Under Fire

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After watching a unit of Moroccan soldiers pass by—black Africans who will cut off a man’s head in combat—Henri Barbusse writes:

‘No doubt they’re a different race from us .. In fact, they’re real soldiers.”

“We are not soldiers, … we’re men.”

They are men, good fellows of all kinds, rudely torn away from the joy of life. Like any other men whom you take in the mass, they are ignorant and of narrow outloook, full of a sound common sense—which some-times gets off the rails—disposed to be led and to do as they are bid, enduring uder hardships, long suffering.

They are simple men further simplified, in whom the merely primitive instincts have been accentuated by the force of circumstances—the instinct of self-preservation, the hard-gripped hope of living through, the joy of food, of drink, and of sleep. And at intervals they are cries and dark shudders of humanity that issue from the silence and the shadows of their great hearts.

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The Red Book

Do you really think it’s possible for a book to change your life? This sounds too much like a literary epiphany and I consider it a useless question, so I’ll rephrase it for my benefit and ask what books were influential in my life?

When I was in High School they made us read a lot of classics which were intended to at least start the solidification of the mush we called brains and get us ready for some serious thinking later in life, presumably in college. We read Moby Dick and Babbitt and Oedipus Rex and Silas Marner and several dozen other important books that never were influential because THEY MADE US READ THEM! As a senior we also had to read several novels from two recommended secondary reading lists and I found one of the titles on my father’s bookshelf, read it, and gave a brilliant book report in front of the class. The novel was A Walk In the Sun by Harry Brown. Years later I learned they even made a movie from this little story of the Italian campaign during WWII, but any importance the novel carried was not the reason it was influential to me.

As I said, A Walk In the Sun was a little book but it was quite expressive of the quirky little things a soldier would do, especially under fire. I remember the description of the GIs pushing up a little pile of dirt and grass in front of their faces while taking heavy machine gun fire in the open fields. I imagined it was like closing your eyes when something scary was going to happen, as if closing your eyes (or making a little pile of dirt) was going to protect you. Well, the class was convinced that I was trying to put one over on the teacher by giving a report on a comic book, but the teacher recognized the book and the macabre philosophy of the foxhole (these were real men, not war heroes) and wanted me to bring the book in for her to see. The class, of course, assumed I was in deep trouble and I never let on that I had given a good analysis of an interesting book which the teacher appreciated.

My lesson was to just do my thing and not worry about what others thought. As a result, when we walked at graduation I was right up front because of my senior class ranking and everyone thought I had cut in line.

Later in High School I started reading John Keats and my attachment to his poetry had me entering college as an English major and concentrating on poetry. I devoured Keats and Shelley, Milton and Shakespeare, Donne and Pope, leaving things like novels to my Comparative Literature classes. I did my senior thesis on Ted Roethke and graduated with average grads, but good enough to get me recommended to several graduate schools.

I settled on Washington University in St. Louis and discovered Medieval English literature. Here the Pearl Poet, specifically Sir Gawain and the Greene Knight, was probably my greatest influence and I became proficient in Old English and Middle English and even passed the tests in French and Italian. But there was a war in Southeast Asia and the army was chasing me around the country so I eventually had to drop out of graduate school and move on into the business world. But before I did, I took a survey course in Restoration drama and immediately abandoned all thoughts of becoming a medievalist. I loved Restoration Drama but the strong influence was William Wycherley. If I had continued for my PhD, it would have somehow involved The Gentleman Dancing Master.

Those are just a few of the influences I had during my education. After leaving school Noam Chomsky became an important influence on my life. I started out continuing an interest in linguistics and read most of Chomsky on grammars and such but later on Chomsky became as vocal about the world’s politics as he ever was about linguistics. Everyone should read Chomsky—with an open mind.

But the single most important book that influenced my life was The Red Book. No, it’s not something out of Communist China but was the original, partly hand-typed and partly hand-written manual that came with the very early Apple II computers. I held onto this book for years and years and now with all the moving I have done, I really don’t know if I still have it. Hopefully it’s stuck in one of those old packing boxes out in the garage. The Red Book is crude, simple, and very unimpressive, but this is where I started to learn and to use a computer at home. Yes, at work we had an IMSAI 8080 which, if I remember, ran an early version of Datakit at Bell Labs, but that was work. When I got home my Apple II with the five-inch B&W monitor was waiting for me on my desk:  pop in a cassette and chat with Eliza, bring up the BASIC interpreter and type in a program from one of the early computer magazines and watch the stork walk across the screen, listen to a tinny version of Fur De Lise while mesmerizing digital string art flashed on the screen. I even had a Bulletin-Board-System in those days, one user at a time, 300 baud.

I’m sitting here now typing on a Macintosh that is probably 200 times more powerful than the entire data center complex at work back in those days, let alone the lowly 48K Apple II I ran at home.  And I owe it all to that crude manual called The Red Book and the two Steves.