About Face: On Class Reunions and Reading Salter
by Richard Farrell
IN THE FALL there were dress parades, football games and tailgaters. We marched into the stadium in crisp white columns and we admired them, the alumni, in their faded blue jerseys with gold numerals, ’42, 67, ’82. We lived by numbers, always counting down, minutes until formations, days until graduation. How would we ever make it to the other side of this crucible? We wondered where the intervening years would carry us. The future was our solace, the hope of escape, of glory, of numbers getting smaller. We envied the passing of time.
My twentieth reunion from Annapolis is in October and I’m undecided about attending. A big part of me wants to entirely avoid it, a life already lived. Another part is drawn back.
“All afternoon the cars, many with out-of-state plates, were coming along the road,” James Salter begins “Lost Sons.” The first image: cars moving on the road. He gives us only cars, a synecdochical device. The reader fills in: drivers, passengers, screaming kids, strangers coming to town. He provides so little, but it’s enough to convince us that we are in certain hands.
“Lost Sons” tells of a reunion at West Point, quite possibly a twentieth. In the barracks, half a dozen classmates are drinking, telling stories. Salter contextualizes almost none of it. Two characters brush against each other in the story, providing a loose structure. Hilmo was the full-back, the All-American, with the “definite look of success.” Reemstma was the outsider. “There were faces that hardly changed at all and others like Reemstma’s whose name tag was read more than once.”
Their class was from the early sixties. “At the picnic it was announced that of the original 550 members, 529 were living and 176 present.” Only twenty-one dead, even with Vietnam. A charmed class.
My class at Annapolis has already surpassed this. Twenty-four dead, though only one lost in combat. The rest, pilots mostly, crashed, lost at sea. One was murdered by a serial killer who also shot Gianni Versace; another, our quarterback, was slain in San Diego along with my wife’s teammate from Navy’s track and field squad. Classmates cut down by crime, slain by jealousy or whatever madness causes one person to kill another. Of course, violence was part of our curriculum, but not of this variety. In theory, there are rules to war.
Twenty-four dead at twenty years out. I’m counting again. Our numbers will only keep dwindling.
“He began to describe the color and light—he painted landscapes—of the countryside near the Delaware, the shape of the earth, its furrows, hedges, how things changed slightly from year to year, little things, how hard it was to do the sky.” This is Reemstma, a painter now, an artist. I wonder about his reasons for going back to West Point. At a party he flirts with a classmate’s wife, Kit Walker. She seems interested in his work. He looks for her later, at another reception, and sees her talking to Hilmo. A tryst is implied with Hilmo; they are seen coming back together. “There was a grass stain on the back of her white skirt.”
This is right. Salter gives little things, barely enough, but they expand. Perhaps it’s in the way images are both small and massive, furrows and hedges versus the earth, slight changes and the endlessness of the sky, grass stains and betrayal, infidelity. You get the feeling that Salter has been allotted a certain number of words, and that he’s damn stingy about parsing them out. They have to count. With Salter, we get what matters, and very little else.
In his memoir, Burning the Days, Salter described his plebe year at West Point this way: “It was the year of Stalingrad.”
It’s impossible to capture the seriousness of it all. The days were long, mercilessly scheduled. There wasn’t time, quite literally, to shit for the first seven days. Failure stalked every evolution, especially the first year. Even now, twenty years later, nothing felt longer, nothing more hunted, more stoked with the pressure of endurance, than plebe year. You were sent to Tango Company if you dropped out that first summer. I delivered mail there once. Young men and women milled about waiting to leave, with blank faces and shaved heads, like patients in a locked ward. My memory tells me it was a cold hallway in spite of the hellish Maryland humidity.
Looking back, it’s hard to recognize myself, thriving after that first week, enduring every hour filled with faith, with hunger for action, for war, perhaps. Maybe that’s just youth, the vitriol, the fire, the simple willingness to follow, to fill the shoes without a thought.
I should go back if for no other reason than the rich pool of story material. But how would I choose? Two decades worth now, seventy-three-hundred days, uncounted destinies. The impossibility of selection. Better to stay in bed or better yet, to grab a beer and slip back into that Navy ’91 sweatshirt. Sing an old sea chanty, “The old gray mare, she ain’t what she used to be.” Salter chose.
They were playing ‘Army Blue.’ A wave of sadness went through him, memories of parades, the end of dances, Christmas leave. Four years of it, the classes ahead leaving in pride and excitement, unknown faces falling behind. It was finished, but no one turns his back on it completely. The life he might have led came back to him, almost whole.
Those rigid days feel distant now, even more distant than my childhood which came first. But Salter is correct. Maybe what frightens me most about going back are the overwhelming memories, that life returning, the camaraderie, the surrendering of my identity to the brigade, being part of something larger than myself, something grander, the spectacle of it all. Or maybe this is the very reason to go, to feel that again.
Salter offers the world—West Point, Barcelona, the Italian countryside, dogfights above the Yalu, the snow-faced Eiger, the luxurious clubs of Manhattan, Carbondale—but he won’t give you much to cling to. He won’t waste fourteen pages on Antoni Gaudi’s brilliance; instead he’ll say this:
At the very top of the four stone spires which Gaudi left unfinished the light has just begun to bring forth gold inscriptions too pale to read. There is no sun. There is only a white silence. Sunday morning, the early morning of Spain. A mist covers all of the hills which surround the city. The stores are closed.
This from “Am Strande von Tanger.” If you haven’t been to Barcelona, haven’t glimpsed the awesome, dreamy beauty of the cathedral, then you don’t get the joke. It’s too pale to read. A white silence. Too fucking bad for you. If you don’t understand what West Point is, he’s not going to explain it. This is Salter.
READING SALTER is like hopping on a bullet train, or better yet, strapping yourself into the cockpit of a supersonic fighter and slamming the throttles. You feel speed, movement, the ass-clenching thrill of inertia overcome with afterburners. Then the speed disappears. You don’t notice travelling at Mach 1 as long as you stay above the clouds. The ride feels smooth, effortless, almost still. This is simple physics. This is Salter. You read him along the sound barrier of sheer emptiness.
Above one of the doors to Bancroft Hall, written in large brass letters, were these words: “Four Years Together by the Bay.” It was a taunt, a joke, a way of reducing the harsh, ascetic reality of those four years to a wink. How I hated that sign. Only insiders got it, only graduates, alumni. You had to finish in order to smile. Those words reduced the misery of it to a mere puff.
Like something Salter might’ve written.
“Lost Sons” and “Am Strande Von Tanger” are contained in the short story collection Dusk and Other Stories, by James Salter (New York: Modern Library, 2010)
Burning The Days: Recollection, by James Salter. (New York: Random House, 1997)