At The Tombs
of The Known Soldiers


A Moe Minsky Tale
Written By Al Geto

 

 1.

1924


       Every sizeable family can count on having at least one real nut. In Dutch’s it was his Aunt Greta, his father’s third sister. But it wasn’t until his twelfth birthday, in the reign of Calvin Coolidge, that Dutch had a glimmer of what it was all about. She was unwelcome in their homes, rejected by her patriotic brother who hung out the flag every July Fourth, pitied by his wife, and despised by everyone else in the clan. She had eloped at eighteen with a much older, brawny man they castigated for belonging to a longshoreman’s union. Now widowed, Aunt Greta, a nurse, tiny, doll-faced, vibrant, had dark, searching eyes and wore her auburn hair in a corona. In their coded conversations when referring to her, Dutch’s parents hinted at Greta’s career as a jailbird, a traitor, and a woman who disdained brassieres and who smoked cigarettes. Dutch secretly admired her defiance and her ability to face the world alone, considering her handicaps.

       The day after his birthday Dutch’s mother sent him over with the remains of the cake. Aunt Greta lived in a worn out Brooklyn neighborhood near the Gowanus Canal in a wreck of a house. It had begun to fall apart for lack of repairs, even the doorbell undependable, and now the telephone had been disconnected. When Dutch got off the bus and started up the street he saw a familiar hulk in a faded army jacket, the brass buttons mostly gone, standing in the narrow space between a stucco dwelling and its garage. He was urinating against the wall, splashing his baggy pants. It was his cousin Terry with that grief-stricken expression in his eyes and sad clown smile.

        “Hey, Terry,” he called softly, hoping nobody was watching. Terry finished and shuffled out forgetting to button his fly, as usual.

        “Gimme a penny and I sing ya Yankee Doodle,” he offered in a deep, vacant voice.

        “Come on, let’s go home,” Dutch said. “My mom baked a cake for you. See?”

       Terry hadn’t shaved in a week. His wild hair danced. His nose ran. Dutch took his arm and he followed along in his zombie shuffle. When they passed the corner candy store some kids eating ice cream cones hopped out.

        “It’s Nutsy Fagin!” one of them yelled. “Come on, Nutsy, sing us a song!”

        “I ain’t Nutsy. I’m Terry,” he droned.

       “Here’s a penny, Nutsy. Sing us Yankee Doodle!”

        “Leave him alone,” Dutch said. One of them shoved a penny in Terry’s hand and he began. He sang like a victrola at the wrong speed, in a monotone, so fast they could hardly make out the words.

        “YankeeDoodlewenttotownridingonapony, stuckafeather inhiscapandcalleditmacaronimacaronimacaroni!” He repeated the last words as if he couldn’t let go of them. The kids stamped and whistled and he bellowed it all twice again without pause until they walked away laughing.

        Terry’s mother let them into the house, worried because he hadn’t come back sooner. “Are you all right, sweetheart?” she said. She wiped his nose, buttoned his fly and told him to wash his hands. “And brush your hair, darling,” she called. She wanted to remove his jacket but he refused.

        “I’m Yankee Doodle,” he said, towering above her, grinning.

        “Let’s give Dutch his present,” Aunt Greta said, and handed Dutch a small package tied with a string.

       “Gee, thanks!” he said, opening it to find a book called ‘The Jungle’.
He began examining it. “Is it about apes?” he asked.

        “Well, you could call them that,” she said. “It’s about the meat-packing industry.”

       “Oh, wow,” he said, not sure what to say.
       
        She prepared cups of milk and served slices of the cake as they sat around the kitchen table. Dutch, the only friend Terry entirely trusted, often came over to play endless games of checkers, but after the cake and milk Terry flopped on the beat-up sofa, sprawled like a broken doll, and fell asleep.

        “Sweetheart, chop your fingers off if they ever send for you,” she said. It wasn’t the first time Dutch had heard that from her, but it was the first time he attempted a reply.

        “Don’t we have to defend our country?” he asked.
       
        “Of course. When the Martians come I’m sure you’ll run over here with your BB gun to protect me.”

        “I don’t mean the Martians- “

       “Oh? Who then?”

        He couldn’t say. He didn’t know who.

        “Terry had to go three thousand miles across the ocean to fight who. And you know who won?”

       “We did.”

        “You think Terry won?”

        “Well,” he began, fully aware Terry had lost. Lost everything. She had often shown him photographs of Terry diving off the high board, lifting weights, in his cap and gown holding a diploma. He was an empty shell now, completely dependent on his mother.

