Here he is, 26, forever young, team leader of Flight C in the 549th Night Fighter Squadron of the VII Fighter Command of the Seventh Air Force, on Iwo Jima, in either the spring or summer of 1945, half turned, gazing straight at whomever is documenting the moment. Is he going up tonight? I wish I could say. There’s no date on the back of the photograph. My siblings and I share a fair number of pictures of our father from World War II, but this is the only one we have in which we’re able to see First Lieutenant Joe Paul Hendrickson of Morganfield, Kentucky, sitting in his “glass treasure-hole of blue light.”
That’s one of the many indelible images pouring forth from James Dickey’s magnificent and morally fraught stream-of-conscious free-verse poem, “The Firebombing.” The plane Dickey is describing in the poem, the one in which he claimed in real life to have piloted 100 dangerous nighttime missions, is the same one my father flew: a P-61 Black Widow. My dad flew approximately 75 missions and logged approximately 175 hours of combat air patrol in his P-61 night fighter—I have the flight record, signed by his superior officers. In Dickey’s poem, the airplane isn’t named, but to P-61 esthetes, it is unmistakably the Widow. The thrilling fact that it was my father’s plane is what first drew me to the poem some 44 years ago, when I was preparing to spend what turned out to be almost an entire—and entirely overwhelming—day with James Dickey for a profile I was writing of him for a newspaper.
Once inside the poem, which is to say the reading experience of it, it was almost as if I could not but be hypnotized by the language itself, no matter what disquieting messages were lurking there, no matter what I felt later when I found out how Dickey had deceived me.
The “moon-metal shine of propellers.”
The “silver night-sea.”
The “nightgrass of mountains billowing softly.”
That instant “when the moon sails in between / The tail-booms.”
That feeling of the “greatest sense of power in one’s life.”
That moment when you swing “directly over the heart / The heart of the fire.”
How one is so “cool and enthralled in the cockpit.”
That coolness perhaps aided by “Combat booze by my side in a cratered canteen.”
How you can find yourself “Turned blue by the power of beauty.”
On and on—image after image.
Near the start of the roughly 280-line mini-epic, this image, this line:
“Snap, a bulb is tricked on in the cockpit.”
“Tricked,” it turns out, is a laden word. To my reading, it’s as if the narrator, the “I” of the poem, the speaker, the persona, the poetic genius behind all this, is letting us know that, snap, a bulb has tricked on, almost as if by its own will, in the searchlights and cockpits and moral quandaries of a long-ago Pacific night war.
I remember my own dad, with his natural-born Kentucky poetic lyricism, using the same words: his “long-ago Pacific night war.” Did they all say it that way?
The only trouble, or at least only trouble for me, is that the poetic genius in question built his masterwork on an autobiographical lie. On that mid-November day in 1976, which in its own way was indelible, James Dickey told me, straight to my teeth, as he apparently told hundreds of people throughout his life, that he was the pilot of his particular P-61. It isn’t true. And literary critics would doubtless shrug and say: Who cares? We have the poem.
I care. I remember him telling me how tricky she was to fly. “You had to be right on the stick,” he said, miming the act with his hands. Our interview wasn’t five minutes old and he was spooling up the lie. We were still in the hall of his handsome lakeside South Carolina ranch-styled home. I had blurted out that my dad, too, had once been an old P-61er, and that even though they were in different squadrons, I was pretty sure that their paths would have crossed, must have in some sense collided, in the spring and early summer of 1944, at Hammer Field, in Fresno, California—which is where I was born.
It wasn’t that Dickey had lied to my face—I could take that okay. It was that by doing so he had seemed to dishonor and disrespect my own father.
Their paths did cross at Hammer. Which is to say they both were in training there at the same time, not that they necessarily knew each other. (I’ve never been able to determine that.) Probably they didn’t. My dad’s squadron, the 549th, got activated at Hammer, on May 1, 1944, two days after I was born. The P-61 unit which Dickey eventually joined was the 418th NFS, and he ended up with it on Okinawa. Dickey wasn’t a famous American poet in Fresno; he was just another guy at a very crowded airfield, getting set to go over—to Europe or the Pacific.
The poetic genius told me a lot of other bilge, too, that day, I would later find out, but I was more than willing to swallow it all then, be snowed. Unwittingly, I put some of the bilge and snow into the story I wrote.
It wasn’t until almost 25 years later that I discovered that Officer Dickey had never sat in the pilot’s glass treasure hole of blue light—not on a mission, anyway. (Maybe he sat in there to pose for a photograph.) That the creator of this wonderwork—which, if there is any justice, will be read by lovers of language from here to eternity—had actually washed out of flight school on his first try at soloing as an aviation cadet. That was before Fresno.
