In the Face of War Ruins

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John Michael Flynn

We can’t all display the courage, talent and nerve of a Rainer Maria Fassbinder, but we can try, at least, to respect it. A bomb had leveled the cathedral, leaving a steeple of stones gone black with soot, a bottle and can here and there lodged in various cavities along with balled-up wrappers, rags frozen stiff (like everything else around me) and small cataracts of white ice where mortar had crumbled away. I stood alone in that morning cold a long time, staring as I tried to imagine American bombs raining down from the sky. It was seven a.m. Another day. Another city. The air insisted on pain, guilt and death. If it weren’t for those American bombs, I wouldn’t have had the luxury of being there.

I flexed my hands to keep them warm as I pulled down on my blue cap, shielding my eyes from the wind. I thought of the cap in those days as my trademark. It suggested I had worked as a longshoreman or a fisherman or that I was a con fresh from prison. I’d suffered no such experiences, but after seeing Jack Nicholson wear such a cap in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I’d decided to own one. I’d also played the role of Randle Patrick McMurphy in the play version of Kesey’s novel, and the pleasure and popularity it had given me in high school weren’t things I was willing to readily abandon. The cap wasn’t as strong a message as a tattoo or an earring, but a label I believed I needed in order to raise my self-esteem, to remember all the applause our production had garnered for three nights in a row in front of sold-out houses, and to highlight my absurdly rebellious self-inflicted loner status.

I heard the piercing cries of seagulls. I smelled the sea as the wind rose. How I loved the sea in those days. It swept me out of my doldrums and explained why these ruins nearly fifty years after World War II needed to stay a reminder of a crucial era in a century that would soon end. There was no gate, no ticket required, no guides or buses or postcard kiosks. I thought about what my friend Jim Weyant had told me about Vietnam. Jim could talk about that war; he’d spent two years in Saigon during the worst of it. Jim would never allow himself to forget. He loved reminding me of this, loved that I, too young to know that war, listened attentively to him over cups of coffee in his book store, The Scribe’s Perch, back in America. Jim assumed the Germans of Hamburg felt the same way about their war as he felt about his. He wasn’t one to assume unwisely. He drank coffee with me, as he did with many of his customers, because his days of drinking alcohol – enough that he should be dead, as he’d say – were long over.

If Jim felt like a big-brother figure, Hamburg felt like a dark haunted port with a glorious and shadowy past. I didn’t yet know it had been home to Brahms and one of the oldest lighthouses in the world. I could see along the canals amidst the many construction projects how the old mixed with the new in ways that were different from the nondescript architecture of Frankfurt, which had shown me the triumph of post-war American pragmatism and how so much of post-war Germany is an exercise in functional expedience over form and style.

I paused a while and thought I heard the breathing of sea captains and whores, maybe characters the likes of Siegfried Lenz or Gunter Grass might write about. I heard the songs of shipping clerks, longshoremen, scholars, laborers, musicians and sailors cantering down curved avenues and cockeyed lanes running into and out of the seedy and sordid haunts of the city’s red-light Reeperbahn neighborhood.

Hamburg coaxed from me memories of all the World War II movies I’d seen. I heard American airplanes – similar to ones my father had flown in during the first years after that war – moving slowly under cover of night over working-class neighborhoods. I heard my Uncle Bill Conley fall from the shrapnel he’d taken in the ribs during the Battle of the Bulge. I heard my Uncles Donald and David, twins, leaping from airplanes in the dark over occupied France, their parachutes opening, their prayers answered as they landed without breaking their legs or getting shot. I heard children shrieking and old women sobbing. I saw factories and warehouses blow up, reduced to rubble.

Facing the sky, squinting, I studied white layers of air that rolled in toward me off the sea. They only appeared translucent; they were as durable as the chilled brick and stone around me. I knew this air from the mill-towns and the fogbanks I’d grown up with, how they curled out of the hills and spread like an open hand over the rooftops of valley neighborhoods. I knew the mendaciously brittle cold of such a wintry bleached sky and I didn’t mind the sabers lancing my throat as I panted and sniffled down deserted streets, lights off in every window, the city still asleep and my legs pumping. I felt suspicious, a bit fearful and at times disoriented. Nothing was open yet and in the face of war ruins my concern with time efficiency and food felt silly.

Hands pocketed, brittle and shivering, I felt as if I were being watched, as if the ghosts of that war, my own uncles who had once pinched my cheeks and said, “Oh, you’re my sister Gracie’s oldest kid, well let’s have a look” had chosen to follow me. A draft like a leather belt snapped at my chin. Something grim inside of me loved the ghosts of falling bombs and the screams of agony heard as the wind continued to rise. My breath spread white against white as I trooped along, stopping for a window poster for Saint Pauli Girl beer. Street after street, all doors were closed and I imagined hot potatoes and a radiant fraulein who’d serve them to me.

Returning to the train station, I sat in dim light, opened my journal and made a list of all the World War II movies I should watch, recalling their names from the Drama shelf in a video store I used to haunt where Jeff Gage, a dear friend, was the manager. With each visit there, I had promised Jeff I would watch such movies, but I never did. Patton I’d watch because of George C. Scott who reminded me so much of Uncle Bill. There were the bridge movies: The Bridges of Toko Ri, The Bridge at Remagen, The Bridge Over the River Kwai. I’d seen none of them. Why? Couldn’t say. Nowadays, it’s easier to explain: there’s just too much content out there.

Perhaps I wanted to watch these bridge movies because older men like Jim Weyant tended to like and recommend them. I remembered Jim saying he’d been fond of The Guns of Navarone, and They Were Expendable. He’d asked me once which WW II movies I’d seen. I’d come up with The Dirty Dozen, and Kelly’s Heroes. I didn’t list those two in my journal, but I added a few more to my list, recalling VHS boxes of cigar-chomping tough-guy smirks from the likes of Lee Marvin in The Big Red One directed by Samuel Fuller. It would be decades later that I’d read Fuller’s autobiography, A Third Face, and learn that for all the criticism of him as a sometimes B-level filmmaker, he, like the novelist James Jones, wasn’t one who wrote about the second world war as a journalist or an observer. He’d been a participant; he’d stormed the beachhead at Normandy and, like Uncle Bill, he’d been in the Battle of the Bulge. He’d seen men get their heads and their limbs blown off. He’d loved his country but he’d hated war. Fuller hadn’t been his real name. A Jewish kid named Rabinovitch, he’d hailed from Worcester, Massachusetts, of all places, a city I knew well since my father had worked there for fifty years.

One day, out of respect, I’d have to watch all of Fuller’s movies, for better or worse, especially his masterpiece, his most personal effort, The Big Red One. After that, I’d watch all of Lee Marvin’s and Fassbinder’s movies and then on to all of John Ford’s. Men need role models. We don’t seem to have them any longer. I’m not talking about blowhards, either, but men who are consistently virtuous and honest and not cowards. Men, in general, are not all closed and violent. Nor are we waifs and preening divas or only Star Trek geeks or Harry Potter look-alikes, no matter our sexual preference. Jim Weyant probably weighs 150 pounds soaking wet, and yet he ran through those rice paddies in Vietnam with his M-16 and he made his kills and he managed to survive. To look at him, you might think he was a florist. It’s the heart in a man that needs to be big, the generosity, a spirit of benevolence and faith in humanity, in general.

At least in American culture, starting, say, in the nineties, it felt to me as if it had become nearly a crime to come across as a confident man, and masculinity became associated with boorishness, selfishness and deceit. We had to celebrate somebody else’s version of a man and forget who we were and behave like overly sensitive gnomes and trust-fund peaceniks with lattes in Birkenstocks, and to believe as coined by the title of a book by comic Adam Corolla: In Fifty Years We’ll All Be Chicks.

I don’t mind if it’s politically incorrect to say this. I’m not the only one tired of the way men are portrayed in popular media, nor the first who’s fed up with cartoon father figures such as Homer Simpson and Peter Griffin, or bloviating talking heads, in spite of their success, of the likes of Rush Limbaugh that the world gets to see as if all American males were overweight, opinionated, loud and mercurial. Imagine the hue and cry if all women were portrayed that way. Left to their own devices, men either isolate themselves or tear each other apart in competitions. They enact unforgivable forms of kindness and cruelty. We aren’t as weak and simpering as those who despise us would lead us to believe.

As Jim Weyant used to say, “It’s all about the brainwashing. Peace or war, the fight is for our minds. That’s what the fuckers want to control.”

I’d witnessed a tiny piece of Germany and it was begging me to understand more history. Not just of Europe but of the world. Of mankind. The countless sieges and destruction that litter the human map. Instincts told me the more I learned about Germany and the Second World War, the more I would realize how little I knew about myself, my gender, my own country and all the benefits I’d been born into.

I thought of the short story, At the Bridge by Heinrich Boll. A veteran without legs has been given a job counting the people who cross a new bridge each day. He’s the kind of man the State uses up. He went off to war, paid a price by losing his legs, returned home to seek out love and decry how the State, his employers, are too fond of statistics and the future-perfect tense. No man or woman deserves the ignominy of being considered a statistic, yet we face this each day.

Iced-over, the waters of Hamburg’s canals, along with the sharp white rags of my own breath, had brought to me realize that it’s from the past we learn best. I’d been asleep my entire life, doe-eyed, a dreamer and sheltered. A scent like burnt metal clung to my clothes.

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John Michael Flynn was the 2017 Writer in Residence at Carl Sandburg’s home, Connemara, in North Carolina. In 2015 he completed a one-year English Language Fellowship through the US State Department in Khabarovsk, Russia. Poetry collections include Restless Vanishings, and Keepers Meet Questing Eyes from Leaf Garden Press, and Blackbird Once Wild Now Tame translated from the Romanian of Nicolae Dabija. He’s published three collections of short stories, his most recent Off To The Next Wherever from Fomite Books. He teaches at TED University in Ankara, Turkey.

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