Robert Haydon Jones
and Matthew Levine

You could look it up.”
Matthew Levine
Gray’s Creek

Inspiration Piece

Military­ Age Male
By Robert Haydon Jones

An English Professor and critic I know asked me out for lunch the other day to discuss my two latest published stories, ”The Visitor” and “Petunia – Naked”,  which went up on Spark 8 a while back.

The professor has compared me to Cheever, Shaw and O’Hara in his posted comments. “His weary, wisdomed, battlefield voice in the midst of a suburban world charts new space.”  Well, of course, I revel in such praise even if I don’t believe it  ‐‐ and you can’t beat the steak sandwich at The Harvard Club.

Over coffee, he asked me what story I was working on and I told him I was planning to write about a man who exaggerates his military service.  “Interesting” he said. “I remember a Major League baseball manager who was found out – and was fired as a result. And, a few months ago, Blumenthal, the Attorney General from Connecticut, who is running for the Senate, was caught lying about serving in Vietnam in the Marines. I look forward to your story – if anyone can figure out what drives such men to pretend they were in combat ‐‐ you can.”

The professor meant this as a compliment of course. To me, the former Marine, with the weary, wisdomed, battlefield voice. The professor is an interesting, discerning, good guy. I am proud he has praised my stories. I worry what will happen when he reads this.

This thread begins in late 1943 when I was about five. That’s when I saw the photo in Life magazine that would change my life forever. When I was about 35, I tried to write a poem about it. The first line went:

First photo of war dead sprawled in random rat-a-tat-tat.”

The poem sort of trailed away after that ‐‐ but if you are interested in seeing the photo ‐‐ as Casey Stengel used to say, “You could look it up.”

Anyway, three dead GI’S are sprawled on Buna Beach in New Guinea right at the water’s edge. The tide has been in and out. The men are half‐buried in wet sand. They are lying in a small, serried, rank. (They may have been maintaining what is known in infantry parlance as “the proper interval.”)

There are jagged rents in their clothing where bullets have struck them. One of the dead men is on his back, his right arm flung over his head, the palm slightly cupped, very natural looking, very exposed. The right leg of the dead man closest to the camera is bent at a grotesque angle. Many years later I would conclude that he was dead before he hit the ground and his leg snapped as he went down.

Well, the picture shocked me as if I had stuck my entire hand in a wall socket.  I had never seen dead people before. Also, just a week back, we had received word that my second cousin, Ray, had been killed on Guadalcanal. They sent a telegram and a Gold Star. Ray’s body was lost forever.

Even so, it was the three anonymous GI’s who fascinated me. I gazed at the picture again and again. They were dead – they would never live again. It seemed quite monstrous to me and very shocking. They had no future. They had lost their lives. They were killed trying to keep our country and children like me safe. I felt a surge of love and grief for them. I wanted to be with them right away, right on that beach. I wanted to kill the dirty Japs. I wished I were old enough to become a Marine like my cousin, Ray. I wished I were old enough to fight.

Most people alive today don’t know that at that point (September, 1943) the War was going badly for us. We were losing in Europe – it looked like nothing could stop the Nazis. In the Pacific, the Japanese had taken the Philippines, Java, Singapore and Indo China. Allied troops had surrendered by the tens of thousands and were dying in droves in ghastly prison camps.

At home here on the east coast, we had to go through Air Raid drills – and use blackout curtains and even blackout paint on car headlights. The Germans had bombed Warsaw and Russia and were blitzing London. Thousands and thousands of civilians were being killed in their own homes. I was very frightened. No, that’s not true. Actually, I was terrified.

My friends and I played war in a tidal marsh near my home. It was like the Pacific.  It was a beautiful, forsaken, place. There were five graves there from a failed 17th century settlement that had been ravaged by cholera. A sixth grave with just a jagged rock for a headstone was said to contain the body of an English soldier killed during a running battle in the vicinity in 1777.

We hollowed out fighting positions in the soft hummocks. Some times according to the improvised choreography of a particular engagement with the dirty Japs or the stinking Krauts, I would be declared a casualty and I would fall down dead. I was always careful to arrange myself in my last moments after I hit the ground so that my right leg was bent at the signature grotesque angle.

We fought hard almost every day. There were usually twelve of us.  A squad. All of the boys who fought along side me back then are dead men now. The lonely grave of the lonely, dead, nameless, English, solider from 1777 was an essential part of our tableaus. You might say he presided over our ceremonies.

