Authors: E. L. Doctorow
It is hot and unpleasant in the concert grounds, and a long time goes by without any concert. I have long since finished my egg salad sandwich and I’m hungry again. The crowd is immense. I sit between my parents. They are surrounded by their friends. Around the friends sit thousands of people. If something bad was going to happen, it would have happened already, everyone reasons. I can’t imagine what harm could come to us here in this friendly crowd. They are like an army. Our own people are cool. They are relaxed. They kid around. My father reads something aloud from a book, something funny, and everyone laughs and comments on it. My mother is smiling. She sits cross-legged on the grass, with her long, pleated skirt billowed over her legs so you can’t see them. She holds me against her side. My father waves his cigar as he talks. He talks constantly. Every once in a while he settles his eyeglasses firmly on the bridge of his nose. Ben Cohen, lying on his side on the grass, holds his pipe and listens to him. Dr. Mindish listens. Nate Silverstein, the furrier, listens. It is clear they all have respect for him. No, not so much respect as fondness. Fondness for him and respect for his energy. He seems tireless, full of electricity, restless, constantly speaking his thoughts and postulating his ideas.
Finally, a long distance off, there is a shout, a cheer, and then a massive roar as Robeson appears. I can’t make him out too well. His voice comes to me larger than his small figure in the distance, but it is a deep voice, an incredibly deep resounding voice, and it reminds me of Williams who lives in our cellar. They are both black. I wonder why Williams did not come with us. Robeson sings spirituals. He sings
Old Man River.
Peat Bog Soldiers.
He sings I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night, alive as you and me. He is accompanied by a pianist. I wonder if he lives in the cellar of his house.
We are all cheering wildly when the concert is over. Everyone talks busily as we walk to the bus. It has turned into a happy day. There have been ennobling sentiments. But in the parking lot my mother grasps my hand and I find that we are hurrying.
The bus moves off in a line of buses and cars. Peekskill policemen direct the traffic. “This is not the way we came,” Mindish says, leaning forward from his seat behind my father’s. My father rises wonderingly, in a sitting position. We are going uphill on a winding, narrow road through some woods. The buses are in low gear, the gear of pain, the sound that makes an engine human. I notice something odd—three or four grown men running along the edge of the woods. They run faster than the bus. I lean forward to see where they are running, and see more men coming out of the woods. They are throwing things toward the road. “Look out,” my father screams. At this moment the bus jerks to a stop, stalling in gear. The driver throws up his arms. There is the sound of shattering glass. A cry goes through the bus, the involuntary leaping out from throats of perception. My father sits back down, holding the railing of the seat in front of him. We all sit dumbfounded as if it was a show that had nothing to do with us. The driver’s face is decorated in blood. From the front to the back of the bus, people are ducking, like dominoes going down in a row, a beautiful pattern of shatter appears on the window alongside my mother’s head, and in the moment before I feel my head being forced down to the seat, I see a man with a boulder, heaving it into the rear window of the bus in front of us.
People are shouting to get the bus moving. But the driver is out of his seat, and even if he weren’t, there is no place to go. There are buses in front, and buses behind. The thunking of rocks on the sides and roof of the bus punctures the ears. Glass breaks like music. People cry out. “What is this,” demands my father’s voice, above me. “What is this!”
Flying in with the rocks, like notes tied to them with string, the words kike, commie bastard, jew commie, red. I listen carefully. Jew. Commie. Red. Nigger. Bastard. Kike. Nigger-lover. Red. Jew bastard. These words are shouted. The rocks, some of them as big as my head, are propelled by the motives of education. “Well teach you!” the enraged voices cry. “This will teach you, you commie bastard kikes!”
My mother and I are squeezed down between our seat and the back of the seat in front. We are kneeling. Every rattle,
every crash operates like a simple machine for the tightening of her hold upon me. I imagine some kind of system of pulleys activated by shouts, pounding rocks, shattering glass. Inch by inch I am buried more firmly under her, until my head rests on her folded leg, and her breasts and arms cover the curve of my back, and her hands hold me by the bones of my ass. I feel through the cloth of her skirt her thigh muscle twitching under my mouth and chin, quivering in what—fear? rage? exertion?—and she is laying her head on my back and muttering into my backbone. Murderers. Dogs. Scum. It is the muttering epithet of my grandma, but in English. Fascist scum. Nazi pigs. Murderers.
