I read an abbreviated version of this essay last Summer in the North Carolina Independent. I liked it so much I wrote to William Trotter and asked to see the longer piece from which it came. He kindly sent it, noting: “I learned last week that a friend of mine who teaches English in a German university in the Ruhr used the piece, in Xerox form, for one of his seminar courses on American culture; seems the German kids found all this typically American obsession with macho mythologies, firearms, etc., to be about as exotic as the daily habits of Venusians, so totally removed from their own adolescent experiences were the things I described. He also said they really ‘ate up’ the piece, which I shall take as a compliment until and unless he disillusions me in another letter.”
In the recent film, “Red Dawn,” director John Milius graphically portrays an invasion of the American heartland by Communist forces — Cuban and Soviet paratroops. On the day of the attack, a group of high school students escapes to a nearby part of the Rockies. By mid-film, they have evolved into a devastatingly effective guerrilla force called the “Wolverines.” They bushwhack convoys, liberate hostages, plant bombs, execute traitors — the whole Battle-of-Algiers schtick. At the matinee screening that I attended, the theater was packed with bloodthirsty, actually howling, adolescents; from press commentary, I understand that this vociferous response was a nationwide phenomenon.
The last time a movie like this could possibly have been made in America would have been precisely coincident with my own adolescence — the Eisenhower years and the first year of the Kennedy administration. Milius realized on the screen a fantasy that had been common among my own circle of high school friends. As I glanced around the theater, I was hit by a double-whammy of insight: that fantasy, which we had thought at the time was nurtured only among ourselves, must have been a universal one; not only that, but to judge from the rabid, chair-pounding response of the teenagers in the theater with me, it had again become a common fantasy, only now it was a communal, societal, and almost “official” fantasy.
We kept our guerrilla fantasies to ourselves. Our parents would surely, and quite properly, have been appalled at some of our activities, and there was never any sense among us of wanting, or needing, to go public. At sixteen and seventeen, we were still interested in playing soldier, but that impulse was confined, with an almost sexual sense of propriety, to a small circle of intimate friends. There was always a profound and irreconcilable gap between the fantasy and what went on in the Real World, and we all knew it. I have a feeling it was healthier that way; when I saw “Red Dawn,” I realized that a private and relatively innocent part of my adolescence had become tribalized on a mass scale, and from that fact flowed a palpable undercurrent of menace that had never been there for us.
Our knowledge of warfare and our surprisingly elaborate attempts to understand and come to terms with it did not come from our schooling. The textbook we used in my senior course in American history glossed over the military aspects of World War Two in a few glib paragraphs. The strategies which decided nothing less than the fate of civilization received less space than the Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act. Such an editorial priority still strikes me as bizarre. Still, if we did not learn anything substantive about warfare from our formal curriculum, we absorbed much from the general culture.
At the crudest end of the spectrum, the flag-waving, gung-ho, John Wayne school of war movies was still very active in the early fifties, and we saw everything that played in town. But films of this obviously propagandistic ilk were already going out of style by the time we were old enough to go to the movies by ourselves.
During the mid-fifties we absorbed a whole spate of movies derived from the Korean War, and their tone was decidedly less tub-thumping than the World War Two movies had been. The last of the genre appeared as late as 1959: “Pork Chop Hill.” A no-nonsense, quasi-documentary treatment of a classic book by S.L.A. Marshall, the film managed to convey a real sense of the tactical pressures and vectors of political force that often shape command decisions in the middle of a large-scale engagement.
All of us were readers, too, and we read as many war books as we saw war movies. We ate up trash novels like Leon Uris’ Battle Cry. Much superior, we all agreed, was Anton Myrer’s now-forgotten first novel The Big War, which covered exactly the same ground as the Uris book, but did it with class. And better sex scenes.
We all read The Naked and the Dead sometime in 1957, when we were fourteen. We had one battered copy of the first hardback edition (which is now worth some bucks, I understand), which we circulated back and forth until everybody had a turn. The General Cummings/Fascism meditations were a bit heavy for us, but we knew quality writing when we had it hidden inside our notebooks, and the vigor of the narrative, the hypnotic quality of the battle scenes, kept us in the page-turning mode for the whole massive trip.
We gobbled up non-fiction, too, only here we were specialists. My pal Larry, for example, became obsessed with things Russian, both pre- and post-revolutionary; he became our expert on the Eastern Front, Rasputin, the Purges, and the vital statistics of the T-34 tank. My friend John, for equally obscure reasons, since he came from an Army family, became our naval expert: he could recite from memory the order of battle of both the Japanese and Russian fleets at Tsushima; he hounded the public library to acquire old editions of Jane’s Fighting Ships; and he scratch-built exquisite balsa wood models of everything from Corvettes to battle cruisers. None of them lasted very long, however; there would inevitably come a bored weekend when we would take a couple of them into the back yard and demolish them with BBs, firecrackers and lighter fluid.
