EIGHTEEN

LKTIV with Orange in LoftBy the time you’ve packed up all of your worldly possessions and moved 10 or 12 times, you get used to it.  A year in one place is pretty much like a year anyplace else, and so is being a new kid on the first day of school.  You ride the bus, you find your homeroom, you find your locker, you find your morning classes and the lunch room and the gym, you find your afternoon classes, and you ride the bus home.  You adjust your wardrobe to include or jettison Weejuns, white socks, fence-climber loafers, blue jeans, chinos, and madras shirts; you meet some kids and make some friends; you try-out for track and run the 440 and finish 2nd or 3rd a few times; you go out with one of the cool girls just long enough to miss her badly when your dad gets reassigned…and then you’re gone.

That’s the way it went year after year after year with few changes in the routine until senior year, when the stakes went up and the landscape shifted precipitously.  Seniors reeked of history.  They were the institutional memory of a school, steeped in the traditions and secret codes of student life.  They were the keepers of grudges and settlers of scores against rival schools.  They set the example in the all-important areas of music, dress, hairstyle, sex and popularity.  When seniors strode the halls, the linoleum trembled and lockers shook and freshmen were felled by knee-level wind.

Becoming a senior was supposed to pay-off the psychic debts you acquired during 12 long years of being lorded-over by insufferable assholes who were older, bigger, and stronger than you.  For some reason, during all those years of moving from place to place, you never thought about what would happen if you transferred into a school as a senior, with none of the authority and gravitas conveyed by a history at the school.

When dad was assigned to the Pentagon and we moved to Northern Virginia from Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, I enrolled in the third high school I had attended in three years in three different states.  I was in my 18th year of being an army brat, and moving to a new school and making new friends had grown as old as I was.  By the fall of 1964, I had long since concluded that showing up at a new school as a senior meant that I would stand practically no chance of breaking into one of the well-established cliques in the senior class, and all I wanted to do was get the year over with.  But 17 year old boys are ruled by hormones, not reason, and I soon laid plans to crack the codes of conduct, dress, and social standing of Mount VernonHigh   School, located just south of Mount   Vernon itself on Route 1 in FairfaxCounty.

You’ve got to picture the scene:  I arrived in Northern Virginia with enough credits to graduate a year early, so mom and I met with the vice principal to discuss my status as a student.  The vice principal couldn’t suppress a smile of satisfaction as he explained that if you hadn’t taken Virginia State history, the state law didn’t care about the number of  credits you had.  This was a course ordinarily taken as a junior, but because I had been busy fulfilling the Pennsylvania’s state history requirement the previous year, I would be required to take Virginia history as a senior.   Virginia state law also didn’t permit coming to school for a single class, so I would have to take enough make-work courses and study halls to fill the regular class schedule.

Somehow mom got a copy of the state school regulations and determined that I could go to school for a half-day if I enrolled in Distributive Education, a program intended for vocational students.  As seniors, they took morning classes and were released at noon to go to work in a job that provided career-related training.  I quickly secured a job selling clothes at Cohen’s Quality Shop, a men’s store in downtown Alexandria, and I put in for the DE program.  The vice principal realized we had figured a way around the rules, so he threw in Senior English along with two study halls and Virginia History. I took the deal.  In my final year of high school, I became a biz-ed student.

It took me about a week to determine that spending only a half-day in school reduced at least by half my chances of climbing into the upper bleachers of the senior  social stratum.  So I decided to make the vocational thing work for me, instead of against me.  Years of experience had taught me that being a new kid in school presented the opportunity to act aloof and mysterious.  If you appeared hard to approach and acted like you didn’t give a shit if doors were closed to you, in time those doors would open, if only to satisfy the prying eyes and abject curiosity of those on the inside.

Creating an air of mystery in Northern Virginia in 1964 wasn’t very hard.  I decided to join the school’s debate team, a place of perpetual exile for losers, and because I had to wear a coat and tie to work every day anyway, I decided I would dress up for school, as if being a debater and a DE student was a mark of honor.  When it got cold, I wore a black London Fog overcoat and carried a tightly rolled black umbrella over my left forearm, a point of personal style I had picked up from Commodore Williams, a gang leader I had been friends with in Leavenworth, Kansas.  The sum of these affectations raised my profile as a Man of Mystery and at least doubled the curiosity quotient in those inhabiting the inner-sanctums of the clique-elite.

