You Remember the Planes

Paul Auster

You remember the planes, the supersonic jets roaring across the blue skies of summer, cutting through the firmament at such exalted speeds that they were scarcely visible, a flash of silver glinting briefly in the light, and then, not long after they had vanished over the horizon, the thunderous boom that would follow, resounding for miles in all directions, the great detonation of blasting air that signified the sound barrier had been broken yet again. You and your friends were thunderstruck by the power of those planes, which always arrived without warning, announcing themselves as a furious clamour in the far distance, and within seconds they were directly overhead, and whatever game you and your friends might have been playing at that moment, you all stopped in mid-gesture to look up, to watch, to wait as those howling machines sped past you. It was the era of aviation miracles, of ever faster and faster, of ever higher and higher, of planes without torsos, planes that looked more like exotic fish than birds, and so prominent were those post-war flying machines in the imaginations of America’s children that trading cards of the new planes were widely distributed, much like baseball cards or football cards, in packages of five or six with a slab of pink bubblegum inside, and on the front of each card there was a photograph of a plane instead of a ballplayer, with information about that plane printed on the back. You and your friends collected these cards, you were five and six years old and obsessed with the planes, dazzled by the planes, and you can remember now (suddenly, it is all so clear to you) sitting on the floor with your classmates in a school hallway during an air-raid drill, which in no way resembled the fire drills you were also subjected to, those impromptu exits into the warmth or the cold and imagining the school as it burned down in front of your eyes, for an air-raid drill kept the children indoors, not in the classroom but the hallway, presumably to protect them against an attack from the air, missiles, rockets, bombs dropped from high-flying Communist planes, and it was during that drill that you saw the airplane cards for the first time, sitting on the floor with your back against the wall, silent, with no intention of breaking that silence, for talking was not allowed during these solemn exercises, these useless preparations against possible death and destruction, but one of the boys had a pack of those airplane cards with him that morning, and he was showing them to the other boys, surreptitiously passing them down the line of silent, seated bodies, and when your turn came to hold one of the cards in your hands, you were astonished by the design of the plane, its strangeness and unexpected beauty, all wing, all flight, a metal beast born in the empyrean, in a realm of pure, everlasting fire, and not once did you consider that the air-raid drill you were taking part in was supposed to teach you how to protect yourself from an attack by just such a plane, that is, a plane similar to the one on the card that had been built by your country’s enemies. No fear. You never worried that bombs or rockets would fall on you, and if you welcomed the alarms that signalled the start of air-raid drills, it was only because they allowed you to leave the classroom for a few minutes and escape the drudgery of whatever lesson you were being taught.

In 1952, the year you turned five, which included the summer of Lenny, the beginning of your formal education, and the Eisenhower–Stevenson campaign, a polio epidemic broke out across America, striking 57,626 people, most of them children, killing 3,300 and permanently crippling untold numbers of others. That was fear. Not bombs or a nuclear attack, but polio. Roaming through the streets of your neighbourhood that summer, you often came upon clusters of women talking to one another in doleful whispers, women pushing baby carriages or walking their dogs, women with dread in their eyes, dread in the hushed timbre of their voices, and the talk was always about polio, the invisible scourge that was spreading everywhere, that could invade the body of any man, woman or child at any moment of the day or night. Worse still, there was the young man dying in the house across the street from where your closest friend lived, a Harvard student whose first name was Franklin, a brilliant person, according to your mother, someone destined to accomplish great things in life, and now he was wasting away with cancer, immobilized, doomed, and every time you visited your friend Billy, Billy’s mother would instruct you to keep your voices down when you went outdoors so as not to disturb Franklin. You would look across the street at Franklin’s white house, the shades drawn in every window, an eerily silent house where no one seemed to live any more, and you would imagine the tall and handsome Franklin, whom you had seen several times in the past, stretched out on a white bed in his upstairs bedroom, waiting to die his slow and painful death. For all the fear caused by the polio epidemic, you never knew anyone who contracted the disease, but Franklin eventually died, just as your mother had told you he would. You saw the black cars lined up in front of the house on the day of the funeral. Sixty years later, you can still see the black cars and the white house. In your mind, they are still the quintessential emblems of grief.

