As student writers progress through the different stages of development, they are able to add depth of ideas, clarity of language, and finesse to their work. In the following two pages, Alex Horn ’17 demonstrates his advanced mastery of the written word in his short story about the dichotomy between two unknown futures. This piece was originally written as the summer reading assignment for Debra Galler’s AP English Literature class, with the challenge of writing a personal memoir relating to the students’ own families.
By Alex Horn ’17
It’s as typical a metaphor as ever there was. The fork in the road; one goes left, the other right. The two potions, red and blue; one harmless, the other deadly. Choices to be made, chaoses to be confronted, destinies to be damned. Life or death, do or die. To be, or not so much. The weight of lives unlived is so ponderous that even Shakespeare washed his hands of it in disgust, putting the subject to bed in six words, with two repeated.
But Howard Cohen didn’t know Shakespeare, not well. To him, “to be or not to be,” might as well have been an ad slogan, adorning one of the flyers that his father always scraped crumbling off the pharmacy door, muttering about those people getting real jobs instead of graffitiing his private business. So Howie didn’t know quite how cliché a bind he was in when the U.S. Army called his draft number in 1951 and lined him up with all the other poor Brooklyn boys misfortunate enough to be born on the 24th of October. In that moment, knees knocking in his trousers, fists clenched in his pockets, Howie Cohen knew just two things. He knew that majority of the boys of his birthday would be shipped off to Korea, destined to die, most of them, shot full of so much shrapnel even M*A*S*H doctors, real or fictional, wouldn’t be able to fix them. He knew that the others would be sent to Germany, to reinforce the post-World War II bases, to practice training exercises for a Cold War that would never really heat up, to come home after in one piece and raise Baby Boomers in the suburbs. What Howie Cohen didn’t know was which company he belonged to. No one could know that. Not until the time came.
They’d lined them all up alphabetically, for no real reason; the boys could have been called in any order, Howie reasoned, but that’s just the way it was in the army. Everything had its place. Howard Cohen was a ‘C’, so he was near the front of the line, thank God. Howie was afraid, sure, but it wasn’t even the anticipation that was killing him; more than anything, it was the sheer boredom. If he had not been born a Cohen but instead a Silversmith, or God forbid a Zaborski, he might have died of the boredom before he ever reached Korea. Catchphrases and quotations being much more appealing to his young mind than Shakespeare, he had heard that old saying before, the definition of war: interminable boredom punctuated by moments of terror. Still, he hadn’t supposed that the boredom part would start so soon, before he’d even been assigned a unit; if standing in line made him want to shoot himself in the head, what the hell was he going to do while stuck in a trench waiting for the mortar shells to strike? The obvious answer came to him, and Howie grinned in spite of himself. He’d have a gun, after all. That’s one way to get out of the army.
The boy in front of Howie turned around and shot him an angry glare; Howie realized he’d guffawed out loud, breaking the somberly masculine mood the other boys had been trying to cultivate. He almost laughed again at that, but thought better of it. The boy in front of him was a lot bigger. So was the boy behind, actually. Most people were taller than Howie. Maybe the North Koreans would break that trend. Howie laughed again, but this time it was hollow. He glanced ahead; they were well into the C’s now. Only six more left until his turn. Nothing was funny now.
One man sat alone at a desk, deciding the fate of the world, or at least the fate of the worlds of the boys from Brooklyn. Howie didn’t know how to read rank insignia—he supposed he’d have to learn that, no matter where he went—but if he could, he would have seen that the man was a sergeant. Not exactly an exalted rank, for someone choosing which men to send to their graves. Howie wondered why the man was working alone; there were a lot of boys in Brooklyn, after all, and with just one man to judge them, it could be hours. But Howie supposed there was no rush to this, that there needn’t be. Plenty of war to go around.
Still, the sergeant worked with dull efficiency, going as fast as he could, which was somehow both faster and slower than anyone wanted him to go. He’d give a little speech each time, which of course slowed down the process further, about which unit they’d be serving in, and under which commander, and what an honor it was, and so on, but there was only one word anybody cared about. One word, with two options, for one line with two destinies. “Germany,” said the sergeant in monotone. A pause, as the name was called, the next boy shuffled into place, the file was reviewed, and the little speech was given. Then, “Korea.”
