Whatever it is: suffering, terror, days of exhaustion, the slow, bitter sorrow of the mutilated, whatever it is, it has burned away the brutality and the selfishness from the faces of the wounded. They seem very frail and vulnerable and touching; their eyes are soft and wide and steady, filled with wonder….”
by moritz thomsen
I am on a boat, loaded with wounded infantrymen and returning Air Corps combat men; our numbers are equally divided between those of us who will appear before families with a heroís medals, and those who will be quietly transported to an Army hospital.
Now, going home, separated once more from everyone you know and travelling with strangers to a country about which you have heard weird reports, there is no elation. This should be the end, but it is not. I had lived ahead into the future as far as that moment when I flew in combat against the enemy; everything I learned and thought was directed to that moment, and beyond that there was no future. War, the abstract conception of it, was to have been the ultimate goal of my generation, and therefore my final, my very final and absolute goal. That was where I ended.
“After the war,” I had said, making plans about the sort of life I figured to live, while actually in my mind there was no ìafter the war.î It was not exactly that death seemed certain but more that life would have lost most of its meaning, that I would so completely have fulfilled my function that everything else would be an anticlimax.
Now I am going home, and because this is something I have never seriously thought about, I feel slightly ridiculous. After the hero’s leave I report for duty again. How bloody awful, classes in bombsight theory, that day (usually Monday) when we all wear gas masks, the periodic lectures on the necessity for saluting, the necessity for acting like officers and not punching civilians, forging checks, stealing cars, and other ungentlemanly things. The future is grey and thin, and aside from vowing to return to combat I dismiss it.
The boat dips and rises gently in the swell of the mid-Atlantic, and we ride slowly in convoy beneath clear skies. The stars are bright tonight, bright as they never were in England. The dipper rides low on our starboard side on the rim of the black ocean.
Everyone is asleep except a few of the Air Corps officers on the upper deck who are playing poker, and the wounded who fill the staterooms of the three main decks. There are thirty boats in the convoy, empty tankers and transports filled with wounded, and almost everyone is sleeping now as the ships rise and fall and the timbers creak and the decks throb with the power of the engines.
Earlier, we had a show in “chaplain’s square.” When it was over most of the men were able to get to bed by themselves, but there were a few who had to be helped.
When you meet them in the hallways, three of them together with their arms around one another, it looks at first like they are happy drunkards staggering home unless you have noticed first the queer, empty space below the man in the middle who floats between the other two and whose folded pajamas dangle and sway as they walk.
We do not see the really bad ones; the really bad ones lie in their beds and have no inclination to wander up the hallways in their red hospital bathrobes, no inclination nor the ability. The nurses talk to us about them. “They just lie there,” the nurses say. “They don’t talk; they arenít interested in anything.” But those are the very worst of them, the ones whose faces are so horrible that they lack the courage to show themselves, the ones who have lost both arms or both legs, or those who lie in paralysis with their backs broken and the nerves dead. We do not see either those who are insane and whose rooms are locked behind doors of heavy wire screen.
The theater has a novel appearance, a little because everyone wears pajamas or bathrobes, but mostly because the objects who occupy the chairs are not fully human. Grouped together, a hundred of them massed together waiting for the show to start, they contain more mutilation and represent more suffering than it is possible to imagine. But nothing stands out, no individual at first stands out in this forest of plaster casts, or arms raised grotesquely encased in plaster like stunted branches on dying trees. Or the legs spread rigid with only the toes showing, the limbs cemented and unwieldy. Some of the men whose chests have been blown in are entirely encased in plaster, and they walk like knights in armor, lurching stiffly because of the strange and awful load they carry.
Down the hall someone will come walking slowly, staggering uncertainly. “Is there an empty seat?” he will ask, and then turn and go back with his hands against the wall when they tell him all the seats are taken, walking carefully but unequal to the pitching of the boat. “Why that son of a bitch is drunk.” “No, heís almost blind,” someone will explain who knows him, “and I don’t know why he likes the shows because he can’t see the screen.”
