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Authors: Matthew Stadler,Columbia University. Writing Division

Tags: #Young men

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BOOK: Landscape: Memory
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Dear Robert,

Have I mentioned the aeroplanes? As a bird man you'd fancy them, I do believe, a good sight more than the rest of this war. They're announced by a thin distant buzzing and the wobbling speck on the horizon. Coming from the west they're quite welcome and I watch their crazy, weightless flight with pleasure and no small wonder. From the east is of course treachery and I retire to the music room post haste. I dream of giving up this horrible doctoring and taking to the air corps, though I fear I might jump, out of sheer curiosity, once airborne.

They're a wondrous sight, dipping and turning, buzzing down low to drop their small bombs. I've never managed to tell if it's the mail or a mortar that's coming. What a treacherous war! Something to do with surfaces, I believe. Surfaces dissolving. It was once clearly the land we fought on. What is that now? We've miners tunneling under to bomb us from below, and aeroplanes sailing over to bomb us from above. Mortar and shells come singing in from invisible artillery stationed somewhere beyond the curve of the earth. At sea there are U-boats, silent as sharks and deadly. It's no wonder I feel such affection for Jerry, dug into his trench just fifty yards distant. He and I are stuck here on our dirty bits of land, wedded to the same muddy field. And we sing with one another up and down the middle ground. It's all we can do to fill the empty air, to keep away the demons, the bombs, the shrapnel and gas.

19 JANUARY 1915

I went to do homework with my friend Flora Profuso today. She's in her last year at Lowell, like me, but she's three years older, as she came back from the Philippines only last year after her father died. Her mother decided the Philippines was just too much for a woman and her little girl and they moved back to where her mother had grown up, into the same house actually.

Lowell said Flora would have to do the last year of high school again to demonstrate her competence and get a diploma. Flora drives a motorcar with a racing number on the side. She does all the engine work herself.

We're best friends ever since my "fight" with Jeffy Baird. Jeffy came up and slugged me in the face and I said, "You oughtn't have done that," meaning that hitting someone was wrong, but he took it as a threat and ran away. Flora, who was standing close by, was impressed that I was so principled and resolute in my pacifism, particularly in the face of an unprovoked attack.

"It's all so typically juvenile," she said of Jeffy, and she wiped my bloody nose with the grease rag from her motorcar. In actual fact Jeffy hit me because I'd been teasing him mercilessly all day long, but I kept mum on that detail and mentioned, instead, my ethical training.

"My mother's had me read summaries of all the Greeks, Mill, and most of the Germans. I'm required to speculate on their application to any number of dilemmas."

"How very wise," Flora allowed, truly intrigued. "I must meet your mother sometime. Is she involved in suffrage?"

I nodded yes. "And labor rights, though less so." Actually she had nothing to do with labor rights. I was certain, though, she would support the cause if given the opportunity.

"I've noticed you, in class." This drew my full attention, as all flattery did. "You're such a relief from all this," and she waved her hand about, stammering for a word to encompass the detestable entirety of things at Lowell, "all this
. Young people are so flimsy these days."

"Yes." I had to agree. "Flimsy. Though my friend Duncan is quite principled," I added because I liked him so much and I was certain he wouldn't mind being principled.

"Your recitation of Whitman impressed me." She meant my report in Mr. Spengler's class. I'd memorized "Spontaneous Me," which I read aloud, save the three controversial love stanzas. It all seemed so breathtaking to me. I didn't say much after. I remember Flora asking Mr. Spengler about the missing stanzas and him insisting we should not condemn Whitman, for all great artists are blind to certain aspects of civilized life.

"Have you read the Uranians?'' Flora asked.

"Ukrainians?" I had no idea what she was talking about.

"No, no. It was just a thought." And she brushed my shoulder, as though sweeping crumbs from the table. "I hope I don't bore you."

"No, certainly not. I like literature. I write my own little dramas and we play them in the parlor at home. You could come along to see the next one."

