<![CDATA[JamesSnyder.net - Berlin Diaries]]>Wed, 08 Nov 2017 02:19:51 -0800Weebly<![CDATA[Portrait of the Artist as a Young Soldier (Part Two)]]>Sun, 27 Dec 2015 23:49:18 GMThttp://jamessnyder.net/berlin-diaries/portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-young-soldier-part-twoPicture
Another story from my TALES OF THE LATE TWENTIETH CENTURY is one entitled “The Blue Light.” With the previously mentioned “Point Arena” it forms a sort of duology, fictionalizing at least one perspective of my military experience. This pair of stories may be the closest thing I would refer to as autobiographical; although, as a writer, I am wary of offering specific sources for anything I write, and especially my own life. Whenever I’m asked where does such and such come from—ideas, characters, story events—I’m usually not sure what to say. Not because I’m trying to be coy or evasive, but because I’m not really sure. In the first place I don’t think too much about it. Where these things come from. And in truth I don’t really care. What most matters to me is, does it add to the greater good? Does it expand upon the overall effect of what I’m trying to do? Does it help complete the work? I think a knowing writer steals whatever he can from wherever he can (sans plagiarism, to be sure). So beware befriending thine author, for thy secrets and heartaches are his rich garden for the harvest pluck and use.

Best I recall, “The Blue Light” was originally envisioned as a novel. There may even be ragged, yellow-sheet drafts still lying in attics and dresser drawers about the globe. For all I know it may still become one, at some point, should it make itself known as needing that platform. Regardless, the background details of the story were mostly there, intact, when I began sketching the initial notes. What I mean is, this wasn’t a story I recall blowing a fuse trying to imagine and put together. It was always there, for the most part, not because I was simply recounting things I’d experienced, but because I had made myself peek into the dark and occasionally forbidding box of my existence, others’ existences, and knew that experience was true as I encountered it. Beyond that, the era did lend itself to dramatic appeal. If you’re interested, there’s a film which captures the time and place my story is set rather nicely. It’s called The Baader Meinhof Complex, which deals with the terrorist group by that name, and which colored my time there in such unforgettable hues.

“The Blue Light”, hopefully, offers a similar verisimilitude. It tells the story of a young soldier named Paul Adams (originally introduced in “Point Arena”), who encounters a mysterious and somewhat lethally enchanting German girl named Nikki Lotz, and details their ensuing relationship. You could consider it a period piece; however, Russia was the Soviet Union then, but then as now it was and is the 800-pound gorilla lurking along the German border. Terrorists were a part of everyday life at the time, as they are now, even though ethnicities have changed. Migrant workers were the migraine headache the locals suffered through at the time, so perhaps I shouldn’t mention the adage about what goes around. In that sense the story could have taken place yesterday, as easily as the fading decades of the twentieth century. I like to think of it as a unique and provocative meeting of cultures, accompanied by the usual misunderstandings, enticements, and ultimate revelations.

The truth is a character such as Nikki Lotz is a dangerous gift to an author. When that happens, one almost feels guilty talking about character and “creation” in the same breath. I didn’t create Nikki, as such. She was, rather, a creature innate and organic and sui generis from my experience that lent herself so easily to the page. A girl whose every gene and corpuscle begged for fictional exposure. Brett Ashley in THE SUN ALSO RISES and Lisbeth Salander in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO come to mind. I can tell you with a fair amount of assurance, I doubt Hemingway or Stieg Larsson had to bust much a sweat in initially realizing these characters. I would think they came to them, as Nikki did to me, with a sudden gasp of breath, a flash of light within, and all they had to do was invent all those annoying little details, some call character depth, that make writing so painfully enjoyable. If anything, the larger problem is not one of invention but containment. Characters like Nikki do not behave well. They know who they are. And they know what they want to say and do. And woe to the writer who must convince them there is a larger importance at play than themselves. “What—a story? With other people? You want me to share my moment with other people, so you can tell your silly little tale? Das glaub ich nicht!

