Growing Up True

Lessons from a Western Boyhood

The First Leaving

The Russians called it The Great Patriotic War, a name far more hallowed than simply World War II, as if wars could be numbered without meaning, or as if we might say here’s one, there’s another one; this one’s six, that one’s seven. The Russians still speak about that conflict as if the history of the world turned upon that one great event. And they were right. At least they were right for me. It changed my history, too.

The Russians sent off 20 million, and I sent off only one. But I remember how that one was sent, and how it was the end of one time and the beginning of another.

I remember how the five of us were crammed into the ‘41 black Chevy, how we drove into the mountains for one last camping trip. How on Monday he would be gone. How this one weekend, this winter campout, was supposed to hold all the memory, hold all the love, be a symbol, be a metaphor, make the leaving be only physical, but not real, not in the heart, not where it mattered.

He drove of course. He always drove in those years. And I remember her in the front seat beside, the three of us wedged in back. One last chance to have fun, she said, before he goes. She wouldn't say, “before he goes to war.” That would let in some recognition, the unspeakable, that war and death go together, so she just said, “before he goes,” and we sat grimly, the three of us under 12, me coming on to seven, knowing that wherever he was going it would be uncommonly long this time, and it would be awful.

There was snow in the forest. The black road turned and weaved through the hills. The wind was cold. God had not picked good weather for our last weekend.

We twisted and turned until finally my father stopped in the middle of some desolate cold woods and said, as he always did, “This will do.“

He led the way into the forest beneath barren trees and tromped down snow to make a place for a fire. Then we scattered like refugees through the woods searching for dry wood. I remember how frosted leaves crunched under the thin crust; I can still hear their crushing sound, can still feel my cold toes. I don't know what month it was, but it was winter on our faces, winter as we hunted for dry firewood, winter in our hearts, winter at the beginning of the Great Patriotic War.

My woolen mittens soon soaked sopping wet, and then my fingers hurt. In no time I stood by the fire site stomping my feet, holding my arms, whimpering. Snowy branches, snowy leaves. No place to sit down. Snow on my steaming shoes, inside my gloves, in my eyes; blubber rolling down from my nose. For once my mother seemed helpless; wait, she said, the fire will be warm soon. But there was no hope in her eyes. This fire would not warm her fingers. This fire would not cure her cold. She would not show it, of course. We were all having our last weekend, and she wanted his memory to be sweet.

Somehow we slept the night there in the snow. We rolled thin sleeping bags as close together as we could, and each time anyone moved, which was all the time, I awoke shivering. In the morning there was no cereal, just left-over steak from the night before. Cold steak in the snow tasted too salty, too dry, too much like the last supper. Then we drove silently home. On Monday morning she put the three of us boys on a school bus and said that when we came back he would be gone.

I came home that afternoon under a dusky sky to a quiet house. There were no lights on. I found her sitting alone in the living room. Darkness slid down leafless branches to hover at the window where she was staring. I crawled into her lap. I did not know what she knew. I did not know what war meant. I did not know where Germany was. I only knew he was gone. Our gentle, good man, she said, would be gone a long time. A very long time.

I do not remember that ever before I had seen her so sad. I began to cry. She held me. I went on for a long time, whimpering softly. She did not say anything and I did not say anything but she kept me close.

The sun went down. The other boys came in. I sat quietly in her arms. For us the war had begun.