"Oh, could I? How sweet of you." She seemed to be distracted, though I understood her thanks to be genuine. I made nothing of it and smiled warmly into the silence. Then she squared up to me and looked into my eyes.

"Really I meant to ask a favor," she began. "My great ambition is choreography and I wonder if you would perform. In a dance of mine. So few boys are willing to participate in modern dance, I'm in a spot."

was not inclined toward modern dance either, but I found I'd been charmed. "Is it ballet?" I asked, uncertain what difference that might make.

"Oh, no, no. Nothing old or stuffy. It's interpretive dance in the style of Miss Duncan. I'm looking for a Ganymede, and as he'll be bare-legged and bare-chested I must have a boy. He must, of course, be sensitive and modern in his sensibility, as you most certainly are."

Her dance involves five girls and me. It's all very artistic and "kinetic," as Flora says. I'm clothed in what most resembles a Hindoo diaper, a fine white cloth wrapped around my waist in bunches, the rest of me bare. The girls carry me above their heads, one assigned to each limb and one for the torso. I'm manipulated through a variety of motions. Incipient Spring carried on the cosmic winds. The season of growth begins as a helpless infant, Flora has explained to me, but becomes a locus of power and violent beauty. That's the tough part. I've not yet managed to whirl about with convincing power nor violent beauty. Too often I get dizzy and stumble, but we've another month and a half yet to practice.

Today we spent the morning preparing a report for Mr. Spengler. "Beauty and the Great War," we'd entitled it, intending to present poetry from the war.

"Dogey," Flora said, for that had become my nickname, "do you find Rupert Brooke handsome?" She held up a magazine that pictured the young poet bare-shouldered.

"Oh, yes, very much." And it was true, I did. "He looks so Greek. I imagine he's very strong and agile, not like some of those fat old Englishmen." I took the magazine and looked closely at the carefully posed photo. "I'm not so fond of this photo, though. He looks like a statue."

Flora took it back for close inspection. "But that's the style. They want to make clear his affinity to the Greeks."

I looked again at his smooth marble skin, the soft hollow at the base of his throat.

"Yes, I suppose. I'd rather see him shopping or falling in a lake somewhere. Maybe he'll read in San Francisco."

"He's at war, Dogey. Remember, 'Beauty and the Great War'? I imagine they'll all be over when it's over. All those Europeans. Maybe this summer, and we can take him out shopping or push him in a lake and you can take a picture."

I imagined shopping with Rupert Brooke. Would he wear a shirt? Would he stop to jot down poetic phrases with his quill pen and spill-proof inkpot? I lay there on Flora's bed, my head hung over the edge, looking at the photo there on the floor, and thought of this bare-shouldered man at war, dug into the trenches, the bullets singing through the air around him.

"Do you suppose war inspires great writing?" I asked.

"That's good, Dogey. That's good for the report. Our thesis will take a position on that and we'll choose three or four poems to defend it with."

"I'm serious, though. I wonder about war a lot." It was true. I had a lurid interest, fed mostly by my uncle's letters. "Do you suppose war is sexually exciting?" I asked, confident I could broach even the most personal subjects with Flora. "In the trenches, I mean. Imagine Rupert Brooke with no shirt on, just his trousers, throwing down his gun and jumping up onto the parapet, baring himself to the stinging bullets. Don't you suppose—"

"That is hardly typical conduct for the war," Flora interrupted. "Throwing down his gun and taking off his clothes? Oh, Dogey, you should be in charge of the war. Of course that would be sexually exciting."

"But even without all that, isn't it like that anyway? Isn't the danger and sweat and all that sort of thrilling? Isn't it kind of sexy in a way?" And Flora closed her eyes to give my unlikely thesis a chance in her imagination.

"I can't imagine it, Dogey. All I see is mud and blood. I'm too disgusted even to think of it."

