A Soldier turned Writer

Intro

This blog is really not what it looks like, another diatribe. The time and effort to make one of these little dandies is a delicate, sometimes bloody, heartbreaking affair.

The evidence of my labors are small glimpses into my life at a certain time and place. Sometimes there is pride, every so often humility, occasional sadness and always, yes, every single time, lots of laughter and love- the secret ingredients to any worthwhile endeavor.

Sometimes I share a personal story, more often a boring historical fact or two (insert the yawn). I try to make them entertaining. Like any storyteller worth his salt I want to make you come back for more, sometimes the magic works and sometimes it doesn’t.

So this is the essential part of this email. Me, my arms drenched up to the elbows with flour, eggs and sugar of words, my apron smeared with the icing of self-expression, quickly rying.

I am busy trying to make a cake with the thoughts running through my head. Hope this one stands up to the heat of you guys reading it.

Writing

Almost a year ago, I had a rare and bona fide flashback. I was perched in a comfortable chair, in my living room, killing a horde of Taliban bad guys on my favorite video game, “Medal of Honor: Afghanistan.”

The bad guys were chattering in Pashtun, my imaginary combat buddy and I made our desperate, last stand as our ammo ran out. We were holding them off…. then it hit me!

July 2008, Helmand Province, Afghanistan

My buddy Jerry and I are sitting on two shipping crates that act as hasty chairs. We are cleaning our weapons and Jerry says, “What is the one thing you always wanted to be, but never did?”

I answer without thinking, “A writer. Someone who writes things that makes a difference.”

He looked at me, he didn’t understand. “A writer?” he asked, an expression of mystification, screwing up his face.

A minute passed, then he said, “You know, I could see that. Maybe you could write about this place. What we did here, what it was like and why we were here,” he says, “I would like to read that.”

At that time, far from home in a strange land, surviving was a chore. “When we get home…” seemed so far away and distant like the moon or the sun.

On a deployment each day is an eternity. Weeks and months pass with the speed of a slow moving ship on an endless ocean. Slowly, infinitely churning out time. One day, inexplicably, it ends and you’re home, (imagine snapping fingers) just like that.

October 2016

Now the time has come to do the unthinkable and impossible- to try become a writer. The past and present are interlocking puzzle pieces. Two times that are woven into one.

I would spend a few more years in a series of dead-end jobs. I made several questionable decisions that reads like a cliché of the messed-up, returning veteran- drinking, dating strippers, and disappearing for days on end, worrying friends and family.

My calling was to be a writer. I loved parts of being a soldier, but I never had the temperament for it, not like writing- which I love!

Truth be told, I always felt like an actor cast in the wrong part.

If I had a dollar for every time I thought, “I shouldn’t be here. I need to get out of here as soon as possible,” I could take everyone I know out for a great steak dinner.

The Calling

My father was a soldier. All the men I admired growing up were military men. It seemed like the logical thing to do. I grew up poor. There was no money for college.

I hated soldiering, but I loved and admired the men and women I served with.

One story sums it best.

August 2001- Fort Polk, LA- Geronimo Drop Zone

I am a 25 year old infantry platoon leader in a tough as nails, Spartan, airborne infantry unit. We are about to make a parachute jump.

I am kitted up. I am wearing a 25 pound parachute, 60 pounds of extra stuff – a radio, ammo, food water and camping gear. Under the crushing load I waddle like a toddler to the dropped ramp of a waiting airplane.

My face is scrunched up in pain and misery. My privates are pushed to my stomach, the shoulder straps are cinched tight, each step is excruciating. Some of the guys are hooping and hollering in excitement, they are eating this up.

I think, “I shouldn’t be here. God, I hate jumping.” One of buddies, a lieutenant in my sister platoon, see me and says, “Dom, you look miserable.” I answer that I am.

Over the roar of the plane’s idling engines he asks, “If you hate jumping so much, what the heck are you doing in an airborne unit?”

