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
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)
Tell us a little about yourself.
I was born and raised just outside of Boston, Massachusetts. Except for four years that I spent in Kansas City right after college, I have lived and worked my entire life in the Boston area, which I deeply love. I’ve been writing and publishing—fiction and nonfiction—for over forty years. During all that time, I also taught English and creative writing to high school and university students. There’s a lot more about me in a Wikipedia article that someone once wrote about me.
What would people be most surprised to know about you?
Probably that I was not a good writer in high school or college. That proficiency didn’t come until later. I attribute my skill at writing to three things: daily journal keeping, having to teach writing to others, and constant practice. I’m still learning how to write well!
How long have you been writing and what made you fall in love with writing?
I started off my writing career as a poet and won some accolades and prizes in college. I am still constantly reading poetry—classic and contemporary. I still occasionally turn out a haiku for my own amusement, but consider myself 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 mind 1980s. My first book of short stories came out in 1991.
I’ve always loved good writing. My admiration for the great prose stylists has always inspired me to reach for that level of excellence. My admiration for the early great gay writers inspired me to write honestly about gay life.
Did you always want to be a writer?
No. In high school, I was already a serious composer. I went to college intending to major in music. I quickly discovered that my real talents lay elsewhere.
What are your ambitions for your writing career?
Well, my writing “career,” such as it is, is already well under way. I have achieved a lot of my early ambitions—to get published, to write a novel, to undertake a serious research project. My ambitions now are to return to fiction writing (I’m working on a new book of stories) and to keep doing nonfiction writing as well—book reviews, feature pieces, perhaps a biography of a gay personality. I have also kept a journal for over 50 years. I need to find an archive that will accept it!
What’s your favorite part of writing?
First drafts are sheer hell. But I love the rewriting process, and of course, getting to the end of a project.
Tell us about your writing style.
My early writing style was turgid, long-winded, and far too influenced by Henry James! It was only after I started reading contemporary American short stories, especially John Updike’s, that I began to develop a voice that was true. I fancy myself a prose stylist—I can spend hours crafting a sentence. I always read my drafts aloud, even final drafts. I am not afraid of long sentences or, as one of my editors put it “fifty-cent words.” But my aim is always for clarity, beauty and courtesy to the reader.
What does your writing process look like?
I try to write every day, though with all the editing for the new book that has just come out, it’s been difficult to carve out time for new writing. Now that the book has been published, I’m looking forward to getting back to daily fiction writing.
When I’m working on something new, I can write for an hour, two hours, six hours, depending on how it’s going. But I always try to stop at a point where I know what the next sentence will be. That helps to alleviate the anxiety that attends picking up the “pen” the next day.
I mostly work at my desk at home, and compose almost exclusively on a laptop. Before the pandemic, I would also take my laptop to a library or coffee shop, because I found that taking myself out of my apartment, into a new environment, helped me to concentrate.
I write slowly, and I revise constantly—both as I’m going along and after a complete draft has been finished. My most recent book went through about 10 drafts.
Have you written any GLBTQ romance/fiction?
I’m not a big fan of genre writing, so, while many of my stories are certainly about gay love and romance, I wouldn’t say I write LGBTQ “romance.” I try for stories that are complex and nuanced, that capture the messy reality of people’s lives.
What’s your favorite genre to write?
I love writing short stories, which I think are actually harder to write well than novels. I also enjoy writing personal essays. I’m in a dozen or so anthologies of personal essays, mostly about gay life and travel.
Describe a scene in your writing that has made you laugh or cry
When I was writing the book about tracking down my father’s wartime experience, I broke down quite frequently. My dad never told me stories about what he had to endure during the Second World War. So, coming across other accounts of the horrors of that war was quite an emotional experience for me. To realize that my father carried around those stories all his remaining life and never shared them with anyone was so painful. Each time I wrote a new draft and had to revisit those stories, I broke down again. They never lost their power, and I hope they have a similar impact on my readers.
Give the readers a brief summary of your latest book or WIP. What genre does it fall in?
As Far As I Can Tell is a quest biography about the several-thousand-mile journey I made—both in the field and through extensive research—to track down my father’s wartime experience and to understand my relationship to him and to war in general.
My father, a tank gunner with the Fifth Armored Division, was a citizen-soldier during World War II. Born and raised in Canton, Ohio, he was drafted in 1942 and spent two years in U.S. training camps before shipping overseas. The Fifth Armored Division (the “Victory Division”) fought its way across Normandy, liberated the Duchy of Luxembourg, and then engaged the Germans at the Siegfried Line and in the horrific Battle of the Bulge. They were the first American division to enter Germany and the one closest to Berlin at the end of the War. Many of my father’s buddies did not survive; he did, and he lived the rest of his life with that sad, haunting knowledge.
My father never spoke about his war experience. He wrapped that story in a tight cocoon of silence. In truth, my father and I rarely spoke about anything. From early on in my life as gay man, I learned to wrap myself in a cocoon of my own, choosing to lock my father out of my emerging life. While he and I were not estranged, we conducted a polite, hesitant do-si-do around each other’s silence. Did he know I was gay? Perhaps. Did I fathom the depth of the trauma he had suffered in the War? Not at all.
After he died, I discovered among his effects a scrapbook of photos he had taken during the war, a handful of letters he had written home, and a few other documents related to his wartime experience. This memorabilia—so flimsy and incomplete—stood out to me both as an indictment that I had paid so little attention to my father and what he’d done, and as an invitation to uncover just what sort of man he had been, during the war and after.
In uncovering his story, I aimed to avoid both sentimentality and the congenial, if inconsequential, smallness of “family history.” My quest was about more than that. I wanted to assess the war’s emotional resonance: on him, on his fellow soldiers, and on me. I found myself, like the Russian historian Svetlana Alexievich, becoming “a historian of the soul”—my father’s soul, his generation’s, and mine.
The book interweaves several stories. Based on my research (including dozens of interviews with surviving members of the 5AD), As Far As I Can Tell reconstructs what my father and the men of the Fifth Armored Division endured; it also chronicles my own emotional odyssey as I followed his route from Liverpool to the Elbe River, a journey that challenged my thinking about war, about European history, and about “civilization.” What I discovered—about this man I hardly knew, and about myself, a man who was deemed “unfit” for military service in Vietnam—is the substance of the book.
What genre/s do you enjoy reading in your free time?
I read all the time. I usually have 4-5 books going simultaneously, one each in a variety of genres: poetry, fiction, biography, art history, Chinese studies. (I taught in China for a semester and came to love Chinese poetry and philosophy.)
What was the last book you read? What did you like about it?
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.
Have you held any interesting jobs while you worked on your books?
Yes, I have always taught—and almost always full-time—while I wrote my books. One year, I was given a reduced teaching schedule in order to complete a book.
How do you relax?
Listen to music (mostly classical), take walks, swim, go to art galleries and museums, read, cook for my friends. I don’t own a television, so TV binging is not one of the ways I relax.
What hobbies do you have outside of writing?
Well, I love to travel, so I guess you’d call that a hobby. I’ve been all over Europe (Albania, Bulgaria, and Lithuania are still on my list), and traveled to East Asian about seven times. My new passion is Latin America. I’m relearning Spanish so that I can be a better traveler through Mexico and South America.
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.
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.