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December 2020 Issue [Readings]

Fathers, Sons, Screaming Eagles

From Let Me Tell You What I Mean, a collection of essays that will be published next month by Knopf. The essay originally appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in 1968.

“I hope you don’t think I’m a hippie,” said the man to whom I was talking in the Crown Room of the Stardust Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip. “I’m just kind of, you know, growing this beard.” His name tag said Skip Skivington. He was probably in his early forties and he had been at Bastogne with the 101st Airborne Division in 1944 and his voice was gentle and apologetic and I had not thought him a hippie. It was the first evening of the 101st Airborne Division Association’s twenty-third annual reunion, one weekend not long ago. Outside the late-summer sky burned all day and all night, and inside it was perpetually cold and carpeted and no perceptible time of day or night, and here, in the Crown Room of the Stardust, along with a great many wives and a few children, were a couple of hundred survivors of Normandy, Bastogne, the Battle of the Bulge. I had come over from Los Angeles to find them and knew that I had found them when I walked into the Stardust bar and saw a couple of men in sport shirts and overseas caps. “Just wait a minute,” one of them had been saying. “I gotta finish this brew.” In the afternoon they had commandeered the Stardust swimming pool for a beer party, and now they were lining up for a buffet dinner (roast beef, ham, coleslaw), filling plates and finding tables and snapping the toy metal crickets that had been the 101st’s identification code on D-Day. “General McAuliffe. General,” called a weathered man in an overseas cap as he threaded his way through the tables with a small child, two or three years old, holding his hand. “Look at the boy. I wanted to show you the boy.”

Almost everyone else had found friends and a table by then, but Skip Skivington still stood with me. He was telling me about his son. His son, he said, had been missing in Vietnam since Mother’s Day. I did not know what to say, but because Skip Skivington was active in the 101st Airborne Association, I asked if his son had belonged to the 101st. The father looked at me and then away. “I talked him out of it,” he said finally. He reached into his coat pocket then and brought out a newspaper clipping, preserved in clear plastic, a story about his son: where he had gone to high school, the report that he was missing, the action in which he had last been seen. There was a snapshot of the boy, his face indistinct in the engraving dots, a blond eighteen-year-old sitting on a rock and smiling. I gave the clipping back to Skip Skivington, and before he put it in his pocket he looked at it a long while, smoothed out an imagined crease, and studied the fragment of newsprint as if it held some answer.

The indistinct face of the boy and the distinct face of the father stayed in my mind all that evening, all that weekend, and perhaps it was their faces that made those few days in Las Vegas seem so charged with unspoken questions, ambiguities only dimly perceived. In most ways the reunion was a happy occasion. The wives had pretty dresses, and everyone liked Las Vegas, agreed that it was definitely the place for the reunion. There was a wives’ luncheon, a hospitality suite. There were Army movies, and I sat with a sprinkling of wives in the cool darkness and learned about the future of the Weapons Command, the function of procurement. There was even a teen room, where a handful of children sat on folding chairs and regarded a Wurlitzer in sullen ennui.

And of course there were speeches. Maxwell Taylor came, to point out similarities between the Battle of the Bulge and the Tet Offensive. “By the way these things were reported, many of the people at home had the impression that we were losing the Bulge, just as they now have the impression that . . .?” A colonel from Vietnam came, flown in to assure the guests that operations there were characterized by high esprit, rugged determination, that “the men in Vietnam are exactly like you were, and I was, twenty, twenty-five years ago.” General Anthony McAuliffe came, the man who said “Nuts” when the Germans asked for a surrender at Bastogne, and he said that he would be with the group in Holland next year to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the European invasion. “We’ll visit our Dutch friends,” he said, “and revive memories of that great adventure we had there.”

And of course there it was, that was it. They had indeed had a great adventure, an essential adventure, and almost everyone in the room had been nineteen or twenty years old when they had it, and they had survived and come home and their wives had given birth to sons, and now those sons were nineteen, twenty, and perhaps it was not such a great adventure this time. On the night of the speeches I sat with a man named Walter Davis and his wife, a soft-faced woman in a good black dress. Walter Davis jumped into Holland in 1944, and now he works for the Metropolitan Life in Lawndale, California, and has three children, a daughter of eighteen, a son of fourteen, and a daughter of three. “Eddie’s at that age where he’s interested in everything his father did when he was a teenager, everything about the war and Holland,” Mrs. Davis said. We talked awhile, and I mentioned I had met someone whose son was missing in Vietnam. Walter Davis said nothing for a moment. “I never thought of dying then,” he said suddenly, after a while. “I see it a little differently now. I didn’t look at it from the parents’ point of view then. I was eighteen, nineteen. I wanted to go, couldn’t stand not to go. I got to see Paris, Berlin, got to see places I’d heard about but never dreamed I’d see. Now I’ve got a boy, well, in four years maybe he’ll have to go.” Walter Davis broke open a roll, buttered it carefully, and put it down again, untouched. “I see it a little differently now,” he said.

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