A famous writer once told me “Not much happens in a car and readers get bored quickly.” But this guy never knew Roy, a whiz-bang softball player from some state south of Kentucky where cousins married and raised strangely pale, cross-eyed children on a regular basis. I know this because Roy was cross-eyed and engaged to his first cousin.
As a lot of combat Marines did, we came home from Vietnam in 1969 wound too tight and broken like cheap watches. I didn’t meet Roy until we were released from different military hospitals and reassigned to finish our respective enlistments. The physical wounds had healed and neither of us knew the emotional ones existed or would last a lifetime. We were boys still, under the legal drinking age and ready to kill anyone who looked at us without admiration.
Remorse, trauma, isolation, fear of intimacy, insomnia, intrusive thoughts, remained meaningless words unrelated to a phenomenon the Marine Corps refused to name because it indicated weakness. Prior to 1981, the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder didn’t exist in the military or the Veterans Administration. The idea that Roy and I were damaged goods never crossed our minds. We thought we were gods. Of course, I can excuse that belief in Roy a little easier than in myself. He received a terrible head wound and, although functional in most ways – as in still able to raise a beer can, pull a trigger, and pay for sex – he was still fairly slow overcoming his own delusions. On the other hand, I carried pieces of a B-40 rocket in several areas, but my brain worked well enough to decline vigorously the lucrative re-enlistment bonus and promotion to sergeant offered shortly after my arrival at a new duty station.
I guess that new duty station, Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base, just outside Norfolk, Virginia, is actually where this essay on the craft of writing really begins because that’s the place Roy and I met and I discovered some things, important things, do happen in a car. The first three hundred words or so might be called the “trigger” that fires the bullet, the bullet being the brilliant information I’m about to impart about how writers learn to use their own experiences to help readers discover things about being human, or remember things about being human that have been forgotten due to the stresses of 21st century automaton existence.
Little Creek might have been an excellent duty station as it was strategically close to Virginia Beach and its night club scene – I remember the Peppermint Lounge perfectly – had it not been for the purpose of my duty there, which was to teach more teenagers how to kill. By the time I had reached the ripe old age of twenty, war had long since lost the shimmer and shine that John Wayne polished it to in The Sands of Iwo Jima and The Fightin’ Seabees. I learned in Vietnam that, unlike in the celluloid world, once you took a gut shot the chances of proselytizing an audience with the virtues of patriotism and the glory of dying for one’s country for fifteen minutes with a smile on your face were extremely limited. In real life rising to go shoot another scene was equally impossible. On the other hand, Roy seemed not to be aware of the irony created by those boundaries so much, especially when we were drinking. He often spoke of life as being one long movie, which is exactly what we were discussing the night I found out that some things do happen in a car, miraculous things.
We were enjoying a few cold beers in the enlisted men’s club on base one evening as usual after a day’s duty schedule had expired. At the time, I taught pistol marksmanship and squad tactics to ship’s landing parties off of destroyers docked at Norfolk in the mornings. In the afternoons I worked with Navy UDTs (underwater demolition teams) blowing things up for training purposes. Roy was teaching hand-to-hand combat and coaching the base’s little league ball team. We were NCO’s and by virtue of rank segregated from the lower-class enlisted on the second floor in the club. The upstairs was our domain and off-limits to marines and sailors who had yet to earn enough stripes. Roy took that elitism very seriously. He figured that it had been earned by his actions in the war. As a matter of fact, he was right. Both of us were awarded something called a “meritorious mass” for leadership in combat that propelled us from lance corporal to corporal in less than two years of service. Elevation in rank at this speed was unheard of before the war. Sometimes a good Marine could serve four or five years before getting anywhere near grade E-4 or E-5. Looking back now, I don’t know if our rapid rise had more to do with composure under fire or the fact that a lot of NCO’s were getting themselves killed in the jungle.
Be that as it may, the club seemed exceptionally loud on this particular evening and not only with empty laughter, breaking glass, Motown music, but loud in a figurative way as well. The disco ball that hung from the ceiling cast a kaleidoscope of swirling colors across an army of Hawaiian shirts and sequined mini-skirts. Roy lit a Camel and inhaled deeply, as if it were a joint, and gazed over the balcony to the dance floor below where young men and women gyrated to Sam Cooke’s “Twisting the Night Away.”
“This here is exactly how movie stars must feel,” he said.
“”You’ve got no idea how a goddamn movie star feels,” I said and lit a Lucky.
“Sure I do. They feel immortal and rich and sexy and right now I feel the same way, especially with twenty-three dollars in my pocket and a cock that looks like a baby’s arm holding an apple.”
Since beer was a quarter a can at the club, I understood the feeling of wealth, even immortality after surviving recent events involving gun shots and explosions. But, as an Irishman with small feet, my physical attributes allowed for no bragging rights and I doubted Roy’s claim as well.
“Your cock may be big, but I’ve got three legs of equal length, buddy.”
“Then, let’s see who can get laid first,” Roy said.
“It’s not going to happen here.” I surveyed the dance floor and saw a few Navy wives whose husbands were on sea duty surrounded by crowds of teenage admirers jostling each other for the privilege of buying them watered-down girly drinks like Singapore slings and sloe gin fizzes and getting a little bump and grind on the dance floor in return. The same group played the same games almost every night.
“We need to head into Virginia Beach. There’s always a few debutantes looking for stone cold bad boys like us.”
I had no idea where Roy heard the word debutante first in order to repeat it, or if he understood its meaning. But, he did use it correctly in a sentence and that was good enough for me. We drained our Schlitz cans and bought a six pack for the twenty mile ride. We would have been fine if not for the Navy’s policy of allowing young men from the Philippines to enlist. I say that with no prejudicial intent on my part, just practical first-hand knowledge that Roy was a walking poster boy for racists anonymous. As we began our descent, two Filipino sailors began their ascent. We met halfway up the staircase.