I knew I had cracked the code when a note was passed to me one morning in  study hall informing me that one of the prettiest girls in the senior class liked me and would say yes if I asked her out on a date.  I spent a day or so investigating the reliability of the note and the veracity of the girl who passed it to me.  Satisfied that the note was legit, I approached the girl in question – her name was Connie – and asked her out for date on Friday night, and she accepted.  I reasoned that if Friday night went okay, we could continue to march right into Saturday night.  I had to work until 9:00 p.m. on Fridays, but when I told my boss at Cohen’s that I would volunteer for the hot, dirty task of dusting every hanger, shirt box, suit-rack, hat box and square inch of shelf space in the attic storeroom, a job he knew would take me the better part of a week,  he gave me the night off.

I didn’t know much about Connie, and even less about her family, but I wasn’t surprised when I showed up on Friday evening and her father answered the door still in uniform, having just gotten home from a hard day at the Pentagon.  He was a big, thick-necked man with a crew-cut and a perpetual five o’clock shadow, and he was a full colonel with a chest full of combat ribbons.  The subdivision we lived in was packed with officers just like him, most of them full colonels, my father the lieutenant colonel being a rare exception.  The colonel invited me in and said Connie was upstairs getting ready and would be down shortly.  He walked over to a wet bar and asked if I wanted a drink, and I said, yes sir, a Coke.  He emitted an offended grunt and growled something like, I didn’t ask if you wanted a Coke!  I asked if you wanted a goddamned drink.  With that, he poured two large bourbons on the rocks and handed me one.  He sat down and indicated with a nod that I should take the chair across from him.  He studied me for a moment, and then he smiled.  I knew what he was going to say before he opened his mouth:  you’re General Truscott’s grandson, aren’t you?  I answered, yes sir.  He raised his glass in a jaunty toast and said, well, Lucian, I’m proud to have you as a guest in my home, and I’m pleased as hell that you’re going out with my daughter.  He took a deep drink, leaned back in his chair and stared wistfully out the window.

He meant every word he had said.  I knew it, because I had seen that wistful look before, on the faces of other girls’ fathers.  Now, as he took another swig of bourbon, there it was again: a softening around the eyes, a lowering of the chin, as if he couldn’t hold back a rush of unexpected yet not unwelcome emotion.  There was a vulnerability about these big, powerful men when they talked about grandpa.  Perhaps a clock ticked inside them, letting them know their moment was passing, and they knew there was nothing they could do about it.  Or maybe they sensed that the greatness of men like grandpa had eluded them.  Maybe it wasn’t their fault that Korea had been their war, and it had come at a time when they were lieutenants instead of generals, and they never got the opportunity to command great armies in great battles and win great victories.  Or maybe they knew that another war was just around the corner, and it would turn out to be the wrong war, and greatness would elude not only the colonels and the generals, but a generation and a nation and break not only their hearts but ours as well.

With Connie’s father, it seemed like although he knew greatness would never be his, at least he had seen it up close.  He took another deep drink and turned from the window and said, you know what, Lucian?  Your grandfather was a great general.  And General Truscott was the finest officer I ever had the honor to serve under.  I didn’t respond, because I couldn’t.  He didn’t mean for his comment to lay down a challenge to me, but he had done it nevertheless, and I was tired of it.  I was tired of it because I was a kid of 17 and I didn’t want to be bothered with thoughts of living up to grandpa, and I was tired of these men pontificating about my grandfather, because they didn’t know him.  Connie’s father thought he knew everything there was to know about the general, but he didn’t have a clue about the man.

I had the same feeling about Connie’s father that I had about the other fathers of  girls I had dated.  He wasn’t talking about my grandfather.  He was reciting a kind of worshipful ode to a military ideal that he had been trained to idolize, but which he sensed was in decline.  It was evident from his age and rank that Connie’s father had been too far down the chain of command during World War II to have known grandpa as anyone other than the distant figure he was to the subscribers of LIFE magazine who saw his photo on the cover.