You can’t remember the precise moment when you understood that you were a Jew. It seems to you that it came some time after you were old enough to identify yourself as an American, but you could be wrong, it could be that it was a part of you from the very beginning. Neither one of your parents came from a religious family. There were no rituals practised in the household, no Sabbath meals on Friday night, no lighting of candles, no trips to the synagogue on the High Holy Days, let alone on any Friday night or Saturday morning of the year, and not a single word of Hebrew was uttered in your presence. A couple of desultory Passover Seders in the company of relatives, Chanukkah gifts every December to offset the absence of Christmas, and just one serious rite that you took part in, which occurred when you were eight days old, far too early for you to remember anything about it, the standard circumcision ceremony, or bris, when the foreskin of your penis was lopped off by a fastidiously sharpened knife in order to seal the covenant between your newborn self and the God of your ancestors. For all their indifference to the particulars of their faith, your parents nevertheless considered themselves Jews, called themselves Jews, were comfortable with that fact and never sought to hide it, unlike countless other Jews over the centuries who did everything in their power to disappear into the Christian world that surrounded them, changing their names, converting to Catholicism or one of the Protestant sects, turning away from themselves and quietly obliterating their pasts. No, your parents stood firm and never questioned who they were, but in the early years of your childhood they had nothing to offer you on the subject of your religion or background. They were simply Americans who happened to be Jews, thoroughly assimilated after the struggles of their own immigrant parents, and therefore in your mind the notion of Judaism was above all associated with foreignness, as embodied in your grandmother, for example, your father’s mother, an alien presence who still spoke and read mostly in Yiddish, whose English was nearly incomprehensible to you because of her heavy accent, and then there was the man who turned up occasionally at your mother’s parents’ apartment in New York, a relative of some kind by the name of Joseph Stavsky, an elegant figure who dressed in finely tailored three-piece suits and smoked with a long black cigarette holder, a sophisticated cosmopolitan whose Polish-accented English was perfectly understandable to you, and when you were old enough to understand such things (at seven? at eight? at nine?), your mother told you that cousin Joseph had come to America after the war with help from her parents, that back in Poland he had been married and the father of twin girls, but his wife and daughters had all been murdered in Auschwitz, and he alone had survived, once a prosperous lawyer in Warsaw, now scraping by as a button salesman in New York. The war had been over for some years by then, but the war was still present, still hovering around you and everyone you knew, manifested not only in the war games you played with your friends but in the words spoken in the households of your family, and if your first encounters with the Nazis took place as an imaginary GI in various backyards of your small New Jersey town, it wasn’t long before you understood what the Nazis had done to the Jews, to Joseph Stavsky’s wife and daughters, for instance, to members of your own family for the sole reason that they were Jews, and now that you had fully grasped the fact that you yourself were a Jew, the Nazis were no longer just the enemy of the American Army, they were the incarnation of a monstrous evil, an anti-human force of global destruction, and even though the Nazis had been defeated, wiped off the face of the earth, they lived on in your imagination, lurking inside you as an all-powerful legion of death, demonic and insidious, forever on the attack, and from that moment on, that is, from the moment you understood that you were not only an American but a Jew, your dreams were populated by gangs of Nazi infantrymen, night after night you found yourself running from them, desperately running for your life, chased through open fields and dim, maze-like forests by packs of armed Nazis, faceless German soldiers who were bent on shooting you, on tearing off your arms and legs, on burning you at the stake and turning you into a pile of ashes.

