This was my first but not my last lapse into Finny’s vision of peace. For hours, and sometimes for days, I fell without realizing it into the private explanation of the world. Not that I ever believed that the whole production of World War II was a trick of the eye manipulated by a bunch of calculating fat old men, appealing though this idea was. What deceived me was my own happiness; for peace is indivisible, and the surrounding world confusion found no reflection inside me. So I ceased to have any real sense of it.
This was not shaken even by the enlistment of Leper Lepellier. In fact that made the war seem more unreal than ever. No real war could draw Leper voluntarily away from his snails and beaver dams. His enlistment seemed just another of Leper’s vagaries, such as the time he slept on top of Mount Katahdin in Maine where each morning the sun first strikes United States territory. On that morning, satisfying one of his urges to participate in nature, Leper Lepellier was the first thing the rising sun struck in the United States.
Early in January, when we had all just returned from the Christmas holidays, a recruiter from the United States ski troops showed a film to the senior class in the Renaissance Room. To Leper it revealed what all of us were seeking: a recognizable and friendly face to the war. Skiers in white shrouds winged down virgin slopes, silent as angels, and then, realistically, herring-boned up again, but herringboned in cheerful, sunburned bands, with clear eyes and white teeth and chests full of vigor-laden mountain air. It was the cleanest image of war I had ever seen; even the Air Force, reputedly so high above the infantry’s mud, was stained with axle grease by comparison, and the Navy was vulnerable to scurvy. Nothing tainted these white warriors of winter as they swooped down their spotless mountainsides, and this cool, clean response to war glided straight into Leper’s Vermont heart.
“How do you like that!” he whispered to me in a wondering voice during these scenes. “How do you like that!”
“You know, I think these are pictures of Finnish ski troops,” Phineas whispered on the other side, “and I want to know when they start shooting our allies the Bolsheviks. Unless that war between them was a fake too, which I’m pretty sure it was.”
After the movie ended and the lights came on to illuminate the murals of Tuscany and the painted classical galleries around us, Leper still sat amazed in his folding chair. Ordinarily he talked little, and the number of words which came from him now indicated that this was a turning point in his life.
“You know what? Now I see what racing skiing is all about. It’s all right to miss seeing the trees and the countryside and all the other things when you’ve got to be in a hurry. And when you’re in a War you’ve got to be in a hurry. Don’t you? So I guess maybe racing skiers weren’t ruining the sport after all. They were preparing it, if you see what I mean, for the future. Everything has to evolve or else it perishes.” Finny and I had stood up, and Leper looked earnestly from one to the other of us from his chair. “Take the housefly. If it hadn’t developed all those split-second reflexes it would have become extinct long ago.”
“You mean it adapted itself to the fly swatter?” queried Phineas.
“That’s right. And skiing had to learn to move just as fast or it would have been wiped out by this war. Yes, sir. You know what? I’m almost glad this war came along. It’s like a test, isn’t it, and only the things and the people who’ve been evolving the right way survive.”
You usually listened to Leper’s quiet talking with half a mind, but this theory of his brought me to close attention. How did it apply to me, and to Phineas? How, most of all, did it apply to Leper?
“I’m going to enlist in these ski troops,” he went on mildly, so unemphatically that my mind went back to half-listening. Threats to enlist that winter were always declaimed like Blinker’s, with a grinding of back teeth and a flashing of eyes; I had already heard plenty of them. But only Leper’s was serious.
A week later he was gone. He had been within a few weeks of his eighteenth birthday, and with it all chance of enlistment, of choosing a service rather than being drafted into one, would have disappeared. The ski movie had decided him. “I always thought the war would come for me when it wanted me,” he said when he came to say goodbye the last day. “I never thought I’d be going to it. I’m really glad I saw that movie in time, you bet I am.” Then, as the Devon School’s first recruit to World War II, he went out my doorway with his white stocking cap bobbing behind.
It probably would have been better for all of us if someone like Brinker had been the first to go. He could have been depended upon to take a loud dramatic departure, so that the school would have reverberated for weeks afterward with Brinker’s Last Words, Brinker’s Military Bearing, Brinker’s Sense of Duty. And all of us, influenced by the vacuum of his absence, would have felt the touch of war as a daily fact.
