“Enterrado,” a memoir by Frank Pirie

September 18, 2011

Lincoln vet Frank Pirie, location and date unknown.

Editor’s Note: The following text was sent in by the daughter of Lincoln vet Frank Pirie, who was born in 1905 in Louisville, Kentucky. Tjhe memoir describes her father’s thoughts while he lay buried in rubble from bombs  dropped by German forces in Spain. Pirie wrote it for a writing class that he took in the 1970s; the transcription is his daughter’s.

It is early afternoon of a spring day as I step onto the gravel of the long, gently winding gravel path leading to the Estado Mayor.  Here, if my information is correct, I shall be able to draw my daily food ration.  I shall receive, probably:  2 handfuls of dried garbanzos, a loaf of bread, a three inch square of Membrillo, a two inch square of dark chocolate, and either a handful of raisins or an orange.  But since I must get to the front at Belchite as soon as possible, I will have neither the facilities nor the time (three or four hours) necessary to cook the hard, old-crop garbanzos.  I hope I shall be able to trade them to a paisano for a handful of olives or hazelnuts.  And if I can find a bottle somewhere, I can probably get it filled with that good red ordinary wine of very little roughness for which this part of the Aragón is noted.

As I continue to trudge along the path, between two tall rows of Lombardy poplars,–said to have been sent by the Pope himself to the former Fascist owner of this estate – I recall the way my head buzzed the last time I had drunk a bottle of this wine.  But why is my head buzzing now – before I have even had a swallow?  No, it is not my head; it is not my head:  it is external.  Bees, perhaps, or hornets?  No, no, they have fled easterly with the birds, to escape the dogs of war which are now snapping at the fringes of this country.

Now the sound is louder and more insistent:  a pulsating, low pitched hum.  My heart skips a beat as I recognize the sound.  I look between the leaves of the poplars on the west side of the path – toward Caspe, barely two kilometers away.  I see the heaps of tile roofed houses shimmering in the bright spring sun.  I see above them, in groups of threes, a dozen bird-like specks in the sky.  I know, without seeing more, that they are heavy German planes:  black as the death they bring, with, incongruously, white crosses painted on their wings.  I know, too, that their profane bellies are pregnant with two-hundred-pound bombs which they will soon drop indiscriminatingly upon the unlucky town below.  For Caspe has not yet been bombed, and the first attack – in accordance with German policy – is not to seek out military targets, but to instill terror by an indiscriminate attack on the town in general.

I continue to watch the approaching planes as I slowly walk toward the ornate stone steps leading to the palace.  Much neglected now, the building was originally designed as a miniature Versailles for a local prince of Church and State.  The once beautiful gardens, at one time groomed by scores of serf-like peasants, now lie unkempt and weed covered.  Only here and there small plots have been taken over by neighboring peasants and planted to vegetables.  Nearing the building itself, I pass a large area which has been deeply scarred by a geometrical complex of long, narrow trenches to serve as air raid shelters.

As I raise my eyes once more to the approaching planes, I am moved to stop in horrible fascination:  for it is now time for the series of bomb drops to begin. Something compels me to watch for the descent of the bombs streaking down; the burst of orange flame speckled with dark shapes slashing upward in all directions with unbelievable speed; and the huge cloud of yellow dust slowly climbing skyward, obliterating the town from view.

There will come the shock of the explosions, and the rumbling like thunder – and for a swift moment, I shall be happy.  Then my conscience will assert itself:  how dare I be happy – even for a moment – when suffering and death will be occurring over there?  And I shall be ashamed; I shall deplore the suffering.  But I will be happy – for just a bit – that I am not there; that I am not suffering.

As I am watching the planes I become aware that Caspe is not their target:  they are coming directly toward us.  I hear repeated sharp blasts of police-type whistles and unintelligible shouted commands.  Then, quite close I hear a shout:  “Aviones, Camaradas; a las trincheras!”

