At daybreak on friday, november 1, 1918 — all saints' day — the American Expeditionary Force in France launched its final offensive of World War I, sending a huge wedge of fifty-six thousand doughboys to break the back of Erich Ludendorff's last-ditch defenses on the west bank of the Meuse River. At the point of the wedge crouched its spearhead, the Fifth Marines. After five days of waiting in the wilderness of the Forêt d'Argonne, cloaked and soaked in a blinding fog, the leathernecks sprang forward behind a creeping artillery barrage and quickly overran the main trench line on the heights overlooking the Meuse. The Germans fled; their scribbly ditches caved in; apart from stolid machine gunners, who kept their murderous barrels hot to the end, the enemy soldiers became a disorderly mob of refugees. The army commander of the AEF drive, Major General C. P. Summerall, USA, praised the Marines' “brilliant advance,” which had succeeded in “destroying the last stronghold in the Hindenburg Line.” He called it “one of the most remarkable achievements made by any troops in this war. … These results must be attributed to the great dash and speed of the troops, and to the irresistible force with which they struck and overcame the enemy.” “Nothing,” crowed the New York Times, “could stop our gallant Devil Dogs.”
That was not entirely true. It never is. Generals and war correspondents are preoccupied with the seizure of objectives, but attacking troops, however victorious, take casualties, individual fighting men who are, in fact, stopped in their tracks. One of the Fifth Marines who fell in no-man's-land that morning was a twenty-two-year-old runner, Lance Corporal William Manchester of Attleboro, Massachusetts, the father of this writer. Lance Corporal Manchester had survived the drives on Soissons and the Saint-Mihiel salient, but this was his unlucky day.
Before dawn he and the rest of his company had stealthily crawled out of their trenches, advanced a thousand yards, and lain down in the mud. Then flares had burst overhead, opening the battle. In a letter dictated to a nurse, Manchester wrote his mother afterward: “At 6:30 A.M.we started, and believe me we had some barrage. … But the Heinies were chucking over a few themselves, and it was the worst they had — overhead shrapnel. We had advanced about two miles when one busted that had my initials on it. I say initials because it had a chap's name on it that was about ten feet away. He was killed instantly. The first that I realized I had been hit was when my arm grew numb and my shoulder began to ache. One piece went through the shoulder, just missing the shoulder blade. Another went in about 4½ inches below the other, but by some miracle missed my lung. The two wounds together are about eight inches long. The bones were missed but the cords and nerves were cut connecting with my hand.” Later, in what he called a “left handed puzzle,” he told his family that he would soon be sent “to a nerve hospital in Washington D.C. and have another operation. … The operation will be a very slight one for the purpose of tying the nerves when they were out of my shoulder.”
William Manchester, Sr., Fifth Marines, at age twenty-two, in 1919
Like many another casualty trying to spare his parents, he was putting a bright face on what was in reality a desperate business. Indeed, his entire Marine Corps career, beginning with his enlistment in Boston, had been a compendium of American military incompetence. He had spent less than four weeks as a recruit on Parris Island, the Corps' boot camp, and most of that had been occupied building a road. Somehow he had qualified as a sharpshooter with the Springfield 1903 rifle; otherwise he was untrained and unprepared for the fighting in France. Then his voyage across the Atlantic was interrupted when his troopship, the U.S.S. Henderson, caught fire three days out of New York; leaving all his personal possessions behind, he was transferred to the U.S.S. Von Steuben. As a replacement at Soissons and in the salient he learned something of combat on the job, but he still lacked the animal instincts of the veteran. His worst experience of official ineptitude, however, came after his November 1 wound. It was grave but not mortal; nevertheless, the surgeon at a casualty clearing station, following the French triage principle — concentrating on casualties who could be saved and abandoning those who couldn't — judged his case to be hopeless. Appropriately, on November 2, All Souls' Day, the Day of the Dead, his litter was carried into a tent known as the “moribund ward”; that is, reserved for the doomed. Gangrene had set in. He was left to die.
