By Brian Doyle
Went to a funeral this morning, for my dear friend Donald Dinsmore, who died at 88 with mere shreds left of his wonderful mind. He had been a beloved teacher, a museum curator, a gifted artist, an undefeated boxer (14-0, and when I asked him why he had not continued in the sweet science he said, “Well, people kept trying to hit me!”—which still makes me grin), a beloved dad, a beloved husband (his wife said at the funeral that she still had a crush on him after 65 years), and a glorious storyteller.
I sat in the back and thought about all the stories he told me over the years, while an unctuous minister applied a thin veneer of religiosity over the proceedings. Stories of the time he broke up a race riot at his school when he noticed that all the umbrellas hanging in the hall suddenly had razor-sharp points though they had been dull the day before. Stories of the best boxer he ever saw, a man named Atlas Adams, untouchable in the ring but never a star because all he wanted to do in life was to be a chef, which he became. Stories of the war in the Pacific, in which he had run a two-man boat for the Army Boat Battalion (“That’s right, I was in the Army’s navy,” he liked to say), and saved men from embattled beaches, and rescued drowning men, and happily recovered drunken Allied soldiers from their misadventures (“I’d pick them up in this order: Americans, Australians, Canadians, English, because the Americans are my brothers, the Australians paid for their guys with fresh fruit, the Canadians paid with beer, and someone had to pick up the poor Pommies”). Stories of the times he attacked Japanese strongholds with his fellow boats, knowing too well that some boats and men would never be seen again. Stories of the time he survived an attack on a Japanese stronghold and on the way back to base found two teenage Japanese soldiers floating dead in the ocean—“just boys they were, all of 14 or 15, and the next time someone yells for war you remember it’s kids who die, not the old codgers who yell for war”). Stories of a friend of his who had survived in a swamp, with two broken legs, by hiding underwater and breathing through a reed as Japanese soldiers looked for him.
But I remembered one story above all. One time I asked him if he had ever been shot in the war. “Yup,” he said. “We were driving along in the boat and a sniper on an island tried a long shot, and it hit me right in the shoulder. Now, the sniper was a long way away, and that bullet was almost spent, but it knocked me over like I was a feather. It went into my shoulder about half an inch, and my buddy had to pull it out and fill the hole with sulfa. Remember that this bullet was almost wholly spent when it hit me. But it hurt like hell and knocked me over and I was terrified. So here’s what I think: anyone who ever votes for war, who says yes to a resolution advocating war, who thinks war is a good idea, who thinks blowing up children in uniform and out of uniform is a good idea, should stand in a field and let a marksman shoot him from a few hundred yards away. Let him get hit with a bullet, even one that’s almost spent, before he sends anyone else to get hit with a bullet from up close. Wouldn’t that be a good idea? I think that would be a hell of a good idea.”
So do I. Rest in peace, Sergeant Donald Dinsmore. We remember you with love, brother.
Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland magazine and the author of numerous books, most recently the novel The Plover.