My father’s younger brother, for whom I am named, was a Navy fighter pilot attached to the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise during World War II. He was 22 and a lieutenant (junior grade) with Fighting Squadron Ten, called “The Grim Reapers”—its logo was a skeleton, wearing a flying helmet and goggles, making a steep dive while holding a bloodstained scythe. On June 15, 1944, the first day of the invasion of the island of Saipan, in the Northern Marianas, his plane was shot down by Japanese anti-aircraft fire—or perhaps by friendly fire from a U.S. Navy ship bombarding the island—and crashed into the sea. His body was never recovered. He was, according to custom, listed as missing for a year, and then declared dead. I was born 12 years after his death, yet throughout my life, he has paid me posthumous visits every 15 or 20 years. His present visit may be his last, for although he lives in a world beyond time, I do not.
My great-great-grandfather was Karl W. Kirchwey, my grandfather was Karl W. Kirchwey, my uncle was Karl W. Kirchwey, and I am Karl W. Kirchwey. This is altogether too many members of one family with the same name. Why do people name their children after themselves, or after their siblings? In my father’s case, I understand it: he had lost his younger brother, whom he loved, in the war. What greater tribute could he make? My wife and I, however, had no intention of naming either of our children after anyone in the immediate family. My uncle was called “Kayo” or “Weet” by his family, “Karloff,” “Kirch,” or “Wendy” in prep school, and “King” by his fellow pilots. Nicknames and pet names are one of the great imaginative luxuries that a family has, one of the many ways to express whimsy and tenderness. Among all these names, I will choose “King” to disambiguate my uncle. Yet by doing this, I feel that I am moving him further away from my own life, further into the realm of myth and memory. And anyway, I know that Karl and King were not the same person.
In the first book of Virgil’s Aeneid, the hero and his men lose all but seven of their fleet’s ships in a storm. Landing on the North African coast, they recover their shattered forces, building a fire, drying the grain spoiled by brine, pouring out wine, hunting for game. With dread in his own heart, Aeneas tries to rally his troops: “A joy it will be one day, perhaps, to remember even this.” In that first book of the epic, the history and aftermath of the Trojan War are narrated no fewer than four times, in different media. The first mention is by Aeneas to his own mother, Venus, who is disguised as a young girl out hunting. Next, Aeneas’s exploration of Carthage with his comrade Achates leads him to a grove where Queen Dido is building a temple, and he weeps to see wall paintings of scenes from the Trojan War, “feeding his spirit on empty, lifeless pictures.” He even finds himself represented there, “swept up in the melee, clashing with Greek captains.” Concealed in a dense mist and therefore invisible to another group of Trojan survivors, Aeneas listens as they speak to Dido about him and his fate. Finally, prompted by Dido herself, Aeneas begins the full narration of his story, which provides the content of the second and third books of Virgil’s poem.
Looking at his own painted image, Aeneas might have exclaimed, as does his Greek counterpart Ulysses in Tennyson’s poem, “I am become a name.” Published in 1842, it imagines Ulysses safely home, after 10 years of war and 10 years of wandering, impatient with his own legend and consumed with longing for more adventures:
I cannot rest from travel; I will drink
Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name …
Anthony W. Lee, a professor of art history at Mount Holyoke College, has suggested a link between Tennyson’s line and Psalm 69:8, which reads (in the King James version), “I am become a stranger unto my brethren, / And an alien unto my mother’s children.” Both Aeneas and Ulysses experience a sense of alienation. For Aeneas, the feeling comes from gazing upon the painted wall: he is not looking at himself; he is looking at a representation of himself. To depict his actions in a work of art is to move them into a realm apart from reality. In looking, he breaks through into a parallel but timeless dimension of narrative history. But even beforehand, he had already been made exceptional by his own heroic actions, set apart, both from other people and from the actions themselves. Presumably Tennyson’s Ulysses experiences a similar feeling while contemplating the exploits associated with his own name. Since I never knew my uncle, my memory of him relies on anecdote and documentary history—and yet, he has had a kind of three-dimensional presence in my life.