But the disappearing tail of Leper’s cap inspired none of this. For a few days the war was more unimaginable than ever. We didn’t mention it and we didn’t mention Leper, until at last Brinker found a workable point of view. One day in the Butt Room he read aloud a rumor in a newspaper about an attempt on Hitler’s life. He lowered the paper, gazed in a visionary way in front of him, and then remarked, “That was Leper, of course.”
This established our liaison with World War II. The Tunisian campaign became “Leper’s liberation”; the bombing of the Ruhr was greeted by Brinker with hurt surprise: “He didn’t tell us he’d left the ski troops”; the torpedoing of the Scharnhorst: “At it again.” Leper sprang up all over the world at the core of every Allied success. We talked about Leper’s stand at Stalingrad, Leper on the Burma Road, Leper’s convoy to Archangel; we surmised that the crisis over the leadership of the Free French would be resolved by the appointment of neither de Gaulle nor Giraud but Lepellier; we knew, better than the newspapers, that it was not the Big Three but the Big Four who were running the war.
In the silences between jokes about Leper’s glories we wondered whether we ourselves would measure up to the humblest minimum standard of the army. I did not know everything there was to know about myself, and knew that I did not know ft; I wondered in the silences between jokes about Leper whether the still hidden parts of myself might contain the Sad Sack, the outcast, or the coward. We were all at our funniest about Leper, and we all secretly hoped that Leper, that incompetent, was as heroic as we said.
Everyone contributed to this legend except Phineas. At the outset, with the attempt on Hitler’s life, Finny had said, “If someone gave Leper a loaded gun and put it at Hitler’s temple, he’d miss.” There was a general shout of outrage, and then we recommended the building of Leper’s triumphal arch around Brinker’s keystone. Phineas took no part in it, and since little else was talked about in the Butt Room he soon stopped going there and stopped me from going as well—”How do you expect to be an athlete if you smoke like a forest fire?” He drew me increasingly away from the Butt Room crowd, away from Brinker and Chet and all other friends, into a world inhabited by just himself and me, where there was no war at all, just Phineas and me alone among all the people of the world, training for the Olympics of 1944.
Saturday afternoons are terrible in a boys’ school, especially in the winter. There is no football game; it is not possible, as it is in the spring, to take bicycle trips into the surrounding country. Not even the most grinding student can feel required to lose himself in his books, since there is Sunday ahead, long, lazy, quiet Sunday, to do any homework.
And these Saturdays are worst in the late winter when the snow has lost its novelty and its shine, and the school seems to have been reduced to only a network of drains. During the brief thaw in the early afternoon there is a dismal gurgling of dirty water seeping down pipes and along gutters, a gray seamy shifting beneath the crust of snow, which cracks to show patches of frozen mud beneath. Shrubbery loses its bright snow headgear and stands bare and frail, too undernourished to hide the drains it was intended to hide. These are the days when going into any building you cross a mat of dirt and cinders led in by others before you, thinning and finally trailing off in the corridors. The sky is an empty hopeless gray and gives the impression that this is its eternal shade. Winter’s occupation seems to have conquered, overrun and destroyed everything, so that now there is no longer any resistance movement left in nature; all the juices are dead, every sprig of vitality snapped, and now winter itself, an old, corrupt, tired conqueror, loosens its grip on the desolation, recedes a little, grows careless in its watch; sick of victory and enfeebled by the absence of challenge, it begins itself to withdraw from the ruined countryside. The drains alone are active, and on these Saturdays their noises sound a dull recessional to winter.
Only Phineas failed to see what was so depressing. Just as there was no war in his philosophy, there was also no dreary weather. As I have said, all weathers delighted Phineas. “You know what we’d better do next Saturday?” he began in one of his voices, the low-pitched and evenly melodic one which for some reason always reminded me of a Rolls-Royce moving along a highway. “We’d better organize the Winter Carnival.”
