Growing up, there was a box full of three-by-three cardboard-framed Kodak slides that lay in my parents’ closet upon a plywood shelf. The slides were a world I viewed by pinching the squares between index and thumb, holding them up to the light, and viewing the pics of young men attired in military-green clothing. They were soldiers. Marines.
One pic always stood out. It was a black-and-white photo of my father standing with a grenade launcher in his right hand, wearing a pair of Chuck Taylors, dressed down in his fatigues with a backdrop of hooches he and other marines had constructed upon their arrival. The pics were from my father’s service overseas in Da Nang from December 1967 to January 1969, his tour of duty, twelve and a half months, two Christmases and two New Years.
During his wartime deployment, he’d snap pics of the men he served with, who were unknown souls to me. Men I’d never met. Men my father never spoke about by name when I was growing up, similar to his time in Vietnam.
In this box were pictures of villagers and villages, the roads he swept for land mines, the different hills that were redline zones or free-fire zones, other hooches upon hills, like Hill 55, Liberty Road, which, as I’d learn years later, was nicknamed Dodge City because, as my father would explain, there was always a firefight, four to six combat engineers leading two squads of infantry grunts and a single tank, sweeping three to four miles of road for land mines and booby traps daily. That was his job.
There were other roads that led to other hills, like Hill 65, which was an artillery hill for grunt units. Hill 52 was an area for special forces. And my father swept these roads with the Thunderin’ Third Herd, First Engineers, C Company, Third Platoon, tank division.
After my father’s deployment, coming back stateside, Camp Lejeune was overcrowded, so he finished his time guarding an ammo dump with an M1 rifle in Vieques, Puerto Rico, where he was given one magazine with six shots. That was it. Telling me this, he laughed and said, “Who the hell was I gonna stop with that?”
When I was older, he told me that after the war he’d lost all his paperwork on the transition from Da Nang back to the States. That he’d been recommended for a Purple Heart, but never got it.
When the economy nosedived under Carter in the eighties, my father lost his job at a tobacco plant in Louisville, Kentucky. My parents had to regroup, reevaluate their employment. We’d move to my grandparents’ hundred-acre farm, on my mother’s side, the Bussabargers, when I was between six and seven. That box would find a new shelf in another home, a small two-bedroom structure, part stainless-steel trailer and part sheet-metal house with a slanted roof, which my step-grandfather had constructed for his mother when he’d inherited or bought the farm as a young man, depending on who you asked, but that’s another story.
We’d live here until my parents bought another home in town next to my father’s mother, my grandmother Myrtle Bill, who began her mornings early, sipping strong coffee from a frog-green coffee mug till around noon, when she’d start filling the mug with Meister Bräu beer. My grandmother was very proud of her son and his service to his country, keeping pictures from his marine corps graduation upon a shelf for everyone to see, along with the newspaper cutout citing my father’s heroism in the Vietnam War.
Still, in this other house, as in the previous, that box and those pictures were never spoken about.
To start over career-wise, my father would enlist in night school to become an insurance salesman, selling insurance with his brother’s company in town. His other job would be bartending, and also reenlisting in the military, but not the Marines: the Army Reserve. My mother would go from working as a cashier at a local grocery to landing a factory job just outside of town.
I’d grow up inspired by the military, by action-adventure and martial arts films, watching all of Stallone’s movies, especially Rambo; Schwarzenegger’s Commando, Raw Deal, Terminator, and Predator; Chuck Norris’s Missing in Action, Delta Force, Lone Wolf McQuade, and The Octagon; and war films like Platoon, The D.I., Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now, and The Deer Hunter. I’d play soldier with my cousin in the woods, hunting birds with our BB guns, strapped with survival knives, pocketknives, and ninja throwing stars until I’d get my first shotgun, a twenty-gauge Mossberg pump. Then I’d hunt with my father—deer, squirrel, and rabbit on my grandparents’ farm—until I was deemed responsible enough to hunt alone.
In the woods, my father was cautious. There was no fucking around, I was to follow behind him, watching his hand signals, keeping my shotgun sure-handed and pointed at the ground, safety on, stopping when he stopped and trying not to step on sticks that’d crack and break and scare off whatever we hunted. He always held these traits that, even as a kid, stood out to me, his awareness of his surroundings and his sneakiness toward what he hunted.