I see many men jump out of doors and windows and dive into trenches:  I follow quickly.  I land on my hands and knees in the bottom of a four or five foot deep trench.  I straighten out my legs and like down with my face on my crossed wrists.  And then, as though on cue, the first bombs strike, shaking and rumbling the ground.  Now comes another, and another, and more come in rapid succession.  Now comes a close one:  the ground around me heaves and writhes.  One side of the trench presses against me, and shifts me.  I feel the pressure on my back and legs.  Now someone has jumped into the trench on top of me.  I fell him groveling in the dirt which covers me.  So, thank God, the trench cannot be completely filled – there seems not more than a foot of dirt between me and the other person.  I try to move.  A slight movement of my legs and torso only packs the earth more tightly around me – my upper arms as well.  I can move my lower arms and head a few inches – that is all!  But the light is gone!  Now I begin to wonder about the air:  how long will it last?  I feel my heart racing, my face burning – I panic.  I scream:  “Help, help, help, help.”

Close to me, there is a muffled answering scream.  It must be coming from the same trench, a few feet farther along.  It pleads in Spanish for help from Mother, the Holy Virgin, Christ, and God.  It repeats, over and over, the same heart-rending plea.  I stop my shouting to listen:  and my panic is gone.  What good is shouting, with bombs bursting all around, obliterating all other sound?

Suddenly the bomb bursts stop.  My Spanish friend shouts with renewed vigor.  I shout to him to save his precious air, but he continues his non-stop supplications.  I feel the person above me moving; feel him stand up and jump out of the trench.  I am glad the load on top of me has somewhat lessened.  I try again to move my legs and body.  I strain and strain but it is useless.  I feel again the panic rise to the top of my head.  The skin on my head tightens; my eyes burn; and my throat becomes dry and tight.  I feel the urge to scream, again; but I cannot.  My throat is too tight, as in a nightmare.

Suddenly, I am aware of a new sound coming from that other world – that world above ground.  There are sounds of many footsteps – and another sound, a heartening one – the “cheg” — “cheg” – “cheg” – of a shovel cutting into the gravelly dirt of our soon-to-be foiled grave.

I shiver with joyous anticipation of being disinterred, of seeing the blessed sunlight, of once again feeling sweet fresh air swelling my lungs.  The rescuers are not yet working directly over me, but they seem to be not too far away.  Perhaps they are even now rescuing my Spanish neighbor, for he has stopped his screaming.

But now comes a warning whistle blast, the cessation of shovel sounds, and the quick shuffle of retreating feet.  My heart sinks as the first bombs of the new sortie begin to crash.

My Spanish comrade begins again his screaming supplications; but now he sounds weaker – his words are interrupted by sobs and chokes.  Poor guy!  I wonder what kind of life he is so reluctant to leave.  Now he is quiet, only mumbling and softly sobbing a desperate prayer.  I wonder if he has almost exhausted his air supply; and I wonder how much longer mine will last.

I begin to wonder if the rescuers will reach me before my air is gone:  if more air attacks will prevent it.  I have heard that once the Germans decide on a target, they methodically pound it and pound it until there is nothing and nobody left.  If so, they will work over this place until sunset, stopping then only because their Spanish airfields are not equipped for night landings.

I try again to work myself free, but I am tightly held by dirt and rocks – up to my neck.  I can turn my head, right, left, and up, as far as neck muscles will allow.  My head and forearms must be in some sort of void:  possibly formed by a large rock lodged in the top part of the trench which is then covered with dirt.  But I can see no glimmer of light, and I cannot tell the size of the void.  Consequently, I have no idea how long the air will last within the pocket.  Now I am breathing faster; and the air seems less fresh!  Which will come first:  sunset or suffocation?

God!  This cannot be!  To die, held fast – unable to resist; unable to move – it is unfair!  A firing squad would be more humane!  Let me out – to face the enemy, on my feet, my arms free – his life against mine!  But not this!  Unfair!  Unfair!

Shall I pray to God?  It is what people do in these circumstances.  But will He hear me?  Is He that kind of god, a personal one who watches over me every moment of my life?  Can He hear me?  Will He hear me?  I do not know.  For half of my thirty-two years I believed so; the second half, I progressed (or regressed) from uncertainty to doubt, and then to unconcern.  Now it does not seem to matter.  I have become my own master, accountable to myself for the consequences of my actions.

I think again of the personal God idea:  are there any rules governing those He helps?  Must they not believe in Him unreservedly; and must they not keep in touch with Him in frequent prayers?  As a child, I was taught this was so.  But if this is so, I have not earned the right to pray for His divine deliverance.  Therefore, I shall not do so.  I shall live or die with my personal ethos intact!

