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A war novel with the right title — *The Absolute Zero*

My dad did not like to talk about his wartime experiences. This was a problem for me when I was a child of 7 or 8 or 9. Not because I did not understand his refusal, but because it was not convenient for me. I wanted the thrills and spills. What I got was my father’s recipe for Barracks Eggs.

Television was part of daily living by the mid-1950s, and black-and-white movies filled in a lot of the spaces that today would be filled with infomercials and cable fodder. We were in the beta stage of Garbage in, garbage out.

Old b/w movies about World War II were my preference. I found the stories and images to be exciting. I could not get enough.

My father would not cooperate.

I imagine that he somewhere along the way realized that war is madness. He certainly was not reticent in saying that he did not want to dredge up memories of a time when he was miserable and (I assume) scared.

I cannot remember when I decided that war makes me angry.

Probably midway through the endless venture of the United States in Vietnam.

eternal zero djEach year in the church that I co-pastor with my wife, we have a Christmas in the Woods Sunday. Singer Nan Hoffman brings her gifts, her song sheets, and her gentle goodness to us, and we sing Christmas carols. Nan, who is much in demand as a performer, also does some solo pieces. One favorite, always requested, is Christmas in the Trenches. I dread this song, not because it is sad, though it is, and not because it is sentimental, though it is, but because this song makes me feel like my heart and soul have been sucked through a knot hole. Without my being consulted on the operation.

The song is about an interlude in World War I, on Christmas Eve, with a truce featuring songs from home, a soccer game by the light of signal flares, and at dawn the resumption of the idiocy of war. By the last verse, I am a puddle of mixed emotions. Why, I ask myself, do you not just trundle off to the bathroom, lock yourself in, and wait out the rendition in silence and comfort?

Thinking about war makes me crazy. I cannot understand why we must sacrifice young men, and now young women, to our appetites for things like oil and the naked expression of dominance. And then I will start arguing the other side, and I have no crisp answer for how one would protect what one values without having a strong military and a daunting first-strike capability. You see, I like my comforts, and I am not willing to link this liking with the lives of those young men and women. There is a hard link between the idiocy of war and my comforts. I work to be blind to it.

Looking for someone or something to blame, I pick on a slurpy Christmas song about war.

This year at Christmas, I bought a new hardcover novel, The Eternal Zero, by Naoki Hyakuta, translated from the Japanese by Chris Brynne and Paul Rubin (ISBN 978-1-939130-82-2). The novel tells the story of a brother and sister who find out that the man whom they had assumed was their grandfather was actually their grandmother’s second husband and not the father of their mother. All they know, at first, is that their blood grandfather was a pilot of the Japanese fighter plane called the Zero. They decide to meet with men who knew their grandfather during WWII. With the accumulation of information from each interview, the multiple points of view form a picture of a man that we all would have liked to know.

The novel tells the history of the war as seen by particular persons, and there is ample information about the decisions that old men made concerning the disposition of young lives to enrage anyone who reads the story. The novel also hooks my inner child with stirring descriptions of dogfights. My older self observes my younger self in the enjoyment of all the noise and confusion, and shakes his head and loves him.

The author of The Eternal Zero has chosen a didactic plot trajectory, but the power of his stories and their piling up one on top of another, in the end, makes for a growing sense of engagement and excitement about the growth in knowledge and sensitivity of his characters.

But no recipe for Barracks Eggs.

So here it is.

You get a chicken egg, if you are lucky enough to find one, and you put a bit of butter in a hot skillet, and you break the egg into the skillet and stir it was a fork. Add salt and pepper. Eat the egg, using the fork, out of the skillet. And pray that one day you will be blessed to be able to teach this bit of noncom cookery to your dear, silly little son.

To teach him about appetites and how best to satisfy them.

My father’s name was Harvey. He served in England as a Technical Sergeant in the Army Air Force during the last year of World War II. He loaded bombs on B-52s and other such weapons of mass destruction. His first son, my brother, was born while he was away. This was a terrible strain for my mother and father. They were married for 50 years.

Dad looks handsome and fit in his uniform, judging from the snatshots that he brought back. When he came home, he threw the uniform away and locked up his memories in a strong box.

Most of the memories, I guess. Some of them escaped. A few of them he judged to be benign.

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