Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Gomer Pyle, Colonel Hogan, and Other Clowns of War

I have a new essay in an anthology, Why We Write: Craft Essays on Writing War, out today from the good folks at the Military Writers Guild. I’m honored to share these pages with the likes of authors Phil Klay, Thomas E. Ricks, Carmen Gentile, Hugh Martin, Kate Germano and many others. Here’s how my essay, “War is (Funny as) Hell,” begins:

There’s nothing funny about war.

Or is there?

Out of the horrible realities of the battlefield—the losses of limb and life, the trauma of watching a friend’s life bleed away, the permanent wreckage of the soul—out of all that, is it possible to dredge up a laugh, or even a wry smile?

I think so. And what’s more, I think we need to laugh at war. Soldiers do it all the time. They laugh during combat as a way to keep themselves and their sanity alive. Dirty jokes, insults, and sarcastic comments abound in the foxhole. To those who’ve never lain prone in a fighting position, or felt the hot burn of a bullet in the air around their heads, it might seem outrageous, asinine, or insensitive. For the ones whose boots are dug into the mud, however, laughter is essential.

I grew up mocking the military. It was a case of laughing at the Army, rather than with it. For the first eight years of my life, I lived in two small cities in Pennsylvania. In 4th grade, I moved to an even smaller town in Wyoming. Any military bases were miles away—sometimes, entire states. I don’t recall ever seeing an actual person in uniform.

In truth, however, I saw them every day. They lived in black-and-white worlds, marched down grey streets, and sometimes their crispy-creased khakis were fuzzy around the edges. I’m talking, of course, about the television shows I drank down like milk back in the 1960s. In particular, I Dream of Jeannie and Gomer Pyle. These were my first role models: the wound-tight astronaut and U.S. Air Force Capt. Roger Nelson, played by Larry Hagman, who finds a genie in a bottle, and later tries to hide his wish-granting girlfriend from his superiors back at headquarters. There was also Pvt. Pyle, played by Jim Nabors, a sweet-natured and naive gas station attendant from The Andy Griffith Show’s town of Mayberry, who joins the U.S. Marines. There, he meets his nemesis, the slow-burn, veins-popping Gunnery Sgt. Vince Carter, played by Frank Sutton, who is also a member of the Wound-Tight Club.

I can still see myself sitting cross-legged in my Batman flannel pajamas on the floor in front of our family television, a floor-model Zenith ornately clad in thick oak that must have weighed as much as our family sedan. I’d sit there watching slack-jawed country bumpkin Gomer frustrate the hell out of Sgt. Carter with his slow-as-syrup drawl, “Well, golll-ly, Sarge,” and I’d laugh and laugh and laugh. Those military leaders had a stick up their asses, and it was fun watching Gomer twist the stick with his bumbling innocence.

Those shows later included M*A*S*H and Hogan’s Heroes, set in a World War II prisoner-of-war camp—a sitcom that never should have worked, but somehow did. You may think Cold War-era television was inordinately polite and patriotic, but with programs like Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. and Hogan’s Heroes, it was also subversive. I didn’t realize it at the time, but these shows set the stage for the way I always root for the underdog. The little guys (the privates) always got their way while the higher ranks (the officers) came off looking like fools.

When I joined the Army in 1988, I had no inkling of what military life would be like. None of my family members had ever served; my father, uncle, and grandfather—Baptist ministers, all of them—had deferments. I never played with G.I. Joe toys, I didn’t read books about war heroes, and I couldn’t even have told you the difference between Colonel Sanders and a colonel in the Army. When I entered basic training, I hoped I could pass myself off as a sweet-souled Gomer, and prayed my Sgt. Carter wouldn’t be too rough on me.

The rest of my ramblings can be found in Why We Write, available now at Amazon. For those (like me) who would prefer to purchase the book from an independent bookstore, you can do so by calling Beaverdale Books in Des Moines, Iowa (they take orders by phone only: 515-279-5400). Shipping & Handling should be around $4. I’ve been assured that Why We Write will be available at other independent bookstores in January. I’ll post an update here when that happens.

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