We were sitting in our room, on either side of the single large window framing a square of featureless gray sky. Phineas was resting his cast, which was a considerably smaller one now, on the desk and thoughtfully pressing designs into it with a pocket knife. “What Winter Carnival?” I asked.
“The Winter Carnival. The Devon Winter Carnival.”
“There isn’t any Devon Winter Carnival and never has been.”
“There is now. We’ll have it in that park next to the Naguamsett. The main attraction will be sports, naturally, featuring I expect a ski jump—”
“A ski jump! That park’s as flat as a pancake.”
“—and some slalom races, and I think a little track. But we’ve got to have some snow statues too, and a little music, and something to eat. Now, which committee do you want to head?”
I gave him a wintry smile. The snow statues committee.”
“I knew you would. You always were secretly arty, weren’t you? I’ll organize the sports, Brinker can handle the music and food, and then we need somebody to kind of beautify the place, a few holly wreaths and things like that. Someone good with plants and shrubbery. I know. Leper.”
From looking at the star he was imprinting in his cast I looked quickly up at his face. “Leper’s gone.”
“Oh yeah, so he is. Leper would be gone. Well, somebody else then.”
And because it was Finny’s idea, it happened as he said, although not as easily as some of his earlier inspirations. For our dormitory was less enthusiastic about almost everything with each succeeding week. Brinker for example had begun a long, decisive sequence of withdrawals from school activity ever since the morning I deserted his enlistment plan. He had not resented my change of heart, and in fact had immediately undergone one himself. If he could not enlist—and for all his self-sufficiency Brinker could not do much without company—he could at least cease to be so multifariously civilian. So he resigned the presidency of the Golden Fleece Debating Society, stopped writing his school spirit column for the newspaper, dropped the chairmanship of the Underprivileged Local Children subcommittee of the Good Samaritan Confraternity, stilled his baritone in the chapel choir, and even, in his most impressive burst of irresponsibility, resigned from the Student Advisory Committee to the Headmaster’s Discretionary Benevolent Fund. His well-bred clothes had disappeared; these days he wore khaki pants supported by a garrison belt, and boots which rattled when he walked.
“Who wants a Winter Carnival?” he said in the disillusioned way he had lately developed when I brought it up. “What are we supposed to be celebrating?”
“Winter, I guess.”
“Winter!” He gazed out of his window at the vacant sky and seeping ground. “Frankly, I just don’t see anything to celebrate, winter or spring or anything else.”
“This is the first time Finny’s gotten going on anything since … he came back.”
“He has been kind of nonfunctional, hasn’t he? He isn’t brooding, is he?”
“No, he wouldn’t brood.”
“No, I don’t suppose he would. Well, if you think it’s something Finny really wants. Still, there’s never been a Winter Carnival here. I think there’s probably a rule against it.”
“I see,” I said in a tone which made Brinker raise his eyes and lock them with mine. In that plotters’ glance all his doubts vanished, for Brinker the Lawgiver had turned rebel for the Duration.
The Saturday was battleship gray. Throughout the morning equipment for the Winter Carnival had been spirited out of the dormitory and down to the small incomplete public park on the bank of the Naguamsett River. Brinker supervised the transfer, rattling up and down the stairwell and giving orders. He made me think of a pirate captain disposing of the booty. Several jugs of very hard cider which he had browbeaten away from some lowerclassmen were the most cautiously guarded treasure. They were buried in the snow near a clump of evergreens in the center of the park, and Brinker stationed his roommate, Brownie Perkins, to guard them with his life. He meant this literally, and Brownie knew it. So he trembled alone there in the middle of the park for hours, wondering what would happen if he had an attack of appendicitis, unnerved by the thoughts of a fainting spell, horrified by the realization that he might have to move his bowels, until at last we came. Then Brownie crept back to the dormitory, too exhausted to enjoy the carnival at all. On this day of high illegal competitiveness, no one noticed.
