Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Like a Salmon Swimming Downstream: My Life as an Undercover Author

I’ve never been one to go with the flow.  If I was a salmon, I’d be swimming downstream.  I’m a guy who’d run the Iditarod while standing backwards on the sled runners.  I’m that lemming who stands on the edge of the cliff and shouts, “Oh, hell, no!  I don’t think so!”  Aren’t most writers subversives beneath masks of complacency and decency?

Many pen-pushers and keyboard-punchers are also dual-faced fakes.  Writing is our Other Identity, the thing we do when we're not working our "real" job.  Veterinarian by day, novelist by night.  We're not necessarily ashamed of our secret life of Writer, but we're usually quiet about it.  We think to ourselves, "They just wouldn't understand if I told them what I do when I leave the office."

In my case, what I did after-hours was the real life.  The time I spent on the clock at the office was merely biding my time until I could escape home to the keyboard, with a stop along the way at a phone booth where I changed into my cape and tights.

I may have written a book about soldiers in the Iraq War and served for 20 years in uniform, but I always have to bluff my way through answers when people at readings ask me about life in a combat zone.  I can only tell them what I saw from my guarded, half-hidden crouch behind a pile of sandbags—otherwise known as a Forward Operating Base in Baghdad.  The war seemed like a long, boring movie with some decent acting.  At any rate, my war as a Fobbit—a soldier who remains safely ensconced on the FOB—was like that.  I describe one of my characters in Fobbit by saying, “To paraphrase the New Testament, he was in the war, but he was not of the war.”

The same could be said about my career as a soldier.   My two decades in the Army were a Jekyll-and-Hyde experience: warrior by day, writer at night.  I kept my art hidden from my co-workers, never letting on that I spent my off-duty hours hunched over a keyboard in the basement of my housing unit on Alaska’s Fort Wainwright at the edge of Fairbanks when I was stationed there in the early 1990s.  Beneath that olive-drab uniform beat the heart of a Raymond Carver wannabe.  Even when I had a short story published in Esquire and it later made the long-list of “100 Other Distinguished Stories of 1998” in the annual Best American Stories anthology, I kept quiet.  I didn’t call it out like cadence at the 6th Infantry Division’s daily physical training.  Instead, I concentrated on the poetry of pushups like any good, obedient sergeant.

It had been that way from the start.   When I joined the Army, I was 25, ancient compared to the others—19, 18 and, in a couple of cases, 17 years old, some of them still smelling like the cherry lip balm from their high school girlfriends’ mouths.  They called me Grandpa.  There was one other guy in the platoon who was older than me by a couple of years.  They called him Great-Grandpa.

Growing up, I was thin, bookish, soft-muscled—hardly the stuff of Army recruiting posters.  While other boys were moving their GI Joe dolls (excuse me, action figures) through combat drills, I was reading Nancy Drew mysteries.  I was totally in touch with my inner femininity.  That’s why it came as such a surprise to everyone—including, and especially, me—when I stood in the Military Entrance Processing Station in Butte, Montana and raised my right hand, swearing full faith and allegiance to the U.S. military.  Why I joined the military is a long story; I usually just telegraph it to inquisitors by saying: “Student loans, pregnant wife, job security.”

By the time I arrived in Alaska in October 1991, I was well on my way to a comfortably numb career in the Army.  I played the game: I wrote impassioned articles about training exercises for the Fort Wainwright newspaper, I saluted smartly, I went ice fishing at Quartz Lake with my boss, a captain, and courageously took nips from the bottle of peppermint schnapps he offered me because I thought it was entrée into the Hairy-Chest Club.  But when I got home at night, I shed my uniform, unlaced my boots, and descended to the basement to write yet another Raymond Carveresque tale of husbands and wives trying to find redemption in a life full of loss (stories which, in hindsight, were really bad, really pale imitations of the Master’s work).

I prided myself on being different, even if I mostly kept that difference quiet beneath a Clark Kent exterior.  Still, there were moments….

On a training exercise in Thailand, while other soldiers were getting “massages” from blank-faced girls (complete with “happy endings”), you’d find me sitting in the hotel lobby reading War and Peace.  Another time, when I was pulling Charge of Quarters in my company’s dayroom at Fort Wainwright, I brought my cross-stitch with me (I told you I embraced my Inner Woman, didn’t I?).  Sure, I got stares from the other soldiers on guard duty, but I shrugged them off and went back to poking the tiny needle in and out of the linen fabric, thinking about how they’d be sorry once they saw the finished sampler I was working on—an anniversary gift for my wife.  They played solitaire, read their Tom Clancy paperbacks and shot uneasy glances in my direction.

That was the same December night when, as I stepped outside the barracks to do a security check, I saw a moose trot like an English quarterhorse through the parking lot.  It headed toward the treeline, plowing through the deep, fresh-fallen snow as smoothly and easily as a swan across water.  The night was so cold and so still, it seemed I could hear the hiss of each granular snowflake against those knobby, tree-length legs.  I remember thinking to myself, “Nowhere else in the Army can you pull guard duty and watch a moose swim through snow.  I am the luckiest soldier alive.”

I also thought how I might be the only soldier in the Army that night to look at a moose and compare it to the poetry of a swan.

A version of this essay originally appeared at the 49 Writers blog.

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