I specialized in the literature of guerrilla warfare. That interest was kindled in the ninth grade, when I happened to find myself cast in a school play alongside Amon Liner, then a senior, who later became one of the great American poets. We became friends and remained so until Amon’s tragic death in 1976, two days after the publication of his second book. Amon turned me on to many writers that Spring, from Blake to Kazantzakis, but what really turned my head was a stupendous book entitled Os Sertoes — Rebellion in the Backlands by Euclides da Cunha, a work generally regarded as the cornerstone of modern Brazilian literature. Os Sertoes tells of a horrifying campaign mounted by the Brazilian government against a fanatical, messianic backwoods preacher and his impoverished peasant followers who, though poorly armed and vastly outnumbered, held off — and several times routed — an entire government army, before being surrounded and exterminated in 1897. This is an epic, visionary work, magnificently written, and it so disturbed the authorities that its author was assassinated by a federal soldier not long after it was published. The book has been out of print for decades, indeed never was widely available in English, and I probably would never have encountered it had not Amon thrust it into my hands.
We all fancied ourselves to be much more aware of the Real World than most of our high school contemporaries, whose lives, as we saw it, were ruled by all those rituals and strictures of fifties’ adolescent society that are now exaggerated in movie after movie but were nevertheless very real and powerful. We sort of kept up with what were then charmingly called “Current Events”: we read more in the newspapers than the comic pages; we tuned in and out of the TV news at suppertime (the politics were boring, but ever since Sputnik, you never knew what other amazing stuff might suddenly pop out of the tube into the family den); and without exception we were addicted to the old weekly version of Life magazine (God, how I miss it!).
Our knowledge of real conflict was therefore greater than that of our peers, but it too was selective and strangely filtered through our age-group perceptions. I am quite certain, for example, that none of us ever seriously brooded about being the first generation to grow up under the mushroom cloud. On the whole, the nuclear nightmare was part of our awareness only as a dim gray presence. We neither agonized over it nor consciously feared it; from childhood on, we just plain learned to live with it. The enormity of its reality did not sink in for most of us, I think, until after Vietnam had destroyed the mind-set that enabled us to do that so complacently.
We were still children when the Korean War sputtered to a close; none of my friends had lost a parent in that conflict. There was, of course, a war in Algeria that seemed to go on forever, but it was poorly reported in my part of the world and utterly misunderstood. Curiously and prophetically, though, I do remember being interested in the siege of Dien Bien Phu, without having the slightest understanding of what was really involved. I checked the front page of the newspaper every evening for the maps, watching in fascination as the outlines of the French perimeter contracted from a big amoeboid shape to a couple of fragile little bubbles.
But what got to us more than anything else ever had, what amounted to our loss of innocence about the actual processes and outcomes of historical events, was the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. We followed it passionately from the first heady, romantic days of the uprising to the last grinding obliteration of resistance by the Soviet juggernaut. Daily, we expected to hear an announcement from the White House that the 101st Airborne had started dropping into Budapest. We knew all about Radio Free Europe — the TV networks carried lots of public service spots about it — and we knew that the satellite peoples had been encouraged to “shake off the yoke of oppression.” Well, here they were, one country full of them at least, shaking that yoke pretty hard, and our government seemed more concerned with slapping the Israelis on the wrist for kicking the poop out of Nasser, a thousand miles away.
Three days after the Russian counter-offensive began, when the street fighting in Budapest was as heavy as anything endured by the city in 1945, my friend John came up to me with that morning’s edition of the Charlotte Observer flattened in his hand. Pounding the front page, he gesticulated imploringly, close to tears: “Have you read this, Trotter? Have you read this? The Killian Barracks has fallen! Jesus Christ, what’s wrong with Eisenhower? They’re all dying, and we’re not doing a goddamn thing about it! We promised we would help those people if they did something like this! We promised!”
Indeed, in a thousand oblique ways, without ever really signing a contract, we had. John and I were too immature to know much about the ideological and political nuances of what was happening, but neither one of us gave a shit about the Suez Canal, figuring cynically that the Western powers could take it and keep it any time they seriously wanted to. All that we knew or cared about was the fact that the United States had turned its back on the Hungarians, betrayed them, left them and their revolution for dead meat.
And for the first time in our experience, “they” had a face, an identity, a cover on Life magazine. “They” were the fourteen- and fifteen-year-old kids, boys and girls alike, wearing red, white and green armbands, with a quality burning in their eyes that made our spines tingle, clutching white-knuckled their captured submachine guns, taking on a streetful of forty-ton T-54s with milk crates full of gasoline bombs.
We were not utterly naive, even then. We understood that, if you were white and belonged to the middle class, there could not have been a much cushier, pleasanter situation than growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina, during the mid-fifties. That’s as pragmatic a denominator of patriotism as any, and in that sense, yes, we did regard the United States as a great country and we were grateful to be Americans. But part of that awareness was based on the assumption that the United States was also a country that kept its promises; we were taught that, and we trusted it as a given. Until Hungary. Until we saw people our age fighting like wild animals in the streets against overwhelming military force, in the name of the causes and creeds that were spoonfed to us like communion pablum in every civics class and history course in high school; and our government didn’t even have the balls to get together some unmarked C-47s and air-drop a few thousand bazookas so those heroic, doomed people would at least have a fighting chance.
