Chapter VII: Soldier’s Home
While the bombardment was knocking the trench to pieces at Fossalta, he lay very flat and sweated and prayed, “Oh Jesus Christ get me out of here. Dear Jesus, please get me out. Christ, please, please, please, Christ. If you’ll only keep me from getting killed I’ll do anything you say. I believe in you and I’ll tell everybody in the world that you are the only thing that matters. Please, please, dear Jesus.” The shelling moved further up the line. We went to work on the trench and in the morning the sun came up and the day was hot and muggy and cheerful and quiet. The next night back at Mestre he did not tell the girl he went upstairs with at the Villa Rossa about Jesus. And he never told anybody.
Krebs went to the war from a Methodist college in Kansas. There is a picture which shows him among his fraternity brothers, all of them wearing exactly the same height and style collar. He enlisted in the Marines in 1917 and did not return to the United States until the second division returned from the Rhine in the summer of 1919.
There is a picture which shows him on the Rhine with two German girls and another corporal. Krebs and the corporal look too big for their uniforms. The German girls are not beautiful. The Rhine does not show in the picture.
By the time Krebs returned to his home town in Oklahoma the greeting of heroes was over. He came back much too late. The men from the town who had been drafted had all been welcomed elaborately on their return. There had been a great deal of hysteria. Now the reaction had set in. People seemed to think it was rather ridiculous for Krebs to be getting back so late, years after the war was over.
At first Krebs, who had been at Belleau Wood, Soissons, the Champagne, St. Mihiel and in the Argonne did not want to talk about the war at all. Later he felt the need to talk but no one wanted to hear about it. His town had heard too many atrocity stories to be thrilled by actualities.; Krebs found that to be listened to at all he had to lie, and after he had done this twice he, too, had a reaction against the war and against talking about it. A distaste for everything that had happened to him in the war set in because of the lies he had told. All of the times that had been able to make him feel cool and clear inside himself when he thought of them; the times so long back when he had done the one thing, the only thing for a man to do, easily and naturally, when he might have done something else, now lost their cool, valuable quality and then were lost themselves.
His lies were quite unimportant lies and consisted in attributing to himself things other men had seen, done or heard of, and stating as facts certain apocryphal incidents familiar to all soldiers. Even his lies were not sensational at the pool room. His acquaintances, who had heard detailed accounts of German women found chained to machine guns in the Argonne forest and who could not comprehend, or were barred by their patriotism from interest in, any German machine gunners who were not chained, were not thrilled by his stories.
Krebs acquired the nausea in regard to experience that is the result of untruth or exaggeration, and when he occasionally met another man who had really been a soldier and they talked a few minutes in the dressing room at a dance he fell into the easy pose of the old soldier among other soldiers: that he had been badly, sickeningly frightened all the time. In this way he lost everything.
During this time, it was late summer, he was sleeping late in bed, getting up to walk down town to the library to get a book, eating lunch at home, reading on the front porch until he became bored and then walking down through the town to spend the hottest hours of the day in the cool dark of the pool room. He loved to play pool.
In the evening he practiced on his clarinet, strolled down town, read and went to bed. He was still a hero to his two young sisters. His mother would have given him breakfast in bed if he had wanted it. She often came in when he was in bed and asked him to tell her about the war, but her attention always wandered. His father was non-committal.
Before Krebs went away to the war he had never been allowed to drive the family motor car. His father was in the real estate business and always wanted the car to be at his command when he required it to take clients out into the country to show them a piece of farm property. The car always stood outside the First National Bank building where his father had an office on the second floor. Now, after the war, it was still the same car.
Nothing was changed in the town except that the young girls had grown up. But they lived in such a complicated world of already defined alliances and shifting feuds that Krebs did not feel the energy or the courage to break into it. He liked to look at them, though. There were so many good-looking young girls. Most of them had their hair cut short. When he went away only little girls wore their hair like that or girls that were fast. They all wore sweaters and shirt waists with round Dutch collars. It was a pattern. He liked to look at them from the front porch as they walked on the other side of the street. He liked to watch them walking under the shade of the trees. He liked the round Dutch collars above their sweaters. He liked their silk stockings and flat shoes. He liked their bobbed hair and the way they walked.