        “I’ll tell you who won, dear,” she said sharply. “The munitions makers won, the bankers won, the silk-shirt crowd won, the politicians who drafted the boys to fight but never went themselves. They won. Look what they sent back to me. He can’t even dress himself.”

        “It’ll never happen again,” Dutch assured her. “President Wilson said it was the war to end all wars. And my father and mother said so, too.”

        “Good for them. Wilson was a fool and a liar. If they don’t know that yet they’ll find it out soon enough. How can your family swallow all that crap? And tell your mother to stop sending me cake. What I need is the rent.” She burst into tears and just as suddenly quieted down. “I’m sorry. I’m very upset. Terry’s getting worse. I can only work part-time now. You don’t have three dollars on you, do you? I’d pay you back next week.” All he had was a dollar but she wouldn’t take it. Before he left he put it on the table when she wasn’t looking.

        “Why did they put her in jail?” he asked his mother while he dried the dishes as she washed them. She paused, leaning over the sink clutching the sponge. Her tall frame stiffened, her angular face tightened.

        “When we went to war to fight the Kaiser she joined a bunch of maniacs who were against it. They fought with the police. They chained themselves to Federal property. She’s a real crazy, a pacifist, an anarchist or something. She tried to prevent Terry, that poor thing, from enlisting.”

        “She said nearly a million people died in it.”

        “What could we do? The Germans were bayoneting the Belgian babies and raping the women. Everybody had to do their part. I spent the whole war wrapping bandages. Don’t listen to her. She’ll drive you crazy with her big mouth.” His father who had been listening at the kitchen table spoke up, belching loudly.

        “I don’t want you near that woman, you hear? She’s dangerous. She’s nuts. Brooklyn, the most beautiful borough in the city, and she picks the most stinking part of it, that canal.”

        “She’s broke,” his mother said.

        “It’s running with rats,” his father said. “Stop sending him there Ingrid! I don’t want any more cops coming around here asking me questions about her.”

        Dutch disobeyed his father’s order a number of times. He presented the information his mother had imparted to him to his Aunt Greta. Steaming with anger she gave her answer in one word.

        “Idiots!” she shouted.

        “Were you an anarchist?” he asked.

        “No! But I could be now,” she laughed bitterly under her anger.

        He wanted to ask if she had any bombs but instead managed to peep into her closets. He found them virtually empty except for a dozen milk bottles she planned to return for the two cent deposit due on each of them.

        That spring Dutch graduated from grammar school. In July he was sent to the boys’ camp he had been attending for the past two years. Chosen for leading roles in dramatic programs he also won the gold medal in the junior hurdles. When he came home at summer’s end they told him Terry had died and his Aunt Greta had moved to California. Her name was never again mentioned in his presence.

        Through high school and college, he thought often about her, though occupied by his scholastic life, by music lessons, sports, and girls. The family had shown no interest in keeping track of Greta, and he later made a secret effort to locate her by sending letters to the old address, hoping they would be forwarded, but they failed to produce a reply. As he grew up, reached manhood, married and became a father, her image and Terry’s remained vividly in his memory.


2.

1944

        But for his mother’s unexpected demise, two years to the day following Pearl Harbor, when the newly minted Lt. Dutch Arnholt and his wife, Laura, were rummaging through things after the funeral, he might never have known what became of his aunt. Packets of letters saved in a shoebox, some bound with rubber bands, others loose, fell out of the box. Two of the loose envelopes no longer containing letters were from her but addressed to him with return addresses scribbled on the back flap. His parents must have intercepted his mail. The postmarked dates were nearly fifteen years old. He was furious.

        “Goddamnit,” he said angrily. “They had no right to do that even if I was only a kid! What’s more, they told me she went to California!” He showed Laura the faint postmark. “She’s in Miami. If she’s still there.”

        “Call Miami information,” Laura suggested. He looked at the sympathetic expression on Laura’s heart-shaped face, embraced and kissed her.

        “That flashed through my mind, too,” he said. “And then I thought, Christ- I’d have to tell her I’m in uniform.” He picked up the telephone anyway and tried. No one of that name was in the Miami directory.

        There was little time to pursue it now in any case. He had obtained a special pass to attend the funeral and was due back the following night to re-join his unit at the Port of Embarkation. The moment of parting for the second time from Laura and their year old son, Eric, was not easy. He had calculated his chances of making it back at fifty-fifty since he was not a combat infantryman but in a supply unit operating behind the lines. He hugged and kissed them both and, with a last look at his boy, fled down the walk to the waiting cab. It was not until more than two years later that he returned, and then on a hospital ship that docked at Norfolk. His company had been guarding an ammunition dump blown up by Nazi fire at the Battle of the Bulge.

