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RETRO: A Guy Named Jim

Author James Jones starting out in the 1940s.

FOR JULIA SCHOPICK

“I caught the bus at midnight, aware that I was leaving for good,” a combat veteran named Jim said of his exit from Camp Campbell, Kentucky.

It was 1944. He’d been reassigned there, despite injuries, to train with an infantry division that deployed later in the year to France. That AWOL episode (his third) in May 1944 would be Jim’s last. It’s startling to ponder his subsequent fate – his destiny.

By the time of the D-Day landings at the five crimson beaches of Normandy on Tuesday, June 6, 1944, a letter from Jim was en route to his brother Jeff. Written on Saturday, June 3, 1944 (just two days prior to the Allied liberation of Rome, which was quickly eclipsed in the news by the monumental landings of Gen. Eisenhower’s armies at Omaha, Utah, Gold, Juno, and Sword beaches), it was a letter of personal defeat.

“I suppose you’ve already had a letter about my being AWOL,” he wrote to Jeff. “So it won’t be a surprise to you to know I’m in jail. I’m in the psychiatric ward of the station hospital. What happened was very simple: I had stood the army as long as I could.”

On the day he wrote those words, Jim had been in the U. S. Army for 1,655 days.

He enlisted after high school, in 1939, and witnessed Pearl Harbor in 1941. He’d been wounded at Guadalcanal in early 1943. He even had a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.  Now he was working feverishly on a first novel.

Simultaneously, Lowney Handy, seventeen years his senior, was also at work. Lowney was a childless Illinois housewife married to an executive in small-town Robinson, Illinois. She had met Jim on the weekend of his 22nd birthday, when he visited Robinson. Quickly she became his newfound ally, surrogate mother, patron, lover, advocate and protector.

“[Lowney] came over to Indianapolis & got me & talked me into coming back,” Jim wrote in his explanatory letter to his brother.

Lowney Handy with Jim and her husband Harry in 1947.

By that time, a life-transforming letter had been typed by Lowney and sent to Captain Eugene A. Mailloux of the 842nd Quartermaster Gas Supply Company at Camp Campbell, Kentucky. It proved to be a letter that seriously influenced Capt. Mailloux and spurred him on in his effort to be helpful. Lowney insisted that Jim “[is] harmless if left alone to work at the one thing he cares about.” The “one thing,” of course, was writing the Great American Novel.

The bulk of Lowney’s first letter to Capt. Mailloux testified to Jim’s potential. “He is a writer of very rare promise,” she insisted. “This is not only my opinion but I have shown samples of his work to a number of people. Among these was Tom Uzzell, former fiction editor of Collier’s. All agree that [Jim] is brilliant, undoubtedly [a] genius. If he is a poor soldier, this will account for it, for genius is almost invariably astute in one line and utter failures in all others . . . my friends agree that he is in a class with Ernest Hemingway, [Thomas] Wolfe, [and] John Dos Passos.”

When replying on June 7 to Lowney’s letter, Capt. Mailloux wrote:

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I don’t think he is mentally unbalanced . . . I have come to the conclusion that he is a conceited, egotistical, selfish individual who thinks he is a genius because a few people have told him so. On the other hand, his colossal conceit has led him to a state of mind where he might, to dramatize a situation, do something drastic, and I wouldn’t want to be held responsible for any of that. 

It borders on the fantastic that Jim was lucky enough in June 1944 to be appraised, as it were, inside the military system by a Captain so judicious. Every step of the way, as Capt. Mailloux followed by-the-book procedures and protocols, he also managed to keep in mind Jim’s humanity, his years of service, his having been wounded, and more.

As Capt. Mailloux explained to Lowney:

As soon as [Jim] reported to me, I of course, put him under arrest. As I saw he was under some mental strain and in a very depressed mood, I called the Detachment Surgeon and had him placed under observation. They in turn are now taking action toward a possible discharge . . . I do appreciate the fact that he has been wounded and I have made inquiries as to what steps he could take to get a discharge on that basis. And as far as I’m concerned what the Medical authorities decide will also be my decision.

That said, Captain Mailloux asserted: “I have made further study of [his] case and I’m convinced that [Jim], who is undoubtedly very brilliant, could be made to realize that no matter what his personal feelings are, we all have a job to do these days and that personal ideals should be laid to one side until that job is done.”

Lowney sent another letter to Captain Mailloux on June 10, 1944, maximizing her powers of insight and empathy. She cited one peculiar sentence from Mailloux’s June 7 letter to her. In that initial letter, Capt. Mailloux had ended a paragraph in a way that any careless reader may have missed. But a careful reader—seeing between the lines, as Lowney did—could ascertain a signal.

