We all worry about what lurks in the shadows. It’s an innate human fear, the fear of the unknown, the fear of something that we just can’t place our finger on. Yet it seems that a hulking monstrosity is sometimes stalking us just beyond the edges of our sight, situated perfectly in the blind spot between reality and fantasy, waiting to devour us whole. Its teeth like knives drip with blood, its claws made of daggers as sharp as the things that we don’t like to talk about, the moments of our lives that are left out of idle conversations with family members over dinner and phone calls and letters home pricking our skin and drawing blood whenever they cross our mind.
Sometimes these things we fear are obvious. Other times they are hidden in the deepest and darkest corners of our existence. In these places no one else can find them; it is there that each one of us can feel the tingling goosebumps of our own personalized slice of the macabre.
I have always had a fascination with World War II. Maybe it’s the longing for meaning seen retroactively in the bodies littering the battlefields of the world so that others could go on living. Maybe it’s the hope that someday we can be as strong as our grandfathers were, the “Greatest Generation” as they are often romanticized. Or maybe it is just because we are boys and the idea of being a war hero has been shoved into our heads through video games and movies and the whole lot of entertainment based on one of humanity’s darkest hours. I stumbled upon a collection of personal letters in the archives at the University of Alabama, penned and sent home by two brothers, John and Patrick Bergman*. Both men were United States soldiers fighting far across the oceans, thousands of miles away from their home in suburban Newark, New Jersey. The letters were sent via V-Mail, John’s from the sunny shores of New Guinea and Patrick’s from the hills of Northern Italy. Yet, across the thousands of miles of water and mountains and blood and bombs separating the two brothers, I felt an unspoken agreement between their experiences in such different theaters of the war, a commonality that pervaded their communications with loved ones back in the States; their letters were, for the most part, quite mundane.
I was a bit shocked; when finding these letters, I had expected some degree of suffering to spill off of the page, to read tales recounted of the dangerous battles the men faced so far from home. Yet, when reading closer, I realized that I had been deceived. These letters were filled with pain, evidence of the darkness that wrapped most of the world in the fog of war during the late 1930s and early 1940s. What was not said in the letters, the details that were excluded or in many cases glossed over, may have been the most important pieces of all in sending their experiences of the War out into the world. Within the unspoken sorrow of the soldiers’ lives at war, I began to feel echoes of my own silent suffering at the hands of my own mind, and how sometimes the biggest battles I fought were the moments I never wished to reveal to anyone.
The light of nostalgia paints my memories; I often wonder if it painted their dreams of Newark the same way.
When I was in the sixth grade, I began to notice it. It lurked in my room after the lights went out and left me tossing and turning, trying to fight off the images it pasted across the insides of my eyelids. It sat, waiting, in every advertisement passing by on the White Horse Pike in Cherry Hill as my parents drove me to school in the darkened morning hours. It slept in the beat of every song I loved, every guitar line I so desperately wanted to mimic, every lyric that spoke to my middle-school heart, waiting to rear its disgusting head. When it struck, I began; One-two-three, one-two-three-four-five stop six NO seven-eight-nine hold it hold it it’s gone. If I didn’t do my rituals, if I didn’t make sure to land on an odd number or shut the door three times while willing that the thoughts didn’t come back before bolting to the car so as to not be forced to retrace the steps I had already walked five times, I knew the demon lurking in the unseen world right in front of me would finally have his way.
Throughout the years since my diagnosis with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, the battles have raged on continuously, sometimes beneath the cover of night in guerrilla firefights of logic and mental warfare and other times in grandiose assaults on the enemy general himself through exposure therapy. Over the course of the war I have become an expert at deflecting unwanted advances of the opposing infantry forces and executing spies in the form of old rituals coming back to haunt the halls of my brain or new compulsions attempting to weasel their way into my meticulously observed everyday existence. Over time, I came to a sort of truce with the fiend sharing my skull with me, agreeing that while the war would never be truly over, the least we could do was relegate our conflict to small skirmishes every now and again with the help of General Zoloft and his 50 milligram infantry cannons. I rarely thought about the darkness after that; rather, I let it slide on by and waved from my front porch as it looked at directly at me, its knife-like eyes now blunt, its jet-black stare more morose than violent. This was after I decided to break the silence, after I realized that the lies and counterfeit serenity that I showed everyone including my parents and therapist were leading me down a road that I would never emerge from if I didn’t speak; but now, we go back to the beginning.
That same darkness lurks unassumingly in a photograph of a sunny day in Newark, about an hour and a half and 60 years away from my life in Cherry Hill, in the childhood of the 1940s. John and Patrick Bergman are standing on the front lawn of their family’s suburban home. It appears to be spring; the trees filling the frame behind them are lush and full, the grass beneath their impeccably shined shoes gives way to their weighted postures with soft ease. The men are dressed to the nines in their military uniforms, smiles slung across their faces with reckless ease. Their expressions look like those of two young men looking forward to a night on the town, not waiting to board two separate ships and sail off across the horizon to fight in the hills of Italy or on the golden shores of the South Pacific. The photograph betrays the fact that these men at one point in time knew of life before rations and churning waves and roaring gunfire. In a way, the photograph reminded me of pictures of myself when I was younger. As a young child, my relationship with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder was a simple one. Every now and then it would knock on the door, ask if I had a minute to talk about salvation, then show me the rituals I needed to do and quietly leave once I had the hang of them. Like the Bergman brothers, I knew the darkness was there; it just didn’t seem so close back then. The light of nostalgia paints my memories; I often wonder if it painted their dreams of Newark the same way.
In early 1944, Officer John Bergman (having been promoted to Officer rank at Fort Belvoir, VA in 1943 according to a postcard found in the Bergman collection) was shipped off to New Guinea while Patrick was carted to the hillsides of Northern Italy. Serving with the 642nd Engineer Company, John did not see much combat in his early years of service, standing in stark contrast to his brother’s experiences charging northward from Rome with the 363rd Infantry, pushing deeper and deeper into the Axis occupied areas of the Mediterranean. In a letter sent to his sister, on August 13, 1944, John speaks of things being relatively calm down beneath the equator, with lots of swimming and sunbathing as opposed to nights of waiting to be blown to bits by Japanese bombers. The most excitement in the early days of his deployment in 1944, he recounts, came in the form of an invasion of giant land crabs that were dispatched with clubs and hammers since the Japanese at this point in the invasion of New Guinea were relegated to starving in the woods, stumbling incoherently out every once and a while to beg for food from the enemy.
In the letter, John points out that the Japanese stragglers were “too hungry to do much harm”. In truth, the casual tone and his description of the emaciated soldiers reached out from the darkness and grabbed a hold of me. I would like to think that John was compassionate toward those left-behind enemy troops when coming upon them in the forest or on the beach, but I am not so sure. In a later letter dated October 28th, 1944 after moving to the Philippines, he writes, “it sure was a pretty sight one day when a Japanese bomber…had its whole tail separate from the ship in mid-air.” In these revelations of the later days of the war, when Japan was hanging on by the skin of their teeth, the monster lurking between the lines is not the suffering of American soldiers, with images of John and his companions praying for their lives behind sandbag base walls as shells and bombs rain down from above. What scares me about these letters is the unspoken desire, written between the lines of ink, to watch the enemy wither away slowly, to celebrate as a pilot and his crew plummet from the sky in a fiery ball seemingly cast from the fingers of Lucifer himself into the dark expanses of the Pacific. In the skies of the European theatre, downed pilots behind enemy lines had a chance to get home again through the fields of France or the forests of Germany. In the Pacific, there was only the dark, sprawling abyss of the ocean to welcome ejected pilots. I see no “pretty sight” in that scene.