I feel myself becoming calmer and calmer as I drift into a philosophical mood.  My breathing becomes light, my heartbeat slow – like a hibernating animal, I think.  Not so stupid – those grizzly bears just crawl in a hole and relax – let someone else fight all that snow and cold weather.

I feel the skin of my face relaxing, as well as the muscles of my legs and body.  I feel myself slipping into a state of euphoria, half asleep and half awake.  My mind seems to be working freely and clearly.  I think of God, again.  Suppose I were to pray, and then to be rescued:  would that prove the existence of a personal God?  On the other hand, would a great, loving, all-forgiving God perhaps find something in me to save – without my having maintained my faith in Him?

There seems no proof, one way or another.  I realize it is all a matter of believing; and I am willing to concede that faith can be the mightiest of the motivations.  I think I do not believe in a personal God; but I do believe strongly in some things – people, for instance.  Otherwise, why am I here:  for five dollars a month and a handful of beans each day?  Here there are no fancy uniforms, no medals, no bands.  There will be no honor rolls on the hometown monument; no fawning bid from the fat-paunched Legion; no pensions or low-cost home loans to ease our rehabilitation.  Still, I am content with my choice, for I, like many others, could not have done otherwise.  If we win, peoples’ rights will be a bit advanced, and Fascist power will be a bit diminished.  If we lose, God help the world!

More bombers come, drop bombs, and leave.  After an interval, they repeat.  Between attacks, there is the scurry of rescuers above.  But they never reach my portion of trench, and they concern me less and less.  For that life above ground is becoming somehow foreign to me; and something I have down here – a different life, half-life – whatever it is – seems about to have great meaning to me.  There is an air of expectancy, down here, as though some great mystery is going to be revealed to me, and at last I shall know the meaning of life.

So far, I have been able to find no great meaning to my life.  Perhaps it is because I never really thought much about it, just went along with the good and bad of it as it came.  Here I am at age thirty-two, with nothing I can point to with pride.  Too bad!  I think of Christ:  he died at about that age – but what he accomplished!  I think my accomplishments were mostly negative ones:  that is, I did not do much harm.  I had always tried to avoid hurting people, especially their feelings.  But the good things I have done for people have been so small.  How much could they count?

It will hurt my mother the most, if I die.  She has never understood why I found it necessary to come here.  I was not brave enough to tell her before I came:  told her I was going to France to do some mapping work.  Well, I did go to France but did not stop there:  sneaked over the Pyrenees into Spain one moonless night.

I am the youngest of her four children:  I think she would mourn me most.  Since the turn of the century, when her child-bearing began, she has lived only for her children, I think.  The world outside her home has passed her by, and she has done nothing to try to keep up.  There has been only her family, and the memories of an idyllic girlhood and young womanhood.  Her body moved North and ahead in time; but her heart and spirit remained back South in a world of no return.

One of four beautiful daughters of a moderately well-to-do industrialist, she had topped off her education in an exclusive finishing school for young ladies in Tennessee.  There – and in the society in which she moved – she had had all the myths of WASP superiority infused deeply into her thinking.  She was taught social grace, gentleness, and kindness:  to be bestowed on those of her own kind.  Others, of course, did not count!  Certainly she was good to her close friends and family, sacrificing the balance of her life for the latter.  And she will love me, and mourn me if I die; and she will fiercely defend everything I do – without understanding why I do it.

I recall how many times I felt I had to lie to my mother, too discouraged or too impatient to try to make her understand her very modern son.  There was the time I took Marian to visit her.  Marian and I were enjoying an extremely satisfying four year, common-law marriage.  We were living in Greenwich Village at the time, and I had the chance to take an expense-paid trip to Chicago.  I decided to take Marian along to meet my parents, but I had to rent her a wedding ring to perpetuate the lie.

Each time I think of Marian, my heart skips a few beats.  It did the first time I saw her – hers did too!  I met her, eyes to eyes, in the Automat – and it all started.  We both had to work, of course (it was the Depression), but outside of work, nearly every waking moment was one of excitement and delight.  We went to Shakespearean plays for fifty cents a ticket; ballet and modern dance recitals for which we had passes from our friend Margie who wrote for the Observer; Carnegie concerts with passes we got from a friend who worked in the drugstore.  Art museums, historical spots, picturesque parks and squares; we visited them all.  And the sheer sensuous delight of doing these things together – walking hand in hand, or sitting thigh to throbbing thigh – suffused us with a great warmth of feeling I could not have imagined before I met Marian.

