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Once Ain’t for Always

An Explanation of My Title: Historical scholarship, that ragbag of myth, holds that once in 1927, while recording at the Columbia Studios, Bessie Smith had run through all her prepared material and then found herself with enough time left for another song and no way to use it except by making up the lyrics as she went along.

The result was “Lost Your Head Blues” and one of Bessie’s supposed improvisations was:

Once ain’t for always
And two ain’t but twice.

The beauty of the lines was inexplicable and so was their meaning. Exegeses of Bessie’s work have always tended to err in the direction of the coarse; and we pursued the mystery of the import of these words for the longest while among esoterica of sexual reference far beyond our own puny experience.

But we never solved their puzzle; and it teased me into late middle age until suddenly I understood. Bessie had meant to speak not about some unfamiliar variety of sexual congress but about a human condition that, if it is not universal, has inescapably been my own.

To say that once ain’t for always is to remind us that to have done what we ought to have done is no assurance that we will do it the next time we ought and that to have left undone what we ought to have done is no condemnation to the leaving of all future oughts undone.

Lost Your Head Blues” has since resided in me as the revelatory text for a life history that has been a continual process of confronting and suppressing one bad part of my character and then finding and struggling to suppress quite another bad part on and on and probably unto the last breath.

Now it has occurred to me that I may not be alone in this condition and that it might, as Clarendon put it, be not unuseful to the curiosity if not the conscience of mankind to attempt a memoir each of whose chapters would record some new discovery and transient overcoming of another deformed aspect of my nature. That is what I will try to do if the Lord has the kindness to allow me time to complete my recitals of successive combats with devils who once surprised with their newness and are now old and apparently old, gone, and replaced. Only His hand can finally spare me from unexpected encounters with some next one.

I came back from the war with nothing scarred about my person except a cartridge clip shot from my fatigue trouser pocket north of Bataan in February of 1945.

In the years before its disappearance I would occasionally happen upon it in a bureau drawer and be reminded less of how close life’s wounds scrape than how unaware they take us when they do.

We had been whiling an afternoon away in a firefight where we had, as amateurs do, been wasting our stocks of ammunition, and a squad of Japanese stragglers had been, as professionals must, disciplinedly conserving theirs. Now and then we would subside from our clamors, and one of them would fire a single round to set us off again and advance the hour when we would have used up our stores and be forced to let them be.

Somewhere in the midst of these futilities, I felt a light slap, smelled smoke at my haunch, and looked down to see the .45 caliber cartridges ascending and scattering from my side pocket. If you make the most of the noise long enough, you settle into the delusion that there is no one in the room except yourselves.

And so I at once took it for granted that someone in our troop had shot too close from my rear and yelled out to straighten the line. A Philippine scout as raw as we and fatally more anxious to please stood up to obey my unfranchised command, was shot under the eye, and fell among his brains.

The work of the day went profitlessly on for another hour before his comrade scouts picked up the body and carried it for deposit upon the bamboo porch where his mother was standing. He had died the soldier’s death in a war scarcely half a kilometer from the ground where he had learned to walk. I told the mother and brothers and sisters around her that he had been brave. All he had been, of course, was dumbly respectful of a thoughtless, hasty, and unauthorized order. I also said how sorry we all were, which commonplace and guilt-unconscious nicety could hardly, since I had no Tagalog, have reached her there among the mute and immutable sorrows of the East.

Back at our outpost, I looked at my violated cartridge clip. Its lips had been parted so neatly as to give free play to its spring. The top cartridge must have exploded, which would explain the clap and the smoke. The shot had then come from the front and would near to a certainty have passed by unnoticed if it hadn’t struck this piece of metal jutting out too far behind my own flesh to have served it for shielding.

We spoke of the dead scout that evening with too much more sentimentality than sentiment, and then so far forgot him as not even to wonder about the funeral where we might have formed a useless but not unfeeling guard of honor. He had died to make no difference between his freedom from harsh but seldom-seen conquerors and his deference to callous liberators it had been his misfortune to understand too little and to trust too much.

