Learning to Know: A Military Experience

For fiction writers, there is one constant: They have to make things up. This runs completely counter to the earliest advice most aspiring writers first hear in high school, which is, of course, “Write what you know.”

When I was in high school, I wanted very much to be a fiction writer. Not surprisingly, I spent no small amount of time puzzling over this literary dichotomy. Stealing from Winston Churchill, to me it seemed a puzzle wrapped in an enigma. Had I been a bit brighter, I might have found the answer within the constant angst most teenagers experience in high school and written stories exploring that emotional turmoil. I certainly knew what that felt like. Instead, I decided the puzzle was impenetrable and wrote trite, cutesy tales that had virtually no realism whatsoever.

Once, I managed to convince one of my favorite teachers, Mr. Hopkins (no relation), to read a long draft of a novel I’d begun in which a suicidal character is transported to another planet after dying in a car accident. Of course, I was a teenager at the time and did not expect actual criticism – I was really seeking affirmation of my literary prowess. Instead, I received an honest critique: “I just don’t believe any of your characters. If you have a character who wants to commit suicide, you can’t write him as a reckless smart aleck and leave it at that. You have to explore his state of mind and make the reader experience what he is experiencing. There has to be some depth to the character.”

Ouch. But it gave me something to consider. So much so that I joined the Air Force straight out of high school. Why? I decided it was the fastest way to experience the world and to meet people from all walks of life. I’d grown up in predominantly white, middle-class, California suburbia. The people I met every day were a lot like me. Or I was a lot like them. It was an insulated life. Whatever lay beyond that landscape, I simply did not know.

So I was off to basic training. As far as plans went, it wasn’t a bad one. I met people of all races and backgrounds, from every corner of the country. I lived with them, ate with them, and I worked with them every day. White, Black, Asian, Hispanic, men, women, Southerners, Northerners, Midwesterners – every kind of person from most every kind of place.

I saw how they interacted with other, very different people, and I learned how I could and could not interact myself. By and large, it was a friendly gathering of souls, and there was more often than not a free exchange of ideas, culture, and values – if not shared, at least heard. I was fortunate enough at the time to want to learn and to listen, and I listened and learned much that I would not have had I stayed put along the San Francisco Bay.

(I should point out that there was a unique dynamic at play. Because we were in the military, for the most part we had an innate sense of loyalty to one another. We trained as a team. We could be called upon to fight in a war. We needed to trust one another because it was always a possibility that we might have to fight and die next to each other. Race and culture could not separate us under those circumstances. I knew I would fight as hard at the side of someone who was not exactly like me as I would for anyone else, and I trusted – always trusted – the next person would do the same for me, no matter how unlike him or her I might seem. The need to survive tends to be transcendent.

Did racism exist? Did prejudice exist? I know they did. But those who felt such things could not express them openly. Military discipline would come down hard on anyone who did. The military had to be a cohesive unit. Anything that got in the way of that cohesion could not be tolerated. So, in that way, the environment did not reflect human behavior as it might have existed outside of those constraints. Ironically, this provided a kind of liberation that allowed differences to peacefully coexist.)

I heard southern drawls (and even learned to distinguish one regional drawl from another), New York accents, Jersey accents, New England accents, and I heard other kids (we were really all just kids) talk about the places they were from and why those places were special to them.

It was a time when Vietnam veterans were still serving, and I heard their stories first-hand. I had drunken conversations with British airmen in Sardinia and admonished them on the violence that was rampant in England and Ireland at the time and told them I’d never want to live in a country like theirs.

They, in turn, schooled me on how they perceived the violence and discord in America and told me they’d never want to live in my country, thank you very much. Interestingly, a group of Italian soldiers saw me getting too chummy with the Brits and decided to win me over to their side. They politely kidnapped me and drove me around the island, struggling to find “American” music in their tiny car to play to make me feel at home. They told me their reasons for not liking the Brits, whom they found snobbish, which would be fine in their own country, but not there in Sardinia. They told me I must break with the Brits and hate them as much as they did. I was torn because I quickly adored my Italian kidnappers but liked my newfound British friends just as much.