He lay there in his blood and corrupt flesh for five days, unattended, his death certificate already signed. Three civilians passed through the tent, representing the Knights of Columbus, the Red Cross, and the Salvation Army. The first, distributing cigarettes and candy, saw the Masonic ring on his left hand and skipped his cot. The Red Cross man tried to sell him — yes, sell him — a pack of cigarettes; Manchester had no money, so he got nothing. This outrageous exploitation of casualties was common in World War I. YMCA men were cigarette salesmen, too, though they had an excuse; at the request of the War Department, they were acting as agents of the army commissary, and the AEF gave nothing away to fighting men who had been so negligent as to get wounded. But millions of Americans had contributed to the Red Cross to ease the lot of the soldiers, and the conduct of some of its agents in hospitals behind the lines was nothing short of criminal. It was the Salvation Army man who finally gave the penniless, suffering lance corporal two packs of Lucky Strikes and tried to cheer him up. As long as he lived, Manchester reached for coins when he passed a Salvation Army tambourine. But he never forgave the Red Cross. Long after his death, his eldest son and namesake, lying in a Saipan hospital, was lent ten dollars by the Red Cross and given specific instruction on how it should be repaid. The son repaid none of it. He felt he owed this default to his father.
On the sixth day in the Argonne a team of navy medical corpsmen, carrying out the dead, found that Lance Corporal Manchester was still alive. They expressed astonishment; much vexed, he testily replied that he had no intention of dying and wanted to be removed from this canvas charnel house. But by now there was no chance of saving his right arm. Although amputation proved to be unnecessary, the limb would be almost useless, a rigid length of bone scarcely covered by flesh, with a claw of clenched fingers at the end. The hole through his shoulder, surrounded by hideous scar tissue, could never be closed.
Transferred to an evacuation hospital and then a base hospital, he was carried aboard the transport Princess Matoika in the first week of February 1919, and carried off it in Newport News, Virginia, on February 12. That same day he was admitted to the Norfolk naval hospital. On April 11 a physician noted that “there is complete paralysis and atrophy of the muscles of the right forearm.” On May 30 the Marine Corps reduced him to his precombat rank of private and discharged him as No. 145404, “unfit for service.” Note was made that his eyes were blue, his hair light brown, his vision 20/20, and his height 68 and 3/4 inches. His weight was unmentioned; he had hardly any. Because his signature bore no resemblance to that on his enlistment papers, he had to make his mark, X, like an illiterate. Regulations also required that he impress upon his discharge certificate the prints of his right fingers. That being impossible, he had to write awkwardly: “My right hand is paralyzed because of wound received in France, and therefore I cannot make plain fingerprints, so I am using my left hand for this.” In a typical touch of Corps gracelessness, his papers carried the final comment: “Not thought likely to become a public charge.”
The small but plucky Manchester clan is one of New England's oldest, though certainly not richest, families. Thomas Manchester arrived from Yorkshire, England, in 1638, and three generations later, on August 16, 1723, in Little Compton, Rhode Island, Benjamin Manchester married Martha Seabury, a great-granddaughter of John Alden and Priscilla Mullens, who, as every schoolchild knows, told her future husband to “speak for yourself” when he came to speak for Myles Standish. Thereafter candor became a family trait, together with piety, belief in the Protestant work ethic, and a powerful sense of sin. Over the next two centuries the tribe produced a score of clergymen, historians, and educators. During the Revolutionary War eighteen Manchesters served under George Washington, including two William Manchesters. In the early 1800s the bloodline took to the sea. Its most extraordinary skipper was Amos Manchester, who plied the China trade, walked across Russia on a bet, amassed eighty thousand dollars in 1810, lost it all in a swindle, and wound up digging clams for a living in Bristol, Rhode Island.
Gambling was a family weakness and eventually its undoing. Between them, Richard and his brother Seabury Manchester, grandfather of the World War I Marine and therefore my great-grandfather, owned two stagecoach routes, most of what is now downtown Attleboro, Massachusetts, and a stable of racing horses. They were fascinated by cockfights, however, and they lost their shirts as a result; Seabury's son Raymond inherited nothing. With Raymond the family touched bottom. He was a tubercular manual laborer at the Attleboro railroad depot. Entering this world during the Franco-Prussian War and leaving it during World War II, he spent most of his life putting away a fifth of Scotch a day and warring with his wife, Mary Logan Manchester. He never had a chance against Mary. No one did, not even the Pope. She was one of ten Roman Catholic sisters who emigrated from Ireland during the potato famines. After reading a tract by Mary Baker Eddy, she became a Christian Scientist, never saw a doctor, and buried all her sisters. She lived to be ninety-nine. At the age of ninety-five she was found shingling the roof of her farmhouse. A little Irish blood, like Irish whiskey, goes a long way; her drive was the saving of the family. She passed it along to her four sons, the third of whom was the Argonne casualty.
