Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Interview with writer John Wagner

Today’s special guest is writer John Wagner. We’re chatting about his memoir, Baby Boomer Army Brat.

John has lived in many places and has had many “careers.” One of the first of what would be called Baby Boomers, John was born in Tennessee to an Army family shortly after WW II. The family’s claim to fame is that, while John’s dad was fighting overseas, his mother, Evelyn, became the first woman parole officer for the US federal Justice Department. Then the Army sent the family to Germany (his dad, an MP, provided post-war assistance to Displaced Persons), and later to a variety of Army bases around the US. His dad’s last duty assignment was in Colorado, where John went to junior high, high school, college, and had his first permanent job. Until he moved to California (where he continues to live) after becoming a lawyer, John considered Aurora, Colorado to be his family home.

John graduated from Colorado Western State University, where he discovered creative writing and considered pursuing a career as a writer. Then reality set in—he needed a job—and he found work as social caseworker in the child abuse field in Colorado Springs. Because of that experience, he applied to the University of Chicago’s renowned School of Social Service Administration. After graduation from SSA, he worked in the mental health field in New England and Wisconsin. Because of legal issues arising in that work, he applied to the University of Wisconsin Law School, where he excelled: being on the Law Review, on the Dean’s List every semester, and receiving numerous honors. He was selected to serve as a Law Clerk for the late Judge Robert Sprecher of the Seventh Circuit federal appeals court.

John then moved to California where he had a 30+ year career as a lawyer, developing a specialty in challenging complex governmental rules and regulations, especially related to healthcare. When California introduced “geographic managed care” for certain counties, John was selected to be a patient advocate on the GMC Oversight Committee.

John took a three-year sabbatical from the law to work on human rights in Peru, where he met his now-wife, Bella. His memoir of those turbulent times in Peru is: Troubled Mission: Fighting For Human Rights, Spirituality, and Love in Violence-Ridden Peru (Kelly House, 2015).

After he retired from the law, John gradually realized he wanted to pursue his earlier dream of becoming a writer. He wrote the above memoir of his experiences in Peru and then this memoir of being one of the first Baby Boomers in the unique subculture of the military. He is now working on a novel. John is a self-described “old fart” who does not know much about social media and just wants to focus on his writing.

Welcome, John. Please tell us about your current release.
We all know about the Baby Boomer generation. But no one, to my knowledge, has focused on the experiences of this generation growing up within the military subculture, which is very regimented and restrictive. As soon as they can understand, kids are hit with this scary warning from their dads: “Everything you do reflects on me and can destroy my career in the military.”

This was a time before. Before the new civil rights laws (although during civil rights demonstrations and violence from racist police and citizens). Before the explosion of new music—rock n roll was exploding but the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the psychedelic and blues music of the later 60s were yet to come. Before drugs, which were not seen as a mere “high” that might be habit forming but as “mind-opening,” leading to a new conscious. (The “drug scandal” in John’s junior high was about toothpicks dipped in cinnamon oil!) Above all, before Vietnam—or, more correctly, before the public knew about what the US and others were doing in Vietnam. The military was respected and military personnel were “good guys,” not “baby-killers.”

Baby Boomer Army Brat is about John’s coming-of-age experiences within this subculture and during this time. But it is much more. He reaches deep to reveal dark secrets and to grapple with how many experiences would affect him for life: spirituality, sexuality, physical and sexual abuse, having severe acne, and more. He does not complain. There is not an ounce of self-pity. The book is a genuine voyage of hard-earned self-discovery.

What inspired you to write this book?
Throughout the years, as I reflected on my life, I realized how much I was shaped by the military culture and how that made me different from non-military adults. Many things I took as normal, they saw as weird and vice versa. I began to realize that my experiences might be interesting to readers and might even offer some lessons. In addition, in reading other memoirs, I felt frustrated when the author did not really reach into their inner self but just rattled through a series of events. I wanted to force myself to stretch, to grapple with my most private and secret fears and struggles—as they occurred at the time and then with later, hopefully mature, reflection.