By the time you were seven or eight, you were beginning to catch on. Jews were invisible, they had no part to play in American life, and they never appeared as heroes in books or films or television shows. Gentleman’s Agreement notwithstanding, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture the year you were born, there were no cowboys called Bernstein or Schwartz, no private eyes called Greenberg or Cohen and no presidential candidates whose parents had emigrated from the shtetls of eastern Poland and Russia. True, there were some boxers who had done well in the thirties and forties, there was the quarterback Sid Luckman and the three notables from the land of baseball (Hank Greenberg, Al Rosen, and Sandy Koufax, who broke in with the Dodgers in 1955), but they were such flagrant exceptions to the norm that they qualified as demographic flukes, mere statistical aberrations. Jews could play the violin and the piano, they could sometimes conduct symphony orchestras, but the popular singers and musicians were all Italian or black or hillbillies from the South. Vaudevillians, yes, funnymen, yes (the Marx Brothers, George Burns), but no movie stars, and even when the actors had been born Jewish, they invariably changed their names. George Burns had been Nathan Birnbaum. Emanuel Goldenberg was transformed into Edward G. Robinson. Issur Danielovitch became Kirk Douglas, and Hedwig Kiesler was reborn as Hedy Lamarr. Tepid as Gentleman’s Agreement might have been, with its contrived plot and sanctimonious positions (a non-Jewish journalist pretends to be Jewish in order to expose prejudices against the Jews), it is instructive to look at that film now as a snapshot of where Jews stood in American society in 1947. That was the world you entered as an infant, and while it was logical to assume that the German defeat in 1945 should have, or could have, snuffed out anti-Semitism for good, not much had changed on the home front. College admission quotas for Jews were still in force, clubs and other organizations were still restricted, kike jokes still got the boys laughing at the weekly poker game, and Shylock still reigned as the principal representative of his people. Even in the New Jersey town where you grew up, there were invisible barriers, impediments you were still too young to understand or notice, but when your best friend, Billy, moved away with his family in 1955, and your other good friend, Peter, vanished the following year – wrenching departures that both puzzled and saddened you – your mother explained that too many Jews were quitting Newark for the suburbs, that they too wanted their patch of grass, just like everyone else, and therefore the old guard was decamping, running away from this sudden influx of non-Christian homeowners. Did she use the word anti-Semitic? You can’t remember, but the implication was nevertheless clear: to be a Jew was to be different from everyone else, to stand apart, to be looked upon as an outsider. And you, who until then had seen yourself as thoroughly American, as American as any Mayflower blue blood, now understood that there were those who felt you didn’t belong, that even in the place you called home, you were not fully at home.

To be a part of things and yet not a part of things. To be accepted by most and yet eyed with suspicion by others. After embracing the triumphal narrative of American exceptionalism as a little boy, you began to exclude yourself from the story, to understand that you belonged to another world besides the one you lived in, that your past was anchored in a somewhere else of remote settlements in Eastern Europe, and that if your grandparents on your father’s side and your great-grandparents on your mother’s side had not had the intelligence to leave that part of the world when they did, almost none of you would have survived, nearly every one of you would have been murdered during the war. Life was precarious. The ground under your feet could give way at any moment, and now that your family had landed in America, had been saved by America, that didn’t mean you should expect America to make you feel welcome. Your sympathies turned toward the outcasts, the despised and mistreated ones, the Indians who had been chased off their lands and massacred, the Africans who had been shipped over here in chains, and even if you did not renounce your attachment to America, could not renounce it because in the end it was still your place, your country, you began to live in it with a new sense of wariness and unease. There were few opportunities in your little world to take a stand, but you did what you could do whenever an occasion presented itself, you fought back when the tough older boys in town called you Jew-boy and Jew-shit, and you refused to take part in Christmas celebrations at school, to sing Christmas carols at the annual holiday assembly, and therefore the teachers allowed you to stay alone in the room when the rest of the class tromped off to the auditorium to rehearse with the other classes in your grade. The sudden silence that surrounded you as you sat at your desk, the click of the minute hand on the old mechanical clock with the Roman numerals as you read your Poe and Stevenson and Conan Doyle, a self-declared outcast, stubbornly holding your ground, but proud, nevertheless proud in your stubbornness, in your refusal to pretend to be someone you were not.

