So there I was. I graduated high school with good grades. I could have gone to any number of colleges as part of the ROTC program, but was told by my recruiter (I’d already signed up as an enlisted man) that I couldn’t go because I’d agreed to their Advanced Electronics plan, and Nuclear Power program. It was, of course, not true. I was part of a quota they had to reach, and had I opted out for the life of an officer, I would have left them with a hole to fill. A particularly hard hole, actually, since I qualified so high on the exams, and made it (by the skin of my teeth) into the Nuclear Power program. They got extra points for that. The joke was on them, in the end, as I found a way out of that particular program, but that’s far in the future.
I could have gone to school in Charleston, Illinois. My mom ran one of the big food services on campus at Eastern Illinois University. I could have gotten into classes for free, or close to it. To do that, though, I would have had to live with those I hated. Many of the kids at the high school would just become young adults with the same attitude they’d always had. My step-father would have been ever-present, and I couldn’t stomach the idea of living even another day under the same roof with him. The only thing remotely good for me at the time was that I’d been attending The Church of Christ, and I’d met a lot of very cool college students. I knew, however, that they would graduate, and leave. I thought, at the time, that I might go into the ministry myself, but not there – not in that town, or that place.
The Navy offered me a good way out. There are many ways to describe the military, but for me it was escape. They paid me. They trained me. They gave me a place to sleep, and had enough discipline in place to keep me from making any truly stupid moves too early in life. I honestly believe that a few years in the military is a good idea for the majority of kids. It gives you some time after school to align your priorities, save for school, learn about the world beyond your parent’s home and control, and figure yourself out.
I left home without so much as a glance over my shoulder. I was just ready to be gone. They flew me to Chicago, where I was processed in – an experience that included meeting a young black man named… David Wilson. Born exactly the same day that I was born. We had a lot of fun telling everyone we were twins, and explaining how it was possible. He is now my long-lost twin, as I never saw him again.
Transience is a constant in the military. You have to work hard if you want to forge friendships that last because every two to four years, you move, and those around you are also in constant flux. You have to build those relationships in that short time period, or lose them as you split up and move on. I have always been a person who either developed very strong friendships or none at all. I’m odd, always have been, and though I try never to allow it to show on the surface, I’m pretty full of myself. I think most people are. You could put the t-shirt my wife loves – it says “C.S.I. – Can’t stand idiots” – in a room full of 20 random people and all of them would chuckle, glance around at some of the others, and think that the shirt was meant for them to wear, but never that it might be directed their way. It’s the way humans work. We all live in tiny, separate worlds where we rule. Those worlds blend, and interact, but really – it’s never quite the same in any moment for you as it is for someone else. It goes back to those influences. All of us have had different influences, all of us believe and know and think at least a little bit differently.
Transience is a familiar sensation to a seasoned writer, as well. You meet your characters for a short period of time. You interact with them, live and love with them, and if you do them justice – come to care about them. You shift into their world, and then, when the story has been told, you move on and leave them behind, hopefully with enough mojo that they can pass on the experience to your readers.
The military swallowed me up in Chicago and spit me toward San Diego, where I went to boot camp. I went in the summer. A very dry, hot summer. I ended up dumped into Company 927. We were commanded by an ex-Seal who was about to retire. He had a good attitude, but he was tough. They chose a guy named Fort to be our RCPO (Recruit Chief Petty Officer) and another guy I only remember as Catfish as the ARCPO (Assistant). Catfish spent all of his time with his mouth wide open, and he sort of worked it – like a fish trying to gulp air out of water.
A more diverse group would have been very difficult to find. One big scary guy who ended up getting dropped for being too crazy to serve, a tiny little guy named Blankenship we called the Admiral who talked too much, an older guy named Buckholtz who was overweight, and constantly confused, a pair of Mormons, myself (wanting in equal parts to be a minister and a writer) and a ton of others.
My experience there was different than most. We were a “drill” company, meaning that our members served in the Drill Team, with the rifles, the Flag team, and in the Bluejackets Choir (where I ended up). We had it a bit easier than most of the companies, and every Sunday we got to go and perform during church services. It was there that I became more aware of the workings of other faiths than my own (at the time) fundamental Christian views.
Currently, I believe in science, and the wonder of the real world that surrounds us. I think something big and powerful created everything, but can’t imagine it had a thing to do with ancient mythology, Hebrew or otherwise, and am happy to believe that being the best person I can be for no other reason than that I know it’s right is the way to go. I have come to detest most of the organized religions of the world for their narrow-minded attitudes, and the fact that the majority of the wars in history can be tracked back to them. Again – I digress. Believe me, though, I will return to this.
The most important thing I learned in boot camp was how to re-imagine myself. I had been a particular person in high school, but the minute I left home, and all the people I knew, I had a choice. I could be whoever I could pull off. Sure, I ended up with people who liked me, respected me, laughed at me, etc… but it was all new, and all different, and that was an experience the Navy gave me again, and again.
This is where the boot camp experience begins to relate directly to writing. First, I met a lot of diverse characters. I am a born mimic, and I spent a lot of time figuring out their accents, and listening to their stories. At the same time, I learned – as noted – to make myself over into something new. Living as different versions of myself allowed me to experience the world through slightly different perspectives. For a writer, this is the kind of insight that can make the difference between real and plastic. Even in genre fiction, fantasy, science fiction, or horror, the thing that makes all of the unbelievable elements work is the core reality you create to surround those unbelievable elements. The reactions of your characters, and the world you surround them with, need to seem believable to the reader in the context of your plot, or you will lose them very early on. Give them someone, and something, to relate to.
In boot camp, I played the young kid from southern Illinois who could run, and write, prayed every night, and argued with the Mormons. I was there for my friends, smart enough to keep my head down and my mind mostly focused on doing what would get me through with the least trouble. I sang on Sunday, shined my shoes, and worked very hard at creating a suit of armor around myself to hide what was already some fairly serious doubt in my chosen life of faith. I didn’t write – not then. I told everyone I was a writer. I believed I was going to be a writer. How in the world I missed that first, fundamental truth – that a writer writes – is still beyond me.
What I didn’t realize then, but understood later, was that a writer is always working. Sure, once you get going, it’s important to write all the time, but if you plan on having anything relevant or important to say, you first have to live, experience, and grow. For me, boot camp was a period of serious growth – one that I have good and bad memories of, and that has found its way into more than one story, character, and plot.
I’m not going to dwell on that time. There are periods of my naval career that deserve serious consideration, and I’ll get to them in due course. The important take-away is the ability to redesign your thought processes into those of a different person, and the idea that every moment of your life is a learning experience directly applicable to writing. If you are reading this, and you are young –just beginning life and work – this is vital. Pay attention. Keep your mind open. Even if you can’t share the beliefs or ideas of others, try to understand why they believe them, and how those beliefs define their world. If you can’t think like a particular character, you can’t write them believably.
Next stop? US Naval Submarine School, Groton Connecticut, where, again, I did not write…