Marian, on the strength of her college degree (she was a music major), had gotten a job as a salesgirl in the house wares department of Macy’s.  I worked as a cashier in a cafeteria – the best job I could find in New York.  Between the two of us, we saved enough to take a trip every year or so.

The first hegira was a two-week hike through the breathtakingly beautiful Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts and Connecticut.  We started off from North Adams. Marian carrying a light knapsack, and I, a light bedroll.  I can still remember the joy we felt as we passed the last habitations of the town and met the thrilling beauty of the freshly groomed hills as they gloried in their early June foliage.  We followed the slightest wagon roads or trails, as long as they kept to the hills.  We detoured to the little towns only to buy a day or two’s meager food supply.

I well recall our first night out.  We watched the glorious sunset from the top of a hill.  We sat watching, arm in arm, until the huge orange sphere had dipped itself below the fringe of distant pines.  We felt bursting with the beauty of it – too filled to eat the supper we had planned.  Instead, we crawled into our bed upon the ground, made love, and slept awhile.

Our first night out, we slept rather fitfully, listening to the strange new sounds and missing the familiar city sounds.  We recognized the distant cries of babies, the lonely howls of dogs, and the occasional hoot of an owl, but there were many strange cries and rustlings whose significance was unknown to us.  We tingled and shivered – and snuggled to stop it – and finally, toward morning, slept deeply.  We were well refreshed when the rising sun and the myriad awakening birds saluted us with their grand spectacle of sight and sound.  Marian drew a musical scale on a scrap of paper and began writing the notes for a bird song she heard.  “That’s a ‘B’, and a ‘G’, and then a series of quick ‘E-flats’, isn’t it?  It’s lovely; I’ve never heard it before!”

I remember the days after that – days when scene after lovely scene – each more beautiful than the one before – unfolded before us.  And between the days came the luminous nights, charming us to sleep with their ever-wondrous stellar spectacles.  And I remember some particular times when we stopped to rest, or to investigate some wild bird or animal.  Or sometimes it was to take a nude dip into some clear pool of the little stream we were generally following; or perhaps to sunbathe in a flower-sprinkled meadow where there were no witnesses except a sloe-eyed black and white cow.  And then we would be overwhelmed with a rush of feeling akin to great reverence, and we would give ardent sacrament to love, beauty, and joy.

Oof!  Someone has jumped into the trench, onto the dirt covering my back.  I remember that another bombing run has just ended.  Now, at last, the rescuers are going to dig me out.  I should not have given up hope so soon.

Now someone is digging around my shoulders and neck.  He asks some questions, but I cannot understand what he is saying.  I answer back, in Spanish and in English, that I am all right – but to please hurry.

Now suddenly there is a great fall of loosed dirt around my neck and the lower part of my head.  I sputter and blow as it runs into my mouth and nose.  I raise my head an inch or two and dig some of the dirt out of my mouth with my fingers.  I gag and cough; I sneeze – and raise more dust.  The dry, metallic-tasting dirt grits against my teeth.  I try to spit it out, but I have no saliva.  I dig more out with my fingers.  Now the dust is burning my lungs and air passages.  I feel giddy and weak – I seem to be drifting away…

I am awakened by a violent earth-shock.  It is followed by several more – close and strong.  I am slow to realize where I am – and what is happening.  I scream at my erstwhile rescuer:  “You stupid son-of-a-bitch, do my body first!”

I realize he is not here now, and I understand he was doing what he thought was best – to give me air.  I shall have to think of the Spanish way of telling him to uncover my body first so the dirt will run down from my face area.  As soon as this bomb run is over, he will be back, and then I can tell him.

I spread out the dirt under my chin so my head will be held in a more comfortable position.  I wipe off the fingers of one hand and use them to dig more of the dirt out of my mouth.  Finding I have more saliva now, I spit out more dirt and swallow some.  Now it is the extreme grittiness of my teeth that bothers my mouth.  The dust has settled, and my lungs are burning less than they were.  I settle down to await further rescue attempts – more hopefully now.