“Excuse me. Where y’all think you might be going?” Roy asked, his hands already curling into white-knuckled fists.
“Let it go,” I said, stepping down another step.
“Not a fucking chance.”
“Shit.” I uttered the word as both description and prophecy. It perfectly described what we had stepped into and where our night was headed. Also, it occurred to me that neither sailor had any idea what Roy was talking about. I doubted whether they spoke English.
“Que Pasa? Uno cervesa, por favore.”
Now, I don’t speak Spanish, but it’s fairly obvious by tone of voice whether someone is being a smart-ass little arrogant pig, or not. I know this fellow wasn’t because I’m that way myself when I drink. On the other hand, Roy, for all his bluster, was a sensitive fellow and immediately took exception to this comment. He had a habit of hearing things differently than me.
“You got no right to be among your betters,” Roy said.
The man and his friend shook their heads, taking another step up as they did. Without hesitation, Roy grabbed the talker by the flap on the back of his uniform and dragged him down the steps, throwing him across the dance floor as if he were a bowling ball. His compadre leapt like a Siamese fighting cat onto Roy’s broad back and was immediately shaken off. From the other side of the room, the club bouncer, an off-duty MP sergeant, parted the dancers like a plow furrows through wet earth and ran directly toward us. I pulled at Roy’s arm with one hand, guiding him toward the double doors that led outside and waved the bouncer off with the other. Behind me, the two sailors were rising and a crowd of six or seven more tiny Filipinos gathered around them. Roy was muttering under his breath as we hustled between cars in the parking lot like a pair of halfbacks on a downfield run, one blocker and one ball carrier.
“Fucking gooks. I just spent a year killing them and now they’re trying to infiltrate my watering hole.”
“They’re not the same kind of gooks.”
“A gook’s a gook, you asshole.”
“Maybe, but we’ve got to leave before the MP’s find us and we end up in the brig.”
It was a waste of time arguing with Roy regarding the fact that the Philippines and Vietnam were separate countries and their people not related. I knew the bouncer would have called the Shore Patrol by now and that a Jeep would be winding its way over to the parking lot in a hard target search for two drunken jarheads. The idea of sleeping one off in the vomit and urine stench of a Navy drunk tank seemed less than appealing to me. Coupled with the fact that we still had money and wanted to find some willing women in Virginia Beach, a strategic withdrawal was our only option. In this case, I agreed with Shakespeare’s Falstaff, that discretion was most certainly the better part of valor.
Arriving at my beige 1962 Dodge Coronet, I unlocked Roy’s door first and guided him into the passenger seat. My inability to find the key hole on the driver’s side was noticeable by the scratching and clacking sounds the key made. Roy rolled his baby blue eyes. As I fumbled to overcome my dilemma, strange little people began appearing around me. They seemed to materialize from every dark shadow in the parking lot, rising from the asphalt, seeping from the rear of other cars, expanding and splitting like atoms until we were surrounded by angry sailors from across the sea. They jabbered in Spanish at the frequency of a swarm of bees and once again, although I understood absolutely nothing in terms of language, the tone was unmistakably clear. They wanted to beat the shit out of us and leave us in a sobbing heap of tangled flesh.
On a side note, this is another important lesson for young writers. Tone and setting often create more clarity of meaning than plot or character development and are vital tools for enhancing emotional substance in a story.
I managed to steer the car through the angry mob without injuring any sailors, although Roy urged me to squash a few under my tires. That’s when it happened. You know, the exception to the rule about writing that nothing ever happens in a car. Generally, I’d agree with that having spent years reading student stories where characters leave in car loads from various cold climates to find adventure and love on a Florida spring break beach only to spend fifteen pages dialoging through stages of adolescent angst, the climax being when a cop pulls them over and they try to hide the joint they’re sharing, followed by the denouement when the car stops and they spill out on the burning white sand under a cerulean sky into piles of perfectly formed and tanned other students who look exactly like them. Technically, I guess the denouement occurs outside the automobile. Anyway, like I said, normally I would agree, but this event was something totally different.
“I have to piss so bad my teeth are floating,” said Roy.
I looked in the rearview mirror at the flashing lights on the Shore Patrol’s Jeep, and the crowd around it, while we pulled rapidly away.
“Are you fucking nuts? There’s no way I’m stopping this vehicle on base. Shake the dew from your lily in Virginia Beach.”
Roy groaned loudly, turned up his Schlitz can and drained it.
“I’m gonna show you a little trick I learned as a boy riding shotgun for my daddy when he was running ‘shine between Tennessee and Tuscaloosa. He didn’t have time to stop when the Feds was on his tail.”
While speaking, he unzipped his uniform trousers and extracted a penis that did indeed, in the eerie green glow of the dashboard lights, resemble a baby’s arm holding an apple. Unfolding and clutching the shaft with his right hand, he guided the empty beer can under it with his left. Over the hum of the engine as we cleared the main gate and turned on the highway, a sound like rain on a hot tin roof clattered through the night. When the sound ended, he held aloft the can.
“Want to see?”
“I never spilled a drop.”
So, I learned that night that some things, astonishing proceedings, do happen in a car, even going sixty miles an hour on a bumpy road. The main point for a writer to remember in all this lies with the fact that when telling a story, its effectiveness has more to do with what Flannery O’Connor once called “the mystery of personality.” If a person is doing what that person would do naturally in a given circumstance, then the resulting action, properly described, is likely to grab the reader’s attention regardless of where it occurs. I’m sure, if I knew where he was these days and I could talk him into reading one of O’Connor’s stories, Roy would agree.