More: we looked around in the halls of good old Myers Park High, at the saddle shoes and circle pins and the crepe paper pom-poms, and we asked ourselves a terrible question: could we do what the Hungarian kids were doing? The answer seemed to come back to us like a cold, dank wind: if we couldn’t do it, then we did not deserve the lives we were enjoying. John and I, God knows, were bloodlust READY and we were astounded and ashamed and fiercely angry that our peers — chittering on their way to a pep rally under a fine autumn sky on the same day the last forty defenders of the Killian Barracks surrendered and were gunned down like dogs in the street — could go about their silly ceremonies so utterly unconcerned with, so smugly ignorant of, the injustice of what was happening in central Europe.
As the decade went its merry way, pony tails and all, we finally did acquire a real life hero. His name was Fidel Castro, and to this day I am willing to bet my last Kennedy dollar that there were a million adolescent boys in America who had a secret crush on the man; at least, until he came to power and made his Faustian pact with the demons of ideology.
We were hooked on him from the first time the films of his Sierra Madre camp appeared on TV. What a fine, brave band of hermanos! What a swell-looking mountain encampment, as rustically commodious as a Boy Scout jamboree! Oh, the virile comradeship! Hirsute warrior-poets reading under palm trees, Tommy guns at their sides! Fidel lustily chomping on one of those great phallic cigars, cleaning that magnificent hunting rifle with the telescopic sights! And the beards! How we loved and envied and wanted those beards — which is maybe one reason why so many of us grew the bloody things as soon as we left high school and could get away with it. We swapped stories about the handful of Americans who had made their way into the mountains to aid in the fight against Batista (not, as it happened, very effectively), and we envied them the chance to fight for a clear-cut cause under such a charismatic leader as Fidel. It helped, of course, that Castro was campaigning against some of the most lethargic, corrupt, militarily incompetent generals in all Latin America, a dubious distinction indeed. But let no one forget that at one time Castro’s personal courage — that crazy-brave, almost catastrophic nighttime beachhead, made with a handful of lost, weary, desperate, wretchedly-armed men — burned a patina of legend around him without any help at all from The New York Times. The things we admired in the man at that time were, I think, real and heroic qualities. The dark and murderous twist of his heart was not yet visible.
So it was that, by the time we were old enough to drive cars, most of us in that circle of male friends had a full-grown guerrilla fetish. We couldn’t do it, of course, but we could play it out in our minds. There was never any detailed scenario for the circumstances that might cause us to take to the hills, a la “Red Dawn” — to have constructed one would have been to sully the fantasy and compromise its enormous recreational possibilities. Our imaginations were very much aided by the fact that there were hills — the Great Smoky Mountains in fact — only a three-hour drive from our homes.
To be guerrillas, even play-guerrillas, you need a hide-out first, and then some sort of arsenal. The idea of really roughing it, in caves and lean-tos, did not appeal to us. We could not afford camping equipment, and none of our families had that kind of thing lying around. To a man, our fathers were desk-job men, working like dogs in their pursuit of the American Dream — a struggle which at that time seemed a worthwhile effort, not the futile joke it has now become — and if they could help it, they got no closer to the great outdoors than the country club golf course. The one neighborhood Boy Scout troop was regarded as a breeding ground of faggotry and none of us would even consider joining it. As for all the rest of that traditional American huntin’ and fishin’ bullshit so shamelessly hyped in “Red Dawn,” the closest we came to that kind of thing, until we actually started going to the mountains in 1958, was popping-off at birds with BB guns in our backyards, and after the first time or two we did that, we tacitly agreed that it was much more fun to shoot at plastic ship models.
We kept our guerrilla fantasies to ourselves. . . . At sixteen and seventeen, we were still interested in playing soldier, but that impulse was confined, with an almost sexual sense of propriety, to a small circle of intimate friends. . . . I have a feeling it was healthier that way.
Walter’s father had an old single-barrelled shotgun, which Walter was finally allowed to borrow his junior year after nagging his parents mercilessly all during his sophomore year. My friend Carl’s dad, who owned the mountain cabin we intended to use as headquarters — should the balloon go up! — kept a .22 there for plinking purposes and didn’t care how often we used it, as long as we helped pay for the ammo. But for our entire little band of erstwhile partisans, the chief armorer was Harmon, whose more working-class parents evidently did not suffer the same shudders of apprehension about firearms as our own moms and dads. Harmon was one of those guys who was born macho — didn’t inherit it, and surely wasn’t shaped that way by his environment; he just came out of the womb with his dukes up. But he was loyal to his friends, didn’t take his own blustering too seriously, and really didn’t seem to expect us to, either. Nor was he a dummy; he was known to read a book now and then, his speech was free of redneck occlusions and extra syllables, and one of his two favorite records was “The Rite of Spring.” (The other, strangely was a forty-minute compilation of engine noises called “The Sounds of Sebring.”)
