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Aerial Bombardment


He thought that God would relent or, failing such a redirection from the engineer of all this savagery, that man himself would repent. But that was the problem: this savagery was part of the design. Maybe it was a calling to higher achievement, maybe even was the entire design—hard not to believe that, during such days as these. Not a pretty prospect. So he stands in his training tower, professorial, tweedy in his working khakis, staring out at the thin gray line of an overcast sea, wondering about repenting and relenting (and taking note of the lovely anagrammatic fellowship of those two words). He and the one-armed First Class Gunner’s Mate Stein are perched well off the sands, and thirty feet to either side of them, two men at .50 caliber gun mounts await their orders.

Lieutenant Eberhart, a poet in all this madness, knows that as soon as the order to fire is given, two fingers will close on the trigger bars of these nasty-looking Browning aircraft machine guns and about one hundred fifty superbly crafted parts will be set in motion at tolerances of thousandths of an inch. And if the finger is kept depressed for a full minute—which will certainly not be permitted today—about eight hundred red-hot slugs will splatter the blameless sky. Talk about design! For Lieutenant Eberhart, the knowledge of how this machine does this, and how men must maintain and employ it, offers a momentary refuge. Still, this training must commence, and Stein is beginning to emit the barely audible but unbroken chain of cuss words that makes up his conversation with himself. The air smells strangely organic, some sea creature rotting rather pleasantly. He gives the order and then the doors of hell open: flame and concussion, the whole beach rattling, a sheet of sound (Eberhart has figured that at a lively andante tempo of approximately MM 100, these shots are eighth notes), and finally, a stream of spent shells, more numerous than can be imagined, a pile of useless, glittering gems in the sand. Out in the sky there are no incoming Zeros, only, perhaps, a few extraordinarily unlucky petrels on the final leg of the trip home from a few days excursion on a war-tossed sea.

Eberhart gives the order to cease firing and then depresses the button on his sound-powered phone. “Mount 2,” he says, a slightly nagging and ironic tone to it. There had been a single shot from Mount 2, then nothing. “Averill,” he says, this time less patiently.

“Stoppage, sir!”

“Obviously, but nevertheless.” Eberhart likes this: two adverbs and one conjunction, but still a vessel for some meaning. He waits. He can hear the pages of the textbook so recently studied being flipped through in Averill’s mind; Averill, not a Yale boy even with that name, but a potato farmer’s child from Long Island, one of Eberhart’s favorites in the current lot. He glances over to the mount to observe the confusion. The men awaiting their turns behind Averill are jeering, shards of advice perfumed with insult and fear.

“Averill,” Eberhart snaps into the phone; the situation is not a joke.

“Checking the belt, sir,” says Averill at last, and Eberhart watches as the boy takes a step to the side of the gun and inspects the ammunition and links feeding into the gun.

“Belt seems fine,” Averill pants into his phone.

“In or out of battery position?”

“In battery position, but no cartridge in the chamber.”

We are getting somewhere now; the professor is happy. Well, not professor. But someday Eberhart hopes to be, if this war ever ends. For the moment, this sort of educational appointment will have to suffice. “Possible causes?”

“Belt feed lever bent or broken. Pawl springs broken.” Now that Averill has regained his composure he’s rattling off pages from the manual as if it were in front of him. He’s been working late, memorizing this stuff as if his life depended on it. Eberhart doesn’t want to think about that. “Maybe something wrong with the extractor,” Averill continues. “A bad belt link. Not sure, sir.”

Of course he’s not sure. No way at this point for him to know anything except that this piece of junk in his hands is supposed to be able to kill people or airplanes or anything else in its line of fire, and that it’s doing nothing now but rusting.

“Danger of a cook-off?” A trick question.

“No round in the chamber,” answers Averill, for which he earns a gold star. But how would you grade people learning a trade like this? What would the teacher do with a nice kid who tries hard but doesn’t really have it in him to become a ball turret gunner? You’d send him home to his mama and papa, if you could. They’re the ones you should worry about. But it is the good students, the ones who can distinguish the belt feed lever from the belt holding pawl, that break Eberhart’s heart.

Eberhart gives the order to stand down and offers a smoke break for the men arrayed behind both mounts. The men fan out onto the sand. The dunes, windswept but luscious, rise behind them. From the elevation of his training stand Eberhart can see the rooftops, flagpoles, the crystal froth of radio and radar antennas of Dam Neck, but from where the men now lounge, this could just be a day at the beach. A fine and jolly thought. Eberhart sees it in every new class that arrives, the kids from the heartland or from the cities: the invitation of the beach. And after their gear is stowed and they have been allowed to fall out they’re heading for the beach, whoops of joy, down to their skivvies, pale and scrawny teenagers darting into the waves. Never fails, summer or winter.

Eberhart takes off his phone and turns to Stein, who is likewise wrestling his phones off his head with his one hand. “That was okay,” says Eberhart. “The boy did okay.”

Stein is never satisfied with any of them, but he has good reason not to be. “Did you see that kid yanking at the belt? Stupid fuck.”

