RIDING IN a new 1938 Ford through the March countryside of North Carolina, Paul Levy was astonished by the tranquillity and depth of the blue above. Every tree and field was sheathed in gentle, clear, warm light. Smoke from clearing fires rose straight and slow, and the speed and air were perfect as the car wound through the back roads, sounding like a perpetual chain of little firecrackers. He was sixteen, the son of a Norfolk ship provisioner, and in love with the Navy and its ships. His father saw them as delivery points for canned tomatoes and brass polish, but his father's son was struck as if by lightning at the sight of one steaming up the roads, bent forward, pressing on-a squinting bridge, high black masts and angled guns, smoke, wake, urgency, and water pulsing off the bows. And when they turned, with claxons and bells, and the stern seeming to sweep like a skater over mottled ice, he saw in them the history for which his tranquil boyhood had been created. And in the North Carolina countryside, joyriding in his father's car solo for the first time, he could not help glancing through the windows at the sky and thinking of the sea.
By darkness when he returned to Norfolk he had decided to join the Navy, which, after a year or so of arguments and heated wanderings in and out of the dance places at Virginia Beach, he did. At first he went to sea as almost a child, and the little experience he had he used badly, awkwardly, making more mistakes than he could count. But at nineteen he was an ensign in the Battle of the Atlantic. He used to come home every few months or weeks, and each time he was more solid, stronger, wiser. Being on the sea was miserable, especially in winter, and it wore him down. But it developed into his calling and during the war he had been off Africa, Normandy, and Japan. Because he learned fast and loved the sea he became a lieutenant-commander by the end of 1946, taking a year's leave of absence to rest and prepare: he intended upon a career in the Navy, but did not want to be entirely brought up in it. He thought that a year of peace-maybe some farming, a trip across the country to San Francisco, a month at home-would do it. His father had become prosperous, especially since the fleet had not been decimated and would not be dismantled as had been the custom after other wars. They lived in a big house and it was planned that the younger sister and brother would go to college.
Paul, though, was lost to the Navy; he was an officer with Southern ways and a fighting man's demeanor. They were proud of him, but having left early and against their wishes, he was not very much like them. He had forgotten his Jewishness, almost lost it in the rush and conviviality of war. No one knew he was a Jew if they didn't know his name. Even when he said his name, everyone did not immediately know his origins, since he pronounced Levy like the tax, or the embankment which holds back a river. He was by appearance and dialect a Virginia or North Carolina farmer-and this delighted him. He was free as his father had never been to blend into the country and be whatever he wished, except for his name and except for his regret, as he saw his father growing older, that he as first son would do little in continuing what began to appear to him in the quiet spring days of his extended leave, riding again in the Carolinas, as a very important line of passage, a crucial tradition.
It took him a day to go from the balm of the internal Carolina lakes and bays to Washington Square. New York seemed to him like rows of gray teeth and he could not understand how people chose to live inside files of concrete boxes in a city which was really not a city but a machine. To him it seemed about the same as building a great engine, a thousand times greater than the Corliss Engine, and then living inside. London too had gray teeth, but in circles and enflowered by trees and promenades. This city on the Hudson was like a shark's jaw-monotonous serrations thick and hard.
He had intended to seek out Jews, for the ones in Norfolk were in his eyes predictable and Virginianized. But to his great surprise, the Jews in New York would have nothing whatsoever to do with him. First, his approach was confused. He walked into restaurants and ordered familiar dishes. In this way he ate much and discovered that one does not retrieve receding history through gastronomy. He sat next to an old man and looked into his face, about to ask a momentous Jewish question, when the man said, "Go avay, cowboy." He explained that his name was Paul Levy, but when the old man heard the way he spoke, he fled. Paul kept on trying.
He chose a synagogue and went to pray, but when he entered they looked at him as if he were a raccoon or a possum who had wandered in from the Louisiana Bayou. He went to see a rabbi, whose advice consisted of coldly instructing him to purify his pots and pans by boiling water in them and dropping in a hot brick. "A hot brick?" asked Paul in disbelief. "Let me get this straight. You want me to boil water in my nonexistent pots and pans, and then drop in a hot brick? A hot brick! Rabbi, one of us is nuts, and it's not me."
After a week or more of seeking out Jews in New York he found himself at the house of a Roman Catholic law professor, lying on the floor of the library, which looked out on a cold Washington Square where snow was falling for the last time that spring, and next to the sooty buildings it telescoped itself into a salt-and-pepper image like the tweeds in the livingroom downstairs at the party. But the snow was twisting in cold whirlwinds like the warm viscous air above the fire. He was roundly, rotatingly drunk, davening in his drunkenness before the fire, and next to him was a Palestinian Jewess whom he had beguiled upstairs to kiss; but she wasn't drunk at all. She liked him though and had never heard a Jew who talked as he did. When he told her he was a Navy captain (he blushed at the lie) she leaned over on the Persian rug and kissed him on his mouth in such a wet sexual way and with such great affection that he said, "Would you believe that I'm really an admiral?"
"No, I don't believe you," she answered. "But I want you to tell me about that you are a captain."
And he did, starting with his revelation in Carolina about the Navy and the sea, his love for the sea, how in the war he had fought and endured, how his father had not known him but had seen instead a tough stranger who did pushups and could fight, and how for him being a Jew was impossible since he could not get either in or out and seemed to be hanging in between worlds which would not have him.
They stayed together for two weeks until she took him in a turtle-backed taxi to Idlewild and saw him off on his way to becoming a captain, as he had said he was. He felt that he did not know his own mind. He was apprehensive about not returning in time to resume his commission, apprehensive about leaving the silent city which he had come to like and respect, apprehensive about rising above shafts of sunlight and clouds on a straining airplane past the rows of gray buildings in new prosperity-a good quiet place for infants after the war-apprehensive of rising into an empyrean of blue, apprehensive of heading east, apprehensive of challenging the British cordon with an old coastal freighter, and apprehensive of the dreamlike frame of mind into which he had fallen. He hardly knew what had happened, but he felt as if he were certainly rising upward.
Copyright © 1977 by Mark Helprin
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