(this is the third installment of The Manhattan Project: A Jed Berman Memoir. See #1 to find out who Jed Berman is)
I have been looking for an answer as long as I can remember. It even troubled me when I was probably too little to be thinking about such things. The first time it really made me hurt, almost made me sick, was when I checked out a book from the school library in fifth or sixth grade. In those days, we still had all twelve grades in my school building. The elementary teachers had to make sure the little people were out of the hallways when the high schoolers changed classes. My first grade teacher would grab the doorknob and slam the door shut just before the bell rang, and the thundering herd of big kids filled the hallway. We’d heard stories about little kids getting stomped to death when they ventured into the hall at the wrong moment.
Anyway, in sixth grade, I was in the enrichment class—a special class for the smart kids— which meant I was allowed to check out any book I wanted from the library. The other kids had to stick to the shelves for their grade level. One morning I saw one about World War I. It was a big book with a hard green cover. I flipped through it quickly and saw lots of photographs along with the print, and as the patriotic product of a family where all of the men did military service, I figured this might be some pretty good stuff. So I checked it out and took it back up to my classroom on the second floor.
Since the library period wasn’t over, I sat down at my desk, one of those all-in-one-piece deals with the top hinged at the back so you could open it up and store books and pencils inside. I laid the book on top and flipped open the front cover. I don’t exactly remember the title, but I think it had something to do with A Record of the Great War in Words and Pictures. Cool, I thought. I liked army stuff. My parents had bought me a G.I. Joe set, with a toy machine gun with a clip-on bayonet and a tripod, a plastic canteen that snapped on your belt, and a net-covered helmet you could stick grass and weeds in to camouflage yourself when you were in the middle of a battle. We had lots of battles.
The kid down the street had these old army duffel bags his dad brought home from his service in World War Two, and he stuffed them with play guns, and silver grenades made from the whipped cream canisters his dad threw away at their restaurant. We’d put all of our weapons in the bags and troop off to the Ravine. It was at the end of the street just above us, where they had dug out foundation space—a big, wide trench—for houses that hadn’t been built yet. We crawled up and down through the tall weeds on the sides of the Ravine, hiding behind the biggest clumps, taking aim and mowing down the enemy by the thousands. To clean out their machine gun nests, we’d lob a whipped cream grenade or two and then charge in, guns blazing.
Most of the men in our lives had been to war, or, like my dad and my uncle, prepared to go to war until it ended before they were ready to ship out. War was an honorable thing to do, if you did it for your country. Hell, even my church seemed to be behind it. They put a plaque on the wall of the sanctuary, off to the one side, near the pew where my family always sat, to honor the local boys who marched off to WWI and WWII and never came home. I always got the impression most everyone sitting there on Sunday morning was pretty damn proud of the sacrifice our Methodist sons had made. And most Sundays the minister would pray for our servicemen. Once, when the pastor showed up at our house for a visit, I was set up with my G.I. Joe outfit in the front yard, and mowed him down with my machine gun as he walked up to the house. He just waved to me and smiled. I felt pretty proud of myself.
All of which made me really surprised by my reaction to the library book. I started turning the pages, and there was lots of print, pretty small. I don’t remember actually reading any of it. I just kept flipping pages until I came to the middle, where they had a whole section, probably ten or fifteen pages, with lots of photographs. The first ones showed soldiers in uniform, those old doughboy outfits, with spats and a hat like Smokey the Bear and the forest rangers wear. In a couple of the pictures, the photographer had climbed up on something so he could angle down on the troops as they marched by in spiffy formations. They had their rifles, bayonets attached, clamped against their left shoulder with their right hand, and their hats squarely on their heads.
In one shot, the photographer caught them with booted foot and spatted ankle extended; it almost seemed like they were actually moving down the street. Huge crowds lined the sidewalks, men, women, children on their dad’s shoulders. Some waved American flags; some had their mouths open like they were shouting something encouraging to the soldiers. I don’t remember noticing how old they were. When you’re ten, anyone over sixteen seems pretty grown up. But, I’d bet they were young. That’s who goes to fight, mostly. Brave young men off to fight for freedom, justice, and the American way. I’m sure they were young. And I’m sure, based on the pictures I came to last, that many of them didn’t come home, or if they did, they didn’t enjoy it all that much.
I know this because when I flipped to one of the last pages, I saw fifteen or twenty soldiers sitting in a row on a long bench. Some were smiling, some weren’t. But as I looked closer, I saw plainly that none of them had all of his limbs. Some lacked both legs and sat on the bench, probably had to be propped there by someone else, their stumps pointing toward the camera, most had trousers folded over the blunt ends of what had been legs. The photographer had captured every possible permutation of limb arrangements. No legs. No arms. One arm and both legs. No arms and one leg. Both arms and one leg. No arms or legs.
I don’t know how a picture like that would strike you, but I had never seen anything so grisly in my life. Hell, my mother wouldn’t even let us go to the movies uptown at the local movie theater if she thought they had any sex or violence in them. And we couldn’t read comic books, not even the G.I. Joe ones. Sitting there staring at that picture, I felt my stomach start to churn a little. I’m not sure why, I mean, I knew they were soldiers, and I think I knew that soldiers are wounded in war, even when they’re not killed outright. But I just didn’t expect them to be there in that book and I didn’t expect them to look as pathetic as they did.
I turned the page, but it didn’t make me feel any better. There, in a full page photograph, was a pile of bodies, all naked, and all very, very dead, their heads and arms and legs flopped in all directions from the force of being tossed onto what I remember as a ten foot high pile of carcasses. I don’t remember if I read the caption under the picture, so I can’t remember whether they were soldiers or civilians. I couldn’t really tell whether they were men or women. They were just dead. And if they were in this book, they must have died in the war. I don’t know if it was an award-winning photo. It wasn’t a close-up. But whatever its aesthetic qualities, what it shouted to me was death. So much death.
The only dead person I had seen up to that point was a great uncle, lying in his casket surrounded by flowers, and I’d only had a glimpse of him. I wasn’t tall enough to look him in the face. This was more death than I could handle. My stomach shifted from slightly queasy to completely nauseous. I thought I was about to throw up right there in my classroom. I slammed the book shut, grabbed it off my desk, and ran back down to the library and slid it onto the sign-out desk. I didn’t bother to tell the librarian why I brought it back and I don’t recall that she asked. I just wanted that book and the horror it contained out of my sight. Obviously, if I’m telling you about it now, I never got it out of my mind. It did some damage to a little, patriotic boy from a family with a fine military tradition.