Saturday, November 3, 2012


…As I mentioned, I’ve been watching “Homeland” (and you should be, too.)  One of the things I’ve learned from watching it is that it is teaching me how to be a better writer.  (I’ve always believed you can learn from almost anything, if you allow yourself.)  For instance, when I’m writing a scene now, where the character’s face is basically telling the story non-verbally, I think back to the show, and remember Brody (the lead actor in “Homeland”), and how his eyes, his sweat, his twitches, the motion of his mouth…how all or any of it could convey a million more meanings than words could—and I try to write my character that way.

Not to sound preachy, but I think to grow, we have to learn, and we have to keep ourselves open enough to do so.

…Next week at this time I’ll be in Las Vegas.  It’s my second trip there this year.  I’ll be with my brothers.  They’re all army vets.  One is a war hero from Viet Nam.  Another is a Lieutenant Colonel.

When I was a boy, about ten or so, my brother was in Nam.  I’d seen TV coverage of combat there and was pretty aware of what was going on.  I remember feeling guilty that my brother was over there and I wasn’t, so to punish myself, I’d walk shirtless in the cold rain for hours.  I know that’s a pretty stupid thing to do, yet that’s what I did.

Once, my parents got their hands on a ration packet.  I can’t recall if my brother had sent it to them or what.  It came in a small cardboard box, about the size of what you’d get if you didn’t finish your meal at a restaurant and they boxed it up for you.  Inside was a can of some nasty tasting juice, stale bread and a tin of something that resembled –both in sight and taste—cat food.  It was dry, chunky, and somewhat pink.  I don’t think I’ve ever eaten anything so awful.

We passed the tins around and took little flaky bites.  I remember trying not to vomit, then feeling bad that I was considering puking.

“You think you’ve got it bad,” they’d say.

But I never thought I had it bad.  I didn’t know one way or another.

…Over 4,400 soldiers have died in the recent Iraqi war.

…Over 2,000 have died in Afghanistan.

…A staggering 58,000 soldiers were killed in Viet Nam.

…It’s all a little bit daunting, and has been on mind a lot lately.  A year and a half ago, the son of a friend of mine died in Afghanistan.  His platoon was clearing a roadside area when he stepped on an IED.  This is the story I wrote for him that appeared in Troubadour 21:


                                                                   for Eric Ward

            We took turns stealing, little things at first, then larger items as the day progressed.  “I think I can get the cooler,” Clay said.

“Don’t be stupid,” I said.  “You’ll get busted.  We’ll get busted.”

When he came out of the 7/11 he not only had a cooler but two six packs of light beer and a bag of crushed ice.  I expected him to be grinning but he looked disappointed. 


My brothers kept dying.  That’s the way my mom put it when she described her half dozen miscarriages.  “God takes care of his mistakes,” she said.  I wondered about that, questions springing up like leaks.  “But I got you,” she said.  “You’re more than enough for any mother.  And you, you’ve got Clay.”

Clay lived next door to us.  His dad sold life insurance and had tried to kill himself twice.  Clay never talked about his mother and she was not around. 

He liked to hunt and used just a bow and arrow.  He got elk and could skin and gut them himself.   He got a black bear once.  He got a dean’s wife, too.

He was blonde and tan with eyes the color of sea glass.  He drove an old Willy’s Jeep and wore ratty shirts and puka shells.  He liked to start fires for no reason other than boredom.  Once a field fire got away from him and we spent two hours hopping on weed flames until our tennis shoes melted into fondue.  He never apologized because we never got caught.

Another time we ate mushrooms and went to the Asotin County Fair.  The colors were liquid and streaky like squirt gun sprays of neon shooting through my corneas.  Then everything was funny, even the sad, overweight ticket taker with mustard on the knees of his pants. 

There was a bluff where the end of the Fair trailed off into field and we climbed it.  A few times I thought I’d fall and for some reason the idea didn’t scare me at all.  I expected to fly or be caught by the ever-present hand of God.  I had a lot of thoughts. 

At the top we gasped, my lungs blazing, thirstier than I’d ever been in my life.  We spotted a couple rolling around on top of each other beneath a tree.  They were all skin and hair and limbs and sounds.  It felt wrong to look, to listen.

Clay couldn’t get enough of the pair, only he was crying.  I’d never seen that before.  It made me queasy.  “Hey, what’s going on?” I asked, but he didn’t say.


I was pretty angry that he’d joined up without telling me.  When I asked why, his dad shrugged through the phone, saying “It’s just something he had to do.”  I hoped I’d be a stronger man than Clay’s father when I had a kid of my own, but I wasn’t sure.

Like everybody else, I forgot about the wars.  They were starting to put out movies about the conflicts, none of them really blockbusters.  I went to one by myself.  It felt so real, which is how I knew the director had made it all up.

They call them I.E.D.’s, Improvised Explosive Devices.  They’re homemade bombs, booby traps.  Your boot heel catches on a wire in the dirt and you end up a mush of dust and blood.

So I’m not sure what they buried in his casket, maybe mementoes—his puka shells, yearbook photos.

After the funeral I drove to the old store and parked in the lot and sat there wishing I smoked.  I tried to conjure up a spark of nostalgic fear but my nerves had short circuited.  Instead I thought about the things we’d stole, forgetting where we’d put them.

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