Book Title: As Far As I Can Tell: Finding My Father In World War II
Author: Philip Gambone
Publisher: Rattling Good Yarns Press
Release Date: October 30, 2020
Trope/s: Father/Son Relationships
Themes: Connecting to the past, Understanding our fathers,
Father/Son silence and the inherent lack of communications, Coming to terms with history
Heat Rating: 2 flames
Length: 155 000 words/474 pages
It is a standalone book.
(Note – The Rattling Good Yarns online store only ships within the US)
2021 Lambda Literary Award Nominated
Philip Gambone, a gay man, never told his father the reason why he was rejected from the draft during the Vietnam War. In turn, his father never talked about his participation in World War II. Father and son were enigmas to each other. Gambone, an award-winning novelist and non-fiction writer, spent seven years uncovering who the man his quiet, taciturn father had been, by retracing his father's journey through WWII. As Far As I Can Tell not only reconstructs what Gambone’s father endured, it also chronicles his own emotional odyssey as he followed his father’s route from Liverpool to the Elbe River. A journey that challenged the author’s thinking about war, about European history, and about “civilization."
"Philip Gambone weaves a moving memoir of his family, a vivid portrayal of his travels through the locales of WWII, and a powerful description of what that war was like to the men who fought it on the ground into a seamless and eloquent narrative." — Hon. Barney Frank, former Congressman, Massachusetts
“A single question pulses through As Far As I Can Tell: why didn’t my father talk about his time in the war? With meticulous research, Philip Gambone puts sound to silence, offering us a book-length love letter, not just to his father, but to anyone whose life has been hemmed in by obligation, obedience, and the brutality of the system. It’s also a coming to terms with the unknown in others, which is its own hard grace. A vital, dynamic read.” — Paul Lisicky, author of Later: My Life at the Edge of the World
“As Far As I Can Tell is a fascinating mix of autobiography, travelogue, and historical research that not only takes us on a great adventure in search of what World War Two was like for those who fought in the European theater but probes that most difficult of all subjects, the relationship between a father and a son -- in this case, a gay son. Extensively researched, highly literate and profoundly thoughtful, the story Gambone tells uses not only soldiers’ memoirs but writers as disparate as Samuel Johnson and James Lord to make this a reader's delight.”— Andrew Holleran, author of Dancer from the Dance
On February 12, 1942, Dad reported for induction. The chief business was the physical examination, which was conducted assembly-line fashion. The inductees were naked, wearing only a number around their necks. It was the most comprehensive physical most of them had ever had. For some it was intimidating, for others embarrassing.
Most inductees were eager to pass the physical exam, so eager in fact that in many cases, they indulged in “negative malingering,” trying to conceal conditions that might get them disqualified. Once the physical was out of the way, the only screening that remained was a brief interview with an army psychiatrist, who had been instructed to look for “neuropsychosis,” a diagnosis that covered all sort of emotional ills from phobias to excessive sweating and evidence of mental deficiency.
Paul Marshall, who ended up in the same division as Dad, remembered being asked at his physical if he liked girls. “I didn’t quite understand what he meant about it. I told him, ‘Why sure, I like girls.’” Later Marshall figured out what he was really being asked. “The ultimate question mark of manliness,” James Lord, himself a homosexual, recalled. “Do you like girls? Or prefer confinement in a federal penitentiary for the remainder of your unnatural life.” The terror of being considered a sexual leper or worse, “unfit to honor the flag of your forebears,” was real. Lord answered, Yes, he liked girls, and was promptly accepted into the army.
Not every homosexual inductee lied. Some, like Donald Vining, came clean with his interviewer, who turned out to be “marvelously tolerant, taking the whole thing easily and calmly, without shock and without condescension.” The interviewer marked Vining’s papers “sui generis ‘H’ overt,” and he was out.
My father passed his induction physical. Hale, hearty, and decidedly heterosexual, he needed none of the remedial medical work—dental, optometric—that millions of other inductees did. With the physical and the psychological screenings done, Dad signed his induction papers, was fingerprinted, and issued a serial number. The final piece of business was the administration of the oath of allegiance, done, according to army regulations, “with proper ceremony.” Once sworn in, Dad was sent home to put things in order before he went off to Camp Perry to be processed for basic training.
Twenty-eight years after Dad’s, my own induction notice arrived, during my senior year in college. I was instructed to report to my hometown on May 6, where the Army would put me on a bus and drive me to the Armed Forces Examining and Entrance Station in South Boston. I remember standing, before dawn, on a curb outside the town offices waiting for the bus. Other fellows from my high school were there, and I nervously tried to make small talk with them. We’d had nothing in common in high school, and the situation hadn’t changed in the intervening years.
My recollection of that day is shrouded in numbness. I remember standing in a line, stripped to my underwear, making my way from one examining station to the next. I kept assuring myself I could not possibly go to Vietnam, that the good fortune I’d enjoyed so far would see me to a different destiny than the one where I would end up dead in a jungle in Southeast Asia.