Now we jump back forward in time, back to the East Coast of the United States. We leave the reality of brutal humanity and dive into intrusive thoughts of the heinous atrocities we can commit which popped into my head constantly, beating my existence into a bloody pulp and tossing it across the floor of my adolescence. Beginning in 7th grade, about a year after I was formally diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, my own mind decided to turn on me. It had met its greatest ally in its quest to destroy my self-worth: puberty. What had once been a polite acknowledgement of the darkness, like the photograph of the Bergman brothers before deployment, had morphed into a full-on exposé of the sheer filth of human nature. Most people have intrusive thoughts at one point or another, thoughts that go against every fiber of their being. But you snap back to reality, wondering what the hell you were thinking. OCD, however, won’t let you move on. It takes those thoughts, the worst possible things you can imagine, and multiplies them by a power of ten.Suddenly you believe that you are a sick psychopathic freak, that you do get off on fantasies of murder and destruction, that you are a pervert that you are a monster that you are the darkness. My life became a sort of personal hell, a hell I was forced to accept.
Silence isn’t always golden.
While John was sitting on sunny South Pacific shores and I, years later, was falling deeper and deeper into my head, Sgt. Patrick Bergman was forced to accept a hell of his own. In the month of July 1994, the Allies began pushing North from their invasion of Rome into the rolling fields of Northern Italy, attempting to drive Nazi forces out of the country. In the only letter written by Patrick that I was able to find, sent to his sister on July 17th, 1944, he writes, “Some time ago, you asked me if I was in combat”. A pause then lingers in the division of text, the air in between two words so thick one could cut it with a bayonet. “well I wasn’t then but I sure am now.” He mentions very little about the actual combat in the letter, yet the implication of the horrors of war lies heavy across the page. Rereading his words, safe and warm on a chilly evening, I am carried out of the archives, across the roaring Atlantic and back in time past my younger obsession-riddled self, past John swimming in the warm waters of the Pacific, watching the dark water fade into the cerulean shimmering of the Mediterranean and then into rocky shores and wheat-strewn hills glowing in the summer sun as if stepping into a sepia-toned photograph until I find myself sitting next to Patrick on a night still as death’s embrace.
He doesn’t know I’m there. In his foxhole he sits upright, knees held tight against his chest rising and falling in a rhythm mimicking the violent flutter of a Messerschmitt’s propeller. In the stillness I hear his heart attempting to break out of his chest. Then, an explosion of light. The night is ripped asunder as the hounds of hell are released in the form of artillery shells gouging the hillside, bringing the violence of the sun into the moon’s domain.
The stillness is replaced by the screams of men torn in two, bodies cast into the air and dashed against the rocks on the side of the road, bloody murder echoing throughout the battlefield and into the ears of Patrick Bergman. Yet still he sits, his breathing coming faster than before, time slowing into a steady rhythm mimicking the mortar shells colliding with his fellow soldiers. He digs his foxhole deep, placing it behind a large boulder. As the reality of war surrounds him, maybe he thinks of standing atop Mt. Vesuvius with his fellow soldiers when moving through Napoli. He wrote about it in the letter he sent to his sister; standing up there, this hell must have seemed so far away. Did he feel invincible? Did he feel that, with the world at his feet, he could have reached up and skimmed the heavens with his fingers, the same fingers that now clutched his rifle in a tiny hole in the middle of an inferno?
Why did he talk about the abundance of homemade wine, the warmth of the Italian summer, the trips with his company to sightsee, the beautiful Italian women and barely mention the hell he lived in much of the time? I don’t know. What I do know is that sometimes, the things that make us tremble with fear and the things we never talk about are the things that hurt us most, yet make such a massive impact on our lives, whether we are at War with an enemy country or with ourselves.
When Patrick went missing, you wouldn’t know it from reading John’s letters. You wouldn’t really know anything was wrong when reading John’s pen and ink snippets of the South Pacific up until his unit got moved to the Philippines. You wouldn’t know that his brother, his own flesh and blood, might have been lying on a scorched battlefield in full view of the sky he once touched high atop Mt. Vesuvius, finally at peace from the hell he endured while John was just beginning to accept his own stygian reality. You wouldn’t know that I spent nights tossing and turning so that I could have a bit of peace from the sick thoughts torturing my every waking moment. You wouldn’t know that I existed in my own world in my head, a world constantly at war, hammering a smile onto my real face so no one would think that I wasn’t there. You wouldn’t know the horrific oaths I swore I would fulfill if I could only meet my illness in physical combat, if I could somehow conjure up an entity embodying my OCD with which to do battle, a fight so violent that it sickens me to know that I felt that degree of anger in my past. Yet the anger built up inside of me until I could bear it no longer.