Also, one my little brothers found a hiltless sword in the marsh. The local historian told him it was an English officer’s sword from the 18th century. The sword further confirmed our marsh as an official battleground. We took it very seriously. I guess you can tell I still do.

Right after Thanksgiving, my mother’s brother, my Uncle Sean, enlisted in the Army Air Force. Uncle Sean was only 17 – but his mother, my beautiful, Irish grandmother, signed the papers ‐‐ in fact she had prodded him to go. Uncle Sean was a tall, slim, very handsome lad – like my grandmother, he had the “black Irish” look. Fair skin, jet black hair and piercing blue eyes.

I was surprised he got in the Army Air Force. He had almost died of rheumatic fever when he was 14 and I thought it was supposed to weaken your heart. Uncle Sean planned to study music and art history in college. He was an accomplished piano player and had a beautiful tenor voice. He was very kind to me.

When he came back from Training in his uniform, he had wings but he wasn’t a pilot. He washed out of flight school because of his heart – he had become a bomber gunner – in fact he was rated the best gunner in his whole class. After this leave, he was going overseas to fly in bombers from bases in England.

I was very frightened for him. We took walks. He held my hand as we did. He had a really neat flyer’s leather jacket. Once, we walked all the way up Brown’s Hill to a friend’s house. Uncle Sean picked up some gravel and tossed it at a second story window. His friend flung up the sash and started cursing. Well, Uncle Sean yelled at him to mind his language because of Yours Truly.

The morning that he left to go back to the Army Air Force, Uncle Sean sat at the piano in his uniform and played and sang a favorite song of mine, “Tit Willow.”  He had a lovely voice and the sun was streaming through.  I asked him not to go. He told me he wanted to go and that he would write me letters.

The happy ending is that Uncle Sean came back – in fact, he never went overseas. He had such a bad heart – and he was such a good gunner that they kept him in  New Mexico as a Gunnery Instructor.

During the War, I visited next door with Mr. Beauchamp, who was in the Merchant Marine. He would bring me little trinkets. He was torpedoed twice. Once, he spent 18 days in an open boat in the Bering Sea.

When the War ended people were so happy. Almost everyone got a little tipsy. Afterward, a lot of men from the neighborhood reappeared.

My fourth grade teacher was blown off the bridge of his destroyer into the sea off Okinawa by a Kamikaze attack.

I talked to a man who was in a bomber that blew up over Germany and he fell 22,000 feet and landed safe in a haystack.

The football coach at the high school had been blown out of a tank in Normandy.

I went ice fishing (and rum drinking) with a man who was drafted, trained, flown to Belgium and trucked to the front as a replacement during the Battle of the Bulge. After just 20 minutes in his foxhole, he was wounded by mortar shrapnel and evacuated clear back to the States.

To say, I admired these men is putting it mildly. They were my heroes. I only wish that they could have reassured younger people like me that they were confident we also would have measured up if we were of age. There was an ugly doubt in my mind about that.

Well, it wasn’t really all that long before Korea started up. Two vets from my street had stayed in the Marine Reserves and they were called up. They died in Korea. Later, we learned they were fighting in the dead of winter in summer issue.

I was really big for my age. When I was 15, Korea was still going on and I was on a train back from prep school with a buzz cut for football and a sultry girl, a little older than me, asked me if I was in the Service. I told her that I was a Marine just back from Korea. She was real impressed. She lived in my hometown and she offered to give me a ride home when her father picked her up.

I don’t know why I lied – it just popped out of me. The girl was a real beauty…I guess I just took a desperate chance – and it worked. But then when her father did pick us up, it turned out he had been a Major in the Marines in WW2. He asked me some questions in a friendly way ‐‐‐ and I could tell he knew I was a faking.

It was real embarrassing – but he didn’t say anything. In fact, I went out with the girl, Brenda, a few times during the holidays. I was just starting to make some progress with her when an older guy, a junior at Yale, beat me out.

Then I turned 17 – and I enlisted in the Marines. My mother signed the papers on the condition that I could train in the summers and go to college and then serve my time out as an officer after gradation.

So, I went to and through Parris Island and a lot of other training.  Korea was over. Vietnam hadn’t started. So we did War Games, which in many ways reminded me of the games we played in the marsh back home.