Instead, they strut upon your stage, often picking up your various artifacts and props, occasionally dropping and breaking this one or that, always moving things about—including your other characters—as they think best, before, naturally, becoming bored with it all and wandering away. I believe every good writer has their bag of tricks (You do know, don’t you, that fiction, at its best, is the most wonderful magic show called Suspension of Disbelief?), and one of the tricks I learned very early was to let a maverick character have his or her own head, an unplanned scene its own momentum. Unnerving, I’ll admit. But mastering the trick is to know when it’s not working as when it is. And when it’s not is called artistic faux pas, a day’s writing pissed away, and a shot of brandy to console the loss. And when it is, is called nirvana, a victory fist in the air, and, perhaps, that shot of brandy to celebrate the win. So when Nikki first stepped out onto the screen of my Lenovo ThinkPad, I held my breath. I waited as she surveyed the setting I had placed her, the people I’d placed her with. Then she turned and looked straight at me with those most amazing eyes, letting me know with a glance who she was and what she was going to say and what she was going to do. And, by the way, me and my silly little story could go straight to hell.

That’s why I love to write.


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<![CDATA[Portrait of the Artist as a Young Soldier (Part One)]]>Sun, 03 Aug 2014 15:58:43 GMThttp://jamessnyder.net/berlin-diaries/portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-young-soldier-part-onePictureOtterberg, Germany
In my short story collection TALES OF THE LATE TWENTIETH CENTURY is one entitled “Point Arena.” It is written in a somewhat fragmented, episodic, almost collage-like style that mirrors (at least, in my own mind) what it was like being a young soldier stationed at a very remote and isolated Northern-California radar station in the 1970s; knowing that at any moment you could be the first American to witness that dark and terrifying line of Soviet nuclear missiles approaching from over the western horizon on your radar screen. The Cold War was in full swing then and the fate of the planet hung, then as now, upon the Doctor-Strangelove precepts of the weakest link in the world-leaders’ chain. As I recall, we never really talked about it much among ourselves. Perhaps the prospect of a sudden and near complete annihilation of our civilization was too grim to ponder over a late-afternoon Rainier beer.

Instead, we talked about other things. Usually, music and girls, and movies and girls, and cars and girls, and, most likely, girls. Because of the rotating shifts we worked—two swings, two days, two mids—we were always in a sort of sleep-deprived, zombie-esque twilight zone anyway. Light or darkness had no real meaning or importance for us, except perhaps to help pinpoint what part of “the zone” we were moving at the moment. And because we were such an eclectic bunch, pooling our individual talents for our shared support and survival, we approached our common, selective-service fate in a variety of manners. Since music was our lifeblood, there were the electronic wizards among us who would drive down to San Francisco, purchase expensive stereo components, bring them back (“up the hill”), and then tear them down and rebuild them into these absolute Frankenstein’s-monster systems: gleaming, stainless-steel towers of row upon row of wavering and blinking lights that had Pink Floyd and Keith Richards sending us fan letters. Others were the early computer nerds, with the World Wide Web already hardwired into their ecosphere, even though our computers were big as doughnut shops, and had the eerie, late-night propensity of arguing back at you in irritating, HAL-9000 whispers: “What’s wrong with you, Dave? Why are you giving me that particular command, Dave?” Meanwhile, others were munitions and weapons gurus; while others could blueprint and build a big-block Chevy engine in their sleep; and then there were those that could lead you safely through the veritable minefields of the worldwide, interlinked operations systems we managed. We were sort of a Magic-Bus version of the Dirty Dozen, but without all the Hollywood glam and haute-cuisine catering services. We all had our slot in our shared, existential egg carton; our importance to the group as a whole. Which was critical, because there was a war going on (Vietnam), and the entire world seemed to be going to hell in a hand basket real quick, while our unique little tribe was simultaneously about as cut off from that world as you could be, while, in reality, positioned front and center of the whole damn mess. So it was important that everyone had their place and did their job. And everyone did. That is, except for me. At least, in the beginning.

When I first arrived on site, it wasn’t long before it became obvious I was the 13th egg in the carton. Very quickly I was weighed and measured and found wanting. “What do you do, Snyder? What CAN you do?” No one actually asked me this, but it was inferred, I recall, to an obvious and uncomfortable degree. No one there had time to deal with this shit, this straight-line newbie, still sporting his tech-school buzz-cut, and with no apparent specialties the group needed or wanted. And, at first, I was surrounded by some very pissed-off eggs, having to move from one slot to the next to make room for me. Actually, at first, the only thing different about me they could surmise was this battered, Navajo-brown, Smith-Corona carrying case that sat on my barracks-room desk like some shaman’s forgotten tote-bag. Then there was the further mystery of the clickity-clacking noise emanating from my room in the wee hours of dawn.

Someone banged on my door early one morning: “What the hell are you doing in there, Snyder?”
“Typing.”
“Typing what?”
“Stuff.”
“Oh.”

