He butters toast the way another man might perform a ritual tea ceremony, deliberate and contemplative—something worth doing right. We take our roast beef sandwiches on white toast out to the dining room. He points to my notebook and tape recorder and says gently, "Why don't you put those away for a while?"
We talk for a long time about writing, about the panic that creeps over you when you're sitting in the chair and nothing comes. About trying to find some music in the words and about the moment, when it's going well, that you look down at the page and the story comes to you in full, everyone and everything alive in your head and busy on the page, and when you look up again, eight hours are gone and you feel like Lindbergh landing in Paris.
They moved the curious back, the rain falling faster now, and they moved the colt over close to a pile of loose bricks. Gilman had the halter and Catlett had the gun, shaped like a bell with the handle at the top. This bell he placed, the crowd silent, on the colt's forehead, just between the eyes. The colt stood still and then Catlett, with the hammer in his other hand, struck the handle of the bell. There was a short, sharp sound and the colt toppled onto his left side, his eyes staring, his legs straight out, the free legs quivering.
"Aw——" someone said.
That was all they said. They worked quickly, the two vets removing the broken bones as evidence for the insurance company, the crowd silently watching. Then the heavens opened, the rain pouring down, the lightning flashing, and they rushed for the cover of the stables, leaving alone on his side near the pile of bricks, the rain running off his hide, dead an hour and a quarter after his first start, Air Lift, son of Bold Venture, full brother of Assault.
—DEATH OF A RACEHORSE, 1949
Heinz became the Sun's junior war correspondent in the fall of 1943. He spent a month and a half on the U.S.S. Core, an escort carrier on antisubmarine duty in the Atlantic. Seated now on the floor of his den, we go slowly through his many 11-by-14 scrap-books. Pasted into one of the first are the transit chits and laundry tickets and clippings from his time aboard the Core. There are photos of Heinz on the flight deck in his Mae West, getting ready for a fly-along in a Grumman Avenger. Heinz in his wire-rim glasses, a sparse beginner's mustache on his upper lip, jaunty in his plain Khaki uniform with the black and gold correspondent's patch.
The next scrapbook, though, chronicles what Heinz saw and what he did and what he wrote as he followed the ground war through Europe. It has a bad weight to it.
In April 1944 he packed that Remington portable and shipped out for London to cover the Allied invasion. The writer people talk about when they talk about W.C. Heinz was born during the Allied push across Europe. Everything he wrote after 1944 was informed by what he experienced as the fighting moved east toward Germany. Everything he came to understand about courage and cowardice and truth can be found, like seedlings, in his combat dispatches. He learned that men at war fight not for causes but for one another and that heroism is a kind of love. He learned to strip the artifice from his work. His style emerged, a refined transparency in which the I largely disappeared, and what the reader got was pure story.
Heinz is fond of saying that, for a young writer, the war was great training: "It was so dramatic, you couldn't write it badly." But plenty of writers did. Some covered the war from a briefing room at Army headquarters or, worse yet, filed thirdhand dispatches from behind a highball glass in hotel bars in Paris or Cherbourg. Heinz got as close to the fighting as the brass and good sense would let him. When the Sun's senior correspondent was captured by the Nazis, Heinz replaced him.
Much of what he saw he couldn't write about; none of them could. It would never have made it past the censors. The infernal stink of infection and cordite and fear, the bodies of American teenagers sunk in the muddy roads beneath the weight of the tank tracks, the waste and the cruelty and the panic and the ineptitude. By September 1944 Heinz was on the verge of a nervous collapse, but he hung on through the fall and the winter, the Battle of the Bulge and the last push to Berlin. He came home in June, not long after V-E Day.