But — there are always buts when you deal with the Irish — there was another side to her. Today she would be a radical feminist, an executive in a large firm. Caged in the Victorian concept of what a wife should be, she expressed her hostility in attacks on her husband and in what my father described as the worst cooking in New England. He never complained about Marine Corps chow. It was the best he had ever had. Moreover, though she rejected her sisters' religion, Mary didn't reject them; after his graduation from high school in 1914 she hadn't permitted my father to work his way through Brown because every cent he made was sent to the other Logan girls. He was heartbroken. Brown wanted him, if only because he had been a second baseman at Attleboro High and had won an “A” as a star halfback. Instead, he became a costume jewelry salesman for the Watson Company. On his return home in 1919 his former employers took one look at his arm and suggested that he try another line of work. He did: taking advantage of veterans' preference for civil servants, he became a state social worker, and, ultimately, one of Massachusetts' leading advocates of birth control. That may have been his mother's influence. Possibly it may also be traced to the Knight of Columbus in that ghastly tent. At all events, his name was frequently denounced at Catholic masses across the state. Both his sons became enthusiastic users of contraceptives and are vigorous advocates of Planned Parenthood today.
My father's attitude toward the Marine Corps was highly ambivalent. He was sensitive about his handicap — God help the stranger who tried to give him a hand with his overcoat — and though he rarely discussed what had happened in France, he saw through the Corps scam. He didn't want me to join up if another war broke out. At the same time, he was proud to have been a leatherneck himself. My earliest memories are of Memorial Day parades, with him in his dress blues leading the procession. (I didn't notice that they always marched through the cemetery.) He taught me the “Marines' Hymn,” the idiom — scuttlebutt, pogey bait, slopchute, skivvies — and the discipline: each week I stood at attention while he gave my bedroom a white-gloves inspection. But my admiration for the military mystique had another strong root. Just as Jesus was Jewish only on his mother's side, I was Yankee only on my father's. As a boy I frequently played the “Marines' Hymn” on my harmonica, but I played another tune more often. It was “Dixie.”
During his hospitalization in Norfolk, my father and other wounded men from France were visited by young women whose paths they would never have crossed under other circumstances. These were the heavily chaperoned daughters of the Virginia aristocracy. Among them was Sallie Elizabeth Rombough Thompson, a shy, beautiful twenty-year-old girl whose father, a Norfolk cotton broker, was a nephew of Stonewall Jackson, and whose mother was a Wilkinson, one of the Wilkinsons, who, on May 11, 1862, as a three-week-old infant, had been moved out of her home on Duke Street because a Union major on the staff of General George B. McClellan wanted to use it as his headquarters. The location of the mansion was a strategic asset; two months earlier the babe's Great Aunt Phoebe had watched from her bedroom window as the C.S.S. Virginia, née Merrimack, steamed out to battle the U.S.S. Monitor eleven miles northwest of the residence, in Hampton Roads, off Fort Monroe. It was the highlight of Phoebe's life. The family and everyone they knew were totally engrossed in the war, and later legions of Confederate widows would pass along their fervor, and their bitterness, to their children, their children's children, and, in my case, to their children's children's children's children. A half-century after Appomattox my mother would wear black on Confederate Memorial Day, study Washburn's incredibly biased History of Virginia in class, and stand while her headmistress led the school's singing of the stirring “Sword of Lee” (“Forth from its scabbard, pure and bright, flashed the sword of Lee …”). J. E. B. Stuart had died at Yellow Tavern in 1864, but his young widow lived into the twentieth century and taught my mother at Sunday school, not confining herself to the Scriptures; she loved to describe her husband's spectacular raid around the entire Union army in the fall of 1861. She and the rest of the Virginia Establishment regarded McClellan's occupation of Norfolk as particularly scurrilous and “ungentlemanly” — the ultimate transgression — because he had, they told one another, taken advantage of the absence of Norfolk's men. Every Wilkinson, every Jackson, every cousin, including some in their fifties, were away fighting under Lee in three Virginia regiments and the Dinwiddie Grays. Their ranks were decimated, and their women plunged into lifelong grief, when Pickett's heroic charge failed. On the night of July 3, 1863, that last terrible day at Gettysburg, my grandmother's Aunt Margaret Wilkinson, accompanied by a slave holding a lamp aloft, combed the battlefield, turning over corpses, searching for her husband, John. She found him alive, but he died after the amputation of his arm. His comrades were stricken; they had left him for dead. Respice, adspice, prospice. It happened at Gettysburg, it happened in the Argonne, and it would happen again, to Aunt Margaret's great-great-nephew, first in childhood and then on a remote Pacific beachhead of which he, and his parents, for that matter, had never heard.