Officer Dickey was a radar operator in the war, a crucial job. His seat was in the rear. He occupied a little plexiglass hole of his own, and, depending on the task, he could be faced in the opposite direction of his pilot up front. The R/O’s job was sometimes described as “the brain of the plane”; his role from the aft was to perform all of the navigating and radar-operating duties on a highly technical war machine, which contained, sealed in its nose, some of the newest and most sophisticated microwave radar technology in the world. His functions were critically important to this three-crew ship—pilot, R/O, gunner—which was a kind of combination fighter-bomber, a sleek and remarkably swift hybrid of a new kind of warplane, built specifically for work in the dark. She had come on line very late in the war from Northrup Aviation Corporation. She was armed to her gills with 20-millimeter cannons and 50-caliber machine guns. Her M2 Browning machine guns, in a rotating dorsal ball turret, could fire 800 rounds per minute: 560 rounds of ammo per gun, and all four guns able to fire simultaneously. As for the big canons under the wings: only the pilot could set them off—by pressing a firing switch on his control wheel. (He had a gunsight, mounted on the cowl, in the middle of the windshield, just beyond the control stick.) And also, depending on the mission, a P-61 could further be armed with a significant bomb payload—again, controlled by the pilot. All in all, a Black Widow was like a small, tight orchestra of violence, and the men who operated these machines were an elite corps, with much training behind them, many having volunteered for night-fighter duty, possessed of their right stylish aviator’s stuff, or at least this is how I like to think about it when I think now about my long-deceased father, with whom I spent so many years just trying to get along.
James Dickey, the famous American poet who grew into the famous American alcoholic poet, a sad ruin by the end of his life, was never shot down in the jungle, as he used to tell his firstborn son. He never fought his way out with a knife. He didn’t go on 100 missions. He went on 38. But wait a minute, isn’t 38 still 38, which is to say 38 potential risks to your life, even when some of the missions, or even many of them, might have turned out routine and fairly boring? From what I’ve been able to track, most of my father’s missions on Iwo Jima consisted of routine patrol work. But then there were those other moments.
In real life, a poetic Southern genius, for whom being an R/O wasn’t enough, needed to construct a different myth about himself to compensate for the ignominy of having nearly cracked up a two-seater biplane on his first solo try after about five minutes aloft in the fall of 1943 at an Army Air Corps field in Camden, South Carolina.
This needs to be said, however, and even stressed: although the poet lied repeatedly in real life about having been the pilot of his particular Widow, there were other times, in other poems and novels, when Dickey the artist explored reasonably accurate if disguised versions of the truth, of his soloing trauma, his washing-out trauma.
Not for nothing is the definitive Dickey biography entitled James Dickey: The World as a Lie. It’s a 750-page astute and almost relentless vivisection. (There were acres of lies in this life that had nothing to do with the war.) From an entry by the biographer, Henry Hart, in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature: “Because he washed out of flight training as an Air Corps cadet … he told everyone he was a decorated combat pilot who had shot down enemy planes over the Pacific and had been shot down by them. … He lied to advertise himself, to make his life seem glamorous, to sell his books, to put down his rivals. … He lied because he was an alcoholic, adept at the art of denial, of blurring fact and fiction.”
But wait a minute again: Isn’t this what poets do in their poems, are supposed to do— mold and shape reality, like a potter at his wheel, so that we can glimpse greater truths? Ernest Hemingway, who glamorized his own extremely short-lived experience in World War I, used to say that all that fiction amounted to was making up beautiful lies about things you know.
It didn’t matter. I couldn’t help taking it all personally. For years after I knew the truth, and long after Dickey was dead (he died in January 1997, at almost 74, three years before Hart’s biography appeared), I continued to be enthralled by the language in the poem even as I harbored my small, keen, and perhaps illogical resentment against it and him. Maybe it isn’t so illogical, though. It wasn’t that Dickey had lied to my face—I could take that okay. It was that by doing so he had seemed to dishonor and disrespect my own father, to cheapen the risks, however great, however small, my own Black Widow dad had taken in the war, my severe and stern and distant and sometimes deeply loving and at other times terrifyingly angry dad, with whom, it now seems in the beveled mirror of memory, I never really learned how to talk to, and vice versa.
Just lately, though, I have experienced a change of heart in this matter, and I suppose that’s chiefly the reason why I am coming back to this time and to Dickey’s lie. To my surprise, I have arrived at a softer feeling; I’ll call it a softer landing. Why? Primarily because of Dickey’s own eldest child, Christopher Dickey, who was a fellow journalist and my casual friend for more than 40 years, and who died, in July 2020, way too soon, of a heart attack at his home in Paris, at age 68. We had always meant to sit down and talk about our fathers and about the Black Widow in much greater depth than the several times we did talk about them, mostly in passing, mostly in a kind of nodding code. (We once worked for the same newspaper, in the same building, and we would have our peremptory talks in the hallways or the lunchroom.) And then Chris Dickey, who was known as a decent and mentoring journalist to a whole generation of foreign correspondents behind him, whose reporting career ended up going in a much different direction than mine, was dead. But he still bequeathed me a few things, especially one obscure piece of writing that I am grateful to say has helped show me the way.
Only once or twice, or maybe on three occasions at most, do I remember my father, who’s been dead now for close to two decades, talking about how scared he was in the war, although I now have come to believe that he was basically terrified out of his mind for the whole time he was overseas, at least in the shooting zones. I think it took him about a decade, at least, to get over that postwar terror, which, while he was living inside it, caused tremendous trouble in our family. I can see the whole of this more clearly now, some six decades later, even if the individual pieces remain jagged. All of this was before my younger brother and sister were born.James Dickey, in real life, was never the guy up front, firing the 20-millimeter canons, depressing the bomb release on the control wheel, racing her at speeds up to 375 miles per hour.