Aeneas looks at those paintings avidly because he wants and needs confirmation of his own lived experience. Still, they are “empty” because they are without the life, the three-dimensional reality that he possesses. In his essay “On History,” Thomas Carlyle declares: “Narrative is linear; Action is solid.” According to Carlyle, narrative can move in only one direction. The narrative on the wall is indifferent to the living Aeneas who contemplates it. Surely it is possible to inhabit simultaneously the three-dimensional world of present action and the linear world of narrative, but access to the latter requires memory, and the process may be inherently elegiac, a species of mourning.
There are a few photographs of King, photos he himself would have looked at, contemplating the strangeness of his own depiction in the world of war just as Aeneas did at Carthage, feeling perhaps the same strangeness in his own name that Tennyson’s Ulysses experienced. I recently showed one of these photos to a friend: the standard pilot portrait, my uncle in flying helmet and goggles, wearing his inflatable Mae West life jacket. And my friend, captivated by the glamour of the thing, said, “My God, he looks like Brando!” But my favorite photo is one taken in Maui in December 1943. In it, King is very slender, in pressed khakis with belt cinched tight. On his left breast pocket he wears his Navy wings, and on his jauntily angled cadet cap, his newly earned lieutenant’s bars. He is smiling, his hands on his hips, and standing directly under the huge propeller blades of his F6F Hellcat fighter. In a companion photo, his close friend Richard W. (Dick) Mason poses with his hand actually on the blade of his plane’s propeller. When he was given home leave in July 1944, Dick traveled to my grandmother’s house in New Canaan, Connecticut, to tell her about King’s death. And then he himself died, in combat off the Japanese island of Kyushu in the spring of 1945.
King standing under the propeller blades of his F6F Hellcat fighter in Maui, December 1943 (Courtesy of the author)
King is commemorated in three places. His name appears on the wall of Memorial Church at Harvard University, where he was an undergraduate; it is listed in the Courts of the Missing at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu; and it is inscribed (and misspelled as “Earl W. Kirchwey”) on a memorial to the American war dead on the island of Saipan. When I returned from a visit to Saipan, in the spring of 2005, I wrote to the National Park Service about the misspelling of King’s name, but I never heard back. Our names are labile: they change, through haste or unfamiliarity, even as the way others remember us changes—even as the way we interpret a photograph may change. I used to think that photograph of my uncle in Maui represented his feeling of triumph at having completed a dangerous but worthwhile task. Now I see how terribly vulnerable he appears, threatened by the black blades above his head, by the shark-white grin of the engine’s air intake vents.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., displays the names of 58,320 soldiers declared dead or missing in action in that war. Its highly polished surface reflects the face of the viewer, which appears to float above, or be superimposed upon, the names of the deceased, affirming at the very least that the living carry with them, inside them, the burden and the memory of the dead. In similar fashion, I can stand in a pew in Harvard’s Memorial Church, and the living Karl W. Kirchwey and the dead Karl W. Kirchwey are briefly identical. The poet and Vietnam veteran Yusef Komunyakaa describes this process in his iconic poem “Facing It”: “My black face fades, / hiding inside the black granite. / I said I wouldn’t / dammit: No tears. / I’m stone. I’m flesh.”
Hundreds of names inscribed next to one another in two dimensions make another kind of narrative. So does King’s wartime correspondence, comprising manuscript letters and telegrams written between the summer of 1942, when he entered military training, and shortly before he was killed. But if narrative is linear, then work is required to recover the solid three-dimensionality of my uncle’s life. There are material objects that help: I have his violin (an unremarkable instrument) but not his valuable Fétique bow, which my father sold to help pay for my college costs. In a glass-fronted curio cabinet, I have his plaster model of a female nude. It is on the shelf next to a vial of white sand from one of the Blue invasion beaches at Saipan; a 50-caliber machine gun cartridge I found there, thickened and made unrecognizable by coral; and the Air Medal, Purple Heart, and Asiatic Campaign Medal that King was awarded posthumously. I open the doors of that cabinet and feed my spirit on those empty, lifeless things. The smell inside is sweet, indescribable. Somewhere I even have a souvenir voice recording that my uncle made long ago, perhaps in an officers’ club in Hawaii. Once I put it on my stereo turntable, and his voice came back to me across the distance of 50 years—a young man’s voice, cheerful, even a little tipsy, without anything in particular to say.
