Aftermath, and Memories of Dachau

Buffalo’s North Park Theatre ran one of the more challenging films in recent memory last week, Aftermath (Pokłosie) released in Poland in 2012 and starring Ireneusz Czop and Maciej Stuhr. The movie is down: and despite the otherwise brilliant theatre’s unfortunate habit of running its best films for only one week – eliminating the possibility of any real word-of-mouth promotion or buzz – I still feel the way I felt when I left the theatre – namely, that I have to evangelize.  That everyone I know has to see this film.  So now I’m spreading the word; you can’t find it on Netflix or Amazon Prime, but this is one worth searching for.

Director Władysław Pasikowski’s film is not a strictly “historical” drama, though critics (of which there were many) did try to pin it down as such, characterizing it as mendacious and manipulative.  It did grow out of history, though, specifically historian Jan T. Gross’ 2000 book Neighbors, the controversial account of the 1941 Jedwabne pogrom, in which poor Polish farmers murderd some 300 Jews – the entire Jewish population of their town – without the help or prompting of the Nazi occupiers, as was previously held.

In Pasikowski’s film, Czop’s Franciszek Kalina, a Polish expatriate, returns to his hometown of Gurówka from Chicago after two decades to find his family house under siege, his brother on edge and hated by everyone, and the villagers silent.

Ireneusz Czop as Franciszek, left, and Maciej Stuhr as Józef.

The brother, Józef Kalina, has been digging up and hoarding gravestones – Jewish gravestones used for everything from reinforcing roads to serving as flagstones at the Catholic parish church.

The historical background, the tone, and the characters are distinctly Polish – the brothers, for example, fight up to their very last scene together, coming very close to fratricide, and there isn’t a “reconciliation moment,” as you’d find in a comparable American film – but Aftermath does have plenty of links to the American film tradition.  The plot fits into  “guilty town” tradition  The cinematography, meanwhile, is reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy adaptations – with brutal, searing images, close shots, and natural lighting.  I was most struck by the opposite character arcs, though: at first Franciszek doesn’t sympathize with his brother’s sudden compassion for the Jews; finally, crushed by the magnitude of the town’s guilt and by his own unknowing complicity, Józef breaks and wants to cover it all up again, while Franciszek realizes that they have to see it through.  Even then Franciszek is casually prejudiced against his “Chicago Jews” – but he’s motivated by what was hidden half a century under his father’s ancestral farm.  Watching the brothers – always at odds – change, break, bend, and so beautifully cross arcs just before the film’s shattering climax, I was reminded of the great moral dramas of the American masters, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, David Mamet. Pasikowski can stand among them, now.

The Wednesday night screening at the North Park ended in silence, and some shocked, subdued sniffling.  One cannot have a “reaction” to film – at least not right away.  Most stayed in their seats until the credits – in Polish, mostly untranslated – had finished rolling, if only as an excuse to remain frozen, to put off standing and taking the long walk back to the real world.

Once I was able to reflect on the film – once I was able to have something akin to a thought – my mind flew straight back to Dachau.

I visited the concentration camp at Dachau in the summer of 2012, with my brothers and fellow travelers Steve Coffed and Matthias Spruch.  There wasn’t much talking between us.  We perhaps two or three hours wandering, reading the many plaques and displays inside the administrative building, and staring across the blank brutalist flatness of the  gravel-strewn plain still demarcated by the foundations of the barracks.

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The experience of visiting a concentration camp is stunning or even devastating because memory – the reason Dachau and places like it still stand – is at once so close and so ultimately inaccessible.  We walk through the gas chambers, through the prisons, past the impossible bunk beds, under the gray sky down the long line of barracks; we pause at the chapel to hear the sisters sing; we descend into an underground memorial to look at some twisted sculpture made of metal from the old camp, look past that to light let in at a slit above.  And in doing all this, for all the time that we’re there and for some time after, we try very hard to access what actually happened.  And we’re moved; and some of us cry.  But we can’t really do it.  The memory isn’t ours.