In your mind, it had little or nothing to do with religion. You were aligning yourself with the forces of powerlessness, hoping to find some moral or intellectual strength by acknowledging your difference from others, but Jew signified a category of people rather than a theological system, a history of struggle and exclusion that had culminated in the disasters of World War II, and that history was all that concerned you. When you were nine, however, your parents joined one of the local synagogues. Needless to say, it was a Reform congregation, for that simplified, watered-down brand of Judaism best served the interests of people like them: the indifferent, unreligious, non-practising American Jews who sought to reaffirm their bond with the traditions of their forebears. Bluntly put – but without question entirely true – Hitler was responsible. The resurgence of Jewish life in post-war America was a direct result of the death camps, and the engine that drove people like your parents to join up was guilt, a fear that unless their children were taught to become Jews, the very concept of Judaism in America would fade away to nothing. Your father had not studied Hebrew as a boy, had not gone through the rigours of preparing for his bar mitzvah, and your mother, who was the daughter of a socialist, had never once set foot in a synagogue, but together they conspired to force you into doing what they themselves had never done, and so, in the same September you entered the fourth grade, you also entered Hebrew school, which meant going to the synagogue to attend classes every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon from four o’clock to five thirty as well as every Saturday morning from nine thirty to noon. There were a thousand other things you rather would have been doing, but three times a week over the course of four long years you reluctantly dragged yourself into that penitentiary of boredom, hating every moment of your imprisonment, slowly learning the rudiments of Hebrew, studying the principal stories of the Old Testament, most of which horrified you to the core, in particular Cain’s murder of Abel (why had God rejected Cain’s offering?), Noah and the Flood (why would God want to destroy the world He had created?), Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac (what kind of God would ask a man to kill his son?), and Jacob’s theft of his father’s birthright from Esau (why would God bless a cheater, a man with no conscience?), all of which confirmed your low opinion of God, who by turns came across to you as an angry and demented psychopath, a petulant child, and a wrathful, murdering criminal – a figure even more frightening and dangerous than the God of your earliest imaginings. To make matters worse, you were stuck in a class made up entirely of boys, most of whom had even less interest in being there than you did, who looked upon this forced extra schooling as unjust punishment for the sin of merely being alive, fifteen or twenty Jewish boys with ants in their pants and an insurrectionist contempt for every word spoken by the teacher, an assistant rabbi with the unfortunate name of Fish, a short, bulky man with a large face and a high forehead, who spent most of his time in class dodging spitballs, yelling at the boys to shut up, and pounding his fist on the table. Poor Rabbi Fish. He had been thrown into a room with a pack of wild Indians, and three times a week he was scalped.

