America – Excerpt
BURN DOWN THE WORLD
IN THE FALL Troy left for the Air Force Academy and Tara for Berkeley. The Academy’s discipline and detail came to Troy automatically, as if he’d always lived it. The rest of the world, the soft undisciplined entertainment-seekers, was insignificant, unreal. Pity we’re training to risk our lives to save them. But that’s what I signed on for.
The Academy was like the Boys’ Home, driven by the need to dominate and denigrate. Troy hated the nastiness of the upper classmen who picked on the new ones, made them serfs because once they had been picked on, made serfs. “I can’t see how it teaches anything military,” he said.
“It inculcates numb obedience,” a cadet named Throcker said.
“Obedience to your CO,” another named Coulton added. “No matter who he is.”
But is it always right, Troy wondered, to follow your CO? Suppose he’s wrong and leads you into danger?
The principles of war. The science of killing. When you peeled off the image that’s what the Academy really was: a place that taught young men how to manage steel machines in the sky to better kill and destroy people and places on the earth.
But he didn’t want to kill, had to admit it. Killing a buck every fall hurt his soul but it was food for the family. Yanking a turkey’s neck across a pine block and chopping through it was the same: feeding your loved ones. And the kid. The kid he and Tara had killed, who smiled at Troy from his playpen every day, and cooed to him at night.
To drop a steel tube of high explosives on people far down below, people you’ve never seen, didn’t seem what Christ would want. It chilled his spine. He didn’t want to kill, he wanted to reach the moon.
President Kennedy wanted to catch the Russians in space. That meant a man on the moon. But with what delivery system, what landing module? How to get fuel for the return? All impossible.
Some cadets didn’t like Kennedy because he was a Democrat or because he was a Catholic, even though he was a real war hero not a coward like Nixon. But Troy defended Kennedy because he’d get us into space. It was all part of Kennedy’s New Frontier.
After the moon Mars was next. By the time Troy was forty, in 1983, humans could be living on Mars. The Academy was the first step, because wherever NASA went the Air Force was going to be headed. “Test pilots,” a professor told him, “NASA’s going to use test pilots for astronauts.”
I’m going to be a test pilot, Troy had decided.
Soon he’d start flying lessons. Already he’d spent hours on the Link Trainer; every free half-hour running to the classroom off the Parade Loop to leap into the Link, knew the instruments by heart, the commands, could take off and land flawlessly.
Next would be glider school, the sailplanes with the student in the front and the instructor behind. Then you were in the T-28, with an 800-horse Wright that was slow to respond but had plenty of tail-end power. Then the T-37, a twin-engine jet they called The Screamer because of its small engine intakes, a low-down nasty airplane that could take you there and back just like combat.
But it’s really hard, he wrote Dad. This cult of blind obedience – I can see it in warfare, maybe, but not for learning? What are we learning? Not to think for ourselves? That’s what they’re inculcating and I’m not sure it’s good. And there’s too much pride in it, in this blindness – “I can be a better automaton than you” – Pride of the enslaved who will one day be enslavers.
My personal slavemaster is a third-year cadet named Steward Metcalf. A pimple-faced guy from Concrete, Washington. For him I have to run silly errands, polish his boots and shoes, iron his uniform, do pushups and whatever else enters his otherwise vacant mind. “You’re going to crash and burn,” he told me first day, adding, “I’ll be laughing as you go.”
So it’s a mix of fear and excitement, the worry I’ve made the wrong choice, that I should’ve gone to MIT like Mr. Cohen wanted. But I can make it here and I owe this to you. Ever since my earliest memory I’ve wanted to fly. Without you I never would have been here.
Tough it out, Dad wrote back. Of course you can make it but don’t kill yourself trying to be first. Whatever you do, wherever you go, remember: you’re already fine the way you are.
BERKELEY stunned Tara with its bright clarity of sun and sky glinting off white buildings and voluptuous tan hills. She was intoxicated by the cool, salty wind from the Bay, the warm night breeze down from the hills, the cafés and bistros alive with espresso and wine, the sidewalks thick with young intense people, the sense of easy freedom.