The buried cider was half-consciously plotted at the hub of the carnival. Around it sprang up large, sloppy statues, easily modeled because of the snow’s dampness. Nearby, entirely out of place in this snowscape, like a dowager in a saloon, there was a heavy circular classroom table, carried there by superhuman exertions the night before on Finny’s insistence that he had to have something to display the prizes on. On it rested the prizes—Finny’s icebox, hidden all these months in the dormitory basement, a Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary with all the most stimulating words marked, a set of York barbells, the Iliad with the English translation of each sentence written above it, Brinker’s file of Betty Grable photographs, a lock of hair cut under duress from the head of Hazel Brewster, the professional town belle, a handwoven rope ladder with the proviso that it should be awarded to someone occupying a room on the third floor or higher, a forged draft registration card, and $4.13 from the Headmaster’s Discretionary Benevolent Fund. Brinker placed this last prize on the table with such silent dignity that we all thought it was better not to ask any questions about it.
Phineas sat behind the table in a heavily carved black walnut chair; the arms ended in two lions’ heads, and the legs ended in paws gripping wheels now sunk in the snow. He had made the purchase that morning. Phineas bought things only on impulse and only when he had the money, and since the two states rarely coincided his purchases were few and strange.
Chet Douglass stood next to him holding his trumpet. Finny had regretfully given up the plan of inviting the school band to supply music, since it would have spread news of our carnival to every corner of the campus. Chet in any case was an improvement over that cacophony. He was a slim, fair-skinned boy with a ball of curly auburn hair curving over his forehead, and he devoted himself to playing two things, tennis and the trumpet. He did both with such easy, inborn skill that after observing him I had begun to think that I could master either one any weekend I tried. Much like the rest of us on the surface, he had an underlying obliging and considerate strain which barred him from being a really important member of the class. You had to be rude at least sometimes and edgy often to be credited with “personality,” and without that accolade no one at Devon could be anyone. No one, with the exception of course of Phineas.
To the left of the Prize Table Brinker straddled his cache of cider; behind him was the clump of evergreens, and behind them there was after all a gentle rise, where the Ski Jump Committee was pounding snow into a little take-off ramp whose lip was perhaps a foot higher than the slope of the rise. From there our line of snow statues, unrecognizable artistic attacks on the Headmaster, Mr. Ludsbury, Mr. Patch-Withers, Dr. Stanpole, the new dietitian, and Hazel Brewster curved in an enclosing half-circle to the icy, muddy, lisping edge of the tidewater Naguamsett and back to the other side of the Prize Table.
When the ski jump was ready there was a certain amount of milling around; twenty boys, tightly reined in all winter, stood now as though with the bit firmly clamped between their teeth, ready to stampede. Phineas should have started the sports events but he was absorbed in cataloguing the prizes. All eyes swung next upon Brinker. He had been holding a pose above his cider of Gibraltar invulnerability; he continued to gaze challengingly around him until he began to realize that wherever he looked, calculating eyes looked back.
“All right, all right,” he said roughly, “let’s get started.”
The ragged circle around him moved perceptibly closer.
“Let’s get going,” he yelled. “Come on, Finny. What’s first?”
Phineas had one of those minds which could record what is happening in the background and do nothing about it because something else was preoccupying him. He seemed to sink deeper into his list.
“Phineas!” Brinker pronounced his name with a maximum use of the teeth. “What is next?”
Still the sleek brown head bent mesmerized over the list.
“What’s the big hurry, Brinker?” someone from the tightening circle asked with dangerous gentleness. “What’s the big rush?”
“We can’t stand here all day,” he blurted. “We’ve got to get started if we’re going to have this damn thing. What’s next? Phineas!”
At last the recording in Finny’s mind reached its climax. He looked vaguely up, studied the straddling, at-bay figure of Brinker at the core of the poised perimeter of boys, hesitated, blinked, and then in his organ voice said good-naturedly, “Next? Well that’s pretty clear. You are.”
Chet released from his trumpet the opening, lifting, barbaric call of a bullfight, and the circle of boys broke wildly over Brinker. He flailed back against the evergreens, and the jugs appeared to spring out of the snow. “What the hell,” he kept yelling, off balance among the branches. “What … the … hell! ” By then his cider, which he had apparently expected to dole out according to his own governing whim, was disappearing. There was going to be no government, even by whim, even by Brinker’s whim, on this Saturday at Devon.