Aftermath ends with a group of Jewish travelers standing in the charred remains of the Kalinas’ field, amid the heavy Hebrew headstones that Józef reclaimed.  They pray, facing a bright new plaque on the final headstone – a memorial to the burning of hundreds of Jewish families in 1941.  Like most of us who visit places like Dachau – or any memorial, really – the visitors in the movie’s final scene cannot penetrate the marble or granite to find the flesh and blood – their own flesh and blood – the reason they’ve traveled across an ocean and half a continent to visit a fallow wheat field.  But behind them stands Franciszek Kalina.  He doesn’t remember the burning of the Jews of Gurówka, but he quite literally dug up that past: he held their bones.  And he is closer than almost anyone, at that point, to what actually happened.  He remembers the blood spilled to make the memorial, to finally “remember,” and he is the closest to remembering the flesh and blood there memorialized, the flesh burned more than half a century before.

And here the entire movie is thrown back on itself, gaining a new and richer layer.  Seeing Franciszek like that, observing from the edge, we, observing from a further edge, feel that we stand outside all of it.  It’s a Tralfamadorian effect: we see the Jews at the memorial, we see Franciszek and Józef fighting to expose the town’s buried crime, and we can almost see the crime itself – a tale told earlier in a moving scene from Danuta Szaflarska.  Thinking back on all this while faced with the memorial, we can’t help but recall the countless memorials we’ve each visited, and in so doing see ourselves at our true distance from the “events,” the murders or the tragedies, the flesh and the blood.  And though we don’t remember, we understand inarticulately what lies at the heart of all the concrete poured, all the marble and granite moved many miles from quarries to the sites of old crimes.

Aftermath is a vital film; I hope it finds you.

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Click the image to go to a small gallery of pictures from my trip to Dachau.

 

Today’s Brew: “La Fin du Monde,” an Ale for the End of the World

la fin du monde label

A few nights ago in Buffalo, N.Y., thunder cracked and rolled more sudden and booming than anything I’d heard since the days when I was very young, and I’d sit on my porch for every one of these summer storms, wondering (and thrilling) at the chance that by my proximity to the metal railings on all four sides, I would be fried.  I chose to watch the storms in (what I thought was) an open-air metal deathcage, because, at six or seven, I felt my mortality more acutely.  I stood, for fifteen or thirty minutes, on the very edge of an ending world.

So, when the thunder cracked, and when the whiteblue lightning flashed so bright that it lit my lonely blind alley like a dozen halogen studio floods, I felt that old thrill – and I knew exactly which beer to drink.

Most connoisseurs will talk about pairing beers with foods.  Well.  I’m more interested in pairing beers with emotions, psycho-spiritual states.  Consider Charles Baudelaire:

I have cultivated my hysteria with delight and terror. Now I suffer continually from vertigo, and today, 23rd of January, 1862, I have received a singular warning, I have felt the wind of the wing of madness pass over me.

The correct beer to pair with these feelings – hysteria, madness, richest melancholy – is of course Unibroue’s La Fin du Monde.

Named in honor of the European explorers who found North America and thought they’d reached the very end of the world, this is a tripel-style Belgian gold, Canada’s most highly decorated beer – for very good reason.

No aroma more immediately captures the word bittersweet.  You’ll catch coriander, yeast, alcohol, and cream as you put the tulip glass to your nose.  The head is rich and abundant; it’ll give way to champagne-style bubbles and lacing.  The first taste is of yeast and coriander – which combined here taste like sadness of the best vintage, the sadness of old monks who’ve seen the woes of this world  – and this taste yields to honey, intriguing malts, and warming alcohol.

This one goes down creamily – it’s a rich brew, opaque grainy gold.  If you do have time for a last meal before the world ends, pair this with mussels, a plate of pungent bleu cheeses, or braised beef.

Ideally, one should drink this beer alone, in a vast castle.  If not, one could settle for an outdoor café in a chilly European town, a small town, with many churches and burgher houses, a place at once modern and Medieval, where the cobbles of the street remember the blood of flagellants and martyrs and wars.

Failing that, find a metal-railinged porch and an unforgettable thunderstorm.