Oh yes, a stupid fuck to be sure; but how would we recognize what is stupid without incidents of stupidity? A belt bejeweled with .50 caliber cartridges just itching to let fly: nothing better for exposing errors. A teaching moment. With each new class, on the seventh day of training, Eberhart gets to use this phrase: “As you remember from Newton’s laws of motion . . .” And he looks out at the twenty or so men who have been gathered under his care to learn the fine art of blowing things to bits at long range, and he wonders how many of them have ever heard of Newton’s laws of motion, and of those who have, what exactly did it profit them now?

Eberhart backs down the ladder and walks over to where Averill stands. He’s a tall and slightly unfortunate-looking boy, a thin face with big ears. Eberhart himself is short, slightly gnomic; not much of a looker, either. Averill apologizes for his momentary freeze. “It’s even more shocking when it doesn’t go off than when it does,” he says.

It’s a wonderful observation; so lovely to hear a prowling bit of truth caught in a few words. “Yes,” says Eberhart. “I suppose that’s what we’ve come to.”

Averill nods. None of this—his youth, Eberhart’s rank, the guns, the war—allows him to comment further on Eberhart’s doleful reply. “Is this part of it?” Averill asks. He means, is this stoppage one of Stein’s tricks, an engineered malfunction? He shouldn’t ask this; the real lesson, the mortal lesson—how to get the goddamned thing back on line as fast as possible—is still ahead of them. Eberhart would like to tell him the answer, but cannot. Averill has to be as good at this as he can be; it might make him less likely to die, or more likely to die, but he has to be as good as possible. Besides, it was supposed to be a training exercise, but there was no certainty of that: neither the guns nor Stein’s gunner’s mates were perfect, and a jammed gun is a dangerous situation anyway. “Read OP 1014, ‘Ordnance Safety Precautions: Their Origin and Necessity,’” says the training manual. “It tells many shocking stories of what has happened when safety rules were not followed.” Who, wonders Eberhart, could have written such a thing? What does safety mean in this business?

“It’s a stoppage, Averill. It’s a gun that won’t fire. That’s all that matters.”

The group from the other gun are in high spirits, as if their mount had won a race for them. “Hee-hee,” says Big Ski, one of the three Poles. “Did you see that?”

“Jap fucking hamburger,” says Little Ski.

Van Wettering, who had been the shooter, is standing in front of the group, gleeful; he thinks the gun fired because of him. “Averill couldn’t get it up,” he says, wagging his head from side to side to catch the affirmations from behind.

“Don’t be a fool, Van Wettering.”

He’s a little stung. The professor is a mild man but his words carry more weight than even he understands. “Just . . .”

Eberhart is now on one knee, emptying a shoe of sand. It’s one of the hazards of working on a beach. There are others. Breathtaking sunrises, sea breezes translucent with fragrance, memories of Cape Cod, making love in the mildewed air of a beach cottage, the strains of Mozart and a gin and tonic.

“What’s the procedure,” he asks Van Wettering, now that he is standing again.

Van Wettering is almost as good as Averill. Better, actually. Doesn’t quite have the memory for nomenclature that Averill has, but even lacking that learned storehouse of phrases, Van Wettering’s got a more intuitive sense of the gun. Van Wettering understands the sequences of minute actions, can picture it in three dimensions. No wonder Stein likes him, and perhaps, no wonder that the professor doesn’t like him.

“It’s that little spoon-shaped lever,” Van Wettering concludes, which, assuming the malfunction is indeed part of the drill, is exactly right.

“And if it isn’t?”

“Well, I guess you kiss your ass good-bye.”

None of this is that hard to master. Not getting killed, that is indeed harder to master. Eberhart wishes no harm to Van Wettering; he wishes him a long life, children and grandchildren, even though he is sure that Van Wettering will become an annoying coworker, truculent neighbor, splenetic father, unreliable spouse. Still, that’s the art of this, preserving just such lives, which means ending as many as possible on the other side. That’s the business Eberhart finds himself in, on this chilly, slightly overcast but otherwise fine morning in November of 1943.

*  *  *  *  

A quarter century later, Ensign Christopher Tilghman stands on the same splendid expanse of sand in Dam Neck, Virginia. He has no desire whatsoever to shed his clothes and run in for a frigid dip. He does not know yet about Eberhart or about the poem that Eberhart started on the evening of that day and completed only months later, when the fates of Averill and Van Wettering were known to him. Tilghman’s miseries, as he sees them, are far too localized to permit references to history or to art. But he knows a good deal about his miseries: the loss of his freedom; the dry and pointless ache for his young bride, who is back in Connecticut finishing college; the knowledge that in six months, unless he conspires to be unable to master the intricacies, he will have become an expert in Naval gunfire; that he is lonely on this cold-swept beach, wished he had a pal but didn’t see a likely candidate as he surveyed his classmates that morning in the introductory session.

Later he is back in his room in the bachelor officer quarters, a low, motel-style structure just behind the dunes. A bed, a chair and desk, a dresser, a lamp, the metallic air of government-approved cleaning products with a splash of 3-In-One lubricating oil. He has imposed no homey touches other than the small stack of books he has brought with him, including the copy of War and Peace given to him upon departure by his stepfather, who is, as it turns out, the connection in the puzzle, the man standing between Tilghman and Eberhart. Tilghman is grateful for this gift, though he doubts it will get much use.

