Posts tagged memoir
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.
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…
Among the myriad things I do, the one that is probably most important to me is writing. I don’t want that to sound like writing comes before my life, happiness, family – it doesn’t. What I mean is – there are a lot of answers to the question: “What do you do?” – and I usually shift that question in my mind to – “What are you?” I’m a writer and a personal statement writer . When I’m awake, on some level, the words are churning. I may not sit down and process them immediately. I may not even realize when something is coalescing that will become a work of fiction, but I’m always doing it. I’m aware it can be a character flaw, but it’s not something you can put on and take off at will. In the immortal words of Popeye the Sailor, “I am what I am.”
With that in mind – I’ve been working on a semi-autobiographical book on writing and my writing process…I’m going to start at the beginning and post it here in pieces. Once a week. Also, there is a category titled “Writing What Hurts” and that’s where you’ll find the posts as I write them. Hopefully by year’s end, I’ll have enough for a book…if not, the catharsis should be more than worth the journey. I give you – Part I:
There are a lot of books on writing, and I honestly hesitated before deciding to add to the woodpile. I’m a reasonably successful author, but I have no best-sellers behind me at this point in my career. You won’t find my books face out in any bookstore I haven’t visited personally, and to date no cable company or network genius has commissioned a mini-series for one of my novels.
When I thought about it, I realized there are also a lot of different types of books on writing. There are those with formulas and instructions. There are those laid out like a syllabus for and English Composition course, and there are others – like Stephen King’s “On Writing” – that are as much about the writer as they are about the craft.
Then there is the fact that writing is only a small part of the magic. I am also a reader, have been addicted to the written word from a very young age. I have written endless reviews, essays, and commentary on stories told in every imaginable format. There’s value in that. I have been a publisher, and an editor. I have mentored authors who are making their own marks now, and helped to discover others.
All of that winds down into the same barrel, I suppose. I think if I’m careful, I can dip out all the most important parts and share them. I’ve seen a half-century of life, and at least half of that was spent with the following words on my lips and embedded in my mind. “I’m a writer.”
That’s what I told people who asked what I planned to do with my life. It’s what I told people when I joined the US Navy at age 17 and set out to see the world. It’s what I continued to say, despite the fact that all I’d written for a very long time at that point was poetry, none of which I’d shown to more than half a dozen people, and the lyrics to songs that never made it to the stage.
Then, while stationed in Rota, Spain, I started reading Writer’s Digest Magazine, and The Writer. I read the adds, and the articles. I thought about what I might actually write. I even started working on a novel – a young-adult fantasy where the last of the magical creatures of the world appeared near Chicago for one last shot at putting the world back the way it once was – back to a time where magic worked. What happened, in the end of that story, was that the city demanded taxes, and the government sent the army…it ended with the heroes carried off by Valkyries. It was horrible (not the idea, so much as the execution).
I, of course, thought I was a genius, and that the only thing between myself and publication was the act of actually writing something down. Time passed, and my service in Spain ended. My wife at the time, Chrissy, was also in the Navy, so we worked a deal to be stationed together in Norfolk, VA.
A lot of things happened in a short period of time. I took a course from Writer’s Digest School, for one. My assigned instructor was Jerry (J. N.) Williamson. Jerry had dozens of published horror novels to his credit at that point, and his list was growing fast. He also had two other important things. He had an innate ability to teach, and he had connections. I’ll get to why the connections were important eventually. Let’s start with a simple statement.
I have always said that I am a writer. I don’t believe that became a true statement until after I finished that course, and I will always be grateful for Jerry’s help and guidance. He was one of the nicest and most helpful professionals I’ve met in a long career, and he is sorely missed.
So, that is the first thing I’ll say to you. If you are reading this because you have always said you were a writer, but have not really written anything, taken it seriously, or agonized over it – I hope I can be the one who pushes you off the brink – or pulls you back and sends you on your way without getting hooked. I think that writing is either a mild form of insanity, or a particularly tricky form of therapy. Either way, it can consume your world if you aren’t careful – and if you are, it can leave you feeling empty and unfulfilled. Sounds great, eh? Believe me when I say, we’re just getting started.