There were hints of my father’s service. Of his serving in the military. The reveille calls to get my ass from bed on school mornings. I never knew what they meant until I was older, only that they had something to do with his time in the military. He’d come into my room, sipping a cup of coffee, flip the light switch on, and holler like a DI, “Revelry, revelry, time to get up, time to get up!”
Then he’d laugh and walk out of the room.
There were stories he’d tell when he was drunk. Waking me from sleep in the a.m. after he’d been bartending and had gone out with friends for breakfast. Talking about the NVA or the Vietnamese. Like I knew who the NVA were. He’d talk about a senior leader they’d captured. And the type of pistol he carried. The bluing metal of the gun. Or the men he tried to save but couldn’t. The parents he wanted to phone. To explain that he’d served with their son. Apologize for their loss. Things I didn’t know, let alone understand.
Weekends with my father were spent cutting wood on my grandparents’ farm, hunting whatever animal was in season, visiting his mother for Sunday dinner, or going to the local VFW or American Legion, where card games were played over drinks among the local war vets, like-minded men, men who’d served and fought for their country. To me, it was just adults drinking beer. Smoking cigarettes. Telling stories. But to my dad, it was being around those who were similar to himself. These men had served in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. For him, it was a feeling of belonging. In these closed-door rooms, cigarette and cigar smoke was a thick haze above conversations shared over war stories or just stories about work or being down on their luck. Sometimes these could fall into the vulgar or rude area. Jokes were told, but feelings were never hurt. I usually listened and watched or played Space Invaders or plugged some tunes on the jukebox full of old-time country and honky-tonk until my quarters ran out. At certain times of the year, my dad would take me to Turkey Shoots, where men would bring their shotguns, pay for a ticket, stand some distance away, aim their shotguns at a paper target, and take a single shot. Whoever shot the best won a twenty-plus-pound turkey.
I wouldn’t think much about it when I was ten or twelve or fourteen, but those times and those people would hold a place near and dear to me, make a real impact on my writing to this day. Those were real folks, the backbone and heart of rural, working-class America.
When I was older and my parents had divorced, my mother would mention stories to me about the nightmares my father had in the early years of their marriage. Things I never knew about, growing up. About dealing with the men he’d seen die. The battles he’d incurred. My father wasn’t a violent man, but he was strict in the sense that if he told you to do something, he expected you to do it without back talk. And when he told you, he told you once. Then you got the belt. But he was also a cutup. A jokester. And he’d pick on a person until they cried. But he was also an avid storyteller.
For most, the military was a way to pay for college or begin a career. For my father, it was several things. He had something to prove, wanted to be a tough guy, wanted to be a New York City rookie cop, but at the time they had a height requirement. He was five-seven or five-eight; I believe he needed to be six feet tall. He was turned down. He did the next best thing. He enlisted in the Marines. He also wanted a new car, so he signed up and was bussed to Parris Island in July of 1967, along with two friends, Jimmy Simcoe and Ervin Conrad. Ervin sat next to my father on the bus, waiting for the DI to wake up. When he got on the bus, the DI read out the riot act, giving everyone three seconds to exit the bus, and Ervin whispered to my father, “Think we fucked up.”
The military would always be in the back of my mind. My senior year, I lived with my mother out in the country in a two-bedroom aluminum-sided rental home with a single-car garage, where I kept my weightlifting equipment. A recruiter had started calling me about enlisting in the army. He found out I studied karate and had earned a black belt. Thought I had discipline. Growing up on Stallone, Chuck Norris, and all the other action stars and their movies, I wanted to be in the special forces. My suspicion, my mother got worried. At the time, my father and I didn’t talk a lot. I was a dog lover, raised around dogs, and I wanted a Rottweiler. The recruiter found this out. Told me he had a female that had had a litter of pups, and he was selling them but he’d give me one for free. That he’d bring one to my home.
I told my mother about this, and she phoned my father about the recruiter. I never realized this until years later. My father calls out of the blue the next day. Says, “I hear a recruiter has been calling you?”
I tell him, “Yes.”
And he asks, “What did he say he’d give you?” Taken aback, I tell him, “A Rottweiler.”
He chuckled. “Did he give you one?” And I say, “No.”
He really laughed then. And said, “Don’t sign anything. Don’t trust him. If you wanna join, I’ll go with you, but you should think about school or finding a good job or a trade. Not the military.”
The recruiter called a few more times but eventually quit calling not long after that. And I never did get that Rottweiler. What my dad knew and what I didn’t was war. And in war some people do not return. They die. But those who do return are no longer the same person they were before they served. War changes you. Forever.