Mostly, my father didn’t talk about the war. It’s not that he was a modest or reticent man. He was actually quite the opposite, at least in terms of reticence, and he was no shrinking violet to tell you, when he cared to, about all that he had accomplished in life, and it was plenty, as a matter of fact. It’s one of the things that moves me most—how he had seemed to make a leap through time and space, from backwoods Kentucky, as a sod-poor and high-school-educated Depression farm boy, to captaining big airliners out of what was commonly called, when we were kids growing up, “The World’s Busiest Airport.” The title belonged first to Midway International Airport on the south side of Chicago, when he had started out, right after the war, as a co-pilot for Eastern Airlines in those old workhorse and trail-dragging DC-3s; and then, in the late 50s and early 60s, when the high-whined turboprops and first generation of jets came in, the title passed to O’Hare International Airport on the northwest side of the city. I think my father flew something like 12 different types of aircraft from the prop age through the jet age, before his career with Eastern was done, and for almost all of that time he worked out of either Midway or O’Hare. Which, somehow, he always referred to as “the field.” They were all fields to him, whether a weedy single-strip of macadam or some vast complex of cross-hatched runways. That was his Kentucky past calling. The taking off place and the landing place was the field. I remember him saying that when we were kids, my older brother Marty and my younger brother Eric and I, lining up in the driveway to tell him goodbye as he was leaving on a “trip” (all he ever called it) with a two- or three-night layover—maybe down to Miami, with plenty of stops along the way, and then working back through some of those same stops, maybe Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham, Charley West (what he always called Charleston, West Virginia), Louisville, Columbus, Indianapolis, home. Where we would be waiting for him, the unspoken tension about his not getting back having once more dissolved.
In the driveway, before a trip, he’d be in his captain’s hat with the beautiful medallion on the brim and the scrambled egg on the visor, and in his starched light blue dress shirt, and in his dark blue woolen uniform with the gold buttons on the jacket and the raised gold stripes on the sleeve. He’d be holding his thick and beat-up old black satchel case stuffed with manuals—his “brain bag,” he called it.
“Well, honey,” he’d say, “I’d better head for the field.” He and my mom would kiss goodbye. Marty and Ric and I would shake his strong hand. I don’t remember ever once trying to kiss him goodbye. It was impossible to do that.
But of the war, and his part in it, he never said much, when I grew up, not that I can recall now. Only a few times after I was grown—on my own, making my way as a journalist, and aware there was storytelling gold for me in those wartime Black Widow hills—did I try to nudge him on it. I’m not sure why I didn’t work at it harder. Mainly, I tried to gather the potential gold obliquely. It’s one of my many regrets now that I didn’t ask him more directly about it. I am haunted by what I don’t know about my father, and long to know, no matter how many pages of declassified documents pertaining to his old night fighter squadron that I’ve been able to obtain. I’m haunted because I’ve lost my chance.
In the opening of a beautiful and brief and relatively little-known essay called “My Father,” by the great British-Zimbabwaean novelist, Doris Lessing, she says: “We use our parents like recurring dreams, to be entered into when needed; they are always there, for love or for hate; but it occurs to me that I was not always there for my father.” It occurs to me that maybe I, too, wasn’t always there for my father; occurs to me now he might have actually welcomed opening up to me more about what he did and didn’t do in the war, all that was routine and boring about it, all that suddenly wasn’t. My father liked to kid me that “meaning” was for writers. He made a living with his hands. They were highly skilled and technical hands, but still, it was a kind of white-collar manual work, and he was proud of it. He used to say to people in my earshot, “I just don’t see how someone can make a damn living from writing, although I hear that some people do.” I also used to hear, secondhand, that, actually, he was extremely proud of the living I was trying to make, so alien to his own. And there are other moments when I think: maybe they weren’t so alien, our livings, and that he sensed it. We were both trying to navigate our way to something. Except that his kind had elements of physical danger.
Stopped in sepia. I think he’s on the flight line at what was known as South Field on Iwo Jima. He doesn’t have all his gear on, including his flight jacket with the fur on the collar, and his oxygen mask, and his skin-tight leather aviator’s cap, and his goggles, and his shoulder-strap .45 luger pistol. So maybe this is just a documenting moment for the family albums. He had to know, as they all did, that they were taking part in something way beyond them. They were too tender-aged to be there, and yet there they were, the bulk of them still in their twenties.
Such a tender and slender-looking little plexiglass box with all of those switches and levers and knobs and gauges and dials that you can barely make out on the instrument panel in front of him. The “greenhouse,” I’ve heard my father and other old P-61ers call the narrow cockpit of a Widow, in which, it almost goes without saying, there was room for only one person: the pilot. There was never any backup on a Widow—that was both her glory and her tragedy as a hybrid warship with a crew of three. She’d been designed that way for maximum effectiveness—sort of the art of elimination, no matter, or maybe because of, all of her advanced technology. But the point is, your fate rested primarily with the guy in the cockpit, the one who had his cool hand, turned blue by the power of beauty, on the control stick.
I squint and see my dad ready to go on a mission. He’s fully garbed and climbing into the treasure-hole on a drop-down ladder behind the nose wheel well on the underbelly of the fuselage. He’s strapping himself tight and putting on the headphones and doing a dozen other preliminary tasks. One of the early tasks, obviously, would have been to secure the bulletproof canopy. You can see a little of it in this picture. It sat on a hinge on the left side of the cockpit. Once it got swung over and locked in place, you were really fastened inside the greenhouse.
Soon enough you’d begin reciting—out loud, since you were the only one in there—the check-off list prior to taxiing and takeoff. I may be somewhat off on some of the sequence here, but I know I’m close enough, because I watched my father do much paler out-loud versions of the same ritual many times, long after the war, long after he was retired from his commercial airline career, but still a man possessed of the almost narcotic dream of flying, sailing around the country at 10,000 feet in his nifty little single-engine Beechcraft Debonair, which he used to keep parked in a rented hangar space at a general aviation airport in the western suburbs of Chicago.
