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Fire from the Sky
(Continued from previous page)

Charles Simic circa 1940
Simic, circa 1940

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
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 hangings, 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 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.

(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.

We 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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