41st Writing Contest • First Place, Fiction
Carol Marsh of Washington D.C. has won the New Millennium Fiction Prize for “Pictures in Leaves.”
She will receive $1,000, a certificate to document the success, and publication both online and in print.
“For anyone who’s ever shouted across the dinner table, debating with a loved one about war, dissent, and the true meaning of patriotism, Marsh’s essay will resonate deeply.”
Pictures In Leaves
By Carol Marsh
I have been expecting the book, yet the sight of the small package makes my stomach jump. I reach into the mailbox and grab it along with a few envelopes, walking upstairs to the condo as though I’m carrying just another piece of mail and my hands aren’t moist with sudden nerves.
Settling into my favorite chair, I place the package unopened on my lap. I snap on the lamp, realize the bright April afternoon light flooding in the window needs no help, and snap it off. I pick up the mailing envelope, put it down. It seems small, insignificant. Finally, I tug the tab at one end, which slips from my fingers. Scowling, I yank hard, tearing a large section away and revealing the book. On the paperback’s cover, a soldier stands center front, holding a rifle. He’s backed by a black and dark grey depiction of a dense forest. His unshaven face is dirty, its expression grim. The eyes above sunken cheeks are shadowed by the helmet set low on his forehead. The line drawing fades away at his knees where the background color changes from black and grey to a dark, then a lighter, blue. Here, occupying the lower quarter of the cover, are drawings of two army tanks and, walking beside them, soldiers holding guns. Above the central soldier’s head is the title in bright yellow: MacLAREN’S MEN. Above that, a single phrase: Only Sergeant MacLaren could prevent saboteurs from destroying the First Army! And the author’s name, in white letters that stand out against the dark of the trees:
Robert W. Marsh.
For a year after his death in 2006, I’d jerk awake most mornings, one thought dominating: I can’t find my father. Now he is nine years gone, lying in a cemetery under a plaque that bears his name and dates, his Army insignia and the words World War II Veteran, and I have begun to search for him once more.
The father of my childhood memory is a man who was so there. His joy was big, his voice, booming. I was proud of how much more handsome he was than my friends’ fathers: brown eyes, dark wavy hair, high forehead and broad jaw, too square-built to be slender but not overweight. Just solid. He kept his dark hair shorter than most men in the sixties, and no sideburns; a legacy of his army service that he adhered to proudly.
When I was little, he’d help me with my Saturday bath: taking me, dripping, from the tub and wrapping me in a towel before drying me off, his movements so vigorous I’d stagger and struggle to remain upright. I would ask him to sing the song and he would tuck in his chin and open his mouth to the notes and the words as he wielded the towel with the rhythm, kneeling there on the bathroom floor beside me, wagging his head and looking quite serious.
“Start me with ten who are stout-hearted men, And I’ll soon find you ten thousand more.”
He would sing on, something about “shoulder to shoulder, bolder and bolder,” and marching “to the fore,” his resonant voice crashing off the tiled floor and walls. Sing it again, I’d beg, and he always did.
He told his young children only two stories about his service in the Second World War. He said he and his buddy Paul had won the war single-handedly, making me conjure up a giant astride a battlefield, enemy soldiers scurrying away from under his big boots like so many frightened insects. And he’d talk about a Frenchman emerging from of his farm house one freezing winter day, cheerful, nose red from the cold, slapping and rubbing his hands together as he calls out to Dad and Paul, “Ne fait pas chaud, n’est ce pas?” which Dad said meant, “It sure isn’t warm out, is it?” Dad always laughed when he told that story and he always told it exactly that way. These were my pictures of Dad in the war: one of a giant hero scattering the Germans, and the other of a man laughing in the cold with a Frenchman who claps gloved hands together.
These memories are the only ones in which my father, war, and I are together and not conflicting. I cannot remember a time after I was seven when war was not anathema to me.
Listening to the teachers’ footsteps pass quietly and slowly behind the crouching forms of my second-grade classmates and me, my head pressed against the wall and forearms covering my neck, I breathed into the space between my face and the floor. I wondered, stomach rolling in fear, why they didn’t hunker down with us. If the bombers came, wouldn’t they die, standing up like that? I made myself as small as possible, cramming my nose against the moist patch my breath made on the tile and tucking my knees up tight. Later, when the air raid drill instructions changed and we hunched under our desks, I felt safer, less exposed. The desk would shield me from the bombs, a thought that comforted even as it made me worry about Mrs. Johnson, who persisted in pacing back and forth instead of cowering with us.