To be fair, when they finally did figure out I was some kind of writer the consensus was that this was pretty cool. Useless as tits on a boar, but cool. Then I got in trouble with the First Sergeant, and that changed everything.

The truth is I was never your model soldier. Don’t get me wrong, I always did my job and did it well. But I was never your spit-and-polish, follow-the-rules-without-hesitation type that gives military brass their morning hard-on. Or, for that matter, not so much the American-hero, GI Joe, take-one-for-the-team type either. I became a soldier because America was at war, and my father was not a senator, and therefore you had three choices at the time: be drafted and go to Nam, enlist and take your chances, or hightail it for the Canadian border. Since heading north was never an option for me, and after I attended the funeral of my latest high-school buddy to come home from the war in a jelly jar, I knew pretty much which way my wind was blowing. I certainly didn’t have a problem serving my country. But after reading the headlines and stories about that particular faraway conflict for some time, I still couldn’t figure it out. I just didn’t get the whole falling-dominoes thing. Something didn’t add up, and although I argued with myself that my young mind was probably not yet mature enough to understand the complexities of what all these so-called experts were saying about it, my gut was saying something else. So one fine day in May I hitched a ride down to the Oakland Induction Center, raised my right hand, and suddenly found myself a soldier.

As it happened, at the time I enlisted I was sporting a nice beard. I was doing some acting then, in high school and college and the local Napa Valley community theater called Pretender’s Playhouse. I forget which play I was trying out for (I think it was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), but I recall I’d grown the beard to make me look older. Any event, call to duty came before casting, and I flew off to basic training at Amarillo, Texas with my full beard. In addition to this, at the time I also had something of an attitude problem, which might work to your benefit on stage, when you’re standing there beneath the bright lights, pouring out your guts to a sea of dark faces, but doesn’t translate as well with the military. The military, I learned, did not like guys with attitude problems. They hated them almost as much as they hated guys with beards.

Now jump some months ahead again to my first duty assignment—again, deep inside those Northern-California mountains, surrounded by dense forests of tall fir and medded-to-the-eyeballs coastal hippies, enraged that we were even there among them in their own private Eden, doing God only knows what kind of Black-Ops shenanigans—where I’d just had my first run-in with the First Sergeant, or First Shirt, as he was known among the troops. It wasn’t a big deal. I think I was ordered to police (pick up trash) an area of the compound, which I did, then went back to my barracks room and took a nap. Again, we were all always exhausted, and sleep was a precious commodity, whether given or stolen. Regardless, the First Shirt soon burst into my room, found me snoozing, and the rest, as they say, is official record. I received a Letter of Reprimand, and, being the wannabe wordsmith I was working hard at becoming, promptly wrote a rebuttal, explaining why I thought the LOR was a bit over the top, and why the First Shirt should have just cooled it about the whole thing, brought it down a notch, for chrissake.

I can’t remember now everything that took place immediately after that. But I do remember it happened very quickly, like a short fuse sizzling its way down to sudden conclusion on a long stick of dynamite. I recall being pulled into offices and people yelling at me; then there was the nice conversation with the site commander, a soft-spoken major who, I think, was mostly just curious what kind of fool would volunteer to be a soldier, and then actually believe he had the right to discuss the specifics of the arrangement; mostly I recall my brief, though very public one-on-one with the First Shirt, whom, it was obvious, everyone there hated as only one can hate another who has their scrotum in his cupped palm, with little or nothing they can do about it. Of course, I was repeatedly disciplined, spending my leisure time scraping ancient stalactites from the undersides of forgotten urinals; painting the frozen exteriors of various mountainside structures in the middle of winter; and, of course, the time-honored duty of shoveling clean snow atop dirty snow for the endless site inspections and VIP visits we were accustomed.

Finally, one of the old zebras (a sergeant with a lot of stripes) there came to my rescue. He pulled me aside and told me, “You know, son, I was once one of those rebel-without-a-cause types just like you. Fighting back at everything that didn’t go my way. Until one day someone pulled me aside, just like I’m pulling you aside, and told me that maybe I should pull my head out of my ass long enough to realize I was temporarily living in someone else’s house. And while I was there, being fed and clothed and sheltered and instructed, the honorable thing to do might be to abide by their rules. I didn’t have to like them. But, well, maybe I should consider the honorable thing, instead, for my country’s sake, and not my own.”

Things quieted down after that. I completed my tour, got my E-4 promotion and finally my orders for Germany. But the odd thing I remember is that after this dust-up I was no longer the 13th egg. I was taken into the group fairly pronto, I recall, and that was that. No one ever told me why. Because the truth was I still had nothing to offer them—this tribe of ersatz twilight survivors, living always on the edge of sudden annihilation, while trying to maintain some manner of perspective about it all—except that I tinkered around with words, on my ratty little portable, at all hours of the day and night. Which everyone still agreed was useless as tits on a boar.

Copyright 2014


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<![CDATA[A Story I Never Believed]]>Fri, 13 Sep 2013 12:06:56 GMThttp://jamessnyder.net/berlin-diaries/a-story-i-never-believedIn Germany, at the height of the terrorist alerts, and during the most ferocious snowstorm I had yet witnessed there, we went on deployment again. The sirens rang at two a.m.; the alert drivers stumbled from their bunks, got dressed like unhappy Eskimos in their fur-lined parkas, hopped in their jeeps, and drove out every direction into the blinding storm, like so many hung-over, stoned-to-the-gill Paul Reveres, to spread the alarm. By daybreak everyone was feeling the pain, and the convoy stretched for over two miles along the mud-and-snow-encrusted autobahn. Going up to the deployment site, we all had to mind our manners. We drove in formation, with the captain’s jeep in front, its little American flag flapping in the icy air. Behind it came the other officer, security police and NCO jeeps, and then the troop transports and deuce-and-a-halves, with all the shelters and equipment. Driving into the mountains, all the engine governors were in place, limiting top speed to about eighty klicks or kilometers per hour, which didn’t really matter to us, since we all felt like cold gravy, anyway, and had nowhere else to go.

By late morning we arrived at the twenty-acre mountaintop meadow and circled the vehicles like a giant wagon train, preparing for the Indian attack. Before site construction began, we broke rations. If you were lucky, you got the beans and weanies, which tasted all right cold or hot, just like the civilian beans and weanies we all remembered; if not, you got the mystery meat, encased inside its thick layer of quivering, yellow, gelatinous matter that had to be melted down atop a hot-running deucer engine to reveal what was inside. However, more often than not, after the revelation you would usually just throw away the green tin of swirling flotsam and smoke the two Lucky Strike cigarettes, which came inside the rations box like the toy inside Cracker Jacks. We knew these were really old cigarettes, we figured, from WWII or before. But they were so stanky and vile, they made you forget what you had just seen emerge from the yellow matter, so you didn’t mind  so much.

By midday until dark the construction went on. In the beginning, our shelters were the simple rib-and-roll design. These were easy to build. You began by clearing an area for the deck, which were the rectangular wooden crates the rest of the material came packed in. After the floor was laid, the wooden ribs—think St. Louis Gateway Arch, but on a smaller scale—were assembled and began to rise above the decking, side by side, about two feet apart. Once the ribcage was in place, rolls of canvas were unfurled to cover the openings. The smallest soldiers were made to scamper up the arches, dragging the canvas strips behind them like ants dragging crumbs up an anthill, one after the other, with other soldiers lashing them in place at either end. After the shelters were secure, the heaters and generators were positioned, and then the interiors were constructed. CRC, or the Control Reporting Center, was the scope dopes, the radar stations that monitored air traffic and coordinated the close-air and reconnaissance flights. The TACC, or Tactical Air Control Center, was just that. Officers sat at their tables on rising daises and monitored the war taking place on the plotting and status boards below them. Deployments usually lasted three or four days, at which time the site was torn down, packed back into the wooden crates, loaded back onto the deuce-and-a-halves, and everyone drove home.

The only change to this routine came when the military tried to introduce a new shelter design, we enlisted referred to as Rubber Duckies. In a nutshell, these were computerized, sectional, blowup shelters that, when properly inflated, I think was supposed to resemble one of those giant, ominous, floating creatures in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Rattling compressors pumped air into one section, then another, while the second lieutenants and the zebra sergeants manned the controls like so many Wizards of Oz, giving a little more air here, a little less there, while we (of course, not smart enough for such a delicate operation) stood back and watched. The only things missing from this Laurel-and-Hardy routine were the derbies and bowties; and, I believe, by my last deployment we were back to the good old ribs and rolls again, and the top sergeants and second lieus were back, running around, barking orders at no one in particular, as if anyone had any idea what was going on to begin with.