I wonder whether John felt the same way.
I have no idea what happened to Patrick Bergman. All I have is a letter from a family friend, Linda Parker, sent to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Bergman from the far-off shores of Australia. Her uncertainty mirrors John’s as well as my own. “It must be terrible for you,” she writes, “to have that suspense of not knowing what has happened to him.” Words every mother wants to hear, surely. Oddly enough, in the collection of family papers there is no mention of Patrick after Linda’s letter. While John continues to send letters to his sister, he never once mentions his brother. I cannot speak for him, but I know that if I were to lose one of my brothers, one of the first things I would reach for would be the comfort of family. I would want to share our sorrow, our grief and the hole in our lives that once was filled. I would be seething with sorrow, and it would affect everything I did, everything I touched, and everything I was. Then again, maybe John’s lack of response speaks to how we all deal with suffering in our own way. In the deepest and darkest hours of my battle with OCD I, too, kept quiet.
We prepare for battle.
Silence isn’t always golden. Sometimes, silence is a hell in and of itself. Many stories thrive on silence; when told orally, the pauses and spaces in between words and sentences give breathing room, allowing listeners to focus and wait with bated breath for the next words. On the page, silence in the form of blank space, pauses, commas, periods and the whole lot of techniques sometimes tells more about a character than the words they say. All I know is that my silence was a glass prison. I could see freedom; I was just too scared to break out. Silence is what ties our stories together, mine and Patrick’s and John’s, in different ways and with differing degrees of intensity, but we all remained silent believing it to be the answer to our pain, a way to keep our loved ones from worrying about us, a way to repress the darkness for just a little while longer.
This time travelling odyssey comes to an end as our storylines begin to converge, with battles on the horizon and the silence roaring louder than ever before. On an October night in 1944, John Bergman sits in a landing ship in churning waters right off the coast of an island in the Philippines, most likely the eastern shore of Leyte. In the quiet of a bone-chilling December evening in 2010, just before midnight, I sit in my room in the basement illuminated only by the harsh white glow of my laptop screen. John rocks back and forth in the waves with the rest of his unit, hearing the lapping of the salty water against the cold steel of the landing craft. I shift in my chair, my hands poised over the keyboard, my mind formulating the words before I begin the invasion. In my mind, John imagines the Japanese forces, mere yards away from where he now waits to meet them in a hail of gunfire. He imagines their faces lurking in the jungle, their guns shining in the glistening moonlight. I remove my hands from the keyboard, sifting my hands through my thick hair, knowing that once I write this email that there is no going back; I too will have a battle to face. Up until this point John has not faced much of the darkness that has been lurking all around him. On the other side of the world, his brother has gone missing and here he sits, having left the golden shores of New Guinea for his first real taste of combat in a long, long time.
We prepare for battle. We sit, separated by time and space, staring into the maw of two very different enemies. This December night is one of the toughest battles I have ever fought, even though it’s all happening within my head. I sit, my skin growing hot with years of suffering and sorrow and fear and hatred spilling down my face in salty streams. John waits. I wait. Then, the thud of the landing craft meeting land. The click of my fingers hammering the keyboard. The night sky appears before John’s eyes from behind the heavy steel of the vehicle’s door as it descends for what feels like an eternity. My therapist’s email address appears in the To field, and the past few years of hell appear in prose on my screen.
John may have thought of his brother, the news of his disappearance still fresh in his mind. Maybe he never mentioned Patrick in his letters because it would be too painful. Maybe it was because it would feel too real, writing it down in permanent ink. Maybe it reminded him too much of the innocence that they shared in that photograph\ outside of their home so long ago. We will never know. Would he write about the battles of the Philippines in his letters home, or would he continue writing of the warm ocean and of the palm trees and the farm back home? I will never know if John broke the silence, or if he even made it out of the South Pacific alive.
I do know, though, that in the aftermath of the silence, as the LST doors opened and the fire of the Philippines replaced the quiet of New Guinea, John’s true battle with the darkness began, as did mine. I clicked Send. Silence does not make the pain disappear; it only hides it for a while.
*All names changed for anonymity.