One day, she said, we might be told not to crouch and wait, but to race home as fast as we could. And we were to run uninvited through yards of people we didn’t know, cross streets even if a crossing guard wasn’t there. I would be alone, I was sure, because no one in my class lived near me and so in my imagination I would stumble through gardens and scramble over fences, racing across streets and passing all the slower kids who might get bombed if they didn’t run faster. If planes flew overhead I was supposed to find some sort of shelter because those might be the war planes. But how would I know for sure it was a war plane? What if I thought it was a regular plane and it bombed me because I didn’t hide? Mom said the war plane would be flying low in the sky, it would be big and noisy. But where would I hide? It didn’t matter, and no, you won’t have to ask permission. No, it doesn’t matter if your school clothes get dirty.
I imagined a plane so large as to make a shadow of daytime and me cowering at the base of a tree, skinny arms shielding my neck against death from the sky, breathing into the dirt, trying not to throw up. Trying not to get killed.
Dad’s book is there in my lap, unopened. Suddenly resolved, I pick it up not so much to read as to search for him, almost hungrily, the book cool and slight in my hands, the pages resistant to being turned. He first appears in phrases or expressions so strongly reminiscent that they vibrate with his enthusiasm: “that really hit the spot,” and “amen to that, brother,” and “how ’bout that?” and “izzat so?” and “snap to it,” and “show ’em a thing or two.” One character uses metaphors of the sort Dad enjoyed, like one about being in a traffic jam so thick you could “spread it on your toast.” Or three soldiers’ helpless laughter while producing a series of puns about how Paul Bunyan would have been a good foot soldier. He had an infantry buddy named Charlie Corn. “`Private Bunyan,’ Ralph shouted. `Private Corn. Hotfoot it over here.’ They laughed again, one final burst, and fell silent. Ralph felt cleaned out, scrubbed, combed and brushed. He couldn’t remember how long it had been since he’d had a good laugh.”
That’s my Dad.
I realize, as I couldn’t have in my teens, that in this book he broke his silence about his war experience in the only way, I imagine now, that felt safe. Because here he is in Ralph, the main character who is named after my father’s father, who calls coffee the elixir of the gods and is obsessed about the timing and content of his meals; whose beard grows out a red stubble and who makes friends with small children; who had completed a year studying journalism at Penn State before enlisting, then served with the Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.) – precursor to the C.I.A. – during the Battle of the Bulge; who interrogates captured German soldiers and makes friends with the family on whose farm his squad is billeted.
Here he is in the historical accuracy of the story about the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge, when Germans impersonating American soldiers crossed American lines to sabotage roads, bridges and communication lines. Over semi-autobiographical details, Dad layered meticulous research. I am able to find corroborating reference to it all, to every town in which he describes battles or civilian massacres or as the site of a parachute drop, each piece of military equipment he names – American, British or German – and which bridges over what rivers saboteurs are targeting.
My father had often said World War II had made a man of him. He once told me I would not have liked him had I known him before he served. But convinced by air raid drills and, later, Viet Nam, of war’s fearful unpredictability and immorality, I rejected the idea that a boy had to go fight to become either a man or likeable. We knew we disagreed but at some point stopped discussing it, maybe due to his retreat into silence, maybe to my arrogant teenage certainty that I was right and he was wrong. So habitual became this distance that even as an adult I never asked about all he was not saying and why he was not saying it.
I was five when I first fell in love with a man not my father. John F. Kennedy – whose open, handsome face contrasted so strongly with that of the other Presidential candidate who was dark and forbidding – reminded me of my Dad, both of them energetic and young with a tall, pretty wife. It was Kennedy who saved the country from war with Cuba, and me from racing home through other peoples’ yards and over their fences. It was Kennedy who made my stomach stop hurting.