I am in an intoxication of fear. The thought of my grandma has suggested a new meaning of her famous curses—not as the rantings of an old madwoman, but the exact and potent introjection of measures of doom into our lives. The bus is rocking. We are all going to die. My heart beats furiously but I am aware of the material of my mother’s skirt—a rough, wool cloth, which will leave a rashlike sensitivity on my cheek.
I hear Mindish yelling at my father to get down. “Pauly!” my mother cries over my back. “What are you doing! Paul!”
My father, crouching in the aisle, has seen something through the window. He steps over people and around them, making his way tortuously to the front of the bus. “Officer!” he shouts. “Officer!”
My spindly father, spinning his way to the front. To the war. This mustn’t be permitted. “This mustn’t be permitted,” he calls back in explanation. Then he is at the door commanding the driver to open it. The bus is rocking. He holds the overhead bar, insisting that the driver open the door of the bus. But the others yell to keep the door shut. “We can’t permit this,” he turns around to say. “We cannot permit this outrage.”
Mindish has followed him forward. The big dentist is smiling. “Get down, Paul. What are you doing! Get back here!” My father has sighted the policeman again, and is trying to pry open the double door with his hands. He shouts through the opening in the rubber guards of the door, shouts through the opening he makes with his hands. “Officer! Why do you permit this!” He struggles to fold back the doors, straining like Samson
between the pillars, with his thin arms. He has attracted the attention of the commandos outside, and they are trying to help him open the door. We are at a moment of great insanity. My father’s entire left arm disappears through the doors. He leans at a crazy tilt. He is like one of my knotted shoelaces pulled up tight to its knot. How do I know this? If I was crouched behind a seat, how do I remember this? Calmly, with his right hand, my father removes his glasses, folds them against his chest and hands them up to Mindish. The deliberateness of this act terrifies me. I see something I don’t recognize, something I never knew with my child’s confidence in my perception of my parents. I am stunned. Now the bus stops rocking. The patriots have zeroed in on their target. They are all up at the front, outside the door. We stare in silence as my father silently experiences the breaking of his arm. Sweat pops up on his forehead. His face contorts. “Open the door!” my mother screams. “Open the door before they break him in half!” When the door opens with a hiss, my father flies from our view. A roar goes up. Two men who have been holding him in the insane tug of war tumble out after him. It is a comic sight to see them all go flying out the door, connected like sausages. I cannot see what is happening outside. There are frightening sounds. “Stop them!” my mother cries, pushing into the aisle. I am slammed against the seat. People are surging out to do battle, or to run, I can’t tell which. Above the heads, at the front of the bus, I see Mindish holding aloft my father’s folded glasses. He is a tall man and has this weird, embarrassed expression on his face, a smile for the ridiculous idea of being at someone’s mercy.
I don’t remember how we got home. There were police sirens, there was groaning and crying on this road through the woods. There was an ambulance. But I remember my father lying on the old couch in the living room. His arm was in splints, the whole top of his head was wrapped in a bandage, like an odd hat. There were scratches on his face. But he looked at me through glasses that were unbroken. He tried to smile through his cracked, swollen mouth. He couldn’t talk. I stared at him and I was frightened. There were tears in his eyes. My mother sat on the floor beside him, looking at the
floor, and she held his hand. Their heads were close. They looked so desolate that I began to cry. I had not cried at all before this, but I cried now, and my mother pulled me over to her and sat me on her lap, and held me against her breast, and held my father’s hand and kissed it.
