have courage. take heart. bear witness.

Bookmark and Share

Edward W Wood, Jr

A long line of soldiers

Ed: My ancestry was really of the South—in the deep South. So my inheritence is, therefore, deeply military and strongly that being a soldier is the duty of a man. In fact, the military is part of who you are as a male. And if you have that kind of inheritance, when war comes you're going to volunteer. I mean, that's your duty.

I think, after Hitler came to power, WWII probably had to be fought. I don't think there was much escape. And it was the duty of my generation to do that. Now I don't applaud that duty. I don't applaud war, and I think it's an obscenity. But I had to do it. And I'm not a total pacifist out of that experience. I really think that once in a while, you might have to fight. But I also think it's obscene at the same time—it's compli . . . , it's a paradox.

I went in in April of '43, and I could have stayed out, because they left you out, even then, if you were in college. But all my friends were going, and I just thought it was the patriotic thing to do. And I was—and I still think I am—a really patriotic American.

I have letters from my grandmother saying, "You come from a long line of soldiers, and I know you will be a good soldier."� That was sort of the ambition, I guess—to be a good soldier. No idea, of course, what war was really like—absolutely none. It was all glory and triumph—those kind of expectations.

We were all drafted in Chicago, I think. We had all been to University of Illinois, places like that. So it was a lot like being in a fraternity again. We were all young, so we could go forever. I was 18 years old. I was homesick, of course, but I largely enjoyed the Army.

When I went overseas, it was His Majesty's troop ship Arawa. There were several of us, and we went down and down and down and down in this boat, to this hole in the basement. And there were hammocks there that we slept in. And we said, "We're not going to do this."� So we grabbed our blankets, and we went up and up and up, and we found a place behind one of the smokestacks. And we lived for twelve days up there. And nobody really cared.

For me that was an incredibly wonderful experience. I can remember standing, even now, on the back of the troop ship, in the deck at the back, seeing these enormous swells come up. And the colors at the top—phosphorescent blue and purple, with the sun just slanting through them. Ah, it was a great experience.

And we got to England, and, my God, here I was in a foreign country. See, when I was a kid, unless you had a lot of money, nobody went anywhere. You were lucky to get on the elevated, in Chicago, and go downtown, when you had fifteen cents for that.

It was sort of a wonderful time to be alive, in one way. You had a uniform on, you hitchhiked everywhere. You never paid for anything—you went out and people picked you up. Again, there was a feeling in the country that does not exist much today. But if you were white—let's be very clear. The way the Army treated blacks was a very, very different story. So, all I can say is, I enjoyed the Army, and I was a good solider, and I was expected to be a good soldier.

Wounded

Jackie: The following excerpt from the book On Being Wounded, by Edward W Wood, Jr, is read by actor Anthony Newfield and recounts the time when Ed was injured in battle. It's September 7, 1944, and nineteen-year-old Ed is in France, where two days earlier he has joined an army infantry division.

Anthony: "A great plain lay behind me. Though it was misty and gray, I could see for miles. The road was lined with tanks and trucks and half-tracks and jeeps and men who stood in little clumps. Airplanes, small artillery spotters, buzzed overhead. Dirty smoke from shellfire drifted over the road and hid it for an instant like a dark mist following a heavy rain.

One of the men stood at the bottom of the hill. He yelled commands to a mortar squad firing at a group of apartment buildings. A dirty puff of smoke suddenly exploded at his side. He spun as if a giant had slammed him in the shoulder, bouncing off the ground as he fell. A medic ran to him where he flopped up and down, spurting blood from his arm.

Another puff of smoke dirtied the air. A piece of shrapnel slammed into the earth at my side. The grass around it curled.

The lieutenant made hand signals to assemble at a stand of trees farther back, near the road. I grabbed a box of .30-caliber machine gun ammunition and ran.

We started to dig foxholes under the trees. I hit a root almost immediately. I struck at it furiously, using the edge of my metal shovel as an ax. The blade was too dull; the root would not snap. At any moment I was sure another artillery shell would split the air above me, send hot shrapnel tearing into my flesh. I slammed at the pulpy mass. My breath was choked. Sweat poured from my face, though a cold September mist drifted through the grove of trees.

The men at my side had their holes half dug. They had moved farther out from the tree trunk where the roots were smaller. I scrambled over the ground to their side. No one spoke to me.