But regardless of what shelter we used, breakdown was the moment everyone—and I mean everyone—waited for. That’s when orders came down from Brussels the war was over, NATO forces had been victorious, yet, again (“Hoo-ray! Hoo-rah!”), and we could all go home. Then the captain kicked the anthill and all hell broke loose. The command post that had taken hours upon hours to carefully construct now came down in literally seconds and minutes. The reason for this manic group hustle was simple. Upon receipt of the final battle order, the exercise was officially over. The officers and zeebs had already vanished. And the moment you got your crates loaded, launched and delivered back to the base—you were free. Of course, such enticements come at a cost. Shelter arches collapsed on troops, breaking arms and legs; vehicles skidded off icy mountain roads, with everyone trying to be the first back down the mountain to the autobahn (where even gods and generals could not impose a speed limit). Of course, the last thing everyone
did, leaving the mountain, was to disconnect the governor on their engine. Now, with visions of Jackie Stewart rounding the far corner at Hockenheim in his snarling Formula One, a hundred military vehicles hit the German freeway in approximately the same ten-minute timeframe. For the next hour or so, vomit-green troop transports dueled it out on the icy road with sleek black  Porsches, while deuce-and-a-halves held their own against angry BMWs and indignant Mercedes. They had the speed and mobility (and the custom leather gloves), but we had size and determination. Plus, since the first introduction the majority of the German population had to the motorcar was Hitler giving them the frigging Volkswagen (the people’s car), we—who had been raised on Chevy Malibus, GTOs and Cuda 442 engines—had the edge on experience. It was WWII
redux, but without the beach landings and destruction of irreplaceable medieval architecture.

After these autobahn destruction derbies, the sun always seemed to be shining when you dropped off your vehicle at the base compound, hopped into your Opel Sport Coupe, and drove over to pick up your waiting Fraulein. Finally, you would meet your friends at the corner Gasthaus that was
centuries older than America, and you would laugh and drink the delicious beer, and laugh some more, and the miserable deployment would be forgotten…almost.

Because on this particular deployment, something different had happened that I could not forget. Someone different. And sitting there, drinking the beer and watching all my German friends laughing and joking in their way, I recalled what had happened the night before, back up on that  snowy mountaintop, where I had been pulling midnight guard duty. As I said, at the time the German terrorist alerts were at their peak. And we knew it would be a real coup de main for some splinter group to disrupt our war games, all the way from spray painting our vehicles with their cute little company logos, to dropping a bomb or two into our midst. Site perimeters were always floodlit
and secured, and we enlisted loved nothing better—after spending the day wet and frozen, while participating in our group activities, and then crawling into our wet and frozen sleeping bags to try and shiver oneself to sleep—than to be awakened in the middle of the night to go stand wet and frozen, clutching your weapon and staring with numbed anticipation into the swirling white morass
surrounding you.

And that’s where I was when I first saw him emerge from that morass like some forever-trudging, ill-omened figment of my imagination. And I raised my rifle.

“What’s shakin’, chief?” he called out to me, raising his hands above his head in mock fashion. “Just out stretchin’ my legs some.”

He was Army, I saw by his rumpled, big-pocketed fatigues and insignias, without a coat, and clutching a quart bottle of Johnny Walker Black in one of his ungloved hands. When I lowered my rifle and he came up to me, I saw his face, his eyes—the way they seemed to slice and dice me in a fraction of a second, before moving on—and never forgot them after that. Never forgot him.

In my novel American Warrior is a character named Bradshaw, with a deep, raggedy voice that sounded like forty miles of bad country road. And this may be the only instance, I can recall, of someone stepping flesh and blood from my life into my fiction. I’ve thought about why that is, and I realized he came as a set piece. In the few hours I knew him, and we talked, he so vividly revealed himself (perhaps, in hindsight, actually revealing very little, or nothing at all), there was nothing to add or take away. He was set. He was done in a way the best characters are done. They come
to you suddenly and as a whole, and you can only be grateful and whisper thanks to the muse or whatever, before moving on yourself.

