by Austin Bay
August 10, 2005
Meet Pete the Barber. Pete's story illustrates why Col. Henry Gole's "Soldiering: Observations from Korea, Vietnam, and Safe Places" (Potomac Books) is no "old soldier's war story," but a fascinating hybrid of gripping personal history and rigorous personal essay.
For 20 years, Pete from the Old Country had been cutting Henry's hair at a barber shop in Queens. Returning from a combat tour during Korean War, Henry visited Pete and made the mistake of asking the old barber when he planned to retire.
"(Pete's) eyes fixed on mine, unlocked, drifted and took on a far-away look, as he thought back to his boyhood in Italy," Gole writes. "He said that in the old country, old men sat on a bridge as children passed by on their way to school ... the old men played checkers and cards in the morning sun on the bridge. At midday, they went home for lunch and a nap. ... When the days were long, there was time to assemble on the bridge for another hour or two after dinner.
"Pete said that the old men had been schoolboys together in the town 60 or 70 years before they took up their duties on the bridge. Then they had been apprentices, soldiers, married men, fathers, grandfathers and pensioners. The far-away look faded as Pete asked, 'Henry, in this country, where's the bridge?'"
"Universally understood social reference points are fewer and less clear in our American society," Gole observes. "Some immigrants never find the map and compass to guide them through the slalom course of daily American life."
"Soldiering" chronicles 70 years of Henry's slalom course. He begins in Greenwich Village and Queens -- "blue collar New York," Gole calls it. After Korea, he teaches a high school English class. When JFK challenged Americans to "ask what you can do for your country," Henry returns to the military, serving with Army Special Forces in Vietnam. He later teaches at West Point and serves as a defense attache in Germany.
Gole demonstrates a mastery of the personal vignette, complete with living characters and "lived-it" dialog. Recalling an encounter in Vietnam's Central Highlands in 1966, Gole writes:
"I have a distinct memory of Bill Roderick, unshaven, gaunt and smiling as he approached me out of the ground fog and light, steady rain. ... I was tucked into a hammock under a poncho feeling sorry for myself. I was hungry, had been out of cigarettes for days, had a low-grade fever and had drunk all of my "GI gin" cough medicine when I recognized what a wonderful gift Bill was preparing to share with me. At the bottom of his rucksack, he had found a soggy, bent, long Pall Mall cigarette. The near-zero visibility enabled use to build a small fire by which we ceremoniously dried and rolled the Pall Mall. As we passed the cigarette back and forth, we puffed and exchanged a kind of litany:
"Home, he said.
"Hearth, I said.
"Food, he said.
"Sex, I said.
"Warmth, he said.
"Rest, I said.
"Clearly that cigarette was endowed with more magic than Aladdin's lamp."
Succinct, taut, totally genuine -- among soldiers, this is the war-zone conversation, rendered with blunt but elegant beauty.
"Soldiering" is simply a brilliant, extended exercise in fine writing, one that essayists and English profs will eventually notice. Two very short chapters titled "Volare" and "Me and JFK" beg to be included in a high school or college writing course textbook. War stories? No -- "Volare" and "JFK" are about turning 27, teaching high school on Long Island, then responding to the new president's inaugural "call for sacrifice."
Gole writes, "Idealism, for better or worse, swept the land, kicking off a tumultuous decade of foolishness and nobility."
Books by small presses -- especially innovative, risk-taking books like "Soldiering" -- tend to slip by reviewers. This summer, I couldn't let a new classic go unnoticed.