My Independence Day Blues

Buffalo marina at sunset. [Photo credit: Daniel J. Ryan]
Buffalo marina at sunset. [Photo credit: Daniel J. Ryan]
I can’t remember the last time I was perfectly happy on the Fourth of July – it was probably back in the days when I would reach for the Sunday paper and open straight to the comics.

I’m not that much of a curmudgeon.  It’s not some fear of lights and loud noises.  It’s not that I have submerged anti-American sentiments: I’m fairly vocal about the things I dislike in this country, but put me in front of a World Cup match and I’ll go hoarse shouting for America’s Capitalist-Imperialist Domination in an essentially foreign sport.  And while I do think that Lance Diamond should retire, it’s not like his performances at Buffalo’s Canalside throw me into a funk.  (First of all, that poor man doesn’t have any funk left.)

But it might have something to do with the fact that while watching the fireworks with family and friends, a cop could come up and give me a ticket for an open container violation.

I see it at Christmas too: any time that we gather to celebrate what we have, we feel acutely all that we’ve recently lost – or what we’re reminded was never ours in the first place.  So on the Fourth of July, when every radio station, billboard, car dealership mega-sale, hot dog bun, and pair of  star-spangled pants screams Democracy and Freedom, I can’t help but think about how far we are from all our ideals.  So I find myself blue – not so much red or white.  It’s just a Fourth of July thing.

I won’t dwell on this – Jeff Daniels’ character in The Newsroom says it all so well (clip below) – but it’s worth mentioning that our two-party system represses creative solutions and creative candidates; that only two states in our union have instituted proportional allotment of presidential delegates; that our political dialogue is for the most part either shrill and misguided or jaded and impotent; that government on the federal, state, and local levels is government of self-perpetuating and self-justifying bloat; that our bureaucracy strives against the threat of meritocracy; that our universities are filled with students who cannot articulate themselves in writing or in conversation and who furthermore cannot think critically; that populists on both the right and left continue to push extremist or ill-advised moral legislation, in imitation of the Puritans, their intellectual forebears; and that (most dangerous of all) we no longer have a consensus on the definition of personal liberties – we don’t even know how to talk about it.

So, ‘Merica, eh?

This Fourth of July I spent with my family at Canalside – and around 7 p.m., with the sun still high, kites flying, and happy kids all around me, I felt my Independence Day Blues.  “Blues” perhaps suggests something that this feeling is not – beause I’m not talking about a nice rich melancholy, something you can luxuriate in, and enjoy.  This is closer to a combination of having your parents deeply disappoint you and being ostracized at a ten year old’s birthday party.

Driven away by the aforementioned relic of Buffalo’s chintzy disco past, however, we left the decks and found a cooler, quieter berth just past the naval park.  This soon filled up, too, though – and somehow, my Blues started to fade.  It might have been the water, which always has a calming effect – or it might have been my Peanut Delight sundae from the Hatch.

Russell Salvatore was behind the fireworks at the Harbor this year, just like the old days in Delaware Park.  And once they started, I was struck by a strange heart-feeling not exactly patriotic but still somehow American.  There were Pakistani women standing and talking behind us, sometimes resting their hands on our chairs; their children chattered and bumped into our backs.  A veteran sold CDs of Mozart and the Beastie Boys.  A white man yelled at a black man for standing during the entire show to take photographs.  They eventually calmed down.

Rather like Salvatore’s eponymous restaurant, perhaps more thought should have been put into the flow, the dynamics and progression, the parts as they related to the whole; but again, as with the restaurant, one couldn’t be anything but struck by the verve and the expense and the joy.  My favorite, the weeping willows, were abundant, and I particularly enjoyed a new variety that seemed to drip sparkling red plastic fire.  Of course the finale was top notch, big and loud and bright, a cannonade of flashbombs and a white gold rain, all mirrored in expressionist blossoms on the harbor’s stained glass surface.  I felt then and still feel that there is no other way to enjoy Fourth of July fireworks than in a crowded place, over water, with foreign voices all around.

I wondered then: do our soldiers overseas put on displays as large as these?  A quick search suggests turns up nothing.  In fact, this article from June of 2013 reports that stateside military celebrations went without fireworks that year, victim to government furloughs.  As the would-be caliphate ISIS howls at the gates of Baghdad, poised to undo a decade of ware and nation-building and the gains of the so-called Arab Spring, I wonder where our billions went – I wonder if they might have been better spent.