Before me sitting on the floor is a young boy whose nose has been shot off. A large square cotton dressing covers his face, and he sits there very quietly breathing through his mouth and staring at the empty screen. I have seen him before, always alone; he is not companionable. In the mornings he comes into the lounge and sits just underneath the radio. He turns his chair to the wall so we will not have to look at him, or perhaps so he will not have to see the involuntary moment of horror with which we answer his glance. He is well-built, slim and graceful; he walks with vigor and youth, but it is impossible to imagine what he once looked like.
Next to him is a boy who, in profile, seems untouched. But when he turns his head you can see that one eye has been mutilated. It pops out, an unimaginable horror, a huge white staring ball with only a tiny spot of the pupil left. The pupil is almost gone and juts out of the surface of the eyeball in a sharp point. He will not look you in the face, of course, but if ever there was a look which could accuse the world, the boy with the one eye who sits next to the boy with no nose possesses that look. He is about eighteen.
They reel and stumble as they come into “chaplainís square” to see the movie. From the deck below two men begin to climb the stairs. The one in front on crutches has lost a leg above the knee, and the soldier in back of him, one of his arms in a cast, moves up carefully and holds him when the motion of the boat threatens to throw him off balance. It is very funny to the boy in front that he should have so much trouble making the steps and that he should constantly be losing his balance, and all the time he is climbing the stairs he is laughing at his clumsiness until almost at the top the boat pitches him forward and the crutches fly out from him and he falls on the top step, falls on his face with the stump of his leg sticking out in the air. This strikes them both as hilarious, and the one in the plaster cast, convulsed in laughter, retrieves the crutches and they scuttle off down the hall like ants, the crutches and the legs moving in a fast, stiff rhythm, both of them weak with laughter.
It is hard to understand the expression of this boy who has lost a leg, because his face is so full of wonder and surprise as he moves his body. It is like the face of a child who sees a gyroscope for the first time and watches the impossible tricks it can perform.
Their wounds isolate them and set them apart, and it is not possible to look at them objectively. Actually I know that they are ordinary men, and that exploding eighty-eights select their victims with great impartiality, but there is something different about them. Unless the face has been torn, the jaw blown off, the eyes gone, or a mouth widened into an ever-open, gaping hole, there is no ugly wounded man. Their faces are good faces; it is hard to describe what I mean, since so few faces are bad in the first place, but in the faces of the casualties certain marks seem to have been erased. Whatever it is: suffering, terror, days of exhaustion, the slow, bitter sorrow of the mutilated, whatever it is, it has burned away the brutality and the selfishness from the faces of the wounded. They seem very frail and vulnerable and touching; their eyes are soft and wide and steady, filled with wonder. They are strange eyes for such young faces, for they are infinitely tired and empty of passion.
The cockiness is almost all gone; what is left is courage rather than the overflowing vigor and conceit of youth. There are the two friends squatting on the floor before me, both of them shell-shocked. One has lost his voice, and now after three months is just beginning to stammer out a few words; the other has lost control of his movements. All day long his head swings and jerks. Now, waiting for the show to start they sit together, and the boy who stutters says in a loud voice, “S-s-s-stop rocking the boat,” and the other boy grabs his head and holds it steady and everyone laughs.
There is little self-consciousness about their wounds, and because I am not wounded it seems a little strange.
After his discharge from the Eighth Air Force after World War II and before joining the Peace Corps in 1964, Moritz Thomsen spent 20 years as a farmer in Los Molinos, California, a small agricultural town near Chico and Red Bluff, in Tehama County. His first book, “Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle” was not published until 1969, but in 1959 and 1960 he wrote a column for his local weekly, the Los Molinos Sun. The paper was short-lived, but Thomsen saved clippings of his “Mill Run” column, as well as the notebook he used to write out his columns each week in longhand. The clippings and notebook, now in the possession of his niece, Rashani Rea, provide a fascinating glimpse into the life and thoughts of Moritz Thomsen, eleven years after his death in Ecuador in 1991. Smokebox has been granted permission by Rashani Rea to reprint selected “Mill Run” columns, seen here for the first time since they were published some 41 years ago. For more on Thomsen you can read Marc Covert’s excellent analysis of his published output in the 3 part Smokebox feature Howls From A Hungry Place.