In the 1940’s, a young Marine returns from China to a small Pennsylvania town. He enrolls in graduate school and begins to work as a high school teacher. He marries the young woman who had waited for him through the war. They buy a house and invite her widowed mother to live with them.
One year later finds the body of the mother-in-law sprawled on the kitchen floor and the body of the wife in the living room, both perforated with bullets. The former Marine is handcuffed and taken away by the sheriff. The local newspapers are filled with testimony from the man’s former employers, neighbors and students. Each interview is a tribute to the good worker, teacher and neighbor they knew Donald Watkins to be.
After more than 30 years of hospitalization, Donald Watkins married my mother. He was 84; she was a younger woman of 70. For a decade Donald was part of my life. He was a gentle and reserved man, whose past always seemed like it must belong to someone else. My mother had told me Donald’s story and, though he rarely spoke of it, over time his story had begun to haunt me.
In September 2000, four years after Donald’s death, I placed ads in The Marine Gazette and Leatherneck, seeking Marines who served in China between 1937 and 1940. I gave my address, phone number and email address, expecting one or two responses at best.
The first day the ads appeared, my answering machine flashed with seven messages. “This is Staff Sergeant Clifford Wells,” the first one announced in a no-nonsense voice. “I served in China 1938 and departed Shanghai on the USS Truman 23 March 1940. I usually bowl on Monday and Wednesday so it’s best to call me on Friday.” The messages were all delivered in similarly clipped tones. The callers recited rank, name, duty assignment, and location in China, including exact date of arrival and departure. I received letters and e-mails from engineers, corpsmen, a chef for enlisted men, even a chauffeur to the Commander.
The former marines who contacted me were in their late 80s and suffering from diminished capabilities. “I am happy to help you,” one wrote, “but please don’t call. I am extremely deaf.” Another said, “I will write back to you again, but only when my son comes on Thursday to help me with the mail.”
These men had saved crucial documents from their service: scrapbooks, Shanghai phone books, box-scores of Chinese ball games with the rosters of players, the 1938 Thanksgiving dinner menu, and copies of the Walla Walla, the weekly Marine newspaper in Shanghai. And they wanted to send it all to me.
These men became my teachers. They told me what it was like to be young and far from home, to see death all around them, and then to have to kill. Many had never discussed these events with anyone. My most regular correspondent and phone pal was Frenchy Dupont from Louisiana.
Frenchy and I corresponded for more than three years. As we got to know each other, I told him why I was writing about Donald—that I wanted to understand how this nice elderly man could have had such a scary past, that I wanted to know why my mother could marry a man who had killed his first wife and mother-in-law, and yes, that I thought that being a Marine in war might have something to do with what had gone wrong with Donald.
Under Donald’s reserved and always polite demeanor was a hum of tension. There was his obsession with a TV show called Combat that was in re-runs. He had to watch it no matter where we were: at the mall, eating dinner, at a baby’s birthday party. Then, too, there were his infrequent but almost exquisite moments of paranoia that came and went in seconds, always occurring in restaurants. He’d turn on a waiter or another diner and scream, “I see you,” and then just as quickly return to his quiet dinner.
Frenchy’s letters arrived every two weeks. I would manage to send at least a short note in response to each of his six-page letters. I told myself that because Frenchy needed a magnifier to read word by word, it was good to be brief.
In one letter, which I go back to often, he answered the question I’d kept asking him: why hadn’t he suffered shell shock following the torture he endured in the Palawan prison camp? He’d been starved, beaten, set on fire, and nearly blinded before he’d even turned 25. “I was so happy to be rescued,” he wrote, “that this was never a problem.” That’s a glass half-full, I thought.
“Our conflicts weren’t the glorious battles,” he went on. “There weren’t any cameras where we were, and the current history books never mention our piece of World War II.”
Temperament and upbringing, crucial determinants of resilience in the face of trauma, must have been key factors in Frenchy’s emotional survival. At 85, he remains an outgoing optimist: no cynicism, always kind, and the perfect barkeep in the Hospitality Suite at the China Marines reunion.
There was one moment though, he told me, when he had a taste of what the other China Marines live with. Here is what Frenchy wrote:
About three months after I came home, I had one flashback. It was a dream that several Jap guards had come to my home. I saw them coming up the front walk. As I ran down the hall to go out the back door, I saw one of them standing with his back to the porch wall by the door and as I ran by I heard his rifle fire and I was hit in the back with the bullet. My feet flew out from under me and I fell between two rows of roses in our back yard.
“One taste and never another,” Frenchy’s letter continued. “You are the first one, except my wife, to hear of this incident.” So much for therapy, I think. “Some fellows do have problems though,” he said. “A few still attend weekly group therapy at VA hospitals.” That is, he means, 57 years later.
