so many years ago. Love it!
Steve Griak was a neighbor dad and a baseball coach. He and his family lived on the other side of the block down at one end. They had a modest house in a really nice neighborhood – so really not all that modest in the real world. Steve had a son, Mike, who was my age and one of my closest friends for much of my childhood. He also had a daughter, Susan, who I believe was my first kiss in a pile of leaves one fall. And he had another son, who arrived when we were twelve and so grew up entirely under my radar. And he had a lovely wife, Mary Jane. A beauty queen, if I’m not mistaken, and the quintessential mom. Her grilled cheese killed.
Me, Mike and Ben Johnson, a closer neighbor, just two doors down but a year younger, were the three amigos. We were all very different, but the proximity mattered, and we grew more alike, then mostly apart as adults. Mike connected me to Steve and Steve connected me to advertising; my first thought being, he gets to wear jeans to work.
Steve was an ad man, when it was cool to be an ad man, but he wasn’t Don Draper. More Bob Newhart/Robert Redford mix than Mannix. He was our baseball coach and a great one. He was patient and tireless and he rarely if ever, seemed even remotely perturbed. He made so many commercials that I remember seeing on TV as a kid and was reminded of those (and this great guy) with this video put together by Charlie Griak:
You know you have those books you were supposed to read but you never did – the great big classics – Moby Dick, anything by Tolstoy, some great early feminist novel, but you never did and while you feel some sort of guilt, you also know that there are a billion books and you cannot be expected to know all of them and if someone wants to call you out on one book then screw ‘em.
That being said, you absolutely HAVE TO READ “All Quiet on the Western Front.” I was obliquely aware of it and especially in the praise of it. I knew it was a “war novel” and while I’ve enjoyed novels with war in them, I was no aficionado. But still it was impressed upon me that this book was IMPORTANT. And it is.
I finally nabbed it from my mother’s bookshelf while we were preparing her move and eventually picked it up to actually read. A slim little book so I figured, might’s well have at it.
This book has changed my life. I think I needed to be transported through amazing language to the dirty, wet, filthy, angry, bloody, stinky, trenches of war. This book does that. And while I know that modern warfare is different, I can only assume that many of the same emotions and fears and bewilderment that Erich Maria Remarque felt are also felt by terribly young, modern soldiers as well. War is war.
It stopped me in my tracks. I always knew war was bad and opposed it mostly as again, a modern, basically aware man, but this flung it all right up into my perfectly safe – thanks to soldiers, and diplomats, and peaceniks, and generally good people – face. I know I can’t know what any soldier in the blaze of war goes through, but this guy gives you a pretty fucking good idea in this book. And to say, it ain’t pretty, would be pantywaist’s clever turn of a phrase. It’s blood ugly.
It shames a person for so many reasons; we’re part of the humanity who creates these situations, we make war. But also because I’ve never had to experience what the soldiers do – not the fucking generals, by the way – but the frontline slugs. I’ve always been basically physically perfectly safe, I’ve never lacked a meal or something to eat, alcohol is always available and affordable. But not for these guys; not at all.
A piece of bread, a sip of cognac is everything. Especially after a day of shelling and explosions, dismemberment and splashing blood, looking into the eye of the man you are about to kill. That’s the cutting edge of life, at its worst.
I read much of this in a comfortable chair overlooking a glistening Lake Superior, safe and sound. But read a book that struck the fear of our manmade devils right into my heart.