Son of a gambling, boozing, clarinet-playing corporal in the Sixth Infantry Band, the poet and critic William Jay Smith grew up at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri—and this quiet, drifting, moodily detailed memoir captures the intense yet monotonous, still air of the “peace-time, brown-boot Army,” along with the particular quirks of the Smith household. “An army post in the Twenties and Thirties was one of the most boring places on earth,” all routine and isolation, spit and polish (even the prostitutes wore immaculate evening gowns…and tennis sneakers, for trysts in the woods). But the Smiths’ attempts to supplement army income livened things up: Mother sewed and did catering, Father made bootleg beer and, later, the hard stuff. The illegality was terrifying: “the alcoholic vapors that swept my room haunted me even when I left the house.”
Unathletic young William sought a way out through the enormous Mrs. Bradbury’s “expression” lessons (falling in love “totally, blissfully, and eternally with language”) and school, eventually ducking the West Point dream with a scholarship to Washington University in St. Louis. Among his classmates there: Thomas Lanier Williams, “the shyest, quietest person I had ever met,” whose comfortable house was nothing like its future literary counterpart in The Glass Menagerie. The growing-up-and-out process also involved the discovery of Smith’s part-Choctaw ancestry and a traumatic lesson in “the power of the written word”; while experimenting with smoking, ten-year-old William’s playmate Evelyn burned herself badly—but a newspaper story branded William as the mischievous cause of the accident.
Smith’s narrative avoids strict chronology, taking time for anecdotal digressions (an army marriage that ended in violence), for leisurely explorations of family and military history, and for meditations on the army, then and now. In 1977, Smith revisited the Barracks, only to find an ugly industrial complex and polluted water: “Where indeed was the grandeur of the military condition…? What, I asked myself, was the point of the deaths of so many men and women in so many wars, just or unjust, if we now made war on the earth itself and befouled its beauty that had so benefited us?” Despite several such purplish patches and occasional longueurs, this is a precisely remembered, often gently ironic evocation of a very specific, relatively little chronicled milieu.
November 20, 1980