Saturday, September 7, 2013
In May 2013, my wife and I found ourselves back at the beginning of our marriage, driving the foggy, serpentine roads which hug the central Oregon coast. We were there thanks to the good people at the Coos County Library who'd selected Fobbit as the Title Wave community-wide read for 2013. We drove through North Bend, Florence and Seaside, overdosing on nostalgia. As we passed the Sea Lion Caves, the Devil's Churn, and the original Mo's Chowder House, we were caught in a flash-flood of memory.
Nearly thirty years ago, this was where it all began for us—two young lovers on their honeymoon. We were broke as a joke and saw nothing but anxious days of penny pinching ahead of us. I was fresh out of work as a cook and my wife had just quit her job at the chamber of commerce in Jackson Hole (where we were living at the time). We were on a shoestring budget at the start of our marriage—sleeping in our car when we couldn’t afford a motel and buying cheap loaves of white bread and paper-thin lunch meat which would serve as meals on the beach during our honeymoon. We were so in love, we didn’t even notice the way our sandwiches crunched from windblown grains of sand. Instead of going to movies, we fed our uneaten crusts of bread to flocks of seagulls.
We’d known each other for six months. Ours was the very definition of "whirlwind courtship." I proposed to Jean Frederick one month after our first date and we immediate set about planning the wedding ceremony. It was the fast start to a long relationship which, as is evident by the fact that Jean Abrams just came up behind me, locked me in a hug and asked what I was writing, would last a lifetime. We’re sort of like Canada geese, we’ve mated for life.
But we do our best not to take anything for granted, always keeping one eye flicked back and forth from the rearview mirror to the road ahead.
That week as we zoomed along the coastal Oregon highway in our SUV, Jean turned to me and said, “Wouldn’t it be weird if we saw ourselves—our old selves—coming at us in the opposite direction?”
“Like a rip in the fabric of time?” I said.
“Yeah, something like that.”
I thought about that. I pictured our first car, a midnight-blue Datsun B210, approaching us, two tight, apprehensive (but unlined by age) faces staring through the windshield as we passed. What would I say to that 20-year-old David Abrams? I looked at that ghostly couple as they passed us going in the opposite direction and I chuckled. Their bellies were full of white bread and their heads were crammed with dreams and fears, but they had no idea what kind of future was barreling down the road toward them. All those years of joy and frustration, hope and despair….
Somebody should warn those kids.
And so, I started composing a letter to 1983 David in my head…
First of all, it will be okay. Life looks pretty bleak, financially-speaking right now, and yes, those hard times will continue—for more years than you would prefer—but eventually, it will get better. It won’t always be Wonder Bread and Land O’ Frost meats. Hold on. And try to convince that girl sitting beside you of the same thing. You will go through a rough patch of years when you will sit slumped in defeat at the kitchen table with the bills, doing the math over and over, literally putting your coins in little stacks in front of you. Together, you will ration your gas, turn down the heat, hoard grocery coupons, forsake soda for a number of years. "Going out to eat" will be a holiday occasion.
You will work two jobs while going to school at the University of Oregon. You think you’re through with standing on your feet over a hot grill for six-hour shifts? Buddy, you better get used to the idea that you still have another four years of coming home wearing clothes soaked in sweat and reeking of kitchen grease.
And that first cup of coffee you just had the other day during breakfast at the Columbia Gorge Hotel—the one you apprehensively brought to your lips only after your new wife urged you to “try it, you might like it”? Yeah, coffee will soon become your drug. You’ll consume gallons of it as you try to stay awake between classes sitting in the campus Fishbowl poring over your textbooks. You’ll also spike your bloodstream with the sugar from apple fritters—you’ll be able to afford two per day—and thirty years from now, you will remember them as the best apple fritters you’ll ever eat in your life. You will search for a better fritter, but will never find anything to compare to those found in the University of Oregon Fishbowl, circa 1984. The coffee will get better, though.
As will the sex. This is probably something you already know, right? I mean, anything is better than those anxiety-riddled, zipper-fumbling sessions of your honeymoon—including that one last night when you discovered that, no, the front seat of a Datsun B210 parked on a moonlit beach is not the romantic setting it’s cracked up to be.
You will have two sons—and, I hate to say this, but that first pregnancy will come one month into your marriage, so you better goddamn enjoy this honeymoon while you can.
You will write short stories and poetry in your spare time—what little spare time you have between changing diapers, grilling steaks on a hot stove, and memorizing facts from textbooks. You will find a cramped space in the upstairs hallway of your house—just outside your son’s nursery—where you will set up a tiny table with folding legs. On this table, you will place a typewriter (I know this sounds like science fiction, but in the not-too-distant-future you’ll be able to type your words into something called a personal computer—one which, believe it or not, will fit on that table without collapsing it). You will sit at that makeshift desk, in front of that humming electric typewriter, and you will peck out letters, stringing them into words and sentences. But not too loudly! You don’t want to wake the baby.