Once, I remember I was the point man for my platoon and I came to an open area in the woods that I had to cross.  As I went across, I just knew that “the enemy” had eyes on me – and sure, enough when I was about half way across, they opened up on me (with blanks) and I was declared a KIA. I had to lie there for almost an hour.  I am embarrassed to tell you that I did bend my right leg to the grotesque angle.

So, I did all this training and put up with the usual chicken shit. It was hard for me.  I am a total spastic at technical things. (Like field stripping weapons, making up packs, even making up my bed the right way.) What saved me was that I am a very good athlete and I am a natural crack shot. But, the Marines was real hard for me.

I got married when I was 19 and I had 2 kids by the time I was 22 – so when suddenly the Marines offered an early Honorable Discharge to Regulars and to Reserves like me as part of an economy program, I jumped at it.

So I was out. I had to turn in my dress uniforms – but I kept all of my fatigues (including some, prized, “salty” WW2 issue) and my boots. Plus I had the nomenclature and the experience. Rather suddenly, I was a “Former Marine.”

Well, it wasn’t long before Vietnam got real serious. (There’s a famous photo of a Marine setting fire to a Vietnamese civilian’s thatched roof house with a Zippo.  That Marine had been a buddy of mine in basic.) So, naturally, I felt the old doubt about myself. I felt I should be there with them – even though I had every right not to be there with them.

As Vietnam spooled on and on for years and years, my old doubt morphed into pervasive shame. It was very unpleasant. Then I was flying on a business trip and the man next to me asked if I had been in the Service. I said, yes, I had been in the Marines.

He asked if I had been in Vietnam and I said, “Yes.”  He asked me to tell him about it and I told him about it. He thanked me for my service. I felt a lot better. I realize now that my story wasn’t so much for my seatmate as it was for me.

Well, I told variations of that story for years. And I felt a lot better every time. What the hell, I am a storyteller by trade.

I called the professor today and told him I had finished this story. We are going to have lunch a week from today. Hopefully, this will be up on Spark 9 by then.  The professor tells me he’s looking forward to seeing it.  He says,  “Liar stories can make great reading.”


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  1. Posted October 5, 2010 at 12:31 am | #

    Moving story about a side of war that’s rarely written about. Admiration, longing heart, fear one can’t measure up to one’s hero’s, stretching the thing so you become who you’ve dreamed of becoming, feeling better because of the lie, then the pang of shame following the untruth. Somehow I never stopped pulling for the guy — his heart was in it, even though he never got to be in for real.

  2. Posted October 5, 2010 at 3:30 pm | #

    The watercolour “Gray’s Creek” by Matthew Levine, is simply beautiful. And inspirational. Love the colours, the shapes, the light, the shadows. The more one beholds it, the more one sees. Some paintings really lift one into another realm. This one did it for me!

  3. Posted October 5, 2010 at 8:38 pm | #

    There’s nothing like a good war story, even a “yearned for” one. It stirs up my memories of the 40’s and the feelings of that era.
    Nicely done!

    Mathew, Your painting is “magical”.

  4. Posted October 5, 2010 at 8:56 pm | #

    Someone once told me, “Never tell the truth. It’s bad taste.” Or, as the Italians say, “Se non è vero, e ben trovato.” Even if it’s not true, it’s a great story.
    T. E. Lawrence was a compendious liar, yet he wrote some of the most gripping war accounts in history. Jones does the same, but with honesty. Such self-revelation takes as much courage as does combat.

  5. Posted October 7, 2010 at 2:52 am | #

    I really like the watercolor. Wish it was hanging in my office. Also, this line: “Well, of course, I revel in such praise even if I don’t believe it ‐‐ and you can’t beat the steak sandwich at The Harvard Club.” A great way to take the air out of yourself, we should all have it on our walls as well.

  6. Posted October 12, 2010 at 10:51 pm | #

    Nobody tells lies except conservatives. This story has the elements of my definition of a lie to wit ” A lie is a dream that might come true”.Jones has the abandon of the true story teller he flings the words about like demented confetti and some how they connect and float to earth in good order and proper intervals .In this story he makes us feel the agony of war and the utter loneliness of death in far foreign fields and the bravado of those of us who would defecate in our trousers at the sound of gunfire.Lies ! The man who never told a lie has nothing to say.

  7. Posted October 14, 2010 at 7:56 pm | #

    Dual inspirations. The creek is very close to home. The tale honorably honest.

  8. Posted December 6, 2010 at 2:16 am | #

    Wonderful story with all the honor of an honest liar. Felt it all. Thanks!