Possibly the Ball-Turret Gunner’s Wife

I don’t know about you, but if someone mentions the name “Randall,” one of two things comes to mind:

1: Randall Flagg: the denim-clad Walkin’ Dude who appears as the antagonist in a number of Stephen King’s books and who is one of my favorite literary villains (despite having a pitiful death in Book 7 of the Dark Tower–eaten by a whiny spider-boy. Sad days indeed).

2: “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” Randall Jarrell’s famous poem, as short as the life of the titular gunner. The final image–blood being washed out of a bomber’s ball turret–has always given me chills.

It came as a surprise, then, to learn that Randall Jarrell, the poet who so memorably captured a fragment of WWII’s horror in five short lines, also wrote children’s books.

It was a hot, humid, and all-around sticky day. I was supposed to drive over to the hardware store, fill up my car’s backseat with bags of mulch, and finally make a nice mulchy patch for the yuccas in the backyard. Easy enough.

But on the way to the hardware store–past the potholes, through the geese loitering at the roundabout, and just a stone’s throw away from a killer pizza joint–is Half Price Books.

My wife hates Half Price Books. Or, more correctly, she hates going there with me, and I don’t blame her. I can (and have) spend hours perusing titles, picking out a treasure here, a dusty-dog-eared thing there, so on and so forth. She, on the other hand, knows exactly what she’s looking for and doesn’t have time for my bullshit. So I try not to drag her along.

And she wasn’t along. There was mulch to get, and mulch takes up a lot of room.

But not too much room.

So that’s why, yet again, I came to be in Half Price Books, even though we’re running out of space on the bookcases and I’ve eyeballed the kitchen cabinets a few times and thought that, push come to shove, there’d be room for some paperbacks next to the paprika.

And that’s why I ended up picking up, among other things, a book called Fly By Night, written by Randall Jarrell and illustrated by Maurice Sendak. Jarrell’s name stood out to me for obvious reasons, given my interest in poetry. Maurice Sendak’s name stood out because it’s Maurice Sendak, and though I know he’s written/illustrated many books, Where the Wild Things Are is one of the best things to happen since the pudding cup. A book that combines both of their talents is intriguing.

The cover is sufficiently Sendak-y. Near the bottom, a lady and rabbit stand in a moonlit field. Up in the clouds floats a sleeping boy who has apparently forgotten his pajamas.

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David, a boy who lives on the edge of the forest, can fly at night–but cannot remember doing so in the morning. Can he truly fly? Is he dreaming? Well, I’m not going to say one way or the other–you’ll just have to read it.  I will say it’s eerie how the story, in a way, is reflected in two of the lines of “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”:

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State…

and

….loosed from its dream of life…

So, the story itself can have some macabre undertones if taken in that context. But it’s still just a children’s story.

And this particular version of this story has an inscription that is signed by Mary Jarrell.

That’s definitely not Randall.

But a quick internet search confirmed that Randall’s wife was named Mary, and that she was an author in her own right. And while I haven’t found a good example of her writing/autograph to compare, I have a hunch that the Mary Jarrell who signed this book is indeed the same Mary who married Randall.

So: a eerie children’s book written by Randall Jarrell, illustrated by Maurice Sendak, and signed by (probably) the author’s wife, Mary? That’s an interesting combination.

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Incidentally, if anyone who reads this can find a good example of Mary Jarrell’s signature (obviously not from the above image), would you mind letting me know? Still looking, but haven’t found one yet.

I’m going to take a break from searching to re-read Fly By Night, though. You should too. Only your own copy. Obviously.

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