The Secret Lives of Used Books (Up Front, by Bill Mauldin)

I was thirteen or fourteen years old when my good friend and fellow war buff, B. Bunny, arrived at my house carrying a first edition of cartoonist Bill Mauldin’s Up Front (1945), which B. Bunny had checked out from the public library in Coleraine, Minnesota. Since B. Bunny was going to be staying at my house for only about a week, I read the book several times in succession while he was there. (He grew up near the opposite end of a string of mining towns in the state’s arrowhead region, forty miles or so west of where I lived. As close as we were and remain, he and I have never lived in the same town for more than a few transitional weeks here and there.)

Some months later — during the following winter or summer break from school — B. Bunny returned with that same copy and told me it was mine. When I asked how that was possible, he replied that this time he’d swiped it from the stacks rather than checking it out. Nobody knew it was missing, and would never know where it had gone if they even did someday discover its absence. After a brief crisis of conscience, I learned that my scruples weren’t worth a damn when it came to receiving a stolen first-edition Up Front. By this point, I’ve possessed the copy longer than the library ever did.

B. Bunny and I couldn’t get enough of that book. We’d identify imaginatively with the grizzled, exhausted soldiers Willie and Joe the way generations of pubescent girls did Betty and Veronica. And just as some of those girls grew up to be Bettys and Veronicas, B. Bunny enlisted in the Marines shortly after high school and spent nearly seven years in the Corps, attaining the rank of sergeant and even finding himself stop-lossed during the buildup to the Gulf War.

Years later, when I was serving as an editor at The Atlantic Monthly, in Boston, the magazine’s managing editor was Cullen Murphy, who — along with doing his work at the periodical — wrote the syndicated comic strip Prince Valiant, which Cullen’s father, John Cullen Murphy, illustrated until shortly before his death, in 2004. (Cullen’s sister was involved too, I believe, making the strip a family affair.) While expressing my condolences to Cullen on the passing of his father, I learned that Murphy père had served in World War II and was part of the headquarters staff of General Douglas MacArthur, where one of his duties was to paint portraits of high-raking allied personnel and their families. “Sounds sort of like Bill Mauldin, but for officers,” I remarked (or something to that effect), at which point Cullen informed me that his father had known Mauldin.

To this day I remember how gauche my reflexive excitement was when I learned I was only a few degrees of separation from Bill Mauldin. A guy had just lost his father, and I acted for several helpless seconds like a fanboy of one of the father’s many acquaintances. My copy of Up Front came embedded with various, timed-release shades of guilt.

In retrospect, the fact that I was more excited to find myself proximate to a baby-faced cartoonist than to one of the most storied generals in American history probably says a lot about how I got where I did (and didn’t) in life.

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Jon Zobenica

Jon Zobenica

A former senior editor at The Atlantic, now living in California. jonzobenica.wordpress.com