England May 19, 2012Posted by The Typist in A Fiction, New Orleans, The Narrative, The Typist, Toulouse Street.
I read a single word today that briefly but profoundly disrupted one small but important part of my life.
I found it tucked behind a sheet of plastic in a small faux-leather folding wallet containing two pieces of paper, one on each side.
The word, typed onto a bit of cardboard in 1946, was so faded as to be illegible. I tried scanning the wallet for fear trying to remove the bits of cardboard would destroy them, but the result was useless. And so with forensic delicacy I extracted the two pieces and placed them carefully on the scanner, and set the resolution to 1200 dots per inch. The result was still only partially legible but better.
The word was so faded that even at 100 percent zoom it still could not be read. I clipped a copy out and put it in a document until that one small black of type filed the screen and I still could not read it. I stared at it until it rendered itself, like one of those optical illusions you must focus on until it reveals itself.
The word was England.
That word, typed into a box titled Battles and Campaigns, called into question a battle narrative I have carried with me since I was a young boy. For a moment that word caused me to question not just the story but every word I have written here about the margin between fact and fiction, truth and fiction, the gray space of memory. And I didn’t know what to do with this new knowledge. I decided I will tell one person I think should know because she will read this and corner me and demand I tell her. I will tell the one person in my life to whom I can tell anything. And I think I will tell no one else. Some stories are best told to the dead.
It could be a government error of haste when there were rail yards and harbors filled with men for whom this tiny piece of paper, an honorable discharge, must by typed, row upon row of clattering with quotas to fill. Likely the typist sat in a room filled with men who cared only that it be honorable, and that they could not go home. The discharge lists the EAMETO medal which does not necessarily indicate combat but service in the European/African theater. In front of that is another citation that can’t be read. It ends in O and I can’t find it on any list. His listed assignment at the time of discharge was Administrative NCO with the rank of Sergeant.
It is impossible to know for certain the relationship between the story and this small piece of paper.
No, it is not impossible to know, but the one person I can ask I will not. Perhaps my mother believed this narrative, because she knew the teller so well she knew it must be true, could read every facial tick more accurately than any lie detector’s needle. Perhaps she wanted to believe that narrative, Odysseus returned from the dead, “and I only alone am escaped to tell the.” Either way why question their memories, my mothers and my fathers. I remember as I write I was told others who were there, comrades, told this story. The parents of one of the dead, who not doubt received a painful letter from an office, traveled from the West Coast to New Orleans to hear the story from my father’s own lips.
What is ultimately called into question is not the story but that one word. Words are incredibly powerful, even a simple government document. Perhaps clerk was his last assignment and that was all that mattered to this clerk. He said he got a terrible case of trench foot from laying in that flooded furrow, but given the horrific nature of the event–your comrades of years crying out and dying all around you–I have wondered since if his malady was not instead Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or what was called them combat fatigue, a condition considered less honorable than his discharge, nothing like the sympathetic view of PTSD of today, a desk in England a useful task for a man traumitized by combat. Perhaps that single, lazy error did not bother my father who just wanted to board a train home. We are all terribly concerned with our permanent records: our credit score, our grades, our evaluations at work. My father was more concerned with returning to his young wife and new child. Only fools like myself are as obsessed with words, and this moment of doubt clearly revealed to me how much every word must count or must go, whether we are discussing Carver or Faulkner
What I learned from this moment of profound doubt was that the truth lives in memory, not in the alleged facts of a small piece of paper in a dusty cabinet in Washington. Perhaps the story I was told as a child was not the whole truth and nothing but the truth but the version colored by the crash of artillery and the chatter of machine guns, a story of a day and night spent in a damp furrow, digging little mud shelves and lining them with paper to field strip a Browning Automatic Rifle, a story not of heroism but of simple survival, better forgotten and not worth correcting a harried clerk when all you wanted was to go home, the story told later because your son insisted on hearing about the war, as story told as best it could be remembered of a moment from which we expect a flash of brilliant clarity but instead a moment of remote terror. History records what is written whether it is correct or not, that tiny piece of cardboard, and not what is remembered and passed down by the tale (I have told my son the story). The real history is lost unless it is written down. Was the siege of Troy half as heroic as Homer made it? Most likely it was not but the blood still ran red and the people of Troy fled in terror through their burning streets. If not for the maker of the song none of that would be remembered. Achilles and Agamemnon would be forgotten.
I prefer the version in which they are not forgotten.