes straight ahead, and nobody chewing gum. To really make the point, though, two or three of these ex-marine teachers would occasionally grab one or two of the tough-guy hoods with leather jackets out by the bus stop at the end of the first day of classes. They would drag him behind the school building and cut his hair with dull scissors. You could wear the haircut of a warrior or you could suffer the consequences of living in a world of easily offended warriors.

This is the world I was born into. This is the world that the retro-punk youth of the 80s and 90s developed some fantastic nostalgia for. But what if a bunch of older guys were to rip their nose plugs out and shave their heads and make them stand up straight and beat snare drums in a marching band, wearing orange uniforms with epaulets, and bruise their legs and listen to sour notes barely sounding like Taps on a frozen November 11th, year after year after year? What then? Would that be cool? Or what if they tried to sleep, night after night, their rest robbed by fears they cannot identify, anxieties nobody understands? What if their legs were blown skyward by a Bouncing Betty, their balls with them? What if they had visions of carrying piles of body bags that leaked dark ooze? What if they spent an entire year in mud up to their ears with lead pelting their helmets, dismembering their friends, reducing their poetry to idiocy? What if their uncles came home from war and drank themselves into oblivion and died alone thirty years later?

This was the world I was born into. No retro-chic fashions, old movies and music can make it sensible. It was a world built on war, ready for war. It is a world, thank Heaven, that has nearly disappeared. But I see it trying to return. I see its potential rebirth in those who weren’t there before, and who think it’s cool. I see it in punker violence and warmongering young studs who yearn to kick some tail, any tail. I see it in those who have begun to find some hint of romance in the Vietnam experience, and who, because they are young, think that the sixties were silly, or who think that hippies drive pickups and listen to Led Zeppelin. Or who think that my generation was all about rock-and-roll music or getting high or free love.

That is not what my generation is about. It is about war: the love of war, the hatred of war, the myths of war, the cowardice and heroism and unthinkable pain of war. We are not “peaceniks.” We are the war babies.

Postscript: Note that this was written after the Gulf War but well before the beginning of the later and current hostilities in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Was I being prescient, or are we simply fated to have another war somewhere every ten or twenty years?  A good friend points out: “Before 1941 we had a ration of four and a half years of Peace for every year of War.  Since 1941 the ratio is less than one year of Peace for every year of War, and children under the age of 10 have never known Peace.”

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