Tag Archives: Veterans of WWII

#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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Dad’s Leg

cover_art_Billy_39_s_RevengeWords are awesome. I love obscure, weird words.  J.K. Rowling uses the word ‘snogging’ in her Harry Potter series, to describe couples who were engaged in prolonged kissing, or as we sometimes say where I come from,  ‘canoodling.’ My friend Irene has a new favorite word: ‘kerfuffle,’  a Briticism for a  noisy disturbance or commotion. Americans would say a ‘dust-up.’ 

Words are the color palette an author uses to paint his image of the world.  In English, which is a mash-up language, we have so many wonderful, wild words it is impossible to use them all in one book.

Heck–William Shakespeare loved words so much that when he ran out of words to fit a particular sentence, he invented them!

To say my father was an interesting man would be an understatement.  Born September 22, 1923, he was a product of depression-era America. A farm-boy and big for his age, he enlisted in the US Army in 1938 at the age of 15. He thought he’d found his career, but he was injured in a motorcycle accident while riding dispatch in 1945, near the end of WWII. Nearly every bone in his body was broken, and in the hurry to save his life, his left leg was set crooked. A year later, they went in and re-broke it in order to reset it straight, but he developed osteomyelitis.

va logoDad spent the next 7 years after the war in and out of VA hospitals.   For 7 years, the army surgeons tried to save his leg but in 1954 he lost his left leg,.The US Army officially forced him to retire, at the age of 30.  Unfortunately, Dad was never able to wear the artificial leg the VA provided him with, although we children did find some creative uses for it. It stood in the hall closet in our house in Ballard, and we charged the neighbor kids  25 cents to look at it. In Olympia it was good for scaring our cousins. When I first married and left home, it stood in the corner of my living room holding plastic flowers, a conversation piece like no other.

There he was in 1952, a single guy with rather visible disability,  wearing a heavy leg-brace, living in a world that hid the disabled under a rug and pretended everything was perfect. It was 1952, after all.

For some people, that would have been the end of everything. But not my Dad. When things began going bad with his leg, he knew he would be forced in to early retirement. He was aware that dropping out of school in the 10th grade to join the army had limited his employment choices to logging or farming, all manual labor. Dad used that time he’d spent on extended medical leave getting his high-school diploma, and then going to college. He met my mother and the rest was history.

So what does Dad’s leg (or lack thereof) have to do with weird words?  Stick with me and you will see.

Dad was a voracious reader. He read everything from Tolkien to Tolstoy, and he remembered what he had read. Dad was a draftsman, and cartooning was his hobby. He played the guitar, played in a rockabilly band and partied with Les Paul and Mary Ford. Dad bought the Encyclopedia Britannica, the entire collection of Great Books of the Western World, Grolier’s Book of Knowledge, and a wonderful little collection of books called “Lands and Peoples.

Fred+Flintstone+FredFlintstoneDad was larger than life. He was loud, boisterous, opinionated, wide-open, a generous host, and he was always the center of attention. He made his own wine and brewed beer.  He was a ham radio operator (his call number was W7NEY) and had a First Class Radiotelephone Operator License. Every year his vegetable garden grew more food than we could possibly eat, no matter how much we canned.

Dad was Fred Flintstone on Steroids.

Dad Loved Words. Big words, small words, short words, long words–Dad loved them all. He spun hilarious yarns about the ‘Kamaloozi Indians’, a non-existent tribe whose beloved Chief, Rolling Rock had gone missing, The tribe was so distraught they posted signs in every mountain pass that read “Watch for Rolling Rock.”

Everything in his toolbox had a name that was his own invention: Screwdrivers were ‘Skeejabbers.

Dad loved words so much he mangled them just because he loved the way they sounded. Sometimes he became so frustrated he lost his words and resorted to creative cursing.

Dad’s birthday is coming up, September 22. He died in 1991 at the age of 66, from complications of Osteomyelitis. He would have been 90 years old this next Sunday. He is gone, but definitely he will never be forgotten. His love of words and of reading, art and music had an impact on me and my siblings we will never live long enough to outgrow.

What better environment for a future bender-of-words like me to grow up in than a home where any book was fair game, and reading was not only encouraged, it was required?

The word for the day is ‘querl’–which means to twist or curl. And that is what my family all loves to do with words!

rolling rocks sign

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