There is silence in the staggeringly illuminated corridor outside his door. The quarters are largely deserted; it’s as if this were a beachside resort in the off-season. And in fact, as the bus deposited Tilghman here in the morning, he realized that in any other life people would pay to stay here, might happily spend extra for a view of the dunes and the sea, which is precisely the vista Tilghman enjoys outside his window this evening.

It is time for dinner. The mess in this BOQ is closed down for renovation; it’s one of the reasons the place is so deserted, though it feels as if there must be other reasons. Everything is silent and shrouded. The furniture and fixtures in the lobby and the commodious salon are draped with cream-colored painter’s cloths. The bar, with its Naugahyde banquettes, mirrored walls, and dusty chandeliers, is moldy from the last spilled beer; shoes stick to the floor or crunch over peanut shells. The events that created this squalor do not give evidence of being fun; more like the last gathering of a defeated sports team, surly drinkers, an absence of women.

Tilghman passes through the glassed-in entryway and waits outside in the darkness. There’s supposed to be a shuttle bus, or something, to take him and his classmates to the air base next door, where they will dine amongst the F-4 and A-6 pilots in training for Vietnam—not a tribe Tilghman wants much to do with. Tilghman had missed the bus, or something, at lunch and is extremely worried that he will miss dinner as well. The surf is trickling just beyond the dunes; there are hostile sprigs of grasses here and there in the sandy soil. Street lamps illuminate the low huts and barracks at the other end of the base, but he sees no activity there, no lights through the windows. This is starting, he thinks, to feel spooky, and for the first time in the day he smiles; he likes that word spooky, so guileless. But still. Nevertheless.

The smile fades and he is beginning to wonder how far it is to Oceana—now there’s a name for a Navy base—when he hears footsteps behind him. He doesn’t care what sort of Annapolis-grad, career-hungry warocrat it may be, he’ll be relieved if it is merely human.

“Hey,” says the person, and Tilghman turns. It’s Craven, he thinks, a name odd enough to be singled out from the crowd. A short and pleasant-looking man, big head, curly brown hair, a friendly tendency toward overweight, a rather ironic smile.

“I was beginning to think I’m the only person here,” Tilghman replies.

“Yeah. Pretty weird.”

“I was thinking spooky.”

Craven nods. He likes the word too; the pleasures of this life are simple. “Want a ride over?”

Tilghman does indeed, and even climbing into someone’s private automobile is a pleasure of sorts. Craven—Ed—is a lieutenant junior grade, which means he’s been at this for a year longer than Tilghman. This is good, he knows the ropes—but he could be a lifer.

“So,” Craven says as they pull out of the parking lot.

It’s really all he has to say. Everything is code. “So,” says Craven, and with this obliterating conjunction he has communicated the following: that he, like Tilghman, is a Reserve junior officer, not regular Navy; that he is from OCS or, at worst, ROTC; that he is here because he didn’t want to be drafted and sent to die in a foxhole.

“Sucks,” says Tilghman

“Fucking A.”

The Oceana BOQ is everything Dam Neck is not. It glitters like a passenger liner; music, lights, the bar is humming, mixed drinks for a quarter and no one to find fault, Filipino stewards attending to all needs, bowls of olives and nuts, even a few girls in cocktail dresses. What a life! Tilghman and Craven find a place at the bar and order Scotch, Johnnie Walker Black, and it is a remarkably smooth way to ingest alcohol, so Tilghman orders another, and when they decide to eat he is not feeling miserable anymore. Well served is what he feels, even lavished. He and Craven load up their plates: steamship roast carved by an enormous black chef in a toque, rice pilaf, green beans almandine, even—how Tilghman appreciates this—a pot of horseradish at the end of the line. They find places at a table beside three lieutenants. Pilots, of course, but Tilghman doesn’t mind, even as he observes one of them pantomiming flight moves with his hands, thumbs out for wings, a vision from the ready rooms in the Battle of Britain. Tilghman, after all, has never before dined with a fighter pilot.

Craven and Tilghman are acknowledged with slight, dismissive nods when they sit down, and the pilots continue with their reenactments of the day’s training. They’ve been over North Carolina, subsonic, weaving over the mountains, mock bombing runs, Tilghman guesses, learning how to drop Snake-eyes and napalm to best effect. Can’t be easy to do, and Tilghman is caught up in appreciation for the skills of the thing, technology, million-dollar aircraft. Pilots all have twenty-twenty vision and they get to carry .38s in holsters under their arms.

“Sounds like fun,” says Tilghman

The pilots are startled by this intrusion, and they clearly do not believe that fun has anything to do with it. The one at the end of the table, a slightly older and less stereotypically all-American man—in the end a far nicer guy and less swelled with self-importance and chest-thumping grief—gives Tilghman a slightly equivocal wag of the head: We’ll let it pass, he says.