I started to dig. My blade met no roots. The shovel pierced the deep, black earth, the sweet earth in which I would soon hide. And then, the slam of a sledgehammer lifted me high and I whirled up and up and up through a tunnel of green leaves toward the sky, my hands extended, as if to grasp those leaves and the dark brown limbs rushing by me. My fingers brushed over them. They would not hold.

I flew higher into the sky and seemed to merge with the clouds, mix with their wispy tendrils, not knowing whether to continue this arc toward eternity or fall back to the sweet, sweet earth. With a falling, sliding swoop I tumbled out of the sky. Fell to my knees. I put my fingers up to my face. Blood, thick and red and dark, swiftly pumping, covering them. I reached up and touched my head. My helmet was gone. Blood poured from a hole on the left side of my skull. A hard lump protruded from my torn scalp. A piece of shrapnel was embedded in the bone. I looked behind me. My pants were ripped away, my right buttock was blown open. Beneath the yellow-white fat, I could see the raw, red meat, like the steaks my father had once fed me.

'Hold still, Wood! Hold still!' the medic cried, blood from the tip of his wounded nose spraying my face. 'Stop wiggling, goddamnit! I gotta get this morphine in ya.' The blood from his own wound sprinkled over me like spittle from a dying sneeze.

As he poked at my arm, I heard the whisper of the shells above me and wondered why their sigh sounded like the wings of the ducks my father and I once shot in Mississippi bayous. Not yet in pain, I lay there, loose-jointed, until they tumbled me into a stretcher and ran with me toward the ambulance parked on the macadam road near the grove of trees. Once, they dropped me, leaving me helpless, as an artillery shell slammed too close. I stared up at them as they hovered in the lee of the ambulance, their place of sanctuary.

When the shelling stopped, they lifted me into the ambulance.

'You didn't like it much up here, did you, Wood?' the lieutenant asked as they slammed the door.

[Used with permission from On Being Wounded, by Edward W Wood, Jr. Copyright 1991. Fulcrum Publishing, Golden, Colorado.]

A maelstrom of emotion

Ed: I was only in combat for about a day. And because of my masculine inheritance that

you're supposed to be a warrior, being only there for such a short time filled me with a lot

of shame. That's about all I can say.

And then that shame was exacerbated when I came back to the country, and my dad had put in the paper that Eddie—that was what he called me, of course—was only in combat for a short time. And that only burnt me. And then my best friend's father had written me, and I got this letter in the hospital, in England. And it said, "You got your blighty"�—that was from WWI, you know; the blighty was a wound—"You got your blighty in such a short time, that it was hardly worthwhile your being there."� And those two things together really united to, well, increase my shame geometrically. And I think that had played a huge part in the difficulties I had with the wound for many years.

I think one of the emotional consequences of the wound is that you're uncertain. You don't know who the hell you really are.

I tried writing, and I wrote a novel and I couldn't sell it. And I wanted to write and I couldn't make it, and I had really terrible jobs. I worked in factories in the winter—sweatshops. I stretched fire hose, and I polished plastic wheels that vacuum cleaners run on. Then, in the summer, I worked as a handyman, as a gardener, and I just had no career. I couldn't deal with people. I was under the care of a psychiatrist for five or six years. And it was just awful.

And I want to thank my dad right now, because if my dad hadn't had money, I wouldn't have made it. I mean, I wouldn't have made it. And I want to thank my ex-wife, too, because she stuck by me through all this. And that was a great gift to me.

I think 'til the time I was in my mid fifties, I was a very shut-off person as far as intimacy was concerned—just closed. And I think that after you've been involved in a killing zone, I think that that happens to a lot of men—or women, now—intimacy becomes very, very difficult to achieve, because you're scared of it.

You don't want to be dependent on anybody. You don't want to be close to anybody. Being close, you have to reveal who you really are, and you don't want to reveal who you really are, because you have a lot of contempt for . . . I had a lot of shame about myself, and I didn't want to reveal that to anybody. And it's very tragic. It's very sad.

And one of my bitterest regrets now is the way I hurt my parents after I was wounded. I was not a very nice young man. You know, I was very bitter and very angry and I treated them, I think, with pretty much a vast contempt, as not knowing anything and not understanding.

