Spirits in the Head

May 28, 2012
Monday —Memorial Day Observed

The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way, memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head.
— Tim O’Brien, b. 1946, American fiction writer
from “The Lives of the Dead,” in The Things They Carried

I read “The Things They Carried,” the title story of Tom O’Brien’s “heartbreaking and healing” collection, for the first time in 1995. Just five months younger than O’Brien, I was 48 years old and beginning to study the craft of fiction writing seriously for the first time. I was the oldest student in an undergraduate fiction writing class at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. In fact, I was the oldest person in that class, since the instructor, Robert Olmstead, was seven years younger than I was. Except for us, no one else in the room had even been born yet when the  first US combat troops landed in Vietnam. A few of them were infants when the conflict ended.

At the height of the Vietnam War, I was a college student. Most of the young men I knew, both my old friends from high school and the new ones I met at sleep-away school, had 2S student deferments. One occasional boyfriend was in the Navy, but he spent almost his whole enlistment working as a dental technician in the naval hospital at Camp Lejeune. I lived in a dorm that didn’t have cable TV (primarily because cable TV had not yet been invented) and studied American and European literature with a little bit of ed psych and some training in the operation of a film strip projector to prepare me to lead a classroom. Although I was aware of the war and did from time to time sit around with others in comfortable chairs discussing how wrong it was, how unhealthy it was “for children and other living things,” the war seemed very far away, something I disapproved of and protested on principle. My main concerns in social activism were civil rights and the elimination of parietal rules for women living on campus.

“The Things They Carried” pulled the top of me head off. For the first time, I understood (sort of) what it meant to be a soldier in that faraway place. I say “sort of” because although I now had a more graphic and accurate notion of what the soldier’s life was, it was still conveyed through reading, text impressed on my mind while I sat at my kitchen table drinking my morning coffee. A sentence like “They carried lice and ringworm and leeches and paddy algae and various rots and molds,” paints a picture in the mind of a consequence of field life I had never thought of, but it is still a picture, not a reality.

“The Things They Carried” is one of those stories I read again from time to time, for the richness of its language, the elegance of its structure, the power of its theme. The year after I first read it, I used it in a class of reluctant readers, mostly boys. We read it aloud, and they hung on every word. Some of them borrowed the book so they could read more of the stories.

I read it most recently just about a week ago, because it seemed the right thing to do.

“The Things They Carried” concerns the men of Alpha Company, particularly the platoon leader, First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, who “carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Saint Sebastian College in New Jersey.” Martha is an English major, and in her letters she writes about her classes, her roommates, her exams. “She often quoted lines of poetry; she never mentioned the war, . . . ” The more I studied the story, the more I came to realize that Martha was me, safe in her academic life, not particularly aware of the realities of the circumstances the young man she writes to was enduring. In that regard, of course, she was less detached than I was, because I didn’t know anybody over there I could write letters to. Nevertheless, I thought if I have Martha’s sensibility, then I can write in her voice.

I took several sessions of a workshop run by Ann Elia Stewart, a local writer who was publishing a literary magazine called Phase. Produced tabloid-style on newsprint, it offered an array of genres, including flash fiction and prose poems, and was illustrated with photography and other artwork that gave it a lively edge. The workshop was free, funded by a benefactor in memory of his wife, who had been a writer herself as well as a generous supporter of new writers. Some of my best work began under the direction of Ann Stewart. All of it has benefited from what I learned from her.

One of the “enduring approaches to invention” that she suggested was to take a story that you like and develop a minor character in it. Imagine the story told from that character’s point of view, imagine the character engaged in something outside the world of the story. Sena Jeter Naslund did this with a brief passage from Moby-Dick, and gave us the well-regarded Ahab’s Wife.

If I saw myself in Jimmy Cross’s Martha, I thought, I could write in her voice. I took some of the elements from “The Things They Carried,” in particular Martha’s identification as an English major, the stone she picks up on the beach and sends to Jimmy, the fact that they saw Bonnie and Clyde together. I added other things, such as other young soldiers the character writes to, her longing for a young man with whom she has lost touch, details of her trip to the beach during which she acquires the stone. I worked and reworked the material from time to time so that my character Susan was not Martha, which would make this a derivative work, nor me, which would make it thinly-veiled autobiography, which it is not.  Fiction is not what happened to you with the names changed.

Although it is not autobiographical, this work was informed by the memory of a high school classmate named Henry. Our last names were in the end of the alphabet, so we were in homeroom together, and, according to the yearbook photo, we were in Senior Chorus together. Except for those two things, we did not move in the same social and academic circles, and in our very large class (more than 500 members), we occupied different worlds. Nevertheless, in January of 1967 I cut out and tucked into my yearbook beside his picture the obituary announcing his death on January 13th, in Kontum Province, South Vietnam, as a result of hostile fire. He was twenty years old.

Last year Ann approached me and others with the idea of putting together an anthology of work produced in or developed from participation in the Natalie D. Craumer Writers’ Workshops. In order to accommodate as many writers as possible, she asked for a piece of under 3000 words. I sent what had become “Take Care,” a brief piece, more a character study than a complete story, about a young woman who starts a ministry at her college to pray for and write letters to “all the boys over there” that she and her friends know. She is portrayed as naive (I don’t want to say shallow, although I think that I was) about the war but sincere in her care for the young men she writes to.

A publisher was secured, the anthology went to press, and last week, at a book launch party in the library where the workshops take place, some of us had the opportunity to read from our own work.

By way of introduction of my piece, I added a dedication that did not appear in the book, because I only thought of it as the time for the reading neared. Before I read, I spoke Henry’s name, gave the date of his birth, and the date and circumstances of his death.

After the reading a man approached me. “How did you know Henry?” he said.

“He was my classmate,” I said.

“He was mine, too.”

I looked more closely at him. “Frank?”

“Hello, Margaret,” he said. Up close, in the honey-blonde writer whose maiden name had not been given in her byline, he saw the dark-haired girl who is pictured with him and some others in a posed yearbook photo examining manuscripts for their high school literary magazine.

Tim O’Brien says that stories can save us. “In a story, which is a knd of dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world.” We dream the people we knew back into life, and even in fiction, some of what they were continues to live in our characters. I am not Susan, and the young man she writes to is not Henry, but they carry something of who we were. Not in a million imaginings would I have guessed that someone who knew Henry better than I did would be in that audience to hear the dedication that I added. almost on a whim.

At our class reunions, we always pause to remember those of our classmates who have died. We say a prayer from our shared Catholic heritage, and we say their names. The list of names is getting longer every time. Henry’s been on it since our first gathering in 1970. I will say it with more feeling, and more regret, in 2015.


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