When he was in town their appeal to him was not very strong. He did not like them when he saw them in the Greek’s ice cream parlor. He did not want them themselves really. They were too complicated. There was something else. Vaguely he wanted a girl but he did not want to have to work to get her. He would have liked to have a girl but he did not want to have to spend a long time getting her. He did not want to get into the intrigue and the politics. He did not want to have to do any courting. He did not want to tell any more lies. It wasn’t worth it.
He did not want any consequences. He did not want any consequences ever again. He wanted to live along without consequences. Besides he did not really need a girl. The army had taught him that. It was all right to pose as though you had to have a girl. Nearly everybody did that. But it wasn’t true. You did not need a girl. That was the funny thing. First a fellow boasted how girls mean nothing to him, that he never thought of them, that they could not touch him. Then a fellow boasted that he could not get along without girls, that he had to have them all the time, that he could not go to sleep without them.
That was all a lie. It was all a lie both ways. You did not need a girl unless you thought about them. He learned that in the army. Then sooner or later you always got one. When you were really ripe for a girl you always got one. You did not have to think about it. Sooner or later it would come. He had learned that in the army.
Now he would have liked a girl if she had come to him and not wanted to talk. But here at home it was all too complicated. He knew he could never get through it all again. It was not worth the trouble. That was the thing about French girls and German girls. There was not all this talking. You couldn’t talk much and you did not need to talk. It was simple and you were friends. He thought about France and then he began to think about Germany. On the whole he had liked Germany better. He did not want to leave Germany. He did not want to come home. Still, he had come home. He sat on the front porch.
He liked the girls that were walking along the other side of the street. He liked the look of them much better than the French girls or the German girls. But the world they were in was not the world he was in. He would like to have one of them. But it was not worth it. They were such a nice pattern. He liked the pattern. It was exciting. But he would not go through all the talking. He did not want one badly enough. He liked to look at them all, though. It was not worth it. Not now when things were getting good again.
He sat there on the porch reading a book on the war. It was a history and he was reading about all the engagements he had been in. It was the most interesting reading he had ever done. He wished there were more maps. He looked forward with a good feeling to reading all the really good histories when they would come out with good detail maps. Now he was really learning about the war. He had been a good soldier. That made a difference.
One morning after he had been home about a month his mother came into his bedroom and sat on the bed. She smoothed her apron.
“I had a talk with your father last night, Harold,” she said, “and he is willing for you to take the car out in the evenings.”
“Yeah?” said Krebs, who was not fully awake. “Take the car out? Yeah?”
“Yes. Your father has felt for some time that you should be able to take the car out in the evenings whenever you wished but we only talked it over last night.”
“I’ll bet you made him,” Krebs said.
“No. It was your father’s suggestion that we talk the matter over.”
“Yeah. I’ll bet you made him,” Krebs sat up in bed.
“Will you come down to breakfast, Harold?” his mother said.
“As soon as I get my clothes on,” Krebs said .
His mother went out of the room and he could hear her frying something downstairs while he washed, shaved and dressed to go down into the dining-room for breakfast. While he was eating breakfast his sister brought in the mail.
“Well, Hare,” she said. “You old sleepyhead. What do you ever get up for?”
Krebs looked at her. He liked her. She was his best sister.
“Have you got the paper?” he asked.
She handed him the Kansas City Star and he shucked off its brown wrapper and opened it to the sporting page. He folded the Star open and propped it against the water pitcher with his cereal dish to steady it, so he could read while he ate.
“Harold,” his mother stood in the kitchen doorway, “Harold, please don’t muss up the paper. Your father can’t read his Star if it’s been mussed.”
“I won’t muss it,” Krebs said.
His sister sat down at the table and watched him while he read.
“We’re playing indoor over at school this afternoon,” she said. “I’m going to pitch.”
“Good,” said Krebs. “How’s the old wing?”
“I can pitch better than lots of the boys. I tell them all you taught me. The other girls aren’t much good.”
“Yeah?” said Krebs.
“I tell them all you’re my beau. Aren’t you my beau, Hare?”
“Couldn’t your brother really be your beau just because he’s your brother?”
“I don’t know.”