"I never said it wasn't disgusting," I protested. "Just that it was mixed up with other stuff. Of course the war's disgusting." This was something we'd long ago agreed upon, but which I got muddled about in private. "I'm only trying to make sense of its appeal."

Another note from Father, tucked in here on this page.

"Songs are remembered in the bones, and passed, like temperament, mysteriously through the generations. Wolves and wind and sandstorms. Wood warblers. The swift water in the rill, dropping down from glaciers. Your mother and Ludwig Theobold Kosegarten (I'm certain we're related). They all of them have their songs.

"Ludwig wandered the wide green meadows near Griefswald, walking the rugged stony beach at Rügen. He wrote songs of that place, all there that sang. The root of memory is song.

"The song a cedar sings depends on its location, its girth, how deep in the soil it sits, the shape of its wood. How many years of winter storms have given it that particular voice, that long, low calling shaking down through the ground it's grown in? What songs do you sing, little fish?"

Dear Robert,

Does Belgium have its own primitive tongue? Something other than French or Flemish? God, we've made a mess of things here. A man in rags came dragging a sheep's head into the trench, weeping and bellowing some indecipherable syllables. Frisian? I suppose he once lived here.

Smithy's dead. I've no idea how. Out on patrol and never returned. His few books and tobacco are here beside me, drying out on the duckboards.

27 JANUARY 1915

We finished the
script last evening and Duncan slept over as we had to be out before dawn to go birding with my father. Mother allowed us to camp out in the living room, our bedrolls stretched out by the dying embers of the evening fire. We left the windows open wide for fresh air and curled in close and warm.

At some silent, empty hour Father came banging in through the pitch dark, sounding reveille through buzzing lips and stepping, accidentally, he said, on both our bums, like stepping-stones in a pond, on his way to close the window.

"Mush," he said, calling us to breakfast. "Mush and coffee." And he disappeared as quickly as he'd come, turning the lights up as he went out.

I tucked the tails of my nightshirt into some warm woolen pants I'd kept stuffed in at the foot of my bedroll and went to the kitchen where Father sat sipping coffee and giving a close inspection to a colorful hackle, plucked, I supposed, from the rough of some bird he hoped we'd encounter today. He had a magnifying glass and tweezers. I imagined the feather to be an organism of some sort, capable of sight and speech. My father was its doctor. Duncan walked past me in his undershorts, groggy and sniffling, headed, it seemed, for the mush.

"Are we after the owner of that hackle?" I asked Father, pulling up a chair beside him.

"We are the owner of this hackle," he corrected, raising his eyebrows at me. "I suspect we'll meet some relatives of its previous owner."

"Where?" I asked, leaning in for a close look.

"Lake Merced. We're driving."

Duncan looked up from his bowl of steaming oatmeal mush, his eyes bright with interest. "Can I drive?" he asked. "I'm very good and very safe."

"And very fast," I added.

"You'll have to wear pants and a shirt, of course," my father started.

"And goggles?" Duncan asked.

"And a helmet? And pads?" I added. "And can I drive?"

"You, little fish, may drive under a vow of strict secrecy. No one is to know. Not even me."

Nothing but an aeroplane could be more thrilling than our Model T. It was an aeroplane out Skyline Boulevard, us motoring through the clouds, lurching forward with every depression of the gas pedal, the wide road clear of all traffic in the dim gray light of dawn.

We sat three to the front seat, frozen to the teeth and wide-eyed from coffee, cold winds and the thrill of high speeds. Father drove first, to Golden Gate Park and west to the Great Highway. I took the wheel there. The least experienced, I'd be safe, Father figured, on the open straightaway that ran south along the shore.

It was pitch-black out to sea and various shades of gray to the east. I settled in, the motor idling, and took account of the numerous levers and pedals, the mysterious choke and the lively wheel. I had only the crudest understanding of the relationship of the various parts but felt too shy to ask any advice. The pedals, I was quite sure, operated on a principle similar to that of the pump organ, left down, right up, right down, left up and so forth. The fact that such essential mechanisms as the clutch and magneto in no way resembled any part of the pump organ was a source of some discomfort for me. But Father assured me the magneto was irrelevant and that I need merely pull out the clutch at his signal. Duncan would work the shift, also with my father's instruction.

