The following is excerpted with permission from Terese Svoboda’s “Black Glasses like Clark Kent: A GI’s Secret from Postwar Japan,” winner of the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize (selected by Robert Polito), to be published by Graywolf Press in February 2008.
My uncle is Superman. With black Clark Kent glasses, grapefruit-sized biceps, lots of brilliantine thick dark hair, solid jaw, six-four, and as handsome as all get out, he’s the perfect match for Kryptonite. He even keeps a photo of himself as a high-school Adonis, veins bulging. Now, in 2004, after making millions in farming, restaurants, and real estate, instead of swooping down and rescuing people from burning buildings, he volunteers for Meals on Wheels, just what Superman would take on in old age. I suspect this Superman schtick also has something to do with Nietszche’s “will to power.” After all, Grandma had more than a whiff of German in her Czech fierceness. Make the best better reads the ornately written note I find in her purse after her funeral. My uncle was her baby, he bore a golden sheen that lit his life, made him special, a man with muscle.
A few years ago he tried to convince me that his eighteen months in the army would make a terrific movie, or at least a great book. “I was there during the occupation of Japan, right after World War II,” he said. “They found out we were less barbaric than they were taught. It’s quite a story.”
I rolled my eyes. Superman had gone too far. I put his confidence down to the vanity of old age, the vanity of somebody who still, at nearly eighty, held himself and his washboard stomach as proudly as any of the Supermen, screen or comic book. But he was adamant, so sure of his story—and of my taking it on as the writer in the family.
“War stories?” I laughed.“Let me tell you how hard it is to get a book published.”
“If you’re a real Svoboda, you’ll figure out a way. It’ll be worth it to you….”
In spring 2004, reports about Abu Ghraib fill the newspapers; by April the radio talks of nothing else. Especially the kind of radio that everyone in small-town Nebraska listens to, the Rush Limbaugh who rationalizes it all away: “I’m talking about people having a good time. You ever heard of emotional release? You heard of the need to blow some steam off? We’re going to ruin people’s lives over this and we’re going to hamper our military effort, and then we are going to really hammer them because they had a good time.”
My dad calls around then and mentions that his brother has fallen into a deep depression. “I think it has to do with what’s going on,” he says. “He’s got plenty of money, his kids are okay, his wife just bought a new Cadillac. He’s never been depressed before.”
The psychiatric ward my uncle checks himself into is dead center in the middle of the country. Only one shrink runs the operation; there are no more psychiatrists for 150 miles. The facility got its start by taking in the settlers who were driven crazy by the solitude that the Homestead Act had forced them into, pioneering one farm every 160 acres.
On the 5th of July he calls his daughter Chris and demands to be let out. Maybe he watched all the 4th of July TV; maybe the military played their 4th of July pageant music nonstop, surely there were World War II reruns up the kazoo on cable. He tells her he has to get out that very night or else. Chris hears that or else better than most—she is a psychologist with her own practice—and suggests he hire a private plane and fly down to Texas where she lives. “He was too close to suicide for antidepressants alone,” Chris writes me later. I imagine that professionally speaking, she hesitates. Perhaps she mentions how slowly antidepressants kick in—sometimes it takes as long as six weeks. But he is her father and nobody else close to him—or anyone else within those 150 miles—will take the professional interest she does. At 3 a.m. July 6, he and his wife hire a plane to fly to Texas. He can’t wait for morning.