In addition to a pump-action .22 that was a delight to use, Harmon owned a carbine mark of the famous Lee-Enfield .303 (developed by the British for use in the Malayan jungles), and a gen-you-wine Nazi P-38 pistol, along with a miscellaneous assortment of bayonets, helmets, bandoliers, and a murderous-looking garrotte made from two empty .303 shell casings and a length of piano wire. He also owned the single most fearsome handgun I have ever seen: it consisted of the action and eight inches of the barrel of a 12-gauge shotgun fitted into a thick block of S-shaped wood and held in place by a massive brace of silvery duct tape. Harmon offered to let me shoot it any time I cared to, but I never had the nerve; the damned thing looked like a late medieval “Handde-Gonne,” from the dawn of the age of gunpowder, and I was afraid it would rip my thumbs off. Harmon had modified the shells for it so that it fired not pellets but solid balls of lead about the size of a jaw-breaker. He claimed he could knock out a window pane with it at a hundred paces, but I suspect that hitting anything smaller than a billboard with that monster, at any range, would have been a matter of sheer luck.
Harmon as an expert in the manufacture and delivery of that poor-man’s weapons system, the Molotov cocktail. He had made a thorough study of the different kinds of containers: mason jars were dandy, but awkward to grip and dangerously fragile; coke bottles could be thrown like a sum-bitch but were thick and only held a puny payload; whiskey bottles were nearly ideal, but were hard to come by at our age — Harmon collected them and hid them in his closet before each bomb-throwing session.
The Molotov cocktails and the shotgun pistol were probably as dangerous to the user as they would have been to any flesh-and-blood enemy. Some of the items in our inventory were even hairier. Like many boys of that era, we learned how to brew up batches of homemade gunpowder at about age twelve — grinding down the family’s charcoal briquettes and then trying to con the neighborhood druggist into selling us a pound of saltpeter to mix with the sulphur we had already stripped from our Gilbert chemistry sets. The stuff was wildly variable from batch to batch, but as the years went by and we got better at proportions and mixing processes, it became possible to produce a missile that, when ignited, combined the nastier properties of a grease fire and an elephant’s fart.
Harmon trumped us all in this department, though, by designing something worthy of the I.R.A. In those days, the South Carolina border was lined with fireworks’ shacks that traded with the kids who slipped across the border from North Carolina, where the authorities had been mean enough to outlaw the product. Harmon made a trip across the state line and returned with a carton full of items called “M-80s.” The M-80, which has now been outlawed, was the most powerful commercial firecracker you could buy. It was to an ordinary cherry bomb what a modern fusion warhead is to the trinket that was dropped on Hiroshima. It was about a third the size of a stick of dynamite and it had a notoriously treacherous fuse; a real child-maimer.
Harmon would warm up a saucepan full of parafin, dip the M-80s in by the wick until they were evenly coated, then roll them in a saucer full of BBs, just like coating a drumstick. Everybody — even Harmon — was scared of actually setting off one of these little horrors; we never could figure out a really safe way to test-fire them. I have no doubt, however, that at close quarters they would have proven every bit as nasty as they looked.
If Harmon provided most of the firepower, it was Carl who provided our “secret base” in the mountains — or more precisely Carl’s father Charlie, who owned the cabin. Carl looked remarkably like Maynard G. Krebs, kept a set of bongo drums in his school locker, wrote extremely weird poetry, carried on imaginary conversations with an invisible troll named “Flutworth” and — for reasons I have never been able to fathom — considered Winesburg, Ohio to be the best American novel of the twentieth century.
Charlie was a middle-aged version of Carl and was divorced from Carl’s mother. He would bop into town on Friday, call Carl and arrange to pick him up. Carl would then call us and we would wheedle permission from our parents, and by evening we would be barrelling west, racing the sunset into the high country. These trips took place in all seasons, but I think we loved the Winter trips the best — wrapped in the smelly warmth of the old car, we burrowed into the gloaming, drunk with a sense of potential adventure.
Charlie’s cabin was tucked away in a valley that paralleled Highway 221 between Boone and Blowing Rock. To get there, you had to take an unmarked dirt road that could only he entered at cruising speed from one direction. So steep was the descent, so acute the angle where road met highway, that a left turn could be negotiated only at the slowest possible speed. “Moonshiner from Asheville tried to take that turn at fifty, couple years after I bought the cabin,” Charlie recalled, the first time I remarked on the trickiness of the turn, “and lemme tell you, bub, they was a long time pickin’ up the pieces of his ass down in that valley.”
After its descent, the road turned south and followed a tributary of the South Fork of the New River — a sweet, clear, granite-littered stream about fifteen feet across and no more than knee deep except for a big oval spot right behind the cabin where Charlie and Carl had laboriously dredged and dammed to create a deeper swimming area. The road past the cabin didn’t go anywhere much — it petered out a half-mile farther on, at the foot of a steep gray-green ridge. There were three or four other cabins along this track, but for some reason nobody was ever using them when we were there.
Nor was the neighborhood crowded in any other direction. It was still possible to catch a whiff of Great Gatsby elegance and old-money class in Blowing Rock (though that was fading fast), and Boone was still basically just a cow-college town with only a couple of major tourist attractions: Tweetsie Railroad, about two-ridges-and-a-valley to the southwest of the cabin, and an “outdoor drama” about Daniel Boone called “Horn in the West.”
