Peace Corps Writers
Howls From a Hungry Place, Part III (page 4)
Howls From a Hungry Place, Part III
page 1, page 2, page 3, page 4, page 5

Publishers and reviewers alike tended to shy away from Thomsen’s war with Charlie; at the outset it can seem that readers could not possibly be as engrossed with the father-vs.-son battles of My Two Wars as Thomsen was in writing about them. But the story of this domineering, hopelessly tortured man, and the shambles he makes of his own life and those of everyone around him, is integral to the story of Moritz Thomsen’s life. He never quite managed to put his father to rest, and never was able to forgive himself for sticking to the old man, remora-like, for no other reason than to avoid being cut completely out of his will (which almost happened anyway — the bulk of Charlie Thomsen’s estate was left to anyone who could come up with a contraceptive for cats).
     Thomsen had already been drafted into the Army for over a year when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought his relatively easy, well-ordered life to a crashing halt. For all the abuse he endured from his father, the old man was rich, and Moritz spent his days as a young man skiing, camping, mountain climbing, fly-fishing, and indulging what was evidently a healthy sexual appetite whenever the chance presented itself. Even in the Army Thomsen discovered that he could volunteer for permanent KP and be spared the rigors of barracks life in exchange for endless potato peeling and pot scrubbing. But Pearl Harbor made him want to be a hero, and he entered the Army Air Corps, precursor to the Air Force, in hopes of becoming a fighter pilot. Years later, writing in his apartment in Guayaquil, he reflected on that day:

    It was only years later that I understood the menacing quality of that late afternoon. It had about it an awful sense of a slumbering portentousness that emptied the air of life and continuity. It was like a gigantic stutter, an awful stopping of time, a hiatus that promised horrific changes. In a very real sense that day in December of 1941 was the true beginning of the twentieth century. That day the Depression was officially over, the ownership of America changed hands, bankrupt American farmers, the last symbols of an agricultural America built on the principles of Jeffersonian democracy, could now desert the land for five-dollar-a-day jobs in the war factories… December seventh was the last day that the country represented an ideal for which one might with dignity offer to fight and die. Ten years later it was no longer worth fighting for. Twenty years later, when three million farmers a year were going bankrupt and the Bank of America owned most of the farmland in California and you couldn’t raise tomatoes without a $150,000 harvesting machine, it was not even a country fit to live in. Unless, of course, you enjoyed working in a factory.

Ultimately Thomsen washed out of pilot school, relegated to the post of bombardier, the man who sits in the great plexiglas bubble in the nose of a B-17 and sights in on the target miles below, then releases the payload of bombs. From his seat perched above a Norden bombsight (“It was probably John Steinbeck who had popularized the belief that bombing with the Norden, one could drop a bomb into a picklebarrel from eighteen thousand feet. Perhaps our disillusionment began when . . . our practice bombs landing in little flashes of flames a thousand feet from the center of the target, proved to us that not only could we miss a picklebarrel but the factory that made them. Plus the parking area around the picklebarrel factory and the special railroad spur that hauled off the picklebarrels and the town where ten thousand employees slaved for the war effort making picklebarrels . . . .”) Thomsen had a sweeping view of the fate of bombers around and below him — the big, lumbering planes were shot to pieces by German fighters, or blown to bits by the dreaded flak bursts from anti-aircraft guns.

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