It might have started for me 50-plus years ago on . . .
A Sweltering Night in July
Just days after my 17th birthday, the death of my father (which I later learned was murder) could have been the “inciting incident” that made me a writer.
Every great story has one or more of those.
I didn’t write about it for decades, and this is the first time it’s even been mentioned in print, but his death produced within me an overwhelming urge to get away from home in North Miami and especially away from my overbearing stepfather. That in turn led me to the door of an Army Recruiting Station inside a post office south of Miami.
I might not have had my first great writing experience, if not for the daughters of the commanding general of Fort Jackson, where I took Basic Training.
In the early weeks of Basic, trainees were not allowed to leave their company area except to go to church on Sunday mornings. A little chapel near the lower end of our training area had a small choir that featured some fine voices, including those of the two pretty girls, sisters about my age. I volunteered to add my voice, which was a smooth in-tune tenor at the time, and they encouraged me to come to choir practice the following Wednesday night.
Now Wednesday night for some is and was a church night, meaning my additional trips to the chapel were noticed by my training unit’s officers and NCOs and, unbeknowst to me, barely tolerated.
Did I mention I didn’t know who the girls were? Well, neither did my first sergeant – at first.
Feeling bold, I accompanied the girls one Saturday in their car to the nearest base ice cream shop. Riding in civilian vehicles was forbidden, but they were pretty convincing. This hormone laden jaunt could have ended my writing career before it began, however, because the girls used the occasion to try to convince me to join them in an upcoming USO musical production of Splendor in the Grass.
It would have meant changing my military career, requiring me to become part of the Army branch for entertainers called Special Services (which was a far cry from the warriors of Special Forces). Special Services was made up of talented service members who provided entertainment to soldiers and their families at locations across the globe.
But I wanted to be a real soldier, carrying a gun and – this being the height of the Vietnam War — dodging bullets. I suppose that would have been confirmation of my death wish, if I’d known about such things at the time.
After the ice cream outing, the girls drove me back to my training area, pulling up right in front of the head shed where the unit’s commander and first sergeant did their thing. Before I could get fully out of the back seat, my gruff first sergeant burst out the door and scrambled up the embankment and to the road, cussing up a storm with every giant step. When he got to where we were, he froze and stared bug-eyed at the car’s bumper. His jaw dropped, his mouth hung open. He lost his ever-present cigar.
What he was seeing, as he politely explained to me later, was a blue decal bearing the number one. That made it the commanding general’s car and these two sweet-voiced girls were the general’s daughters.
The first sergeant was, to borrow a phrase from the future, gobsmacked.
It changed the remainder of my eight-weeks of boot camp. I no longer pulled KP or guard duty, for example.
But it’s what happened one night after basic was completed, while I was on-hold waiting for my slot to open up in the Advanced Individual Training radio operator school, that sealed my fate. Most of the trainees were off to their own AITs, but there were a few dozen of us holdovers.
And with the limited manpower left, I got assigned to pull the cushiest extra duty — being Charge of Quarters (CQ) at night. Basically, that meant sitting in the head shed, waiting to answer phone calls and hoping nothing happened back in the barracks that would require me to wake up someone in the cadre. Luckily, nothing happened other than a guy who jumped out a second-story hoping to injure himself to the point of not being sent to Vietnam.
What happened next for me wasn’t that kind of crazy, but was surely different.
In the middle of a sweltering July night in that WWII-vintage basic training company orderly room, this skinny, bespectacled teenager banged away at a manual Army typewriter. The rat-a-clack-clack of the keys was not official business. It was fresh flash fiction and, as might be expected given the gender and age of the typist/author, was both adventurous and salacious.
Another basic trainee stood close by, poised to grab the newest page the moment it was finished. My typing would stop and the waiting reader took eager possession of the page as I cranked it out, inserted a fresh sheet, and resumed typing.
The release of this new page created a stirring amongst the half-dozen or so other young trainees seated in chairs along the walls, intently reading a page just handed them, or passing off a page to the next guy in line, or waiting empty-handed and eager for another page to come their way.
I distinctly remember almost waking into a dream, slipping out of my typing trance to realize I and the others were wrapped in a cocoon of my unintentional weaving.
The magic of that surreal moment convinced me that I must somehow become a writer. If seed there already was, this event watered and fertilized it.
And now, half a century later, the question I face almost daily is, “Can I create that kind of immediate gratification magic again?”
I’m sure trying.