Posts tagged honest writing
Immediately after completing my boot camp experience in the California sunshine, I was sent off to Groton, Connecticut- about as different a place as one could imagine from the likes of San Diego – and of course, since I went to San Diego in the hottest part of the summer, they sent me to Connecticut as fall started…I would say ‘story of my life,’ but that would be redundant, yes?
In Groton I was on my own again. I had my seabag full of cool new uniform items, my blue-jackets manual, my guitar, and not much else. I was assigned to the Polaris Electronics Program – meaning I would have been an electronics technician working on missiles. I was still a bit irritated that I’d been given this particular school, instead of just being an Electronics Tech (ET) like I had originally asked, but remember, I had that by-the-skin-of-the-teeth nuclear power-worthy score on my ASVAB test going in, so they put me where it earned them the most points at the recruiting station. Submarines. Movie Stars…
One of the first things you usually do when you start the curriculum at Submarine School is report to the “pressure chamber” where they ascertain that you can withstand a certain amount of pressure on your ears. If you fail this, you are dropped from the submarine program. That is why they put this test up front, before you discover how badly you would like to be dropped from that program. Turns out, though, that on my designated day, the chamber was broken, so they sent us on our way to class and we started learning to drive submarine simulators, tell a potable water pipe from a saltwater pipe, and the history of the submarine service. Yay.
At this point, I was still telling people I was a writer, and writing nothing. I was also still going to church every Sunday morning (and in the evenings on Wednesday) and meeting new people. One thing church is good for – if you are a young man – is meeting young women. You can also do this at clubs, and bars, but the problems associated with alcohol and life decisions are myriad. As it turns out, I did meet someone at the church in Groton, and that is probably why I made it through that school (as far as I went, anyway) without parting ways with organized religion. I was not about to let flagging faith separate me fromm a particular young lady, and despite the very strict boundaries set, she managed to keep me mostly distracted from other things (and other people) while I was there.
Not that there was not fun. There was. We saw Star Wars – the first one – in the theater together for the first time. We survived an accidental 360 in a car, ending in a slide right up to the side of a gas-pump, where our driver managed not to panic, but instead leaned out, winked at the attendant (they still had them then) and asked him to “Fill ‘er up” as if nothing had happened.
In those days, the drinking age was 19 in Connecticut, and as it turns out, I turned 19 that fall. While I mostly kept myself to the straight and narrow, I was not immune to the call of the wild, as understood by young, naïve sailors. I spent my share of nights slipping out with the “boys” – mostly starting around the time that they finally fixed that pressure chamber.
When I had finished school I was transferred to my first boat… a very old boat called The USS Skate. I was not on there a week before I was hauled out of line at quarters and sent off to the pressure chamber (then operational at last. They figured it was a formality at that point). I had other ideas. I am tall – 6’ 3″ in stocking feet, and not particularly graceful. I had dings all over my forehead and that was only in a few days. Also, I’d begun hearing stories about Nuclear Power school, how most people dropped out, how it drove people insane, and how I did not want to go there. I agreed.
When we went into that chamber, and they turned it on, I waited only a couple of seconds before I started fiddling with my ears. Then I raised my hand, my face contorted in (mostly) faked pain. They took me out. They gave me Sudafed and had me wait. They tried again. Again, before long, my hand was in the air. I did feel some pressure, but I probably could have toughed it out. I just couldn’t see being locked in a submarine, an ocean on top of my head. I was immediately transferred back to the school and into “holding” company for re-assignment.
I could spend a good bit of time describing that time (again, I was not writing, but I was soaking up life). I played briefly in a country band we named “Lemon Zeringue and Pie (I was Pie)” with a guy from Louisiana who played and sang very, very well. He’d had some problems with alcohol, and so had opted for the military rather than going on the road as a musician. He’d actually been on tour with Kenny Rogers (a much bigger deal back then than it is now, of course). I remember a Disco called “The Dial Tone,” and a rock club named “The Bach Door” – neither of which, I suspect, exists any longer. Both were in New London, the “big city” near Groton. I still attended church, but found another large chunk knocked out of my belief when I learned that one of the elders of the church was also a DJ part time at “The Dial Tone,” where I found him sipping “Zombies” and hanging out with the very sort of women we were warned about each Sunday. Life is full of accidental lessons.
Anyway, to make what could have been a very long story more succinct… I was taken to an office and asked to fill in some forms. I was asked what I would like to do in the Navy, now that Polaris Electronics was denied me. I told them, again, that I’d like to be an ET, thinking that they’d say (as they had before) that it was full. To my surprise, they smiled brightly and told me they needed a lot of people in that rate. I stared at the guy who told me this, started to say something, and then just let it drop. I no longer felt the slightest guilt over the questionable result of my pressure chamber visit.
So, leaving my girl (hard) and Groton Submarine Base (easy) behind, I again mounted the proverbial “Big ol’ jet airliner” and headed for Great Lakes Illinois for Electronics Technician class “A” school, bringing me full circle back to Illinois, and, of course, with autumn looming, and the very Midwestern winter I’d left behind looming. Yay. The good news? Though it was mostly poetry and song lyrics, at least during this period, I did some writing. There will also be tales of Dungeons and Dragons, a form of “excommunication,” and more.
A lot of people join the military. There are myriad reasons for this – adventure, to see the world, to take some time and figure out whether you want college, and what you want from it. All of those are good, valid reasons. None of them were mine. I spent most of my life in a small town, not fitting in all that well at school and trying to find ways to deal with the abusive, alcoholic step-father life dealt me.
No, he never beat me. He did launch me off the ground with a broom once, but I thoroughly deserved that. My brother and I had been considering getting into an old oil barrel and rolling down a steep hill toward the lake below… Bob – never dad – was a big man. He had his own issues – raised in the depression on or near an Amish farm. Grew up to serve as a police officer and (I believe) a pilot for a while in a non-wartime military. When I met him, he was a barber.
I have never understood the relationship he and my mother shared. She seemed to spend most of her life in trying not to make him angry, while sneaking behind his back to see that my brother and I had some kind of life of our own beyond him. Bob’s idea of how our days should be spent was in going to school – only because we had to – coming home – and working. He was always working on something, a glass of Seagram’s 7 and 7-Up in one hand and a cheap, stinking cigar in the other. We were expected to be part of it. He could build things. He could fix cars. He could fly a plane, and even taught my mom to do it. What he could not do was – in any way at all – relate to people other than his few old friends, and though he seemed to get along well with his own son, he was pathetically inept at dealing with me, or my brother.
After very, very long hours of thought, my brother and I have come to the conclusion he was possibly gay, and just never had the courage to come out of the closet. He and my mom slept in different rooms. He insulated his with cork and air-conditioned it to near freezing. Most of the jokes he made were off-color and inappropriate. He was prejudiced to a fault, and when the family (on the rare occasions we were allowed out of our bedroom) watched Archie Bunker, Bob laughed with Archie while the rest of us laughed at them both. Bob was Archie Bunker and proud of it. He had more ethnic slurs memorized than I do 70s and 80s pop songs, and that is one of my super powers.
I remember one winter how he sent us out to shovel snow off the driveway. Not a bad thing, in and of itself, though we were not very old or large or strong. Here’s the thing, though. It was still snowing. By the time we hit the end of the drive (which was long) it was covered again. Southern Illinois in winter is VERY cold. Our toes were near frostbite. We did this for HOURS and he would not let us stop, or come in. On top of it all – he owned a 12 hp tractor with a snow plow, and when we were finished…then he went out and plowed it after the snow stopped. This is the type of thing that happened any time he was given control of the situation, so – for our own survival – we found ways to avoid as much contact with him as humanly possible.
I remember one day, out in the sun, not allowed to get a drink, trying to hold sheets of particle board siding against the wall without letting them move as he stood back and cocked his head, drank his beer, or whiskey, and took his sweet time deciding to nail it into place. We were so tired – so hot. At some point, I had a spade in my hand. I don’t remember what job required that, but there it was. In those few short moments, I remember considering slamming it into the back of his head repeatedly, and taking my chances – as a juvenile – in the system. I truly, truly hated him. I was told I would get over that when I grew up. I never did, though I came to sort of pity him and the anger drained away.
Later in life, to show he never changed, I visited home with my first wife. At this point, Bob and my mom slept in different halves of a duplex (reinforcing the separate room thing to a ridiculous degree). We were in mom’s half, on a fold-out couch in her family room. Before we woke, he came in, and sat in a chair. Then he grinned and started talking, and very clearly thought if he waited long enough, we’d both get out from under the covers without dressing and prance around for his entertainment. I had to get up and tell him to get out so she could dress. The creep factor was huge. During that trip he also had a near psychotic break because, having hated anything but whole milk all of my life, I had the temerity to buy some and put it in the refrigerator. It might have been the depression years talking, but he was absolutely insanely angry about what he considered a ridiculous waste of money when Skim and 2% were cheaper. Funny the cost of whiskey never came up.
Anyway… why do I mention all of this? Not really for therapeutic purposes, but just to show another aspect of how your life can inform your creative process. All of the things that I blame on that man, and the life I lived before I left for the US Navy, are a part of what I’ve written, what I will write in the future, the decisions I make as a man, husband, father. Writing is like life, when it’s done right, and the things that ache – the things that hurt – the things that drive you near the edge of madness – those are the things that give your words power – side by side with the wonder you find in the world, the love and relationships and success you encounter along the way. These are the influences that insure you have something to say – and if you don’t – why are you writing?
You will find part of my life in those days in the childhood of Brandt, the protagonist of my fairly popular novel Deep Blue. Writing that was therapeutic.
You thought I was going to talk about boot camp, and I am. I first escaped home by spending a lot of time in a church. I walked in that world for a time, and when I left home, I was still mired firmly in that dream. As I said a few pages back – in 1997 I left for the United States Navy – EVERYTHING changed.