"Comfy, little fish?" Father inquired, more mischievous than I wanted. "Clear of all pedals?" We bounced idly as the engine rumbled in its tin chamber.

"All clear," I assured him. Duncan wrapped his hand snug around the gear shift. He'd long ago memorized the various positions and their sequence.

"Clutch out," and I did, watching now as Duncan shoved the car into gear. "Engage the clutch now, slow, lots of gas, little fish, don't be timid." Father was almost screaming above the noise, bracing himself visibly and wisely as I complied and the car burst forward, spitting sand out from both back tires and veering left as I grappled with the wheel.

"Clutch out," Father screamed, feigning, I believe, hysteria. And I did and Duncan did and out it came again and more gas, all the way to third gear at which point Father settled into his seat and relaxed. Comfortably cruising south now, I began with the pump organ. Right in left out, left in right out. Once or twice was plenty for me to realize our car had little in common with the pump organ and I gave in to using just one pedal, the gas, and steering straight down the highway.

It was a glorious thrill, my head stuck out the side, face full into the salty sea wind, the powerful engine propelling us fast forward at the slightest touch of my foot. Duncan tugged at my sleeve to beckon me back and Father said I'd need to concentrate now as we reversed the whole start-up and came to a safe stop. Clutch out, engaged, and gas and brake and clutch some more, finally to a neutral idling and we'd made the three miles safe and speedy.

Duncan took the wheel with great confidence and sped off before my father could utter his first instruction. Our trip from the Great Highway to the southern flank of Lake Merced was fast, smooth and expert, Duncan controlling the auto like an extension of his own graceful body.

Along the southern reach of the lake Duncan pulled over and turned the motor off. As suddenly as that the machine went impossibly still and silent. The morning vapors rising off the lake drifted across the road waist-high. We three sat in silence, breathing soft clouds of breath and settling into the stillness. It was like being in church or dawn (which it was) or masturbation, which I may talk about if I wish and should not be ashamed. All of that fury and motion and then, after the climax, silent, empty breathing.

Father kept a canoe pulled up into the underbrush down along the southern shore. We loaded in, Duncan and I at either end and Father in the middle sporting his balaclava and muffler, a green woolen army blanket covering his lap. We paddled very little, mostly steering the boat and drifting, keeping close to shore and quiet. I had my sketch pad and spyglasses too.

Very little ever happened birding, but it was my favorite time. I felt my threshold completely lowered. Each rustle of the weeds or glimpse of color signaled something of interest. We three were wedded by our silence and our attentions, drifting through the open water in the same silent boat.

I resented my father's ability to leave, though, as he did more often now that I was older and he didn't have to worry about me. He'd nod his head upward, signaling us in to shore, and he'd climb out and walk off through the reeds without a word. If on foot, as we often were, I'd not even get the warning of a nod. I might hear a rustling and look up to see his back disappearing into the brush. When I was little I used to rush along after him, but he would whisper, "Don't follow just for my sake" and I knew quite clearly. Birding near to home, that might be the last I'd see of him. On longer trips it was assumed we'd meet up where we'd parted sometime in the late morning.

Having Duncan along was some help, as I could focus my good feeling on him, taking pleasure in his company and letting my father be. But I dreaded that nod of the head, even wishing, on trips like this one, that it would come sooner rather than later so I might be done with the waiting.

Despite all of that, the prospect of birding still thrills me, filling me with anticipation of silent time spent drifting. The calm, still moments stay in my mind, and even the dread takes on a precious quality, that moment of loneliness sitting in the wet reeds all mixed up in my joy in a way I couldn't possibly explain.


