“Any idiot can face a crisis – it’s day to day living that wears you out.” – Anton Chekhov
Of all the books I have read and films I have seen none have left as indelible a mark on my heart as Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, perhaps one of the most virulent, passionate anti-war novels ever written. I recall this as assigned reading as a high school student at Abington Friends by a passionate but deeply troubled teacher and a veteran of Vietnam who years later took his own life. He assigned us other life-altering books including Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, a book about animal rights which was ahead of it’s time much in the way Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle brought to light the horrid conditions not only for the workers but the animals as well in the Chicago stockyards. (unintentionally as his was intentioned as more a tale of poverty and corruption of power).
Blacklisted during the McCarthy era in 1947, Trumbo, who later spent 11 months in a federal prison for contempt of Congress, was pushed to the sidelines of the literary establishment years after the book’s publication on the eve of WWII in 1939. During this vicious era of fervent anti-communism, the very sad and undemocratic witch hunt of political activists, artists, musicians, writers and the like touched all corners of the country. It was an ugly time for America and such passionate fear mongering and hatred continues to rear it’s ugly head via Fox News, the Tea Party, Palin, Bachmann, O’Reilly and Limbaugh as well as the extremely nasty side of the Republican party (the “hate-wing”) anytime someone’s ill-focused version of patriotism is perceived to be threatened, America’s policies are questioned or status-quo is challenged. (see: Freedom Fries, the NRA, Iraq War, gay marriage, etc. etc. ad nauseum).
In the novel, later put to film in 1971 by Trumbo himself (with uncredited support from Luis Buñuel) and featuring a young Timothy Bottoms as Joe, a World War I veteran returns home from battle with nothing but the thoughts, memories and images still burning inside his brain. He is less than a corpse but still breathing with the assistance of tubes and medicine. He is a slab of meat, a torso, with a brain although nobody believes he is capable of thought and assume he is a vegetable. It’s brutal and very real. He has lost his limbs right up to the shortest of stumps. His face is gone (in the film, beautifully rendered in black and white, we never see the gruesomeness as he is covered in gauze) and he cannot hear, speak, see, taste. He has no mouth, no tongue, no teeth, no eyes, no ears, and no nose. He is able to move his head and ultimately communicates by banging his head in morse code. He can feel the touch of a hand and I recall a scene in which a small space on his forehead is caressed lovingly and leave his imagination to run to places he can now only dream of in between the nightmares.
He replays his life in vivid detail despite his hopelessness. All we hear throughout the book and film is the voice inside his head as well as the flashbacks between past and present. It is pure torture in its rawest form.
If there was ever a convincing argument against the savage machinery of war, the use of violence to solve problems, Johnny Got His Gun is certainly a convincing argument. (The films Ghandi, Slaughterhouse Five, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Fail-Safe, Catch-22, The Killing Fields and Romero also come to mind, among the many.
I am again am grateful to Abington Friends School – when we were in high school, AFS rented an entire movie theater and took the day off from school to attend the three- hour ten minute epic film Ghandi by Richard Attenborough about one of the world’s greatest heros, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. We followed up with a day of discussion and assignments. It was a brilliant and courageous “out of the box” educational effort.
If only the generals, criminals, terrorists and warlords were able to watch these films with an open heart and mind, but then if this was so, they probably wouldn’t be generals, criminals, terrorists and warlords. Maybe toss in, for good measure, Dr. Strangelove, M*A*S*H, Slaughterhouse Five, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Fail-Safe, Catch-22, The Killing Fields and Romero among the many.
Johnny Got His Gun comes to mind because since this whole strange event began to affect my function due to hemorrhaging and the build up of pressure from the expanding orb of aberrant cancer cells whose DNA had run amuck, I have been, with no irony intended, thinking a lot about that strange gray matter giving me so much trouble. And I think about Joe the soldier. The what-if’s, the what could-be’s and the impossible thought of having my own brain waste away. It’s sickening, frankly but only makes my resolve stronger. As I have shared, I will not let this cancer fight me or define me. I will define and fight it.
The human body is an astounding creation with a powerful dichotomy: at one moment we are as vulnerable as ants on the pavement. Our fate can be met at any moment and our existence obliterated. A piano could fall from above walking down a city street. Lightening can strike. We could fall into the Grand Canyon or over a waterfall as sadly occurs annually in our great parks with alarming regularity. And not much would be left. A red splotch. A mess of skin and bones. I simply cannot fathom how rescue workers, soldiers, military medical personnel and others in the health care and law enforcement professions, particularly those in the ER, on accident scenes or on the battlefield cope with the grim and haunting devastation of managing the retrieval of bodies and parts. My guess is that no matter how strong or how numerous the coping tools provided, the emotional and spiritual scars never, ever fade. We owe a debt of gratitude to those who sacrifice their own well being to clean up the aftermath of such devastation.
What a waste many must think. What was once someone’s daughter or son is no more. A woman carried this person in her belly for nine moths or so and created the person who is now being shoveled into a body bag. Recent heinous crimes in our small community resulting in senseless death has tested our collective resolve and my own continued inner-conflict about the death penalty and punishment, as, sadly, the march of unspeakable acts fill our airwaves, invade our print media and scroll across the screen. The Zantops, the Petits, Dartmouth families both, come to mind. The Co-op shooting and the murder of woman on a rural road in Dummerston, Vermont as well.
While here I am pontificating about the horror of war, my first reaction to the news of two recent shootings was frontier justice: those who murder should be met with their own fate, perhaps in the same manner or worse.
And then I think of the quote “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
No easy answers here….
We are but mere mortals and our existence is no more or less important than the next creature. Believing otherwise is a foolish exercise because in the end, it’s all the same. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust whether you are a human, an ant, a squirrel or a mountain lion. We are all just bodies, hopefully in motion.
On the other hand, we can endure and survive through astounding adversity. Sharks can rip off our limbs, we can lose our hearing, faculties of speech, sight, taste, touch, and we can suffer great trauma to our hearts, brains and bodies and somehow through a fine blend of science and nature, blessings and miracles (if you so believe), come out the other side relatively intact. Our bodies are capable of compensating to a remarkable degree.
In a book which was required reading last year for Putney School faculty, at the recommendation of the most remarkable Head of School, Emily Jones, who endured her own challenge with a brain tumor, The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science takes on the notion that our brains are fixed and the mapping is permanent. Not so. It is now known that the brain is more elastic and malleable that we imagined. Those who lose sight do in fact compensate when their brains adapt and become stronger in other areas such as smell and touch. Space, as William Shatner quipped before every episode of Star Trek, may be the final frontier, but I think that space includes what lies within my ¼” thick dome resting on our shoulders. (funny new fact: “the average thicknesses of the skull in men was 6.5 millimeters, but 7.1 mm in women”) Our brains are the greatest unknown and we are learning more (with our brains, no less) every day about this vastly uncharted territory. Let the journey begin.
I’m off to MD Anderson to see, with the endorsement of the DHMC team, Dr. Mark Gilbert, a leader in the field of this particular cancer. Much thanks for reading and joining me for the ride…