Thursday, May 31, 2012

A notable absence

In July 1945 Staff Sergeant Jerry Salinger checked himself into a hospital in Nürnberg. He knew he was depressed and needed help and rest. Jerry was a writer as well as soldier. He wrote The Catcher in the Rye. Toward the end of his stay in the hospital, Jerry wrote a letter to Ernest Hemingway.
In the letter, Jerry noted with jest that “…there’s a notable absence of Catherine Barkleys”; a reference to Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms. It’s an interesting one-page letter from one writer to another.
Jerry met Ernest twice during the war. After the liberation of Paris, Jerry snuck into the city and found Ernest at the Hôtel Ritz. Later he found Hemingway in the Hürtgen Forest during that bloody battle. They became friends but not close ones. Jerry was in his mid 20s, Hemingway twenty years older.
In a way, Salinger took his character Holden Caulfield to war. He had written a few short stories before the war featuring Holden and wrote a few more during his stint as a counter-intelligence specialist. Salinger’s job involved interrogating prisoners, asking questions.
I read Jerry’s letter to Ernest for the first time right before Memorial Day. It made me think of our service and now contracted people who fight and return. It made me think of their individual notable absences from life. They feel different. I did. I cannot fully comprehend their absence, though as it is their own.
Salinger emerged from the war a writer. He wrote. He secluded himself well in later years. He reminds me of my Dad who shut himself away from everyone for the last 20 years of his life in a little house by the sea.
Depression now has an acronym: PTSD. Jerry probably had it. So did Dad. A great psychiatrist said I have it, reminding me it sticks around. One needs to be absent at times, but I think it helps to be present for the majority of time. Soldiers understand that “present for duty” term well and know it means more than taking up a space in a formation. When it’s time for them to “fallout” it’s good to hang around.
I hope there are young Jerrys and Janes out there who write and share characters they packed in their rucksacks and sea bags while on campaign over the last decade. I hope they can they stay present as best they can and know when to be absent too when they need that space.

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