What if Russell Salvatore paid for their fireworks?  What if we took a billion dollars – just one billion – and spent it all on these bombs without targets?  What if we put on a half-hour light and noise show for all our enemies?  Lit up the skies from Beirut to Kashmir in red and gold and neon green and sapphire?  They wouldn’t thrown down their weapons just then.  But their children would see, and remember.

So this is what I thought about, as my Independence Day Blues slowly gave way under the barrage of Salvatore’s bright bombs, mulling all the ways this country fails to live up to our most cherished buzzwords, all the ways we could be better.  Maybe it was the old patriotism stirring in me.  A Fourth of July thing.

[Photo credit: Daniel J. Ryan]
[Photo credit: Daniel J. Ryan]

Two Rivers and a Lake, and a White Mountain of Ice Cream

Hype is a bitter intoxicant.  Too often the hypee – one who has bought into the hype – will be forced to argue that the object of hype is not worthy, deepening the hypee’s disappointment, souring the hypee’s relationship with the hyper, and generally making the hypee feel like a sap and maybe a critical, joyless person to boot.  The alternative, though, is far worse: the hypee, knowing in his or her hyped heart of hearts that the hype-object has failed to meet expectations, disregards this secret aesthetic judgment and lies, to him or herself and to the world, and claims that this undiscovered cat really is the best saxman since the Bird, that Miracle Whip’s tang does make it better than mayonnaise.  In other words, the hypee becomes a hyper and the chorus of sad, bitter, perfidious nonsense swells by yet one more voice.

That being said, White Mountain’s homemade ice cream is the best one can find on any of the life-supporting planets in our starry galaxy.

.     .     .

She’d been building up my expectations for a year.  Shannon, my girlfriend, often regaled me with stories of Wolfe Island, the sunny windmill-spotted Big Momma of the St. Lawrence River’s Thousand Islands, and her tales invariably included trips to White Mountain, an unassuming ice cream shop in Kingston, Ontario, a quick ferry ride from the dusty roads and quiet camps on the island.  Her entire family – more a tribe, really – recognized White Mountain as the world’s greatest.  Her best friend, too, had become a devotee upon ascending this snow-capped peak.  So when I finally made it up to Kingston and Wolfe Island, because Shannon is my girlfriend and therefore my arbiter elegantiae, I approached White Mountain, to quote William Faulkner, “as an illiterate Baptist preacher approaches the Old Testament: with faith.”

I needed the faith to get past the menu: “Skippy Chip,” “Sir Lancelot,” and “Bee’s Nest,” didn’t offer much in the way of guidance.

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My cones floweth over.

As a lover of dark chocolate – and I mean dark, Heart of Darkness cocao – I took a risk on the White Knight, a chocolate-based ice cream with white chocolate chunks.  What I ended up putting my mouth on was a hunk of cold chocolate cream so indulgent  it wiped out at once all memory of Anderson’s, Perry’s, Ben and Jerry’s … poor Wegman’s brand didn’t even stand a chance.  Coquettish white chocolate chunks (real hearty chunks, not tiny teasing “chips”) swam in an alluvial sea of exceeding thickness and uniform smoothless, of a heavy-cream flavor that hovered between dark and milk chocolate.  I felt much like Melville did after finishing Moby-Dick, when he wrote to his friend Hawthorne that, “I have [eaten] a wicked [ice cream cone], and feel spotless as the lamb.”  The experience only richened as I descended below the sea-level of the house-made waffle cone, dark and sweet and crunchy, a bastion against the melting cream.  The climax came in a single bite at the cone’s fine point, a mouthful of waffle and cream perfectly balanced, crunchy and refreshing at once, the cream just as thick as when I started, the cone just as firm.

Shannon,of more refined tastes, ordered a Bee’s Nest, a vanilla-based ice cream threaded with caramel swirls and studded with bites of chocolate chip cookie dough.  This may actually be White Mountain’s best variety – meaning that this mysterious “Bee’s Nest” is the greatest of the great, the highest of achievement of this 2400 year-old art.

