My father, Robert Klein, was a veteran of World War II.
At the too-young age of 17 he enlisted in the Navy and served in the Pacific. When I asked him why the Navy and not the Army, he said he’d rather sail on a ship than march through the mud.
He came back from the war in one piece and lived a long and I believe mostly satisfying life. He didn’t talk much about his experiences, but when there was an old war movie on television, he’d stop at that channel and watch. I would join him. I remember asking him if he was afraid of getting killed and he said he didn’t think about it much.
I have favorite stories about war, soldiers, and veterans. One of the most powerful is Tim O’Brien’s On the Rainy River, included in his novel in stories “The Things They Carried.” There’s also Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms” on my list. And a propulsive contemporary novel, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.” I’ve also read a lot of books, both fiction and nonfiction, about World War II.
I think a lot of my interest lies in wondering how I would have handled the job of a combat soldier. I was fortunate to have missed the war experience—too young for Vietnam, too old for the Gulf wars. I don’t know if I would have made a good soldier in my youth. I think I’d do a much better job in the face of fire now.
But who can be sure? All I have is my imagination, which I put to use in my novel, “Still Life,” about an adult son reluctantly reconnecting with his father after years of estrangement (no such thing happened to me).
Here are a few short excerpts:
I’ve always known my father was brave. At age twenty he traveled by troop ship to the other side of the world. He crawled into man-eating jungles ripe with slaughter. He shot and got shot at. He slept in the mud with snakes while mortars reddened the tropical night. He bled among corpses, praying to join them or not.
As for being a hero, my father never wanted to be one, but I did, as a kid, although there was no war for me. And I wasn’t brave enough, anyway. I wanted the glory without getting my blood spilled. My war experience consists of watching movies and those black-and-white documentaries on television late at night, when everyone else is asleep. My favorite is a series called World at War. I learned all about the Normandy invasion, the Battle of the Bulge, Midway and Guadalcanal. There was an episode about the brilliant Nazi field marshal, Erwin Rommel, who was called the Desert Fox. Another one on Patton, a hard-nosed bastard, but effective. I saw lots of aerial shots from the bomb ports of B-52s, the jelly-bean bombs disappearing into a grid of factories, the silent puffs of smoke that followed. I watched ground shots of whistling artillery and soldiers running for their lives—or toward their deaths. I stared at the relentless grind of tanks, their treads mince-meating the landscape. I was mesmerized by the slow-pan aftermaths of burnt-out cities and smoking, sinking ships. I tried putting myself in those films, among the firepower and fleeing soldiers and black blood, but could not. I would have shivered with shell shock. I would have hid in holes. What can I have in common with my father—a man who earned combat stripes and a Purple Heart?
One more passage from “Still Life” . . .
He wasn’t one of those veterans who clammed up when asked about the war, averting his eyes inward where perhaps he had buried the human wreckage of it in a dark room in his soul. When my father spoke about the war he always talked about the landscape.
“We’d approach these islands and I could see white sand on the beaches and a turquoise sea,” he once told me. “Sometimes the sun was just coming up and the world was red. And the palm trees were tall and curved, reaching out of the jungle like welcoming arms—it was hard to believe there were snipers in those trees. Vinny, these views are what they take pictures of for postcards. The islands were a tropical paradise—until we landed on them.”
I asked him the question everyone wants to ask of those who’ve been to war: Did you ever kill anyone?
He hesitated before answering. “No, I don’t think so.”
I didn’t believe him. He’d been in combat for months.
I wanted to hear of hand-to-hand heroic battles, my father charging valiantly into the line of fire, wiping out an enemy battery, but he would have none of that talk. When I asked him to tell me how he got wounded, he said, “I was shot.”
He let me look at his scar, a tornadoed patch of flesh between his pelvic bone and spine. It didn’t look like a bullet hole; it wasn’t round at all. It was blotchy, like a broken egg, and mostly white, except one part that ridged and rippled and was red. It was gross, but I touched it, anyway. I think he wanted me to.