Like Douglas MacArthur, whose grandfather, father, brother, and son were all christened Arthur MacArthur, my family's Christian names are somewhat confusing. My brother, Robert, practices law with another attorney who is named Robert Manchester. Until my father's death I was “Billa,” or, more formally, “William Manchester, Jr.” I hated that — I have always regarded “Jr.” as a sly boast of legitimacy — and throughout my early life I was mortified by people telephoning our house who had to be asked whether they wanted “Big Bill” or “Little Bill.” Similarly, both my mother and her mother (who, once the hated Yankees had left, returned to her Duke Street home and matured into a stately woman, always dressed like Queen Mary, toque hat and all) were called Sallie. The daughter was “Baby Sallie,” but after her marriage that became absurd, and introductions were often awkward. I called my grandmother “Nanny,” which increased the confusion when we were in Virginia because there I was turned over to a real nanny.
The Union officer who had liberated the first Sallie's birthplace felt remorseful later and appeared at the threshold of a nearby family mansion to which the Wilkinson women had moved, bringing with him a bowl of fresh strawberries. A maid consulted her mistress and returned to tell him what he could do with his strawberries. His anxiety to make amends was more expedient than generous, for he had found that he had offended a family whose power reached north of the Mason-Dixon line, and who, had they deigned to use it, could have given him problems. Unlike most of the South's great families, they were not left destitute when their Cause was Lost. They had forfeited a lot, especially blood, but a great deal was left. My grandmother Sallie attended a finishing school where only French was spoken, and she spent each year's social season in Manhattan with her Aunt Mattie, whose husband had a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. After her wedding the Thompsons and their children occupied a front-row pew in Saint Andrew's, Norfolk's fashionable Episcopalian church, with a polished brass plaque on the little swinging door to remind others that Thompsons, and nobody else, were entitled to pray this close to God. Given the sad estate into which the Manchesters had fallen, and the fact that Baby Sallie's fiancé was a Yankee, she would obviously be marrying Down. She didn't look at it that way, however; neither did he; and neither, once they had met the prospective groom, did her relatives. Whatever the Watson Company thought, to Southerners a wound was a badge of honor. And my father was handsome, tactful, and charming. He was an instant success in Norfolk society. On Flag Day, June 14, 1921, he and my mother were wedded in the bride's family's summer home on Willoughby Beach, Virginia, by two Episcopalian priests, from Saint Andrew's Church and the Church of the Advent in Ocean View. Their marriage became the happiest I have ever known.
I may have startled them. For once in my life I was prompt, arriving nine months, two weeks, and four days after they left the altar. True to the tradition of both families, I held my first deathbed scene just eleven months later. On the bleakest day of February 1923, in a cold Attleboro flat, I came within a breath of death from double pneumonia. The doctor — they all made house calls in those days — departed under the impression that I was gone, and my mother, in whose arms I lay, saw my eyes capsize until only the whites were visible. My throat actually began to rattle. Then I shuddered, stifling the rattle, and my eyes rolled back. The resummoned physician darted back into the room and reexamined me. No doubt about it, he said with astonishment; I was still on this side of the river. But little Bill remained a feeble Bill. A more hospitable climate was necessary, so each winter we boarded the Norfolk boat in Providence, Rhode Island, returning to Massachusetts in the spring.
Thus I grew to be a mild, fragile boy. “He's like Ed,” said Grandma Manchester, referring to an ectomorphic uncle. As a Christian Scientist Grandma frowned on the doctors in my life. When I was prostrate with whooping cough, she kept telling me, “It's all in your mind, Billa.” Then she caught it from me and I hung over her bed, saying, “It's all in your mind, Grandma,” until, with a sickly smile, she agreed and struggled to her feet. But despite her disapproval of physicians, I was too delicate to forgo them. And this had powerful implications for my emerging character. My physical problems led to social problems. Recently an old friend of the family wrote one of my aunts: “What an unusual childhood Bill had. I remember Billa going to Farmers School. … Sallie brought Billa up very, very polite, real Southern — not blunt like the Yankees of the north. The big boys of Feather-ville” — a tough neighborhood — “just did not mean to give Billa any peace.”
