Veterans & Signs

I was picking up some cargo at the Averitt Express yard down in Fayetteville a while back, and after the forklift operator got my crate loaded in the trailer, we chatted for a few minutes.  He glanced at me briefly and said, “Military?”

 I grinned and hesitated for a moment while I tried to remember whether I’d worn an obvious hat, or t-shirt, or belt buckle, and he said, “I’ll bet you wonder why I asked.” He didn’t wait for a response, but pointed down at my feet and said with a laugh, “Your boots are polished.”

I had to stop and consider it, but here I was, driving a four-wheel-drive pickup with a big dog drooling out the window, pulling my own cargo trailer, wearing an old ball cap and t-shirt with faded blue jeans…but by golly, my boots weren’t scuffed up.  He didn’t mention it, but there’s a chance the U.S. flag on my front license plate and the flag magnet on my tailgate might have been tiny clues as well.

I was 30 years Air Force; he was 4 years Army.  We talked like old friends who haven’t seen each other for a while.  He said he asks that question of about 10 people a month or so, and he’s right with at least 9 of them.

Actually, I’m used to being pegged.  I don’t mind and I don’t hide it; I’m proud of my military service.  I don’t think I know a veteran who isn’t.  A lot of them are pretty obvious at displaying their status, but even when they aren’t sporting a bumper sticker or wearing that hat or t-shirt, there are plenty of tell-tale things veterans notice about one another, and the longer you spent in the service, the more likely you are to have built up some habits.

Some seem a little strange, some are just repetition and muscle memory, and some are for survival.

Yes, I polish my boots; not with a spit shine any more, but enough to keep the leather in good condition so it lasts and gives me long service.  The military pounded that into my head — if you take care of your equipment, it takes care of you.  That’s a good philosophy for most things.

Of course, there are other habits that just…are.  I find it almost impossible to wear a hat indoors, or to go outside without one.  I tend to fall in step with people I’m walking next to.  I make my bed every day, even though I’ve gotten a little lax about that bouncing-quarter thing.  I carry umbrellas or briefcases or shopping bags in my left hand, in case I need to salute a superior officer.  Or grab a weapon.

A lot of us cringe a little at fireworks, sonic booms, or backfires.  Some of us cringe a lot, or run and hide.  Some of us just can’t take it at all.  The ones who can, try to take care of the ones who can’t.

We get a little nervous in large groups of people.  When we go to a restaurant or bar, we like to sit with our backs to a wall, facing the door.  We look around a lot to see what others are doing.  Sometimes that makes the other people nervous.  We’re okay with that.

We can stand in line patiently for what seems forever, often for no discernible reason.  This comes in handy at the doctor’s office and the DMV.

We can eat the same food every day, every week, every month, if that’s what we get…and we know that a little Tabasco sauce makes almost anything edible, even MREs.  Sometimes we go without for a while.  We can also eat an entire meal in five minutes and maybe take a second helping with us on the way out the door.  This seems odd when we’re eating out with friends at their favorite restaurant, they say.

A veteran is likely to own a gun, if not several, and store it properly and safely, and keep it clean and in working order, and stay prepared to use it in defense of himself, his family, or his country.  And he’ll fervently hope he never has to.

Once you’ve been in the military, it’s a different world. You look at people and situations differently.  You’re more cautious, suspicious.  But when you trust somebody, you trust them with your life, because you find out sometimes you have to, and it becomes what you do. You see differences in skin color, heritage, and customs everywhere you go, because the more you learn, the better you adapt and survive.  But you also learn that skin color is just like hair color…it can be used to identify someone, but says nothing about character.

A veteran will stop what she’s doing when she hears the National Anthem or Taps, or sees a flag marching by, and will face the flag or the music, and render a salute.  And she’ll teach her kids to show their respect, too.  She’s been to other countries, and seen their customs and governments and standards of living, and she knows that our country has no equal, whatever its detractors might say.

A veteran knows that what he has done in the service of his country is vital to its continued existence.  He’s sacrificed a lot of things and missed a lot of things, like births, deaths, first teeth, proms, celebrations, holidays, funerals, birthdays, and weddings, and he regrets all of that but not the choice he made that caused him to miss them.  He knows that many other veterans have sacrificed a whole lot more, and gives them the highest respect.

Most veterans don’t ask to be honored, or thanked for their service, or given special parking places outside hardware stores, or given parades.  Of course they appreciate recognition, though most are a little embarrassed about it.  What most want, above all, is for everyone else to follow their example in loving their country, and supporting it, and honoring it.

