#amwriting: drawing on personal experience

Map of Mal Evol, color full size, no roadsWith Valley of Sorrows on the editor’s desk, I can finish revising my other book based in the world of Neveyah. This is a stand-alone novel, The Wayward Son, which will be published late in 2016 after Valley of Sorrows comes out. It tells the story of John Farmer, Edwin’s father, and takes place concurrently with Forbidden Road. This book was far easier to write than many others, as it explores combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition I am all too familiar with, as a bystander.

John’s story opens with an incident that changes his life. Twenty-five years later, John must return to Aeoven and face the past, and somehow learn to live with himself.

We writers all use our knowledge of the world around us to draw on when we are creating a scene or a character, even if we are not aware of having done so. I have deliberately drawn on observations made during my childhood and young adult years to create John’s gut-reactions and to show how his life was colored by his experiences.

My father was a veteran of WWII, and a man who’d intended to make the military his career. The loss of his left leg changed his career path. He became a draftsman and made a very good living. Other than being inconvenienced by having only one leg, everything went on normally.

On the surface, anyway.

US Army Signal Corps photo of SCR-299 radio set in operation 1942, US Army Signal Corps

US Army Signal Corps photo of SCR-299 radio set in operation 1942, US Army Signal Corps

The injury that had cost my father his leg was not combat-related, although it occurred while he was on active duty.  But  the most devasting things that impacted him had happened long before he met his fate in El Paso, TX in 1946.

Dad joined the army in 1938. He rose to staff sergeant in charge of a radio unit. During his time in the military, he had marched across Europe carrying his SCR-300, a portable radio transceiver used by US Signal Corps in World War II. One thing he was always willing to discuss was how his backpack-mounted unit was a large two-way radio, and it was called a “walkie-talkie.”

Later in the war, he was in charge of something called an SCR299. This was a large mobile radio station.  The Signal Corp and men like my father provided long-range communications between permanent bases and the battlefront.

Dad was always just behind the actual battlefront, always passing through the aftermath. He never discussed it, but the enemy knew how important these communications outfits were, so they must have been important targets. I do know he’d lost several close companions, men who were there one minute and gone in a pile of wreckage the next.

Drafting Table, courtesy Wikimedia Commons {PD GNU Free}

Drafting Table, courtesy Wikimedia Commons {PD GNU Free}

My dad and my uncles never really got over the war, and they all suffered from survivor’s guilt to a certain degree. They came home and settled back into society, and began building the American Dream. When he was sober, all Dad ever really said about the war was that the good guys had won. When he’d been drinking, he might say more, but not much.

Dad was an avid gardener, a musician, a brewer, and a winemaker. He was passionate about his interests, a renaissance man who insisted we read (and discuss) all manner of books from the classics to comic books, be athletic, and learn to play a musical instrument.

But Dad was also a volatile man who drank too much every weekend and partied as hard as he worked. We all knew how to mix drinks and serve canapés by the time we left home, as we were Dad’s bartenders whenever there was a party. That may be why I have always been more of a non-drinker.

90px-US_Army_WWII_SSGT.svgAs my dad grew older his lifestyle began to catch up with him. He grew erratic and his once hilariously cynical wit became less funny and more bitter. Good Dad lost the battle to Bad Dad. We never knew just what would trigger a tirade, and we developed coping mechanisms.

When I look back, I can see that some of his most outrageous tantrums were actually panic attacks. When he was in the grip of one of those, all bets were off–your best choice was to just walk away and let him rave until he was done. His health suffered–he developed type-II diabetes and never got it under control. He was forced to retire early from his job at the age of 59 because of his health, but he had two good pensions, one from the military, and one from the State of Washington.

San-felipe-baja-california-2000 via WikipediaAfter he retired,  he and mom, along with Aunt Lillian and Uncle Wes, who’d been in Germany and North Africa during WWII, began wintering in San Felipe, Baja, Mexico for most of the year.  Dad was happier there. He loved the sun and people of Mexico. Even so he lost many lifelong friends who loved him but couldn’t stand him when he was drinking. He had destroyed his marriage–Mom hung on out of old-school Lutheran stubbornness.

Dad died at the age of sixty-six from complications of penicillin-resistant osteomyelitis (the cause of the loss of his leg 34 years prior), diabetes, and alcoholism. In his last years, he wanted to be happy, but he couldn’t, and his confusion and instability was a black pall that darkened every day for those of us around him.

WWII US Soldiers Marching, image courtesy www.berkeley.edu

WWII US Soldiers Marching, image courtesy http://www.berkeley.edu

As a child I saw how my uncles were also affected by war–Uncle Don came home from the Battle of the Bulge with a metal plate in his head, Uncle Dean spent the war on a destroyer in the Pacific theater. Uncle Billy died in Korea, and Uncle Bobby came home from Korea a changed, angry man. They all experienced the trauma and flashbacks differently, but the lives of everyone who loved them was affected in negative ways.

There was no help for them. They were told to suck it up and be men about it, no matter what it was. To a certain extent, the US government is still dropping the ball when it comes to caring for our combat veterans, whose many documented mental illnesses stem directly from their war experiences.

Using this unfortunate personal knowledge of how witnessing events in war can affect a soldier for decades after the war has ended, I created John’s story. His story and those of his companions were written in my head long before I ever began writing Tower of Bones. I wrote John’s story for my father, my uncles, my older brother and for all the young soldiers, men and women who’ve seen combat and who must somehow reintegrate into society.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “#amwriting: drawing on personal experience

  1. Good for you, for putting your experiences to valuable use.
    It’s so sad how, even when we know about PTSD these days (and, indeed, even the difficulties of integrating service personnel who aren’t suffering from it), so little is done to assist their transition into society when they’ve known nothing but service life.
    I always find it amazing (and a great source for characterisation) how different people deal with things in different ways. My father was in the UK Signals, and spent most of the war out and about on a motorcycle, often ending up behind enemy lines. He never talked about it until after he retired, but recently, he’s become obsessed with reminiscing, and really has very little else that interests him. He watches endless programmes about all aspects of WW2, unfortunately at very high volume, as his hearing suffered greatly from shell shock. He’s 96 now, and I think its probably his dominant memory, so he clings to it as if it was the greatest experience of his life. I guess it was the most influential, and we were very lucky he succeeded in packing it away in the back of his mind until there was nothing else to occupy him.

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    • @Deborah–I almost didn’t post this because of the many truths it lays bare. But there are none of that generation left alive to be upset by it in my family, sadly. They were the Greatest Generation, for so many reasons. I’m sorry your father is unable to disengage from the war.

      Liked by 1 person

      • They were, and I feel it’s important we remember that, and inform the younger generations too.
        At least my father isn’t distressed by his obsession, and my niece and nephews find his recollections fascinating, so he has an avid audience to relieve the rest of us at times.

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