So there were limits to his failure. There were times when this passionately unreliable, naïve childish being found the world perfectly disposed. My mother was right about the Robeson Concert, but my father was headstrong. I began to appreciate the mystery in the dark intercourse of adults. The phone kept ringing—that night, the next day. Everyone said that if Pauly had not done what he had done, the bus would have been turned over and God knows how many crushed to death. It was true that in that whole bus, he was the only man who did anything. Nobody else could move. I thought about it a lot. That was something to be proud of, that he got up to do something. But
he did was mysterious and complicated and not anything like what people were saying. I thought about it for a long time. I decided he was trying to get the attention of the cop because he really thought the cop would help. The Law would arrest the Fascist hoodlums. That is what put him at the door and made him vulnerable.
Long after everyone stopped talking about it, I tried to work out this mystery in my mind. Rochelle was nervous because he wasn’t going to work. It was disturbing to have him around the house all day. No money was coming in. He complained of headaches. The doctor bills were criminally high. My father didn’t go back to the store until the cast on his arm was dirty. But I could not forget the calm ferocity of his decision, folding his glasses against his chest and handing them to Mindish. I could not forget the commitment in his absurdly naked eyes; or in his act, the quality of calmly experienced, planned revolutionary sacrifice—
Bukharin provided the most interesting defense of the Purge Trial of 1938. He pleaded guilty and went out of his way on several occasions to affirm his responsibility for the sum total of crimes committed by the defendant block of “rightists and Trotskyites,” of which he was considered a leader. He
vehemently agreed that he was guilty of conspiracy, treason, and counterrevolution. And having agreed, he took exception during the trial to every specific charge brought against him. Under duress to testify on cue, he nevertheless contrived to indicate with the peculiar kind of overtone characteristic of Soviet voices under Stalin, that he and Russia as well were being victimized. And what good did it do him except that he became a hero in a novel and an image of sorrowful nobility to Sovietologists. We may say of Stalin, in turn, that the show trials of 1936 to 1938 as well as the thousands of less structured exterminations carried out under his aegis reflected his determination to make an ally out of Hitler. Kennan says Stalin had to make sure there would be no opposition to fault him in his unpopular move known to the world as the Non-Aggression Treaty of 1939. Bukharin and many of the other defendants were anti-Fascists. Whatever Stalin’s reasons for wanting to make an ally of Hitler—whether in despair of promoting Russian interests with the Western countries, or out of a keen impulse toward a Fascist-Soviet hegemony, or because he needed time to prepare his country for war with Hitler which he knew was imminent (but if this was so, why did he kill his ranking army officers?), it can be said that this, like every major 1930’s policy move of Soviet Russia the Great Socialist Experiment, was predicated on the primacy of the nation-state, the postponement of Marxist dreams, and the expendability of the individual. E. H. Carr suggests that the genius of Stalin was in his recovery of Russian nationalism, dormant under the westernized, internationalist Lenin. “Socialism in one country” was Stalin’s affirmation of his country’s fierce, inferiority-hounded pride in the face of the historic, tragic, western hostility to backwoods Russia.
“International Marxism and international socialism, planted in Russian soil and left to themselves, found their international character exposed to the constant sapping and mining of the Russian national tradition which they had supposedly vanquished in 1917. Ten years later, when Lenin was dead, the leaders who had most conspicuously represented the international and western elements in Bolshevism—Trotsky, Zinoviev,
and Kamenev, not to mention minor figures like Radek, Krasin, and Rakovsky—had all disappeared; the mild and pliable Bukharin was soon to follow. The hidden forces of the Russian past—autocracy, bureaucracy, political and cultural conformity—took their revenge not by destroying the revolution, but by harnessing it to themselves in order to fulfill it in a narrow national framework….”
This insight of Carr’s is useful in understanding such moments of agony to world-wide socialism as the Soviet refusal to support the Communist-left coalition in Germany that might have prevented Hitler’s rise to power; the Soviet betrayal of the Republican cause in Spain (many of the purge victims were veterans of the Spanish campaign); the cynical use of the popular front and collective security as elements in Soviet diplomacy; and the non-aggression pact. Thus, to those critics who see in Stalin the “Genghis Khan” he was called by Bukharin, or the extreme paranoid he is sorrowfully admitted to have been by today’s Soviet leadership, we must say: no revolution is betrayed, only fulfilled.
Daniel Thermidor found considerable play in the Volvo’s steering