You left your parents for the first time when you were eight. It was your idea, you were the one who begged them to let you go, since you wanted to be with Billy again, your closest friend since the age of five, and now that he and his family had moved to another town, far away from where the two of you had spent the past three years together, the only chance to see him would be to go to the summer camp he attended with his older brother in New Hampshire, a sleep-away camp that lasted for eight weeks, from the beginning of July until the end of August, a long stretch for a little boy who had never been away from home for more than a single night. Your mother was hesitant, fearing the long separation might be difficult for you to handle, but in the end, not wanting to disappoint you (or perhaps not knowing how else you should spend the summer), she and your father gave their consent. North-central New Hampshire, the area known as the White Mountains, was an exceedingly long car trip from New Jersey in 1955, since there were no interstate highways back then, at least not in that part of the country, and you remember the interminable drive with your parents, sitting in the back seat for ten, eleven, perhaps even twelve hours, and you wonder now if the journey wasn’t stretched out over two days, with a pause for sleep in some inn or motel at the mid-point of your northward trek. Impossible to remember that detail, just as you cannot remember saying goodbye to your parents when they left you at the camp and drove away, which means that whatever you were thinking or feeling at that moment is inaccessible to you now – sorrow or joy, trepidation or excitement, second thoughts or proud resolve, you simply don’t know. What you remember best about those eight weeks are the smells, the ever-present aroma of the surrounding pine forests, the dry scent of the afternoon sun cooking the dust on the heavily trodden footpath between your cabin and the mess hall, and the odour of the latrine, a primitive wooden structure with a long pissing trough and a row of toilet stalls with no doors on them, the stench of urine whenever you walked in there, like a whiff of ammonia burning up the insides of your nostrils, acrid and intense, never forgotten. Chilly nights under green woollen blankets, pseudo-Indian campfires extolling the wonders of nature and the beneficence of the Great Spirit, all the boys wearing headbands with grey feathers protruding from them, baseball, horseback riding, archery, firing .22 rifles at the shooting range, swimming in the lake, skinny-dipping. You felt far from everything there, farther away from what was familiar to you than at any time in your life, as if the long drive in the car had taken you to the edge of the world. Oddly, you don’t remember much about Billy or the other boys, the continual newness that was thrust upon you every day seems to have blotted out almost all particulars, and only two events stand out for you with any clarity. The first was an unannounced, altogether unexpected visit from your grandfather, your mother’s father, who stopped by on his way to Maine for his annual week-long vacation with his male cronies, their principal daytime activity being ‘lobster fishing’, which was something of a misnomer, since one doesn’t ‘fish’ for lobster, what one does is drop wooden cages into the water and hope the lobsters will crawl in, all the while sitting in a rowboat, which sounded like a tedious pastime to you, but ‘lobster fishing’ also probably meant drinking and smoking and playing poker and telling dirty jokes, not to speak of some rustic hanky-panky, for your grandfather was a great one for jokes and cavorting with women he wasn’t married to, the life of the party he was, and you loved him dearly. On the day of his visit, he arrived just as you were in the middle of the post-lunch rest period, a one-hour interregnum that came before the start of afternoon activities, and on that particular day, instead of reading or writing letters as you usually did, you fell asleep, and since as a child you were someone who slept as if you were in a coma, so profoundly unconscious that little or nothing could rouse you from your slumbers, neither hail nor thunder, neither swarming mosquitoes nor the loudest marching band, and therefore, on the day of your grandfather’s visit, when one of your counsellors finally managed to jostle you awake, you emerged from your nap with a groggy head, still half asleep, barely understanding who you were, or even if you were, and stumbled outdoors to find your grandfather, who was waiting for you at the office near the main entrance to the camp. You were of course happy to see him, but because you were not quite yourself yet, still struggling to shake free of the blur and confusion inside you, you found it difficult to speak, to answer his questions with sentences longer than one or two words, and all through your brief conversation with him you wondered if you were still asleep and only imagining he was there, for this was the first time you had seen him without his suit and tie and white shirt, how curious your bald and portly grandfather looked in that bright short-sleeved shirt with the open collar, and before you could settle into one of your free-flowing talks about baseball, a sport he followed as closely as you did, your grandfather was slapping his knees, standing up, and saying that he had to be moving along. There for an instant – and then gone, like an unholy apparition. You were disgusted with yourself for not having done better, for having behaved like a moronic lump of flesh, but some days or weeks later you were even