I used to fly with him in those “retired” years every chance I could get, which wasn’t often enough. I was in the East, leading a different life.
He kept flying until he was deep into his seventies, and he probably would have done it till he was past 80, had not the hated “Feds,” as he always called them, stopped licensing him as a private pilot because of his various creeping health problems. And yet I will say that even when he could no longer fly, and despite the health issues, he was one of the most spry and agile people of his age group I’ve ever known. He never let his stomach go slack in the way of some old aviators. In the final few years of his life, I saw him still able to take the front steps of our house two at a time when he would come over to visit us in the East, to hell with his failing heart, which had been failing him in serious ways for more than a decade.
But the ritual of getting set to go, even or especially in the little Beech Debonair: There was something beautiful, incantatory, about it. I’m talking now about the checkoff list, with the machine shaking below you, the sound of the prop coming through the glass like a smooth table saw. It helps me imagine a little of what it must have been like, so many years before, in the dark, in his Widow, on Iwo.
If I was going up with him in those long after-years of his professional career, feeling not in the least unsafe to be strapped in beside him, feeling such pride and confidence and awe about what he could still do, maybe just the two of us going for a little spin around the pea patch, as he liked to call it, he’d pass over to me a laminated card, and I knew then that I’d better have my part of the ritual down pat, or else face his frowning disapproval. That disapproval was something I feared for almost as long as I knew him, up to the moment he died, at not quite 85, in a sick room outside Tampa in 2003, with its absurd wallpaper and the irradicable whiff of urine seeming to float right out of the woodwork.
It was call and response, as if we were in some strange church.
“Mixture,” I’d say, reading from the card.
“RICH,” he’d shout.
“Prop,” I’d say.
“HIGH RPM,” he’d shout again.
“Throttle,” I’d say.
“HALF OPEN,” he’d shout back.
After we had worked down the list, he’d take the laminated card back and stick it in a side pocket of the door hatch and give me one of those Attaboy, Paul grins and brush his knobby farm-boy hand affectionately against my knee. Sometimes he’d rest it there for a second or two. Invariably he’d say something like:
“Well, son, I suppose we better be off, like a herd of turtles, before we lose our nerve.”
Or: “What do you say, Paul, we try to cheat old lady death one more time?”
And up we’d go.
I’ve never been able to fly a lick, never had the wit or patience or nerve to take a flying lesson, much less to solo in a plane, but in his own way my father was co-opting me into momentary participation in the thing he loved almost more than anything else in life, and we both knew it. It makes me sad to say, but I think he loved it more than his own family. I do believe he was happiest up there in his wild blue yonder, in his treasure-hole. He said to me once, talking of some of the great heartaches in our family: “You know, Paul, all of my troubles begin once I get back down on the ground.” Of his five children, four sons and a daughter, only one of us, my kid brother Mark, a superb corporate pilot, 14 years my junior, with whom I think I would be willing to go to Antarctica in a single-engine plane, chose to follow him into his profession.
“It’s something I’ve never really been able to explain,” I remember my dad once saying, speaking softly. “The feeling I’ve always gotten from flying.”
Sometimes, in those long after-years of his professional career, when we’d be up together, just the two of us, he’d casually pass the wheel to me without any warning and then I’d try to hold the nose of the “Deb,” as he always called her, semi-steady for a few minutes against the horizon. Attaboy, Paul. The ultimate quiver of approval.
I can report on one of the few times he ever spoke to me about the fear he had felt in the war. The talk didn’t last long. It was on the telephone, and so we didn’t have to be looking at each other. I was writing a freelance piece for Life magazine. (This was 1990. My day job was as a staff feature writer for The Washington Post.) I had sold the editors on the concept of trying to chronicle “the greatest Thanksgiving meal of the 20th century,” which is to say the one that occurred on November 22, 1945, when millions of American servicemen, all those fathers and husbands and uncles and fiancés and cousins and big brothers (and military women, too, let it be added, in my wakefulness), had made it back from overseas, whole or partly whole, to the family table. My dad had been one of the millions. I had gone around the country finding eight or 10 representative stories, representative vets. But I hadn’t spoken to my dad, not until the last minute, when the piece was practically due. It would have been obvious to speak to him, of course, to pull things out of him. I had just put it off. Fear was too vulnerable a subject.
I called him at the family cabin in far northern Wisconsin—the Great North Woods, as the farm boy from the mid-South loved calling it.
“Bear country,” he barked as his customary greeting instead of “hello.” Somehow, he always seemed to catch the phone on the first ring. He and my mom were married, though were living in separate places—or mostly.
“It’s about the Thanksgiving of 1945, Dad,” I told him. “Not the meal itself, of course, you understand.”
“But what it represented,” he said.
After another couple of minutes, I said: “But what exactly would that holiday have meant to you?”
He went straight in. “I guess it was a little something like, ‘My God, I just don’t have that constant—’” There was a pause on the line. “‘—threat of dying anymore.’ It’s not at you. It’s gone, that thing you don’t want to talk about but that’s always there in the background. See, I’d been fighting people who wanted to die for the emperor, least that’s what they told us. I had a beautiful wife and two little boys back home. Hell, I didn’t want to die for anybody, Paul. I just wanted to get the hell out of there.”
“I’m glad you didn’t,” I said. “Die.”
