The Writer Short-Memoir Contest
Published: December 1, 2006
|Shooting Out the Streetlight|
By Terry Hertzler
On a bet one Saturday night, I shot out a streetlight with the .380 Beretta I carried in the glove box of my car. On Central Avenue in Phoenix, around midnight, just north of Indian School Road. I missed with the first shot, the light about 25 or 30 yards away. I had a feeling I'd aimed just a bit high--no real evidence, just a feeling--so I lowered the sights slightly and the second shot punched out the light, glass tinkling as it hit the sidewalk. It freaked out the guy who'd bet me. He just handed me the $50, got in his car and drove off. I don't think he thought I'd really do it. After all, it was Saturday night on Central Avenue and everyone was still cruising. But I'd just gotten back from the Nam, and 50 bucks is 50 bucks.
December 1970: After nearly three years in the Army and 13 months in Vietnam, I returned to the States, transition from soldier to civilian taking less than 48 hours. Last morning in Vietnam, caught a helicopter from Camp Evans to a base near the city of Hue. From there, those of us who'd completed our time in-country boarded a plane to Saigon, then a jet that flew us home. We arrived at Ft. Lewis, Washington, near midnight, were given a steak dinner in honor of our service and, after a few hours sleep, discharge papers and an airline ticket to the airport nearest our hometowns.
Suddenly, I was a civilian again. Ten days later I turned 21. All I remember from my first week home, that abrupt decompression from Vietnam to Ohio, were the bright colors, neon lights, snow--a mental equivalent to the bends. I drifted.
Vietnam was still embedded in my head, in my nose: the odor of burning shit and diesel, nitrates and dust, dust and rain--the only two seasons in Vietnam--13 months of toes cracked and bleeding or toes cracked and rotting, the only debate one of illusion. Which was real? Vietnam?
Or everything prior? Someone once described war as long periods of extreme boredom punctuated by brief moments of terror. That was Vietnam. There, my faith in God, country and John Wayne floated away like a flare suspended from a small white parachute, drifting slowly toward the jungle, 10,000 gray shadows beneath quivering in expectation.
And then suddenly I was home again--The World--that's what we had called the States while in Vietnam: The World, as if where we were was just an illusion, a dream from which we would soon awake to find ourselves home. Home. Memories.
Take away a person's memories and what is left? Aren't we really just the sum of what we remember? Isn't that what makes us who we are? Memories?
This is what I remembered: barracks reeking of piss and fear--loneliness--a five- or six-year-old boy wearing only a royal-blue T-shirt, squatting in the dirt, favoring his left leg, its ridges of scar from ankle to hip twisted and shiny as plastic--napalm--a regal python coiled in the bottom of a bunker, at home until I was ordered to shoot it when we couldn't seduce it out of the bunker, the short burst from my M-16 almost appearing to strike the snake in slow motion, its head sliding backward, separating from its body, body twisting slowly with the impacts, neatly stacked coils looping in confusion, jerked spasmodically by bullets ripping through its flesh--fear--smoke stinging my eyes as the thatched huts of a village burned--loneliness--sneaking into the officer's compound to take a hot shower--incoming--a mortar attack blowing up the base-camp mess hall, killing two cooks and a cat--fear--eye swelling shut where a friend's head, a bright flower blooming, had seeded the air with pieces of skull ...
What do you do with memories like that? How do you go home with those images smoldering in your brain? Who does that make you?
I went through five jobs in a year and a half. Moved four times. Ended up in Phoenix, hiding out in college. College was safe. If I wanted to, I could just not go to classes. I cruised Central Avenue every weekend, all night long, raced other hopped-up cars, tried to pick up women, made endless loops: Camelback to McDowell, McDonald's to Arby's to Jack-in-the-Box to Bob's Big Boy, rock 'n' roll on the radio: Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Elton John, Yes, Black Sabbath--watched the sun come up most Saturday and Sunday mornings, slept till late in the afternoon every day.
And I carried a gun in the glove box of my car--loaded, of course. What good was an unloaded gun? What good was studying philosophy or psychology or the proportion of variance accounted for? What good was anything? Except perhaps orange blossoms.
Sometimes, late at night, I'd stand in the street next to a grove of orange trees a few blocks from where I rented a room, breathing in, standing there for 15 or 20 minutes, just breathing, the fragrance of orange blossoms the best smell imaginable, air warm and clean--and for a little while, it was OK. And sometimes in the desert--especially at night, away from the city, away from people, away from everything except the cactus and yucca, desert broom and grama grass, sand, rocks, and small animals that moved quietly through the night, living and dying on their own without much fuss--that was OK too.
One night a few weeks after shooting out the streetlight, sitting out in the desert by myself, I saw a shooting star, got to wondering where those bullets came down. Not something I ever worried about in Vietnam. It made me feel a little odd.
I sold the Beretta not long after that when I got to thinking I might try it out on something other than streetlights.
|The Things He Didn't Carry|
The Writer Short Memoir Contest
By Robin Allen
One rainy night, I found myself vexed and shoeless at the home of author Tim O'Brien. A friend had taken me to a party there to celebrate the final performance of a play Tim's girlfriend starred in. Most of the guests--the play's cast and crew, and some of Tim's MFA students--had already arrived, and the house hummed with animated, creative people.