You will experience an adrenal shot of pride and optimism when, two years into your efforts, a story you wrote about a young couple with a baby boy will be accepted for publication. Best of all, you will be paid—real money—for this story, the first monetary transaction for your words. It will feel like an IV needle of whiskey sunk right into your veins. Your wife will take a picture of you sitting in your sun-soaked living room holding up that check. Your smile will practically break the camera. Nearly thirty years later, your wife will say to you, “Remember that moment? We really thought it was the start of something big.” You will smile a wry smile and reply: “It was the start of something big. It just took thirty years for the big to get here.”
At any rate, let me back up a few decades. You will graduate with that bachelor’s degree in English and you will move to a small town in Montana where you will find a job as a reporter for the local newspaper. You will report on city council meetings, quilting bees, and church potlucks. You will take pride in the stories you write about the newest dogs to arrive at the animal shelter. You will be paid by the newspaper-column inch and so you will learn the craft of writing flowery sentences—but not too flowery so that they don’t get printed. You will earn less than the average teenager working the counter at McDonalds.
Then your wife will become pregnant for the third time and you will pray to the gynecological gods that it will be a girl because, though you love your sons with all your heart and soul, what you really want is a little girl you can call “Princess.” I don’t want to spoil things too much for you, but guess what? That prayer will be answered.
Your daughter will be born while you are in your seventh week of Army basic training. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention: you join the Army as an active-duty enlisted soldier because--well, you remember those student loans and the careful way you drove your car to conserve gas? Yes, exactly. You will do what needs to be done for the sake of your young family.
I know, I know, joining the Army is the very last thing you would have ever expected of yourself. You can barely do ten pushups before collapsing in a heap, you can’t run a city block without being winded, the only time you’ve fired a gun in your life is the time you went hunting for sage grouse with your dad near Riverton, Wyoming. And you missed the grouse when it flushed from the sage right in front of you. But yes, you will join the Army and you will feel like a fish out of water, a shoe on the wrong foot, a snowflake on a tropical island.
But hang on, it gets better. You go to war. Not right away. Don’t worry, you’ll have 17 years to get ready for that moment. While all your colleagues are being sent to places like Desert Storm, Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq, you will sit at a desk stateside, growing fat and pale and firing your weapon twice a year at the firing range where, sorry to say, sometimes you completely miss the target. You will wonder what war is like and in the 17th year of your military career, you’ll find out. You’ll get orders to report to Fort Stewart, Georgia, home of the 3rd Infantry Division and on Jan. 2, 2005, you’ll find yourself on a plane flying from Savannah to Kuwait and then on to Baghdad. Yes, you will be scared. Scared of being shot or blown up, but especially scared of what you don’t know. A few months after your arrival in Baghdad, your illustrious secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld will talk about this very thing. He’ll call it known unknowns. “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know.” You will admire the guy for being such a ballsy idiot.
Don’t worry, you will not be killed during your year in the combat zone. In fact, you will find it to be a rather productive year. You will work in a task force headquarters as a public affairs non-commissioned officer, you will write press releases, you will talk to reporters from CNN and the New York Times, you will be that official “Army spokesperson” everyone hears about, you will do your job and you will work your ass off, but it will feel good, that purity of labor, that singularity of purpose.
Here’s the important part—the part you really need to pay attention to. During that year in Iraq, you will keep a daily journal. You will write down everything you see, hear, taste and touch. You will pour everything into that combat diary and at the end of the year you will have all this material, so much of it you won’t know what to do with it. Well, guess what? You’ll take all those stories from Iraq in 2005 and you will turn them into a novel that, eventually, people will read and a few of them might even laugh in a couple of spots.
That’s right, you’ll write a novel and it will be published. Oh I know you think it’s going to happen a lot sooner. I know you already have in it your head that it’s going to happen as soon as you graduate with your English degree from the University of Oregon, but be patient. It’s going to take a few years. Thirty of them, to be exact.
But when you hold that book in your hand, that miracle of taking words from your head, printing them on the page, and binding them between two covers, when that book is a reality, when you see it on display in a bookstore, when you watch people check it out of the library, guess what? It will be one of the greatest moments of your life—right up there with that moment your first son is born (something which looms in your very near future), the first time you laid eyes on your wife, or that first velvety bite of the perfect crème brulee you’ll eventually have in a restaurant in Uptown Butte, Montana. Yes, it will be THAT good. Much better than that five-mile road march in basic training, the time you fell off a ladder and broke your arm, and certainly much better than your vasectomy.
Oh yeah, that’s right—you eventually get the snip-and-clip. But don’t worry, that’s still another ten years down the road. You have plenty of time to get ready. For now, like I said, just relax and enjoy your time with that girl in the Datsun B210 as you swerve along this highway. Believe me when I say, the road does eventually get much smoother and straighter.
Just keep driving.
A version of this essay first appeared at mariashriver.com