Writing an autobiographical blurb puts me eerily in mind of being somewhere between nine and twelve years of age, in September, confronted with the perennial “What I Did This Summer” essay. Although I am seldom at a loss for words, this sort of thing tends to intimidate me more than just about anything else…initially, anyway. After that, it works just like it does with toddlers: Parents can’t wait for the child to start talking…and then they find themselves wishing the kid would shut up once in a while!
At some point during graduate school (1986-1989), one of my professors assigned a self-introduction paper. The title of mine, “Enigma At Large,” still seems like an appropriate description of myself. I don’t fit easily in a box, literally or figuratively. For what seems my entire life so far, I have been interested in too many things to be able to juggle them all. This can make career selection difficult, which is perhaps at least a part of the reason that writers — who, as a subset of society, tend to be interested in many things — often have what is politely termed “a diverse background.”
As a number of people have heard me say, I spent 20 years in the Army and have the lower-body joint dysfunction to prove it. When I went to Basic Training, the Women’s Army Corps had not yet been decommissioned. Our branch insignia was referred to as the “Pallas Athena,” it being a profile image of the face of Athena, the Greek goddess of war. What I first went to war against was chaos in the sky: I became an air traffic controller.
After nearly three years as an Army air traffic controller, I spent two more years in the same capacity as a civilian. That ended with the Professional Air Traffic Controllers’ Organization strike in August of 1981 — what some of us today still call “World War PATCO” — when then-President Reagan (a former president of another labor union, the
Screen Actors’ Guild) fired some 12,000 people. We were deemed ineligible for unemployment compensation; many of us filed for bankruptcy as a result. Much of what went on outside the scrutiny of the media at the time is still pregnant with the sort of complex subtleties that irk those who lived them and bore those who did not…and contributed to why I did not get on another airplane for more than 10 years.
The Army was what first brought me to North Carolina. From the moment I set foot on the ground here, it seemed more like home than the state where I grew up — Michigan — ever had. Circumstances took me away; the Army brought me back, as a full-time Reserve noncommissioned officer, after two years in Georgia. At the end of my active duty tour, I transferred into a reception battalion, from which I transitioned into the Retired Reserve until my 60th birthday, when I officially retired.
If my parents were still living, they would be centenarians. They came of age during the Depression, and most of my uncles on both sides served in World War II. While my childhood was not always pleasant, some of the things I gained from my family of origin are beyond price: The determination to do what it takes to survive, even during the times when every day is a struggle; the tenacity to cope with physical, mental, and emotional pain in those survival efforts; an appreciation of personal integrity and accountability for one’s actions; and, the certainty that nobody owes me anything just because I convert oxygen to carbon dioxide. These things have helped to shape who I am. My experiences are a part of who I am, as well…and who I am is why I write.