Copyright © by Don MacLaren
Note from the author:
The following is based on a story by the same name, which was published in the autumn 2009 issue of The Write Place At the Write Time literary journal. The version below is altered from the original, published version and all responsibility for its contents are solely my own.
US Navy Literary Life
By Don MacLaren
(Published in The Write Place At the Write Time, autumn 2009)
I would walk and walk and walk when we were in port – exploring around San Francisco or Oakland or Berkeley or San Diego…Navy pay was low for an E-2 or E-3 (a lower echelon enlisted man). But it didn't cost anything to walk if I was broke, and anyway doing anything outside, away from the Navy was preferable to being on the ship – broke or not. When I did have money I still walked all over the place. But I would often stop in a restaurant or a café, where I would read until my eyes couldn't stay open anymore. Then I would order coffee and read some more. I would write till I couldn't hold my pen anymore; then I would go back to reading till I could write again. I would go to cheap Greek restaurants, cheap Filipino restaurants, cheap Korean, Polish and Italian restaurants. Chinatown in San Francisco, Chinatown in Oakland, Japantown – where I had spent my first night in San Francisco before checking onboard the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea . I taught myself how to use chopsticks. I taught myself how to read Shakespeare and James Joyce. I taught myself the physical layout of the Bay Area and what buses and trains to take to get to Golden Gate Park, the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, and the Red Vic Movie House in Haight-Ashbury. I learned how to read a book standing up at Cody's Books in Berkeley – in five installments – three chapters at a time. I learned to stomach the coffee in Zim's restaurant, corner of Market and Van Ness, San Francisco, open 24 hours; coffee notwithstanding, a good place to be alone and write and listen to the dialogue coming from the hookers, pimps, homeless, pensioners and cops that inhabited the place late nights/early morns – much of the dialogue in the form of soliloquy. I learned to avoid the portals of McDonald's and Burger King – "through those portals pass souls on their first step into the bowels of Hades" I wrote in one of my notebooks. I wrote about the homeless people I talked with in San Francisco and Berkeley, the mural on the building next to People's Park in Berkeley depicting Vietnam, The Free Speech Movement, demonstrations, riots, the National Guard, and a hungry hippy in SF bumming change. The murals on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland and Berkeley, the murals in the Mission District, the graffiti in Berkeley bathrooms: "Question: What genocide program took 500 years and 100,000,000 lives? Answer: The genocide of Native Americans by Europeans." "You think you're alive, but we're really just on Channel 7. Guess what happens when they change the channel?" A free concert in People's Park on a Sunday afternoon. A homeless man I'd struck up a conversation with who told me he'd been raised by wolves. Five minutes later I saw him running wild toward people sitting on the grass as they listened to a Jimi Hendrix clone smoking a joint as he played "Foxy Lady" on his guitar and a chick with a shaved head sang. The wolfman got down on his hands and knees and howled after the people scattered. Later, I saw the same wolfman in Mendocino in the midst of a soliloquy until he interrupted his conversation to tell me he remembered me from People's Park and could I spare some change? A woman on the phone in Mendocino in a bookstore talking about people's skewed concept of time as I waited and waited to pay her for Writings and Drawings by Bob Dylan. Moonies on Market Street. The shipmate from Virginia with tattoos on his chest, going through people's dungarees in the berthing area, looking for money; another shipmate and I crossing the border into Tijuana during one of our port visits to San Diego. He was getting laid with a Tijuana bargirl while I was waiting for him in the bar downstairs, drinking beer, watching another bargirl striptease on stage. "Don't tell my wife," he told me after he was done. Later, we ate lunch and a pretty waitress served us. "Do you think she understands English?" he asked me. "Do you speak English?" he asked her. "No," she said. "I love you," he said. With her blush she betrayed that she was lying. She did speak English. Back on the ship sleeping in fits and starts while at sea, General Quarters – a drill in which we have to man battle stations – interrupting the little sleep time we're allotted. Quotes by Herman Hesse, quotes by Norman Mailer, quotes by D.H. Lawrence, quotes by Henry Miller, quotes by Boris Pasternak, quotes by Abraham Lincoln and Jesus of Nazareth. Passages from the San Francisco Chronicle, National Geographic, The New York Review of Books, TIME magazine, the small press and student newspapers of the Bay Area. My sexual fantasies, perversions, obsessions compulsions, hang-ups, fears and frustrations. All this and more I dutifully recorded in my notebooks.
Some of the books I read were Allen Ginsberg's Howl, Jack Kerouac's On The Road, Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Edgar Allan Poe's Tales and Poems, Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Aldous Huxley's Doors of Perception, George Orwell's 1984. In addition to these well-known works of literature, I read books by rock musicians: Bob Dylan's Tarantula and Patti Smith's Babel. I also re-read William Burroughs' Naked Lunch – three times.
I read The Outsider by Colin Wilson and in it Wilson describes the Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky keeping notebooks in which he wrote anything that came to his mind, trying to transcend through his writing, and writing like a madman. Indeed, Nijinsky did go mad – or at least that is what society labeled him. But I admired him for having the courage to be different from what was expected of him, and tried to emulate his writing technique. The French poet Arthur Rimbaud said that a poet becomes a seer by undergoing a compete derangement of the senses. All of this I tried to do – in my writing and in my life away from the ship. I probably wrote more prolifically my first year in the Navy than I ever had in my life. In Radio School and since being stationed on the Coral Sea I had filled up several notebooks. At first I used the light blue Navy notebooks sold in the Navy Exchange on base. Then I began to buy spiral notebooks in stores off base and write in them. I didn't really have time to organize my thoughts and write essays or stories. As I mentioned, I tried to follow Vaslav Nijinsky's method of writing anything that came to mind. Jack Kerouac and the Beats said one should write without editing, letting one's mind run free and wild. William Burroughs said one should not concern oneself with storytelling or plot. Life does not move in a linear fashion, he said, and neither should one's writing. "There is only one thing a writer can write about: what is in front of his senses at the moment of writing," was a quote from Burroughs that I wrote down at the beginning of one of my notebooks. Much of the writing came out as garbled gobbledygook, but some of it was worth keeping and there were times it was humorous. I liked to think of what I wrote as intense. Most of what I wrote I called poetry, but there might not have been a name for it.
The Coral Sea was scheduled to begin a deployment to the Western Pacific in November 1979. In the military you are allowed 30 days of vacation per year, which is called "leave." I took ten days leave, and decided to spend five days in Michigan, then return to Northern California and spend a few days in Mendocino, a small town and artists' colony on the coast, north of San Francisco.
I collected all my precious writing and the 40 or so books I had bought and read since being stationed on the Coral Sea, put them in my Navy issue seabag and checked it as baggage for my flight from San Francisco International Airport through to Grand Rapids. When I got off the flight in Grand Rapids I found that my seabag had not arrived, and I reported it as missing to the airline. I also found that a group of Iranians had taken over the US embassy in Tehran.
After a few weeks, when I was out at sea, I opened a letter from my mother. "The airline says they can't recover your seabag and that it's probably stolen," she wrote. It was like reading that my future wife and child had been stolen.
I put the letter back in the envelope and sat on the deck, in front of my locker, with my head in my hands. Meanwhile the Coral Sea steamed toward the coast of Iran and prepared itself for war.
Copyright © by Don MacLaren