We would soon forget everything about him except the startling ruddiness of the heap of his brains. Young men are careless people and never so much a danger to themselves and others as when most of what they are seeking is relief from boredom.

For what else but boredom could have brought me to such engagements uncompelled by the will and irrelevant to the desires of my commanders and driven to them by that least bearable of boredoms, the one that turns life to lead for those who feel denied every function of use and value?

I had come to the South Pacific doubly deprived of purpose because my military speciality and my assigned duty had already withered into obsolescence. My training had been as a radio operator assumedly equipped to send and receive International Morse Code at a speed of twenty-five words a minute. My wrist was stiffer and my fist infirmer than this rating attested; and these disabilities might have troublesomely betrayed themselves if the continuous wave transmissions of dots and dashes had not been outmoded by voice radio awhile back.

Since the Signal Corps had so small a residual need for my superseded skills, it could not be blamed for shuffling me off to its even-worse-superseded ground-observer service. There had existed an age when the air spotter had been a valued instrument for early warning of a hostile flight’s approach and had occasionally earned himself a modest portion of legend. But the development of radar had long since pushed him nearer and nearer to wherever the observation balloon had gone before him.

Even so radar had its blind spots; and ground-observer teams went on being deployed to points of isolation on the unlikely chance that some Japanese plane might fly between mountains and hedgehog over peaks and so conceal itself from the radar’s beam that only human eyes could detect it. It was so hard to take pride in having no excuse for being except as insurance against all-but-inconceivable circumstances that I took to self-identification as “Forward Observer attached to the Air Force,” a desperate essay at being mistaken for those artillerymen who had something real to do and did it under conditions that could stand a man’s hairs on end. Everyone else with a title to dignities larger than our own went on speaking of us as “groundhogs.”

It did not take long, for the burden of being survivor and relic not just of one but of two of the auxiliary arts of warfare so weighed me down with my uselessness that I took to bobbing up whenever two or three were to be gathered together for adventures lurid as anticipation and pallid as experience.

For awhile at Lae in New Guinea, I took to patrolling with an Australian Sixth Division squad fleshed out by veterans of the European Theater. Two or three among them had been harried from Greece through Crete and at last turned fiercely to bay in North Africa. Then, having followed and endured the gloomy Anzac destiny of profiting the Empire’s interests more abundantly than their own, they had been recalled to face up to the Japanese advance upon their own home continent.

They had walked from Port Moresby over the Kakota Trail and down toward Buna, formed themselves as though on parade, and, singing “Waltzing Matilda,” marched straight forward until the Japanese opened up from the embankments that would be as close to Australia as they would ever thereafter go. Whatever the case, such was the legend, told, as always with the Aussies, by others than themselves. The reality was sufficiently superb, for in that week, the Australian Sixth and the American 23nd had won the Battle of Buna and decided the New Guinea campaign two years before I threw my feather’s weight into the balance.

My Aussies knew that their business was done, that they were indisposed to further goes, and had settled into nights of reminiscence and days of desultory patrols, whose unoffending objective was to remind the enemy’s leftovers that they were beaten and would be senseless to act otherwise. There are more fruitful ways to pursue the illusions of adventure than with companions who have already nobly undergone the destruction of most of their own. And so we spent our days scouring for nothing; and I can barely recall sensing, let alone confronting, a foe armed and dangerous.

My comrades could have taught me all manner of craft; and I have no doubt that they would have handsomely done so if some laboratory exercise had been forced upon them. As it was I picked up only two lessons. One was never to set forth for marsh or crag without first shining your shoes. The other was what I came to think of as the “Lick.”

I noticed early on that each of the squad’s elders had the habit of touching some part of his body—usually the crotch or abdomen—before entering some spot of brush where insecurities might hide. Later on, when I had strayed into patrols less secure against hazard, I caught myself now and then sweeping my hand across my forehead just above the eyebrow and could fairly hear the interior voice whispering that, if I were not hit there, I would be hit nowhere. And then I understood the tic for what it was, the talismanic gesture that restores the delusions of invulnerability and is the faint suggestion of recoil that defines the countenance of the him or the her who has known the supreme crisis.

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