But when we came back to White Mountain the next day (for breakfast) I passed on the Bee’s Nest, having tried Shannon’s, and opted for the Walnut Maple, what sounded to me like a more mature choice.  Naturally the flavor was of the richest maple syrup, no doubt locally tapped and barrel-aged.  I didn’t taste sugar, but sap.

.     .     .

I don’t mean by my devotion to White Mountain to slight the rest of Kingston, a walkable, compact little town with fine Canadian architecture, excellent and diverse food to be enjoyed on the open-air patios that brighten the streets, and wide public spaces, like Confederation Park on the waterfront and the square behind City Hall, which crowds with artisans and local farmers three days a week.  On our first night, after settling down in the Queen’s Inn (established in 1839 by a Wolfe Islander) we found our way into a quiet Cambodian and Thai place, which reminded me of the restaurant from the film version of Glengarry Glen Ross.  The spicy peanut chicken, Pad Thai, and spring rolls were packed with flavor, and went down easily with Tsingtao and Singha.

Foreground: Tsingtao, Pad Thai.  Background: Singha, spring roll, and spicy peanut chicken and rice.
Foreground: Tsingtao, Pad Thai. Background: Singha, spring roll, and spicy peanut chicken and rice.

I’d forgive you if you didn’t try a Thai lager on a trip to Kingston, though.  In fact, I’d encourage you to go for the Steamwhistle Pilsner, from a company that’s won almost as many awards for its efficiency and eco-friendly practices as it has for its crisp and refreshing amber-hued brew.  You can probably find one at several pubs in the city, but I found my first pint at Olivea, a delightful upscale Italian restaurant across from the public square.  (Unfortunately I did not catch the live jazz that the restaurant hosts every Tuesday night.)

Steamwhistle's Pilsner is darker than its German ancestors, but it's unmistakeably fresh and the taste is as bold as the color.
Steamwhistle’s Pilsner is darker than its German ancestors, but it’s unmistakably fresh and the taste is as bold as the color.

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Kingston’s fine dining scene is well-epitomized in Olivea. [Photo credit: Shannon Tierney]
After an evening at one of Kingston’s many restaurants – preferably under and awning and in the open air, where your own dinner babble mixes with talk from the dessert cafe next door, and the all-you-can-eat sushi place on the other side, and the tapas place after that – I’d recommend wandering.  Even outside the city center there are sights to see, and plenty of private residences illuminated in white-blue by the streetlamps.  Kingston is host to that distinctive Canadian style of architecture found in some of Toronto’s older neighborhoods, a mix of Georgian and Neo-Georgian, with some brick and enough stone to merit the title “Limestone City.”

The City Hall is the best example of this, grand and seemingly overlarge for a town of Kingston’s size and modesty, with a dome and tholobate overlooking the Confederation Waterfront and its fountain, the abstract stone arc piercing the Neoclassical hall behind and the water, at night, dancing like white gold on the city’s quiet blue face.  Many choose to end their nights here, in front of the dancing fountain.

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.     .     .

Kingston was first known as Cataraqui, the meaning of which is still debated.  It may come from the Iroquois “Katarakne,” meaning “the place where one hides,” or “a place of retreat.”  Or, according to some sources, it might just mean “muddy river.”  Still others claim the phrase is less an aesthetic judgment than a very practical reference to the geography: “where the rivers and lake meet.”  As the river isn’t muddy at all, I’ll suggest a fusion of the better theories: Kingston, or Cataraqui, is a place of retreat where two rivers and a lake meet … and where a White Mountain hides.

But as far as cartography is concerned, the two rivers – the St. Lawrence and the Cataraqui – and Lake Ontario more precisely meet at Wolfe Island, which winks the 86 red lights of its Siemens Mark III wind turbines at lovers and friends wandering Kingston’s marina at night.

I didn’t get to see much of the island; I attended a wedding at the Sacred Heart of Mary, and as the bride and groom were whisked away by horse and buggy, I, too, was whisked away … back across the river to White Mountain.  Wolfe Island, named for General James Wolfe, who bested the Marquis de Montcalm at the Battle of Quebec in 1759, is the largest of the Thousand Islands, home to many farms and family camps and estates.