Until, that is, the sudden ringing of the wall phone by the door of my third-grade classroom one November Friday afternoon. The jangling had made us all jump, we’d heard it so seldom. When my teacher cradled the receiver and turned back to us, her face was set in an expression I didn’t recognize, and we had gone still in the way small animals freeze at the snapping of a twig, preternaturally silent there in our neat rows of desks. She told us President Kennedy had been shot, and, already listening for the war planes that were surely coming, I jumped from my chair with the other kids. I had to get home before the bombs fell, running away from the sickness in my stomach and the terror: he was dead and who would save me from war now?
Most of that weekend I sat on the scratchy beige rug in front of our ten-inch black-and-white television listening to Walter Cronkite and vaguely aware that, outside, the neighborhood of matching Cape Cod-style bungalows was eerily quiet. School was canceled that Monday. We watched the funeral, my sisters and brother and I. My mother – whom I had never seen watching TV during the day because she was always busy in the kitchen, or sewing, or cleaning up using the Hoover Dad had given her one Christmas when they couldn’t afford real presents – sat silently on the couch beside us. Mom sitting still, and on the screen the woman with black cloth hiding her face, the incessant drumming, the horse with stirrups backward trotting behind a wagon with the flag-draped coffin: again the world made frightening. Would the planes come now? Tomorrow? And what could that new President do to stop wars? He looked old and ugly and so did his wife.
A breezy, blue day in May 2006, and my parents have traveled to Washington, DC, where I live. They want to visit the World War II Memorial. I take a day off work, meet them at Union Station and get tickets for the tour bus. At the memorial, Dad strides among the columns, stopping at the one labeled “Pennsylvania” because that’s where he lived when he enlisted. He stands silently before the granite wall with its field of 400,000 stars, speaking only after my mother snaps photos of us, and then only to say that it all felt too impersonal. And then he is panting, as though that single sentence has taken the final bit of breath from lungs that are slowly calcifying with the disease that was to kill him in six weeks. Saying he needs to rest, he finds a bench and sits down. Mom and I walk to the Korean War monument, a triangular bit of ground surrounded by granite walls and filled with larger-than-life statues of soldiers on patrol. I remember it for its aura of watchful yet weary purpose, and that my father sat on that bench struggling to breathe. Later that week we talked on the phone, a conversation of which I can recall nothing except two sentences, one his and one mine.
My father’s: “My feelings about war came out of World War II.”
Mine: “And my feelings came out of the sixties and the Viet Nam war.”
I waited for him to say more and he waited for (me?). Too long. The possibility of understanding was gone. It haunts me that I let it go. I want it back, that possibility. Eight years too late and I finally want it back. So I google my father’s name, wondering if the war novel he published in 1979 is out there and ashamed I no longer have a copy. To my surprise I find it at a small bookstore in Minnesota, something I take as a good omen: Dad was born in Minnesota. But having ordered it, I almost immediately doubt what I’ve done. I remember him writing it when I was in high school. He would give me draft chapters to read and I’d comment on characters, dialogue, and setting, but never on battle scenes, the only aspect of the book about which I wouldn’t speak and he didn’t ask. It’s part of what went unacknowledged between us for decades, so essential to our peace that we could share the experience of his writing a war novel without ever talking about war.
By now in my reading Ralph is my father. He interrogates a German prisoner, drinking coffee and drawing slowly, luxuriously, on a cigarette. The prisoner, standing half-clothed and shivering in front of him, watches the smoke curl around Dad’s head and blinks his eyes against poorly concealed desire. It’s December in the Ardennes, the coldest on record. Snow swirls in every time a door opens. The man stands in the middle of the floor, barefoot and clothed only in ragged pants and shirt. For months now he’s had no real coffee, no cigarettes and little warmth or good food because his Fuhrer has designated the country’s trains for the transport of human beings to concentration camps instead of the delivery of supplies to the front. My father knows this. He uses it to wear the man down, watching closely while taking another loudly appreciative slurp of coffee. The man asks to go to the bathroom. Dad says no after a long, luxurious drag on the cigarette. He’s angry because this German, or soldiers like him, recently murdered the people of Malmedy. They’d herded them into the forest, shot them all and marched away over bloodstains on snow not yet melted by the heat of dying bodies. He feels no sympathy for this man, only contemptuous rage. And so he snarls at the starving and dead-tired man.