Directly across from the cabin’s front door rose a high, steep ridge that paralleled the Boone-Blowing Rock highway. We did not climb it often, for it was a dead-end hike, but if you were in the right mood, it was not a poor pastime to lie flat at the top, 250 feet above the traffic flow, and watch the world go by.
Looking back on it, that would have been a good ambush site, and certainly a strategically valid one. Aside from the Blue Ridge Parkway itself, Highway 221 was — and still is — the only major north-south artery through that rugged part of the state, and one of the few roads that is kept open in all kinds of weather. At that point, the highway was flanked on both sides by sheer, unscalable, densely-wooded elevations; there was no cover along the shoulders for anything larger than a rabbit. A convoy passing through that place would have been in extreme hazard: let a vehicle be knocked out at each end of the gorge, and whatever was in between would be at the mercy of whoever was shooting down from above. With a secondary ambush covering the cabin road, to take care of any outflanking relief force, a few well-armed people, up on those two ridge tops, could do terrible damage at virtually no risk to themselves. It doesn’t take any special training — just a certain predilection — to figure out something like this. If you have an eye for terrain, and your imagination superimposes a military problem on a given landscape, common sense will dictate a valid military solution. We did this kind of thing automatically, even though, by the standards of “Red Dawn,” we were woefully unprepared.
The thought took possession of me: why sheee-it, man, given the right circumstances, it really wasn’t so hard to pull a trigger on somebody — all it took was a weapon, some adrenalin, and fear.
How would we have done it? First of all by hiding out instead of lashing out in knee-jerk spasms of vengeance-wreaking. Not even the enormous bands of Soviet partisans in the Pripet Marshes — a place where even the Waffen SS feared to tread — were able to accomplish much during their first year of existence except basic survival. Before guerrilla activity can amount to much more than banditry, it has to be coordinated, either with other guerrilla bands or with distant, sponsoring, conventional forces; it has to have realistic objectives and lots of secure, well-stocked places to go after those objectives have been attacked, successfully or not. Especially if not.
In such a wartime situation, of course, our cabin could never have been used for very long or very often, and probably would have been quickly burned down by the enemy in any case. Still, we could have learned to live off the land just as well as the Wolverines, even though our fathers did not instruct us in woodsy lore from infancy — any fool knows that you can eat a squirrel but not a skunk. Certainly the land itself offered, and in places where the “developers” have not ravaged it beyond looking-at, still does offer, ample concealment. The wild gorges of the Smokies contain thousands of square miles of terrain as impenetrable as most tropical jungle, and a damn sight more hospitable in terms of wildlife. On one extended hike near the base of Mt. Mitchell, we encountered a stand of rhododendron so fantastically thick that the only way to make forward progress through it was to tunnel through the branches with machetes, our feet not even touching the ground. It took two hours to go fifty yards, to a point where we found a stream bed that gave us an exit route. In wilderness like that, where armor cannot go and helicopters cannot see, a band of prudent guerrillas could last a long time.
Our fantasy experience as partisans was a free-spirited motif in the pattern of our collective maturation. But it was a fantasy, and Reality only flirted with it on two occasions: on the day we raided Tweetsie, and on the summer night, my last trip to Charlie’s place, when I lay on the ridge across from the cabin and chambered a round of armor-piercing ammo into Harmon’s Enfield, convinced that in about three minutes’ time, a car full of people who wanted to hurt us was going to be coming down that road, and it was my responsibility, in accordance with the tactics we had hurriedly devised, to put that round into the engine-block.
We raided Tweetsie because it was there and we wanted to see if we could do it. Tweetsie was and is a wood-burning locomotive in the pattern of the late nineteenth century. It takes tourists, mostly young ones, on an eventful ride through a very scenic part of the hills near Boone. The trip includes a stop at a “frontier village” and a mock attack by Indians. Nowadays, there is a large and gimmicky amusement park exfoliated around the original layout, but in 1960 the train ride was the whole shootin’ match.
We had jokingly discussed a “guerrilla raid” on Tweetsie on numerous occasions — you could hear the train’s jovial whistle from the cabin, if the wind was right. That Spring, we decided to war-game it for real. We went about it in proper style: map consultations, reconnaissance hikes to select the best routes into and out of the park, and finally the choice of the “ambush” site itself. We selected a long shallow curve at the top of a hill, open on one side of the track, thickly wooded on the other; the train would have to slow down to pass us, we could strike with maximum effectiveness, and because we were way out on the arse end of the park, we would probably have plenty of time to withdraw before anyone came looking for us.
The morning of the raid dawned cool, damp and misty. We travelled light, carrying only the .22s, loaded with blanks, and a couple of canteens. We followed the highway briefly, then cut across country and made a squishy, slippery, exhausting climb that finally brought us to the fence on the park’s perimeter. It wasn’t intended to do anything more than keep cows from wandering in and getting on the tracks, so we slid under it with disdainful ease.
At the chosen spot along the railroad embankment we dug ourselves in behind a fallen tree trunk, the gun barrels poking over the top. The train would have to pass within six feet of our position. Our timing was good; as we took cover, we could hear the whistle, piercingly loud, right around the bend from where we waited, gibbering with excitement.
