What if …?
These are magic words. They can conjure new worlds, or at least different versions of the one you’re in.
For years after I arrived home from Vietnam on a cold, gray Christmas morning, I avoided everything about Vietnam, reading, seeing, re-engaging in any way with my experiences there, although images would crop up every now and then, including in dreams in the wee hours of the morning, going back for another tour of duty, receiving my new jungle fatigues and boots and walking down the plane’s ramp into the oppressive heat and humidity and strange odors of a foreign land.
Near the end of my legal career, my son asked me what I did in the war (or something like that), and I cynically told him that I specialized in brains—scrambled, sprayed, and over easy. He turned the soliloquy, which he recorded, into an art piece for his senior project at The Cooper Union, with a nice video of waves breaking on a beach in bright sunlight as background. Then after I gave up “The Law,” he challenged me to write a novel about it, about the things I had told him.
How do you write about something that happened years ago, that you’d just as soon forget? The images are still there, seared into the synapse, but what is the story that hasn’t been told? Good, even great, novels have been written about the Vietnam War: The Things They Carried, Matterhorn, and there are the movies like Full Metal Jacket. And books by soldiers on the other side. But, I thought, there’s another story. There’s a story of the non-heroes, the common soldiers from all walks of life who did nothing particularly notable or heroic but still served honorably. And there is the inevitable corruption of war and the clash of cultures and peoples when one is wealthy and the other is not. There was all the racial conflict and turmoil of the 1960’s. What if …?
That was the genesis of QL 4.
I grew up in small-town piedmont North Carolina in the 1950’s and 60’s, in a setting that seemed idyllic, but wasn’t in many ways for many people. There was little back then, in my working-class background, that augured a future of writing anything, much less a novel (and reams of legal folderol). My mother dropped out of school in the first grade and my father quit after the fifth grade. They read the Bible and newspapers (my mother moving her finger across the page and mouthing the words), but no books. Except I do remember my father reading to me from two books before I started grade school, one about Pilot Jack Knight and the other a musty volume we never finished. I can still visualize the faded picture on the cover: a little girl and a scarecrow and you know the others. For years, I wondered how it ended, until I read it to my own children. Or maybe I saw the movie first.
My road to writing was uncertain and torturous: a chaotic and sometimes bizarre family life and a summer spent recovering from rheumatic fever, library books stacked beside me on the bed and floor. Like many others who feel compelled to write, I lived, and live, in multiple worlds. There is, of course, the world of reality, a world of the senses perceived and interpreted by neurons and synapse, a world that is sometimes tragic, sometimes gloriously wonderful, and all the nuances in between. There’s the world of absorbed knowledge from books and experience, from Plato to Madame Bovary to Einstein and blood freshly flowing from a boy’s wounds or glistening black on a floor, drained from a suicide’s head. And there’s the world of imagination, to which I escaped as a child fleeing the house with my dog, when my mother raged against my father over supper or fell into long fits of crying that led to a hospital gurney and electric-shock treatments. Imagination: the only place to which I could I escape when I was thirteen, and on a snowy evening, animal-control took away my dog, a mixed-breed collie that looked like Lassie, only eight months old, because he was sick, perhaps with distemper, and my father couldn’t, or wouldn’t, afford the cost of vaccinations or a vet to treat him.
Eventually, if you discover this vast and mysterious new world of imagination, you want to explore it, to share it, to write about what you find there. What you can create from it. You become compelled to write about it. At least, I was.
On Friday, November 22, 1963, I was working in the shoe department of Belk’s Bargain Basement, the evening shift after school, and no one was shopping. So I wrote the first essay I’d ever written that wasn’t required by some teacher. I wrote it on the back of a white paper shopping bag. I had to write it. I had stayed up listening to the returns the night John Kennedy was elected president, to hear the final returns from Illinois, my father telling me to go to bed (he didn’t vote because Kennedy was Catholic, but my mother did, for Kennedy), and I’d followed everything Kennedy did in office, and I knew he and Bobby Kennedy were right about civil rights, despite my deep-rooted Southern heritage and everything I saw around me, the segregated schools, the theater, the water fountains, the swimming pool. The busload of teens from Jackson, Mississippi, at the Methodist Church camp the summer before, chanting “We got a rope, we got a tree, all we need now is a Ken-ne-dy.” I still have what I wrote, which on the torn bag unfolds over a foot long. It was unjust, what happened to Kennedy; it was unjust what was happening all around me; it was unjust the centuries of mistreatment of human beings who differed from me only in the color of their skin, and I had to write about it. I still have to write about it. And the other manifold injustices in the world.
The Vietnam War, from the way it was prosecuted through its aftermath, was a grave injustice for many people, at many levels, and from many different perspectives. It seems now that most Americans just want to forget about it and ignore its lessons. I don’t.
Of course, there are other reasons to write, some hidden deep in the subconscious, some far more worldly. One reason, an important one, is simply to entertain. With her solid first-grade education and powers of observation and vivid description, my mother was the story teller of the family. But that’s another story. A long one.
At the end of the day, I write because I’m at war with my own, ultimate mortality.
Our father was a good man. That’s what my brother said in the hospital corridor as he pulled out a package of Kent’s and offered me a cigarette. He made many sacrifices for our family, and he suffered much, with having to leave school and go to work in the furniture factory at fifteen and then three of his siblings dying untimely, violent deaths. Stoic, autocratic, reticent, my father was a mystery to me in many ways. After he died, when I was fifteen, I searched for anything he had written, anything anywhere he had put down his thoughts, so I could have something more than the memories, something that would replace the conversations I would never have with him as I grew older. The only thing I found was a pocket-size note pad he always carried, with some lists, groceries and the like. There may have been a note to my brother in college, sending a check. Years later my Uncle John gave me a short letter that my father had written to a shipmate of my Uncle Jim’s, asking if he could come visit the shipmate to talk about Jim’s last moments. Both were on a destroyer that went down off Newfoundland in February 1942. The shipmate returned the letter to my Uncle John long after my father’s death, along with the special delivery envelope. The only surprise in the letter was that he would pay extra for special delivery.
So this also is why I write, to memorialize what I’ve learned in life and to leave something behind for someone to read when I am gone.
QL4 is coming soon, for more information on Jim Garrison and QL4 please click on the links below: