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Journey Through a Peaceful Land

Martha Gellhorn's revelatory road trip across America

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library

For several weeks now we have been driving through the American Way of Life. For a time, in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland, the American Way of Life looked like the tender memories of GI’s, homesick songs, politicians’ promises and the unattainable dream of all the homeless and hungry of Europe. Between the dogwood and the lilacs and the redbud and the flowering chestnuts, the fields lay combed and sleek, and the clean farmhouses stood inside their screens of old trees. The little towns were lovelier than one remembers American towns can be, faded brick and white wood, the tall, cool trees, and life sleeping there. Perhaps this is the Old World now. These people seemed to believe in peace and to feel safe inside their houses and their habits. It is amazing how permanent a place can look, how rooted and unchanging the populace, when there are no burned tanks beside the road, no buildings split in half, no fields scooped by shell fire.

We stopped at a tourist camp in Gettysburg, just opposite Pickett’s Charge. The man who owned the eight small frame boxes appeared in white overalls and said, “You’ll have to excuse me looking like a workman. I been fixing things up a little.” We accepted this assurance that he was middle-class, the way we are, and the way all Americans seem determined to be. Gettysburg sprouts memorial monuments like cabbages; and throughout this county indestructible markers brief you on every event and personage connected with the War Between the States. This makes one wonder about Americans, who retain such mothering reverence for their own death and destruction. Have the people of Gettysburg any imagination for, let us say, the people of St.-Vith, over whose town a nameless battle raged briefly, leaving them without any town at all and no interest in putting up monuments? Or do they imagine that war could ever return to Gettysburg? It seems unlikely: history has given Gettysburg a nice little asset—a small trade in guides and guidebooks.

Everywhere along the 
perfect highway were 
places to eat, shining and comfortable, with copious—it seemed to me superb—uniform food. Inside the dapper Howard Johnson restaurants we kept seeing an American phenomenon: middle-aged women traveling in twos, threes and fours. Their maroon, turquoise, green and black sedans waited outside. Meanwhile they sat, featureless behind their eyeglasses, cement heavy, topped by ornate, microscopic hats, eating with precision and at length. These, no doubt, were some of Philip Wylie’s Moms. It is hard to see what wisdom and delight they can bring to their families and their communities, but they appear to be contented, even gay, over their girlish cocktails and their ice cream. The world’s fat is badly divided. I think perhaps the American horror of age has prevented all these women from acquiring faces: it is a conspicuous lack. But the ice cream is wonderful and why fret over the American tendency to look incompleted?

After Virginia, the American Way of Life goes largely to pot. Now it is the sandiness and the unvarying pines of North Carolina, and the Negroes. The Negroes look to me like Polish slave labor in Germany, and in the same way seem not to be living anywhere. We came to a place called Rocky Mount, where train tracks bisect the main business street and the gutters are sodden with refuse. After dark, the young take over the streets, racing along before the brilliant shop windows full of claptrap unnecessities, hurrying to drink more Coca-Cola. They shout, “Hi, y’all,” to each other, and all look alike. The older people visit from front porch to front porch. The radios go on and on. Behind their invisible barbed wire, the Negroes watch, marked by poverty as by disease.

A curious thing happened in this place. In the movie house, during the newsreel, the citizens of Rocky Mount talked cheerfully to each other, filling time until the feature began. A rather stale bit of photography, showing the Arab delegation to the UN, unrolled on the screen. A voice mentioned the Palestine debate and there was a picture of Abba Hillel Silver and some remark about his being the Jewish spokesman. The high-school-age audience groaned, in unison: a strange sound, something mocking, something contemptuous, unplanned, not lasting, but spontaneous. After that they settled down, lovingly  and sweatily intertwined, ate popcorn, and watched the feature with exclamations of delight.