And when the train did appear — sudden, enormous, surreal — we learned that the dictum of Clauswitz is ever true: war is the province of chance. One thing we hadn’t planned on was the noise. Next to the chuffing roar of a steam locomotive grinding its way up-grade, the dinky pop of .22 caliber blanks was totally inaudible; we may as well have been pointing our fingers. Bang-bang, indeed. Another thing so obvious that we missed it: the view was off on the other side of the embankment — that misty, windswept landscape we had so laboriously climbed — and because of that, nearly everyone on the train was turned away from us. We could have been standing there naked, shooting moons instead of guns, and it would not have been noticed. Finally, in the last car, a couple of restless kids did look in our direction, spotted us, grew mildly alarmed, and grabbed at their parents, who were just starting to turn around when the train’s little cartoon caboose hauled past us and the passenger cars went out of sight and the whole thing was over: the only ambush in military history to have been conducted entirely in mime.
We were so crestfallen when we straggled back to the cabin, soaked-through and snarling at each other, that Charlie took pity on us and brought in a jug of homemade grape wine from a locker on the back porch. He also lugged in a previously hidden box full of raunchy paperbacks, authored by people with names like Jack Goff and including a fabulous collection of works by the Edgar Rice Burroughs of fifties’ porn, Orrie Hitt. We opened the wine, built a fire, and each thawed out with a good book.
The last trip to the cabin, in August of 1961, was an intense and not altogether happy occasion. On one hand, the mountains were lusher, greener, more mystically beautiful than ever — or so they seemed to us, because we knew, although we avoided talking about it, that high school was over and a lot of things would never be the same again. On the other hand, Carl and I had discovered, early that Spring, that we were both desperately in love with the same girl. She had left town for the Summer and our long raving letters to her had gone unanswered for three anguished months. Through mutual friends, we had intelligence that she had decided to shaft us both, and for the moment our friendship was on a comradely, bittersweet, rebound.
Charlie wasn’t with us on this trip, but we didn’t think he would mind if we helped ourselves to another jug of that strong sweet wine. Thus fortified, we decided, just as the moon was rising, to go skinny-dipping in the cold waist-deep swimming area behind the cabin. For some reason, I was the last one in and the sound of the others’ yelps as they hit the icy water gave me a chill. I danced around naked on the grass, waiting for the goosebumps to subside. Carl hollered from the water: “Come on in, ya chickenshit!” Well. What else was a man to do but take a running jump in the general direction of such a tormentor?
And so I learned a little something else about war that night: being wounded might not necessarily hurt, not for a little while anyhow — then, when the shock wears off, it goes into overtime.
I landed much too hard for such shallow water. There was a very distinct “clonk” when I made contact with the submerged rock, the sort of noise you get from hitting a wet log with the flat of an axe. I remember, while still under water, cursing myself for a fool. But there wasn’t any pain, just a sensation of impact, so I was astonished, when I stood up, to hear my companions scream. As Carl later described it, I emerged like something from a horror movie, one entire side of my body filmed by a sheet of blood.
They wrapped my head in a towel and drove to the emergency room of the hospital in Boone. The injury still didn’t hurt much, but the shock was wearing off and every time I touched the towel, cold and soggy as a sponge, a fresh hot tongue of blood would lick my cheek. An uncontrollable trembling seized my whole body by the time they put me on the stretcher. That’s when the pain arrived, all at once, a geyser of it, a red ripping wave, angry that the body’s defenses had held it at bay for so long.
Aside from a still-vivid memory of the stitches going in, my only other clear recollection of the next hour is of the gentleness, the soft-spoken courtesy, of the doctor who treated me; I don’t think I even saw his face. I was very lucky, he said, to have escaped a skull fracture: a horseshoe-shaped flap of my scalp had been opened; it was messy, as cranial wounds tend to be, and it had taken a bunch of stitches to close it, but I would mend, he promised, very quickly. He gave me a bottle of enormous pain pills and wished me well.
The following day was the worst: I was nursing a broken heart and I had a live coal sewn up inside my skull. Carl kept me supplied with wine, which mixed exceptionally well with the pain-killers, and cheered me up as only he knew how to do. The rest of the week, I stayed bombed on pills and half-drunk most of the time, and eventually achieved a constant, mild hallucinatory state not unlike — as I would discover six or seven years later — a low-grade mescaline trip.
Having to nurse me, though, put a cramp in everyone’s freedom of movement, and by week’s end we all had cabin fever. It was decided to drive into Blowing Rock for a movie and a restaurant meal. Did I feel up to that? Why hell, yes, good buddies! I replied, popping another pill.
If a lifetime of reading history has taught me anything, it is that half of the bullies, tyrants and murderers that have achieved power in the twentieth century did so in the name of Communism; the other half, in the name of anti-Communism.
