Authors: James Jones
The Ice-Cream Headache
This collection is ‘dictated’ to my 7-year-old son, Jamie
Y FATHER HAD MINT-CONDITION
first editions of all of his books leather bound with gold lettering—blue for my brother Jamie and brown for me. He signed each volume on birthdays and other holidays, an extra little gift from him. In my volume of
The Ice-Cream Headache,
he wrote; “To Kaylie—on her ninth Birthday. Hoorah! A new one is almost finished! And so am I.” In Jamie’s—to whom the book is dedicated—he wrote: “To Jamie—this is the one I promised you two years ago. Sorry it is a year late. Still, it’s better than nothing. Anyway, it’s your own.” Rereading his inscriptions, I see a recurring theme: The next one is almost done … and the next one … and the next one … As if he were already concerned about running out of time; feeling guilty for not having met some harsh, self-imposed deadline. We had no idea that within a year he would suffer his first bout of congestive heart failure, the disease that seven years later would take his life.
In his introduction to
The Ice-Cream Headache,
James Jones compares writing stories to “having a series of high-fever ailments,” while writing a novel “is like having t.b. or some such long term chronic ailment with a low grade fever.” Typical of his sense of humor, the point he’s making is that writing is painful as hell on the best of days. My brother Jamie and I would watch him come downstairs from his office in the late afternoons, and it was not unlike witnessing a champion runner a few minutes after he’s crossed the finish line. If writing a novel is a marathon, then the short story is a sprint. But even while James Jones was putting together these stories, he was thinking of the book as a whole, and still suffered all the pain and loneliness of a long-distance runner. What amazed my brother and me as children was how, even on the most beautiful summer day, he’d climb those stairs, lock himself in, and write. No one was making him do it, and we found this astounding.
His novels were big and fat and frightening. My bound editions went high up on a shelf next to my brother’s, for when we “grew up.” His books in progress lived with us like some strange relative in the attic. He’d talk about them, the problems he was having, and when he finished one, it was a celebration as big as a national holiday. Upon receiving
The Ice-Cream Headache
on my ninth birthday, knowing already that it contained short stories, I asked my father if he thought I was old enough to read it. He thought about it for a moment and said, “Sure—go ahead and start with the childhood stories.” And he told me their titles: “Just Like the Girl,” “The Tennis Game,” “A Bottle of Cream,” “The Valentine,” and “The Ice-Cream Headache.”
My father had never talked much about his childhood. I gathered it had not been a happy one. I knew he’d been a boy through the Great Depression. He was eight years old in 1929, when his family lost everything, including their high standing in Robinson, the small southern-Illinois town where he was born and raised. Now, in preparation for my reading of these childhood stories, he told me that they were based on his own life, that the grandfather in “The Ice-Cream Headache” was his own grandfather, George Washington Jones, a lawyer who was a quarter Cherokee and had written a book himself, based on the trial of Christ. James Jones had loved and admired his grandfather, had adored his own drunken father Ray Jones, a dentist, whose best advice had been to always tell the truth, and he’d hated—passionately hated—his mother Ada, on whom the mother in the stories is based.
When I turned nine, we were spending the summer in Deauville, France. I was taking riding lessons and swimming in the ocean every day. I lived a dream life of privilege, far from Robinson, Illinois, where I’d never been. I’d never met a single relative on my father’s side. His childhood was far removed from anything I knew, but his writing was so straightforward, so honest, the details so clear—the Midwestern summer heat, the small backyard, the public school’s hallways, the mother’s sweating back as she toils over the kitchen stove—that I felt I was there with him, witnessing his childhood as a powerless onlooker. My father was a romantic child, with an inquisitive, wide-open mind, and he was misunderstood, misinterpreted, by the adults entrusted with his care. They were no help at all to him in figuring out the ways of the world. The injustice, the cruelty, the absence of understanding he suffered as a child made me, at nine, sick at heart. And I knew that even if some of the details were changed—my dad often said that’s what a novelist did, fool with the facts—the little boy was my father, and he’d lived through these terrible things. It was almost impossible to imagine this strong, powerful, decent man at the mercy of such bungling, self-centered adults.
In 1982, five years after his death, I visited Robinson for the first time. I learned that James Jones had had a helper in his young life—the librarian at the public library. He’d been a child who read voraciously, and by the age of eight, he’d read every book in the children’s wing of the Robinson library. He begged the librarian for permission to read the adult books. Concerned about what terrible lessons the little boy would learn, the kind lady supervised his reading until his high school graduation. But in school, he was a mediocre student, even in English—his best subject. According to his report cards, he was often bored and angry in class, argumentative with the teacher, who in his opinion didn’t understand the first thing about the books she was teaching. Following graduation, with few options, he joined the Army. This was in 1939. At his father’s suggestion, he went to Hawaii, where my grandfather was certain Hitler’s war would never reach.
My father never saw his parents again. His mother, Ada Blessing Jones, died shortly before Pearl Harbor of diabetes, which she refused to have treated because she’d become a Christian Scientist. After Pearl Harbor, his father, Ray Jones, tried to enlist. He showed up stinking drunk at the recruitment office and was laughed out the door. He went back to his office, sat down in his dentist’s chair, and shot himself through the mouth.
It was not until my first trip to Robinson that I tackled the rest of
the stories about love and war. I’m still struck by their brutal honesty. James Jones doesn’t gloss over the ugliness, and yet, he handles his characters, adult and child, with infinite delicacy and compassion. He was ahead of his time in every way, addressing issues such as the plight of single women trying to make it on their own in New York City, and young men returning from WWII with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which the soldiers called combat fatigue, and were expected to recover from by the sheer force of their will. He never treated his characters with condescension, instead with epic compassion and a straightforward language that reflects the very nature of who they are. James Jones paints a devastatingly clear and poignant picture of a time and place, of a young artist’s struggle to break free, not only of his past and his prohibitive culture, but of the scars left upon his psyche by the horrors of war, and the horrors of childhood.
It is no surprise, then, that he dedicated the book to his only son, Jamie. Just as Jamie and I were under the impression that we were “one nation
with liberty and justice for all,” we believed our father
his books to those he loved, and thus the dedication, a testament to his unique sense of humor.
With another novel almost done, indeed, so was he. In 1977, fighting against time, writing twelve to fourteen hours a day in order to finish his last novel,
the last of the trilogy begun with
From Here to Eternity
he died, four chapters from the end. Willie Morris put my father’s tape recordings and notes together and finished the novel for him.
I feel sad to this day that I never got the chance to discuss his larger works with him. But I do have the memory of that one day, when at nine years old, in France, I ran to him in tears and threw myself into his arms.
“But, Daddy, these stories, they’re not true, right? They’re not really true?” I wanted him to reassure me.
“They’re all true,” he said in a quiet tone, “I just had to change things sometimes, you know, lie a little, to make them better stories.”
I remember crying in his arms, unable to stop, and his calm and even voice as he explained to me that the world was not always a nice place and that people were sometimes quite terrible, even though they usually thought they were doing the right thing—and he wished it could be otherwise and that he could tell me it wasn’t so, but there it is.
I felt so guilty for every cruel thing I’d ever done to anyone smaller or weaker than myself. And I blurted this out to my father:
There was a little girl in my class—a chauffeur’s daughter who was on scholarship. She was small for her age and her clothes were too small and stained. I admitted forlornly that I’d been mean to her and I vowed never to laugh at her, or mistreat any other fragile soul ever again.
My father chuckled good-naturedly at my solemn vow and told me not to be too hard on myself, but he was proud of me, he said, for telling the truth.
“What happened to Chet Poore?” I asked him. I was referring to the magnificent outlaw in “A Bottle of Cream”—to this day one of my favorite short stories.
“Oh, he died in jail, I guess,” my father said wistfully. “That wasn’t his real name.”
“What was his real name?”
“I don’t remember,” my father said. “I don’t remember if it really happened that way at all.”
N PLANNING THIS BOOK
of stories I decided against any rewriting or revising. So these are presented to you just as they were when they were first finished no matter how long ago and then published, or in the case of two, not published at all. Mainly this is because I felt that to revise them at this late date instead of helping them might very well take away from them the very thing I like about them most which is their flavor of “youngness,” of emotional freshness of “Then,” of emotional immediacy according to the time and place in the progression of a writer’s life when they were written. The truth is, I don’t think I could revise them, because I am no longer the man who wrote them. As a matter of fact, the man who wrote each story probably ceased to exist after that story was written and finished, by the mere fact of having written it.
Particularly the first story I find “young” in the technical sense of writing technique. It makes its effects well, I think, but in a way which is a little bit too obvious, too heavily pointed, too easy for the reader to see behind. This is a little embarrassing, but not very much so, since I was “young” myself then. I find the story amusing for this, perhaps an interested reader will also, but I think the story’s point is as valid today as it was then, if perhaps (with the Special Forces soldiering of today) not even moreso.
Anyway naturally I got older. I think a reader who is interested will find that the stories get older too. This is not to say that each story is conclusively and positively better than the last one! How I would like to be able to say that! How any writer would! But I find it interesting to follow the changes and progression, the various experiments successful or less successful. Perhaps the interested reader will also. There are a number of moods, several different styles, several different attacks. They begin with five stories written in 1947, when I was 25 (My God, is that possible?!) and run through a period of ten years to four written in 1957 when I was 35, which are the last stories I have written.