more disgusted with yourself when you woke up one morning to discover that you had wet your bed. This problem had plagued you throughout your childhood, it was the curse you carried around with you far longer than was seemly for a boy of your age, past five, past six, and year after year the humiliation of the rubber sheet stretched out below you to protect the mattress, not the result of some psychological trouble or frailty of the bladder, your mother said (who knows if she was right or wrong?), but quite simply because you slept too soundly, because the arms of Morpheus not only enfolded you in his embrace but crushed you, smothered you, and how often during those early years did your mother tiptoe into your room in the dead of night to wake you up and lead you to the toilet, how often did she struggle to pull you from the land of dreams and fail? By the time you were six or seven, you had largely overcome this disability, the shame of your nocturnal incontinence was no longer a constant torture to you, but every now and then you would fall back into your old ways, once every month or two it would happen again, and to wake to the sickening feeling of cold wet sheets at that point in your life was so demoralizing, so outrageously juvenile and idiotic, that you sometimes wondered if you would ever grow up. Now, at the advanced age of eight, you had done it again. Not in the sanctuary of your family’s house, where everyone was aware of your condition and never said a word about it, but in the public space of a summer-camp cabin inhabited by seven other boys and a counsellor in his early twenties. Fortunately, it happened to be a Sunday, the one day of the week when reveille sounded later than usual, when breakfast was extended over an hour and a half rather than thirty or forty-five minutes, and so you waited until the other boys had left the cabin for the mess hall before you climbed out of bed, took off your clammy pyjamas, and shoved them into your laundry bag. When you joined the others at the breakfast table, you sat there in an ever-mounting panic, wondering what to do next. Peeing in your bed had been bad enough, an insult to your pride and boyish dignity, but much worse was the fear of being found out, of being ridiculed by the other boys and forever branded as a baby, a fool, a person beneath contempt. Time was growing short, in another fifteen or twenty minutes everyone would be returning to the cabin, and because you didn’t know who else to turn to, you decided you would have to risk talking to your counsellor, a young man named George, a quiet, serious person who until then had always treated you with kindness, but how could you know he wouldn’t laugh at you when you made your confession? And yet, who else but George had the authority to release you from the mess hall and let you rush back to the cabin? There was no choice, you would have to talk to him and hope for the best, and so you stood up and walked over to George, who was sitting at the head of the table, and whispered into his ear that you had had an accident and would he please let you go now so you could wash out your sheet and hang it up to dry on the clothes line behind the cabin? George nodded and told you to go ahead. Just like that – an unanticipated miracle of compassion and understanding, but not so strange in the end, for later that morning he confided to you that he had suffered from similar lapses himself when he was your age. A fellow member of the secret fraternity of anguished, guilty bed-wetters! Off you ran, then, sprinting back to the cabin, stripping the bottom sheet from your bed, the white sheet with its incriminating yellow stain, which looked something like a map of France, and then rushed over to the latrine, the foul-smelling piss-house with its corrosive, all-engulfing reek of urine, and scrubbed out the stain in one of the sinks. You were never caught. George’s mercy had protected you from the ultimate embarrassment, the mortifying shame of discovery, but it was a close call, a matter of minutes or even seconds, and your pounding heart was proof of just how scared you had been.

Why hark back to this story now, this ancient scrape with fear that turned out rather well for you in the end, so well, in fact, that you walked away from it without suffering any of the consequences you had anticipated with such dread? Because, finally, there were consequences, even if they were not the ones that made your heart beat so fast when you were afraid. You had a secret. There was a flaw in you that had to be kept hidden from the world, and because merely to think about being discovered filled you with a wretchedness beyond all imagining, you were forced to dissemble, to present a face to the world that was not your true face. Later that morning, when George made his confession to you, revealing that he too had once lived with that same secret himself, it occurred to you that most people had secrets of their own, perhaps all people, an entire universe of people treading the earth with thorns of guilt and shame stabbing their hearts, all of them forced to dissemble, to present a face to the world that was not their true face. What did this mean about the world? That everyone in it was more or less hidden, and because we were all other than what we appeared to be, it was next to impossible to know who anyone was. You wonder now if that sense of not knowing wasn’t responsible for making you so passionate about books – because the secrets of the characters who lived inside novels were always, in the end, made known.


Image courtesy of the author


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