I was clutching a letter from my dentist attesting to the fact that I needed braces, in those days a cause for rejection. But aside from that, I had not taken any steps to ensure that I wouldn’t be taken. I’d heard stories of guys planning to go to their induction physicals drunk, or stoned, or wearing dresses and makeup. Others said they would flee to Canada or apply for conscientious objector status. I had made no such plans. Throughout senior year, I had been sitting on my damn butt, still banking on magic or luck to get me the hell out.
I passed every exam. I was not overweight. I did not have flat feet or a heart murmur. My blood pressure was excellent. At one station, I handed over the dentist’s letter. The examiner gave it a perfunctory glance and tucked it into my file.
At last, I came to the psychological screening area. All I remember is the examiner asking me if I’d ever had any homosexual experiences. And when I said yes, he followed up with a few more questions. Had I sought counseling? Did I intend to stop? That was it. He thanked me and I moved on. Less than two weeks later, I received a notice from the AFEES: “Found Not Acceptable for Induction Under Current Standards.” I’d been declared 4-F. In the parlance of the day, I had “fagged out.” My parents thought the dentist’s letter about braces had done the trick.
About the Author
Philip Gambone is a writer of fiction and nonfiction. His debut collection of short stories, The Language We Use Up Here, was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award. His novel, Beijing, was nominated for two awards, including a PEN/Bingham Award for Best First Novel.
Phil has extensive publishing credits in nonfiction as well. He has contributed numerous essays, reviews, features pieces, and scholarly articles to several local and national journals including The New York Times Book Review and The Boston Globe. He is a regular contributor to The Gay & Lesbian Review.
His longer essays have appeared in a number of anthologies, including Hometowns, Sister and Brother, Wrestling with the Angel, Inside Out, Boys Like Us, Wonderlands, and Big Trips.
Phil’s book of interviews, Something Inside: Conversations with Gay Fiction Writers, was named one of the “Best Books of 1999” by Pride magazine. His Travels in a Gay Nation: Portraits of LGBTQ Americans was nominated for an American Library Association Award.
Phil’s scholarly writing includes biographical entries on Frank Kameny in the Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford) and Gary Glickman in Contemporary Gay American Novelists: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. He also wrote three chapters on Chinese history for two high school textbooks published by Cheng and Tsui.
He is a recipient of artist’s fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, and the Massachusetts Arts Council. He has also been listed in Best American Short Stories.
Phil taught high school English for over forty years. He also taught writing at the University of Massachusetts, Boston College, and in the freshman expository writing program at Harvard. He was twice awarded Distinguished Teaching Citations by Harvard. In 2013, he was honored by the Department of Continuing Education upon completing his twenty-fifth year of teaching for the Harvard Extension School.
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How long have you been writing?
I started off my writing career as a poet and won some accolades and prizes in college for my poetry. I am still constantly reading poetry—classic and contemporary. I still occasionally turn out a haiku for my own amusement, but now consider myself exclusively a prose writer. I began my professional writing career with pieces—reportage and feature articles—for Boston’s gay press. But I also wanted to tell my own stories and turned to writing fiction, which I started to publish in the mid 1980s. My first book of short stories came out in 1991.
What made you decide you wanted to put yourself out there to be published?
My poetry was turgid, recondite, closeted. I got to a point where I wanted to be more open about what I was saying. Short stories seemed the way to do that. I couldn’t hide in a short story the way I could in an obscure poem. Someone once said that we write the stories we want to read. I wanted to read about ordinary gay men trying to lead lives of integrity.
What was your first published book?
It was a book of short stories called The Language We Use Up Here. Dutton published it in 1991. I had been writing short stories and publishing them in literary magazines since the mid 1980s. The late gay writer and editor George Stambolian read one and contacted me, asking of I had a book of stories. He was a scout for Dutton, a New York publishing house that was looking to bring out more gay literature. It was a stroke of extreme good luck for which I am forever grateful.
Is there one genre you haven’t tried but you see yourself writing in the future?
Well, I’ve now written short stories, novels, personal essays, travel pieces, poems, profiles, book reviews. What’s left? I guess I wouldn’t mind trying my hand at a biography. As Far As I Can Tell comes close to biography, but I’d like to try writing a full-fledged one. What’s kept me from doing it so far? Finding the right subject.
Would you ever write a hetero romance? Why or why not?
That’s a really interesting question. While all of my fiction—novels and short stories—has focused on gay men, I have included straight characters. But I don’t think I’m particularly qualified to write about heterosexual romances. What would interest me is to write a story or novel from a gay POV which looks at a straight love story. And, while we’re on this subject, I wonder if heterosexual writers are ever asked if they would write a homosexual romance. We tend to think that the heterosexual perspective is the norm and that homosexual characters, stories, perspectives are a sideline. I’ve always tried to write with the idea that homosexual stories are as valid and “normative” as heterosexual ones.
Name your favorite authors and some of their stories you’ve enjoyed? What do you like about the writing?
Anything by Jane Austen because of the wit, the elegance of the prose, the psychological acuity.
