There are nightly warnings on the news about telephone scams. They can use your recorded voice, they say, and take your money! So I got this call from "Wireless Caller." He was not scamming me, no sirree, Bob! So I very carefully avoided saying "yes." And I fired snarky questions back at him. Come to find out, he was a kid from a Catholic high school service club trying to contact my wife to do a project for one of her charities. Just before he hung up, I heard him mumble, "Please, God, don't let me be like that when I get old."
Recently, I received a comment from, “E-5,” obviously a sailor, and as an E-5, a seasoned professional in his specialty. His comment dealt with a previous blog where I’d opined that a US Navy ensign, an O-1, was the lowest life form on earth. His comment was to the effect that he, as a seasoned sailor, still had to salute an ensign. Therefore, the ensign couldn’t be lowest. E-5 has a point, and it is solid.
That same “lowest life form” phraseology was used in my first book, The Ensign Locker. The character in that book had been former enlisted and expected a little respect for having served as long as he had. The respect, however, was not forthcoming. Whatever he’d done before counted as nothing. Now he was an officer and he started from zero, the same as a fuzzy-cheeked ROTC-path ensign.
After I shifted to the flying navy, I arrived in my first squadron as a Lieutenant (I capitalize it because it was generally considered an exalted life form), but I was immediately smacked low by lieutenants (junior grade) who had experienced combat in a recently completed deployment. As the newest pilot, with no combat experience, I was the lowest life form. Again.
We humans have invented many ways of demeaning others, casting them as lower, or lowest, life forms, to exalt ourselves.
I went out onto the web searching for a photo of a sailor wielding a swab. It had been my intention to use that photo and say that I had pushed a swab just like that any number of times, that guys in my boot camp company told me, “Someday you will make a good wife for some woman.” My point was going to be that you pass through many versions of “lowest lifeform-hood,” but you don’t have to stay there. Instead of a swab-jockey photo, I found this.
Do you see what I see? A diminutive recruit company commander instructing a Dick Butkus sized dude, with intelligence shining on his face, the precise way to render a salute. And can you see in that picture, that the company commander, the recruit himself, and every person he would ever salute, are all superior life forms. Superior to what I was, and to all the other life forms swimming with me through the sea of life, when I was a boot.
And can you see that recruit company commander is female and that Dick Butkus’s skin is black? And can you see that those two things do not mean one dad-burned hill of beans?
Thanks for your coment, Mr. E-5. You can’t see it, but I’m saluting you just now.
The second piece in War Stories carries that title. An excerpt: “But wimmin’. They’re like … air. Who spends a lot of time thinking about air?”
Which was a fine attitude for the protagonist in the short story to have (or not). It won’t, however, cut the mustard for a wannabe writer.
I baptized myself as a writer wannabe on 2 January 2008 when I typed the first lines of the first draft of The Ensign Locker. Since that time, I’ve completed five novels plus the short story collection. All those works were subjected to critiques and edits and courtesy reads and reviews.
I’ve submitted my books and other pieces to contests (I only do so if feedback is promised). Every judge, except one, who has judged my books has been female. The last four books, I’ve submitted to Kirkus, Clarion, and Blue Ink. These reviewers have all been female. At least 85% of the editors I’ve either hired myself or use through my publisher are female.
Point being, writer wannabes, of the other gender, better think about wimmin’.
When I was working on Sundown Town Duty Station, I took in a chapter to my critique group. It concerned a US Navy pilot who was the new guy in his squadron, and he was tired of being the new guy. The scene played out in an O Club bar in Yokosuka, Japan. When it was Lou’s turn to critique my five pages, she said, “I didn’t like this at all. It’s just another stupid men-drinking-in-a-bar story.” I treasure her words in my heart. I think of it as my story was a pie I baked for Lou. When she poked her fork through the crust, she found no apple, peach, berry, or cream filling. Nor any four and twenty blackbirds. Just crust. I won’t say Lou made a woman out of me, but she sure learned me a thing or two about reader perspective.
I add now an excerpt from the Clarion Review of War Stories.
Another highlight of the collection is “Voices,” the final short story in the book. “Voices have always swirled around—yours, theirs, his, hers, mine,” the narrator says. “It’s the first-person, plural possessive pronoun I have trouble hooking onto the word voice. Our Voice.” While the story deals with very concrete details of the narrator’s thirty-six years in the navy, this abstract exploration of “voice” captures the essence and ingenuity of War Stories in a lyrical, almost poetic way.