I am thinking about those heroic epithets and stock phrases in Homer that may have provided the bard with some breathing room in a long poem recited from memory: Zeus, “who marshals the thunderheads,” or Apollo “the distant deadly Archer,” one of “the gods who live forever.” Among the demigods is Achilles, “the matchless runner” and “the best of the Achaeans,” among the mortals “trusty Odysseus” and Agamemnon, “lord of men.” Then there are the men’s “trim ships,” and at all times the medium in which they move, “the sea’s foaming lanes,” “the barren salt sea,” “the heaving gray sea … the endless ocean … the salt green depths.”
Commander Edward P. Stafford published a history of the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise in 1962. His history of what was arguably the most famous American ship in the Pacific theater reads much like a biography. Maybe it is hard not to anthropomorphize: the brilliant career, the late and almost-mortal wounding (a kamikaze attack off Japan three months before the end of the war), the long decline (a decade mothballed in Bayonne, New Jersey), and the ignominious end (cut up for scrap in 1959 in Kearney, New Jersey). In any case, Stafford must have been quite familiar with Homer, for he writes with an epic sensibility. He speaks of the “long-legged enemy strike groups,” and a “big tough veteran ship.” In a verbal panning shot, he refers to the “precisely spaced, armored circles of [Task Force] 38 spread out across the darkening sea,” and when narrating continuous day and night flight operations, he describes how “behind the probing fingers, the heavy fist of the day carriers was cocked and ready.” Uniting soldiers and their weapons, Stafford describes how in “the heavy-gutted, horizon-spinning, cordite-smelling swirl of combat, black-haired, white-toothed Douglas Baker and pint-sized, ex-tumbler Chuck Haverland each shot down three enemy fighters.” The epithets weirdly pair the matinee idol Baker and the gymnast Haverland, transforming them into something heroic, in the way Achilles and Hector are in Homer. Rear Admiral Marc Mitscher is “slim, taut, wrinkled Pete Mitscher.” Stafford speaks of “consistently aggressive Charlie Henderson.” Another leader is “lean, outspoken Commander Jack Blitch,” and one of the lost pilots is “handsome, competent Jack Laxton.” This culminates in a sinister portrait of godlike control when the Enterprise is under heavy attack: “And lean, dark, John Munro, sitting like a beetle-browed spider at the center of his communication network at Central Station, initiated the necessary emergency repairs with the calm precision of a digital computer.”
Mortals’ nicknames, too, can transform them into cartoon superheroes: Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, Commander William R. “Killer” Kane, Commander Daniel F. “Dog” Smith Jr., Lt. Commander James D. “Jig Dog” Ramage, Lt. Commander George Davis “Hoot” Gibson, Commander Edward H. “Butch” O’Hare (killed in action, and whose name was given to one of Chicago’s airports). The heroes include Lt. Stanley W. “Swede” Vejtasa, Lt. C.B. “Crossbow” Collins, and Lt. (j.g.) Raleigh E. “Dusty” Rhodes, whose road was indeed dusty: captured in 1942, he survived three years in a Japanese prison camp, went on to fight in the Korean War, and later led the Blue Angels precision flying team. How strangely warfare inhabits a realm of the grimmest reality while simultaneously inhabiting a realm of pure fantasy and considerable lexical complexity, one in which a given nickname can tell as much about a person as the etymology of the names of the Greek heroes. Achilles may combine the words for “pain, grief” and “the people.” Hector may mean “to check, restrain.” Odysseus may come from “to hate” or “to lament” or “to perish, to be lost.” Diomedes combines the words for “of Zeus” and “plans, counsel, cunning.” And Ajax comes from the word for “earth.”
