I've been reading the memoirs of one of my favorite contemporary American poets, Charles Simic. Readers of Halfway Down the Danube with Balkan-dar may have noticed his last name; yes, he was born in Belgrade. But hey, being from somewhere else is the American condition; and even before I knew he once lived in Chicago, I thought his poetry had a very Chicago feel. Anyway, here's an extended passage from his A Fly in the Soup. Enjoy!
In 1972 I met one of the men who bombed me in 1944. I had just made my first trip back to Belgrade after almost twenty years. Upon my return to the States, I went to a literary gathering in San Francisco, where I ran into the poet Richard Hugo in a restaurant. We chatted, he asked me how I spent my summer, and I told him that I had just returned from Belgrade. "Oh yes," he said, "I can see that city well." Without knowing my background, he proceeded to draw on the tablecloth, among the breadcrumbs and wine stains, the location on the main post office, the bridges over the Danube and Sava, and a few other important landmarks. Without a clue as to what this all meant, supposing that he had visited the city as a tourist at one time, I inquired how much time he had spent in Belgrade. "I was never there," he replied. "I only bombed it a few times." When absolutely astonished, I blurted out that I was there at the time and that it was me he was bombing, Hugo became very upset. In fact, he was deeply shaken. After he stopped apologizing and calmed down a little, I hurried to assure him that I bore no grudges and asked him how is it that they never hit Gestapo headquarters or any other bulding where the Germans were holed up. Hugo explained that they made their bombing runs from Italy, going first after the Romanian oil fields, which had tremendous strategic importance for the Nazis and were heavily defended. They lost a plane or two on every raid, and with all that, on the way back, they were supposed to unload the rest of the bombs over Belgrade. Well, they didn't take any chances. They flew high and dropped the remaining payloads any way they could, anticipating already being back in Italy, spending the rest of the day on the beach in the company of some local girls. I assured Hugo that this is exactly what I would have done myself, but he continued to plead for forgiveness and explain himself. He grew up in a tough neighborhood in Seattle, came from poor, working-class folk. His mother, a teenager, had to abandon him after his birth. We were two befuddled bit players in events beyond our control. He at least took responsibility for his acts, which of course is unheard of in today's risk-free war, where the fashion is to blame one's mistakes on technology. Hugo was a man of integrity, one of the finest poets of his generation, and, strange as it may appear, it did not occur to me to blame him for what he had done. I probably would have spat in the face of the dimwit whose decision it was to go along with Tito's request and have the Allies bomb a city on Easter full of its own allies. Still, when Hugo later wrote a poem about what he did and dedicated it to me, I was surprised. How complicated it all was, how inadequate our joint attempt to make some sense of it in the face of the unspoken suspicion that none of it made a hell of a lot of sense.
Letter to Simic from Boulder Dear Charles: And so we meet once in San Francisco and I learn I bombed you long ago in Belgrade when you were five. I remember. We were after a bridge on the Danube hoping to cut the German armies off as they fled north from Greece. We missed. Not unusual, considering I was one of the bombardiers. I couldn't hit my ass if I sat on the Norden or rode a bomb down singing The Star Spangled Banner. I remember Belgrade opened like a rose when we came in. Not much flak. I didn't know about the daily hanging, the 80,000 Slav who dangled from German ropes in the city, lessons to the rest. I was interested mainly in staying alive, that moment the plane jumped free from the weight of the bombs and we went home. What did you speak then? Serb, I suppose. And what did your mind do with the terrible howl of bombs? What is Serb for "fear"? It must be the same as in English, one long primitive wail of dying children, one child fixed forever in dead stare. I don't apologize for the war, or what I was. I was willingly confused by the times. I think I even believed in heroics (for others, not for me). I believed the necessity of that suffering world, hoping it would learn not to do it again. But I was young. The world never learns. History has a way of making the past palatable, the dead a dream. Dear Charles, I'm glad you avoided the bombs, that you live with us now and write poems. I must tell you though, I felt funny that day in San Francisco. I kept saying to myself, he was on the ground that day, the sky eerie mustard and our engines roaring everything out of the way. And the world comes clean in moments like that for survivors. The world comes clean as clouds in summer, the pure puffed white, soft birds careening in and out, our lives with a chance to drift on slow over the world, our bomb bays empty, the target forgotten, the enemy ignored. Nice to meet you finally after all the mindless hate. Next time, if you want to be sure you survive, sit on the bridge I'm trying to hit and wave. I'm coming in on course but nervous and my cross hairs flutter. Wherever you are on earth, you are safe. I'm aiming but my bombs are candy and I've lost the lead plane. Your friend, Dick.