And you hurt people a great deal, because I know I was well loved, and I just couldn't respond with an internal sense of love. And I think it happens to a huge number of men and I think—or women, too—and I think that inability to love and to share, it doesn't explain, but it helps me . . . not understand, even, but it helps me have sympathy . . . that's even the wrong word . . . have some kind of, oh, concern for these poor guys who come home and kill themselves or kill their wives or abuse their children. It's a terrible, terrible burden we place on these people. And it's tragic.

You can certainly try and say you're sorry and you certainly can try and forgive yourself for the errors and sins you've committed. And I think I always will know I hurt people, and I'm not very happy about that. You know, and I never did anything violent, and I didn't break any laws, but that doesn't mean that you don't hurt people. You can hurt people by your actions and your words, and I did that.

And I cry sometime when I think of that poor twenty-two-year-old boy, totally alone, no help at all, and just lost in this maelstrom of emotion and not understanding that he had been in the worst situation in the world—where he was trying to kill somebody and somebody was trying to kill him—and almost did. He didn't understand any of that and his reactions—the shame, the guilt, the pain, the sense of not being a man, the sexual inadequacy that created. And I think that's true for a lot of guys in combat . . . you're not supposed to talk about that, but I think it affects your sexual behavior enormously.

And the tragedy is, it goes on. It's going on right now. There's some poor twenty-two-year-old kid flying back from Iraq right now, who feels exactly what I felt sixty-four and a half years ago—September of 1944. And what I would hope most of all is that writing these books and doing this kind of talking would help reach some of those twenty-two-year-old kids and say, "Look, you can get a good life and you don't have to hurt anybody to get there. And that's . . . that's what I really feel. And maybe this is useful . . . that's the useful part of what we're doing—to help people see you don't have to hurt anybody to get there. Because a lot of us hurt a lot people. And not physically—just emotionally.

It's because you're so screwed up inside you can't . . . you're flailing, you know. You're like somebody in a . . . who's thrown in the water over their head, and they don't know how to swim, and they're flailing in this water to get air before they die. That's what it's like. And when they flail, they hit somebody in the face, or they grab somebody around the neck and pull them under, too. It's terrible. It's a disaster.

But we made some steps in there. I never admitted anything we're talking about now, til I was in my fifties. I never talked about this stuff. I didn't even know it. See, that's why I cry for that twenty-two-year-old boy. I don't need help now. I'm a grown man. I've managed to write my books. Who needs help is this young man on an airplane right now, coming home, and his mind is, "Jesus Christ, did I really shoot that kid? Did I really . . . I couldn't have done that. I couldn't have done that. But I did do it."

And he's going nuts. And he doesn't know how to talk about it. That's who we need to help. But what's encouraging is the very fact that there is a department of Veterans Affairs, that has some concern about this, is an immense, a gigantic step ahead. We've got a long way to go. And yet, from where I was sixty-five years ago, we've come light years. And I want to remember that when I get angry.

The real problem, of course, is that the larger society has absolutely no idea of what people do who go into harm's way. It doesn't understand that it's not glory, it's not adventurous—it's terror. It's sharp, animal terror that seizes you and defines you and you're never the same again. You can't be. And until we admit that, we're not going to get anywhere, I don't think.

A double life

Ed: One of the problems I've had because of the wound, is that you often keep a long distance from yourself. I repressed, for twenty years, that I had been in the war. I mean, I just shut it off. I can't explain it, I don't understand it. I never thought about the war. But inside me, I believe now, was this constant distance from who I really was. I think it always was there and always made life difficult.

One of my reviewers of one of my books said, "You were like all your generation, you led a double life—people who were in combat. You were always dealing with something inside, and you didn't know it."� Always.

I used to listen to the Big Band music, and I'd start to cry, and I didn't know what was going on. And I still cry when I hear "I Walk Alone," "Because to tell . . ."  oh, boy, "Because to tell you the truth, I am lonely. I don't mind being lonely, if you are lonely, too."� That song still really breaks my heart.

I had gone through a massive divorce. I put much of the blame on myself, because I was a distant person. My kids tell me sometimes they felt that I was not there for a while. I worked sixty, eighty hours a week, and that was another way to avoid intimate relationships.

And then I realized, when I was fifty-four, I wanted to go back to writing again. I can't explain that. I started to write, and I did not realize then, which I do now, that what I was seeking was self-knowledge. I did not understand then that writing was a way to come to terms with things that had happened inside you, and come to some understanding about that.