        “I’m lucky,” he wrote to Laura. “I saw my friends torn to pieces. I can’t tell you how lucky I am. They are trying to save my leg and I think I’ll make it. Give Eric a kiss for me!” He added that she should cancel her plans to come down to see him as he expected to be home soon.

        But it was not as soon as he hoped. More than a month later, still occupying a bed in the same hospital, he confronted the doctor making rounds and demanded some indication of how long more he had to remain. He could walk now despite a limp, though he still was obliged to use crutches.

        “You don’t want to ruin it,” the surgeon advised. “We’re getting you off practically brand new buddy. Casualties are pouring in and we’ve got our hands full. A dozen new staff came in only yesterday and things are going to move along much faster. Let’s see how you’re doing. Get on the crutches.” Dutch stood up, the crutches under his armpits. “Bravo! Let’s try a hike down the hall,” the doctor said. Proving he could walk almost on his own, he started down the corridor at a rapid pace, keeping his eyes down, watching his feet, failing to see a nurse coming towards him until he was almost upon her. Suddenly conscious of the approaching figure, he looked up, gave a cry, lost control of his crutches and stumbled forward howling out as he fell.

        “Aunt Greta!” he shouted as he went down. She grabbed him and broke his fall. They clutched in an awkward, tight embrace until a couple of male aides helped him back to his room. He was panting as he flopped on the bed, gazing up at her as she clasped his hand

        “Dutch,” she whispered. “Oh, my god!” She looked now, almost twenty years later, nearly the same, the same doll face, brilliant dark eyes, cocky posture and unflinching stare, tougher than ever. In the few weeks that followed before his discharge they spent every spare moment together catching up.

        She came to visit the summer after the war ended and stayed for several weeks. Dutch, having found a teaching position in the history department at Brooklyn College, had signed on for the summer session, needing the money. Aunt Greta took to Eric at once, a bombastic little boy with a pug nose like his great-aunt’s. He could already sing “I’m A Yankee Doodle Dandy” which his mother had taught him before she knew the history of it… and now nobody could make him forget it. Laura and Greta developed an interlocking interest in an expected new family member, still months away. Greta coached her on diets and exercise, and became the substitute grandmother for Eric, who adored her. About a week before she left she expressed a desire to take a stroll through her old neighborhood. One afternoon Dutch drove her over in his Chevy, a second hand job at which he swore as if it could hear him. Tears rose to Greta’s eyes when they slowly walked up the old block. Dutch, two heads taller than she, put his arm around her shoulder.

        “Terry would have been thirty nine,” she said. “I told you they lied. There’ll never be a war to end all wars. Killing’s too profitable.”

        Dutch hesitated then said, softly. “This time was different though, wasn’t it? I had to go. You, too.”

        “No!” she cried heatedly. “No! For me, every boy I took care of was Terry. That’s the only reason I was there!” He felt her suddenly grow cold. She broke away and started walking back to the car. He hadn’t the heart to carry the argument to her after that, to say what he had been wanting to say about a just war. He saved it until a more relaxed day. Since it was a subject that tortured her, the day for saying it never seemed to be right.




3.

1968

        The years evaporated without a murmur. Lightly bearded Professor Dutch Arnholt was shaken at having reached fifty-five only to discover the last fifty four years dissolved, all dire events, celebrations, failures and achievements now memories, or photographs in an album l preserved and annotated by Laura. Eric graduating college, and his sister Ursula high school, added to the professor’s chill of time’s passage. He could become a grandfather before he knew it, though he never felt so healthy. And he was still as physically attracted to his wife, although divorces were now commonplace and many of his friends’ marriages had flopped. When alone in his study, wearied with research, taking a break, weighing these things, it was often Greta who took over his thoughts. She had been such a source of strength to them, especially when Laura’s third pregnancy had failed. And again in the crazy atmosphere that had taken hold of kids everywhere, particularly now with the war in Vietnam escalating, everyone smoking pot, the LSD scene and the irresponsible adults promoting it. Greta on her frequent visits worked miracles with the children, used her magic, persuaded Eric to resist drugs, a situation that had driven Laura and himself to despair in their inability to deal with it. They had asked her if she could come up for Eric’s graduation, concerned that she might be too fragile to make the trip. She was eighty-four.