Excerpt from Baby Boomer Army Brat:
Dad got us up while it was still dark and made eggs and bacon. It was freezing. I shivered as I got out of my sleeping bag but was warmed by the breakfast. When we crawled out of the little trailer, we could just barely see the landscape. Everything was cold, grey, and cloudy. I became cold all over again, but soon enough, the sky turned blue and clear. Dad was wearing woolen Army pants, which he saved for outdoor trips like this. Tom and I had jeans but with long underwear underneath. We all had sweaters, hats, tall boots, and orange safety vests as we started out into a meadow. After walking for a while, I felt warmer. We walked spread out, in formation, letting Dad take the lead. I felt like a soldier in Dad’s squad. I’d seen enough war movies to know I was supposed to follow him and to be calm and quiet.
“Perfect,” Dad stage-whispered. “Now be quiet.” Tom and I hadn’t been talking, but Dad kept whispering his order to be quiet, just in case we were tempted to start babbling.
As we approached the area where the meadow turned into a forest, Dad held up his hand to signal movement and that we should stop. I hadn’t seen anything. Typical. I was mystified by Dad’s skills and wondered yet again why I had no abilities. He raised his Mauser to his shoulder, twisting the shoulder strap into a tight sling. He seemed to take forever, looking through the telescopic sight. I looked to where the rifle was pointing but still didn’t see anything.
I saw something move. A deer, running. It had blended right into the landscape, a combination of grey and brown. Dad wasn’t worried about keeping quiet now.
“Okay, boys, now we have to follow it. Soon we’ll pick up the trail of blood.”
This was the tough side of Dad. Dad, who could shoot a living being and talk casually about following its blood trail. The same Dad who could smash us with his fist and not care if we were hurt. The no-nonsense Dad who, if I had dared to ask whether it was right to shoot an animal and follow its blood trail, would have said, “This is the real world, son. You’d better learn to cope if you want to live in it.”
I pulled the thirty ought six, now much heavier than it had seemed before to my shoulder. I watched the deer run and tried to track it in my sights. My eyes were blurry, sweat had gotten in them, and my glasses had slipped crookedly down my nose. I wiped my eyes but, by that time, the deer had turned out of sight. I saw myself as if in a movie, a tough hunter on the outside, a queasy sissy on the inside. It took a few minutes for us to get to where the deer had been hit, and, sure enough, we saw a trail of blood. I hadn’t pulled the trigger, but I still felt sick.
Yeah, this is what it feels like to kill something, I thought, even though, technically, I hadn’t fired a shot. But that was its own problem, I was not really a hunter, didn’t want to kill anything, was not a manly man. I felt even worse than when I’d secretly shot and killed the chipmunk with my BB gun in Rocky Mountain National Park a few months earlier. Thinking of that moment, I didn’t remember any blood, maybe because I ran away so quickly. Now, we—yes, it was “we,” no way to avoid that on a technicality—had shot an animal, and now we were watching its life juices so we could follow it and kill it. Why did I do it? Because it would have seemed cowardly and shameful to refuse. I wanted to emulate Dad, but I also wanted to yell at him for what he had done. Dad, why are we doing this? Cowardice won out. Not only did I follow Dad, I kept my eyes peeled so I could follow the blood and be the first to spot the deer.

What exciting story are you working on next?
Sorry, I have to invoke author’s privilege. I have started the book, which I plan as a novel rather than memoir. I know my overall theme, but I haven’t worked out all my characters, locations, plot developments, etc. Who knows what’ll happen.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?
When I was in the first grade, I think, my parents gave me a toy typewriter that actually worked. I decided I was going to be a journalist (and publisher) and start a newspaper. I went around to our neighbors asking for any stories they had. That was ok. But then I called my dad’s MP company, asking about any crimes going on. Dad hit the roof! And actually my first writing as an older kid was journalism-related. I was on the student newspaper in junior high, high school, and college. It wasn’t until I took a Creative Writing course in college that I discovered the wonderful possibilities of writing beyond a journalistic, “just the facts ma’am,” approach. This was when I first started writing short stories and thinking of myself, as least for the course, as a writer.

Then real life struck and, after college, I realized I needed to work. I threw myself into my work, first as a social worker, then as a law student and lawyer, so I never even considered writing at night and I would have been too tired anyway. It wasn’t until I retired from practicing law that I realized, hey, now I can do what I’ve always wanted to do: write!

Do you write full-time? If so, what’s your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write?
I try to keep Tuesdays and Thursdays free for full-time research and writing. I try to work until Rachel Maddow comes on. I love her analysis of current events. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays are for exercise, appointments, all the other demands of life, and then if there’s time, research and writing. Evenings and weekends are for further research or pleasure reading and watching too many movies on Netflix or cable. I hate watching TV, not so much because of the many stupid programs (which could easily suck me in), but because I just can’t stand commercials. I have to put up with them for news programs, but otherwise, if I watch any TV, I’ll gravitate to C-SPAN’s “Book TV” (weekends) or to Turner Classic Movies.

I’ve had to give up riding a motorcycle, which I often did on weekends. I still miss my Harley, but I do have time to read more.

And I love opera, especially those of Richard Wagner (no relation). I’m addicted to his “Ring Cycles”—a series of four operas usually held over a week—and will travel all over the world to see them. (This gets to be an expensive hobby!)

I’m really not as dedicated a writer as I should be but once I’m in the flow of something, all else fades away and I’ll stay with it as long as I can, skipping meals and sleep sometimes. I have a web site but I really need to do a better job of keeping it up. I confess I’m really not a social media person.

Finally, our three children and five grandchildren live nearby and my wife and I enjoy visiting them or having them over.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
Once I get started, I can usually accomplish something. But it’s really hard for me to get started. I’ll look for other things to do, decide I’m tired even if it’s nine in the morning. I have to talk to myself, literally saying out loud, “OK, this is your job now. So commute to your office [5 seconds] and get your ass in your chair and get going.”

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
First baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals, just like their famous Stan Musial. But when I got into Little League, it turned out I was “all field, no hit.”

Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
Keep reading books! Support your local newspapers! We need to keep our intellects alive and not be lured in by political parties or slogans—of any stripe. We can’t capitulate to demagogues and shouters. Our democracy and freedom are precious, but we can lose them if we don’t jealously guard them and think for ourselves. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas had a wonderful quote:

“As nightfall does not come all at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there is a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged. And it is in such twilight that we all must be most aware of change in the air—however slight—lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.”

Thank you for being here today, John.

No comments: