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Friday, 10 February 2012

Joseph Heller: "I'm cold": The Death of Snowden


An experimental scale model of the B-25 plane is prepared for wind tunnel tests in the plant of North American Aviation, Inc., Inglewood, California. This plant produced the B-25 bomber: photo by Alfred T. Palmer, October 1942 (Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)

Snowden was lying on his back on the floor with his legs stretched out, still burdened cumbersomely by his flak suit, his flak helmet, his parachute harness and his Mae West. Not far away on the floor lay the small tail gunner in a dead faint. The wound Yossarian saw was in the outside of Snowden’s thigh, as large as a football, it seemed. It was impossible to tell where the shreds of his saturated coverall ended and the ragged flesh began.

There was no morphine in the first-aid kit, no protection for Snowden against pain but the numbing shock of the gaping wound itself. The twelve syrettes of morphine had been stolen from their case and replaced by a cleanly lettered note that said: "What’s good for M & M Enterprises is good for the country. Milo Minderbinder." Yossarian swore at Milo and held two aspirins out to ashen lips unable to receive them. But first he hastily drew a tourniquet around Snowden’s thigh because he could not think what else to do in those first tumultuous moments when his senses were in turmoil, when he knew he must act competently at once and feared he might go to pieces completely. Snowden watched him steadily, saying nothing. No artery was spurting, but Yossarian pretended to absorb himself entirely into the fashioning of a tourniquet, because applying a tourniquet was something he did know how to do. He worked with simulated skill and composure, feeling Snowden’s lackluster gaze resting upon him. He recovered possession of himself before the tourniquet was finished and loosened it immediately to lessen the danger of gangrene. His mind was clear now, and he knew how to proceed. He rummaged through the first-aid kit for scissors.

"I’m cold," Snowden said softly, "I’m cold."

"You’re going to be all right, kid," Yossarian reassured him with a grin. "You’re going to be all right."

"I’m cold," Snowden said again in a frail, childlike voice. "I’m cold."

"There, there," Yossarian said, because he did not know what else to say. "There, there."

"I’m cold," Snowden whimpered. "I’m cold."

"There, there. There, there."

Yossarian was frightened and moved more swiftly. He found a pair of scissors at last and began cutting carefully through Snowden’s coveralls high up above the wound, just below the groin. He cut through the heavy gabardine cloth all the way around the thigh in a straight line. The tiny tail gunner woke up while Yossarian was cutting with the scissors, saw him, and fainted again. Snowden rolled his head to the other side of his neck in order to stare at Yossarian more directly. A dim, sunken light glowed in his weak and listless eyes. Yossarian, puzzled, tried not to look at him. He began cutting downward through the coveralls along the inside seam. The yawning wound — was that a tube of slimy bone he saw running deep inside the gory scarlet flowed behind the twitching, startling fibers of weird muscle? was dripping blood in several trickles, like snow melting on eaves, but viscous and red, already thickening as it dropped. Yossarian kept cutting through the coveralls to the bottom and peeled open the severed leg of the garment. It fell to the floor with a plop, exposing the hem of khaki undershorts that were soaking up blotches of blood on one side as though in thirst. Yossarian was stunned at how waxen and ghastly Snowden’s bare leg looked, how loathsome, how lifeless and esoteric the downy, fine curled blond hairs on his odd, white shin and calf. The wound, he saw now, was not nearly as large as a football, but as long and wide as his hand, and too raw and deep to see into clearly. The raw muscles inside twitched like live hamburger meat. A long sigh of relief escaped slowly through Yossarian’s mouth when he saw that Snowden was not in danger of dying. The blood was already coagulating inside the wound, and it was simply a matter of bandaging him up and keeping him calm until the plane landed. He removed some packets of sulfanilamide from the first-aid kit. Snowden quivered when Yossarian pressed against him gently to turn him up slightly on his side.

"Did I hurt you?"

"I’m cold," Snowden whimpered. "I’m cold."

"There, there," Yossarian said. "There, there."

"I’m cold. I’m cold."