Farther down the Carolina coast at Myrtle Beach we refound the American Way of Life, walking in handkerchief-size bathing suits, beautiful and slim and healthy, chatting away with passion about things: “I’m gonna get me one of those cute little sunsuits they got in the window at Markey’s…That green on the eighth hole is a mess…Did you ever try Sunray? You oughta. It’ll keep you from gettin’ red like that…I like those new Studebakers. Boy, that’s a neat car…Y’all comin’ to the movies tonight...comin’ dancin’?...” Is this people trembling for its safety from foes without and within, as our Public Figures would have us believe? If so, the trembling must be done behind locked doors. I have yet to hear one of them even mention the news they read over their morning cereal, eggs and bacon, hot cakes with syrup.

During this time there was a trial of lynchers, an escaped lynchee, and several of those mysterious Southern crimes called “attempted rape.” In the North, one might have imagined this people with blood-shot eyes and grim mouths, snarling about white honor and keeping the niggers in their place. In Europe, where we always read of these horrors, Europeans would question us slyly or with disgust about our democracy.

But here, where it was all happening, no one seemed to notice it. Some 200 miles away, a historic trial was fizzling into predetermined failure. It did not cause one voice to raise over the breakfast table (the only time a newspaper was visible), either in protest or approval.

Perhaps some of the Negro servants spoke of it, perhaps they suffered for the man who broke loose, heard the bullet hit the tree alongside him and hid for two days and nights, starving in the woods. They did not speak of it—not where you could hear them, in any case.

But the whites were not hiding their opinions; they simply did not have any. Contented, contented; genial decent people, playing with their children, enjoying the sun and the sea, wishing evil to no one.

Inland, after the swamps, and the mud creeks and the starved, dusty fields and the slumping Negro shanties, there is an Army post. A division which I had seen living recklessly, efficiently and with a style all its own in various parts of Europe, now lived on this red clay and pine plateau in South Carolina, in peeling, white wood barracks, on fiercely geometric streets, with the sun pouring down, and one day following another world without end. Army posts are not places that born civilians can ever quite understand, any more than atheists would feel easy in seminaries or those who are sickened by the smell of either could adjust to hospital life.

On an Army post all ranks speak of the world beyond their military square miles as “the outside.” There is no fence around them, but the wall is felt either as oppression or protection, depending on taste. Some of the finest young combat officers are still here. They are no more surprised by the American attitude toward its Army than is a doctor who finds people unwilling to pay his bill once they are cured. For the fine ones are dedicated men, not vain, greedy or lazy, as it is popular to believe when their services are no longer essential. And on “the outside,” people forget how knowledgeable a man must be to command in a modern army and how ceaselessly he must work to keep that knowledge sharp.

This division acquired much wisdom on the long journey from Sicily to the North Sea. It learned that all people are not like Americans, and are not criminal for being different. The division left roots in Europe and the veterans inquire anxiously whether there is now glass in the windows and coal in the cellars at Nijmegen; have they been able to fix up those smashed villages along the Volturno; has anyone come back to Trois Ponts yet, if there was anything to come back to; and are the people in Leicester, England, getting enough to eat?

All those who truly earned their foreign travel (as opposed to racketeers, slobs and the ones who never had it so good) have this knowledge of suffering and want. You find them everywhere, the traveled Americans, who saw the world from two-and-a-half- ton trucks, in convoy, going from one ruined place to another. It is a tragedy that they are apparently so voiceless. We need their memories, which go something like: “We useta take our rations in to this family in Reems, it was an old French lady and her husband and their kids, and they’d cook us up a real meal and treat us just like we was at home…I bet they weren’t more’n 17, or less, they looked like it anyhow, and these guys walked, I mean walked, from Stalingrad. Looked like they dumped their wounded in some old furniture van and brung ‘em along…You’d see those Eyetie women cut between the lines doing their laundry at those old horse troughs. I’ll never get over those women out between the lines…” The traveled Americans found that everywhere they could get on with someone. They don’t seem to listen much to their elected representatives, nor do they bother with their newspaper, on matters of foreign news and foreign policy: it must be some other Europe than the one they knew, that everyone’s bitching about now.