“San Francisco’s even groovier,” her roommate Juliet said, snapping her gum. “North Beach has all these coffee houses, Italian restaurants, poetry readings, cool bars full of beatnik artists – you can get an ounce for fifteen bucks –”
“An ounce?” Tara said, thinking of recipes.
“Oh.” Tara nodded. That stuff that a junior named Liam had tried to get her to smoke. That made her cough. Would wreck your voice.
Juliet crackled her gum. “They let you into bars sometimes…” She tugged from her purse a California Driver’s License coated in plastic, a dim photo. “Says I’m twenty-one’n a half. Randy over in Campbell, he’ll make you one if you fuck him.”
Here the sun wasn’t like back east. It had a dry deep heat sinking into her shoulders as she sat cross-legged on the thick grass reading Goethe, Du wandelst jetzt wohl still und mild, chasing the words down one by one in the dictionary, conscious of the raw German and of the sun heating the back of her neck and the sweet crinkly fragrant grass and the dance of light and shadows on the golden hills.
Even classes were fun: there was a purpose to learning. Everything was brighter, more alive, more erotic, as if paradise were closer, beauty of place united with intensity of thought. As if things could be understood and it was possible to make the world better.
“This’s like heaven,” she told Juliet. “Not that I think there’s such a place.”
“Depends on your LOT.”
“Your lot in life?”
“Your Life Orgasm Total – the higher it is the further up the wheel of Paradise you go.”
TO TROY THE ROCKIES were stunning in their crystalline beauty and dry high air, their peaks snowy even in September, their stark sleek slopes of fir and pine, ragged rocky ridges and red sandstone pinnacles and canyons with icy trout-filled streams.
And there was cross country. The joy of running fleet-footed over the rough piney soil, breathing steady and relaxed, legs stretching out effortlessly, almost flying. For the first weeks the altitude had left him gasping after runs. But once he got in shape, whenever he had a few free hours he ran up the 13-mile Barr Trail to the top of 14,000-foot Pike’s Peak, scorning the flabby tourists who had driven cars or taken the cog railway to the top, scorning the doughnut stands and souvenir shops, but entranced by the white-gold prairie so far below, the granite ridges and velvety forests, the sky so blue it was almost black. Closer to the stars.
And he liked the wide-streeted Colorado Springs downtown of red sandstone buildings, and to the east the magnificent emerald prairies that when the sun went down behind the Rockies turned the color of blood.
I know I can make it, he wrote Tara. I love it but I’m afraid… You should come visit. Colorado’s a beautiful place. When he wrote this he almost tore up the page but he’d already filled the other side and didn’t want to rewrite. I’ve given myself away, he thought wryly, but didn’t know how.
When he could he hid out in the library studying aeronautics texts. Far back in 1915, Robert Goddard had created both the multi-stage and the liquid-fueled rockets, but only now, 45 years later, were they being truly implemented. In 1919 Goddard had written A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes, full of brilliant ideas ignored for half a century. If you’re going to succeed, Troy reminded himself, don’t expect the credit.
All Goddard’s life people had made fun of him. The New York Times, of course, had caustically dismissed his ideas. But while the Americans ridiculed him and the Army Air Corps ignored his designs, the Germans under Werner von Braun used them to create the V2 and other weapons of mass death. That was the problem with advancing the human mind: it could be used to help or to kill.
He was transfixed by Goddard’s recollection of climbing a cherry tree in 1893 behind his childhood home, and having a sudden inspiration how to send a rocket to Mars. “I was a very different boy when I descended the tree from when I ascended,” Goddard had written. “Existence at last seemed very purposive.” And this was ten years before the Wright brothers’ first flight.
If you have a task that fulfills you, Troy realized, existence is purposive.
By November he had talked his way into aircraft design, stunned by the beauty and simplicity of flight. It’s thrust and lift versus gravity, he wrote Dad. Everything comes down to that.
A week later when Steward Metcalf was decapitated in a glider crash while on approach for the field east of the Academy, Troy felt guilty as though he’d killed him by wishing him gone. In December he broke the freshman indoor mile record at 4:19:32, a stunning time given the 7,200-foot altitude. The older cadets stopped harassing him and those in his class seemed to view him with respectful distance. It rarely occurred to him that he had no friends; perhaps that was what the Academy was all about.
TWO WEEKS BEFORE Christmas vacation, at an Oakland party full of blues and Motown, the air blue with weed smoke, Tara bumped into a tall black man in a lilac jacket, silver slacks and crimson cowboy boots. “Watch your big feet,” she said.
“I’m too busy watchin you.”
“Well cut it out.”
He took her wrist as she pushed past. “Ain’t you the one that sings?”
She pulled away. “Everybody sings.”
“You the one. Tara O’Brien.”
“So who are you?”
“Come in here.” He nodded at a bedroom door. “I want to hear you sing.”
It was a wide room with orange curtains and a kingsize bed in the middle and a wall of guitars. “Sly won’t mind,” Blade said, “we play one of his.” He took down a worn Martin with a scratched top, sat on the bed. “What you wanna sing?”
The wall of gleaming guitars made her nervous and unsure. “Black Cat Blues? The way you do it?”
He led into it gently, the soft notes and the deep chords giving her a platform to throw her voice on, and she watched his eyes glisten and that made her sing even freer, brighter, till suddenly the room was full of people in rapt silence and she broke down for an instant in this communion with them and the core of song and life, caught herself and cleared her voice.
“Whoa,” Blade shook his head. “You something, girl.”
“Sing another one,” someone said. “Yeah,” others urged, and soon she no longer felt fear but lust, lust to pour life into them, the fire of life. To burn down the world with song.
IT FELT STRANGE to Troy to leave the Air Force Academy and be back in Nyack for Christmas. At once, he realized, he missed the Academy. The reassurance of its bright straight hallways, the pure discipline, how you greeted someone, how you lived. How you see yourself. What you demand of yourself. Demand of yourself without shirking or complaint. Because the military gives you the confidence, the power, to believe you can do so.
Even the posture – how you’d got used to your back being absolutely straight at all time, shoulders back, until any other bearing felt unreal. And the bitter dry December Rockies wind so much cleaner than this swamp-like, lowland chill.
The little house in Nyack felt out of place, and Mick and Dad foreign there, as if they too didn’t belong. Which of course, he told himself, they didn’t.
And Tara hovering there like a St. Elmo fire blazing at the tip of his wing. To divert him into death. To watch the ground reach up for you and not care.
Yet seeing her in the living room when he came in and dropped his duffle on the carpet she looked so lovely and kind he had to hold her, inhale her long ravelly hair incensed with tobacco – didn’t matter – her heady scent. As if nothing had changed.
“How are you?” he gasped, stepping back.
She gave him a lovely smile, eyes flashing. “Good to see you.”
“And you.” He pulled away. “Where’s Dad?”
“In the kitchen.” She kissed him, hard. “Go see him.”
He looked at her. “You’re thin.”
Dad was sitting in a wooden chair by the woodstove, in a blue plaid shirt and khaki wool pants, work boots unlaced; he turned and saw Troy and stood quickly, “Well where the hell you come from?” reaching out to embrace him and almost falling.
“It’s okay, Dad.” Troy took him in his arms and sat him back down. He turned another chair backwards and sat facing Dad, his hand on Dad’s wrist which felt cold and thin.
“Tara told me you were coming,” Dad said. “I thought tomorrow.”
“I’m here now.” Troy looked at him closer. “How are you doing?”
“Doing fine.” Dad shrugged. “Just old age.”
Troy went to the door. “Tara! Mick!” he called, “get in here. I want to catch up with both of you.”
CHRISTMAS EVE was somber despite everyone’s attempts to have fun. The family gathered at Hal and Sylvia’s small brick colonial tucked into a back street behind the 1776 House. Grampy in a chair by the fire with his whisky neat, Uncle Howard stuttering and glancing at the gold watch he kept tugging from his pocket, as if he had somewhere to go, Uncle Ted who had once fought off a black bear and now seemed old and stooped, lonely and disoriented after his wife Cordelia’s sudden death from an aneurism last year. Even Uncle Phil’s wife, Aunt Wilma, she of the small dangerous fists, seemed less intimidating.
Johnny sat in the background gazing at the fire as if it held some explanation for how and why everything had changed, but would not tell them. Troy thought of saying hi and decided wait till later, turned to look for Tara or Mick but couldn’t see them.
Maybe it’s just I’m older, Troy thought, remembering back to his and Mick’s thirteenth birthday party, the first time he’d met most of this close-knit farm family now slowly being disjointed by time and the new suburban world devouring the land they had worked and loved. No, it’s time, time itself, which destroys us all eventually.
He wanted to help them, fight for them, defend them. How?
And Dad – he owed him his life, his happiness, the Academy, everything. How to help him? Ever since Ma had died Dad had retreated further and further into himself, and the illness made it worse because Dad wouldn’t admit it. For Dad, Troy realized, all that counted now was the happiness of his three children. Even me, he thought, suddenly near tears.
He went out on the rickety back deck where Tara stood looking at the dark, rambling sky. “At the farm we saw thousands of stars,” she said. “Here there’s nothing.”
“That’s civilization for you,” he joked, wondering how she’d known it was he. He put an arm around her waist and pulled her close, her slender hard hip against his thigh.
She turned into him, hugged him hard, pulled back. “I can’t wait to get out of here, back to Berkeley. This whole place drives me crazy. The whole deal.”
“Not him. But I feel I can’t leave him.”
“We all feel that. But we are leaving him.” He smiled. “I told him I’d take a year off from the Academy and come back to be with him, and he said If you do I’ll shoot you. I think he meant it.”
She hugged him again and pulled away. “I’m sure he did.”
He wanted to kiss her more, knew she’d let him, that she wanted him, but it wasn’t possible, not here with the family gathered round, not possible now that he’d gone to the Academy and she was his sister again.
Everything we do to get free, he thought, only binds us tighter.
FROM THE STERN of the S.S. Statendam Mick watched the Statue of Liberty shrink into the darkening sea. The strangeness of this wild ocean, of leaving America, the cold salty wind and frothing waves, the lunge, rumble and roll of the ship, all gave him a sense of fearful solitude, ecstatic communion, and the rupture of an ancient chain.
He was leaving it all behind: Williams, the family after Christmas Eve, and all the subterranean sorrow invested there, Dad, Tara and Troy… Dad in weary pain, Troy’s distance and rigid formality, Tara’s craziness about music – as if that were going to be a way to live her life… And all the time he’d hoped Berkeley would give her some sense.
Driving Coke trucks all summer and fall he’d saved nine hundred dollars. This round-trip voyage had cost two hundred forty for a tiny third class cabin with four bunks deep in the hull. He had six hundred sixty dollars to last four months in France.
Years ago, he and Troy had wandered the rails and begun a new life. It had been fun and lonely and very scary and there’d been a lot of pain at the end. Now he was on a new walkabout and it was going to be scary sometimes too. But he was older now, and what he felt, he realized, was elation.
How can one always be free? Was it possible? Being free made him think of Daisy, and his mind shied from the pain. Why had he not written her more often? And now, was he leaving her behind? He imagined her standing at the rail beside him, the wind in her hair, her gladdened eyes and wide smile, their unspoken, invincible togetherness. Why had he stopped writing her?
Because it was over, he told himself. Had to put it behind me.
In the semi-darkness laughing gulls rose and fell screaming over the ship’s wake. The other passengers went in one by one and he was alone, palms on the wet rail, watching the darkening wake and sky. His ancestors had once passed here going the other way, excited, nervous, and solitary. Was he closing some circle?
Seeking the Holy Grail was the quest for the meaning of life. Tonight it was here, just beyond reach, beyond a wave’s glistening crest, the starry horizon, ready to appear.