From the Book, Battle Song—
Sing. Sing Battle Songs! So begins the story of four young men drafted to fight in Korea in the early 1950s, taking with them a legacy of conflict and violence that prevails to this day. Inducted from the mining and farming communities in rural Pennsylvania, each must confront the absurdity of battle within the framework of his own identity in an effort to understand a war that remains unresolved more than half a century later. Told from our different perspectives, this novel contrasts the horrors of the battlefield with accounts of mid-twentieth-century life in an overlooked part of America-a world far different on the surface from the one young people know in today’s strife-torn opening years of the twenty-first century. At the same time, it evokes lingering questions about how combat on distant shores can interface with individual lives at home.
First movement– the stranger
It sickens me yet that slaughter
On Monday evening in downtown Pittsburgh in the early 1950s, the stores would stay open until nine. Monday evening was the busiest time of the week there, even in winter when the wind blew a strong northwestern chill down the Ohio River. Women brought their children into town to buy overcoats and galoshes. They ran quickly through revolving doors trying to get into one more department store before closing time. Secretaries who stayed in town for dinner also shopped, and when the stores closed, they went to the Stanley to see a movie or to the Cork and Bottle to get picked up by businessman, who stayed to pick up the secretaries or to entertain clients at Klein’s Steak and Lobster House.
Even young men who had no business in town got dressed up and came down. Some of them lived as far away as Charleroi or Ambridge, but on Monday evenings, they tried to wash the mill dirt off their hands and come to town to find excitement.
Downtown Pittsburgh was full of life on Monday evenings. Old men sold hot roasted chestnuts on street corners, newspaper peddlers shouted out the evening’s headlines above the noise of horns and police whistles and feet clattering across cobblestone-paved Fifth Avenue. Traffic lights turned green at pedestrian crossings and mothers took their children by the hands and quickly crossed in step with the secretaries and executives and old ladies. The people swelled outside the yellow lines that marked the crossing zones and young men swept like halfbacks around cars waiting for a green light.
For draftees, Monday evening was the worst time to leave the city, but that’s when inductees out of Pittsburgh did leave during the Korean War. Every Monday during 1951 and 1952, a column of young men assembled in front of the old post office building on Smithfield Street, then they were marched down to the Baltimore and Ohio station where they boarded a train for Maryland.
And because Monday was what it was in town, it seemed that these men were forced to turn their backs on life itself. Had their departure been on some other night, it might not have been so bad. During the rest of the week, downtown Pittsburgh was deserted by evening. Leaving an empty city is not as bad as being forced out of one that is full and lively; but on Monday night there was all that noise and activity; all those people going their private ways, doing more or less what they wanted to do.
Very few people paid any attention to the inductees. Perhaps their inattention made leaving even worse. The young men were all old enough to remember the Second World War, when the newly drafted were paraded through the streets in broad daylight like heroes, not smuggled out through alleyways at night. People cheered as men left for the Big War and the Mayor or Senator gave a speech. Bands played then and folks threw confetti, and women cried– even if they didn’t know a soul in the departing group.
But when these youngsters left to fight in Korea in 1951, there was neither ceremony nor public sadness. They were simply taken away from life and noise and freedom to fight a war that people, even then, wanted to pretend did not exist and that people now, have either forgotten, or never knew of to begin with.
You can purchase Battle Songs at Amazon.com
Paul G. Zolbrod, a native Western Pennsylvanian, is a veteran of the Korean War era and taught English at Allegheny College for thirty years. He now teaches at a branch campus of the Navajo Nation’s Diné College in New Mexico. He has written several books, including Diné bahané: The Navajo Creation Story.