Thursday, November 10, 2011

Catch-22 Week: Heller's Day in Hell

Snowden dies.

That's not too big of a spoiler for those of you who haven't read Catch-22.  Joseph Heller tells us in Chapter 4 that Snowden will die on the floor of a B-25 during a bomb run and it's a singular event--the singular pivot of the novel--to which he will keep returning again and again like a needle bouncing back and forth across the scratch of a record.

By the time we finally arrive at the full description of the gunner's death in Chapter 41, we're prepared.

....Or maybe we're not prepared.  Maybe we, like Yossarian who gives Snowden first aid, are unable to handle the sight of the gaping wound ("was that a tube of slimy bone he saw running deep inside the gory scarlet flow behind the twitching, startling fibers of weird muscle?") and we run from the book for the toilet, clapping a hand over our mouth.  The scene is hard to stomach.  After all the laughter in the preceding pages, it's a nauseous punch to read of Yossarian cutting open Snowden's flak suit and seeing (hearing) the slithery plop of Snowden's guts hitting the metal floor "in a soggy pile."

If the scene is vivid, intense and visceral, it's only because its author was typing the movies which played inside his own head.  On August 15, 1944, 2nd Lt. Joseph Heller, a bombardier in a B-25, flew a mission which would be seared in his memory and later be processed through the mill of his imagination onto the page.  Now, all these decades later, Heller's day in hell is seared into the consciousness of anyone who has read Catch-22.

Two nights ago, I had the opportunity to talk to an undergraduate class at the University of Montana as part of the Montana Writers Live series.  I read a deleted chapter from Fobbit about a drunk soldier in Iraq who steals a humvee and goes on a joyride through Baghdad.  I explained it was based on an incident which actually happened while I was serving with the 3rd Infantry Division in Baghdad in 2005: a U.S. soldier had, puzzlingly, turned up in the morgue of an Iraqi Police station after his body was recovered from a wrecked humvee on a downtown street.  But, I cautioned, my imagination filled in a lot of the gaps: "It's like I plugged the facts into an amplifier, ran the cables to these massive eight-foot speakers, then turned the volume up to 11."

I'm not sure how much Heller's imagination amplified and distorted those moments in the back of the B-25, but in his excellent new biography, Just One Catch, Tracy Daugherty makes a convincing case that the Snowden scenes don't stray too far from Heller's reality.  In fact, the experience so influenced the author's post-war life and writing career, Daugherty made the decision to open the biography with an account of that August day in 1944.  Here's the scene as he paints it:
      As he had done thirty-six times before, he took a last pee by the side of the runway (there were no bathrooms aboard the B-25), and then slid down the narrow tunnel beneath the cockpit to the bomber’s Plexiglas nose cone. The tunnel was too small for a man wearing bulky equipment; he was forced to park his parachute in the navigator’s area behind him. Up front, in the glass bowl (the crew called it the “hothouse”), he always felt vulnerable and exposed. He found his chair. He donned his headset so he could talk to comrades he could no longer see in other parts of the plane. The wheels left the ground. Now he was alone, in a blur of blue.
      As his squadron began its approach to the Rhone, German anti-aircraft guns let loose and flak filled the air. A bomber in another squadron got "holed.” A spark, a flash. The plane lost a wing. It dove. No parachutes.
      Hurtling through space, the man in the glass cone watched the shining metal fall. A minute later, he was steering his plane. His pilot and the co-pilot had taken their hands off the flight controls. It was time for him to drop his bombs, and so, to assure a steady approach to the target, he commanded the plane’s movements using the automatic bombsight, steering left, steering right. For about sixty seconds, no evasive action would be possible, just a sure zeroing-in.
      Almost. Almost. There. He squeezed the toggle switch that released the bombs. Immediately, his pilot, Lieutenant John B. Rome, banked up, away from the target. Rome, twenty, was one of the youngest pilots in the squadron, with little combat experience. The co-pilot, fearing this green kid was moving too fast and about to stall the engines, seized the controls and the plane went into a sudden, steep dive, back to an altitude where it could be holed by curtains of flak.
      In the nose cone, the man who had overseen the bombs slammed into the roof of his compartment. His headset jack pulled loose from its outlet and began whipping about his head. He heard nothing. He couldn’t move. "I believed with all my heart and quaking soul that my life was ending and that we were going down, like the plane on fire I had witnessed plummeting only a few minutes before,” he remembered. “I had no time for anything but terror.”
      Just as quickly as it had begun its descent, the plane shot upwards, away from the flak, one moment yo-yoing into the next: a vanishing yet interminable instant. Now he was pinned to the floor, looking for a hand-hold, anything to grasp. The silence was horrifying. Was he the only crewman left alive? Was he alive? Would this never end, or had everything already ceased?
      He noticed the jack to his headset, lying free near his chair. He plugged himself back in and a roar of voices pierced his ears. “The bombardier doesn’t answer,” he heard someone shout. “Help him, help the bombardier.” “I’m the bombardier,” he said, “and I’m all right,” but the very act of asserting what should have been obvious made him wonder if it was true.