 

I answer without thinking, “I hate jumping, but I love the soldiers in this unit. Brave men, who are the best friends I ever had.” He smiles and punches me in the shoulder, and says, “Helluva of a way to make a living.”

A Revelation

Being a soldier taught me who I really was. I know things about myself, most people never know about themselves. I have seen into the bottom of myself and seen what is swimming there, like a fish flashing on a clear, mountain lake.

I have seen myself at my best and at my very worst. Twice in my life I thought, “This is where Dominic ends,” only to keep on living. I was ready, both times, to see my maker.

I have gone to funerals for half a dozen men I loved like brothers. I was with them at the high points of their lives- crazy fun nights, marriages, and births of children. I held a close friend while he died in my arms.

I did my best to comfort the families of those men who died. I cried with them, in shame and honesty, wishing I could trade places with their husbands, sons or brothers.

Feelings

I have felt so afraid that I was chilled with fear on a hot summer day in the blazing desert. I have been warmed by the soft touch of love in the some of the coldest places on earth.

The intensity of war is a life experience all in one minute. I have laughed, cried, been in pain and joy all in the same 60 seconds. It seemed like an instant, it seemed like forever.

As a soldier, you know yourself. You touch the foundation of your humanity. When your job involves trying to keep your men alive while killing other men, you must deal with the idea of forever.

I lived times, some would say are best forgotten and never talked about. I would know nothing of the human condition or myself if I hadn’t been a soldier. For that gift I am eternally grateful. Now I am a writer.

Practice Writing Like Hemingway

Writing Class

I am taking a writing class. One of the books we are using is “On Writing Well” by Williams Zinsser. This is a great book to learn how to write.

Zinsser gives the following advice: Writing is hard work. A clear, concise sentence is no accident. Clutter is the disease of writing.

We got an exercise to cut 50% of the last thing we wrote. I did that with yesterday’s email. It took me a long time, but it is much better.

I rewrote some sentences over and over again. I fiddled with it until I came as close to 50% as I could. I cut a piece from 1742 words down to 982.

I promise to do this with all future pieces. Your time is valuable.

I did my best to strip away every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that served no function was erased. I think it’s much cleaner without losing any of the original intent.

I am learning that good writing is a craft. Clear writing is clear thinking. I hope you like it. Thank you taking this journey with me as I learn to become a writer.

Intro

I love to write. Learning to write well is the hardest thing. I aim for spare and simple prose like in a children’s book for easy reading. I am happy when I do it well.

I try to boil down my sentences without spreading them too thin. I throw out adjectives and adverbs.

Tack-Tack-Tack

I imagine each paragraph like the sound a machine gun or a typewriter- tack-tack-tack, then silence. I begin the next paragraph- tack-tack-tack, period. I want the boat to be steady and deliberate.

I am a historian, but I want to write like a novelist. Good writing is telepathy. I want my readers to “experience” my writing in a mental picture they can see, feel and taste.

Editor

Few sentences come out right the first time, or the fifth time. Good writing gets great through exhaustive editing. I stick to a daily schedule. Writing is a craft not an art. The more you practice the better you get.

A Job

I am not a deep thinker. My work has no symbolism or deep meaning. I use my own experience to give credibility to my work. Trying to get names, dates, locations, smells and tastes right is tough. The trick is to pile up items, like bricks, to give a physical effect to the reader with a complexity of emotion.

I want the reader to see my picture in their mind. This is the real magic trick, it will take a lifetime to master.

The Why

I write about two things: death and my dad. He died when I was twenty-one.

Freud and Dr. Phil couldn’t unsnarl my relationship with my dad. I felt I was never “man enough” for him.

Vince Oto was born poor and hungry in the Great Depression. His parents were immigrants from Italy. His first memories were about work. He woke up at 4am to deliver newspapers with his older brother, he was four years old.

Hunger and poverty plagued him throughout his childhood. His family never had enough to eat. There were too many kids (11 brothers and sisters) and not enough food or love.

He was no intellectual, but he had uncommon common sense. His instinct was for what was important. Family was the most important thing.

