December 9, 2003
One day you’re a philosopher, the next you’re a Marine. Or were you both of those things already—and a few others besides? An aesthetic or academic question, yeah, but when you’re a 22 year old with a dog-eared copy of The Republic in one hand and orders to report for duty with the First Marine Expeditionary Force, First Field Service Support Group, Sixth Motor Transport Battalion, Bravo Company for service in Operation Desert Shield—well, suddenly that abstract navel-gazing becomes a real son-of-a-bitch. I spent the war as much consumed by this conflict as I was by my truck driving duties and it was a toss-up as to which would jackknife first—my truck or my psyche.
During the years I spent working on Baghdad Express, my memoir of these battles, I kept two pictures of myself handy while writing: one of a solitary me sitting on a small hump of sand outside our tent with a book on my knees and a stray dog napping at my side, and another of me wearing Ray Bans, holding an M16, and sporting a freshly-lit Camel cigarette dangling from a smart-assed grin. I wanted to keep their conflict fresh—to preserve it on the page. I think it was about draft six that I decided to solve the struggle between these two voices by just plain giving up and allowing them to speak their own ways in alternating prose and graphic novel chapters. In the end, my war turned out equal parts comic and tragic. If I never closed the divide, I at least arrived at a pragmatic decision to let my separate selves do their own thing. Those poor bastards in Iraq, however, just kept getting bombed.
I’m doing the perp shuffle again, just like I did through the gates at ORD, LGA, SEA, ATL, MSP, and a half-dozen other airports—removing my belt and shoes while my mind buzzes with a hangover that’s got its own producer, publicist, frequency and call sign… my soul is screaming, "Somebody please press STOP."
When Bush the Junior started escalating our decade-plus war in Iraq into more than a constant but low-grade fever, my separate selves started pissing into each other’s oatmeal again. One wanted to stick a red-hot poker up Middle America’s ass: so feverishly rushing to war, so ignorantly. Another voice deeply wished people would start using their imagination—wanted to magnanimously prod their better instincts into action. A brand new voice said, "Hey pal, let’s get the hell out of here." They all got their chance to speak, as I began living via satellite after Newsweek ran a review of Baghdad Express two months before it was released, back in February. Once the tanks rolled into Iraq, I became a plug-and-play accessory to the media operating system.
By the end of the season-long insanity of simultaneously re-living my war and covering another, I felt as if I had lost my mind. I had spent most of the spring in darkness, up late in a small closet with a producer and a satellite uplink. Or on a red-eye flight to see someone who wanted me to provide color commentary, or worse—meaning, to the war.
Late night. I’m running up a nasty credit-card bill in a Manhattan hotel while doing an NPR talk-show in Middle America, at the very height of the invasion of Iraq (and no, I’m not making this up)…
Host: "Ted, you’re on."
Ted: "Well, Mr. Turnspeed, I know the Chinese have three kids at a time like our pigs here, but how they got so many of them Iraqis there in the desert? I hear they got five million of ‘em just in Baghdad. How we gonna get rid of that many?"
Me: "Well, Ted, I think it’s fair to say that would constitute mission creep."
Who the hell are you, America? I am a space-alien without a ship…
One moment I was struggling to maintain sanity, the next it seemed like someone had flipped on the lights for the very first time. Then I was home, my book tour over, the phone silent. I was alone. The long hot days of summer had begun, and for the first time in too long I had nothing to do but realize my inner bachelor caveman.
I mowed the lawn. I dug up a few yards of hideous pink rocks and laid wall rock around the front of the house, nicely framing the newly planted blueberry bushes and spirea and stonecrop. I stepped out for the New York Times in my boxer shorts and black socks and t-shirt, looking every inch the crazy vet. Occasionally, I would turn on the TV and worry for the soldiers and Marines still dying in a war that was over, but which, as a vet, I knew was never really over—especially when it was just getting started.
Why does it surprise you so much that the voices inside our tents are as varied and anguished as the voices in your cubicle or on campus? They’re just a bunch of stupid brave and sadly ignorant kids who quickly learn to separate bullshit from necessity—and learn anger and despair as a whole new kind of injustice, served cold. Are you paying attention?
I wanted the voices to stop, especially the ones coming out of my own mouth. As much as I thrilled in the immediate moment of sharing my stories, the truth is that I had spoken my truest voice—voices—in my memoir. Each time I stood up in front of an audience or leaned into a mike, I felt that I was betraying the ten years’ care I put into that book’s pages; that one voice was betraying the hope (or anger) of another. I wanted the book to speak for itself, in all its separate, solitary voices—my solitary voices—to solitary listeners, one at a time.
Instead, I was constantly rebuked each time I stepped into my office library, where the twelve-foot desk I’d built into one wall was covered with drafts of the book, along with magazine articles, newspaper clippings, monographs from the Marine Corps Historical Center, my old uniforms (including the Kevlar helmet on which I’d scrawled Know Thyself, and then sent home in a sea bag just before we were supposed to return our gear), the small pile of medals I’d earned during my service, and a stack of other related whatever. They were all props for the continuous re-staging of a life that even I had become startled by, even though it was mine.
