Sunday, December 9, 2007

Marching through Georgia

Life and reality can withhold its precious lessons to a writer. In fact, when this happens, a writer fades to a scrawler and an author never emerges. I was fortunate. Although my creative arc burned low during my early military career, life withheld not its abrupt lessons. Into my sheltered, fragile existance rushed a world of harsh realities—discipline, torture, pain, fear and loneliness. If ever there was a place to seek plot, it was in the US Army.

When I say I didn't write, I lie. I wrote volumes—letters home, all of which were archived by my parents and grandparents. I have them all in a big box in the cellar. (The letters, not my parents). For the most part they are cries for help, whimpers of growing pains and a mush of bad grammar and spelling. Still, they come from the gut instead of the mind. My mind went on a hiatus. It was during this period that I learned how the US dealt with gay men that somehow were caught in the draft's fishing nets. I was a hulking 280 pounds, weak and effete. I was unable to hack the basic training and that labelled me faggot. (The nice gay term was not much used then). So, I was packed off to Ft. Gordon, Georgia's Special Training Unit, where I was pressed harder than Jane Eyre in the Midlands. (In fact I was once marched around in the rain until I developed pneumonia, a life long gift in my country's service). I was exercised, abused, starved and pelted with every epithet in the slang lexicon. All this to apply the solution, to force me to cave in and accept a Section 8 discharge, which would have branded me for life and preclude employment, career and anything of value in this land of the Free. I was thrown together with my fellow suspected homosexuals and harrassed. The object of the game was that "birds of a feather . . . " would eventually fall and partake of court martial punishable acts. It was a horrible time, one that stayed with me for years. Lessons I never forgot. People that never went away; meanies, bullies, kind hearts, the suffering and sufferers; and that hateful, pre-Don't ask, don't tell solution. So brandished was I that even then I knew I would TELL!! And so I did in 2002—first in a play and then in a novel, American Gulag, the history of that place and my final realization that I was not a bad person because of the way I was, but a person who could survive.

Survive I did. I exited that place, not on a Section 8, but by passing the training. I lost 120 pounds in six weeks and was a svelt 160 pounds (and in the hospital with rubella). I refused to cave and wanted to serve my country. There was a war on in Vietnam, and although that prospect scared me, I would have welcomed it over the torture of the Special Training Unit. I was free of it, finished my basic training and headed further south to train as a radio repairman, a great target for any Viet-cong sniper. The people I met have always stayed with me, in my heart and in my book. As my writing mind developed, the stew that life chocks full of experience tossed a mirapoix in my kettle. The short story ideas grew and the poetry was better and I headed for Ft. Benning, Georgia with a sense of accomplishment and extreme loneliness.

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