It is mid-January, and Vermont is sunny and snow-covered. I have taken a break from Donald and the Marines to visit Bennington College to hear the poet Robert Bly speak to the MFA students. It’s bright and cold when I walk the short path to the lecture hall.
Bly has just begun his lecture as I slip into the back of the darkened hall. I peel off my parka while my eyes adjust. He is talking about how structure is part of the message in any writing. He focuses on the early 1940’s, his younger days, when he learned the formal shapes of poems and the rules of poetry. Strictness of form and careful structure were critical to the work they were all doing then.
“Prescribed forms were important because we were, at that time, writing about social madness. It was World War II,” he says, and I lean forward in my seat. “We were writing about the war, bombing. America was at war on two sides of the world—it was a crazy time filled with chaos.” Volatile content required strict form to contain it.
I lean back in my seat and put my feet up on the rail in front of me. As I listen to Robert Bly describe the war and the turmoil of that time, I think of Donald and Frenchy and my other Marines. They were part of this social madness. They were young, away from home for the first time. They had been at sea for weeks on the USS Chaumont. When they finally neared their exotic destination, ready for the promised worldly adventures, the ship pulled into harbor full of floating dead bodies. Once on Chinese soil, their job was to go out each day, after the Japanese bombs struck, and collect the dead bodies.
I think about that fact many times. For most of us, our picture of a dead body comes from a relative we’ve seen in a funeral home, or maybe a visit to a deathbed in a hospital or hospice. But these young Marines faced the dead in parts and pieces—heads, arms, and torsos separated and tossed about. Their job was to pick up the body parts and load them on trucks. Every day. How could they not go mad?
Robert Bly asks this audience of aspiring writers if they can let go of form or “at least the overused iambic pentameter.” He explains that we learned this rhythmic pattern from the Greeks who used it to express irony. The Greek poets had a repertoire of rhyme schemes, each of which was used for a specific purpose.
This is news. Did Shakespeare know that? Did he also use iambic pentameter to express irony? What do we miss when we don’t know small pieces of literary or historic context? What do we miss when we don’t know, for example, that these young Marines were not allowed to engage the Japanese until 1945, that for eight years all they could do was watch people get torn apart? And then pick up the pieces.
A woman across the room is waving her hand excitedly. Before Bly can call on her, she blurts out, “But we can see form as a cage, which is outside of us, and therefore limiting us, or we can see it as a support, as something internal like a skeleton that provides structure, that allows us to hang things on it.”
I think of Frenchy. What allowed him to survive in the Palawan prison, to structure his chaos? On what did he hang his experience so that he could come home more or less intact? Was it simply youth? Faith? The Marine esprit de corps?
I think of another Marine, Cliff, who told me how he came to be a China Marine. “It was the Depression; no one could get a job.” So he and two friends went off to join the Marines. He was excited but nervous when he was selected. He would go to China: foreign, exotic. I learn that there were Mama-San houses which provided rice and meat and well, a little piece too. Of course Cliff didn’t use that kind of language. He said, “The Marines made sure we had all the things a young soldier needed to keep him happy, girls of course, providing pleasure.”
I think about what part pleasure and sex might have played in counterbalancing the chaos, in facing down the madness. Picking up shredded body parts by day, going to the Mama-San house for sex and dinner at night.
I wonder now how aware these young men were of the greater geopolitical picture. The war was coming to the Pacific. Picking up body parts was a prelude, preparation for what was to come. Very soon they would do their own killing.
Cliff told me about the medals he received for hand-to-hand combat. Hand-to-hand sounds so innocuous. Like they were shaking hands or arm-wrestling. Cliff asked if I knew what “hand-to-hand” meant. “Sort of,” I said, “but I’m not really sure.”
“Well,” he said slowly, “you look at a man who is about to kill you, and you kill him first. You look a man in the eyes and then stab him over and over with your bayonet.”
How could we have expected our soldiers to survive that? Even our words look the other way. Bly reads to the college audience from Robert Frost. “Listen to the form,” he says. We can hear the despair, madness, and emotional chaos of Frost’s life in the poems. “Frost chose to convey his life’s words in iambic pentameter because it just barely contains the chaos.”
Perhaps this is the key—how well a person can contain the chaos of life, the chaos of heartbreak or war or murder or mental illness. If there is a form—linguistic, emotional, or spiritual—they survive. Maybe some Marines like Frenchy possess a form, an iambic pentameter that courses through their lives, keeping their chaos in check. But for others, like Donald, their meter is more fragile, more unmanageable, and the chaos spills over in unruly and violent waves. These waves crash into other lives—Donald’s wife’s, her mother’s, my mother’s—and then into mine.
This, then, may be Donald’s gift to me—a unexpected one, certainly, from a man whose measure I am still taking—to look at the meter of my own life, valuing those things that keep me from chaos, and as much as I can, counting on the good.