The next boy stepped up, a tall, lithe Italian who Howie recognized as the heir to the pizza place on Fulton. “Korea,” said the sergeant. The boy shrank a little, and he was right to—the family business was to die with his father. Now just three more. Howie hardly noticed them; there were spots in his eyes and a ringing in his ears. He just barely heard, “Germany,” ringing out like a church bell, once, twice, three times.
The Irish boy behind Howie clapped him encouragingly on the shoulder, maybe a little too hard, but Howie couldn’t feel it anyway. “Guess we’re goin’ over, eh?” While the Army maintained that they balanced the numbers on both sides, it was a known fact that about five times as many kids were sent to Korea as were sent to Germany, which wasn’t surprising; Korea’s boys had a much shorter expiration date. The odds of Howie being sent anywhere else but war, after the three kids before him were sent to safety, were simply nil. It was all random, all chance, except when it wasn’t that at all.
Howie didn’t answer the boy behind him, didn’t even look back; there was nothing to say. He just stepped up. The sergeant began his speech, “Mr. Howard Cohen, you have been assigned the rank of Private in the United States Army. Your basic training will commence immediately, and your deployment after a period sufficient. . .” Howie tuned it all out. He knew it by heart. They all did. They’d been waiting.
To his left, sat the men waiting to go to Korea, and on his right, men waiting for planes to Europe. There were no signs, there never were in the Army, but Howie could tell which was which by the looks on their faces. Pain, resignation, and a bit of excitement to his left. Relief, guilt, and a bit of excitement to his right. To Howie’s left lay a future where he died on the field of battle, leaving behind a Purple Heart, and grieving parents, and grieving girlfriend, and not much else. To Howie’s right lay a different future, one he didn’t know yet. In that future, one where he changes his name to Coleman to get promoted to Corporal, and goes home in 1953, and sells stocks on Long Island until he’s made enough to send his kids to school, and doesn’t even visit Asia, let alone Korea, until his AARP membership card comes in the mail.
Most of us, most of the time, exist with a million different futures at our fingertips, but not Howie, not then. There were only two futures for Howie, just then, just two, clear and distinct. And for one moment more, until the sergeant made his call, those futures stood at attention with Howie, flanking him proudly on the same one line.
Howie was already moving left, because he knew where he was going, he was going over there, he was going to die, he was—and then the sergeant said “Germany.” Howard Coleman became my grandpa in that moment, before he changed his name, before he ever even had kids; once his path turned right, once he knew he was safe, the universe suddenly allowed a future with me in it to exist. “Move along, Private,” said the sergeant to Howie, who was still frozen in place. “Move along.” So Howie Cohen moved along, and he didn’t look back.
The Irish boy behind him lost his legs on the ranks of the Imjin River. So it goes.
From the Author: The Story Behind The Story
My grandfather, Howard Coleman, served as a Corporal in the U.S. Army, working as a company clerk. While he served during the Korean War, his unit was stationed in West Germany for the entirety of that war, both to continue the post-World War II normalization efforts and to counterbalance the presence of Soviet troops in East Germany. The last lines of the story, referencing the casualty at Imjin and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, pay tribute to the sacrifices of the veterans who, unlike my grandfather, served in an active battle zone, and invoke the futility and random nature of war. In order to overcome anti-semitic discrimination that prevented his advancement in the army, my grandfather changed his last name from Cohen to Coleman, a name which my cousins bear to this day. After returning from the war, my grandfather became a stockbroker in Long Island, and had three children, among them my mother Alison.
Alex Horn ’17 will attend Columbia University in the fall. At MFS, he has earned a number of honors and accolades, including National Merit Scholarship Semifinalist, U.S. Presidential Scholars Program Nominee, Cum Laude Society inductee, and member of National Spanish Honor Society. Alex also is the Editor-in-Chief of the student newspaper WordsWorth, Director General of MFS’s Model United Nations delegation, and he completed a senior capstone project entitled “The History and Social Impact of Standup Comedy.” In 2015, he completed the rigorous Iowa Young Writers Studio program at the University of Iowa.