What the Men Do

May 3, 2018

June 24, 1942: London

So you want to know what the men do.

Here is what the general does: at fifty-one years old, a West Point graduate, a military man but one who has never fought in battle, General Dwight D. Eisenhower steps outside after the first strategy meeting at his new headquarters, an office tucked in the corner of the second floor of the American embassy, five stories of Georgian red brickwork and Grecian-style columns, with two rows of eaves poking out of the gambrel roof. He who was descended from the Germans of Karlsbrunn, he who was born in the Katy railroad hub town of Denison, Texas, and was raised at the end of the Chisolm Trail in Abilene, Kansas, the “city of the plains,” stands under a portico on a dreary London afternoon, framed by a guard and two lower-ranking officers. He is scouring the sidewalk looking for his new MTC driver among the idling motor pool. Squinting to see through the rolling fog bank. Packards, all of them. Khaki-colored sedans with extended bonnets and setback luxury cabins; remarkably clean cars—the panels, the rims, the windows, the glass headlights, and the vertical grills—shining in a way that makes no sense, considering the whole of London is filthy with piles of rubble and ash around every corner.

And, as with everything else these days, the things that used to be considered tragedy are now regular bureaucratic occurrences, one of the hundreds of decisions to be made every day in a time of war. They are the things that the men do: men who have trained and politicked and jockeyed for their positions; men who cannot distinguish dedication from ambition from pride; men who believe in chain of command; men who battle for rank, men of honor and codes and allegiance; men of hard power who fear the fragility of influence; men who train themselves to see their world as interchangeable data sets—hierarchal processes of rank, measurable responsibilities, coordinates of a plan. And the general is no different than the men he commands. He quantifies himself as data: Commanding General: European Theater of Operations. Oversight: 366 senior officers. Headquarters: 20 Grosvenor Square, London. Temporary Residence: Claridge’s Hotel. Pending Residence: Telegraph Cottage (nickname). Location: Kingston upon Thames—51.4123° N, 0.3007° W.

There is no data set for son.

No data set for father.

There is no data set for husband.

He accepts that this is his life, and he’s proud to have a calling. It is about more than words like duty and sacrifice; it is that he’s wired to focus and to manage and to scour details, and thus far the urgency of the war has forced him to focus and to manage and to scour details. And for that he is thankful, because it has buried any feelings of loneliness, or longing for the companionship of home.

But then he sees his driver, she in her brown skirt, firm posture, bent forward to light up a Woodbine, a cupped hand blocking the wind. Peeking over her fingertips, she seems to catch his eye, and then drops the cigarette without taking a single drag. She stamps it out. Grinding the butt into the ground, until there’s not even a trace of an ember, not even a hint of smoldering. It is not an immediate attraction that he feels but a longing for domesticity, as though he’s a city commuter being met by his wife at their suburban station after a long hard day at work.

Someone make me a home.

Someone take me home.

He returns her handshake, surprisingly firm given her slight physique, and notes the awkward formality of her introducing herself as Kay Summersby of County Cork, Ireland, as if trying to appropriate a military air, and he returns the introduction, striving to lighten it with informality, and like a song’s hook that can catch in the brain, over and over he already hears her brogue saying his nickname back to him, Ike, the first time that that appellation ever has seemed melodic, as opposed to sounding like a clasp on a barn door, firm and simple and functional. But later, thinking about when he walked around the Packard to open her door, shoes squeaking on the damp macadam, saying, Well, Irish, to tell you the truth, I thought we’d be home by now, he’ll wonder why she didn’t say anything. His hotel was only two blocks away by foot and they could’ve walked there and back three times over in the time it took to navigate the park and the one-way streets.

She motors up Grosvenor Square, circles the Gardens and onto Davies, heading toward Brook Street. Out the window, he looks into a café, a lone table near the front, lit by a ray of sun cutting through the fog, empty and not bussed, cluttered by a lunch plate and a teacup and a wadded-up pink napkin. Although he is comfortable inside the car—brown broadcloth seats, matching plush carpet, and, on the left side, a walnut smoking set gleaming against the back of the front passenger’s seat—it’s barely enough travel time to make conversation. Only enough to notice how a single ray of sun can make the deadened London streets look pitiful and heartbreaking, and how that is, ironically, comforting, because it gives him a sense of purpose in being there and makes him feel a little less lonely.

Still, he is dreading the end of this five-minute ride. Thus far, they have been traveling in silence, but with the quiet of intimates. Old friends who hardly speak over lunch. The couple who knows each other’s thoughts. Companions who communicate through shared observations. And though he can’t quite figure out how to say it, he wants to tell her she can drive around the block five more times, because the silence feels right, and were he to suggest a drink or a dinner, he knows that they’d be forced into multiple conversations, and that such simple little dialogues built on pleasantries and politeness and deference would murder this feeling of intimacy faster than any bomb dropping from the sky.

Someone make me a home.

Someone take me home.

His driver parks in front of the hotel, a Georgian red brickwork structure much like the embassy, and he stays put in the back of the car, not quite speaking, avoiding eye contact when she looks back in the mirror. People go in and out of the lobby entrance and cross in the middle of the street, men and women, young and old, casual and formal, counting out change while they walk, tucking newspapers under their arms against the breeze, digging their hands in their pockets, some never looking skyward and others laughing. Up Brook Street an old man drags a dog by the leash, passing in front of a woman excavating her purse and sidestepping at just the right moment to avoid the collision. And all these people, he thinks. All these people. All these people who try to live their daily lives as if bombs never fell and buildings never collapsed and no one ever died and trivial things still mattered. And here he sits in the idling car, appreciative of the value of little gaps of quiet among the collective din of fear, anticipation, and imminent threat. And he doesn’t want to leave it. For the first time since arriving, he feels the comfort of home, and he doesn’t know how to stay within it, and he doesn’t how to exit it, and he has the feeling that to step out of the car will sink him like every time he’s stepped out of his family house to deploy, because that is not a life. It may be the life of the general and his men, but it is not a life for Dwight D. Eisenhower, he who was descended from the Germans of Karlsbrunn, he who was born in the Katy railroad hub town of Denison, Texas, and was raised at the end of the Chisolm Trail in Abilene, Kansas, the “city of the plains.”

That’s what the men do.

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Read the companion story, "What the Women Do," here.