Anything by Charles Dickens because of his genius for creating characters and intricate plots.
Anything by John Updike or Philip Roth because of their mastery of American prose.
Anything by Andrew Holleran because he’s got his finger on that elusive phenomenon called “gay sensibility.”
Anything by Virginia Woolf because of her mastery in handling point of view and shifts in point of view.
And the Odyssey by Homer because it so brilliantly portrays an entire world.
I know this is, by and large, a very traditional list. I have learned a lot from my literary forebearers.
What book are you reading at the moment? It’s okay to give a fellow author a plug!
I usually read three or four books simultaneously—one in each of various genres. At the moment:
(1) Daniel Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic. It’s about the semester he taught Homer’s great epic poem to a group of college students and his father sat in on the class. Obviously, given my own book, I loved the descriptions of the father-son dynamics. But I also loved Mendelsohn’s brilliant reading of the poem and the way he wove several stories together—the analysis of the poem, his father’s reactions to the class, and stories of growing up. But I’m glad I didn’t read this book while I was writing my own. It might have overly influenced how I structured my own book.
(2) Jan Swafford’s magisterial biography of Brahms, one of my favorite composers.
(3) Anna Karenina, which I’d never read before. Almost nothing in English comes close to Tolstoy in terms of vividness, grandeur, sweep, and penetration of psychology.
(4) Rilke’s Duino Elegies. One of the greatest poems of the 20th century.
(5) And a book of short stories by Alice Munro.
What are you currently working on?
I’m back to writing short stories. I hope to assemble a collection of short stories about older gay men, a group that I think has been poorly represented in current fiction. My editor at Rattling Good Yarns Press tells me there is a hunger among older gay men to read stories about themselves.
When creating your characters, do you have models/actors/real people in mind or are they totally fictional?
When I write fiction, I generally start off with a character, someone who has a problem of some kind. Those characters are based sometimes on observations I make about a particular person, sometimes on pure invention. If the character is based on someone I know, I always alter some major detail in order to force myself to invent.
The “problem” the character can be dealing with can be anything: a difficult social situation or relationship, an emotional discomfort, even just a vague unease that won’t let go of him or her. But usually it’s a problem I know from personal experience. I throw my main character into a social situation and watch to see what develops. As I write, I learn more about my character. I never have a clear understanding of how things will work out until I get to the end of the drafting process. That’s what makes writing fiction fun and interesting—discovering how the story will proceed as I go along. Plots always grow out of characters, out of human beings interacting with one another.
If you write gay romance or erotica, just how descriptive are you in their sex scenes?
I used to be reticent about explicit sex scenes in my stories for fear that they’d never get published. I remember the editor of one rather conservative literary magazine even balked at my submitting a story with gay characters in it. I think—I hope!—those days are long gone. Now I’m much more fearless about including explicit gay sex. Getting published is, obviously, still a factor, but I want to write stories that are as honest and true-to-life as possible. Gay men have sex. That should be a part of the landscape of a story about gay men.
Do you feel that the trend is changing where gay fiction/romance is becoming more mainstream?
Yes, the fact that gay fiction is now winning mainstream literary prizes and being respectfully reviewed in mainstream journals indicates that gay writers have arrived.
Do you believe it’s important for you to know the gender of the author?
No. Great writing is great writing.
What is it about gay fiction and or m/m romance that pleasures you to write it?
First of all, it’s a world I know well. I started writing gay stories because I was hungry to read about gay men and their experience. I’m interested in the way gay men’s lives intersect with the larger world—with heterosexual lives, with people from different classes and ethnicities, with
What stereotype of gay men bothers you the most?
That we’re all the same. Gay men are as diverse as their straight counterparts. An editor once told me that one of my gay characters wasn’t radical enough. I think he was implying that all gay men should be anti-bourgeois. That’s a very narrow view of the LGBTQ world out there!
What promotional method works best for you?
When I was publishing with big houses, they took care of a lot of the promotional business. With the current book, which has been published by a small independent house, I’m doing a lot more of the promotional work. But I also feel that they are much more helpful in steering me toward channels that will promote my book. I’ve already done a radio interview and it was they who suggested we try this blog and others like it. No one at the big houses ever came up with those idea.
I also think that with a small house, the book will be newsworthy for longer. It won’t have a two-week splash and then be forgotten. So I hope that next summer and fall, when the pandemic will have died down that I’ll be able to go on tours, book signings, and literary festivals.
Your favorite gay TV show or movie?
Alas, I’m really square and bookish. I don’t even own a television! I read constantly. I’m at the age now where I realize I will never be able to read all the books I want to read. When I do the New York Times crossword puzzle, I get so frustrated when the clues have to do with TV and movie personalities. I’m totally clueless about that stuff.
Your favorite gay celeb?
Well, ditto, I guess. But I would say that I greatly admire any LGBTQ person who has put their life, talent, reputation on the line to champion the LGBTQ fight for equality and justice. When I interviewed Franklin Kameny, the early gay rights pioneer
Follow the tour and check out the other blog posts and interviews here