Capt. Mailloux had written: “I know that [Jim] will be a tough job for somebody and I’m further convinced that you are the only person who can do it. Won’t you help?”

She took the bait. Lowney’s reply to Capt. Mailloux was an all-embracing appreciation of the Captain’s intelligence, integrity, decency and perhaps most of all his unspoken need to be a maverick. She opened her heart to him:  “I feel that you are doing much more than ordinarily expected from an officer in your effort to help. I’m certain it is necessary now, and if he is to succeed later with his work.” Lowney structured her letter as a statement in praise of lofty ideas.

“One of the chief reasons that we have so few brilliant people mature and continue successfully, completing the work of which they alone are capable,” she asserted in her June 10th letter to Mailloux, “is that there are too many besetting hazards. That brings us back to the old argument: ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ I feel that I am, as much as it may annoy me at times.”

But rather than elaborate with examples of her years of engagement with pregnant teenage girls, the prisoners at the jail where her father presided as sheriff, the Robinson high school students who aspired to write, or the local GIs who gratefully accepted the free drinks and home-cooked meals that she and her husband sometimes provided, Lowney allied herself with Capt. Mailloux as a true kindred spirit: “From the tone of your letter,” she wrote, “I can see you too assume responsibility. I agree with your statement that [Jim] will be a tough job for somebody. And since you are convinced that I am the person to undertake it, [I’ll] do everything I possibly can.”

Jim’s extraordinary good fortune at this time (given that the war was raging everywhere from the blood-soaked Pacific islands to the ghastly hedgerows just beyond the Normandy beaches) was akin to a cosmic benediction. He was given the freedom to live and to become a writer.

Ten days later, on July 6, 1944, he was granted an Honorable Discharge due to a medical determination of “psychoneurosis” that he had not been afflicted with when he enlisted. His discharge, as a Purple Heart veteran, specified that his “disability” emerged “in [the] line of duty and not due to his own misconduct.”

After fifty-five months in uniform, he was a civilian. And seven years later, his first published novel was the most famous book in the world. Having been more or less adopted by Lowney Handy and her husband (their unorthodox marriage made room for his affairs as well as her long-term intimacy with Jim), and having labored for well over four years on the composition of an 860-page novel called From Here to Eternity, while supported by the Handys (sometimes all three lived in the same house; at other times Jim and Lowney traveled to Florida, Arizona, New Mexico, and California, living in a trailer when not in cabins or motels), that new lease on life received by Jim back in 1944 evolved into the literary career of James Jones.

His blockbuster novel won the 1952 National Book Award. Over the course of the next quarter-century (Jones died in 1977 of congestive heart failure), that stunning debut was followed by other important, innovative, original works – a magnum opus titled Some Came Running was Jones’s personal favorite of his varied books. Many critics, scholars, and ex-military men and women consider The Thin Red Line to be the finest combat novel ever written. And those who savor a good mid-life crisis novel are often seduced by Go to the Widow-Maker. Nonfiction readers have a feast awaiting if they peruse Jones’s WW II – A Chronicle of Soldiering; or Viet Journal (his poignant accounts of America’s penultimate exodus from Southeast Asia in 1973).

My own personal favorites are The Merry Month of May (Jones was the only major author of his generation to build an entire novel around the violent chaos of 1968) and Whistle, which was posthumously published and completed his WW II trilogy. That trilogy alone (From Here to Eternity, The Thin Red Line, and Whistle) inspired fellow author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. to say: “James Jones was the Tolstoy of American foot soldiers in one of the few just wars in all of history, in the now vanished Age of the Common Man. He was that common man, but also a genius.”

For more information about James Jones’s relationship with Lowney Handy, see our previous RETRO column here. Jones’s works are now available as e-books from Open Road Media.

Making the books: Jim in his later years.

M.J. Moore is Honeysuckle Magazine‘s RETRO columnist – although we’re beginning to think he may be the spirit of J.D. Salinger in disguise. Though the mysterious wordsmith and nostalgia master has yet to be glimpsed in person by our team, he continues to flood us with encouragement, goodies – and of course, flowers. When not weaving tales of historical delight or ardent odes to his brilliant publisher, he can be found alternately sipping champagne on the Champs-Elysee and doing Marc Chagall impressions on the beach in Nice. He’s also been rumored to have the superpower of being able to quote Mario Puzo novels straight from memory.

(In all seriousness, his novel, For Paris ~ with Love & Squalor, was recently published by Heliotrope Books.)

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