Absently, the colonel launched into an elaborate description of a battle at Anzio that grandpa had turned with a crucial maneuver that seemingly came from nowhere, one that I would later study in military history at West Point.  I don’t know how long I listened to him before I looked up and saw Connie watching us from the top of the stairs.  She was standing back from the banister in a shadow, obviously reluctant to interrupt her father’s story.  Maybe she was even afraid of him.  I cleared my throat, and when I got his attention, I rose to my feet and looked up, as one should do when a lady enters the room.  Connie took my signal and came down the stairs.  Her father appeared flustered.  It was like she had broken a spell, and for me, at least, she had.  She had gotten herself up in a way that certain girls could, so that she looked about four years older without showing a sign that any effort had been taken.  I’m sure that my 17 year old nostrils reddened and flared like a spooked horse, and I’m sure she that she knew it.  But her father was oblivious, lost in a wistful reverie brought on by the mere mention of my name.  Connie gave him a kiss on the cheek, and after a gruff mock-warning not to stay out too late, we left.

I had seen other fathers of other girls that I had dated act in the same way. There was Wendy at FortLeavenworth, another Colonel’s daughter.  She happened to live in “The Rookery,” a house set within the two-foot thick stone walls of the old fort, the same house dad had lived for 5 years when grandpa was teaching there in the 1930’s, which made the presence of “the general” doubly felt.  There was Bethany at Carlisle Barracks, whose father had been in the 3rd Infantry Division when grandpa drove them like a Cavalry troop through Sicily.  There was Mary Gail, the daughter of a voraciously ambitious brigadier general who saw his daughter dating the grandson of General Truscott as a chance for career advancement. There was Louisa, the daughter of the LIFE correspondent who wrote the cover story on grandpa, whom I met on a ski slope in upstate New York one winter afternoon.  And there was Lucy, another Colonel’s daughter who was a couple of years older than me and taught my ballroom dancing class in the 7th Grade, and for whom I would serve as a Cadet Escort when she arrived at West Point in 1966 to bury her husband, a lieutenant killed in Vietnam less than a year after he had graduated.  And there were others.

I had kept my mouth shut for years with these girls because I was afraid that I was living inside a bubble of rarified air, and if I opened my mouth, it would burst.  But now I was a senior, and still I was a new kid in school, and I had been through this whole thing so many times that I had developed a suspicion that none of it was real, that it was all going to pass like a small town when you drove through at night – blink, and it was gone back there behind you forever.

We were in the car driving down the George Washington Parkway, and I figured, what do I have to lose?  So I came right out and asked her:  did you go out with me tonight because you wanted to, or because I’m General Truscott’s grandson and you knew your father served under him in Italy, and you knew it would make him happy?  She was unhesitating in her response: she didn’t know anything about my grandfather, and tonight was the first time she had ever heard her father talk about the war.  She didn’t know who I was other than the cute guy who came to school every day in a coat and tie and kept to himself and left early to go to work.  I believed her at least as much because I wanted to believe her as anything else.  But because I had heard girls’ fathers talk about my grandfather, I still had a hint of doubt in my mind.

Connie’s father may have raised a toast to grandpa, as did the other fathers, but all I ever heard from them were stories about an iconic figure known as the General.  Their stories were stuffed with dates and facts and snatches of the horrors of war and sometimes the dark humor of warriors, but they were stories about the General, not the man.  Not once did I ever get a sense of what kind of man he really was, not from the men who had served under him, or even from those who had actually met him.

In all of the years I had spent as my grandfather’s namesake, I had never heard my mother and father talk about grandma and grandpa the way they talked about other people. It was as if grandma and grandpa existed on a plane above normal reference.  There was an unwritten rule that you didn’t talk about their foibles, or the things that made them human and sometimes difficult — not because their foibles didn’t exist, but because the family rules said you didn’t.

All I knew about the family rules was this:  the people who know you best won’t let you close enough to know them, and if you can’t know them, you can’t know yourself.