The way I put it now is, when you write it, you own it. I think, for example, if you go to a therapist for a trauma problem—I'm talking about trauma, largely—then the therapist ends up owning your story, along with yourself, because a therapist helps you interpret your story. I think if you figure it out for yourself and write it yourself, you own it—so it's your unique understanding of what happened to you. My guess is, also, for some people, just doing what we're doing now in terms of telling their own story, is a step toward reaching that understanding.

And I also think it's terribly important to reach out and obtain that understanding before you die. And I'm not saying it's going to wipe away the past, it's going to change it, it's going to make it better or worse, but it's going to let you understand it. And to me, that's one of the greatest values of life—simply to understand what's happened to you in your lifetime. And this is an important part of that step.

I think we, or, I know, that we often don't know what we think until it's written. And, therefore, the writing itself—revising, crossing out words, changing sentence structure—is a way to knowledge. It's a way to your own mental health.

I'm not putting down the services that therapists offer. Or I'm not even putting down the services that medicine offers, because I think that some cases, medicine is essential to get control of yourself. And therapists, they're essential. But I think even more essential is that you have to understand, in the bottom of your soul, or your heart, or your belly, what all this means.

I only got it through writing, because I had to find the right word. When I found the right word, I had the right truth. And I just trust writing more than I do any other method. But I think you can do it through other kinds of art.

When I started, I had no idea of anything we've talked about today. It was all hidden. See, what we're saying is something really very interesting, I think—is that all of us have a hidden self—call it the unconscious, whatever you want. And maybe one of the tricks to maturity is to get that on the surface, so you understand it, and that you give it to an audience, you just don't hide it within. And I think it's very hard to do. Takes a lot of work. And it involves a huge amount of honesty. Can't lie.

Dostoyevsky said, in Notes From the Underground: "In every man's memory there are things he won't reveal to others, except perhaps to friends. And there are things he won't reveal even to friends, only perhaps to himself, and that, too, in secret. And finally, there are things he is afraid even to reveal to himself."�

And that's what I'm talking about—to reveal to yourself those things that you don't even want to reveal to yourself. That's hard. Man, that is hard. It's a revelation that we're not the sweet, nice person we'd like to be. We've got a lot of anger there, we've got a lot of rage, we want to hurt people, we want to hurt ourselves.

The cruelty that exists in the world—and don't kid yourself, that cruelty exists in you and me and every person that we ever pass on the street—if you reveal it to yourself, then you can control it. If you don't reveal it to yourself, you might even do it someday—flash!

And I think maturity is saying, well, this is who I am and I'm not going to do that. Just like a country—well, we could go to war. We don't want to do that anymore. But you have to reveal the truth to yourself of what a horror it is and what a horror you've already done. And, as a country, we haven't done that. See, we don't admit that about ourselves.

The country has this view of itself as being a freedom-loving, gracious host, you know, the Statue of Liberty. Well, the refutation of that is we had a war against the American Indian, 1622 to 1890, in which we decimated three-hundred-some-odd language groups or tribes. And we had slaves. And we've had consistent warfare since 1637, when we burnt down a Pequot village, and later, Cotton Mather wrote: "On this day we have sent six hundred heathens to hell."�

But it doesn't mean we don't have very good things. I think, that's the whole trick—to say, well I got this bad stuff, but I'm not going to do that. And I think that it's hard enough to do it as an individual. I don't know if countries can ever do that. God knows it's hard.

I mean, to say what I said earlier—that I now know that I hurt my mother and father a great deal, and I'm willing to admit that I really screwed up my marriage. It's hard to say that, but it's true. And I don't know yet, and I'll never know, how much I hurt my kids. But I know it was a vast amount of love there that probably overcame whatever damage I did.

But finally, you know, judging a person, you have to judge their intimate relationships most of all to figure out who that person was with their life—husband, father, son. Those are the ways you have to figure out who you are, and a couple of those I wasn't a very good person. Very hard to admit that.

On the other hand, by admitting it, I know now that it doesn't make any difference to me what my kids would do to me—I love them. They are my kids, and I know my mom and dad would feel like that toward me. And, believe me, that's a great insight. To know that the love you bear finally triumphs over all.