My head aches and my eyes blur, yet I read on, compelled by need to understand my father. But this is a war novel and the inevitable battle scenes follow. “`Shoot low. Chop ’em down. Stop ’em from coming in. Open fire!’ … Ralph’s submachine gun bucked as he fired three and four-shot bursts.” It seems so facile, so full of avenging machismo that I skim hastily through the scene, hating how he uses the good cause to justify this war while glorifying killing as a rite of passage into manhood. Why, how, had I ever thought the possibility of our reconciliation lay within the pages of this book? He’s dead and I’ll never understand him. I snap the novel closed, unfinished, and toss it into a drawer that I slam shut. Its being out of sight offers no comfort.
By my early teens, memories of bombers and hallway drills had receded a bit. However, I was shy and often anxious in that old stomach-churning way, happiest and most calm when alone reading or thinking. I couldn’t bear to watch the television news with its stories of murder on the streets and people dying in fires. I felt like I had fewer layers of skin protecting me – what might graze another would wound me, as though what was fearsome and sorrowful and distressing in the world had peculiar power to cause me to bleed in an unseen place.
Just before I turned thirteen, as the Viet Nam War escalated, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. I sat on the couch in our family room staring at a TIME Magazine photo of three men standing on a balcony and pointing in the same direction, their poses somehow more horrifying than the body at their feet. Four months later, and I was again staring at a photograph of death, this one taken in a shadowy world with only two faces visible: Robert Kennedy’s and a slim youth’s, the younger face far less peaceful than the elder’s. That America could be so terrible a place as to kill these men further inclined me to the safety of solitude and a growing abhorrence of violence. Encouraged in that inclination by the news stories and photos about the Viet Nam war ubiquitous in the late sixties, I reasoned that war only made more war without solving anything.
But my father supported the Viet Nam War, saying we had to guard the world from Communism. He called the protesters traitors, young fools who didn’t deserve to live in America. He wanted a fast, aggressive escalation of bombing and fighting in Viet Nam, saying a slow and steady increase of pressure only allowed the enemy time to build strength, buy more weapons and train more soldiers. He voted for Barry Goldwater, who he said was the one candidate capable of saving the country from sliding into anarchy.
Meanwhile, the songs the protesters sang and the signs they carried made something crystalline and true resonate in me.
In late 1969, the story of the My Lai massacre broke, with photos of slaughter at which I could not bear to look and stories of American soldiers committing crimes of the sort patriotism had taught me could only be charged to the enemy. No one, it appeared, could be trusted to wage war with honor. I took this as evidence that war itself was without honor. Thus ended the decade during which I went from five to fifteen, in confusion and anger, blood and brutality. It made me passionate about lessons I was never to discard, lessons that reinforced my inborn aversion to violence. I kept my passion to myself and it grew to fill the space of silence between my father and me until that silence itself was a bulwarked wall.
Several weeks after shutting Dad’s book away, I’m calm enough to remember that it contained a story about Ralph befriending children. It occurs to me that here is a story far outside the warrior mentality I’ve been deploring. I go back to the book.
Ralph is billeted in a garage on the estate of the Viscount and Viscountess duParc. The children I remember are theirs – Alain, nine, and Paulette, twelve. There’s a scene in which they ask for a ride in Ralph’s jeep, “They stood stiffly at attention, giggling. … `Please,’ Paulette piped, proud of her ability to speak English, `we would like much …’ Alain completed the sentence, `… for a ride in you jip.’”
Flipping through the pages, I find more about the children. They’ve built two snowmen with coal eyes, noses and mouths. They’ve equipped the figures with discarded army gear and identified them, with carefully lettered cardboard signs, as `Ralph’ and `Suide’.
That phonetic spelling of `Swede’ catches in my throat. I imagine my father earnestly picking through his memories for ways to portray the kids. I leaf through more pages, past the battle scene at which I’d hidden the book away some weeks before. A plot-thread follows Ralph and Swede worrying about the DuParcs having no Christmas in the war’s deprivations. It unfolds as they go about their duties, proposing plans and discarding them. Finally they wrap some candies, soap, razor blades and coffee in paper they have carefully saved from their own presents sent from home. Ralph includes a fruitcake from his mother.
Later, reading letters from his parents, he “leaned back against the garage wall, closed his eyes … longing for the peace and quiet and contentment living in that old house gave him. He remembered how he used to look out his window in the morning and see pictures in the leaves.”
