In early May, around the time of my father’s ninth yahrtzeit, I picked up Kate Atkinson’s new novel, A God in Ruins. I had no idea that she was about to resurrect my father for me.
The book follows Teddy, from his Eden-like privileged childhood, growing up at his family’s country estate in England between the wars, through his service as a pilot in the Royal Air Force during World War II, and across decades that take him from pastoral England to the medieval village of York, to an independent living facility, and finally a nursing home.
My father, a first-generation child of immigrants who had fled anti-Semitism in Vienna at the end of the 19th century, grew up in Brooklyn, above his parents’ grocery store.
Teddy attended England’s finest schools and quotes poetry as easily as he breathes; my father attended Boys High and Erasmus Hall and once said he was interested in art only when he was interested in a girl who was interested in art.
Teddy loved all things pastoral in England — he named and observed the flora and fauna with endless delight. My father was a city kid whose idea of fun was stickball and whose idea of pastoral was Ebbets Field.
For Atkinson, the backdrop matters. The pastoral provides a broader reach into Judeo-Christian ideas of falling, or being expelled, from Eden, into war, a place where God does not exist. There is a continuing falling and rising, crashing and surviving — and a suspension of time before and after. There is only now. And whether they lived or died, there would be only now (a hint of Buddhist thought).
When Teddy flies a particularly dangerous mission across Germany, he clutches the stuffed hare his sister Ursula had given him for luck before he left for war. When my father faced so much flak on a mission that he thought he might not survive, the words of the Sh’ma rose to his lips, and he thought, “The malach hamavos [the angel of death] is coming for me!”
But only now, reading the fictional account of a very Christian, very British pilot, have I come to understand the trajectory of the life of my father, a very Jewish kid from Brooklyn who learned to eat ham and Spam in the army and sometimes worried about the ethics of bombing concentration camps.
I have read and reread the written account my father left for us, at my mother’s urging, of his service as a navigator during World War II in the 451st Bombardment Group (H), 15th Air Force. I always thought he had written down the stories he told us so many times so he could share them with his grandchildren, knowing that details blur over time. But it is only reading them after A God in Ruins that I finally understand.
For Teddy and for Harold, war changed everything.
Both knew they would serve. Both believed in what they were fighting for — Teddy fought “for England”; Harold fought “those Nazi bastards.” Both were young. Teddy was the average age of the men in the RAF — 22; my father enlisted at 17 before he could be drafted in a canny move to avoid the front lines and instead be sent to aviation cadet school.
My father trained for missions at night but, he wrote, “When I got to Europe the British did all the night flying, and we flew only during the day.” Teddy, and his all-knowing author, point out in the book that the RAF did all the night flights.
‘Every single day’
My father entertained us with his exploits, pranks, and cunning — the latrines they blew up in an effort to make them warmer (and, after blowing them up they were much warmer — a mechaiah, my father always joked), the KP duty they avoided, the leave they wrested for themselves. As they were for Teddy, these were distractions from the fear and anxiety of knowing you might not live until tomorrow. And at least for my father, these exploits were easier to share in a postwar world.
One night, learning he would fly a mission in the morning, my father went to see Bill Grapey,* a fellow navigator, and Harold Cederbaum, a bombardier. “These were two very nice guys whom I liked very much,” my father wrote. “They each had flown about 20 missions, and they told me not to worry. You catch some flak on the bomb run over the target, and as for German fighters, they had not seen any. Grapey’s exact words were, ‘I have yet to smell a German fart.’
“I went to my tent to go to sleep somewhat relieved.”
But, he added, “by the next evening Cedarbaum was a POW and Grapey was KIA.” As my father described it, “The sky looked like a movie combat scene. I think two planes from the 725 squadron went down. Then on the bomb run, our lead pilot, Capt. Atterhold, did some sort of maneuver that appeared like a signal that he was aborting and he dropped down. Lt. Shelton, in the number two position slid over to take over the lead position. Atterhold then came back up and cut off the tail of Shelton’s plane with his propellers. Shelton’s plane went down and everyone was killed, including Bill Grapey.”
On another mission, his friend Pete Kolysnick, a ball gunner, was killed when a piece of flak came through the ball turret. At a reunion in 2001, toward the end of his life, my father asked a buddy if he ever thinks about Pete Kolysnick, whom my father described as “the most likeable, fun guy in the outfit.” My father described his friend’s response: “He looked me straight in the eye and said, forcefully, ‘Every single day of my life.’ That was the end of the conversation. That was enough. I wasn’t the only one.”
And when he read, somewhere, that many of the guys secretly hoped someone else would go down, he exhaled, acknowledging he’d always thought the worst of himself for thinking so.
I knew all these things and yet, what Atkinson finally could do that my father, a dentist and not a writer, could not is to reveal the fragility of life for these young flyers. In her carefully researched, detailed descriptions of what the missions were like, I understood for the first time my father’s experiences. I understood that like Teddy, as a man of a certain generation, there were just certain things he couldn’t explain to us. But Atkinson could.
It was his mission in life, after the war, it seems to me, to bring levity and joy into the world, perhaps to make up for the horror and inhumanity of war.
At my father’s funeral, my mother held the American flag, rather than having it draped over the coffin, a common practice for veterans; it was, after all, such a small part of his life, such a long time ago. But no, she soon realized, it was everything he ever was.
There is a lot of discussion in the book about what constitutes art, and what the purpose of art is — whether it can resurrect the dead, whether it should aim to convey the truth rather than be the truth, or whether it is something created by one person and enjoyed by another. Atkinson knows, I think, that each of these definitions is accurate, but falls short.
Atkinson has managed, in the space of a novel, not only to memorialize the boys and men who fought and died, tracing the lives they never lived, but also to resurrect those who lived, even the ones across the pond.
Who could have predicted that Teddy, in his RAF pilot’s uniform, could bring me my father, and his incredible humanity, across generations, religions, decades, class differences, and an ocean?
* Names appear as rendered in Harold Ginsberg’s memoir.