But Tilghman is a little drunk and is still trying to figure out exactly what sort of sentiment he had tried to express. Fun has far less to do with this than the pilots imagine, and it is what they’re after, far more than they would admit. So forget fun, a concept that promises nothing but profound disagreement; it was just a moment of admiration for the things man can do. The pilots didn’t know it, but Tilghman was giving them the benefit of many, many doubts.

He persists. “I just mean, that motion.” He looks to Craven for support and gets none. “It’s such a primordial dream.”

“‘Primordial.’ What the fuck do you mean by that?” This is one of the other two: shorn hair, sandy eyebrows; homecoming king and locker room bully. His name tag says Conroy.

“Man’s always wanted to do it. Now he can. That’s all.”

The third pilot puts a hand on Conroy’s sleeve as if to restrain him, but of course, that isn’t what he is saying at all. He’s giving Conroy the green light: That’s right, squash this insect, you’ve got right and reason.

“You think this is fun?” says Conroy. “Fucking man’s dreams of flight? Did you even look at the honor roll when you came in?”

Tilghman had missed this decorative feature but did not have difficulty divining what it might be.

“You little dickhead. I lost my wingman last week. Got a wife and kid and he flamed out. So you take your intellectual bullshit and shove it back up your ass where it came from.”

So Tilghman does roughly that. Glances over at Craven, a man he knows not at all but who is the only ally within four hundred miles, finishes his food, and is only too willing to forego dessert. Back in the car Craven tries to give him some cover. “Pilots,” he says. “They’re all like that.

Tilghman makes some rueful noises and then allows that the word primordial was a little opaque in the context, and that’s about all there is to be said. Back in the BOQ he tries to write a letter to his wife, describe this desolate structure and a “run-in” he had with a pilot, but leaves the letter incomplete, thumbs through his stack of books without making a commitment, gets ready for bed, turns out the light, and listens to the waves.

How was he supposed to know about a wingman? Fuck that guy Conroy. What could he put in the world? What could he do besides pass a football, screw a cheerleader, and fly an airplane? What were they doing up there, anyway? Getting a cheap little thrill and clothing it in the false honor of war puffed with self-righteousness. So fuck that guy, and fuck his wingman, too, his wife and kid. Got what they deserved, all of them.

*  *  *  *  

Eberhart sits in the bare, unpainted room he calls his office and waits for the knock on his door. He’s doodling on a yellow legal pad. “You would think that God would relent,” he writes, and then, “You would think that man would repent.” Is it a poem or a prayer? Perhaps there is not that much difference between the two, and he’s interested enough in that speculation to jot down “Poem and prayer the same?” in the lower corner of the sheet. This feels good: private and unmarred by war, the doodling and the bourbon he is drinking out of his coffee cup. He’d prefer Johnnie Walker, but that is something marred by war; can’t get it these days, which Eberhart does not regard as an injustice.

The knock comes and it is Averill, who has requested this meeting. He stands stiffly at the door. “Sit down,” says Eberhart. “At ease.” He’d like to offer Averill a drink but it wouldn’t be wise. Averill is an enlisted man, probably underage, maybe even a Methodist or a Baptist. Certainly not an Episcopalian. Eberhart tries to remember what he knows about Protestant denominations on eastern Long Island.

“Sir?” says Averill. Eberhart’s attention had wandered.

“Yes,” says Eberhart. “You had questions about that stoppage? You did very well, by the way. A broken pawl spring. You’d listed that among the possibilities.”

“Yes, sir.” His lips are tight; his gray eyes seem sightless; his fingers are mauling his hat.

“Averill, for Christ’s sake. Sit down. What’s got you so spooked?”

Averill sits nervously on the edge of the somewhat battered ladder-back that Eberhart bought at a secondhand store when it became plain that a Navy-issue accommodation for visitors would not be forthcoming.

“Well,” Averill says, “did Stein do that, or did it just happen?”

Eberhart is, he reflects later, surprisingly slow on the uptake here. This is the third time Averill has asked him, and this time he’s doing it at considerable cost, judging from his demeanor, and Eberhart still doesn’t know why it matters so much. “I don’t think it should matter to you,” he says finally. “What matters is that you did the right thing, that you performed in a way that ensured the safety of your crew and restored your mount to operation.”

A line from the lesson plan, Eberhart realizes with dismay. He realizes, in fact, that he had looked forward a bit to this meeting, a chance to advise, a chance to bring the boy along, a chance to instruct. That it might be a conference. The irony was that if Averill were Van Wettering, there would be an hour’s worth of chitchat, enough easy bonhomie that by the end of it Eberhart would have almost certainly offered him a drink. Eberhart thinks he’s good with people like Van Wettering; for a while, in his younger days, Eberhart worked in a slaughterhouse and did just fine with his coworkers.

The lesson-plan bromides have had no effect. “Then what is it, Averill?”

“Well, does it happen a lot? In battle? Do the guns jam like that? Then what?”

So. At last. Eberhart gets it. Averill is too literal-minded to distinguish training from war, but why should he? You train me for war, tell me my life depends on the maintenance and operation of a Browning aircraft machine gun, and the first time I touch one, it jams. So what, Averill is asking, are my odds here? This is the moment for the old hand, the old warrior, to recount a few war stories, about how they used to fire the Browning for hours on end, brought down Zeros by the dozen, and it functioned so flawlessly and endlessly that they had to piss on the barrel to cool it, or something like that; about how he, personally, Eberhart, had never encountered so much as a hiccup from the gun when his life was on the line. The problem is that Eberhart’s life has never been on the line. His first time through this course he was a student; the next time, the teacher. Eberhart has never made a secret of any of this.

“Look, Averill. It doesn’t happen very much. I’ll get what maintenance statistics I can for you. Rather classified, so we’ll have to be careful. I think you’ll be reassured. In the meantime, learn everything you can. Be grateful to Stein. Be thankful you’re on our side. At this point, I don’t think German and Japanese kids are getting a whole lot of training before they head out to battle.”

At last, Averill relaxes, a little. Eberhart guesses that it was the promise of statistics that did it, guesses that the boy thinks in a rather quantitative manner. “Thank you, sir.”

It’s time for him to go, but he hasn’t moved.

“Anything more, Averill?”

“Well . . .”

This is getting a little irritating, having to prise out every word. “Yes?”

“It’s just that I can’t imagine it. Battle. The fury of it.”

Eberhart picks up his pencil, and tries to act as if he’s just doodling, but on his legal pads he writes the word fury, in something of a fury.

“No, I can’t imagine it either,” says Eberhart, and Averill nods. “This is all I can tell you. Man is stupid. Man is beyond stupid.”

Averill then does everything Eberhart could have asked for. He smiles, an odd, toothy grin, full of surprised delight, as if he had never expected such a simple way—for this moment anyway—to remove oneself from this fray. Would never have dreamed it was possible to position oneself beyond the reach of pure madness simply by uttering a word or two. To be consoled, if not saved; to understand the tragic difference between the two. Eberhart taught rich boys at St. Mark’s for eight years before the war, and he never once—or only rarely—had such a success. “Yes, right,” Eberhart says, but he means a good deal more. “We’ll leave it at that.”

And when Averill does literally that, Eberhart pours himself one more smoky half-shot and returns to his pad. “Stupid,” he writes down, and then, in that busy little corner of the page reserved for rhetorical notes: “Was man made stupid to see his own stupidity?” He likes this question, thinks it may migrate up the sheet unchanged, to the body of the poem forming in his mind; it strikes him as almost fanciful that this formulation came to him. He asks himself, but does not write down, What is this well of inspiration all about? From whence this voice?

It is time for dinner, which Eberhart now anticipates with gusto, and he rises from his desk smartly. Despite today’s patch of despair, he is happy with the life he is currently leading. He has lived several of the alternatives and has not found peace. He is loath to admit it, but his commission as a gunnery instructor could not have come at a more opportune time. Yet there is considerably more to his contentment than three hot squares: he likes willing, mortally willing, students; the Navy is “lifelike,” as he has recently written to a friend; he finds, to his surprise, that he’s “got a pretty darn good mind” for mechanical engineering. Despite being separated from his new wife from time to time—as he has been these past two months—the fellowship is splendid. It seems to him that in nearly fifteen years in the education biz, he has never had a group of colleagues whose minds and hearts he respects more than these.

When he reaches the officer’s club one of these pals, Meriweather, is standing at the door. Club is perhaps a hyperbolic word for this rickety, drafty shack; when the wind is blowing, little sifted cones of sand accumulate all along the eastern wall.

“Herr Professor,” says Meriweather, a thin-faced Virginian with a slight lisp. “Ink-stained from his labors on the next volume.” Eberhart has just been assigned the duty of writing a pocket manual on aerial gunnery, a sort of quick reference for gunners whose guns malfunction in flight.

Eberhart does not like to be teased about this project. Others think it is funnier for a poet to be assigned this task than he does. But Meriweather is a good egg. Everyone here is a good sport. Eberhart laughs.

“What’s the news?” he asks.

“Nothing much,” Meriweather answers. Sometimes this answer conceals battles involving hundreds of thousands of lives; sometimes it is an overstatement.

“Good. Let’s have a drink on that.”

They enter into the bar side by side; if one squints at bit, the place can look quite a bit like an English pub, a stage set dropped into a Quonset hut. Lassen and Lewis are there; Voight and Guter. Eberhart orders another bourbon and he and Meriweather take a seat with McKee and his wife, a honey-haired girl with a high forehead and a substantial nose. A good nose. They have a house in Norfolk, but she spends almost all her time here, at McKee’s side when possible. During the day she is often to be found reading in the lounge of the bachelor officer quarters. Lately she has been reading War and Peace.

“Is Prince Andrei still among the living?” asks Eberhart.

She blushes; her coloring does that easily and noticeably. “I know he dies,” she says, “but he hasn’t yet. He’s wounded.”

McKee doesn’t like this; he has not yet seemed to have decided on what he believes is an appropriate relationship between his fellow officers and his wife. In fact, Eberhart is not entirely sure what to make of her, a camp follower, why she spends her time like this. Still, he likes her; they all like having her around.

She says, “When does Elizabeth get back?”

The Eberharts are between houses, and his wife has been back in Boston, staying with her family. “A few weeks,” answers Eberhart. “Thank you for asking.”

McKee fidgets with his drink; he’s not ready to let something about the moment pass. “I really don’t see what literature has to do with this,” he says in a surly and confrontational manner, a non sequitur left over from an earlier conversation, a piece of gristle still lodged in McKee’s teeth. “What does some poem about a rodent have to do with this?” He has made a reference to one of Eberhart’s most successful early poems, “The Groundhog.”

“Henry,” says his wife. She puts her hand on his arm, and then flashes a look of apology at Eberhart. “Henry’s worried about his brother Tom. It’s been over a month.”

This mollifies McKee, but the challenge is not a question Eberhart would choose to answer anyway. He knows only that spirit is in the world as well as carnage but that carnage is obvious and spirit is clothed in mystery. Still, his revived cheer has gotten winged by McKee’s shot, and he finds himself broody and monosyllabic at dinner. He apologizes as he leaves the table, expresses concern to McKee about his brother—which seems a rather magnanimous gesture—and instead of heading back to his quarters in the BOQ, walks the sandy and wartime-blackened path back to his office, turns on the light and picks up his legal pad.

He would think the fury—thank you, Averill—of war would . . . would? (A poem or a prayer?) Would what? Well, rouse. Yes, rouse God to relent. Yet still silent. Eberhart is working in the privileged center of the sheet. Wouldn’t God give man to repent of this killing? No, Eberhart thinks—he’s not a religious man anyway—we are on our own here, silence from heaven, with only the metaphors of Cain left to guide us. “Was man made stupid to see his own stupidity?” Yes. “Is the eternal truth man’s fighting soul?”

He stops. This third quatrain is all questions, every one of them as unanswerable as McKee’s jab at him at dinner. Eberhart can hardly end a poem on a quatrain full of questions. The poet’s job, after all, is to answer questions or, at least, to turn questions into statements. McKee, not an unintelligent man, would swear off the arts for good if that’s all Eberhart could give him, this night in November of 1943.

*  *  *  *  

Tilghman is halfway on the road to becoming an expert on the 5″/38 gun and mount. He knows that THE STAND is firmly bolted to the deck. He knows that THE CARRIAGE ASSEMBLY carries the radial load caused by the firing of the guns. He keeps forgetting what a TRUNNION is. He feels pretty solid about WHAT THE BREECH MECHANISM MUST DO, which, basically, is to keep 40,000 psi of pressure heading out the muzzle of the barrel and not back into the faces of the men in the mount.

But now things are getting more difficult. THE DEBANGE GAS-CHECK SYSTEM. What the hell is that? He takes a moment to lean back in his desk chair, straighten his spine, wag his head from side to side. He happens to come from a long line of engineers, but he has received few of the practical talents of his forebears; in college he studied French literature. He goes back to the gunner’s mate manual under study and tries to understand what exactly M. DeBange contributed to naval gunnery. He reads a bit more and comes to this line: “Extraction of a cartridge case is a lot easier than the extraction of teeth.” Tilghman’s mind falls immediately into the hallucination of bad metaphor: a man’s head, mouth wide open, takes the place of the WELIN TYPE breechblock; MIGs are coming in low, but the crew is all gathered round, desperately trying to rip out a molar with a pair of vise grips. This is enough madness for one evening.

It is cold outside; the grains of sand sear off the dunes; the ocean is degrees of gray. If possible, the base has become even more depopulated than it was when he arrived. If this BOQ is actually being renovated, it is without the services of carpenters, electricians, or painters. Every once in a while during the day, out of the corner of his eye, he catches the khaki or navy blue movement of a sailor walking between one of those apparently decommissioned haze-gray structures that make up the main facilities of the base. Occasionally a car pulls up, idles for a minute, perhaps picks up or discharges a passenger, and then is gone. The Navy has either forgotten about this place or there is something very, very secret going on here, and Tilghman and his fellow gunnery students are merely providing a rather threadbare cover.

Whatever the truth of this, the only humans Tilghman encounters are the ten junior officers in the course, the two chief gunner’s mates who instruct them, and a Lieutenant Freely who stops in now and again to sprinkle the dust of command over this enterprise. This is clearly not a career-enhancing billet for Lieutenant Freely, especially because every one of the students is, like Tilghman, a Reserve junior officer, lately of Yale or Purdue or Vanderbilt, conspiring—thus far with success—to keep out of Vietnam.

Tilghman finds his mates companionable, a group of schoolboys thrown together in some third-rate boarding school on its last legs. At night they have taken to prowling around the BOQ, rifling through offices and storerooms. A few days earlier Craven found a footlocker full of undelivered letters with postmarks stretching back into the fifties, and for days they have been opening them and reading aloud the choicest bits. A sister is pregnant; the dog has been put down. Eckstein has discovered a talent for picking locks, and last night, after a week of trying, he gained access to the closet behind the bar. They found no liquor—they had already informally restocked the bar anyway. What they did find were boxes of party supplies, rolls of crepe paper and banners saying WELCOME HOME or SMOOTH SAILING; a case of party hats and false noses; noisemakers with matching napkins. Last night they bedecked the place with streamers and banners and held what they called a hat party. Everyone got hammered. At one point, Tilghman had arranged six or seven of them on his head: a bowler on his crown, purple cones over each ear. How long did it take before one of them—it hardly matters which—arranged a pair of the cones on his chest? They were all hung over in the morning.