An afternoon phone call, 1993:"Hey, man—phone’s for you." "Who is it?" "Says he served with you in the war, dude." "Hello?""Yo, Professor—it’s Hatch. I was callin’ to see when you gonna write the book." "What book?" "The book—you know, you the Professor, you gotta write the book. Ain’t nobody else going to." I spent ten years—changed my entire life—writing ‘the book.’
One of the paradoxes of writing is that you go down into the volcano to create and come up with what you think of as a capstone to a certain period in your life—in all our lives. But it won’t settle. It never does. Because once you let the voices speak, people will continue to hear them, even after you think you’re done speaking.
There was only one thing to do about this unwanted proliferation: shut it up. Literally.
My garage is a fairly well-equipped woodworking shop. I build a couple pieces of furniture, or some new project for the house, every year. I decided that I would spend the long days of July building a footlocker: panel construction, huge steel trunk handles, reinforced steel corners—a real hard-ass footlocker. That would put a lid on it. I could toss everything related to the war and my writing about it inside and slap a Master lock on the damned thing and call it, finally, the past. I consciously set out to build it as a metaphor-maker, not unlike Thoreau did with his beans. And it resisted at every turn.
I should show you this photo of me as a kid, features me outside our trailer in Urbana, Illinois taking apart a new tin race car with a hammer and screwdriver, tanned legs splayed out on the concrete apron amid the wreckage. Behind me towered my father’s van, red as an apple and emblazoned with a giant white "C" for Carpetland. It was filled with tools, and on the days when I was lucky enough for that van to be parked at home, I would lose myself for hours among them. They were the only things he drove off with when he left me and my brother and our mom in that cornfield, never to return.
As I drafted the first sketches and walked them out to the garage, I found myself thinking again and again about my father. Even though we are permanently alien creatures, we both shared the deep love of craftsmanship and working with our hands. I’d given my father a hard time in the book. In a very real sense, he was the worst casualty. It wasn’t a happy thing to do, but since one of the things I was trying to do with the book was show how much of our small, family tragedies get played out in much vaster contexts, I couldn’t very well have me going off to war as a moping screwball without a reason. So, in goes the shitbird dad. I tried, in writing about his abuses, to be as honest about what an unforgiving shitbird I was, too—and there’s certainly no shortage of that voice in my book.
Still I was nervous—so much of me wanted to just be fair. But the other voices asked, "to whom?" All this was settled by the raw, ugly facts of the matter—after all, there had been that morning, half a decade ago, when I’d been told by the editor at GQ that yes, the fact-checker had called my father and, yes, he’d agreed that his life was as broken and pathetic as I’d said it was. Nothing quite like having a Conde Nast employee calling your estranged father to take inventory of the skeletons in his closet.
On this one thing, all the voices were agreed: "That’s some messed up shit, bro’."
Because I had a lot more to pack into that pine box than memorabilia, it took a lot more than patience to rout the grooves for the panels, or set the dowel jigs. The design was a complex one for a footlocker—all panel construction, with two interior panel-dividers and a nested tray, making for three main compartments and a divided tray. It was a lot of work, turned out, to find a place to cram all that history, all those cacophonous voices.
I spent more than a week out in the garage.
Emerson gave Napoleon crap for praising ‘5 AM Courage’—the courage before the battle. He thought it better to have ‘5 PM Courage’—the courage to face your neighbors. But man, sitting here with bourbon in my hand, at close to five in the morning, I’m siding with Pascal—the real courage you need is the kind required to face yourself. What are you, pal? "I don’t know…what if I turn out to be as big an asshole as my father? What if I already am—that would be one hell of a legacy, wouldn’t it?"
I let the paint cure for a long week while I went on vacation. When I returned, I packed up my things. About the only thing that worked out, metaphorically, was the fact that the footlocker had compartments, each of which more-or-less held the contents representing the various voices it was meant to contain:
Tray: United States Marine
Photographs, Medals, Insignia
Government ID & Driver’s License,
Orders, DD214, Etcetera
Compartment 1: Artist
Compartment 2: Shitbird
Alpha Uniforms (w/Cpl. Stripes)
Alpha Uniform (w/Lcpl. Stripes)
Charlies (w/Cpl. Stripes)
Charlies (w/Lcpl. Stripes)
Camouflage Utilities (still unironed)
Compartment 3: Thief
Suede Desert Combat Boots
Aluminum Plate & Spoon
Desert Night Parka
Matching Desert Night Pants
When it was all packed, I felt like having a nice cold beer. Yet as I sat in the coolness of my basement drinking it, I did not feel celebratory. I still didn’t know what to think. Even with a lock attached, there was no closure. Worse, I was dismayed to learn that I had nowhere to put it.
So now the footlocker sits here with me in my library every night: tough, squat, seeming to exist almost for the sake of taking abuse. Aggressive in it’s unwillingness to just go sit somewhere rather than get in the face of my Feng Shui. And yet, its most indomitable aspect is its insistence that there’s always a war going on, that we are never—and can never really choose to be—just who we think we are, and that even if we try to lock our disparate voices away they can never be silenced.
Joel Turnipseed is the author of Baghdad Express: A Gulf War Memoir. He served in Operation Desert Shield/Storm in the Sixth Motor Transport Battalion of the United States Marine Corps during the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War. Turnipseed has been a Bread Loaf Scholar, a Writer-in-Residence at The Loft, and a recipient of a Minnesota State Arts Board Fellowship. Currently he lives in Minneapolis.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org