Snap, a bulb is tricking on.
“The Firebombing” is about an old flyer, 20 years after the war, 20 pounds overweight, thinking about purloining a daytime snack from the pantry of his suburban tract house, and somehow, in the same instant, remembering everything there is to remember about what it was like to go up into the midnight dark to do terrible things against unseen human beings with those “300-gallon drop tanks / Filled with napalm and gasoline” suspended tremulously “on thin bomb-shackles” that were hanging “under the undeodorized arms” of your aircraft’s wings.
It’s all there, jumbled up. He’s thinking about the hedge clippers he’ll borrow from a neighbor, about the new scoutmaster for the kids, about the hammock in the backyard where he can have his erotic Sunday afternoon dreams after church. And in the same instant he recalls raining napalm fire upon a fast-asleep lush resort town on the southern edge of Japan called Beppu. He can’t really see, so he is imagining what is happening down there. How “All leashes of dogs / Break under the first bomb.” How “the low tables / Catch fire from the floor mats.” How the blasts are “kicking / The small cattle off their feet.” My God, he thinks to himself, Beppu in the Ryukyus is “burning with all / American fire.” My God, “My hat should crawl on my head / In streetcars, thinking of it, / The fat on my body should pale.”
After the bombing is done, “O then I knock it off / And turn for home,” which is to say to home base, in Okinawa.
The moral condemnation that has rained down on “The Firebombing” from certain critics through the years seems chiefly to lie in this: although this semi-overweight man in his tract house and banal suburban life may suddenly be sweating about what he once did, he’s not sweating enough. The poet Robert Bly, a contemporary of Dickey (and subsequent mortal enemy), once famously wrote that the poem was “teaching us that our way of dealing with military brutality is right: do it, later talk about it, and take two teaspoonsfull of remorse every seventh year.”
No matter the narrator’s “cold / Grinning sweat,” is he simultaneously exulting in the memory? It seems hard not to read some of the poem that way. At a minimum, he is proud to be an American. That is where the poem ends up: “nothing I haven’t lived with / For twenty years, still nothing not as / American as I am, and proud of it.” These are the final two lines: “Absolution? Sentence? No matter; / The thing itself is in that.”
The year before I traveled to South Carolina to talk to James Dickey, he had told journalist Bill Moyers on public television, “You never saw what you did. You never saw the families burned alive in their homes. You never saw the children mutilated. All you saw was this Godlike explosion of flames that you caused.”
In real life, as opposed to poetic life, did the fabulist James Dickey, in the closing months and weeks and days of World War II, which were exactly my own father’s time-frame of service, ever witness, from his rear bubble as the R/O, anything close to what fictively happens in “The Firebombing?” It’s a grainy question, his biographer reports. Safe to say, not to the extent the poem would wish you to believe. Safe also to say: James Dickey, in real life, was never the guy up front, firing the 20-millimeter canons, depressing the bomb release on the control wheel, racing her at speeds up to 375 miles per hour. (She could be redlined into the 400s.)
My father was that guy.
Dickey published “The Firebombing” in May 1964 in POETRY magazine. The next year the poem appeared as the lead work in a new volume of his verse entitled Buckdancer’s Choice. It was his fourth book of poetry and won the 1966 National Book Award. He was appointed Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress. He had gained the first rungs on the fame ladder he had so long craved. More climbing and greater fame were on the way, not least a few years later, in 1970, after the publication of his gothic Southern backwoods novel, Deliverance, a mega bestseller and an even larger hit at the box office. (It starred Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight; Dickey himself managed an unforgettable cameo as a cracker North Georgia sheriff.)
All of this, and more, would lead in its winding way over the next three decades to a slow alcoholic unraveling. In essence, as the literary quality grew lesser, the boasting and insufferableness grew louder. The great (and now increasingly forgotten) 20th-century poet Archibald MacLeish once wrote in a poem about Hemingway, whom he had known when they were both practically boys pedaling bicycles together through the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris in 1924: “Veteran out of the wars before he was twenty: / Famous at twenty-five: thirty a master—” but also saying, in the devastating line immediately above: “And what became of him? Fame became of him.” In large measure, that is the James Dickey story, even if it isn’t nearly as fixed in our national cultural consciousness as is the generally understood—and misunderstood—myth of Hemingway’s self-destruction. The old curse could come in here: be careful of what you wish for.
As I said above, it was in the middle fall of 1976, so roughly 12 years after he had first published the poem, so roughly half a decade after he had become as close to a household literary name as a poet can be in America—perhaps not a name on the level of, say, Norman Mailer or Truman Capote, but outsized all the same. I didn’t know when I sought the interview that, only days before, Dickey’s wife of almost 28 years had died. Maxine Syerson Dickey had died of alcoholism. When I found out (I didn’t yet know about the alcoholism part), I figured I’d better call it off. No, no, he had said on the phone, come down anyway. “It’ll be a distraction, and I need distractions right now.” I was a staff writer then for a national newspaper weekly called The National Observer, owned by the company that published The Wall Street Journal. It’s long since dead.
My editors had reluctantly agreed to let me do the piece—I had been the one angling, and the reasons must be obvious to you by now. Dickey had a new book coming out, so it would be timely, I argued. As things developed, there was a greater timeliness than we knew. Jimmy Carter had just been elected president, and the president-elect was in the semi-secret process of deciding whether to invite his ego-devouring fellow native Georgian to come to Washington to read an original poem at his inauguration, in a kind of imitation of John F. Kennedy’s celebrated invitation to Robert Frost to recite a poem at his bitterly cold inauguration in 1961. Dickey got the invite (the word is he had been working all the back channels) and called his commissioned work, “The Strength of Fields.” It’s a pretty good poem—which he ended up delivering not on the podium at the Capitol but at the Kennedy Center the night before the inauguration.