This was, of course, a ridiculous circumstance to find myself in – yet it was now something I knew. A small sliver of life that was completely foreign to me just a week before. By that time, I’d found a measure of homogeneity with my diverse comrades in American arms, but this took me from that level of comfort and placed me in a wholly unexpected and apparently irreconcilable feud of which I knew nothing but in which I was expected to take sides.

This is just one example of the myriad experiences I had that had nothing to do with fixing airplanes but from which my ability to see the world began to grow.

I saw castles. I saw Paris, the beaches in Spain, the Mona Lisa, and tiny farm burbs throughout the landscape of Germany. I saw Bob Dylan play in Mannheim and a gospel concert in Montreux, Switzerland. I listened to an old German soldier talking one night along the river in Bernkastel-Kues about campaigns in North Africa. Whether it was true or not, he spoke of soldiers resorting to cannibalism in the desert. Then again, he was very clear that he wanted money and wine from us and probably decided a good story was the best way to get there.

I played Frisbee in the snow with a former SS officer who was hated by everyone in the small town I lived in but who was buddying up to my roommates to buy black market “American” cigarettes and alcohol. The former SS soldier rolled up his sleeve in the cold one day to show me his blood-type tattoo, of which I knew nothing. To me, he was a crazy old man. I did not speak German, and he did not speak English, but he tried to tell me all sorts of things with gestures and grunts. He never stopped smiling with his toothless grin.

I trained for nuclear/chemical/biological warfare, wore a gas mask and charcoal protective gear in the blistering cold and blistering heat. I experienced warplanes “attacking” our bases during war exercises and know by the time you hear the low-flying jets, you’d already be dead. Thinking myself clever, I once volunteered to wander onto a flightline where the jets were parked to “test” the security police guarding the planes. I figured I knew the area so well, I could never be caught. That was when I learned what it is like to be taken down by armed security forces and have an M-16 muzzle in the back of my head. I did not feel clever in that moment. Not in the least. 

I was once rounded up in a paint hanger while working on a jet by a joint Air Force, DEA, and local police drug raid. Since I was just pulling parts that were needed in another plane, I was more than surprised to be detained as a potential drug trafficker in an Air Force hanger on an Air Force base. But at least I can say I know what it is like to be rounded up and detained by three armed police agencies in a fumes-filled paint hanger for five hours and told to shut up whenever I started thinking I might have rights of some sort, including the right to fresh air. Since that was more than thirty years ago, I figure I’ve probably been cleared by now. 

I’ve never written a story about the military or being a part of it. But these things and more I internalized during my time in the Air Force and after. My plan out of high school had simply been to find a way to “know” enough to write about.

Certainly, every writer has to write characters who are not like them. Male authors have to write female characters, unless their fictional world does not have women in it. Every woman must be able to write male characters and make them believable and relatable in some way. Unless a writer wants to pretend he or she lives in a world without different races or dialects or cultures, the need to meet and hear different kinds of voices in the world is critical.

To that end, my plan worked – in part. Life in the living of it has provided much more, but a writer must always be ready to listen and hear – otherwise the characters he or she creates will not meet Mr. Hopkins’s criteria for believability.

Learning to Know: A Military Experience

One thought on “Learning to Know: A Military Experience

  • July 12, 2021 at 5:12 pm
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    Wow Mike , great article, great writing!
    My Dad was in charge of airplane maintenance in the Navy. I did t realize that’s what you did in the Air Force!

    I can relate to your meeting people in the military from all different places. First, my dad having been in the military, we moved around a bit, hence 7 years in the mid-west during my growing up years. We met people from all over the world!

    Did you know that I started kindergarten at Corvallis in San Leandro, we moved away, and I came back to San Leandro in 10th grade. I was with kids I went to kindergarten with, but they didn’t remember me! I , of course, had written names under everyone’s class photo pictures in kinDergarten, so I knew then who I knew before high school!

    European travel adventures have also given me an appreciation of others, and other cultures, and broadened and enriched my world in so many ways. Good ways!

    I plan on reading your book when I go visit my brother in a week or so, and lay around his pool while I read!

    Sharon

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