He was not an emotional man, but he felt deeply about the things he thought worthy of his feelings. He cut straight through the core of things.

He was charming and generous, but private and distant. He only had a few close friends. He loved them for what they were, not who they were.

My dad had an undiagnosed learning disability. He read words and numbers backwards. Later in life, he discovered he had dyslexia.

He felt dumb and slow, but was a quick learner. He could watch something physical and do it. He could build engines and fix things in one lesson.

He’d watch it, and learn it. He was smart about people. He said, “People are like books. All you have to do is listen.”

His disability made prove himself physically. His was an extraordinary athlete.

His experiences made him tough. He fought for everything he ever had. Physical achievement gave him dignity and self-respect. He went to war and came home a hero.

My dad was a real life, Hemingway hero.

He was forty-three years old when I was born. Short and stocky, he was a powerful man. He had thick shoulders, arms and chest from hard, manual labor. I see his eyes looking back at me in the mirror.

 

He had a patchwork of scars from war and construction accidents. His injuries left him crippled and in constant pain. He never complained. Despite the pain, he lifted weights every day.

He was all hard work and manhood. When I asked him about his war experiences, he said, “I did my job.” He didn’t talk about what he did. He was a warrior without a war.

A Gentle Father

He was gruff, blue-collar man with calloused hands, but he knew how to love a son. He taught me how to box and shoot. As a boy we talked girls and lifted weights.

Later, our relationship got complicated. We argued. I loved books more than sports. He tried to nurture my inner athlete. I was a wimpy bookworm. He wanted a buddy to hang out with. My world was books, his was hard work and physical courage.

He loved me and told me so many times, but it never seemed enough. He was not a tough-love dad. He shared his hyper-masculine love by teaching me how to impress women, how to tip waiters, and how to fight.

I wanted to win his approval. I copied his mannerisms. I ate what he ate and walked like he walked.

His shadow grew after he died. He defined my manhood.

Approval

I joined the army for him. I spent the next fifteen years trying to be the man I thought he wanted me to be. I became an infantry officer. I did tough stuff because I thought, “This is what he would do.” I was bad at all of it.

My father was a natural leader of men, not me. I am better at reading history than making it. I was too young when he died. I never knew him as a man. Now, older and wiser, I know he only wanted me to be happy.

I was a terrible soldier, but I loved the amazing people I met in the army. It gave me miles of writing material. I know he would be proud. Writing is a way to visit him, if only in words.

The Decision to be a Writer

I made a tough choice yesterday.

I am dropping out of the Network Infrastructure (NETI). Classes are going fine. I have an A or B in all my classes but I am unhappy.

I am going to finish the semester. Next semester I am taking two creative writing classes. I’ve decided to dedicate myself to the craft and discipline of writing.

Going to these computer classes was like pulling my teeth out with a pair of pliers. It was painful and stupid. I am not cut out to be a tech person. I was a square peg in a round hole.

These past two months have been miserable because I was not writing.

It took this experience for to realize what I am and what I will always be, a writer.

I am writer. It is a simple declaration. I am writer for good or bad. There is nothing I can do about it. I am a writer.

There are no classes for how to survive as a writer. It is a school of hard knocks. I may end up some gutter without telling anyone my story but I will live honestly and openly as a writer.

I have no choice in the matter. I am a compulsive writer. There is nothing I can do about it and no amount of tech or math classes can change that.

Being a writer is what I will do for the rest of my life. I feel freer at this moment than at any other time in my life.

Next to marrying my wonderful wife this is the smartest and bravest thing I have ever done. I am a writer.

I found out that my happiness and fulfillment is related to how often and well I write. It is the one thing I do I can never do enough of and what I always think about.

As my heart beats, so do thoughts about what to write and how to write it.

I am afraid. I am afraid I won’t be able to provide for my family. I am afraid people won’t like what I write. Fear is the thief of dreams.

I will be a writer and I will do it afraid because being a writer is what I was born to be, for better or worse.

This is a an official declaration of war- a formal act with me going to war against my fear, against the odds to do what I love- to write!