The Fair will open in two weeks, and they've planned a celebration to alert the world. President Wilson will issue the official opening from Washington while the wires buzz with news of its beginning. Messenger pigeons will be released. Ships departing will carry word, and a round-the-world auto race will commence from the city, alerting all points along its forty-five-thousand-mile route. The Scintillator will play across the night sky as Beachey flies his daredevil loops illuminated by spotlight and bright trails of fireworks attached to his tail and wingtips.

If you flew by overhead, say in a Zeppelin, you'd see an impressive city of domes, gargantuan in aspect and harmonious in coloring. The festive avenues are lined with full-grown palm and eucalyptus. The Palace of Fine Arts is swathed in creeping vines and bordered by the finished lagoon, looking like it's been there a thousand years. You might land to the northeast, where the aeroplanes land, or come in by yacht, docking at the marina. Perhaps you'll just drop from the sky, piercing the thin plaster of the Dome of the Ages, breaking your limbs and revealing the flimsy wood lathing that supports these impostors. Father calls it a "glorious masquerade" and still refuses to go, sore, I suppose, about the filling of the swamps. But he's just being fussy and I rather feel as Flora feels that it is just the thing for a young city in these chaotic times.

Mother thinks she'll be done with her panorama soon and hopes to display it somewhere on the fairgrounds. But she had been hasty in her work, skimming Ruskin and blocking her sketches off by intuition rather than geometry. The result is appealing to the eye but hopelessly out of proportion. I've cautioned her time and again as our work has proceeded, but she pays me no mind.

right," she insists.

"But it
right," I tell her. "You've been fooled by the flat surface. It's all in the book."

"But if it looks right, pumpkin, it
right. We mustn't quibble over aesthetics." This was her accustomed retreat.

"This isn't 'quibble,' Mummy. This is fact. You're the one who said to use the book."

"Art cannot be explained in a single book, dearest. We mustn't become slaves to our teachers."

are getting lazy, that's all," I concluded. "A true picture is drawn through attention to detail. Geometry. Hidden structure. All else is just fancy, vapors of the mind." This was a phrase from my parlor play. It made her mad.

"The pot ought not call the kettle black, tenderness. A neutral judge would have no trouble selecting the 'true' picture if asked to choose between our two 'fanciful vapors.' You needn't throw stones."

I thought some about the comparative "truth" of our two pictures and fell into a long silence. Our discussion seemed to have shifted onto dangerous ground, though I wasn't at all certain Mother had even noticed. It was like tugging at a little thread and finding one's guts suddenly spilling forth from a swiftly unraveling wound, the garment and flesh having turned out to be one and the same. I couldn't continue for fear it would never be contained.

It's just that something troubles me about the Fair, what might count as a "true" picture of the Fair. Something about surfaces. It
seems so wrong. I can't help but feel queasy when I touch the bare wood lathing of an unfinished wall, or imagine the enormously thin shells of those gigantic domes. For all my glib agreement with Flora, the Fair always gives me the shivers.

I'll look down from the woods at the eastern edge of the Presidio, gazing down from the thick grove of eucalyptus through the scattering ocean mist, and take in that impossible panorama of golden domes and broad, palmed avenues peopled by milling throngs, dwarfed to the size of insects by distance and comparison.

And then my head feels empty and weightless, as though the wind is blowing through it, and my body becomes sensitive all over, like a shivering. Sometimes I just want to cry. What is it that's begun unraveling? It's all so elusive. To set the truth of my memory clearly down on canvas . . . that thread seemed simple enough. But it's dug suddenly deeper into me, dropped down into my center. Something about the appearance of things unhinges me.

The only thing that's right is Maybeck's Palace, a hollow ruin built in a hundred days. He's asked that they plant cedars to mimic its broad sweep and that they leave it all be, the building to collapse and decay slowly over the generations that pass as the cedars grow tall among the ruins. I find that reassuring.

BOOK: Landscape: Memory
5.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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