I love you, Clarion Reviewer. In a lyrical and poetic way.
And thanks; Lou.
New book of short stories is now live on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and iBooks. To find it, type in “j. j. zerr” in their search slot. There are a lot of “War Story” titles out there, but j. j. zerr gets you to the book. It is available in paperback and in all three ebook formats.
And I will be doing a book signing at The Rendezvous Café in O’Fallon MO, 217 S. Main, on December 7, from 6:30 to 7:30.
This day after Thanksgiving I cannot see as black. I am remembering what I heard a Jesuit say last summer. We are not what we do. We are our friends. And a friend once told me we are our faith, our family, and our friends.
Jesuits have smart minds.
My friend, who is female, has a smart heart.
From both the Jesuit and my friend, I am just smart enough to know to be thankful for all of you, and I am.
Gooshy stuff aside. Day after Thanksgiving. Time to remove Credence Clearwater from the pickup truck CD player. I started listening to them twelve years ago when I worked for a major aerospace company whose name starts with a B but will remain anonymous. The program I was on was cranking up the capability to take a 737, fill the backend with electronics, and set it out over the oceans to hunt and kill “Red Octobers.” Somebody brought in a song they thought we should play before every staff meeting.
“Sure,” says I. “We’ll give it a listen.”
The piece intro is an electric guitar whanging out psychedelic chords and a jackhammer playing drums. Then there’s four seconds of just eighteen jackhammers drumming at once. Then the first line of the lyrics goes, “737 comin’ outta’ the sky!”
Music devoid of discipline, sweating raw emotion, riding right up to the ragged edge of out of control, but stopping just short. It curdled the cream in people’s white coffee, which is another reason I drink it black.
Anyhow, “They’re playing our song,” we all said.
Another friend, who is neither Jesuit nor female, said he lives in the past because it is cheaper there. And I think he’s right. You pay the price to live there once and you can live there 111,000 additional times if you have the wings to get there, like I do, with the wings of Credence Clearwater Rivival.
So thanks for the blessing of working on the P-8 program in company B.
And now we move into a new season. Credence had to get out of the way for Handel’s Messiah. From Credence to the Hallelujah Chorus, ain’t music grand?
Thanks, Lord, for coming back to work on the 8th day and creating music. Just like Ringo Starr said you did.
War Stories is a collection of thirteen short pieces I wrote over the last eight years for various purposes: contests, anthologies, etc. The settings range from Vietnam to the Civil War in Missouri and from the decks of aircraft carriers to a grade school playground.
Characters such as Joe Bob, Heiny Bauer battle both against society and to fit in. US Navy pilot Stretch has a fight with himself. Other stories feature gender contests.
One story, "The Free Upgrade," I submitted to a Missouri Liar's Contest. I was one of ten finalists. So I am the tenth best lair in the state. And that's the truth.
The snippet of the cover came from the proof I received from the publisher.
The book should be available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble in soft cover and ebook and iBooks.
Should be this week.
I read Killing Reagan. I thought it was a 5 star book. Next I read Killing Patton. I thought it was a 5.15 star book. Then I read Killing the Rising Sun. I give it 5.5 stars.
Mr. O’Reilly, I think, does a great job of pulling together the biggest and most important pieces of the subjects he writes about and herds them past a reader’s eyes in a most logical and pleasant manner.
In Killing the Rising Sun, we get the Second World War II clawing its way to a conclusion on that half of the planet, the development of Little Boy, and the decision to deploy him. A book packed with fifteen kilotons of importance.
Thank you to all I was privileged to serve with. Every duty station I served at, I left a better person than when I arrived. I like to think we brought out the best in each other.
Thanks to the active duty service men and women.
Thanks to the families of service people. All too often, they are called to sacrifice at the “above and beyond” level.
And a special salute to grunts. Slogging through jungles and mud or sand dunes and crowded cities to root out terrorists, that’s still where wars are won and lost.
I blogged about Leonard Cohen and Halleluja last month. This morning’s paper reported that he died.
Here’s looking at you, kid.
You contributed some fine verses.
I hope twenty-seven angels carry you to the Tower of Song.
After the North Vietnamese launched their Easter Offensive in 1972, I experienced combat as real as any I ever wanted to see. My traumatic stressors, however, did not come from combat. I experienced them after I returned to my country and was called that name: Baby Killer. Crowds of people shouted the name and waved their fists. And, I was sure, hated me. That name is stuck in my craw and for the life of me, no matter how often I pray, how many “thank yous” I hear, I cannot expunge it.