We made the mistake of ending up in a part of town remote from the resort area. It was Friday night and the street was full of townies: bored, aimlessly cruising, hanging around. We were unmistakably outsiders. We were cornered at a soda fountain by six mean, lean, redneck punks, jacked up for the night and full of resentment toward the flatland tourists their whole community depended on for economic survival. These were not the quiet, God-fearing farmers we had come to know and like down in the valley; these were drugstore cowboys looking for a fight and we had blundered on to their turf. There wasn’t a friendly face in sight when they encircled and began taunting us. First we were teased, then insulted, then cursed. We were all petrified, but in my drugged state I was near to hysterical: these honchos would pull my stitches out with their teeth and laugh while they were doing it. Finally, the ringleader started poking Carl in the stomach with his forefinger. Carl instinctively slapped at the hand and was rewarded with a bruising punch in the shoulder. That broke us.
Not to mince words about it, we ran. We put almost a block between ourselves and the townies before we started our car. For a moment, we thought the ordeal was over; then, a couple of stoplights later, we were terrified to discover that they were following us. At that point there could no longer be any question in our minds: those people were not just messing around — they wanted badly to hurt us.
The chase scene that followed was straight out of “Thunder Road.” The car went squealing through tight mountain-road curves, the tires snicking into the gravelly shoulders, night-yawning drop-offs looming on first one side, then the other. Without slowing down, we hurtled past the turn-off to the cabin. “We’ll never make it at this speed!” yelled Carl. “Let’s go into Boone, double back, and take it from the other direction!”
Once we got into Boone, we executed a tire-smoking bootlegger’s turn in a filling station lot, doubled back, and shot past our pursuers with our lights off, racing the wrong way down a one-way sidestreet. We made it back to the highway, but we were certain that our tormentors were still close behind. Indeed, several pairs of headlights joined the traffic-flow behind us only a moment after we hit the highway, and we were convinced that one pair belonged to the car we were running from.
When we again reached the cut-off to the cabin, we took it so hard and fast that the car actually left the ground for a short distance; the normal safe speed, even in that direction, was about thirty miles per hour, and we were doing about fifty. The curvature of the road made it impossible to see if anyone took the turn-off behind us, but we were still feeling the hot breath of real danger and we knew that we were probably in for a fight.
We hit the cabin’s yard still moving fast. The car slewed wildly, throwing up a rooster rail of topsoil and missing Charlie’s woodpile by inches. “The guns!” I screamed as we bailed out and ran for the front door. “Get the goddamn guns!”
In about ninety seconds we had turned the blacked-out cabin into a fortress. Shotguns and .22s protruded from the living room and bedroom windows, the .22s loaded with hollow-points. My head now felt like the percussion parts of Mahler’s Sixth; I was having weird, fiery visual flashes as I ripped open the flat box Harmon had given me before the trip — twenty rounds of armor-piercing ammo for the .303. When the ten-round magazine was full, I scuttled across the road, dived into the bush, and clawed my way about twenty feet up the hill. We now had the approaches to the cabin in a naked, moonlit crossfire. So the bastards wanted to play rough, did they?
I snuggled into the stock and the moonlight glowed softly phosphorescent on the flash-suppressor cone at the end of the barrel. Here it was then, coming at me down that dim stretch of moon-white road; here came “war,” my own private damn-fool crazy edition of it, of the subject I had studied, with childish excitement and compulsive ambulance-chasing dread, ever since I was old enough to read. And at that moment, with a flood of book and movie images vomiting through my feverish brain and what felt like a pack of rabid weasels trying to tunnel through my intestines, I was Ready For It. The thought took possession of me: why sheee-it, man, given the right circumstances, it really wasn’t so hard to pull a trigger on somebody — all it took was a weapon, some adrenalin, and fear.
I don’t know how long we stayed on that edge, but eventually we realized that nobody was coming down that road; we had lost the rascals back in Boone. Even though it was Summer, we built a fire and cracked open another jug of Charlie’s wine and proceeded to get about as drunk as we’d ever gotten in our young lives. We were a long time coming down from that tension-high. None of us had any doubts that night, and I have none today, twenty-three years later, that if those guys had followed us to the cabin, we would have opened fire and probably killed a couple of people.
That was the closest the New River Partisans ever came to combat, although of course, in a few years’ time, a lot of my friends would acquire some real experience in guerrilla warfare — on the other side of the business. Harmon, predictably, was the only one of us who voluntarily went into the Army. When Vietnam came along, he got himself transferred from Germany and ended up as a helicopter gunner. He enjoyed it so much that he re-upped for a second tour of duty. He is today a cop. As for Carl, four months after I entered college I learned that he was going to marry the girl I thought we had both lost, back in August. I cursed him to his face and have not seen or spoken to him since that night.
I never got closer to the Army than two years of ROTC. When I was called up for my draft physical, in late 1964, I was rejected due to a medical history of asthma.
It took me a long time to come out against the war. Ol’ poetry-writing Ho Chi Minh didn’t fool me — I knew how much blood ran from those mandarin-thin hands. I had never forgotten how betrayed we felt at the way our old comrade Fidel had turned out. Most of all, I remembered Hungary: that alone made it impossible for me ever to feel enchantment for a Communist cause. If a lifetime of reading history has taught me anything, it is that half of the bullies, tyrants and murderers that have achieved power in the twentieth century did so in the name of Communism; the other half, in the name of anti-Communism. At the top levels, where the trigger-pulling power reposes, totalitarian leaders are pretty much interchangeable regardless of the flag they fly. Either way, the peasants and the intelligentsia always get it in the butt.
When I finally did lend my presence and my pen to the anti-war movement, I did so with some misgivings. The ideologues of my own generation seemed little better than the flipside of the flag-fetishists, and I was repelled by the mindless sloganeering that cheapened and in some cases corrupted the finest humanistic impulses of the kids who filled out the movement’s ranks. I remember those rallies where thousands of us linked arms and sang, “Ain’t gonna study war no more!” and how an unimpressed part of my mind kept whispering, “What horse shit . . .” every time the refrain came around. One reason why we as a nation found ourselves in the tarpits in Vietnam was precisely because too few of our otherwise educated citizens had truly studied war as a part of their political education. And that, I believe, is a comfortable ignorance we can no longer afford.
My martial knowledge remains bookish and scholarly. I have no desire, at age forty-one, to trek off somewhere and smell gunpowder in earnest; I have discovered that even the most ordinary life affords plenty of chances to test one’s courage.
But I am not ungrateful to John Milius. His film compelled me to relive, from the vantage point of the man I have become, some moments in the life of the boy I was.
And I discovered that we were, indeed, more patriotic than I remembered. But it was a casual, “fifties” sort of feeling: we knew that we had it better than the kids in most other nations and we were grateful for that. On that basis alone, we would have fought for our country just as hard as Milius’ Wolverines — and in truth, many of my generation died in Vietnam believing that they were more or less doing just that.
But there was a different kind of patriotism blazing in the theater the afternoon I saw “Red Dawn,” an emotion based not on gratitude that you have it better than others, but upon a religious conviction that you have it better because you are better, in some mysteriously God-chosen way. The former kind of patriotism creates pride, to be sure, but it leaves emotional room for an understanding that the citizens of other countries might also have legitimate reasons to feel pride for the things that make their cultures distinctive. Even, yes, the Russians, who know more about what it means to be invaded than any other people on Earth.
The sort of patriotism that is sweeping America today, of which “Red Dawn” is one of the most visible symbols, breeds not pride so much as arrogance. It is as intolerant as any zealot’s creed. It confuses dialogue with compromise, turns causes into crusades, and every armed conflict, real or potential, into a jihad. It is an attitude unworthy of a nation that was the hope of mankind — and because of it, we may go from being the most envied nation on earth to one of the two most despised.
In the closing scene of “Red Dawn,” Milius really lays it on with a shovel. We are shown an enormous red slab of granite, with a stars and stripes thudding in the wind behind it. On the slab are incised the names of all the movie’s dead characters. This, the narration informs us, is “Partisan Rock,” a memorial to the brave youngsters who died fighting the invaders.
I wonder if Milius knows that there is a real-life equivalent of Partisan Rock.
In the ancient fortress-city of Brest-Litovsk, a bulwark on the Polish border that has always served Russia as a breakwater for invasions from the west, there was, in the summer of 1941, a garrison of young conscripts, teenagers mostly. Like virtually all the forward elements of the Red Army at that time, they were poorly trained, incompetently officered, and totally unprepared for the German tidal wave that swept upon them on June 22.
The Nazis brought the full weight of their war machine to bear: when the normal 1000-pound bombs of the Stukas failed to crack the thick masonry of the old forts, gigantic 600 mm. siege mortars rained huge projectiles on the defenders, along with 4000-pound blockbusters dropped by a special squadron of the Luftwaffe. The forts were reduced to heaps of rubble.
Yet the starving, battered defenders resisted from inside the ruins. In the first week of Operation Barbarossa, five per cent of the total German casualties were sustained in a few thousand square feet in the burning heart of Brest-Litovsk. In the catacomb-like basements beneath the medieval church and in the dungeons and vaults beneath the citadel, resistance continued until the end of July — hopelessly, for by that time the defenders were more than 100 miles behind German lines. And they left messages, these doomed young soldiers, scratched in the casement walls with nails and bayonet points, messages such as this:
“We are three men from Moscow — Ivanov, Stepanchikov and Shuntyayev. We are defending the church and have sworn not to surrender.”
“I am alone now. Stepanchikov and Shuntyayev are dead. The Germans are inside the church. I have one hand grenade left. They shall not take me alive.”
The last dated message, found deep beneath the smoldering citadel, bears no signature:
“I will die but I will not surrender. Farewell, native country!” — 7/20/41
These inscriptions can still be read today, in a place that the Russian people regard as a national shrine. Even if that’s not what gave Milius the idea for “Partisan Rock,” I hope, in the unlikely event that he should ever be visiting in that part of the Soviet Union, that he will have the simple human decency to go to that place and lay flowers there.
In the just-as-unlikely event that I myself am ever in that ancient city, I shall certainly do so. And I will do so not only to honor those young Russian soldiers, but all young men and women who have perished while fighting against the invaders of their countries.
In Budapest, where there is no monument to the teenagers who died hurling gasoline bombs at the Stalin tanks, I shall go to one of the golden bridges and give my flowers to the waters of the Danube.