My incapacity for violence became a family issue. Both my father and my grandfather had spent their grammar-school years in the three-room Farmers School. In addition, I was the son of a Marine; it was inconceivable that I should be a sissy. Yet I was. “Hit back,” my father sternly told me. “Never forget that you are a Manchester.” But my mother said, “Always remember that you are a gentleman,” and I couldn't reconcile the two, thereby failing Scott Fitzgerald's test of a first-rate intelligence: “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Civility triumphed. Swapping punches made no sense to me. I simply couldn't see the point of inflicting pain on another boy. Word of my vulnerability circulated swiftly, and was passed around just as quickly when we moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, in my eighth year. My father's pension was small; he was becoming a pioneer in social work and, like most pioneers, he was poorly paid; in the late 1920s and early 1930s we lived in some tough neighborhoods. The Springfield equivalents of Featherville were the Columbus Avenue gang, the Acushnet School gang, and the Plumtree Road gang. Any member of any of them who had lost face knew he could regain it by giving me a bloody nose.
It would be good to report that I accepted this punishment stoically, but I didn't. Somebody was always “after” me; I was in a state of more or less continual terror, a fugitive from punishments I did not understand. What I couldn't grasp was that it was my refusal to hit back which enraged them, not my physical frailty. I was a milksop, but other milksops escaped unscarred. My difficulty was that my tormentors knew that, despite my fear, I was too proud to solicit their good opinion. Yet they never gave up. Two of them I remember vividly. The first bore the Dickensian name of Art Loosemore; he was the first to knee me in the groin. The other persecutor also evokes pelvic memories, though of a very different nature. To inflict the ultimate humiliation upon me, one gang decided to let a girl beat me up. Her name was Betty Zimmerman. At eleven she already had the build of a bull dike. Flattening me with a single blow, she straddled me in what Masters and Johnson call the female-superior position, swatting away until she had given me two shiners. I recall with amazement that I felt aroused. I was glad when she stopped pummeling me, but I missed her toiling loins. It wasn't masochism. Already I had the libido of a flaming heterosexual and not, as one might expect, given my temperament, the other.
But I knew that I was different from other boys: skinny, lacking coordination or small-muscle skills, inept with marbles, easily found in relievo, and a flop on sandlots — after the captains of two teams had picked the rest of the players, they had to choose up all over again, to determine which side would be burdened with me. During luncheon recess we would all sit on the school steps, and the others would vie in identifying the makers or models of passing cars. I couldn't tell a Packard from a Ford; I still can't. I simply didn't fit. I didn't even like popular songs, because I felt that the lyrics insulted my intelligence. Later, as an adult, my strong sense of individuality would be an advantage, but in my early years it was a heavy cross to bear. The chasm between me and my peers was revealed one day when I asked a boy if he knew the last words of Stonewall Jackson. “He didn't say nothing,” the boy replied. “It was some kid who said, ‘Say it ain't so, Joe.’” He thought Stonewall Jackson had played center field for the 1919 Chicago White Sox.
By the time I reached my teens, I had found a way to thwart bullies, striking up a friendship with a strong boy who shared my curiosity about the world beyond Springfield. Meanwhile, however, I had retreated from the playground to the library, from camaraderie to introspection and the written language. My mother has doggerel I scribbled at the age of seven. At eleven I was typing short stories, derivative of Poe, on the Underwood my father used for case reports, and I cannot remember a time in my life, excepting combat, when I was not deep in a book. In our bookcases at home, brought from Virginia, and in the Forest Park branch of the Springfield Public Library, I was introduced to writers rarely known to young boys: Ruskin, Macaulay, Thomas Huxley, Matthew Arnold, and those touchstones of every intellectual son of New England, Thoreau on civil disobedience and Emerson on forbearance and self-reliance. Of course, their concepts were beyond me, as, later, I would founder over Joyce and Pound. These writers attracted me, and delighted me, by the skill with which they used the language. Their reasoning eluded me, but I learned style from them long before the public school system apprenticed me to Howells and Hawthorne.