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While I didn’t get to drive very far inland, the Island loomed over my Kingston experience.  The wedding party transitioned from the church to the reception, and everyone boarded a triple-decker boat for a dinner-and-dancing cruise through the Thousand Islands.  There was much to see before the dancing distracted us – houses perched precariously on impossibly small islands, massive estates, slow paddle surfers, and waving families in Adirondack chairs enjoying their backyard archipelago.  But after the sun set all that disappeared.  Until 86 red lights winked from far, far off down the river.

We docked at Kingston to let off the faint of heart, and again we set out; twice, out of the darkness, I was surprised to see the Island, strung up as if with blood red pearls, winking, looming, reminding me of the flat mystery of that space, the biggest island, the final island, Loyalist bastion projecting boldly into the American side of the river.

We had to leave the next day, taking a detour through farm country below the Adirondacks before hooking west and driving back to Buffalo.  White Mountain loomed frostily over my memories as we drove west, but the flat land of Wolfe Island loomed too, in its own way – a symbol of the all the unfolding mystery of the archipelago that stretches out beyond it; of strange way of life lived there, sometimes still and sometimes hooting; of all the promise of Kingston, and of all I couldn’t taste in three short days.

Someday I’ll be back.  I’ll charter a boat.  And each time I dock, I’ll try a new flavor of White Mountain’s ice cream.

 

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The summer sun sets on one thousand eight hundred and sixty-four islands.

Check out my full photo album here.

Twenty-First Century War Stories for Every American

I graduated from Buffalo’s St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute in 2011 with a group of young men for whom Iraq and Afghanistan were names as common as Cheektowaga, Williamsville, Kenmore, and Clarence.  Most of us were just beginning 3rd grade when the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center fell; and the War on Terror became the two-dimensional backdrop to our adolescence.  Most people, I can safely say, remember little to nothing of what was said at their high school commencements; I’ll ignore for the moment our valedictorian Steven J. Coffed’s eyebrow-raising speech and say that we, the members of SJCI’s 150th graduating class, don’t remember much either.  But we all remember our commencement speaker’s first words.  Brian Higgins, then representative of New York State’s 27th Congressional district, had the honor of addressing us that night, May 19th, I believe it was.  I have no idea if he mentioned anything even tangentially related to high school, our accomplishments, our future, college, the workforce, marriage, home-ownership, or registering Democrat.  He took the podium at Kleinhan’s Music Hall and said: “We got Osama.”  And then I blacked out.

Some days, it feels like our collective national understanding of 9/11, the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Arab Spring, and the full toll of modern warfare do not advance beyond those three words.  For that reason two very different books have recently been on my mind, two masterpieces of modern reportage and memoir, respectively, that do more than any books or articles I’ve encountered to help us understand and empathize with the totality of the past thirteen years, with all that has transpired inside and against that backdrop of war.  I was late to encounter William Langewiesche’s American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center, and I am hardly the first to call it “literary journalism” at its best, though the work is more the biography of the moment that defined our epoch than a piece of traditional long-form journalism.  Nor am I the first to claim that Brian Castner’s The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows is the greatest work of literature to come out of the Iraq War.  (It is.)  I may, in fact, say nothing new; but if I repeat with enough force that you must read these two books, and you take my urging, then I’ll be satisfied.

.     .     .

For most of us, the fact that someone actually had to clean up Ground Zero doesn’t register much shock, initially.  We saw some of it on the news – mostly firemen on the camera, raking the smoking slag for their dead.  What we don’t often appreciate is the actual job of searching the wreckage for bodies, clearing cubic tons of steel and debris from the site, and keeping all the workers safe in a new, small world without laws or customs – that someone had to write new laws, and forge new customs for that flickering time and place.