"There, there. There, there."

"It’s starting to hurt me," Snowden cried out with a plaintive, urgent wince.

Yossarian scrambled through the first-aid kit in search of morphine again and found only Milo’s note and a bottle of aspirin, He cursed Milo and held two aspirin tablets out to Snowden. He had no water to offer. Snowden rejected the aspirin with an almost imperceptible shake of his head. His face was pale and pasty. Yossarian removed Snowden’s flak helmet and lowered his head to the floor.

"I’m cold," Snowden moaned with half-closed eyes. "I’m cold."

The edges of his mouth were turning blue. Yossarian was petrified. He wondered whether to pull the rip cord of Snowden’s parachute and cover him with the nylon folds. It was very warm in the plane. Glancing up unexpectedly, Snowden gave him a wan, cooperative smile and shifted the position of his hips a bit so that Yossarian could begin salting the wound with sulfanilamide. Yossarian worked with renewed confidence and optimism. The plane bounced hard inside an airpocket, and he remembered with a start that he had left his own parachute up front in the nose. There was nothing to be done about that. He poured envelope after envelope of the white crystalline powder in the bloody oval wound until nothing red could be seen and then drew a deep, apprehensive breath, steeling himself with gritted teeth as he touched his bare hands to the dangling shreds of drying flesh to tuck them up inside the wound. Quickly he covered the whole wound with a large compress and jerked his hand away. He smiled nervously when his brief ordeal had ended. The actual contact with dead flesh had not been nearly as repulsive as he had anticipated, and he found excuse to caress the wound with his fingers again and again to convince himself of his own courage.

"I’m cold," Snowden moaned. "I’m cold."

"You’re going to be all right, kid," Yossarian assured him, patting his arm comfortingly. "Everything’s under control."

Snowden shook his head feebly. "I’m cold," he repeated, with eyes as dull and blind as stone. "I’m cold."

"There, there," Yossarian, with growing doubt and trepidation. "There, there. In a little while we’ll be back on the ground and Doc Daneeka will take care of you."

But Snowden kept shaking his head and pointed at last, with just the barest movement of his chin, down to his armpit. Yossarian bent forward to peer and saw a strangely colored stain seeping through the coverall just above the armhole of Snowden’s flak suit. Yossarian felt his heart stop, then pound so violently he found it difficult to breathe. Snowden was wounded inside his flak suit. Yossarian ripped open the snaps of Snowden’s flak suit and heard himself scream wildly as Snowden’s insides slithered down to the floor in a soggy pile and just kept dripping out. A chunk of flak more than three inches big had shot into his other side just underneath the arm and blasted all the way through, drawing whole mottled quarts of Snowden along with it through the gigantic hole in his ribs it made as it blasted out. Yossarian screamed a second time and squeezed both hands over his eyes. His teeth were chattering in horror. He forced himself to look again. Here was God’s plenty, all right, he thought bitterly as he stared — liver, lungs, kidneys, ribs, stomach and bits of the stewed tomatoes Snowden had eaten that day for lunch. Yossarian hated stewed tomatoes and turned away dizzily and began to vomit, clutching his burning throat. The tail gunner woke up while Yossarian was vomiting, saw him, and fainted again.

Yossarian was limp with exhaustion, pain and despair when he finished. He turned back weakly to Snowden, whose breath had grown softer and more rapid, and whose face had grown paler. He wondered how in the world to begin to save him.

"I’m cold." Snowden whimpered, "I’m cold."

"There, there. Yossarian mumbled mechanically in a voice too low to be heard. "There, there."

Yossarian was cold, too, and shivering uncontrollably. He felt goose pimples clacking all over him as he gazed down despondently at the grim secret Snowden had spilled all over the messy floor. It was easy to read the message in his entrails. Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret. Drop him out a window and he’ll fall. Set fire to him and he’ll burn. Bury him and he’ll rot, like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden’s secret. Ripeness was all.

"I’m cold," Snowden said. "I’m cold."

