Monday, November 19, 2007
WRITTEN WORD 26 - Where to Begin?
Almost everything on the south side of Atlanta was unfashionable, including this ranch house where I had just rented a room, the house near the only thing on the south side that seemed to have style, which strangely was Ft. McPherson, which looked like a stage set but was an actual army installation where I was nominally posted as an actual draftee. Third Army Headquarters. Tidy brick buildings with big screen porches built around what was now mainly a parade ground but was intended as a place for polo matches.
I was supposed to be here at Ft. McPherson writing press releases which were often sent to home town papers saying some peacetime private had completed some phase of some silly training program for something unneeded, but more and more they were releases that used selective quotes to attack the Air Force’s missile program. There was no NASA yet and Russia had sent up Sputnik and taken what seemed like a insurmountable lead in what was now called “the space race,” and the army like the air force had had its old Nazi scientists working away on rockets, and now maybe the regular army – which got no respect from the draftees – would have something to keep its reluctant citizan-soldiers employed in this time well after Korea and well before Vietnam.
The draftees had it easy because the officers' futures was hazy and many believed that among the draftees were young, educated men they would have to approach when looking for jobs one day soon. And I had done a deal with the first sergeant – one of a group of bright and worldly old NCOs, sersious World War II soldiers and also skilled adminstrators, who had maneuvered their way to Fort McPherson and were in the army as their best possible career choice because of finding themselves back in the twenties or thirties in dust bowl places and worse. I was the troop information officer, though I had not made PFC. I gave lectures each week in exchange for which I could do pretty much anything I wanted, including living away form the post. In the lectures I drove everyone crazy by talking about how the awful Eisenhower was spending his days with rich segregationists on South Carolina golf courses while here in the deep South, the Klan was castrating and hanging black men and no troops had arrived yet to enforce the still fairly new law of the land that forbade school segregation.
And I was working full time too at the old United Press, which was one of the places to which they sent the press releases I occasionally wrote during my occasional appearances in the Third Army Public Information Office. I had the releases sent to the newsroom at UP, and when they arrived I threw them out along with the usual stack of releases about losing ventures that were on my desk. And I was covering the packed civil rights movement meetings, held in black churches, meetings which practically no one else in white journalism in Atlanta had covered yet. And sometimes I went north to Buckhead for dinner with socialite cousins, Jack and Mary Izard, who talked at their festive dinner table about how happy the darkies were in the South, talking this way while being served by their own darkles, one of whom I thought I recognized, and thought may have recognized me, from the civil rights meetings.
Through the cousins I was going to debutante parties – the idea for me being girls like girls in Fitzgerald novels. And there was beautiful Bunny, the Coca Cola heiress, married to my college friend Tony, who was put in charge of the big old Atlanta Biltmore Hotel, which was owned by her family and where we spent many evenings listening to a burly, cornball singer – and also did wakes at their suite the two times that a baby of Bunny’s died. And it was also to the Atlanta Biltmore that I would go late at night to pick up Ann, a platinum blonde from Connecticut whom I first saw professionally and then as her sort of boyfriend, picked her up late at the Biltmore after she had been turning tricks there. And although I seemed to be working all the time I also had time for a tragic love affair with a glowing, misunderstood olive-skin wife of an army friend.
I found a tiny basement apartment with its own entrance in the back of a big Victorian building that faced on Peachtree Street – this basement the sort of bohemian setting that seemed right for who I wanted to be. But at the start I had that room in that mere ranch house. The landlady was the perennially hung-over widow of a major. The place was filled with glass cases containing cheap curios they had collected while posted to Bavaria – figures of little lederhosen-clad men with accordions and also cute pre-Nazi German soldiers and dear little bears and kittens. And another room was rented to a draftee from Alabama who drove a pink Chevrolet with wide fins. Before I stopped going anywhere with him – stopping because he had taken to yelling “Nigger” from his car window – I had double dated with him, two delicate, sweet-smelling blonde girls. One of them said she had flunked out of Eastern Airline’s stewardess school. I said that was lucky since stewardesses were such shallow people – which was not something I believed but something my twin brother had said recently. I was shocked, not just because as I spoke I saw all chance of sex disappearing but also because I had heard my own brother speaking through my voice.
I was feeling old. I thought of my summers in Europe, and of my brief career as a journalist covering right-wing politics in Indiana and also plunging into the new, to me, beat generation world up in Chicago – jazz and political humor as well as strip bars. I wrote snotty letters east about the pitiful state of people who did not have a base in New York.
I wanted to be a writer. I was far, far from so many stories but I would, however, work on it. I would start with my roots – not with colleage age adventurse, or times in Europe, or the McCarthyite Midwest, or the time just before the army in Cuba looking for Castro, or this amazing time right now Atlanta. Instead I would go back to the root of all family legends, the White Mountains of new Hampshire, where I had spent so many summers, and first fallen in love. I decided I had to capture every sight and sound – Mount Lafayette looming in the distance, the long formal dining table in the huge family summer house White Pines, where servants made the ice cream turning a crank by hand on the back pantry porch and the family people put on tuxedos and gowns for dinner – the smell of coal by the steps leading to the house’s restaurant size kitchen – sights and sounds from childhood, not even getting into love and discovery and trouble in adolescence. I thought if I could get the family setting right I would really have done something on the road to being a novelist. Actually I had written an unpublishable novel while in Indianpolis, but I was still at the starting point.
My big distraction from writing, those nights after UPI when I locked myself away to make myself this great writer, was reading Irish history – not even thinking about how my mother ranted, to my horror when I was very small in Connecticut, about the dirty Irish. Everything was hopeless in her boozy rantings. The war would never end and no one would ever be happy, and if the Irish did not take over the world the Jews or worse would. I didn’t even put my mother in this grand house in New Hampshire I was writing about. I left her in our less formal house in Connecticut. And although I read Irish history, I did not write a word about my times upstairs alone with the radio in the Connecticut house, where there was almost no music—only a living room radio tuned to the Metropolitan on Saturday afternoons when my father lay on a sofa with an ice pack on his head. I did not write a word about how I had fastened onto the Irish music that was so much on the air waves then – so far from anything in that family. Swinging on a gate with my sister Kate (I had no sister) when Irish eyes are smiling(I knew no real Irish much less smiling ones ) – seeing the sun go down on Galway Bay (though in this family it is supposed to be the mountains, not the sea).
Ireland from my distant past with the radio – nothing comparable to the formal mountain house. And I didn’t write about Indianapolis or Atlanta, or even my boarding school days, boarding school where I discovered I would not forever be seen as bad and dumb.
And just now between Indianapolis and Atlanta I had been defying death in Cuba on the tiny fishing boats that go out past sight of land, or the Sierre Maestra where fat sweating Batista men surrounded herded me in with their tommy guns. And the bars and brothels and dance halls. But in the night I read Irish history, and though of Irish music, even if not ready yet to openly take on music I loved.
I was bogged down trying to write about the White Mountians. White Pines had made much sense in my head, and on paper was a quagmire.
Then I started writing about that guy’s wife – so smart and lovely and so ready for the world – this clouded love affair I was in. For a time I was able to forget all the rest.