I was a born devotee of nonviolence long before I’d ever heard of Gandhi. During my early childhood in the San Fernando Valley of California, I was always creeped out by my father’s pistol, a Luger, stored in a shoebox in a cabinet above the refrigerator. It wasn’t loaded, but it was big and sinister. “I took it off a German soldier,” he recited that cliché of warrior braggadocio.
I remember forcing out the words, hardly above a whisper. “Did you … did you kill him?”
For me, it was inconceivable that you could take someone’s life and not be haunted for the rest of your own life. How could you not dwell on the human being you’d snuffed out? A person with dreams and hopes for the future, someone with a mother, perhaps a sweetheart, studies to be pursued in Heidelberg?
But Dad just said, “Sure,” with a shrug.
Some background: My father fought in the Battle of the Bulge during the winter of 1944, where he was wounded, shot in the face while defending a tiny bridge over a babbling brook. As his story goes and, mind you, he was prone to whoppers, he was so bloodied and inert as he lay in the snow that the medics rejected him.
“He’s dead,” they mumbled.
Out of sheer rage, he stumbled up the hill, gripping the slushy ground with his rifle, to the tiny Belgian town of Petite-Langlir. Showing up alive got him noticed, in the right way this time: The Red Cross shipped him to the American Hospital in a newly liberated Paris.
He’d been blinded. The doctors said it could be temporary, could be permanent, they’d have to wait and see. In the meantime, they worked on rebuilding the nose he’d lost.
After a month in the hospital, he awoke to behold light streaming into the ward. He could see! He heard a racket outside, and hobbled across the room for a look. Beyond the window, he saw a gaggle of schoolgirls on bicycles, their long hair streaming behind them as they sang, “Sur le pont D’Avignon, on y danse, on y danse …”
Back in the States, he regrouped with my mother, a journalist from Chicago. Simultaneously with a few more facial surgeries, he returned to the U of Michigan to complete his master’s in English lit. Even with a scarred nose, he was tall, lanky, and dashing, in the way that movie stars of that era were dashing. I was born in the University Hospital in Ann Arbor.
Dad wanted to be a writer. We moved to San Juan Capistrano in California, where my sister was born. When showbiz called, we packed up for the San Fernando Valley. Dad’s first real writing plum was a documentary called “Race to the Stars.” A younger-than-young Mike Wallace narrated — it was his first star turn as well.
There seem to be two kinds of World War II soldiers: the strong, silent, and sullen category, and those who love to tell war stories. My dad was in the second group. At bedtime, forget the Grimm’s stuff and all the other fairy tales. We had a map of the world tacked to our bedroom wall, and Dad started us out with the Trojan War. By the time Achilles got speared in the heel, our brother Tommy was born. When Tommy could understand anything whatsoever, we all got an earful about Roman centurions, and who they conquered, and when.
In 1960, for a family gap year, we traveled in Europe. During the long rides in our tiny blue Borgward station wagon, we heard about Visigoths and Huns, then feudal fortresses, battering rams, and boiling oil poured over the ramparts. Next on deck were the the campaigns of Charlemagne, then the Crusades, and the Hundred Years’ War fought across the Rhone. Many hours were devoted to Napoleon, whom Dad considered an early-day Hitler.
We received an elite guided tour of the Normandy coastline, and the vast cemetery of American soldiers who’d died on Omaha Beach. And, of course, he took us on a pilgrimage to Petite-Langlir.
During the ’60s and back in the Valley, my sister and I argued with Dad about Vietnam for years over the dinner table. Sometimes he’d get so triggered, he’d send one or both of us to our rooms. Decades later I challenged him about this: How dare he misuse his parental prerogative to banish us for our peacenik positions? He looked surprised: “I didn’t banish you for your positions. I kicked you upstairs because you called me an assh***.”
At the same time, Dad had written, produced, and directed a documentary about the Battle of the Bulge, “The Brave Rifles.” Actor George Kennedy narrated, standing on one of the D-Day beaches of Normandy. The film was groundbreaking in its use of personal soliloquies, one of which Dad narrated himself. “Brave Rifles” aired on ABC, and received an Academy Award nomination for best documentary.
I was desperately embarrassed. “Holly’s dad makes war movies!” buddies guffawed after we’d all been tear-gassed at antiwar demonstrations.
Finally, when my brother was eligible for the draft and, in fact, received one of those shockingly low lottery numbers inaugurated by President Nixon, our paterfamilias came around to judging the war a mistake.
Laurence Mascott, my father, winner of the Purple Heart and an Oscar nomination, died at the age of 79, in July 2000, of a heart attack.
And what became of that Luger? Recently I asked Mom. She told me he’d long ago given it to a Valley neighbor, a right-wing gun nut named Ed Rubenstein who was delighted to add it to his vast collection.
Recently I watched “The Brave Rifles” on a clunky old videotape. For the first time I truly listened to my father’s soliloquy — the one he recorded about his own experience — backed up by a montage of stills of German soldiers:
“I captured him on Christmas Day, and my first thought was to kill him … this sniveling nuisance … this two-faced hunk of hate … who needs him? What good is he? The simplest would be to erase him from this earth. But then, who was I to judge? To hold a gun doesn’t make you God. What are they really like, I wonder? Some are young … some are old … and some are forever lost. Yet steep them in snow, and they get frostbite … scare them and they cry … wound them and they bleed. What are they really like? They are — most of them — like us.”
So he had apparently chosen not to kill the German soldier whose Luger he’d lifted. Why not tell me so when I was young and, frankly, worried? And then I realized he saw in me his own harrowing sensitivities. He thought he needed to toughen me up, make a little soldier out of me, not that that ever works or helps.
He was brave and he was kind. The gun was only a souvenir. That made him still braver and kinder. He was my hero, from the start of the Trojan War till as long as I may go on remembering him.