Award-winning author M. E. Kerr discusses writing her novel Slap Your Sides, set during World War II. Much of Kerr’s inspiration came from her personal experiences growing up in Auburn, New York. For more historical fiction from Kerr, check out Your Eyes in Stars, set during the Depression, and Linger, which takes place during the Gulf War crisis.
I always wanted to be a writer. My older brother, Al, said that was why I liked the oddballs in town. There were plenty of them, starting with the prisoners. They were on all the trains going to and from our little town in upstate New York. On their way there, they were manacled to other men, and leaving Auburn, they wore new suits and often carried birdcages, even bowls of fish, their company during the years they were sentenced to prison.
We were a prison city, and Ezra Spring was one of the local kids who played chess with the prisoners, Sunday afternoons. Ezra was named after the founder of Cornell University, who was a Quaker, as all of the Spring family were. Ezra was what you’d call “devout.” Al said that Ezra and his girlfriend called each other “thee.” “Thee have a good night,” he’d once heard Ezra say to her. It was called the “plain language.”
I never thought much about Ezra until the war. Then Ezra became a conscientious objector, or, as kids in Auburn said, a “conchie.” The Spring family was always cleaning yellow paint off the windows of their small grocery store. They were always rubbing away curses against Ezra, the same ones yelled at him in school.
Al was a naval pilot, heading back to base one night after a short leave. My younger brother, mom and dad, and I were at the train station where half a dozen guys like Al, in uniform, were going back to war.
“Well, look who’s here,” Al said loudly, “our local slacker.”
In those days, that was about the worst thing you could call anyone. It announced that you were against the war.
Ezra Spring, of course, was not in uniform. He was carrying a small suitcase, a big fellow towering over his father but staying very close to him, as though Mr. Spring could protect him.
Dad said, “Why didn’t Ezra just become a 1A0? He could join up but he’d never see combat.”
Al said, “Then he couldn’t flaunt the fact he’s against the war! He’s going to CPS camp with the other cowards!”
“Hush, Al,” said my mother. “He doesn’t look like he’s enjoying himself.”
I never forgot Ezra Spring’s face that night. He looked scared. He kept sneaking glances at guys he’d gone to school with, as though he wanted to say hi, or give them a smile, or just be acknowledged. But all of them went by him as though he weren’t there. I finally managed, “Hi, Ezra!” though Al grabbed me by the arm and I never knew if Ezra answered me.
I thought about that moment many times. For some reason, that night became one I’d always remember. I was never sure if I remembered it so vividly because it was the first inkling I ever had that my brother was not a simpatico guy, or if it was Ezra’s pain, his bravery, maybe both.
Because of Ezra, I learned all that I could about Quakers. In college, I took Comparative Religions and I wrote a paper about that night at the train station.
Many years later, as we became involved in Vietnam, I wondered what had become of Ezra. Vietnam wasn’t like World War II—there were many Ezras looking for ways out. I doubted that a majority of them had the convictions of a Quaker, but they didn’t suffer the disdain, either.
Al had become a hero with medals celebrating his assaults on Japan. During the Vietnam years, he became a pilot for the CIA’s Air America. We’d grown apart.
I never saw Ezra after that, but I never forgot him. Anything Quaker fascinated me and I wrote my MA thesis on war and those who wouldn’t go. Some feelings that are just there always are often the ones that turn into novels. I had become a writer and my book called Slap Your Sides was a tribute to that youngster from my hometown. Al sent it back to me from Korea, torn in half.