So for this Veterans Day, that’s what we ask.  Think about patriotism and what it means to you and the country.  Remember those who have committed themselves to the preservation of liberty.  Support your country in a way that honors that commitment.  Protest if you think you should, work to change laws that need changed, and let our elected officials know what’s right or wrong about our nation, because that’s what liberty is all about.  But remember that a great nation is made great by its people, so strive to be citizens who are worthy of it.

Whether you wave the flag on your license plate or hat or front porch, or just figuratively in what you say and do, do your part to keep Old Glory flying high.  Show us your sign.

Rituals & Gauntlets

This is a good discussion on rituals that help you write, by Stephen Graham Jones. I try to stay away from rituals because they put you in a mindset of needing certain conditions to exist before you can be productive. That doesn’t mean I’m successful in staying away from them, but I do try. And in reading this, I recognize myself in Mr. Jones’s trap of a self-made gauntlet that’s also a ritual, and that really needs to be something more of us are aware of.

I almost fell into it again when I read this article. I subscribe to the Writer’s Digest newsletter, along with others, and when a whole bunch of emails get stacked up, I read through what looks interesting, copy down the URLs for the ones I’d like to discuss in a blog post, and get back to perusing all those other emails I need to look at. Along with Facebook, Instagram, other blogs, fetching the mail, checking the weather report, practicing guitar, and on and on. So I stopped myself and started this blog entry and I’m going to finish it and be proud of myself just a little.

So here’s Stephen Graham Jones. He’s worthy of a listen because he’s successfully written and published and overcome his own non-ritual ritual situation, at least occasionally, and has things to say that show you you’re not alone when you do what you do, and make you think about how to do it all better. So take a look. Couldn’t hurt!

The Case Against Writing Rituals

Many writers have certain requirements in order to get to writing: the right lighting, a particular pen, or a favorite mug. Author Stephen Graham Jones offers a different perspective on ways to get to work without ritual.

Sep 9, 2021

I have two axioms I fall back on for writing. The first is from one of my uncles. We were working on a tractor out in the field one day when he stopped and told me that if I ever waited to have kids until there was enough money for kids, that I’d never have kids.

While pretty suspect advice to give a 16 year old, I’ve always just applied this to writing: If you wait until you’re good enough to try this novel, to submit to this market, to query this agent, then you’ll never write that novel. You’ll never submit to that market. You’ll never talk to that agent.

You can’t wait, you’ve got to just jump. Like Bradbury said, build your wings on the way down.

This has never failed me. I’ve gotten plenty of rejections, I’ve had a novel or two fizzle halfway through. But I’ve gotten a lot of acceptances, too, and finished many more novels than not.

The other axiom is more Dr. Spock—the baby-book one, not the Star Trek one. It’s that old saw about new parents throwing a raucous dinner party in their apartment. Very soon it becomes time to put the baby to bed, so the dinner guests try to hush themselves. But these parents tell them no, no, keep going, be as loud as you can, be louder if you want, please. We want to train this kid to fall asleep no matter the noise. If this kid starts needing special conditions in order to sleep, then all bets are off.

How I’ve applied this to writing is that I shouldn’t need special conditions in order to get some words down on the page. Which is to say, I should be careful of ever ritualizing this thing. It doesn’t need to be a certain time of day, I don’t need to have this or that special mug, the curtains don’t need to be open or shut, the light can be however, and who cares what sounds are leaking in to wherever I am?

This has always worked great for me as well. All I need to get some pages down is a single seat in a bustling airport, or a corner of this hotel lobby, or an overhang mostly out of the rain at this bus stop. The more you can train yourself to write anywhere—everywhere—the more you can get done. While part of thinking like that is not falling into the trap that “writing is special” or “sacred,” the bigger part is just being able to turn the world off, lose yourself in another one.

However, strict as I’ve always tried to be regarding this—no rituals! no rituals!—it’s so easy to slip, isn’t it? I mean, fiction, it basically works by magical thinking, which is a lot like superstition. 

Example: About 15 years ago, I was wearing this one ugly winter hat for a novel I was writing, and that novel worked out. So? I naturally ascribed the magic to that hat, and made it my new writing buddy. Every time I sat down to the keyboard, I’d pull that hat on, get cooking.

All it took to break me of that, though, was accidentally answering the door while wearing that hat the following summer, and seeing in this guest’s hesitant eyes how ridiculous I was being. I threw that hat away fast, kept writing. Problem solved. Easy.

Until it wasn’t.