Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Army Made Me a Writer

A friend asked me when I decided to become a writer.  It was in Germany in the Spring of 1977. I was a tank commander, tank Bravo 12, based in Wiesbaden, West Germany.  It was the first time I had travelled outside America.  The first time I lived outside America.  Everything was new and wonderful in Germany.

In 1976 in Germany, calling America cost nearly one dollar per minute.  At the time I made less than $100 a week as an Army Sergeant.  Calling home and telling my family and friends about how beautiful, how interesting, how surprising I found Germany would have emptied my wallet.

So I wrote letters home.  I wrote on legal pads.  I am not sure why, but blue pen and yellow legal pads were my way to write.  I quickly started practicing to be a writer without knowing I what I was doing.  

Writers rewrite.  This blog is a terrible example of real writing.  With this blog, you get what I am thinking.  No revision.  I correct mistakes when readers tell me I made them.  The best writers rewrite several times.  

My version of this was the order of the letters I wrote.  First I wrote to my mother.  She did not really care what I wrote.  She wanted me to write.  So the first time our tank platoon set up a fire position on a wooded hill outside a German village near the East-West border, I had a wonderful story to tell.  As a matter of fact, that will be a future blog post.  

I told that story to my mother.  Next I wrote to my friend Frank.  He was studying to be an engineer and not a particularly critical reader.  Then I wrote to other family members or friends depending on the story.

The final version went either to my sister Jean or my Uncle Jack.  Jean wrote very funny letters to me in basic training.  She is a good writer and knew a good story.  Uncle Jack was near the end of his 20 years of service in the Air Force.  I always addressed his letters to Uncle Major and signed them Sergeant Nephew.  The letter that went to Jean or Jack was the version I would later turn in to an editor.  

In High School I had no ambition to be a writer; I did not want to go to college.  I wanted to be a soldier or a truck driver.  At the time I started writing those letters, I mapped my future in the Army.  I would finish the tour in Germany, go to college, become and officer and command a tank company.  

By then end of the summer of 1977, college had moved to the top of my ambitions and becoming an officer was receding.  I wrote about looking across the border at Fulda where World War 3 was supposed to start.  I wrote about the damage a tank company can do when a new lieutenant leads it though a tree farm.  I wrote about a collision between a drunk German in a tiny Renault and an M60A1 tank.  The Renault did not survive, but surprising the drunk German did. 

As I wrote and fewer letters came back than I sent, I learned that most people did not like to write.  But I liked writing.  And by Christmas of that year, I found a way to write full time.  

That is another story.   

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