IN BEHIND ENEMY LINES: A Memoir, John Durand presents vignettes of rural Midwestern America during the 1940s and 1950s. They reflect the innocent and uncomplicated values Americans today imagine existed during that time: devoted extended family, respect for elders, pride in work, unchallenged religious faith, zealous patriotism, and naive sexuality.
When he was six years old Durand fell victim to poliomyelitis (polio). Left with a slightly deformed left leg, Durand was fanatical about being seen as “normal” by his peers. Durand’s futile denial of his disability is the unifying theme of his memoir. Durand managed the less physically demanding rituals, such as serving at Mass and accumulating merit badges in the Boy Scouts, but his disability denied him success in high school athletics and discouraged him from dating.
Like most boys of his generation, Durand admired the heroism portrayed on the daily radio adventure shows such as the Lone Ranger and in the patriotic movies and adventure novels depicting brave American soldiers. Indeed, World War II propaganda defined his early images of manhood.
A high school senior in 1955, Durand joined the National Guard, “enthusiastic and eager to please” his superiors. However, his tour lasted just four months because of his “bum foot.” By this point in his life, Durand was beginning to realize how much his disability would prevent him from participating fully in activities of “normal” people. His “honorable discharge” stated that he had served with “Honest and Faithful Service.” Durand writes cynically: “Yeah, right. So what? Who cares?”
One of Durand’s strengths as a writer is his ability to capture the atmosphere of small town middle America in the Forties and Fifties. With great respect, he is able to describe life on a small farm where every family member kicks in with the chores, from milking cows to cleaning chickens, to plowing and tilling fields and canning fruits.
Durand’s simple, straight forward writing style is easy to read. However, Durand’s book is about the impact of polio on his search for self identity, a philosophical issue that he fails to examine in any depth until the end. In a chapter titled “Post-polio Syndrome,” he finally introduces his major theme of human duality: “the disconnection between mind and body, between soul and flesh, between the inner and the outer worlds.” Durand concludes:
After polio there was nothing I could ever do about my duality except live with it. That’s all any of us can do. Pick up the pieces and go on . . . whether those pieces include a disfigured face or a diseased body or the loss of speech or sight or useless limbs or those we love. But it took me a long time to learn that.
These memoirs end as Durand leaves home for college. A much more interesting story would be that which covers the “long time” that it took Durand to learn to “live with” his “duality.”
A writer/educator living in Arlington, Texas, Tony Zurlo has published poetry, fiction, and essays in more than seventy journals, magazines, and anthologies including the Writers Against War, Dissent Voice, Red River Review, New Texas, Snow Monkey, and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He has new poems appearing in upcoming issues of Pemmican and Identity Theory. Tony has published non- fiction books on Vietnam, China, Hong Kong, Japan, Japanese Americans, West Africa, Algeria, and Syria (2006)