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Sassy, Sad Tales Draw on Vivid Images of WWII

August 23, 2000|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On my desk is a collection of "trench art," the handiwork of soldiers, sailors and airmen who fashioned various useful objects out of the detritus of war during their idle hours at the front--a cigarette lighter made out of an aircraft nut and a couple of uniform buttons, for example, or an ashtray made out of the brass casing of an antiaircraft shell. I began to find these objects--so clever and yet so poignant--in antique shops throughout the West over the last several years as the aging veterans of World War II (or, I fear, their surviving children) cleaned out their trunks and footlockers.

Something like the literary equivalent of trench art is on display in "Old Man in a Baseball Cap: A Memoir of World War II" by Fred Rochlin (HarperCollins, $20, 146 pages). Rochlin, a prominent Los Angeles architect who is married to historian and novelist Harriet Rochlin, was in his 70s when he enrolled in a storytelling workshop with monologuist Spalding Gray. Rochlin rummaged through his own collection of war stories to come up with raw material, and the end product is "Old Man in a Baseball Cap," a series of short, sassy, spirited tales of what it was like to serve in "the good war."

Rochlin was 19 when he enlisted in the Army Air Corps, and after only three weeks of training at Mather Field in Sacramento, he was assigned to an American air base in Italy as a navigator aboard a B-24 bomber. What allowed him to survive 50 combat missions over Europe, as we learn in "Old Man in a Baseball Cap," was a combination of technical competence, physical courage and raw superstition.

"I wore my wristwatch on my right wrist on all even days and on my left wrist on all odd days," Rochlin recalls. "Before takeoff, we all stood around and peed on the nose wheel. That was a given, it was mandatory."

Rochlin's experience of World War II owes more to Joseph Heller than Norman Mailer. His very first briefing focused on how to avoid catching a venereal disease, and the specific advice he was given cannot be printed in a family newspaper. Neither can the ingenious device that he used to avoid exposing certain body parts to frostbite when flying at high altitudes.

At moments, "Old Man in a Baseball Cap" is laugh-out-loud funny, as when Rochlin explains how the African American fighter pilots who accompanied his bombardment group extracted a certain delicious revenge on the racist colonel from Mississippi who commanded the mission. But Rochlin always returns to the hard truth of war, and the book is more often harrowing and even heartbreaking.

One day, for example, Rochlin helped save the life of a pregnant 14-year-old in a nearby town by assisting in an emergency caesarean delivery. A native of Nogales, Ariz., Rochlin spoke Spanish, and that was "close enough" to Italian for the Air Corps. The next day he participated in the bombing of a Hungarian village that had been mistakenly identified as a military target by faulty intelligence reports.

"Isn't this insanity?" he asked the flight surgeon who had performed the caesarean. "First, you follow orders and do what you've been trained to do," the officer lectured him. "Then just forget it. And if you can't forget, then pretend. And if you can't pretend, then deny, deny, deny. And that drink you're having, finish it, and have another and another."

Much of what Rochlin recalls from his service in the Second World War rings true, not only the compelling details of air combat but also the scandalous sexual adventures, the petty embarrassments of living with 120 men in barracks with only 20 toilets, the survival strategies for dealing with tedium and the ones for dealing with terror. Still, a few of his yarns, including an unlikely adventure that began when he was shot down over Yugoslavia and ended with a comic romantic liaison with an amorous female partisan, are almost too good to be true. And Rochlin himself is candid enough to warn his readers that truth is not always the essential ingredient of a well-told war story.

"The older I get," he cracks, "the more I remember things that never happened."

*

Russell Charles Leong, the poet and filmmaker who serves as editor of Amerasia Journal and the publications of the Asian American Studies Center at UCLA, offers his own take on the Asian experience in America in "Phoenix Eyes and Other Stories" (University of Washington Press, $30, hardcover; $16.95, paper; 208 pages), a collection of startling and unsettling short stories that are mostly set in the landscape of contemporary California.

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