J. D. & Me

I had an epiphany last night while watching the trailer for the much-hyped and widely-anticipated documentary Salinger. Or rather, a bunch of epiphanies. About J.D. Salinger and me and Catcher in the Rye and Holden Caulfield and our World War II fathers and PTSD and fiction and more. That's a lot for less than three minutes of footage -- and a lot to squeeze into one blog -- but it speaks volumes about how one author and one book could have such an enormous impact on Baby Boomer boys like me.

We all have our own Catcher in the Rye stories, personal testimonies on how the book and its flippant narrator spoke to us, personally and intimately, about "phoniness" and lies and the importance of loyalty.

I won't bore you with mine (I first read Catcher when I was 15, have re-read it multiple times, and taught it to classes of college students). But it suddenly occurred to me that being raised by a World War II dad, being a soldier myself and writing my own post-war stories enabled me to see the thread that connects my world and Salinger's.

And Holden Caulfield's, too.

There probably weren't many WW II soldiers who saw as much death and destruction as Jerome David Salinger.

An Army draftee, he witnessed unremitting combat with the 12th Infantry Regiment of the Army's 4th Infantry Division, including death and destruction at Omaha Beach during D-Day, at the bloody Battle of the Bulge, and during the doomed Huertgen Forest campaign. Of the 3,058 members of Salinger's regiment that entered the forest, only 563 emerged alive.

And, in a final horror, he and his compatriots were among the first U. S. soldiers to liberate several sub camps of the infamous Nazi Concentration camp at Dachau.

J. D. Salinger's biographers believe that he drew upon his wartime experiences in several of his short stories, among them "For Esme - With Love and Squalor," which is narrated by a traumatized soldier. Writing may have been his therapy; Holden Caulfield's irreverence his way back to some sense of sanity.

Meanwhile, my dad, Jack Bradley, was also drafted into WW II and assigned to the Fifth Air Force fighting the Japanese in the bloody battles for New Guinea, the Dutch East Indies and the Philippines. He never talked about what he did and what he saw. Like Salinger and hundreds of thousands of other World War II veterans, he suffered in silence.

Later, in postwar America, 27 million of us baby boomers would be raised by a generation of J. D. Salingers and Jack Bradleys, dads who did their best to hide their demons and their distaste for war and to build a better world. They did that, but they also gave their sons the war in Vietnam. Maybe if they'd opened up to us about the horrors of war, they wouldn't have subjected us to it.

To many of his readers, Holden Caulfield is J. D. Salinger. Many of us even became Holden for a while during our adolescence. But it wasn't until just now, as I reread my own collection of "war stories" -- a fictional account of my 365 days in the Vietnam War entitled DEROS Vietnam, that I realized my narrative voice belonged to Holden Caulfield. My Introduction, in particular, reeks of sarcastic, Holden-esque observations about bad luck and manipulative lies and misguided adults forcing us to do terrible things. Even the Salinger line that he shared with his daughter many years later -- "You never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose entirely, no matter how long you live," is nearly identical to a line I have a character utter in my story, "The Beast in the Jungle." I hadn't made the connection until last night!

I can understand why J. D. Salinger disappeared from the public eye for decades. A lot of our World War II dads did, even when they were still here with us physically. War has that kind of vanishing effect on men and women, whether they're writers (Salinger) or mail carriers (my dad).

Or just fathers.

If only they'd been more like Holden Caulfield imagines himself at one point in Catcher. Reciting (wrongly) the Robert Burns' poetry line, "if a body catch a body coming through the rye," Holden envisions children playing in a field of rye near the edge of a cliff and his catching them when they start to fall off.

I wasn't able to catch J. D. Salinger, but I wish I'd reached more for my dad, and he for me. We might have saved each other from a lot of sleepless nights.