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15 Comments

  1. MaryAnn Crowe

     /  December 8, 2012

    Really enjoyed this chapter and one of your earliest about leaving, as an Army “B.R.A.T.” born in Germany and brought home aboard the Patch at 6 months. Do we ever really get used to it?
    Am grateful that I found my way here along with many others through your NYTimes essay… interesting that here you offer evidence of how earlier heroes have been mythologized, even as they remain unknown to their families.
    This story also reminded me of a study Donna Musil – director of BRATS: Our Journey Home – mentioned at a Veteran’s Day program sponsored by the Museum of the Military Family: it offers proof from other lives of how devastating it can be when a 13 year old girl is forced to move three times in one year…
    Looking forward to your next chapters, and thank you for this experiment before we see the completed, edited book– MaryAnn Crowe

    Reply
  2. Rex Weiner

     /  December 12, 2012
    Reply
    • Rex, wonderful piece on the Mailer cruise. Wish I’d been along with you. Mailer was one of the most generous people I’ve ever known. I miss him dearly.
      Lucian

      Reply
  3. I’ve really enjoyed this work so far. It is so gratifying in the age of superficial celebrity memoirs to see that a writer with your skills and background is helping keep alive the great tradition of personal long-form journalism.

    I learned the craft at a small-town newspaper in the late ’60s and was turned on to filmmaking in college. I was inspired by Mailer, Thompson, Talese, Wolfe on the print side, Pennebaker and the Maysles Brothers on the film side. But it took more than 30 years of kicking around print and broadcast journalism and academe before the technology finally caught up. Cheap video hardware and software now enables me to do what I always wanted to do, make personal documentaries and tell some of the stories that mainstream media are ignoring.

    I was led here by the NY Times Op-Ed piece, and I’m curious about your take on the latest revelations about Petraeus, Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes. But more importantly, I’m looking forward to “Nineteen”.

    Best regards,
    Tom Weber

    Reply
    • Thanks for the comment. I think Petraeus is a too smart for his own britches sentimental innocent, that’s what I think. His recent behavior doesn’t surprise me in the least, nor does the obvious pleasure he took in being courted by Murdoch. My grandfather and generals of his generation would have thrown that person out of the room the minute he or she started in on the “message” carried from Ailes and Murdoch. Pathetic.

      Reply
  4. John Holley

     /  December 31, 2012

    Not sure how I got here, hell, guess that applies to about everything, eh? But enjoying it, seldom run into this sort of thing that holds me but you have. Some of it might be the Brat in me–echoes of familiar battles against the ghosts in my own shadows–but not all. Solid sense of story arc, universalization of a unique longing of a brat diaspora searching our childhood myth. (AF, post-war France to start, after that it’s not the years, it’s the mileage.) Agree about Petraeus et al, but a few decades watching public service unravel have left me wondering about those few personal myths I still hold, like the values/honor/motivations of previous generations. Maybe it’s been Petraeus all the way back, and that’s all we’ve ever been capable of, no Marcus Aurelius’ for our Rome. As Buffy said, cover me with your pretty lies…

    Reply
  5. Charles E. St. Austell

     /  January 10, 2013

    I am not entirely certain what your question really is, or what the problem is that you pose.

    I think the phenomenon you point out with regard to grandparents being above criticism was just a fact of life, at least during that period. My grandfathers had both died before I was born, so I have nothing to compare that part of my experience with. But both of my grandmothers, who died when I was in late grade school, were regarded in the way you describe: Nobody was ever critical of them in the slightest. And maybe that’s the way it should be. Perhaps before they became grandparents they had already received their share of criticism.

    With regard to World War II veterans not telling of their experiences, we’ve all heard about veterans who simply didn’t talk about their experiences in the war. I can think of three of the WWII veterans I knew who talked to me in the 1980’s about their experiences, then told me they had never told anyone before about them. Whether they were very traumatic experiences – which many of them were, I’m sure – or if there were other reasons, they just didn’t talk much. Probably the General was the same way. He certainly saw his share of trauma and had many men under his command who ended up not surviving. I’m sure it was a great weight that could not be discussed casually, if at all.
    But getting on to General Truscott the man:

    Probably General Truscott’s upbringing and early experiences had a lot to do with his military success and his good reputation.

