David Abrams: Going Against the Grain

I’ve never been
one to go with the flow.  If I was a
salmon, I’d be swimming downstream.  I’m a guy who’d run the Iditarod while
standing backwards on the sled runners. 
I’m that lemming who stands on the edge of the cliff and shouts, “Oh, hell, no!  I don’t think
so!”  Aren’t most writers subversives
beneath masks of complacency and decency?
I may have
written a book about soldiers in the Iraq War (Fobbit), and served for 20 years in
uniform, but I always have to bluff my way through answers when people at
readings ask me about life in a combat zone. 
I can only tell them what I saw from my guarded, half-hidden crouch
behind a pile of sandbags—otherwise known as a Forward Operating Base in
Baghdad.  The war seemed like a long,
boring movie with some decent acting.  At
any rate, my war as a Fobbit—a
soldier who remains safely ensconced on the FOB—was like that.  I describe one of my characters in Fobbit by saying, “To paraphrase the New
Testament, he was in the war, but he
was not of the war.”
The same could
be said about my career as a soldier.  My
two decades in the Army were a Jekyll-and-Hyde experience: warrior by day,
writer at night.  I kept my art hidden
from my co-workers, never letting on that I spent my off-duty hours hunched
over a keyboard in the basement of my housing unit on Fort Wainwright at the edge
of Fairbanks when I was stationed there in the early 1990s.  Beneath that olive-drab uniform beat the
heart of a Raymond Carver wannabe.  Even
when I had a short story published in Esquire
and it later made the long-list of “100 Other Distinguished Stories of 1998” in
the annual Best American Stories
anthology, I kept quiet.  I didn’t call
it out like cadence at the 6th Infantry Division’s daily physical
training.  Instead, I concentrated on the
poetry of pushups like any good, obedient sergeant.
It had been that
way from the start.  When I joined the
Army, I was 25, ancient compared to the others—19, 18 and, in a couple of
cases, 17 years old, some of them still smelling like the cherry lip balm from
their high school girlfriends’ mouths. 
They called me Grandpa.  There was
one other guy in the platoon who was older than me by a couple of years.  They called him Great-Grandpa.
Growing up, I
was thin, bookish, soft-muscled—hardly the stuff of Army recruiting
posters.  While other boys were moving
their GI Joe dolls (excuse me, action
) through combat drills, I was reading Nancy Drew mysteries.  I was totally in touch with my inner
femininity.  That’s why it came as such a
surprise to everyone—including, and especially, me—when I stood in the Military
Entrance Processing Station in Butte, Montana and raised my right hand,
swearing full faith and allegiance to the U.S. military.  Why I joined the military is a long story; I
usually just telegraph it to inquisitors by saying: “Student loans, pregnant wife,
job security.”
By the time I
arrived in Alaska in October 1991, I was well on my way to a comfortably numb
career in the Army.  I played the game: I
wrote impassioned articles about training exercises for the Fort Wainwright
newspaper, I saluted smartly, I went ice fishing at Quartz Lake with my boss, a
captain, and courageously took nips from the bottle of peppermint schnapps he
offered me because I thought it was entrée into the Hairy-Chest Club.  But when I got home at night, I shed my
uniform, unlaced my boots, and descended to the basement to write yet another
Raymond Carveresque tale of husbands and wives trying to find redemption in a
life full of loss (stories which, in hindsight, were really bad, really pale
imitations of the Master’s work).
I prided myself
on being different, even if I mostly kept that difference quiet beneath a Clark
Kent exterior.  Still, there were
On a training
exercise in Thailand, while other soldiers were getting “massages” from
blank-faced girls (complete with “happy endings”), you’d find me sitting in the
hotel lobby reading War and Peace.  Another time, when I was pulling Charge of
Quarters in my company’s dayroom at Fort Wainwright, I brought my cross-stitch
with me (I told you I embraced my Inner Woman, didn’t I?).  Sure, I got stares from the other soldiers
pulling guard duty with me, but I shrugged them off and went back to poking the
tiny needle in and out of the linen fabric, thinking about how they’d be sorry
once they saw the finished sampler I was working on—an anniversary gift for my
wife.  They played solitaire, read their
Tom Clancy paperbacks and shot uneasy glances in my direction.
That was the
same December night when, as I stepped outside the barracks to do a security
check, I saw a moose trot like an English quarterhorse through the parking lot.  It headed toward the treeline, plowing
through the deep, fresh-fallen snow as smoothly and easily as a swan across
water.  The night was so cold and so
still, it seemed I could hear the hiss of each granular snowflake against those
knobby, tree-length legs.  I remember
thinking to myself, “Nowhere else in the Army can you pull guard duty and watch
a moose swim through snow.  I am the
luckiest soldier alive.”
I also thought
how I might be the only soldier in the Army that night to look at a moose and
compare it to the poetry of a swan.
David Abrams is the author of Fobbit (Grove/Atlantic, 2012), a
comedy about the Iraq War which Publishers Weekly called “an instant classic”
and named a Top 10 Pick for Literary Fiction in Fall 2012.  It was also a New York Times Notable Book of
2012, an Indie Next pick, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
selection, and a finalist for the L.A. Times’ Art Seidenbaum Award for First
Fiction.  His short stories have appeared
in Fire and Forget (Da Capo Press,
2013) and Home of the Brave: Somewhere
in the Sand
(Press 53), anthologies of short fiction about the wars in Iraq
and Afghanistan.  Other stories, essays
and reviews have been published in Esquire, Narrative, Salon, Salamander, Connecticut
Review, The Greensboro Review, Consequence,
and many other
publications. He earned a BA in English from the University of Oregon and an
MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. His blog, The
Quivering Pen, can be found at:
www.davidabramsbooks.blogspot.com  Visit his website at: www.davidabramsbooks.com

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