American GroundWhere did the Twin Towers “go”?  China and India, as it turns out.  Six months after the attack the beams were “destined for furnaces on the far side of the globe.”  “It was a strangely appropriate fate for these buildings,” William Langewiesche writes.  “Unmade or remade, whether as appliances or cars or simple rebar, they would eventually find their way into every corner of the world.”  Langewiesche ends his book, American Ground, with this metaphor – a powerful one, as 9/11, or rather our reaction to it, determined the course of the 21st century.  Everyone alive today has in some way been affected by it.  The moment and what it represents – our fear or our strength, our pain or our capacity for healing, our hate and our shock – have defined the 21st century character, have directed its politics, and have somehow touched, like the physical remnants of the towers, every corner of the globe.

Though 9/11 was the defining moment of our epoch, no matter how the historians measure and bookend it one hundred years from now, the subsequent six months became the defining moment in the lives of men like Peter Rinaldi, Mike Burton, and Ken Holden, the three civilians who were unexpectedly tasked with managing Hell.

A very corporeal ghost walked Ground Zero in the days and months after 9/11.  This was William Langewiesche, sitting in on the meetings at Public School 89, watching the firemen’s widows vent their rage at Rudy Giuliani, and uncovering the 293 bodies and 19,693 severed parts in the rubble; surveying all of it alone from the top of the wrecked Bankers Trust building; breathing in the dust of the PATH tube deep underground.

Rare is the journalist who can so vividly place his reader in a landscape and a world – any world or any landscape, let alone one so hellish and alien.  In a move too daring (too “literary”) for most reporters working today, Langewiesche casts the dump trucks, back-hoes, and shovelers as great dinosaurs rumbling in ancient paths over a cracked and smoking earth.  In the midst of this, he explains the mechanics of the site – how the job was actually done, making it seem at once more real and more impossible – and the politics of Ground Zero, which functioned as something like a self-governing triumvirate with Rinaldi, Buron, and Holden at once exercising totalitarian rule and brokering peace between the firemen, police, and civilian contractors each vying for power, control, and ownership of the tragedy.  Then, woven throughout, are the deep and searching biographies of the men who rose to the challenge.  American Ground is truly sui generis.

At the end of the book, Langewiesche notes the workers’ reluctance to leave the place that had redefined their lives, their schedules, and their values – they were “clinging to their tragedies,” he says.  We, too, have clung to 9/11, our national tragedy, just as it clings to us – like a thick sticky layer of heavy, possibly toxic, dust.  But few of us even pretend to understand what actually happened that day – and even even fewer claim knowledge of what happened the day after, or the day after that.  On the merit of its artfulness, its vividness, its timelessness, every serious reader must pick up this book.  The same could be said of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, of course; but for those of us living in the unwaning shadow of the Twin Towers, the need for American Ground is even greater, even more immediate.

.     .     .

The Long Walk has left its audience stunned and shaken: go to the author’s website and read the scores of comments from veterans and victims of the vicissitudes of civilian life who’ve found solace, affirmation, or wonder in the book.  Writers and readers have compared it to Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, and O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.  For two and a half decades O’Brien’s book has helped readers to understand why veterans they know struggle to connect to civilians, to telling their stories – and it also gave us the incredibly useful terms “story truth” and “happening truth,” never missing from a writer’s tool belt today.  Castner deals with this – and deals more courageously than any author I’ve read with the impact of his trauma on his family.

“‘Please,’ my wife begs, sobbing between words.  ‘Please, just cheat on me while you’re gone.  Please, just go do it.  Let me leave you with a clear conscience.  Free me and the children.  I can’t follow you into this dark place.'”

Long WalkCastner takes us into the dark place.  He also gives a frank nod of acknowledgement to bureaucratic callousness and military ineptitude, the things many readers seek on the war shelf at Barnes and Noble, so that they can say to themselves, ‘I opposed all this, you know.  And look where it got us, what it’s done to us.’  But Castner is far from pointing fingers – in that respect the book reminds me of Rory Stewart’s Prince of the Marshes.  He isn’t concerned with that; compared to his book, that kind of writing seems trivial.  What he accomplishes in The Long Walk is far more important, placing the War on Terror’s soldiers in the long line of their forebears, and explaining both the universal – the veteran’s desire, always baffling and painful to family and friends, to go back to war – and that which is unique to our modern warriors – the ubiquity of brain trauma beyond the buzz-acronyms of TBI and PTSD, the toll of technology on memory and the “race” veterans run every day that they are alive.