In this lethal cartoon world, is the enemy any less worthy of respect? Do the Trojans die any less bravely in the Iliad than do the Greeks? Or is the inevitable effect of reading a detailed account of war, whether from 1300 BCE or from 1944 CE, to batter the reader with an undiscriminating horror at the utter waste and suffering of it all?
Stafford himself fought in the Pacific in World War II, and he has an agenda. Now, almost 80 years after the events he narrates, his jingoism, racism, and one-sidedness must be registered but do not invalidate the power of his description of the human and moral consequences of war. On the contrary, they make these consequences clearer. One is reminded that the wartime phrase “gone Asiatic” meant going crazy. The seascape of the Pacific is alien to the Americans: Stafford speaks of the “lowering Asiatic sky” and of the “anthill cities” of “Hong Kong, Canton and the island of Hainan.” He emphasizes the “set and goggled face” of one Japanese pilot, and of the “oriental faces” of others glimpsed by the Americans.
When the war is brought to Tokyo Bay itself, Stafford writes of “twelve dark blue fighters from a factory on Long Island, twelve tense young officers from a bobbing base under the weather a hundred miles to seaward, heading straight into the lair of the wounded Japanese tiger at nightfall.” In a simile that is inadvertently revealing in its invocation of the white genocide of Native peoples in North America, he speaks of Japanese aircraft attempting to surprise American ships and “slipping from cloud to cloud like Delaware braves approaching a stockade.” More than 2,000 men populated the Enterprise, but the obvious conclusion is that Stafford’s attention is focused chiefly, if not exclusively, on those who were allowed to command or fly the planes—on those, that is, who were white.
Becoming a name applies not only to the making of heroes but also to the demonization of the enemy. King was a product of his time and of social and economic circumstances. Born in 1921, he was raised on Long Island and in the Connecticut suburbs. He attended Phillips Exeter Academy and graduated from Harvard. What Ezra Pound disingenuously referred to as “that stupid, suburban prejudice of anti-Semitism” inhabits King’s writing so easily that it thrives in a parenthesis. As he wrote to his father in February 1943, “I have the radio, and it certainly is a beauty. Ed Firestone, one of my best friends here, who claims he knows value (and his race usually does) says it’s the best there is.”
Black people are mentioned three times in the approximately 230 pages of King’s correspondence, never in anything but a context of servitude. “The food is excellent. We eat at tables and are served by black mess boys!” he wrote to his mother from the U.S. Naval Air Station at Corpus Christi, Texas, on September 20, 1942. And to his father on October 2: “… we have sleeping accommodation in four-man rooms and are waited upon at meals by negro flunkeys.” In one of his last letters to his mother, written in May 1944 while he was aboard the Enterprise, King remarked, “I’m glad to hear you have a colored leddy to help you out around the house. Treetops is really too big a place for one person to handle all alone. God grant she won’t quit immediately to go into a defense plant!” The racial offense of “boys” and “flunkeys” and the insulting ventriloquism of “leddy” would not have occurred to him.
In the 600-page Naval Officer’s Guide, covering every possible aspect of life in the Navy, is a photograph captioned, “The Wardroom mess of a destroyer in a rough sea. Note the ‘fiddle boards’ used to hold plates on the table in rough weather.” And yet, what is most noteworthy about the photograph is that all of the men seated at the table in their dress-white uniforms are white. Only the orderly serving the lieutenant commander at the head of the table is Black. The same volume states that the
officers of the Navy are not, as in the Axis countries, a caste apart. They wield no political power, nor do they wish to. Rather, they are truly representative of all walks of American life. No one section of the country produces them. In a truly democratic fashion, they come from all classes, from rich families as well as from poor, from the farm and from the city, from the seacoast and from the Great Middle West.
