by Doug Prince
Fire from the Sky
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 would have probably 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
(From 31 Letters and 13 Dreams by Richard Hugo [New York: Norton, 1977])
My grandfather had a summerhouse not far from Belgrade. When we arrived there after two days of bombs, my father's side of the family had already assembled. They argued all the time.
In addition to the German occupation, a civil war was going on in Yugoslavia. There were at least a half-dozen factions made up of Royalists, Communists, Fascists and various other collaborators, all slaughtering each other. Our family was bitterly divided between the Royalists and the Communists. My grandfather remained neutral. They were all the same in his opinion.
As for my mother, she said nothing. She disliked my father's people. She came from an old middle-class family, while they were blue-collar workers. She was educated in Paris, while they sat around getting drunk in taverns. That's how she saw it. It's astonishing that she and my father ever got together. My father had gone to the university and was now a successful engineer, but he had an equally low opinion of my mother's world.
It wasn't long before he left us. Early one morning my mother and I accompanied him to the small and crowded train station. By the way he looked at us, and by the way he hugged me, I knew this was no ordinary journey. I was told nothing. Ten years would pass before I would see him again. People would ask, "Where's your father?" and I couldn't tell them. All my mother knew that day was that he was attempting to go to Italy, but there was no news of him for a long time.
e stayed with my grandparents. Summer came. The bombing of Belgrade continued occasionally. We could see the planes high over the city. Our house was on a hill overlooking the River Sava and had a fine view in that direction. Columns of smoke went up as the bombs fell. We'd be eating watermelon in our garden, making pigs of ourselves while watching the city burn. My grandmother and mother couldn't bear it and would go inside with the dog, who also did not like it. My grandfather insisted that I sit by his side. He'd cut me a little cheese, give me a sip of red wine, and we would strain to hear the muffled sound of explosions. He didn't say anything, but he had a smile on his face that I still remember. My father's father had a dark view of the human species. As far as he was concerned, we were all inmates in a nuthouse. Events like this confirmed what he already suspected. In the meantime, there were the night scents of a country garden in full bloom, the stars in the sky, the silence of a small village. No birds peeping, no cats fighting or dogs barking. Just my grandmother, every now and then, opening the front door to a creak and pleading with us to please come indoors.
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