of The Known Soldiers
Moe Minsky Tale
Written By Al Geto
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
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.
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.
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
“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?”
“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.”
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.”
his mother said.
with rats,” his father said. “Stop sending him there Ingrid!
I don’t want any more cops coming around here asking me questions
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.
“Were you an anarchist?”
“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.
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.
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
“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
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
“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
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
“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
“I can’t see
all my friends go in my place,” Eric said, agitated.
Greta cried. “Vietnam is a bloodbath! Dutch! Laura! For god’s
sake, you’re not going to let this happen!”
“Nobody wants to go,”
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
“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.
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!”
Philosopher of Bensonhurst | Boris
Kazinsky Discovers America
the Tombs of the Known Soliders | Relatively
Speaking | Right
Out Of Ripley
Last Chance | Once
You Know, You're Stuck With It
We Come, Ready or Not!
In A Name | The
Day I Almost Became A Vegetarian
Sweet Mystery Of Life | The
Nervous Young Man
Copyright © August 3, 2000-