Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Local Boy Makes Good

“The Grass – A Young Man’s Journey to the Korean War” – Paul Zerby, 2009

Minneapolis’ own Paul Zerby has written a fictional account of a feisty young man from Fargo who ends up fighting in the Korean War. It is unknown how much of this is biography, and how much is fiction – but then, that is the essence of some kinds of literature. Zerby is a former lawyer and irascible DFL City Counsel person who represented the 2nd Ward on the West Bank. He himself was born in Fargo, went to the U and later shipped out for Korea. Writing this book seems to be something he has put off until ‘retirement’ – a story he has been carrying around for quite awhile.

The lead character, high-schooler Tom Kelly, initially believes that the Korean war is worth fighting, to save ‘the American way of life,’ because there was no doubt that the “Communists were trying to take over the world.’ By the end of the book, after being in Korea for a combat tour, Kelly doesn’t believe that anyone should die for any ‘isms’ anymore. It is not quite clear how this transformation happens – contact with warfare does not make all soldiers into pacifists. Kelly is quite an odd conglomeration of characteristics. He is a kid who talks about Hemingway without ever being seen reading him; who is loud, foul-mouthed and drinks Jack Daniels constantly, even at school; is mostly driven by sexual urgings in his relationships with women - i.e. a thoroughly conventional male. Yet he is also somehow class-consciousness, bookish, anti-racist and not afraid of authority. I have met this kind of person in the Midwest, but they are certainly a rarity.

The book starts by tracing Kelly’s life in Fargo, North Dakota, when one of his friends comes home in a box from Korea; where he romances an upper-class, conservative Christian named Moira who fancies herself an edgy progressive; and when he finally leaves his Democratic-populist, working-class parents to go to school at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, not to the agriculture school in Fargo. Throughout the book, Moira attempts to win him back, even though she will not have sex with him. This is the early ‘50s, after all, and she is an endless source of frustration to Tom.

In Minneapolis, Kelly starts taking classes, working part-time, and also joins ROTC. His first sexual experience is with a waitress at work who he doesn’t like that much except for sex. He also meets various leftists from the Socialist Workers Party, whom he calls ‘pseudo-intellectuals,’ and also the pivotal person in this narrative, Professor Theodore R Williams. Williams is a left-wing professor, and also the only black professor at the U at that time. Oddly enough, this professor seems to be modeled on the first black professor at the U that Nelson Peery helped get hired. (See the review of “Black Radical,” below.) The real professor’s name was Forrest O. Wiggins. He was hired as an instructor in the philosophy department in 1946 (when Peery helped get him hired), and terminated by the U administration in 1952 for political reasons (which Zerby probably protested.) As you might notice, discussing politics with the SWP and joining ROTC are usually mutually-exclusive activities. It certainly never happened in the 60s to my knowledge.

Kelly disagrees with but respects Williams. Williams comes out against the Korean War in public; like a fool, Kelly’s girlfriend Moira publicizes his stance in the Minnesota Daily; the administration decides to fire Williams, and, in an epic scene, Kelly leads a protest of hundreds of students against the firing by publicly arguing with the head of the University, Chancellor Werrecker. Kelly finishes the discussion by leading a foul-mouthed chant against the decision. That gets Kelly kicked out of ROTC and the University, and he heads back to Fargo, now known as a ‘communist sympathizer’ and a ‘nigger lover.’ During that time these designations were badges of honor, at least in retrospect. However, it seems unlikely that many real Tom Kellys earned them.

The hidden war in Korea – ignored by most of the population, somewhat like Iraq and Afghanistan – comes back to center stage. In 1952, Kelly decides to join the Army against the wishes of his family, his girlfriend, and his more radical friends like Will Lindeman, because he wants to ‘do the right thing.’ He is sent to boot camp in North Carolina, which also happens to be near the poor black college Professor Williams has been exiled to. At boot camp, he watches as a fat, slow soldier, Schlumpberger, who has been hazed and insulted for weeks, intentionally stands up in a live-fire exercise and get chopped in two by bullets. This starts the horrified Kelly on a writing jag, as he feels partly responsible for the suicide.

Kelly goes to visit Williams, who is thankful to see him, but is appalled that Kelly has joined the Army. The Professor feels somehow responsible for this. Kelly sees what happens to people that stand up to the power structure – Williams has aged, and he has become unhappy, as has his wife. The family is now poorer. Right before shipping out, Kelly has a 30-day furlough which he spends in New York City with a new woman he has met, Anna, and fantasizes about being a writer or going to Columbia. He spends most of the time trying to get this woman ‘in the sack’ – which is the slangy way Kelly usually puts things. On the last night, he succeeds. And they pledge their love.

Kelly lands at Pusan, and is immediately put in the field, where he shoots a young North Korean close-up on a hill called the “Witches Tit.” Then follow various maneuvers that take him through fields of exploding bodies, shit-soaked and pointless mud advances, deadly friendly fire, and trench warfare. He spends his 15 month tour along the 38th Parallel, as the two sides alternatively negotiate and fight. Nearly at the end of his term, he tries to help a black solider avoid court marshal by pretending the soldier is sick, not asleep on watch. At this point, he has already told his brass, Lieutenant Winton, that he does not believe in fighting the war anymore. Winton, a stiff West Pointer, is angered, and at the trial of the soldier, Kelly lies and is called a ‘nigger-lover’ again. Of course, Kelly later marries Anna and reluctantly returns to Korea’s DMZ in 2007 as a grandfather. He sees how Seoul has changed from a destitute, bomb-wracked town to a city of shining glass and skyscrapers.

I’ve read a lot of anti-war novels and this is one of the milder ones. Its real topic is the 50s in America, where most of the action takes place. The combination of the slangy attitude and the intellectuality of the lead character seem in conflict, and give Kelly an air of class unreality. Of course, he could, indeed be based on Paul Zerby … and Mr. Zerby is quite real.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog, 9/22/2009

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