When not writing or sleeping, I’m sorting. On the prairie eliminating dust is hopeless, but I do try to organize mostly archived documents, using cardboard cat-food-case trays. In the process, of course, I make discoveries and that feeds the writing which means research and more disorder. Because of the Internet, I can involve others. When spelunking through catacombs, it’s wise to have others along as a matter of safety. When it becomes too dark, you reach for a hand -- hoping you will not find yourself holding a tentacle. This is not “a walk down memory lane” in that trivial, sentimental and offensive phrase. Hallucinations are the least of it. What one discovers is horror within -- one’s own monster-role. Plus a certain number of coprolites. Some familiar, some large enough to include human bones.
A friend from the past recently sent me seven fairy tales I had written in 1959 or so. They were meant to be fortune-telling in that free-associating way revealing things unknown. The first one was for myself and was written in the medieval stone-castle-constant-conflict style of “The Highlanders” or “Game of Thrones” -- that Scots hard, cold, grim reality, often with an uncanny overtone. The scene was high in a tower prison room where a wounded young man lay on a pile of straw and a woman came to nurse him. It don’t think it had an end.
The key is double. Obviously much of my child-thought was shaped by WWII because I was born in 1939. My aunt, Vera Pinkerton Hatfield, who was head of surgery nurses in Great Falls when war was declared, joined the WAC’s and served in Rheims and London. Far from being set free in the world, she returned to Roseburg, Oregon, where the Pinkertons and Hatfields lived. Over the years I’ve talked to army nurses from that era. One told me how she went to ready for surgery a young man on a stretcher with a blood-soaked towel wrapped over his head. When she removed it, he had no face. She stumbled out of the tent and puked behind it. The doc came out and said softly, “It will never be this bad again.”
Vera’s vulnerability was rooted in an adolescent Model A car accident in which her younger sister died, throat cut by the edge of the broken windshield. Vera was driving on a dark road where another car had stopped. No one blamed her. No one discussed it. For a year she dropped out of high school, then went back resolved to be a nurse.
She was close to my mother and trained at what is now OHSU in Portland. At the age in this picture of the two of us, I used to sneak into the linen closet and experiment with her nurse’s caps, stiffly starched and flat. I couldn’t get them to fold properly.
Vera’s younger sister, incorrigibly romantic and married to a brother Hatfield, always felt there was some kind of doomed romance during the war. Maybe there was. It wouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. So that brings me to the second significance of this fairy tale, for if there is anything linked to war it is sex, whether it is rape-as-weapon or Hemingway-style romance like “A Farewell to Arms.” During and after WWII there was a strong trope about sex-that-isn’t-sex, usually some transgressive rough character who is redeemed by a virtuous woman, a nurse or a nun.
All those long wards full of beds. All those basins of water. All those compresses for foreheads. I never could figure out what that last was for until I realized it was sort of a metaphor for cleaning out pus and maggots or for full body cold water sponging to reduce fever, just as the whole ceremonial process of nursing is a metaphor for honorable intimate love, bodily based, attentively gentle, but somehow pure. In the name of saving lives, men could even nurse women, undressing and bandaging them. (Dorothy Johnson explored this in “The Hanging Tree.”) The original gay AIDS generation nursed their lovers -- surely same-sex nursing and medics came before same-sex marriage. Even boys can be innocently loved by men if they are dying in the hospital and the men are doctors or chaplains. The taboos are not broken, but purified by compassion.
As it happens, several of my college fairy tales were written for gay men who were close friends of mine at the time (’57 - ‘61). No one said “gay” in those days. We didn’t talk about it. The stories were a way of conveying warmth without ever discussing all those Kinsey subjects or inviting unjustifed behavior. For a theatre major studying with Alvina Krause justification was paramount, so one did tread carefully. One pointed out what splendid physical training was provided by ballet lessons. One had grandiose plans for a fabulous career, but the focus was development of oneself as instrument and it was not helpful to get arrested or thrown out of school by the beady-eyed administration, who threw out even students who were in legal heterosexual marriages.
Sometimes such displacements and fantasizing become more fulfilling than the actuality, always a bit of a problem for theatre people. I was virginal until after college. In almost every sense. My entrances, emotional included, were guarded. I was in the wings, I provided costumes, I went on walk-and-talks and attended strange European movies, but I never got involved much with reality because I was writing in my head already. Watching, living vicariously because it was much safer, watching to keep my guard up against the constant evaluations. (My student teaching supervisor said, “You know, you really seem stupid until you talk.”) The result of this vigilance is that I remember so much -- everything but names. I was inevitably cast as a peasant or mother. Only a few knew that inside I was all Tennessee Williams, not because of desiring the same sex (Robert Mitchum definitely turned me on and he was NOT feminine!) but because of the numinous tumescent dreams. One friend called me Deborah Kerr. Theatre people are always casting the story.
At over seventy the tumescence remains, but the transcendence has taken some hits. Once reality is incarnate in flesh, the payback consequences become agonizing and lethal. One pukes behind the tent. That’s when the Scots part, cold and grim, is relevant. Now memory and vicarious participation are alive and warm, even as another Arctic front sweeps through the prairie. It’s snowing. I’m running a heater for my feet while I make the keyboard click.
The illustrations in this post are by Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin (Russian: Ива́н Я́ковлевич Били́бин; 16 August 1876 – 7 February 1942) who was a 20th-century illustrator and stage designer. His quite wonderful illustrations of folklore need more exposure.