“Two Jimbos from Georgia,” Dickey crowed to me about Carter’s election. “How do you like it? I mean, when will the stars be this way again?”
I was ready to talk to him about almost anything, including the new poetic work (it was titled The Zodiac, which turned out to be a critical and commercial disappointment to him), but I knew the real reason why I so badly wanted to be there: It was another way of trying to know my unknowable father. My dad was 58 then; Dickey was 53. (How astonishingly young that seems to me—in my dad’s case, almost two decades younger than I am right now.) As it turned out, I didn’t get much about the war or the Widow into the piece, even though we talked a fair amount about it. The editors wanted other things.
He was so outrageous that day. He was so hilarious, so wickedly cruel. It was as if it was all one big performance for the benefit of one. Everything about him was gargantuan, Brobdingnagian, not least his head, which he kept bringing perilously close to my own. He had all these keys jangling from his pockets. He wore four large watches—two on each wrist—set to different times. He had on khakis, a blue pullover, a belt with the letters C.S.A. on the buckle. He kept sucking air through his teeth, flaring his nostrils, wiping his tongue across his gums, bugging his eyes, snorting whenever he got off a good line, which was about every two minutes.
Although not at first. “Well, welcome to our home,” he had said with a kind of detached weariness when he had opened the door. “We’re here alone now.”
I remember how he went over to a table in the hall and took a small model of a Black Widow off its clear plastic pedestal. He wiped the dust off the fuselage. “If you write any of this up,” he said, “don’t make me look like one of these guys still living it all 30 years later.”
Soon enough, Dickey became Dickey. Frank Sinatra got into the conversation. Sinatra, with his “pleasant little supper-club voice,” he said.
Allen Ginsberg? “If you can really write poetry, you don’t need to dress up funny.”
He drove us in some huge old car to a nearby restaurant. There were noontime diners all around us. He started talking very loudly about poets and suicide. “You’re supposed to be miserable if you’re an artist.” It felt like the whole room was staring at us. “People are always so disappointed when you have the money and means to do yourself in, and don’t. One wants to be DOOMED. America wants one to be DOOMED.”
On the way back to his house, we passed a roadside massage parlor with a neon sign out front. I had looked over. “Don’t you go in there, boy, after you leave,” he said. “You’ll get the clap in that place.” But the way he said it, I had the feeling he would have gladly accompanied me, had I gone.
Later that day he told me how Maxine had died of massive internal hemorrhages, had bled out right in his arms. He told me about the alcoholism. I asked if he believed in an afterlife. “No,” he said. “I saw Maxine lying there, and it could have just been a dead dog in the road.” It came out with a small savagery. A moment before, he been talking of her with longing and grief.
My God, I remember thinking to myself as I kept scribbling notes in my skinny reporter’s notebook: What would it be like to be this guy’s son?
The piece was published on December 4, 1976. Three and a half weeks later—which was two months after Maxine Dickey’s death—Dickey married a student from one of his poetry seminars at the University of South Carolina. She was less than half his age. She was younger than Chris Dickey, who found out about it in People magazine. The marriage was only one of his dad’s more disastrous mistakes. The next year I joined The Washington Post, and Chris and I met. “Uh, you spent time with my father, I see,” he said one day in the men’s room, letting it go.
The thing itself, as he puts it in “The Firebombing.”
I am staring at one of my dad’s old mission reports from Iwo Jima. Just lately I have been able to acquire some 500 long-declassified pages pertaining to the 549th NFS—which includes some of the actual mission reports, meaning after-action reports. Many of the pages are hard to read. Much of the material is objectively banal. (You can find out how many holes were in the officers’ latrine on Iwo and how many were in the enlisted men’s.) To me, all of it is documentary gold. And yet the great disappointment for me insofar as the mission reports are concerned is that a goodly number are missing. I have long known, from my dad’s old flight records, which I was able to obtain from a different government archive, the specific night in a given month when he went up and of how many hours he was in the air. But it turns out that many of the after-action reports have gone missing, or at least the archivists at the Air Force Historical Research Agency at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, who have been generously helping me, haven’t found them so far. And yet some of the reports are there.
And here is just one, concerning my father, only one page long, with the word CONFIDENTIAL stamped in red across the top.
It was the overnight of April 19-20, 1945. The assignment was to take off from Iwo Jima and go northward with full rounds of ammo and a 1000-pound payload to a little island group known as Hahajima. If the name Iwo Jima is an iconic name in the American consciousness, chiefly because of how many thousands of Marines, in the late winter and early spring of 1945, gave up their lives trying to take a worthless-looking scrap of volcanic rock and sand, I wonder how many Westerners have ever heard about two nearby fortified clots of Japanese life named Chichijima and Hahajima? Chichi and Haha are part of the Ogasawara Islands (also known more informally as the Bonin Islands). My dad went on intruder bombing and strafing runs on both islands. Hahajima, the smaller of the two, is about 8 square miles of skinny land. It’s roughly 146 miles north of Iwo. If Iwo looks like a forbidding ash pile off the moon, Chichijima and Hahajima were (and are) verdant little places, with coral-blue coves and beautiful beaches and mountains and forests full of banyan trees and rare species of birds. I’ve studied the pictures: they both look like Caribbean islands. They’re now known as prize snorkeling places. During the early part of the war, the native population of Chichi, the larger of the two, was just under 7,000. There was a significant naval base, and some 20,000 to 25,000 troops stationed there. Chichi served as a main communication and supply link to the home islands. Today, its sister island, Hahajima (it means Mother Island in Japanese), has a population of less than 500. I’d give a lot to see it before I die and know I won’t.