Daugherty tells us the real-life Snowden was a young gunner named Frankel, someone Heller barely knew--but someone he would never forget, as it turned out.  We see a nearly identical replay of that scene in Chapter 22 of Catch-22, which begins like this:
      That was the mission on which Yossarian lost his nerve. Yossarian lost his nerve on the mission to Avignon because Snowden lost his guts, and Snowden lost his guts because their pilot that day was Huple, who was only fifteen years old, and their co-pilot was Dobbs, who was even worse....Huple was a good pilot, Yossarian knew, but he was only a kid, and Dobbs had no confidence in him, either, and wrested the controls away without warning after they had dropped their bombs, going berserk in mid-air and tipping the plane over into that heart-stopping, ear-splitting, indescribably petrifying fatal dive that tore Yossarian's earphones free from their connection and hung him helplessly to the roof of the nose by the top of his head.
      Oh, God! Yossarian had shrieked soundlessly as he felt them all falling. Oh, God! Oh, God! Oh, God! Oh, God! he had shrieked beseechingly through lips that could not open as the plane fell and he dangled without weight by the top of his head until Huple managed to seize the controls back and leveled the plane out down inside the crazy, craggy, patchwork canyon of crashing antiaircraft fire from which they had climbed away and from which they would now have to escape again. Almost at once there was a thud and a hole the size of a big fist in the plexiglass. Yossarian's cheeks were stinging with shimmering splinters. There was no blood.
      "What happened? What happened?" he cried, and trembled violently when he could not hear his own voice in his ears. He was cowed by the empty silence on the intercom and almost too horrified to move as he crouched like a trapped mouse on his hands and knees and waited without daring to breathe until he finally spied the gleaming cylindrical jack plug of his headset swinging back and forth in front of his eyes and jammed it back into its receptacle with fingers that rattled. Oh, God! he kept shrieking with no abatement of terror as the flak thumped and mushroomed all about him. Oh, God!
      Dobbs was weeping when Yossarian jammed his jack plug back into the intercom system and was able to hear again.
      "Help him, help him," Dobbs was sobbing. "Help him, help him."
      "Help who? Help who?" Yossarian called back. "Help who?"
      "The bombardier, the bombardier," Dobbs cried. "He doesn't answer. Help the bombardier, help the bombardier."
      "I'm the bombardier," Yossarian cried back at him. "I'm the bombardier. I'm all right. I'm all right."
      "Then help him, help him," Dobbs wept. "Help him, help him."
      "Help who? Help who?"
      "The radio-gunner," Dobbs begged. "Help the radio-gunner."
      "I'm cold," Snowden whimpered feebly over the intercom system then in a bleat of plaintive agony. "Please help me. I'm cold."
      And Yossarian crept out through the crawlway and climbed up over the bomb bay and down into the rear section of the plane where Snowden lay on the floor wounded and freezing to death in a yellow splash of sunlight near the new tailgunner lying stretched out on the floor beside him in a dead faint.

I'll leave you with this last excerpt from Daugherty's biography:
      The [Simon and Schuster] lawyers asked Joe to detail how much of his book was based on fact.
      Joe responded, accurately, that the people, place, and events in his novel were "extensions of the possible into the fantastic."

I like that idea of the "possible" amplifying into the "fantastic."  If we peek behind the curtain of Catch-22, it's possible to see a young lieutenant kneeling over a bleeding kid named Frankel on the cold, vibrating floor of a B-25.  If we listen closely enough, we might be able to hear, over the roar of the engines, the words already clicking into place in that bombardier's head.

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