From a scramble of contenders I got one of the jugs, elbowed off a counterattack, opened it, sampled it, choked, and then went through with my original plan by stopping Brinker’s mouth with it. His eyes bulged, and blood vessels in his throat began to pulsate, until at length I lowered the jug.
He gave me a long, pondering look, his face closed and concentrating while behind it his mind plainly teetered between fury and hilarity; I think if I had batted an eye he would have hit me. The carnival’s breaking apart into a riot hung like a bomb between us. I kept on looking expressionlessly back at him until beneath a blackening scowl his mouth opened enough to fire out the words, “I’ve been violated.”
I jerked the jug to my mouth and took a huge gulp of cider in relief, and the violence latent in the day drifted away; perhaps the Naguamsett carried it out on the receding tide. Brinker strode through the swirl of boys to Phineas. “I formally declare,” he bellowed, “that these Games are open.”
“You can’t do that,” Finny said rebukingly. “Who ever heard of opening the Games without the sacred fire from Olympus?”
Sensing that I must act as the Chorus, I registered on my face the universally unheard-of quality of the Games without fire. “Fire, fire,” I said across the damp snow.
“We’ll sacrifice one of the prizes,” said Phineas, seizing the Iliad. He sprinkled the pages with cider to make them more inflammable, touched a match to them, and a little jet of flame curled upward. The Games, alight with Homer and cider, were open.
Chet Douglass, leaning against the side of the Prize Table, continued to blow musical figures for his own enlightenment. Forgetful of us and the athletic programing Finny now put into motion, he strolled here and there, sometimes at the start of the ski jump competition, blowing an appropriate call, more often invoking the serene order of Haydn, or a high, remote, arrogant Spanish world, or the cheerful, lowdown carelessness of New Orleans.
The hard cider began to take charge of us. Or I wonder now whether it wasn’t cider but our own exuberance which intoxicated us, sent restraint flying, causing Brinker to throw the football block on the statue of the Headmaster, giving me, as I put on the skis and slid down the small slope and off the miniature ski jump a sensation of soaring flight, of hurtling high and far through space; inspiring Phineas, during one of Chet’s Spanish inventions, to climb onto the Prize Table and with only one leg to create a droll dance among the prizes, springing and spinning from one bare space to another, cleanly missing Hazel Brewster’s hair, never marring by a misstep the pictures of Betty Grable. Under the influence not I know of the hardest cider but of his own inner joy at life for a moment as it should be, as it was meant to be in his nature, Phineas recaptured that magic gift for existing primarily in space, one foot conceding briefly to gravity its rights before spinning him off again into the air. It was his wildest demonstration of himself, of himself in the kind of world he loved; it was his choreography of peace.
And when he stopped and sat down among the prizes and said, “Now we’re going to have the Decathlon. Quiet everybody, our Olympic candidate Gene Forrester, is now going to qualify,” it wasn’t cider which made me in this moment champion of everything he ordered, to run as though I were the abstraction of speed, to walk the half-circle of statues on my hands, to balance on my head on top of the icebox on top of the Prize Table, to jump if he had asked it across the Naguamsett and land crashing in the middle of Quackenbush’s boathouse, to accept at the end of it amid a clatter of applause—for on this day even the schoolboy egotism of Devon was conjured away—a wreath made from the evergreen trees which Phineas placed on my head. It wasn’t the cider which made me surpass myself, it was this liberation we had torn from the gray encroachments of 1943, the escape we had concocted, this afternoon of momentary, illusory, special and separate peace.
And it was this which caused me not to notice Brownie Perkins rejoin us from the dormitory, and not to hear what he was saying until Finny cried hilariously, “A telegram for Gene? Ifs the Olympic Committee. They want you! Of course they want you! Give it to me, Brownie, I’ll read it aloud to this assembled host.” And it was this which drained away as I watched Finny’s face pass through all the gradations between uproariousness and shock.
I took the telegram from Phineas, facing in advance whatever the destruction was. That was what I learned to do that winter.
I have escaped and need help. I am at Christmas location. You understand. No need to risk address here. My safety depends on you coming at once.