Pictures in the leaves. The phrase transports me. I am ten and we have moved into a new, more spacious house with a large back yard. We’ve just finished dinner at a picnic table on our screened porch. Dad, gazing across our back yard toward a summer evening’s setting sun, spoke for the first time of many about the lake he imagined he could see through the leaves on the trees ringing our property. What was actually there was a busy road and more houses, but Dad saw a lake.
And I see Dad. He rests against a dirty wall wishing for the quiet, peace, and contentment of home. He’s lonely, tired and grimy, hungry and cold. He’s a man who makes friends with small children and gives them rides in his jeep, a man who loves to eat and goes through the war constantly hungry but gives up his Christmas fruitcake for the family he’s only known a month or two.
Wrapped in the spell of the pictures he writes for me, I find him elsewhere. “The coffee was busily perking on the stove and its bubbling sound was strangely loud in the suddenly silent kitchen. The room was a tranquil place, filled with delicious odors and peaceful purpose. Soldiers didn’t really belong in such a place.”
And here: “Ralph sank down on his cot, slowly unlacing his combat boots … [T]he song they were playing now made him homesick and sick of the war. He wished it would end.”
And here: “They sat in a corner of the mess hall by themselves, instinctively wanting to be alone … feeling powerless, useless, disgusted and frustrated.”
Dad had said the war made a man of him. But this is not the man I thought he meant, this man sick of fighting and longing for home. I thought he only meant the man who interrogated prisoners with sharp cynicism, the soldier whose testosterone thrust him through battle after battle. I thought he only meant the father who spouted tirades against war protesters and liberals.
He said the war made a man of him. Yet the man I knew spoke of war mainly to advocate for fighting he called strategic but seemed to me only to make violence roll down upon families, villages, and jungles far away. If he’d ever been tired or frustrated or felt powerless during the war, or if he later had emotions about it other than those of a hawkish conservative, I had never heard him say so. I remember interviews I have seen of men who made it across Omaha Beach. They speak of dead friends, eyes filling and voices faltering. What if I’d asked my father, old like these men, about his war? Would he, like them, have finally told of what he’d kept buried? I wonder: what was his war really like? At what cost did he hide feelings I now suspect he had?
At what cost did I assume he did not care?
Here is a story about my father, told to me by my older sister who knows I’m reading his war novel, raw and hurting. It happened in 1997, seventeen years ago. Dad is seventy-four. Her son has invited his grandfather to teach his sixth-grade class about World War II. I imagine my father sitting at the teacher’s desk before the kids in chairs half-circling him. He is so there, his back is straight, his face serious. He and his resonant voice fill the space of that classroom. Behind him hangs a Nazi flag and on a desk in front of him are mementos of war: a sword, some daggers. He’s fine, surrounded by savage things and answering the kids’ questions, until the prompting of a surfacing memory makes him speak:
He is upstairs in the house of the French family on whose farm his squad is staying. It’s 1944 and the coldest winter on record in the Ardennes, the stretch of land between France and Belgium already torn asunder by an earlier German invasion and now suffering through the Battle of the Bulge. He picks up his gun to clean it, hands stiff with cold and breath visible because so many windows had been shot out by the German soldiers who used the house, farm and family in the ways men use during war.
The gun, which he has forgotten to unload, goes off. The bullet cracks through the air and lodges in one of the bed’s wooden posts, leaving a splintered hole in the fine wood. Appalled, terribly embarrassed, he races downstairs to the kitchen where the elderly couple drinks tea. Seeing the fright on their faces, he stumbles into an agitated explanation of the gunshot that has so scared them. He offers to pay for the damage. He apologizes again and again, stopping only when they begin to laugh.
This is what the old ones say: German soldiers have been here burning our furniture for warmth and looting our barn of stored grain, eating our food and attacking our daughter. Should we now worry about a hole in a bed post?
The story ends there. Not because there’s no more to say about the old couple and the gunshot and the war, not because he’s told all he can about the flag and the sword and the daggers, but because my father is crying.
Carol D. Marsh earned her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College in August 2014. Her thesis was a memoir about living and working with Washington DC’s homeless women with AIDS. The memoir, “Nowhere Else I Want to Be” was a Finalist in the National Indie Excellence Awards 2017 (Memoir).
"Pictures in Leaves" © 2015 Carol D. Marsh