From age twelve until my late thirties, I would train in, study, and teach martial arts, but I’d also become obsessed with strength training. I’d get my first weight set at age twelve. Between martial arts and weightlifting, that was where my discipline for everything else I’d do in my life came from. At age twenty, I’d land a good-paying factory job. Then I’d get married at age twenty-six, and around age twenty-eight or twenty-nine I’d have a midlife crisis and decide that I wanted to join the navy. Look into the SEAL program and the UDT program. Spoke with my buddy’s aunt who was a higher-up in the navy, reporting to Colin Powell. She went over a few things with me. Explained the process and the vetting. Told me the UDT was a good backup plan. And for about four to six weeks I convinced myself I was gonna give up the security I had worked for—a good-paying factory job, a marriage, a home—and join the navy. I was running three miles every other day. Had quit lifting weights and started a pushup-pullup-dips-and-burpee program as outlined in The Official United States Navy SEAL Workout book I’d ordered. I’d become obsessed, reading one nonfiction book after the next about the SEALs. I’m pretty sure my wife was freaked out and a little worried, because I was very disciplined, keeping a journal, writing down my workouts, goals, and to-do lists for the next day. When I set my mind to something, I set forth to achieve my goals, and somewhere along the line she mentioned my wanting to quit my job and join the navy to my dad, and again my father would speak with me about it and plant a reason for not joining: psoriasis, a skin infection I have that can sometimes flare up severely. He told me that this would eliminate my chances, that being out in the field and during basic training, known as Hell Week, I’d not be allowed to use any medication to treat my symptoms, the hot spots that would begin to crust and crack and, if left untended, bust and bleed, the same symptoms he possessed that would eventually push him into early retirement from the army. And once again, my father had talked me out of enlisting in the military.
Fast-forward to years later, my obsession with becoming a writer would eventually pay off. After about six years of wasting a lot of paper, I started to succeed, started getting some short stories published in small journals, wrote a few novels that were close but not worthy of publication, until I found my voice and eventually landed an agent and signed with a publisher.
And that box and those pics would finally come to fruition, as my father would remarry, begin going to the VA for counseling, talking about the war in which he’d served. And he wanted to get those pictures blown up, somehow developed from slides to real pics. And he did that. And that world I never really knew when I was younger finally became visible.
In 2011, I’d start writing a rough manuscript titled Back to the Dirt. Sitting down with my dad to talk about his time in Da Nang as a marine, but also his basic training. The idea was to combine and merge my time in a factory and his time in the war. But also things that influenced me, strength training, and the things that haunted him, the war. Combining these ideas into a character who fought age while dealing with PTSD and being a steroid-abusing strength junkie. All against the backdrop of being a blue-collar rural worker.
A lot would happen between the idea, writing the rough draft, and rewriting the entire second half of the novel. When I’d begun writing the book, my father had been trying to get his Purple Heart. Over the years, time would take its toll, and he’d hit one roadblock after the next, trying to dig into his past; but there would always be some roadblock with the paperwork. Reconnecting with the men he’d served with, he’d build back the bonds they’d forged while serving and fighting in Da Nang. During the same time, I’d read a book for research titled Tiger Force, a true story about a special forces unit that had committed the ultimate crime during wartime: murdering innocent villagers in Vietnam. The war had become about numbers, a body count. I’d combine this with the story I was already writing.
My father struggled for fifty-three years with what he’d endured—being wounded during a routine road-clearing operation. Land mines were scattered over a road, and as he swept the area, a forty-pound anti-tank mine was detonated by the enemy, leaving my father wounded about his face and body. He’d tried to forget it, but in reality he couldn’t. My stepmother, his wife, Julie, wouldn’t let him. She pushed and helped him to unearth his past, writing letters, making phone calls, and eventually she helped him get his Purple Heart. Which he deserved. Reconnecting with the men he served with. Reliving what happened wasn’t easy, but my belief is that in the end, it was nurturing, therapeutic in a sense, facing those old demons.
I had the honor of attending the ceremony where he was awarded his Purple Heart. Tony DiBlasio, who entered Da Nang in January of 1968 and left in February of 1969 as a Corporal E4, and Vaughn Seruby were in attendance and spoke highly of my father. As Tony told me, Your father was a hero. And to my father—and these brave men he served with, and all those who have served, those who made it home and those who did not—I dedicate this book.