That such an assertion could be made in the presence of clear evidence to the contrary is indicative of the depth of the structural racism at work. The unconsciousness of the claim is part of what distinguishes it. Consider, for example, the storied naval tradition by which “Pollywogs” (novice seamen who have never before crossed the equator) are forced to run a gauntlet of “Shellbacks” (those who have). Journalist Stanley Johnston, who was white, asked a Black cabin boy nicknamed Duke (after Ellington), “a slender happy-go-lucky Negro youth from Harlem … a most intelligent and enthusiastic youngster” who plays the accordion, what it felt like to be a Shellback. “Well, sir, they certainly poured it into me,” Duke responded. “Several of the boys in that line-up there is certainly hot with them flagellators. I won’t be able to sit down for some days.” Death, at least, is a democracy: Duke was later killed during a Japanese attack on the ship. But for a modern reader, Johnston’s stereotyped description of Duke is no less shocking than the unvoiced history behind his flogging.
My uncle was given his chance because of his race and caste. Even then, the gate was strait: the poet and translator John Ciardi, who served as a gunner on an American B-29 bomber flying from Saipan a few months after my uncle’s death, was denied the rank of commissioned officer because he demonstrated sympathies for the Spanish antifascists. Presumably my uncle’s senior essay as a history major at Harvard—its subject was the German youth labor movement—aroused no concern from the authorities.
“This land was made for you and me,” goes the refrain of Woody Guthrie’s famous song, written in 1940. But the true state of things is epitomized by an April 1944 exchange of correspondence in Yank, the U.S. Army’s weekly magazine. A Black corporal named Rupert Trimmingham, after being in transit with eight other soldiers through the Jim Crow South, was moved to ask: “What is the Negro soldier fighting for?” Trimmingham saw German POWs served meals and offered cigarettes in a lunchroom from which he and his companions had been barred. “Why are we pushed around like cattle?” he wrote. “If we are fighting for the same thing, if we are to die for our country, then why does the Government allow such things to go on?” Trimmingham received hundreds of letters in response to his own, most of them supportive, many of them from southern whites. And an Italian-American private in Burma cosigned a letter with three friends of French, Swedish, and Irish origin, declaring it “a disgrace that, while we are away from home doing our part to help win the war, some people back home are knocking down everything that we are fighting for.” His experience in transit is what Trimmingham, who had not been sure that Yank would publish his letter in the first place, referred to as “playing Hitler’s game.”
King’s racism certainly extended to the Japanese soldiers against whom he was fighting. In September 1943, when his father had found a “sawed-off bayonet” to send to him, King noted: “It’s a pretty savage looking instrument, but should be handy for hacking through brush, disemboweling our yellow brothers, etc. I do thank you most enthusiastically.” King had not yet seen combat. Had he lived until the invasion of Iwo Jima, and had he experienced that battle not as a pilot but with the assault troops on the ground, he would have spoken less nonchalantly, as did the Japanese Lieutenant Satoru Omagari: “I saw torsos with no limbs, dismembered legs, arms and hands, and internal organs splashed onto the rocks.”
John Ciardi on Saipan understood this in my uncle’s own medium: “The Jap our guns shot down a few days ago is the way it ends: a piece of jaw here, an arm there, and a dismembered torso smoking like a charred roast. There aren’t enough speeches or parades or posters in the world to make it pretty.” Ciardi was a sensitive person, a thinking person, alive to the moral inconsistencies of his own reactions as he watched an enemy plane fall. “Strange what a difference it makes who rides the flame,” he wrote. “Ours appall us, theirs we cheer. Inevitably I suppose, but it would harm nothing to kill with a last measure of pity.” Journalist and adventurer Stanley Johnston meditated in a more general way on the same thing as he watched a Japanese bomber fall flaming into the sea. “So quickly had all this happened that none of us realized we had just seen a dozen Japs die a horrible death,” he wrote. “A strange thing about airplanes—when they crash, somehow you have the feeling that it is the plane that is dying, not the men within it.” I wonder whether my uncle lived long enough to reach the same perspective. Or perhaps King did not allow himself this perspective. I have my doubts, for derogatory terms for the Japanese are standard in his correspondence.