The Ruskins and the Macaulays were the cream of an odd crop. I also devoured Wyss's Swiss Family Robinson, Treasure Island, The Little Colonel, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, Swift on Gulliver, Lamb on roast pig, Tom, the Water Baby, a translation of Malory's Morte d' Arthur, and, on a descending scale, William Ernest Henley, Sir Henry Newbolt, G. A. Henty, Franklin W. Dixon, Burt L. Standish, Edward Stratemeyer, and Horatio Alger, Jr. My appetite for juvenile junk was enormous. One summer on Cape Cod I read twenty Frank and Dick Merriwells in less than a week. But a pattern was forming; I was being drawn to Victorian authors and those who followed the Victorian mode. (I was a throwback in other ways; I scorned saddle shoes and reversible raincoats and loathed Swing.) This slanting toward the last century was most striking, and most significant, in books about war. Here I passed Scott Fitzgerald's test. My vision of martial splendor, both ours and that of our allies, could withstand all threats of disillusionment; I was transported by dreams of leathernecks sweeping all before them, and the glint of moonlight on the sabers of French cavalry, and British squares standing firm with the Gatling jammed and the colonel dead. It wasn't difficult. Millions had done it before me. Their equivocal view of battle can be summed up in a single word. At Waterloo Pierre Cambronne commanded Napoleon's Imperial Guard. When all was lost, a British officer asked him to lay down his arms. Generations of schoolboys have been taught that he replied: “The Guard dies, but never surrenders.” Actually he said: “Merde!” (“Shit!”) The French know this; a euphemism for merde is called “the word of Cambronne.” Yet children are still told that he said what they know he did not say. So it was with me. I read Kipling, not Hemingway; Rupert Brooke, not Wilfred Owen; Gone with the Wind, not Ambrose Bierce and Stephen Crane.
The pacifism of the 1930s maddened me. I yearned for valor; I wanted the likes of Lee and the Little Colonel to be proud of me. To show my contempt for the Yankees, I fashioned a homemade Stars and Bars from a sheet and watercolors, and sneeringly flaunted it at school recess. My classmates were confused; they didn't know what it was. Once my mother had screwed up her courage and told her father-in-law that she supposed his father had fought her grandfathers. Grandpa sat in confused silence for a while; when drunk, he always looked extremely puzzled. Then he realized that he had been insulted. He raised his chin and gave her a stare of hauteur. “Manchesters,” he said, “sent substitutes.” My mother didn't know what he was talking about. Luckily for my hide, I was experiencing a similar failure of communications. It was ludicrous. Here was a ninety-eight-pound weakling, an unsuccessful Charles Atlas client whom even Betty Zimmerman could beat the shit out of, dreaming of glory under banners furled long ago in dusty attics. Most of the rest of my generation believed in appeasement, at least when it came to war, but I was an out-and-out warmonger, a chauvinist dying for the chance to die. As it happened, my daydreams were translated into reality by the emergence of a wicked genius bearing a black Swastika, a Teutonic monster unmatched in all the books I read, who could be destroyed only on the battlefield. Long afterward I flattered myself that I had been prescient, that like Churchill I had seen the gathering storm. It is true that I wept over Nanking and Munich, and that, once I had learned a little German, I rose early to rage at Hitler's wild speeches. But the fact is that I was really an eager Saint George looking for a dragon. I'm not sure that, or something like that, wasn't true of Churchill, too.
Henry V was naturally my idol, and here we skirt one of the central events of my life: my discovery of Shakespeare. I was now fifteen. For years I had been plagued by a vocabulary of words I could understand but not pronounce because I had never heard them spoken. “Anchor” had come out “an-chore,” “colonel” as “ko-low-nall,” and I had put the accent on the third syllable of “diáspora.” But I could no longer ignore diacritical marks in dictionaries; Shakespeare cried to be read aloud. And as I did so I was stunned by his absolute mastery. In Johnson's secondhand bookstore in Springfield I found a forty-volume set of his works, with only Macbeth missing, for four dollars. I knew where I could get a Macbeth for a dime, so I paid a dollar to hold the set, and returned with the rest two months later. I have it yet, tattered and yellowing. It was the best bargain of my life.
I memorized the role of Hamlet, then Marc Anthony in Julius Caesar, and then long soliloquies from Macbeth, Lear, Othello, and Romeo and Juliet. In high school I produced, directed, and starred in Hamlet and, looking like a minstrel-show end man, in Othello. My stage career ended in 1938, when the Smith Club of Springfield brought Orson Welles to the Municipal Auditorium. This was a few weeks after his Martian broadcast. The place was jammed. But after sneaking into countless concerts, I knew every room in the building, including the one where Welles would rest during the intermission between his lecture and his readings. I appeared on the threshold, immaculate in my double-breasted blue-serge suit. “Mr. Welles,” I said in my reedy adolescent voice. He looked up from his text. I piped, “I am the president of the Springfield Classical High School Dramatic Club.” His eyes bulged. His jaw sagged. In a hollow voice he gasped: “No!”