“Sure you know. Couldn’t you be my beau, Hare, if I was old enough and if you wanted to?”
“Sure. You’re my girl now.”
“Am I really your girl?”
“Do you love me?”
“Will you love me always?”
“Will you come over and watch me play indoor?”
“Aw, Hare, you don’t love me. If you loved me, you’d want to come over and watch me play indoor.”
Kreb’s mother came into the dining-room from the kitchen. She carried a plate with two fried eggs and some crisp bacon on it and a plate of buckwheat cakes.
“You run along, Helen,” she said. “I want to talk to Harold.”
She put the eggs and bacon down in front of him and brought in a jug of maple syrup for the buckwheat cakes. Then she sat down across the table from Krebs.
“I wish you’d put down the paper a minute, Harold,” she said.
Krebs took down the paper and folded it.
“Have you decided what you are going to do yet, Harold?” his mother said, taking off her glasses.
“No,” said Krebs.
“Don’t you think it’s about time?” His mother did not say this in a mean way. She seemed worried.
“I hadn’t thought about it,” Krebs said.
“God has some work for everyone to do,” his mother said. “There can be no idle hands in His Kingdom.”
“I’m not in His Kingdom,” Krebs said.
“We are all of us in His Kingdom.”
Krebs felt embarrassed and resentful as always.
“I’ve worried about you so much, Harold,” his mother went on. “I know the temptations you must have been exposed to. I know how weak men are. I know what your own dear grandfather, my own father, told us about the Civil War and I have prayed for you. I pray for you all day long, Harold.”
Krebs looked at the bacon fat hardening on his plate.
“Your father is worried, too,” his mother went on. “He thinks you have lost your ambition, that you haven’t got a definite aim in life. Charley Simmons, who is just your age, has a good job and is going to be married. The boys are all settling down; they’re all determined to get somewhere; you can see that boys like Charley Simmons are on their way to being really a credit to the community.”
Krebs said nothing.
“Don’t look that way, Harold,” his mother said. “You know we love you and I want to tell you for your own good how matters stand. Your father does not want to hamper your freedom. He thinks you should be allowed to drive the car. If you want to take some of the nice girls out riding with you, we are only too pleased. We want you to enjoy yourself. But you are going to have to settle down to work, Harold. Your father doesn’t care what you start in at. All work is honorable as he says. But you’ve got to make a start at something. He asked me to speak to you this morning and then you can stop in and see him at his office.”
“Is that all?” Krebs said.
“Yes. Don’t you love your mother, dear boy?”
“No,” Krebs said.
His mother looked at him across the table. Her eyes were shiny. She started crying.
“I don’t love anybody,” Krebs said.
It wasn’t any good. He couldn’t tell her, he couldn’t make her see it. It was silly to have said it. He had only hurt her. He went over and took hold of her arm. She was crying with her head in her hands.
“I didn’t mean it,” he said. “I was just angry at something. I didn’t mean I didn’t love you.”
His mother went on crying. Krebs put his arm on her shoulder.
“Can’t you believe me, mother?”
His mother shook her head.
“Please, please, mother. Please believe me.”
“All right,” his mother said chokily. She looked up at him. “I believe you, Harold.”
Krebs kissed her hair. She put her face up to him.
“I’m your mother,” she said. “I held you next to my heart when you were a tiny baby.”
Krebs felt sick and vaguely nauseated.
“I know, Mummy,” he said. “I’ll try and be a good boy for you.”
“Would you kneel and pray with me, Harold?” his mother asked.
They knelt down beside the dining-room table and Krebs’s mother prayed.
“Now, you pray, Harold,” she said.
“I can’t,” Krebs said.
“Do you want me to pray for you?”
So his mother prayed for him and then they stood up and Krebs kissed his mother and went out of the house. He had tried so to keep his life from being complicated. Still, none of it had touched him. He had felt sorry for his mother and she had made him lie. He would go to Kansas City and get a job and she would feel all right about it. There would be one more scene maybe before he got away. He would not go down to his father’s office. He would miss that one. He wanted his life to go smoothly. It had just gotten going that way. Well, that was all over now, anyway. He would go over to the schoolyard and watch Helen play indoor baseball.