The commander of The Rita B (which is my mother’s first name and first initial of her middle name) lifted off for Haha with his R/O and gunner. Their names were Jack Kerr and Leo Vough. I never got to meet them. Both were a little younger than my dad. I’ve been researching their lives pretty intensely, but I needn’t report much here, except to say that Lieutenant J.H. Kerr, from Woodbridge, New Jersey, who was my dad’s R/O, had agreed, back in Fresno, eleven months before, on May 21, 1944, at 2 p.m., to stand up as my godfather at my christening at St. Therese’s Catholic Church, with Father Delany officiating. (My mom put it all down in my baby book, listing the various nightgowns and rattles and utility bags and booties that came as gifts from some of my dad’s squadron mates and their spouses.) My parents lost track of him after the war; but I used to always hear his name, my disappeared godfather: Jack Kerr.
And five-foot-four Staff Sergeant Leo Vough? I’ll be eager to write about him in another place. But this much for now: after the war, he went home to Avoca, Pennsylvania, and joined the local carpentry union, and never married, and lived with his mother until she died, and bought his first house 20 years after the war at 540 Main Street for $5,300 and went to polka dances at the VFW down the street on Friday night. He lived a long life, and then one day went out to the garage to run an errand in his car and said aloud as he was putting his hand on the knob of the garage door, “I don’t feel so well.” Then he dropped over dead. He was 90. Does some of it sound like The Best Years of Our Lives? Well, it is. Well, it isn’t. I’ve got much more work to do on the crew of The Rita B, but I’m pretty sure that there was some PTSD, for both of them, after the war, even as there was for the man sitting up front in the treasure-hole of blue light, and even though, let it not go unsaid, that the euphoria all three must have felt, from getting out from beneath all of that, is and was something nearly beyond words.
There was a quarter moon out. Liftoff was at 10:55 p.m. on the 19th. (It was a Thursday.) It would have taken them something like 30 minutes to get up there. There was plenty of fuel on board—325 gallons. On the way north, my dad cruised her at 8,000 feet. The enemy dot came in sight on Jack Kerr’s scopes. They searched for shipping vessels in the coves and ports. They couldn’t find any. What I think happened is that my dad swung out to either the east or the west of the skinny land mass. He was up at 11,500 feet, came down to 4,500, climbed back up to 7,500, made an arc, passed over a little village on a cove at the northern end. It was called Kitamura Town. He dropped two 500-pound bombs at 11:35 p.m. It seems that he and his gunner never fired a round.
And then what happened? I can only think of what my dad said years later, on the phone, from Wisconsin, for my article for Life: “I just wanted to get the hell out of there, Paul.” He didn’t mean Hahajima on April 19-20, 1945, obviously. He meant all of it. He had a wife and two little babies waiting for him back home.
They turned for home, but I am thinking not right away because of the time frames in the report. He probably headed out to sea, and maybe he swallowed his spit and arced back across the island one more time to look for vessels. The bombs were gone but they had their fierce armament ready. Nothing again. So I conclude they headed back south through the overcast, touching down on South Field at 45 minutes after midnight. From the time frames, I am guessing The Rita B would have circled Iwo a time or two, waiting for clearance to land.“I couldn’t bring myself to look at those friable pages,” he said. “No key was needed, but I didn’t have the heart.”
In the six-line, 63-word mission report that Lieutenant J.P. Hendrickson wrote up in the Ready Room, either later that night, or possibly the next morning, there are four words that stab me: “saw flashes through overcast.” He’s referring to his bomb drop on Kitamura Town at 11:35 p.m. I have seen that same description in other mission reports, from other pilots, but it still sounds to my ear exactly like something my father would have written. He was low enough to see the flashes, but not low enough to see what or whom the flashes hit.
In the weeks since I have come into possession of this piece of paper (and some others like it), I have tried hard to find out who might have been down there that midnight in Kitamura Town. I’ve consulted scholars of the war, two of whom are Americans based in Japan. The consensus is that there was almost certainly not a single female civilian down there. The year before, the small civilian population of Hahajima had been forcibly evacuated to the Japanese mainland. Apparently, some teenage boys, perhaps no more than two dozen, were ordered to stay behind. They were put to work in the service of the Japanese defense garrisons. Those garrisons were dug in with anti-aircraft guns and searchlights. I have found recent photographs of old rusted-out remnants of the anti-aircraft arsenals and the big searchlights and some old junked military vehicles. I’ve also found photographs of the ruins of an old elementary school that was once in the heart of Kitamura. The blog posting is entitled, “The Long Lost Kitamura Village.” You can see the entrance pillars and the remains of a staircase. There is an overhang of banyan trees. It almost looks like a tropical rain forest. It feels peaceful.