    According to Wikipedia, General Truscott was born in 1895 in Chatfield , Texas to an English father and an Irish mother. In other words, his parents were both immigrants and, like most immigrants of that period, they probably came to this country because life wasn’t so good where they came from. Being immigrants made them a little “different” from most people, and it meant they had probably faced adversity before coming to this country, and I’m sure the General realized that when he was young. My paternal grandfather was English (which made him a little “different”), and I’ve heard in recent years that the locals in rural upstate New York made fun of him because of his English accent. I’ve never heard why he came to this country.

    According to Wikipedia, Chatfield was a small town about 30 miles southeast of Dallas in rural Texas and had a population of about 500. In 1895, there was probably a lot of opportunity to experience adversity in rural Texas . Adversity in the proper doses (not too much but enough) can strengthen people as they develop.

    His parents apparently had provided him with a moral compass, as various accounts of his interaction with troops indicated he showed a great deal of respect and kindness toward them.

    A current book by Thomas E. Ricks (The Generals) mentions General Truscott in a few places, mostly in the context of the 1943 events at Anzio , Italy , when General Clark fired General Lucas and replaced him with General Truscott. Whether it was Lucas who should have been fired or whether it was Clark seems to be a point of debate. But, General Truscott’s success seemed to be attributed to some degree to the fact that he “got out and about” and visited the front line units, which neither his predecessor nor his superior did. This helped him to be successful at eliciting the necessary emotional response from his troops during battle so that they were most effective. Truscott was described as being a “dynamic commander” who had an unusual “feel for battle” which allowed him to sense how much “fight” was going to be required of his troops and how much they were capable of giving. I think these qualities tell a lot about the man and his personality; it was not something he learned sitting in a classroom at West Point .

    From the little I’ve read, these sound like unusual qualities which I’ve never heard discussed in other generals.

    Connie’s father (as well as the other military men you cite) probably hadn’t really thought much about what might have made General Truscott great, but were, as you say, only “reciting a kind of worshipful ode to a military ideal that [they] had been trained to idolize”.

    Often prominent people develop a mystique which is not necessarily of their own making. Sometimes the mystique is genuine and sometimes it is false. I think the General’s was genuine.

    I hope this has been helpful.

    Reply
  6. What you said @ me is 20% true. Guess you have popped a few too many pills. Same egocentric, name dropper, inconsiderate of others.

    Reply
  7. Barbara

     /  January 15, 2013

    I see lots of praise from your fans, but @ 20% @ me is true; lots of self-agrandising and name dropping. Maybe if you cared @ others a bit you would not have a broken heart.still egocentric I see.

    Reply
    • Barbara, I’m sorry you feel that way, but hope you keep reading the book. I’ve still got a bunch of chapters coming up. Maybe by the end you will feel differently. I thought you’d be more than a little amused at the memory of the Fillmore and how we met.

      Reply
  8. Barbara

     /  January 15, 2013

    that was not how we met. you made me sound desperate. it was in the summer and you and
    :Moen” followed a friend& I to the library roof overlooking the hudson. I;m glad you did not use my last name, but Gael wrote me @ the blog. I worked in Hollywood entertainment for 24 yrs but did not see you at WGA, SAG, DGA, PGA, or other events.

    Reply
  9. Alexander Nalle

     /  April 13, 2013

    Lucian Truscott IV
    Great story about the gals/daughters of Army officers that you dated. It was my father’s great good fortune to have served with Third Division (2Bn, 30th Infantry) from Casa Blance (actually, Fedala) through Sicily and Anzio under General Truscott.
    Your story rang a bell on many matters involving the “old Army”. We lived on Austin Loop at Fort Benning for the last year of the war while my dad taught at the Infantry School. What wonderful fortune I had to be exposed to great field officers, friends of my dad.
    Thanks for your skillful writing.
    Alexander Nalle

    Reply
  10. Great writing…I found your blog through the NY Times piece on filling in as a last-minute prom date.

    Reply

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