My father had taken a lively interest in my stage career, though he had vetoed my plan to enter the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. “Actors are bums,” he said, and that was the end of that. He was determined to save me from debauchery. To New Englanders of his stock, the worst blow that could fall on a youth was acquiring “a Record,” that is, a police record; it was as great a stigma as Jean Valjean's yellow passport. (I took a different view. Later, in college, when I was arrested for being drunk and disorderly on the Amherst green and fined ten dollars, I passed the hat at my fraternity and never gave the matter another thought.) One day when I was about fifteen I was one of several boys lolling on a lawn like Restoration rakes with two girls who were notorious for going, as we put it, all the way. We were playing “under the sheet,” adding that phrase to song titles and thus giving them giggly double entendres. A nosey Parker looked out her window, saw our orgy, and called my father, who fetched me home and clouted me. Shortly afterward I heard about masturbation and asked him for the real lowdown on it. He gave me the old malarkey about brain damage and how he had never done it, hadn't even heard about it until a sex hygiene lecture in the Marine Corps. Then he gave me the keeping-yourself-pure spiel and explained the facts of life. I bought it all; I tried hard (and unsuccessfully) to follow his advice and think pure thoughts. He had assumed that I would. Somehow he kept his faith in me, affectionately calling me “Bozo” and always looking for sources of pride there, just as I was trying to please him. His favorite song was “I'm Always Chasing Rainbows.” He was of that generation that believed in the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow — my generation knows that if it's there, it belongs to the government — and he believed that if I shaped up I could lick the world.
Yet I was a discouraging son. He didn't really expect much of me: just that I be a normal American boy, fleet of foot, handy with a mitt and a bat, a tinkerer who could fix things like warped storm doors, defective lawn mowers, light switches, and running toilets. I could do none of these. On one memorable July 4 I dropped a whole bag of “torpedoes,” fireworks which exploded upon impact, on my feet, and had to be rushed to the hospital. The following year I picked up a live sparkler from the wrong end. Given my love of prose, I should have at least been a good student. I wasn't; lessons bored me. I preferred books which teachers didn't assign or, in most cases, hadn't even read. Once I brought home a report card with three D's. Seeing my father's disappointment and then feeling it — he believed in corporal punishment for that, too — I finished the next marking period with straight A's, which, as he rightly pointed out, proved that I could do it. Then I failed shop, which was considered impossible. We were all building little short-legged, hinged tables for people who breakfasted in bed. The instructor turned the legs for me on a lathe. All I had to do was drive the nails straight. I couldn't do it, not once. My father took one look at my efforts and groaned, like the Giant Despair in Pilgrim's Progress.
My one success in his eyes, and I did it for him, was in Scouting. I became a junior assistant scoutmaster and an eagle scout. In a formal ceremony I pinned a little silver eagle on my mother's dress and my father pinned my badge on me with his one hand. Our picture was in the papers. I have it still, and looking at it I can see only that hand. He could do almost anything with it, even build a cold room and a fruit cellar, and I, with my two hands, could do so little.
At the dinner table my mother always cut his meat into small pieces. It was his only concession to his handicap. He gardened, painted, and defeated me with effortless ease in Ping-Pong and horseshoe pitching. No one could beat him at anything. He was direct, forceful, incapable of compromise. Once a landlord flirted with my mother and sent her flowers. My father came home, took the flowers back to the landlord, and crammed them down his throat. Later, thanks to a small inheritance from one of his Manchester aunts, he made a down payment on a suburban home. The local Communist party decided to picket it. They wanted to see the public welfare rolls, a likely source of future party members. My father had decided that those unfortunate enough to be on relief should not be embarrassed and exploited; their names would be kept in confidence. Compared with what was to come thirty years later, the Communist demonstration was almost charming. (One placard read: “Mr. Manchester, servant of the people, does not serve the people.”) But on the first — and last — evening, they boasted to reporters and neighbors that we were cowering in our darkened house. As they were about to break up, our Chevy turned in to the driveway. My father had taken us to Sam's Diner and then to a Jeanette MacDonald–Nelson Eddy double feature.
He was such a beautiful man, with such a beautiful rainbow of a laugh. Later as a newspaperman I came to know many world figures, from Churchill and Eisenhower to Stevenson and the Kennedys. I never met a man with more charisma than my father. He ruled us like a pasha. Yet in retrospect I wish he had been a shade less competent. He was the only member of the family who knew how to drive a car, or write a check, or negotiate a loan. Inexplicably he had permitted half of his national serviceman's insurance to lapse; only five thousand dollars of it, and the shrinking equity in our home, seemed to stand between us and eligibility for those same relief rolls should he die. And he was dying. He suffered from migraines, ulcers, hypertension, and most of all from the wounds of 1918, which had never really healed. One frightening evening he was carried, bleeding internally, out of the house, to an ambulance, and thereafter he was in and out of Springfield Hospital and veterans' hospitals.