Did my father’s two “500 pounders,” as I’ve heard him refer to them, end up “kicking” any “small cattle off their feet / In a red costly blast / Flinging jelly over the walls” that night? Well, firstly, these weren’t napalm bombs; at least, there’s nothing in the mission report indicating that. But bombs are bombs. They do what they are meant to do. Did “low tables,” left behind in thatched huts, where extended families had once sat on their haunches eating from their rice bowls, “Catch fire from the floor mats” and “Blaze up in gas around their heads / Like a dream”? That is from “The Firebombing.”
Flashes through overcast.
Could one of the teenagers who’d been ordered to stay behind have been asleep on a pallet in his parental home? I would not rule out the possibility. While I’m at it, did some left-behind books and pencil cases from the Kitamura elementary school get blown to smithereens?
What I do know, and am so grateful for, is that The Rita B and her crew didn’t get blown to smithereens from an anti-aircraft gun scoring a direct hit. What I also know is that to hold this one-page document in my sometimes trembling hand feels… enough. It needn’t be anything larger than it is, which is just some old yellowed piece of documentary government paper that somehow survived and came magically into my possession three quarters of a century after it was probably typed out in a tent at a wobbly table by a squadron clerk of the 549th. What an amazing thing for a son to possess, certifiable proof, as if I really needed any, that my 26-year-old dad had steered himself and two companions safely through the dark, so far from home, so long ago. One of Lindbergh’s biographers wrote that what stirred the world about Lindy was the idea of a “single, lonely boy” crossing an ocean alone in the dark in a single-engine monoplane.
My father was never Charles Lindbergh. He was not a war ace. So far as I know, he never engaged in aerial combat with an enemy craft. (I do know he had several extremely close calls, much scarier than the night he bombed Kitamura.) But, somehow, Mission Report Number 4-32, dated 20 April 1945, is enough for me—more than enough, for what I have sought to say here. My dad went to the war, and he got home safe. He did some brave things. He carried out his mission assignments. Let it be.
And so, Chris Dickey.
In 1998 (two years before James Dickey: The World as a Lie appeared), James Dickey’s eldest child published a father-son memoir entitled Summer of Deliverance. I didn’t read it at the time, although I did follow its reception. Probably I was envious that he had been able to get it done. The book was widely and favorably reviewed, but it was as if many of the reviewers didn’t truly get it—as I now can say with conviction, since I have read it with great admiration. It is a book about love and reconciliation and a coming back together, about acceptance in spite of all. Too many reviewers seemed to want to quote from the first page, in which the author says: “For most of 20 years I did not see him, couldn’t talk to him, could not bear to be around him. I believed—I knew—that he had killed my mother. He belittled and betrayed her, humiliated her and forgot about her. … My father was a great poet, a famous novelist, and a powerful intellect, and a son of a bitch I hated.” And it’s as if the rest of the book is saying: okay, all that is true. But he is mine. And finally, I love him.
A couple of years ago, Chris and I renewed our friendship. He was in Paris, I was in Philadelphia. I told him I was thinking of trying to write a book about my father and his time in the war—at long last. We traded some pieces of writing. I invited him to the university where I teach. I asked if we could talk, and not least about the awkward business of having aggrandized yourself, in real life, into the cockpit of a P-61. “Ah, the Black Widow,” he said.
And then I picked up the paper one morning last summer to discover he was dead.
In our exchange of emails, Chris had sent me a small essay he had written a couple of years after the publication of Summer of Deliverance. He asked if I would read it. Of course, I said. The essay is probably not 1,500 words. It’s called “The Poet’s Family Album.” It’s about finding the key, among so many of his father’s keys, to the closet between the kitchen and the laundry in the lake house in South Carolina. It’s the week after his father has died. Chris goes in and rummages around. On a high shelf is his father’s baby book—except that the book, kept so carefully by James Dickey’s mom, hadn’t stopped at the end of babyhood. It had kept right on going, documenting in photographs and news clippings a boy’s all-American life through elementary school and high school and into his young adulthood. Football player, captain of the high school track team. Young cadet on his way to the war.
Chris took the book down and started to leaf through it. The heavy black construction paper was crumbling. An overwhelming feeling of sorrow came over him; not that his father had just died, not that his father had become a man “destroyed by drink and gasping for breath at the end of his 74th year,” but because his father had seemed to spend his whole adult life trying to live up to the effortless and golden child he once had been in that crumbling album. He closed the book. He took it home and put it in a box under his desk. “I couldn’t bring myself to look at those friable pages,” he said. “No key was needed, but I didn’t have the heart.”
Several years went by. One day he opened the box and started looking at the album again—and suddenly it was as if “that boy who haunted James Dickey, and who haunted me, was no longer a threat, and no longer a stranger.” It was all gone. What was left was love.
Just a couple weeks ago, I read the essay again, and this time there was a line in it that seemed to be vectoring me down all the right runways of anything I might be seeking to do: “I hadn’t forgotten anything, but I’d forgiven everything,” Chris so beautifully wrote.
Nine days after my dad filed 549th Night Fighter Squadron Mission Report Number 4-32 on Iwo Jima, I and my mom and brother Marty and my maternal grandparents celebrated my first birthday in Xenia, Ohio. I have a picture of that event, taken in the backyard of 8 Mechanic Street: me propped in a highchair, a lone candle stuck up in the middle of a cake on the table in front of us, the shrubs and the trees in the backyard of the little farm town in full bloom, my 22-year-old mom looking so beautiful with her legs crossed and in her short-sleeved dress and white bib collar. I’m all full of baby fat. The one missing, the one I barely know—which is something I almost feel I could say right now, in my 77th year—is 7,000 miles away, wanting only to get the hell out of there. And he will.