“… I didn’t realize I had chosen a new lover until years later,” Castner writes.  “The smell of my wife’s auburn hair, the longing of her blue-gray eyes, the heartbeat of my infant son pressed against my breast, all faded into forgotten memory.  The daily drumbeat of training for war, planning for war, celebrating and dreaming and devising for war, was incomparably lovely.  It consumed all thought and creativity.  It engrossed my being.  I wouldn’t leave it for as long as I wore the uniform, home or away.”  The above comparisons to Remarque and Vonnegut are each apt in their own way, but it’s Homer I think of here; I think of book six of the Iliad, when Hector leaves Andromache.

“I think about going back every day,” Castner says.

And he shows us.  We see him in his basement, like Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle, practicing drawing the pistol that he’ll use to defend his family, in his minivan; we stand with him in line at the supermarket, making a detailed plan to kill everyone in our vicinity; we are trapped with him in an airport departure lounge, wrist cocked forty-five degrees down, holding the rifle that hangs heavy on our chest.

“When you are Crazy, it’s not the war movies, or fireworks, or the nightly news that bother you, as the unafflicted often think.  It’s the thoughts that come unbidden from grocery lines.”

And alongside this sustained miracle of empathy – perhaps I should even call it metempsychosis – Castner manages to explain the trials that veterans of modern warfare face in terms that are frank and clean and enlightening.

“Imagine you are standing too near a car bomb detonating on a city street.  The blast wave enters your gut, it speeds up through the outer skin of the human body, through the fluid-packed muscle of the abdominal wall, and into the colon.  There it finds open air, and slows down, causing shearing, ripping, and tearing.  The same trauma occurs when the wave reenters the opposing colon wall, and so on throughout the body …”  The same thing happens in the brain, Castner explains, multiplied by the exact number of folds and curves and crevices in the organ.  “Faced with a couple if billion density junctions, it shears, strains, rips, and tears its way to the back of the skull and out the other side.”  The brain heals, “but the new pathways are longer, more complex, and take more energy to use.”

Castner explains the shared condition of every modern warrior, no matter their doctors’ or shrinks’ diagnoses, in terms as clear and unassailable as have yet been ventured.  And then, with the stark darkling beauty reserved for only the most painful things we humans can experience, Castner illustrates it.  In a book filled with scenes and images not easily forgotten (like a foot in a box; like Castner drenched in helicopter fuel, standing amid burning flares on a runway, in the dark desert night), this one remains, for me, the most vivid.

It’s the birthday of my fourth son.  He is two today, and the family has come over for a party.  Grandma and Grandpa, aunt and cousin.  Even Ricky unexpectedly stopped over, the first time he was able to come …

The two-year-old is gleefully unwrapping presents, discovering puzzles and games and cars.  He opens a red stuffed animal, and with a squeal, dives on top of it and rolls around on the carpet, his older brothers tickling and giggling with him.

I don’t remember any of their second birthday parties.

I concentrate on the sights and sounds and I check my rifle.  I gulp it in, watching, analyzing, encoding.  Burn this one in, Brian.  Remember it.

My wife is pulling out the camera and elicits a “cheese” from the tangle of arms and legs on the floor.  Grandpa is in search of another piece of cake.  Grandma watches with a small smile on her lips.

But it’s already starting to slip away.  A fading echo.  I concentrate harder.

Remember it, Brian!

I grasp the slipping sand with both hands.  There are plenty of gaps for this party to fill, but my bucket has a hole in the bottom, and by the end of the day, it’s nearly gone.

 

American Ground and The Long Walk are must-reads because of their timeliness, their depth, their power.  But these are works of art, too.  Works of art so potent and mystic and moving that they help us rediscover what Castner discovered – that “The mountain doesn’t care.  But the mountain is real.  The mountain exists.  And the mystery of its objective existence drowns my Crazy.”  Or, put another way, that there is a race to be run.  “Why run the race?”  Castner asks.  “Because of the amazement that there is a race to be run at all.”