The end approached as World War II approached, but I knew far more about what the Germans were doing than what was happening to the man who supported my mother, my four-year-old brother, and me. I stood by his bed for the last time on Sunday, January 19, 1941. He knew he had only a few days to live, but the possibility that he might cease to exist never entered my mind. Mute and uncomprehending, I kissed him upon the lips, held his good hand while he said that I was a genius (that being a common excuse for daffiness then) and reminded me once more that I was a Manchester (with all that that entailed). But his strongest message was unspoken. His eyes said: Avenge me!
I was eighteen by the calendar, fourteen or less in knowledge of the world. He hadn't even permitted me to apply for part-time employment, because he said I would be taking jobs from the poor. Somehow I had reached the extraordinary conclusion that we were rich. Actually I knew nothing about money; I had heard, in the course of one conversation between my parents, that our house was worth either eighty-five thousand dollars or eighty-five hundred, I didn't know which; to me the second figure, which was correct, was essentially no different from the other. So, in the autumn of 1940, I had left for Massachusetts State College in Amherst, cocky in my newfound masculinity and increasingly sure of my flair for the language. During the Christmas vacation I had rattled away on my typewriter, aware that my father lay ill in the hospital but kept in ignorance of what the doctors had told my mother: that it was a matter of time, and of very little time, before he left us. I returned to Amherst for the end of my first semester. In the middle of final exams the call came from an uncle: “Your dad has passed away.” He was forty-four years old.
I remember the funeral. It was savagely cold, an iron cold; the ground had to be jackhammered open to receive the coffin. A little sapling stood at the foot of it. Today it is a beautiful tree, and he lies in its lovely shade, but then it offered pitifully small protection from the weather. We were all shivering, then shaking. The others were weeping, but I just stared down at the grave. I wondered: Where has he gone? Then a curtain falls over my memory. It is all a dark place in my mind. I recall nothing that happened in the next four months. It was my first experience of traumatic amnesia, or fugue. I was in deep shock. My mother later told me how helpful I was in selling the car and house, in moving us to a tenement and taking in a roomer. None of it has ever come back to me. Apparently I returned to college and completed the year. The dean's office has a record of my grades. I have looked at the textbooks I studied that semester. It is as though I were seeing them for the first time.
When I returned to conscious life I was working as a grease monkey in a machine shop at thirty-five cents an hour, eighty-four hours a week. If I made five hundred dollars between that job and another job in the college store — thirty cents an hour there — I could, with a scholarship, stay in school. My mother told me that whatever happened, I must not think of dropping out. I was dumbfounded. Such a thought had never crossed my mind. Like Chekhov's perennial student, I could imagine no life away from classes and books.
But the perennial student's cherry orchard came down, and my undergraduate years were abruptly interrupted on December 7, 1941. In the spring of 1942, guided by the compass that had been built into me, I hitchhiked to Springfield and presented myself at the Marine Corps recruiting station, a cramped second-story suite of rooms with a superb view of a Wrigley's billboard and the Paramount Theater parking lot. The first test was weight, and I flunked it. There wasn't enough of me. The sergeant, or “Walking John,” as the Corps called recruiting NCOs, suggested that I go out, eat all the bananas and drink all the milk I could hold, and then come back. I did. I made the weight. Immediately thereafter I was sick. My liver, colon, and lungs — all my interior plumbing — fused into a single hard knot and wedged in my epiglottis. The sergeant held my head over a basin as I threw up banana after banana, and he said, not unkindly, “Just keep puking till you feel something round and hairy-like coming up. Keep that. That's your asshole.” I recovered and continued with the exam. Meanwhile all that milk was working its way through my system. My back teeth were floating. At last the end was in sight. A pharmacist's mate nodded at a rack of twenty-four test tubes and told me to go over in the corner and give him a urine specimen. But once I started, I couldn't stop. I returned and handed him twenty-four test tubes, each filled to the brim with piss. He looked at the rack, looked at me, and then back at the rack again. An expression of utter awe crossed his face. It was the first misunderstanding between me and the Marine Corps. There would be others.