        “Are you kidding?” she cried in her still penetrating voice. “I wouldn’t miss Eric’s graduation if I had to be pushed all the way in a wheel chair!” She was there, all right, leaning on a cane, her chubby, wrinkled face animated with talk about the vigils she had attended, the protest marches and rallies. Ursula was a member of a peace club at school, but Eric pleaded heavy scholastic problems and his captaincy of the track team. They had lost two of his team-mates to the draft last year.

        “You’ve got to get him to Canada immediately!” Aunt Greta insisted stoutly as they sat around the table after dinner.

        “It’s not that easy,” Dutch said. “Anyway the army probably won’t take him, what with his wearing glasses and his application to medical school.”

        “I can’t see all my friends go in my place,” Eric said, agitated.

        “That’s insane!” Greta cried. “Vietnam is a bloodbath! Dutch! Laura! For god’s sake, you’re not going to let this happen!”

        “Nobody wants to go,” Laura said.

        Clasping his hands and winding his fingers tightly without cease Dutch said, “We’ll have to take our chances like any other family, Aunt Greta. The war will be over soon. Eric may never get there. Though I don’t consider this war as just as the one I fought in.“

        “As just, as just!” she shouted, grasping the table and pulling herself to her feet. “What was just about that one?”

        “There was a guy called Hitler. Remember?”

        “Who created him?” she demanded. “Who provided that megalomaniac the means to build his war machine? Do you know how much Wall Street money went into that? Who produced the Nazi tanks? Opel, for one, in partnership with General Motors! Henry Ford was decorated by the Nazis. He produced for them, too, and his anti-semitic shit was right up Hitler’s alley! I can name you corporation after corporation that made billions off those kids who were needlessly murdered in your just war that could have been prevented a dozen times. Count them! Seven hundred fifty thousand British. Three hundred thousand Americans. Twenty million Russians. That’s what I say in my peace speech to the ladies clubs that invite me. Day and night they are lying to you about this war, too! Oh, it will come out! And the lying bastards will get off scot-free! And if you think this is the last one, just wait, just wait! They will lie you into another one and another one and another one! As long as they can make money on it and you are willing to die for them!” She faltered, took a breath, began breathing in gasps. Laura hurried around the table to her. “Listen to me- save Eric- save him- for Christ’s sake! Save him!” Laura caught her in her arms but Greta shook her off. “Every year the president goes to the tomb of the unknown soldier. It is none of his flesh and blood. He lays a wreathe. He never sheds a tear. But at the tombs of all the known soldiers, they know who’s there, their sons, their fathers, their brothers, all of them gone for a barrel of oil and a ton of steel.”

        “If Eric went to Canada the Canadian government could send him back. He’d be arrested for deserting,” Dutch said.

        “Would you rather he came home in a body bag?” she asked.

4.

2003

        Marches and riots all over the world opposing the war took place during the spring. But the pre-emptive strike against Iraq that brought down the infrastructure of the country and caused thousands of civilian deaths was bought at small cost in American casualties. A few hundred troops were killed, a few thousand wounded. Iraq was ripped apart though the hated tyrant had at first escaped.

        Ninety year old Emeritus Professor Dutch Arnholt was deeply distressed by the public who, in a frenzy of triumph and satisfaction, had soothed their feelings about the massacre in New York of three thousand people, which had nothing to do with the war. A national orgasm of victory took place, he observed. The relief was overwhelming. The government’s lies that helped ignite the war were ignored. He shuddered to think that the first pre-emptive war was an American deed, much like the dropping of the atom bomb, resulting in hosannas for the leader. They screamed and applauded for him. He posed on a battleship in safe waters in a uniform he never earned and he bravely stuck to his reasons why the war took place, even if the reasons he gave for it had no substance and were counter to world opinion. America uber alles.

        Professor Dutch Arnholt, on that cool afternoon when he joined in the protests, thought of what his Aunt Greta had said the day they walked down her old street so long ago. “Terry would have been thirty-nine,” she whispered. He had dedicated the first volume of his work, “Democracy to Autocracy to Fascism,” to her. Published a few years back it received important critical attention. It had been written with a broad public in mind but the broad public never responded and the work was remaindered. The second volume had been dedicated to his son, Eric, who would have been sixty now, but was killed in Vietnam.

        Shuffling along in the march between his daughter Ursula and her teenage boy as the drums beat and the crowds shouted slogans, he kept muttering to himself, "Those sons of bitches are still lying to us!”

-Al Geto




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Copyright August 3, 2000-

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