When I imagine the lives of Real Writers, they're secluded in a fragrant forest, working in a log house in a loft office that overlooks a great room full of books and a fireplace spacious enough to hold a full-grown moose. When we pulled up to a gated neighborhood and announced ourselves to a guard, it was only the first surprise that night.
A hand-marked sign taped to the front door of Tim's white-brick home requested that we remove our shoes and leave them in the white tiled foyer. The entire house was colorless: fluffy page-white carpet blanketed the rooms, the furniture was upholstered in neutral tones, and there were no prints or paintings on the white walls. When I asked my friend if they had recently moved in, he assured me they had not. The spare decor brought to mind the blank white studio of an art class I took in college. I wondered if it was designed to remind Tim of his boyhood winters in rural Minnesota.
My friend and I left our dripping shoes at the door, then found our hosts in the kitchen. I hadn't seen the play, and even though I knew about Tim O'Brien, I'd never read his books, so I said, "Nice to meet y'all," then left my friend at the food table. I wandered through the house, passing between pockets of theater people and around a game of Twister, and eventually found myself in Tim's office, a sunken room off the main foyer. It didn't smell like cedar or wood smoke, but it looked like a Real Writer's room with a rich, dark leather chair and green marble everywhere. A built-in wooden bookcase above his desk displayed several titles neatly soldiered on the shelves.
Tim O'Brien had won the National Book Award and had been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and I was standing in his office in my stocking feet. I could hardly contain my excitement at discovering which Real Writers he looked to for inspiration. It was a small collection, maybe 30 books, so I knew they must have true meaning for him. I cocked my head and began to read the titles: The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien, Was sie trugen von Tim O'Brien, A propos de courage de Tim O'Brien, Las cosas que llevaban por Tim O'Brien, Quanto pesano i fantasmi da Tim O'Brien, Allt de Bar vid Tim O'Brien.
I moved my eyes to another shelf and read: In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O'Brien, In het Meer van de Wouden tegen Tim O'Brien, Geheimnisse und Lügen von Tim O'Brien, Au lac des Bois de Tim O'Brien.
I looked at another shelf: Going After Cacciato by Tim O'Brien, A la poursuite de Cacciato de Tim O'Brien, W pogoni za Cacciatem przy Tim O'Brien.
I stopped reading.
All of his books were his books--in every available translation! I saw no novels by writer friends, no research books, not even a style guide. I had never been published, but my personal library contained 800 novels, short story collections, memoirs, and about 200 books on writing and creativity. It's one thing for a writer to be proud of his success, but I was sure that if there had been a dictionary in his office, I would have found his picture in it next to "vainglory."
I felt cheated. How could a serious writer not be a serious reader? Except for the books in his office, I don't remember seeing books anywhere in the rest of the house. Did he read anyone other than himself? What about assembly instructions or the backs of cereal boxes? Were they off limits because they didn't carry his byline? While relaxing by his pool, did he read his own books? Were they inscribed? To whom?
It took me years after that party to finally understand Tim O'Brien's brilliance.
I woke up one morning, disappointed for the umpteenth time that I had spent the previous day reading short stories instead of writing them. I thought back to that night at Tim's house and the shelves full of his own books. How does he do it? How does he sit down and write every day? Sure, he has publisher's deadlines to meet, but how does he tune out distractions?
And then, with the quiet clarity of a Minnesota snowfall, I understood: there were no distractions in his house.
Whenever I stopped reading a book long enough to sit down at my writing desk, I was sure I didn't know enough about plot, character, or theme to write anything good. But instead of learning by doing--something all of my books emphasized with writing exercises I skimmed but never started--I opened another book, looking for the magic message that would crystallize in my mind and turn me into a Real Writer.
Every time Tim O'Brien sat down at his writing desk, he knew everything he needed to know. If he was ever unsure, he had shelves full of his own books to remind him. I was wrong to call it vainglory; the books were there to stoke his confidence, not stroke his ego. He understood what I didn't want to believe: There is no secret wisdom. Writers learn by doing. Real Writers write. With no distracting books in his house, Tim's writing life was infinitely easier.
Before my rational mind caught up with my impulsive one, I packed my books into dozens of boxes. Within a week, I had donated my writing books to my local writer's league for a nice tax deduction, which offset the windfall from the sale of the other books to a used bookstore.
I wish I could say I eliminated every book in my library, but I didn't. I'm not the writer Tim O'Brien is, and I don't have a history of working through writing problems on my own. I'm still learning, and I feel better knowing that I can refer to a book if I need to.
Now when I sit down at my writing desk, I keep my butt in my chair, and I learn by doing. When I look at the few remaining books on my shelves, I'm reminded why so many of them are gone--they were distracting me from writing--and it's easier to stay focused on my stories and essays. I'm also reminded that reading should augment my writing, not replace it.
I now believe what all Real Writers know: writers write. So far, it's working. But if it turns out that I got the message wrong, I'll line my shelves with every translation of Tim O'Brien's books and see if that helps.