The tome of the unknown soldier

Thinking about the fate of this impossibly long manuscript I’ve written about my father’s life during the last couple of years, I realize I can’t put it into final form until I really focus on what the book is about. It’s not a book about a man being a monster, it’s a book about the way his little soul was destroyed, yet how a spark remained, which burned brightly at the very end.   It’s not about history, and disappointed idealism, and powerlessness, or about the damage done by abuse, it’s about gaining perspective and learning from our worst mistakes.   It’s about the roots of rage and, in the end, forgiveness, once the heartfelt apology can finally be made.

One problem I have to ignore, I am writing the story of an unknown man, and I am an unknown man writing this story.    This is something I have to put out of my head, because it makes the entire project feel insane to me.   If my father had kept children chained up in the basement, and had been prosecuted in a famous trial– well, there would be a good chance a publisher might be interested.   If he’d taken bold risks to make a shit ton of money, again, an American fable you might find on the big book table at Costco.   If I’d been a celebrity, the story of my father would have a certain interest to my fans.   Etcetera.   I have to ignore this, entirely.   Otherwise it will sink this little paper boat I am attempting to steer across the cold sea.

Reading Hannah Arendt’s masterpiece Eichmann in Jerusalem, as I occasionally do, I’m reminded again that prominent Jews often had a much different fate than the masses of anonymous Jews, who also tended to be fairly poor, when it came to the final destination of their train rides.   It’s no surprise, of course, to learn that the Nazi regime treated rich and poor Jews differently, or even that Jewish criminals sent to the death camps often survived their terms while tailors, shoemakers, teachers, small merchants, small town rabbis rarely did.    Hitler had 324 Jews on his  “do not touch” list, which is really no odder than many other things about the twentieth century’s most popular psychopath.   Nobody on my family was ever close to being on such a list.

If you are prominent, of course, you will always have advantages that those who are not prominent will never have.   That is simply how it is and how it has always been.  This is something else I need to ignore, constantly.

I am thinking of this in terms of my father’s life, of the tome I have written a long, endless draft of.  The tome of the unknown soldier.    The man was one of 16,000,000 Americans who served in the armed forces in the desperate days between December 7, 1941 and August 1945.   Sixteen million!   My father, Irv, was one of that vast army of young Americans who fought monsters in Europe and Asia.

Did my father fight gloriously, killing die-hard Nazis and regular Germans drafted into the Wermacht and ordered to fight for commander-in-chief Hitler?   Irv was not in combat.   He was an aircraft mechanic, in spite of his lack of mechanical aptitude.  He explained that he’d been the only guy in his outfit who could read the manuals to the men who did the actual repairs, tell them which parts they needed.   Young Irv was not stationed in Europe until the very end of the war, after Hitler had killed his wife, his dog and himself.   What was it like for a twenty-one year old Jew who had lost most of his family to the madness enflamed by the murderous Mr. Hitler?   He never gave a clue, really.

“So, wait, wait.  You are writing a long, tortuous book about the life of a man who was not famous, not prominent, not a hero, who said nothing about possibly the most interesting time of his life?    You wrote in his eulogy that he had traveled, with an escort of NYC policemen, to address hostile crowds about the necessity to integrate New York City schools, and you added that he never mentioned this to you, that you found it out from your mother, his wife of 54 years, who told you about it as you were writing the eulogy.   I don’t understand who you think the audience might be for this book about such a distinguished nobody.”

If I would sell this manuscript I have to make it clear why you will care about the life of this man.   It has thus far been almost impossible to describe why you should give a rat’s ass about the lessons I may or may not have learned from this anonymous fellow.   You should have met him, the whole project would make more sense to you.   Now, if my work succeeds, you will have to depend on me as your reliable narrator, no matter how unreliable I may also be.    As my father might have said “ain’t dassum shit?”

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