Many veterans left this division at the end of the war, and then, after a short sojourn in the “outside,” returned. On the outside they became unskilled labor with no chance to learn skills, uncertain men who believed themselves easily robbed, and their pride was attacked by the feeling that the home folks, bored now with heroes, regarded them as suckers to have wasted their lives fighting in Europe. So they came back and are solemnly appreciative of free medical care for their young wives and new babies, and of four-room houses on the post that rent for $27.50 a month, and of being treated as if they were specialists in something. They are terribly young, because their branch of the service necessitates jumping from airplanes, and sometimes they even look young. Though the physical difference between a 22-year-old who had two years of combat, and a 22-year-old who didn’t, is in itself a fairly complete comment on war.

Alongside the wise and practical veterans, there are the new soldiers who enlisted after the war, as if joining the Amy was a bigger form of Bingo night. The GI Bill of Rights, instead of a full set of china dinnerware, was the lure; and the kids planned to sweat out their 18 months and then go to college free. As one of them said, “I guess college is kind of a fad around now. Shoot, I’m having as much fun in the Army as I would in any old college somewhere.”

We drove through places called Old Hundred, Hamlet, Pee Dee. The main streets seem to have been ordered from a firm that mass-produces main streets for small Southern towns and there is nothing charming about the invariable drugstore, movie house, Woolworth’s, and the stucco gas stations on the crossroads. On the best streets, there were old or oldish houses, large, white and private behind soft trees. The other houses were dateless and styleless, but everywhere rich in roses and wisteria and clumped about with bright hydrangea bushes. And every street was a cool underwater green, shaded by arching live oaks: the towns are anchored in place by the magnificent trees. The trees remind you that America is not brand-new.

Why should anyone living here be in a flap about John L. Lewis or the German peace treaty? They manufacture their lives locally; they are self-sufficient. It is certain that when an itinerant man of God arrives and speaks darkly of Nineveh, for instance, he is talking about something more immediate and interesting than if Leland Stowe, perhaps, arrived and talked about Greece. There is a lot of religion, one way and another, in dignified, pillared Baptist churches and in epileptic gospel meetings, and one must assume that the conditions in heaven and hell are more absorbing to people who plan to spend time in one or the other, than are conditions beyond the confines of Old Hundred, Hamlet and Pee Dee.

On a dusty street in Monroe, North Carolina, Harrison and Mr. Pete were repairing shabby automobiles. Before this, Harrison repaired airplane motors in Calcutta and Karachi; and Mr. Pete worked for the Navy in those small craft that landed the Army on the coast of North Africa and at Anzio. They bent over their busted automobiles and Mr. Pete
 said to Harrison,
“How’s the situation?” “Situation well in hand,” Harrison replied. It is as if they had something wonderful between them, for they are home where they want to be, and Monroe is finer than any place on earth.

There is no moral to driving through America. There probably isn’t any conclusion. Except the obvious one: America is not what it sounds, Americans are not those people you read about in newspapers and magazines. I know what a disgust America seems to those who read its own report of itself and are too far away to check the facts against the truth. America sounds greedy, righteous and afraid, and full of threatening sounds. We are not loved abroad and I see no reason to expect love, but our exported picture of ourselves is a disaster.

I do not believe that picture any more, though I see it daily, painted in words by our Public Figures. One day the local papers front-paged the report of the presidential advisory commission, which stated that “weakness is an invitation to extermination,” and that war “could come at any time” and that we have only four to ten years’ immunity from atomic “sneak attacks” on our cities. To avoid these calamities, we should immediately spend $1,750 million on defense. (One can imagine how that sounds to those threatening foreigners who are concerned with the fact that hunger is an invitation to extermination.) Alongside that story, these comfortable small-town papers printed the picture of a 14-year-old local girl who won a national spelling bee. People hereabouts, average Americans, were not discussing the commission’s picture of a strong, intact, well fed nation loud with fear before the world’s poor; they were talking about Mattie Loir’s triumph.