Tilghman is now about two hundred pages into War and Peace. He circled the volume for a month or two, but from the moment he picked it up—out of respect for his stepfather as much as anything—this tale of a country laid to waste by war has called out to him. From the first line—“Eh bien, mon prince . . .”—he has been in its grasp. He is reading it not as history but as prophecy. In this familyless remove, he has offered himself for adoption to the Rostovs and the Bolkonskys. Natasha and dear, lovely Sonya, bundled in furs and peering out of the sleigh at night: these are the girls who will grow up to be his wives. None of them knows what catastrophes will befall them, how all they value will seem to be crushed, how it will survive. Tilghman knows that Prince Andrei will die and that Pierre will marry Natasha at the end; these are the truths that await him.

Tilghman is now never to be seen without his copy, volume 1 of the Penguin edition, Rosemary Edmonds translation. During the endless class his fingers itch for the volume; he skips breakfast in order to read. Sometimes he raises his head from the page and is utterly unable to figure out where he is, a dislocation that would not be so marked if he weren’t in a place so removed from his own life and time. He is a capsule. He suspects that he will never again in his life be witness and subject to the power of narrative to this extent. He will spend much of his professional life trying to recapture these days of avidity. Every time he turns a page he encounters a new instant of his own identity. Last night, at the hat party, one of the skits was Tilghman with his nose buried in a book. It will go thus for the rest of his time at Dam Neck. He will read more and more slowly as the end of his gunnery course and the end of his book draw near, as his training ends and he heads out for service at sea. Strange, thinks Pierre Bezukov, the absurd nobleman in a green swallow-tailed coat and white hat, out for an adventure during the Battle of Borodino; strange, he thinks, that the men trooping by his carriage had taken time to stare at him with such naive, childlike curiosity. “Of those men,” Pierre thinks, “twenty thousand are doomed to die, and they can still find it in them to wonder at my hat!” Pierre’s observation is a question, but Tilghman, of course, has no answer.

In all these weeks, Tilghman has successfully avoided coming face-to-face with Conroy, the righteous and belligerent pilot from that first dinner at Oceana. He saw him a few times across the vast dining room; but then not again, which made sense as there was word the squadron had shipped out. Tilghman thinks this is so, but all these pilots look the same, these perfectly proportioned visages, so he keeps looking for Conroy. Where are the pilots with big ears, crooked teeth, birthmarks? For a time the incident had entered into the lore of his cohort, had marked him as a somewhat clueless intellectual, and had earned him the nickname “Professor,” which, actually, he didn’t mind at all. It was an embarrassing moment, best forgotten quickly, but in fact, it has been with him daily. It has been with him page by page through War and Peace, and from time to time he has pictured Conroy busting into his room, yanking the book from his hand, and with his face inches from Tilghman’s, spittle flying, screaming that there is a real war going on, that real men are dying, something of which Tilghman is well aware.

Most of time, the daydream ends with this. But there are other Conroys in his thoughts. In these cases, Tilghman wipes the spittle off his face and tells one of the other Conroys to sit down, and he does; he’s leery, but needy enough to do what he’s told. Tilghman picks up his book, smoothes the ruffled pages; Conroy looks at it, gives an apologetic shrug. Tilghman tells him that he is sorry he lost a friend; he hopes the wife and kid are doing okay. Conroy nods. Tilghman tells him that he cannot imagine combat, battle, war; he cannot imagine the fury of it. Finally, Conroy relents all the way: “I’ve been training for a year and a half,” he says. “I’m a good pilot. It’s fun, you know. But . . .” he stops. “But what,” says Tilghman, certain that in this “what” there is the never-ending “why.” “But what? What?”

*  *  *  *  

It is now February at Dam Neck, so cold this winter that the shore is laced with ice. Eberhart’s wife has rejoined him and they live the life of young marrieds in a sweet little bungalow in Virginia Beach. Eberhart’s Free Gunner’s Hand Book has been published and is considered a success; certainly, he has received more unqualified praise for it, much more, than he has for the two volumes of poetry he published before the war. It may have even saved a life, made something happen, which, as Eberhart reflects, is precisely what Auden recently said a poem had never done. In his time at Dam Neck he has trained hundreds of young gunners. He can’t keep any names straight anymore, but in his memory they appear not as a composite or generic American lad but as a mad shuffling of snapshots: noses, hair, weak chins and Irish jaws; soft skin and pockmarked cheeks. They’re all there, like wanted posters, such unlikely faces for this business.

Eberhart is finishing his workday with his weekly meeting of instructors, all of them now junior to him and nominally under his command. They’re gathered in a drafty but sunny schoolroom furnished with two-person desks; the walls are covered with exploded diagrams of machine guns and posters about keeping military secrets. All of his pals from last fall have long gone to new facilities. Meriweather is on the West Coast. McKee and his studious bride have fallen out of his ken, but he hopes that she is well, that she finished War and Peace. Lassen and Lewis are in England.