"There, there," said Yossarian. "There, there," He pulled the rip cord of Snowden’s parachute and covered his body with the white nylon sheets.

"I’m cold."

"There, there."

A B-25 medium bomber attacking a supply center in Tivoli, Italy
: photographer unknown, 1944 (Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)

Heller: The Death of Snowden, from the first Avignon mission, June 1944, in Chapter 41 of Catch-22, 1961


TC said...

"Heller's unforgettable scene projects a terrible dynamics of horror, terrified tenderness, and irony... This 'primal scene' works because it is undeniably horrible, but its irony, its dynamics of hope abridged, is what makes it haunt the memory." -- Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, 1975

Catch-22: Yossarian (Alan Arkin) and Snowden: "there, there..."

Catch-22: Snowden's Funeral: "He died -- you don't get any older than that."

ACravan said...

This is, obviously, incredible. Like the Randall Jarrell poem, I first encountered this when I was a young teenager (I can picture where and when I read Catch-22; I can see the famous early paperback cover clearly in my mind's eye)and I've never forgotten it. Neither has Caroline and neither will Jane (eventually). Alan Arkin is magnificent, as always, yet Yossarian really lives in my brain totally separately from the film. Curtis

Nin Andrews said...

So horrific. You have to wonder what we do as human beings . . . Lately I have been wanting to bury my head in the sand.

TC said...

Paul Fussell observes in Wartime, "What annoyed the troops and augmented their sardonic, contemptuous attitude toward those who viewed them from afar was in large part the public innocence about the bizarre damage suffered by the human body in modern war. The troops could not contemplate without anger the lack of public knowledge of the Graves Registration form used by the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps with its space for indicating 'Members Missing.'"

But public innocence, well...

In childhood the guilty habit of loitering away from church and school and nuns & c. brought one frequently to the nether regions by the Rock Island tracks where, down two steps in a sort of miniature stoop-underworld, a woman named Molly sold candy, comic books & such. There one acquired trading cards. Inside each pack of cards, ingot-like, was contained a thick pink slab of powdered sugar-covered chewing gum. Yegads, the youthful teeth sacrificed to Topps and Fleer!

One particularly fascinating line of cards had appeared on the market in the late 1930s and continued on through The War, depicting its naked savagery, all across the several and various fronts and theatres, in full colour lurid pulpy savage glory.

The cards were sold by a company appropriately called Gum.

The series was called Horrors of War. Actually there were two series of Horrors of War. The later series were tamer, from the early 1940s. More popular with tooth-decayed delinquents and vagrants of "my" period was the original series, full of garish scenes from the Spain and China conflicts of the 1930s, like the much-coveted vintage# 99, Ghoulish Dogs haunt the Ruins of China

And sometimes I wonder -- why is it the Rise of the Planet of the Apes took so darn long to get underway??



"Horrors of War" -- continue, to be continued too, as we know (but what do we know of them, the horrors?) -- "I'm cold . . . I'm cold." "There, there."


light coming into cloud above blackness
of ridge, towhee standing on fence post
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

two systems of co-ordinates,
that this place would

be, which follows from that,
which is what follows

cloudless blue sky reflected in channel,
shadowed green canyon of ridge above it

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

Catch-22 remains almost impossible to forget; thank you for helping me to remember.

Susan Kay Anderson said...

Stark seperation between our dreams and our bodies. How far apart they are and only through sadness do we feel them come together mostly as fleeting seconds.

Those golden ingots.

Hazen said...

Perhaps this will be how the world ends, not with a bang, but a "there, there." Cold comfort.

In 1914, Ouspensky noted the madness and the cynical "preparedness" in the truckloads of crutches the Tsarist government had ordered up as Russian forces marched off to engage the German army.

TC said...

The curious and sadly affecting aspect of all this is seen when we find in history those who were, for whatever cause or reason, actually committed to some purpose to be achieved through warfare. There are of course wars of "principle", wars of "liberation". But things rarely stay settled for very long through such means -- and the means, so often the worst possible way to "settle things".

Bernard Fall: Death on the Street Without Joy