I don’t know how much King knew about Shintōism, Zen Buddhism, the way of the samurai called Bushidō, and the unique distortions to which these were subjected by a militaristic and imperialistic regime. But the Christian monoculture in which he lived is made clear by an October 1942 letter sent to fliers on the eve of the Battle of Guadalcanal by Lieutenant Commander James H. Flatley, who had given my uncle’s squadron its bloodthirsty name:
Doubtless you have been raised a Christian, even though you may profess no specific belief. … We are fighting a war today against enemies who for the most part are not Christian, who deny the existence of God—the Nazis and the Japs. We are not a warlike people. We love peace and the fruit of peace; we fight heathen enemies. … If we are Christians and beloved by God, why are we being subjected to this worldwide conflict? … Our wills have become weak. Our consciences hardened. We have offended God and as Christian nations are little better than the heathens.
Flatley’s remarks (noteworthy for their Calvinist self-hatred) voiced doubts not about his pilots’ military training but about their spiritual fortitude. His assumptions are revealing. Agnosticism is recognized, but atheism, or any non-Christian belief, is deplored, making room for the “othering” of the enemy. Flatley’s brand of racism includes both poles of the Axis, but with a crucial distinction: As historian John Dower points out in his important study War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War, Allied commentators tended to differentiate between the German people and the political regime that committed crimes in their name, but they made no such distinction for the Japanese.
I do not think my uncle had any well-defined religious beliefs. If he had, he might have found sacrilege in a full-page Ralph Crane photograph that appeared in the May 22, 1944, issue of Life magazine. In it, a female war worker from Phoenix is looking at a gift her Navy boyfriend has sent her from New Guinea. She holds a fountain pen in her right hand; her left cradles her chin, in a pensive moment. She is attractive and well turned out; her hair is upswept in a glossy coiffure. The gift she is contemplating is the skull of a Japanese soldier, the preparation of which most probably involved its being boiled in lye. In the history of Western art, this scene may remind some viewers of depictions of what is called the “Penitent Magdalene,” an intricate conflation by which a female follower of Jesus lived as a hermit in the desert, contemplating her own sin by means of the skull that symbolizes mortality.
Certainly there was propaganda at work on both sides. Writing to his mother in March 1944, King explains:
Not the least of our diversions is listening to Radio Tokio by short wave. The Nips put on a very pleasant program of American Jazzmusik and lies every evening, which is most entertaining. A woman known as “Tokyo Rose” handles the musical end of the programs, while the news bulletins and letters from prisoners (all of whom, to listen to these excerpts, are healthy, well-fed, and happy) are handled by gentlemen of quite obvious Harvard or Oxford background—cultured and persuasive. If one listened only to these birds one would get a very distorted picture indeed of the war’s progress. As the Japs shouted on Tarawa “You may get Tarawa but you’ll never get back San Diego.”
In all of his correspondence, King never commented on the U.S. government’s forced relocation and incarceration of some 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry—two-thirds of them American citizens—during the war, a policy that began immediately after Pearl Harbor. As the editors of Fortune magazine wrote in an April 1944 article titled “Issei, Nisei, Kibei,” “To convince all Orientals that the war in the Pacific is a crusade against the white man’s racial oppression, the enemy shrewdly notes every occurrence in the U.S. that suggests injustice to racial minorities.” The editors are clear that the actions of the civilian War Relocation Authority only served to alienate citizens and noncitizens who had been imprisoned without trial, revealing the hollowness of American democracy. Like Rupert Trimmingham, they conclude with a blunt analogy, declaring that the “possibilities of ‘protective custody’ are endless, as the Nazis have amply proved.”
Demonizing the enemy by propaganda is one thing, but the reality of death in combat, of large-scale slaughter, is another. Consider an uncanny moment that took place just a month after King’s death. The leaders of the American Pacific Fleet gathered for supper aboard the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis, at anchor about a mile offshore from Saipan, with everyone seated by order of rank. “As dessert was served,” one of the officers later recalled, “a great black cloud of flies swarmed into the compartment through the open portholes. They had bred in the decomposing flesh of Saipan’s thousands of still-unburied dead and had wafted out to the fleet on the prevailing breeze. … They lit upon the table, the food, and the faces and hands of the men. They were hideously engorged, some nearly an inch long.”
In the cramped space of his aircraft’s cockpit while in combat, violently massaged by the force of gravity, dizzy and sometimes disoriented, King may have worked out a relationship to his enemy that moved far beyond easy demonization and derogatory names. The deaths of friends in combat caused him anger but might also have led him to more general thoughts about the random and senseless loss of life in the cause to which he had devoted himself. The part of my uncle that was not King, the part that was Karl, may have felt the same way Ciardi did, watching that falling enemy plane.
In my attempt to disambiguate my uncle, I may have done him a disservice. He was not just “King,” the cartoon superhero who outmaneuvered and killed enemy pilots, strafed ground positions with 50-caliber machine guns, and fired rockets and dropped bombs and napalm on human beings. These things happen in war. But by calling Karl by his other name, “King,” I am afraid that I have reduced him to one of those “empty, lifeless pictures” on which Aeneas fed his spirit so hungrily; I am afraid that I have reduced him to a name, though he remains as restless as Tennyson’s Ulysses. I have removed the saving daylight between him and his wartime nickname.
King, furthermore, is trapped in a language and a time charged with institutional injustices. King is white; King is privileged; King is powerful. But I would like to leave King on the wall. I want to give Karl back his ambiguity. For almost 80 years, King has had his role, as hero, in the linear and shifting world of narrative. Is it King who comes back to visit at intervals, cock-of-the-walk, playing the role of the hero and the fighter pilot? If so, it is Karl who makes me feel the elegiac dimension of memory. Had he been given a choice, how gladly, I suspect, he would have traded all of the adrenaline of flying for an unexciting posterity of three-dimensional action. The greatest loss in Karl’s early death is that he did not have a chance to examine, and perhaps surpass, his own cultural and racial assumptions. “Sad friend, you cannot change,” concludes “North Haven,” Elizabeth Bishop’s elegy for her close friend Robert Lowell. The facts of Karl’s life are set; only my interpretation of them can change now.
Like the submarine currents that must have tugged at King’s clothes on his first day under the sea, there is not an antinarrative but a counternarrative to this war story: the ordinary human story of what might have happened but did not. At the end of his memoir about a later and different war, Tobias Wolff describes the way he thinks about a friend he lost:
The things the rest of us know, he will not know. He will not know what it is to make a life with someone else. … To work at, and then look back at, a labor of years. Watch the decline of his parents, and attend their dissolution. Lose faith. Pray anyway. Persist. We are made to persist, to complete the whole tour. That’s how we find out who we are.
It is both more benign and more honest, perhaps, for me to understand that Karl’s posthumous visitations are not a haunting but encounters with a beloved uncle who is interested in the narrative of my life because it has outlasted his own (now by 43 years) and has included marriage, and parenthood, and poetry. Indeed, my uncle is interested to see the ways in which I, though confined to the two dimensions of narrative, might yet help him live in three dimensions.
At Squantum N.A.S. you learned to fly
A “Yellow Peril,” made its guy-wires sing
Out over the flat vowels of Dorchester Bay.
They called you Kayo or King,
Jug-eared and smiling as a complex will
Moved you at twenty-one, still a cadet,
To Corpus Christi and then Pensacola,
And from Seattle you shipped out
For the Pacific aboard Enterprise,
A good man on a raiding party, and died,
Shot down by ack-ack in the Marianas.
I run the film in my head:
My namesake lolling still at the controls
Through the death spiral and the angel plumes
Of impact. Now a redwing blackbird whistles
In the onshore breeze that comes
Where condo units face the rising sun
On streets with patriot names that double back
Against themselves in pointless isolation.
Was it worth this? I think
Of where you lie past the lagoon, the clear
And listless currents that made you their plaything.
But perhaps after all you knew better
Than to hope for anything
Resembling this exquisite delay
Of diffused hopes and the slow panic of
Knowing the end and waking so routinely
To the dread of being alive.
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