In the High Peaks

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Joseph Heller, More Re: Catch 22, and My Dad

Joseph Heller's Catch-22 was published in the U.S. in 1961, but did not do well in hardcover, selling only 40,000 copies. In 1962, however, it was published as a Dell paperback and became an instant bestseller.

In 1962, I remember my father read Catch-22 eagerly, but without a word in response to it. He urged my mother to read it, but after 50 pages or so, she couldn't stand it, declaring, "This book is completely crazy! It makes no sense at all!." I vividly remember her vehement comments. I don't recall Dad saying anything about her reaction. Personally, I think he loved the book.

Like Joseph Heller, my dad was born in 1923, but three months before Heller. And Dad died three months before him as well, in September, 1999, of heart problems (like Heller.) And even more like Heller, Dad was in the Army Air Corps (later in the war to be named the Army Air Force). Dad was a navigator and Heller was a bombadier.

But unlike Heller, Dad never saw combat, solely because he excelled as a baseball pitcher. Every "group" or squadron in the US had a baseball team on each air base. My father was a star pitcher and was not shipped out because the generals vied amongst each other to have the best baseball team. Month after month, he watched crewmen on his baseball team come and go, but he remained in the US, playing for the troops, as a morale booster, for most of the war. (Of course, he had to train and practice being a navigator on B-25s as well.)

Dad wasn't sent packing until late July 1945, when he was assigned to a base in Georgia to prepare to be shipped out for the Invasion of Japan. But the "shipping out" never took place because of the surrender of Japan in mid-August. Yes, he was very lucky, indeed.

He never mentioned a word of this to any of the three of us kids when we were children and adolescents. He told me about it when I was in my late twenties, so I'm sure he had experienced some guilt about being untouched by war, or it would have been common family knowledge much sooner. But by his late fifties, I think he had accepted his past and was ready to share it. And as my dear Uncle Connie pointed out to me just a few years ago, "He only did what he was ordered to do, like everyone else."

In any case, and because of all these historical family facts, I feel compelled to read Catch-22, the one American WWII anti-war novel I haven't read. (I loved Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, and heartilyh recommend it.) Ben Shephard, British author of War Nerves: Soldiers and Psychiatrists in the Twentieth Century criticized American troops for experiencing a greater number of "malingering" and psychiatric casualties than British troops. Well, of course, they did, silly! For many Americans emerging from the insular 1930s Great Depression era, what was Europe to them? What was Germany? Where was Germany? Who was Hitler? Who cared? Just as Heller makes all too plain in Catch-22.

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