They have just completed the scheduling for the coming week, and Eberhart has asked for questions.

“When do we expect the resupply of live rounds?” asks Voight, one of the few holdovers.

Eberhart has the answer to this vexing question, and to the several complaints and confusions that follow. He stands, in fact, as supremely competent, unusually well informed, outstanding. There’s skill here, mastery and knowledge, a useful function. One could be lured away from the arts at a time like this.

“Any other questions?” he asks, picking up his sheaf of papers and tapping them into a neat pile.

There are no further questions, but one of this week’s brand-new officers, Taylor or Tyler, says, “There’s a new list up. I knew you’d want to know.”

He says this trying to sound like an old hand yet with the appropriate amount of deference for a rookie; it’s what young people do when experience is both cheap and deadly. Still, he’s all wrong. Everyone knew there was a new list up and no one wanted to know. There’s always a new list up; that’s war’s true product, lists of the dead. Each man had his own attitude toward the lists, his own ritualized way of reading it; a series of private, momentary wakes. Eberhart knows this is true, although of course no one has ever said so, because he himself has his own ceremony about the list.

No one says anything to Tyler (or Taylor), who is recognizing that he’s bombed, and he looks a little hurt. Eberhart feels, out of a kindness of which he has quite little to spare, that he ought to take the lad aside, but when he sees that perplexed, needy look—how hard actually is this whole thing to figure out anyway?—he recoils. Let him find his own knowledge; let madness hurt him into wisdom, Eberhart thinks. Friends are coming to dinner; bourbon must be bought, and two dozen oysters. But there is time for him to get this duty out of the way, so on his way to his car he stops in at the personnel office.

A couple of officers are standing in front of the list, silent. It is relatively short, ten names perhaps. Eberhart, always sensitive about his height, has to stand on tiptoes. As always, he reads one name at a time, never a quick mad glance looking for vague patterns of letters that might pop off the page. Eberhart tries not to wince at the first name on the list; at the last name, he feels the sort of searing regret that comes from the little mistakes, trivial errors that nevertheless grow in magnitude as the time passes.

Eberhart goes back to his office to close up, but instead of a quick last perusal of his affairs, he takes off his hat and coat, hangs them on the hook behind the door, sits down at his desk. He sits without motion for quite a while and then reaches for the drawer, the drawer no one knows about, the one that has, these past fourteen months, contained the full scope and degree of his literary life: poems finished then rewritten, rejections from quarterlies and notes of encouragement from editors and friends, the occasional acceptance from a place instantly lesser than his ambitions, doodlings, poems begun and abandoned. He finds the right yellow sheets.

At the end of that almost inspired evening of work last year he had titled the unfinished poem “The Fury of Aerial Bombardment.” He reads it now, sees words and lines that make him cringe, much work left to be done, but with gratitude he encounters that third stanza full of questions. He does not know the answers to them any better than he did six months ago, but he knows better now why he asked them.

He picks up his pencil, wets the lead like an English clerk, and writes, “Of Van Wettering I speak, and Averill, / Names on a list, whose faces I do not recall / But they are gone to early death, who late in school / Distinguished the belt feed lever from the belt holding pawl.”

*  *  *  *  

Some years after Tilghman has completed his extremely undistinguished stint as a gunnery officer on a supply ship, he is given the opportunity to meet the poet Richard Eberhart. Tilghman and his wife are now living in New Hampshire, and the occasion of this meeting, of all things, is a luncheon at Eberhart’s house in Hanover before a Dartmouth-Yale football game. Tilghman is now an aspiring fiction writer, with success of any sort many years in the future, but still he anticipates this gathering with a certain amount of swagger. It has been arranged by Tilghman’s stepfather.

By now Tilghman is acquainted with Eberhart’s work and with his signature poem of the Second World War, and has noted especially the fact that they both did winters in Dam Neck, twenty-five years apart to the month. Ever since the invitation to this lunch came, Tilghman has planned how to say that he too learned gunnery at Dam Neck, spent a winter on the sands, and that he too saw a name on a list, and that it was strange because he had passed by this slowly lengthening roll of honor on his way to breakfast, lunch, and dinner for six months but had only stopped to look at it the last night he was there, and that the paint—for this was no mere typescript, but a roll for the ages—was still wet on the most recent name, the only pilot whose name he had ever known. Tilghman has practiced describing to Eberhart how moved, how spooked he was by this occurrence, but now the day is upon him and Richard Eberhart is standing before him and this event, like everything from those months at Dam Neck so oddly crucial to his decision to make his first stab at serious writing, seems like nothing but coincidence, at best a mere analogy. What might Eberhart say? So Tilghman says nothing of what he had planned, of Averill and Van Wettering, of Conroy, of War and Peace, of winter beaches and deserted BOQ’s, of the consolations of art. He asks instead, as Tilghman recalls it, for a prediction about the game.

“Dartmouth, of course,” says Eberhart, the once student and now longtime professor. “We have the best lads.”

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