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We Are Who We Read

Fiction is necessary; it helps us know who we are.

I was 10 years old when the voice on the radio announced that World War II was over. I knew where my organist Grandmother kept the key to the Methodist Church. I took off running, with my best buddy Teddy and my little sister Joanna close behind. We were soon into the belfry, ringing the biggest bells in town to waken the city to the new American world.

It is nice to be alive and it might even be nice to rule the world, but what was most important to me was my Daddy would be coming home soon.

I barely remembered Dad in the few years before he went to war, and he knew me and Joanna mostly from our pictures. But I expected fascinating action stories from the War. None came.

Dad said he went to war so no one would call him a draft dodger. He spent the war as a radar man on a cruiser, transporting Chinese and Japanese troops from one Pacific Island to another. Dad was bored, with nothing to read but comic books and dirty books. He said he was paid $54 a month, which was the most he'd ever been paid for doing so little.

My parents'  friends had gotten rich in war industries while Dad was out of the loop. Once home, Dad got his old job back running the cotton mill, the biggest industry in town. We moved into a crumbling antebellum house belonging to the mill and slated for demolition. It was in the middle of a state game preserve and most days there were peacocks on the roof. My parents saved the house and eventually bought it and worked on restoring it.

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Once he'd saved it, Dad sat in a easy chair and watched three television sets, each tuned to a different baseball game. Mother dissolved into drink. They didn't get things together to turn the house into the show place she'd envisioned. She only got part way there before alcohol got her. We did straighten out one of the catawompus columns out front.

The four giant pecan trees had been painted white up to eye level. Whether it worked or not, it was rumored to discourage varmints. Mother and I mixed up the paint to match the tree trunks and painted them brown. That was a victory, one of the few on the road to gracious living.

Other guys gloried in war, including my childhood buddy Teddy. Dad didn't want to talk about the War. He was intolerant of the xenophobia that dominated such conversations. He talked about the defeated Japanese troops headed home to a society in ruins. He was compassionate. For him there was no glory, no triumph.

He read anthropology and archaeology and tried to understand the human animal. Mother, across the room, incessantly read historical romance, stuffed with heaving bosoms. The room where they lived their lives was littered with encyclopedias. I kept thinking they were trying to recapture the education they had missed by marrying so young. Mother's father was a lawyer, a judge, a state legislator and owned and edited the newspaper, but mostly he was a poet. And Mother wanted me to be a writer as well.

After the War, people in the South had gone places and done things and sought out a sense of the world around them. My parents' best friends had been places, had seen things. The octet of adventurous Smith sisters were the ones to whom I felt most connected. My favorite was Tookie, a WAC officer and nightclub cigarette girl in New York while her pianist husband Joe, after finishing Harvard, kept the music alive. Dad got Joe a job at the mill.

The New Yorkers came often and, more often than not, brought their buddy Tubby, a majestic WAC general. Tubby was one of the guys and liked to get down on her knees and shoot craps with my father and his poker buddies. My mother and Tookie were avid bibliophiles, always talking books. When I was growing up, Mother said she'd read "all" of Shakespeare to me. Now Tookie took over.

Tookie spotted a book Mother was reading, Isak Dinesen's Seven Gothic Tales, and urged me to read it, saying it was a suitable transition between The Three Musketeers and War and Peace. In the wake of the war, the warriors were always heroes. I read my way through Dostoyevsky, Vonnegut, Hemingway, and whoever was in vogue at the time and had the most attention-getting style. I adored Carson MCullers, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Bill Styron of Lie Down in Darkness.

Who I loved most was Tolstoy. In War and Peace the juvenile hero Nicholas is unhorsed on the battlefield. He comes to, sees the clouds, and soon a cloud of dust on the horizon. He slowly realizes the dust is a French rider coming to kill him. So he ponders, "Why would that man want to kill me, me, whom everyone has always so loved?" Tolstoy debunked the glory of war, which Dad saw as well.

I treasure books. One of the thrills of my life was finding my grandfather's collection of novels in a series of boxes in my grandmother's attic. He had all the works of Dickens, Thackery, Sir Walter Scott, Bullwer-Lytton, Fenimore Cooper, and Jane Austen. I read at least a dollop of them all, but only Jane Austen became part of me.

As Tookie told me, "You are who you read; you become who you write." I was a writer, even if I didn't actually write. Fiction is necessary: Without it we don't know what it feels like to be anyone except yourself, and therefore we don't really know what we are like, what effect others have on us. We aren't whole and we aren't connected.

I worshipped writers even though I didn't actually know one. I was a sportswriter for the Montgomery Advertiser, a travel writer for the Prattville Progress, and a movie reviewer for the college newspaper. But none of that counted. It wasn't fiction, it wasn't me, ushering readers into my life, my story, my view of things, my way of saying things.

I almost met a writer one time. During my psychiatric residency, I was taking a rotation at the state hospital in Milledgeville, 150 miles from Atlanta. My wife Betsy was at home with two small babies. I couldn't come home to Atlanta except on alternate weekends. Dr. Allen, who owned a private psychiatric hospital in town, was an old friend and colleague of Betsy's father. I'd never met him. He called to invite us to a dinner party for a few friends at his house. I explained that Betsy was stuck in Atlanta but I would try. Dr. Allen then asked me to do him a favor and bring another guest, "a crippled lady writer." For some reason that did not register with me.

As the time drew closer, I realized I couldn't miss a glimpse of my children no matter who had invited me to do whatever. I dreamed up a series of make-believe catastrophes that would make it absolutely impossible for me to be there. I gasped when Dr. Allen then said "Flannery will be so disappointed." I had just made it impossible for me to spend a few hours with one of the most exciting Southern gothic writers on the planet. Instead I got to spend a weekend with my family. I realized that was the choice I wished my father had made instead of going off to war and leaving us all, in one way or other, as casualties.

Flannery, if I might call her that after our aborted "date," wrote about the most notorious curses of the south: religion, pellagra, pride, and boll weevils. We all have a few stories to tell, but few of us can tell the stories so memorably as my friend Flannery.

An unexamined life is barely worth living. The South is a land of storytellers. I comfort myself by recalling my occasional brushes with greatness in some arena, like circus clowns, baseball players, and those who had been awakened from sleep by falling meteorites. There are people to whom stories happen but who can't tell the story well enough to make it memorable. They can thumb to the back of the book and see who lived and who died, who got the girl at the end, but knowing the plot is not knowing the story.

There are many untold stories here. Flannery O'Connor died later that year, not from being stood up by me, but from the lupus with which she had suffered for 10 years. Teddy, a sweet, gentle boy who loved war but seemed unsuited for it, went to Annapolis and died in a plane crash. Joe went back to his childhood girlfriend. Mother died of alcohol. Dad married Tookie and everyone read voraciously and lived together happily and briefly before they both died of lung cancer.

When my sister Joanna married, quite a crowd gathered. Teddy was one of four old boyfriends who showed up at her wedding to compete for her hand. She chose another flyboy instead. Betsy and I have been married 50 years, and she's currently reading Mother's copy of War and Peace, signed and dated 1942.

But I never completed the works of Sir Edward Bullwer-Lytton.

Frank Pittman, M.D., is a psychiatrist/family therapist in Atlanta., author, international lecturer and film critic.

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