Notes from a wartime vacation

Russell Baker

March 06, 1991|By Russell Baker

WARTIME vacation diary:

Feb. 9: Usual sleepless night in a sleeper, waking at 4.30 a.m., rising at 6, already exhausted. Sunny Florida cool. Drive from Sanford 9 a.m.; arrive Sanibel 3 p.m. Buy ready-made dinner. Wake twice in the night alarmed about being in strange bedroom: that old childish terror of alien places far from home.

Feb. 11: Reading John Cheever's journal in New Yorker. Portrait of a hopeless alcoholic. Or is it? How can a hopeless alcoholic, desperate to have his first drink at 10 a.m., write so beautifully? Nobody writes well drunk. Theory: Cheever, a novelist living a stunningly dull suburban life, must have been desperate for material. No job to take him out of the house, into the city, into contact with other humanity. So he had to turn himself into fictional material. Hence the elegantly written passages about alcoholism, homosexuality, rejections by wife. His wife exists here only as an outsider. What she's really like, the reader can't guess. Cheever makes no effort at understanding her. He's too busy inventing her as a character suitable for his fictional needs. It never occurs to him that a husband who is amorous only when drunk might be a bit tiresome to a woman. Well, only a theory . . .

Feb. 13: Ash Wednesday. Reports of 500 civilians killed in Baghdad bombing. I cringe, but why? Bombing usually kills people, and we've all been applauding it since Jan. 16, and admiring TV films of same. I dislike the war for distracting us from everything we ought to be dealing with at home. Of course Bush wasn't going to deal with these things anyhow, Congress either.

Feb. 15: Started "Rabbit At Rest." Rabbit's a commonplace guy, car salesman who never got beyond high school, and the point of view is very interior; that is, we're inside Rabbit much of the time looking out. The view from in there is highly literate, witty, ironic. Yet Rabbit's average-guy background doesn't create the kind of sensibility that savors irony with the acuity Updike builds into Rabbit. Lost to M. at Scrabble.

Feb. 17: Alarming how the mind shuts down the instant it doesn't have to write journalism. Even writing this dull record is leaden toil. Like moving your lips when you think. War running nonstop on CNN, totally stage-managed by Pentagon news producers so there's little sense of what it's like.

Feb. 19: Finish "Rabbit." Updike has really pulled it off, I think, though I'm agreeably uncertain about what "it" is. Is Rabbit a human representation of America from Eisenhower to Bush? The episode in which he leads the July 4th parade as Uncle Sam seems to be saying so, but only second-rate professors think good writers are interested in composing coded messages.

Feb. 21: National Examiner headline at grocery this morning tells of woman "Raped and Tortured by Saddam Hussein." And he is on the radio just now with the usual bombast: martyrdom, mother of battles, etc.

Feb. 23: Bush's ultimatum expires in 10 minutes, after which -- mother-of-battles time! Getting deep into the Middle East gives me goose bumps. Three thousand years of hatreds galore.

Feb. 24: The ground war in Arabia began at 4 a.m. their time. Schwarzkopf on at 8.30 a.m. reporting early successes. Our casualties "remarkably" light. Television is a farrago of undiscriminating film and disconnected reports from whoever is

available to report from Jordan, Baghdad, Israel, London, Turkey, U.N., White House, Pentagon. Even saw somebody interviewing the Iraqi ambassador to Japan. Watched video of "Cinema Paradiso" mixed in with the war last night. Sentimental piece about a movie theater in Sicily in the movies' days of glory. Phone check-ups on children revealed nothing alarming or wonderful. Just like life most of the time.

Feb. 26: The Iraqi Army seems to have been in full disarray since the first assault Sunday, and mother of battles may already be over. Some mother. Bush's approval rating at about 101 percent of course. War is great when it works, and this is our kind of war.

Feb. 27: War obviously over. National Examiner headline at grocery this morning says, "Saddam Tortures and Kills Pet Cats, Dogs." Idea for adapting "Casablanca" to modern times: Bogart saying to Bergman, "We'll always have Wolf Blitzer."

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