I confess to being a curmudgeonly old poop. But I have an excuse.
In 2013 I attended a symposium with the theme, Fortieth Anniversary, The Vietnamese War POWs Come Home. During one of the panel sessions, a US Air Force pilot, a POW for six years, told us that, as he was about to board the bus to take him to the airport and the flight home, he stopped, turned back for a last look at the Hanoi Hilton, and said, “I forgive you.” He said he hated the North Vietnamese for the torture and deprivation they inflicted on him and on his fellow POWs, and he knew he needed to get that hate out of his heart right then, or it would be with him forever.
So, I confess, I am not the man he is. What hurts most is I have to say that about an air farce puke. Rats!
In 2008, I began work on my first book, I forced myself to read books, articles, and editorials written from the anti-war perspective. At times, reading those works, my teeth ground so hard I was afraid for the structural integrity of my molars. But I read them. And I now know several people who believe it was right to protest in the sixties and seventies, and I have come to admire and respect them.
One of the things I’ve concluded is that when we believe in something fervently, when we have faith in something, it becomes hardwired into our minds and spirits. Being hardwired, it is difficult, and in some cases, impossible to change that wiring, that faith.
To change an element of social fabric, which is time-tested, group-think faith, a polarized, radical, vocal crowd needs to be mobilized. Would there have been an Emancipation Proclamation without abolitionists? Prohibition without radical preaching against Demon Rum? Female vote without femi-nazis (forgive me for the historical/hysterical disconnect)? I have come to believe that our nation experiencing all those things were for the long term betterment of the country. All things in moderation. At times, especially moderation in moderation.
I believe the human race needed a generation at some time, in some country, to stand up and say, “This time, we are not going to fight in your stupid war!”
I believe our country needed to lose a war at some point in history.
The World War II generation has been called “The Greatest Generation.” In James Lee Burke’s novel, The Wayfaring Stranger, the main character says of that generation, “We would be the last generation to believe in the moral solvency of the republic.”
I read that and figured, “That’s right. That’s what happened.” During Vietnam, we stopped believing in the moral backbone of the United States of America, and look what we have now. There is no black and white, only shades of gray, and right and wrong are defined by who gets on twitter first.
All of that, I figured, made my generation the worst. We lost the war. We threw morals out the window.
I had the great privilege to be on the mall in Washington, D.C., between the Capitol and the Washington Monument during the post Desert Storm tribute to the troops. I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support and praise. I didn’t quite know how to process what I was seeing. In the space of a generation, we went from calling returning vets “Baby Killers” to calling them “Heroes.”
I like the notion of having a Greatest Generation. I like for it to be the ones who fought at home and abroad to resolve that conflict in unconditional surrenders. I no longer mind the notion that my generation might lay claim to the title, “The Worst Generation.” And perhaps the verse my generation contributes to Whitman’s Powerful Play, is “Hell, no, we won’t go!” It is a verse, I am convinced, America needed to hear.
One of the women in my writing critique group commented on Part I of these reflections. She told me that she and her friends were protesting the war, not the country, and that they were right to do so.
She told me in a calm, emotions-under-control, and no-back-down-either tone of voice. She talked to me in a tone of voice that made it easy to listen to her, rather than shouting at me and auto-triggering defense against an attack on my belief, my faith.
So here I am on Vet’s Day eve. I have already admitted learning a lesson in forgiveness from a guy in the junior service, and so now, I confess, my sisters and brothers, that I have learned a lesson in forbearance, in listening from a peacenik.
I think one of the worst things that could happen in our country would be for all of us to think the same. We need to grow, to evolve toward the goals laid down in the Declaration of Independence and in our Constitution. We are human, flawed, imperfect, inclined toward faith in things, which, at times led many of us in very wrong directions. We absolutely need our differences of opinion. We need to challenge faiths, but we need to do so with not only open ears, but with the edges of our faiths open as well to find the flaws in our doctrines. So that we might fix them.
Perhaps a generation or two down the road, we can find our way back to faith in the moral solvency of the nation. Maybe there is a new greatest generation there waiting to make these things happen.
Wait! Did I just say that?
There goes my “Member in Good Standing” status in the Curmudgeonly Old Poops of America Society.
John Zerr is the author of four novels, The Ensign Locker, Sundown Town Duty Station, Noble Deeds, and The Happy Life of Preston Katt.
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