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Nately’s Old Man

by JOSEPH HELLER

[From Chapter 23, Catch-22. Remember the first Chapter of Heller’s masterpiece is titled, “The Texan.”]

“America ,” he said, “will lose the war. And Italy will win it.” “America is the strongest and most prosperous nation on earth,” Nately informed him with lofty fervor and dignity. “And the American fighting man is second to none”.

“Exactly”, agreed the old man pleasantly, with a hint of taunting amusement. Italy, on the other hand, is one of the least prosperous nations on earth. And the Italian fighting man is probably second to all. And that’s exactly why my country is doing so well in this war while yours is doing so poorly.

Nately guffawed with surprise, then blushed apologetically for his impoliteness. “I’m sorry I laughed at you,” he said sincerely, and he continued in a tone of respectful condescension. “But Italy was occupied by the Germans and is now being occupied by us. You don’t call that doing very well, do you?”

“But of course I do,” exclaimed the old man cheerfully. “The Germans are being driven out, and we are still here. In a few years you will be gone, too, and we will still be here. You see, Italy is really a very poor and weak country, and that’s what makes us so strong. Italian soldiers are not dying anymore. But American and German officers are. I call that doing extremely well. Yes, I am certain that Italy will survive this war and still be in existence long after your own country has been destroyed.”

Nately could scarcely believe his ears. He had never heard such shocking blasphemies before, and he wondered with instinctive logic why the why G-men did not appear to lock the traitorous old man up. “America is not going to be destroyed!” he shouted passionately.

“Never?” prodded the old man softly.

“Well…” Nately faltered.

The old man laughed indulgently, holding in check a deeper, more explosive delight. His goading remained gentle. “Rome was destroyed, Greece was destroyed, Persia was destroyed, Spain was destroyed. All great countries are destroyed. Why not yours? How much longer do you really think your own country will last? Forever? Keep in mind that the earth itself is destined to be destroyed by the sun in twenty-five million years or so.

Nately squirmed uncomfortably. “Well, forever is a long time, I guess.”

“A million years?” persisted the old man with keen, sadistic zest. “A half million? The frog is almost five hundred million years old. Could you really say with much certainty that America, with all its strength and prosperity, with it’s fighting man that is second to none, and with its standard of living that is the highest in the world, will last as long as the… frog?”

Nately wanted to smash his leering face. He looked about imploringly for help in defending his county’s future against the obnoxious calumnies of this sly and sinful assailant. He was disappointed. Yossarian and Dunbar were busy in a far corner pawing orgiastically at at four or five frolicsome girls and six bottles of red wine, and Hungry Joe had long since tramped away down one of the mystic hallways, propelling before him like a ravening despot as many of the broadest-hipped young prostitutes as he could contain in his frail windmilling arms and cram onto one double bed […]

“How old are you?” Nately asked, growing intrigued and charmed with the old man in spite of himself.

“A hundred and seven.” The old man chuckled heartily at Nately’s look of chagrin. “I see you don’t believe that either.”

“I don’t believe anything you tell me,” Nately replied with a bashful, mitigating smile. “The only thing I do believe is that America is going to win this war.”

“You put so much stock in winning wars,” the grubby iniquitous old man scoffed. “The real trick lies in losing wars, in knowing which wars can be lost. Italy has been losing wars for centuries, and just see how splendidly we’ve done nonetheless. France wins wars and is in a continual state of crises. Germany loses and prospers. Look at our own recent history. Italy won a war in Ethiopia and promptly stumbled into serious trouble. Victory gave us such insane delusions of grandeur that we helped start a world war we hadn’t a chance of wining. But now that we are losing again, everything has taken a turn for the better, and we certainly will come up on top again if we succeed in being defeated.”

Nately gaped at him in undisguised befuddlement. “Now I really don’t understand what you’re saying. You talk like a madman.”

“But I live like a sane one. I was a fascist when Mussolini was on top, and I an an anti-fascist now that he has been deposed. I was fanatically pro-German when the Germans were here to protect us against the Americans, and now that the Americans are here to protect us against the Germans I am fanatically pro-American. I can assure you, my outraged young friend” – the old man’s knowing, disdainful eyes shown even more effervescently as Nately’s stuttering dismay increased – “that you and your country will have no more loyal partisan in Italy than me – but only as long as you remain in Italy.”

“But,” Nately cried out in disbelief, “you’re a turncoat! A time-server! A shameful, unscrupulous opportunist!”

“I am a hundred and seven years old,” the old man reminded him suavely.

“Don’t you have any principles?”

“Of course not.”

“No morality?”

“Oh, I am a very moral man,” the villainous old man assured him with satiric seriousness, stroking the bare him of a buxom black-haired girl with pretty dimples who had stretched herself seductively on the other arm of his chair. He grinned at Nately sarcastically as he sat between both naked girls in smug and threadbare splendor, with a sovereign hand on each.

“I can’t believe it,” Nately remarked grudgingly, trying stubbornly not to watch him in relation to the girls. “I simply can’t believe it.

“But it’s all perfectly true. When the Germans marched into the city, I danced in the streets like a youthful ballerina and shouted ‘Heil Hitler’ until my lungs were hoarse. I even waved a small Nazi flag that I had snatched away from a beautiful little girl while her mother was looking the other way. When the Germans left the city, I rushed out to welcome the Americans with a bottle of excellent brandy and a basket of flowers. The brandy was for myself, of course, and the flowers were to sprinkle upon our liberators. There was a very stiff and stuffy old major riding in the first car, and I hit him squarely in the eye with a red rose. A marvelous shot! You should have seen him wince.”

Copyright. The Estate of JOSEPH HELLER.

 

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