We stayed together until daybreak and just talked. First, the hour of guard duty I had left, walking the perimeter side by side. Then we went back to a quiet corner of my Quonset hut, where a big oil heater sat radiating rings of heat through the wall, and talked there. He said he was in Germany for medical reasons. “Seein’ them quack majors over at Ramstein,” was the way he put it. He looked perfectly fine to me, and I didn’t inquire what the reasons were. Instead, I listened to him talk about his farm back in Missouri, and the woodshop he had there that he just loved to stand in the middle of, close his eyes, and smell the fragrance of the various lumbers. But when I asked him about Vietnam, how long he had been there, the almost gentle expression on his face changed. Fairly drunk now, he leaned toward me and whispered, “For a thousand fuckin’ years, chief.” Then he leaned back, took another swallow from his whiskey bottle, and suddenly began to talk about things: people and places, terms and expressions, situations and incidents, I had no idea what. He was telling me things, rather, mysterious snippets and secretive pieces of things, that were so incredibly foreign to my experience in the military, my bullshit meter began to go off, and stayed wagging back and forth inside my head, until he finally stood up, weaving and stretching, and said, “Nice talkin’ to you, chief.” And disappeared forever into my past.

That is, until years later, doing research for the novel, I turned a page in a book and discovered his photograph—so young-looking, so ferociously smiling—right there in the middle of it all, just like he said it would be.

Copyright 2013 James Snyder
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<![CDATA[The German Autumn]]>Thu, 15 Aug 2013 13:24:33 GMThttp://jamessnyder.net/berlin-diaries/the-german-autumnTerrorism was as much a part of my time in Germany as warm beer. There was the Red Army Faction (RAF), otherwise known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the Revolutionary Cells (Revolutionäre Zellen, or RZ), and other splinter groups, copycat wannabes, until it became hard to keep track of who was blowing up whom. My German friend Bernhard always told me these (himself included) were the first children born beneath the Nazi legacy, and they were having a hard time dealing with that, and were pissed off they even had to deal with it to begin with, so they just decided to start blowing things up, until they could figure it out.

“It’s all one great big collective temper tantrum,” Bernhard would say, laughing and shaking out his shoulder-length black wavy hair, and puffing on one of his foul little filter-less cigarettes.

Maybe so, but as one of the “imperialists” invading their country, I knew the bombs they were exploding around anything American they could find were real enough, and beyond any tantrum I’d ever witnessed. And after they blew Captain Bonner and others to pieces at the Campbell Barracks in Heidelberg, the entire U.S. military command in Germany went lockdown, and pretty much stayed that way, in varying degrees of intensity, for the remainder of my tour there. The terrorists announced the bombings were in response to the war we were engaged in Southeast Asia, and I believed them. But I was sorry to see the easy, relaxed relationship between the Americans and the Germans go away, or at least uncomfortably dampen beneath the wet blanket of geopolitics. For the most part of what I witnessed, Germans and Germany loved all or at least a great many things American, including our bluejeans and cigarettes and our whiskey. Some of this may have had to do with their white-hot hatred for the Russians and what they did at the closings of World War II, but I recall a genuine affection, jokingly calling themselves America’s 51st state, and always asking me about Al Capone and John Dillinger, as well as cowboys and Indians, as if they had all ingested a bit too much Karl May.

At the time the bombings began, I was renting an upstairs apartment from a lovely old German couple, who invited me down to their apartment every Sunday afternoon for brunch. The old woman’s thick soups and steaming red cabbages and succulent pork roasts were amazing, and most likely went a long way toward keeping me alive, those days. They had both been through
two world wars—the old man had been a young soldier in the first one—and were not easily impressed by the rants and ravings of a few young people with chips on their shoulders and ragged copies of Karl Marx on their bedside reading tables.

Ach—diese Kinder!” she would say, shaking her head, while her husband chuckled, reading his newspaper, and shook his head. Then she would look over at me while cutting off slices of that thick dark German bread I would kill for and say, “They are like so many angry children without discipline!” And she would shake her head again, her comments reminding me of what Bernhard
had said about them. The terrorists.

I wasn’t so sure. Of course, this was years before 9/11, but even then it was apparent some sort of shift was taking place—social, political, cultural—that would change things then and forever. I remember feeling different literally overnight, as New Yorkers and all Americans felt different on
September 12th. For my old German landlords, even though they had been engaged in world wars, there was some semblance of here and there. Then, there were fronts, even though they might change in a heartbeat, and borders, and rules of engagement. There was a before and an after. A start and a finish. A we win and you lose. But that was all gone now. There were no fronts anymore. Now, it was all about the local. Rules of engagement? Any semblance of moral propriety? The very sacredness of civilization? Fuck it, those angry, post-Nazi children would tell you, if you had asked them. Fuck it all. Everything was on the table now. Everything was in the game. No quarter given or expected, unless you were absolutely naïve about the whole thing.

At a German party once, I found myself being whisked away into the night by two of my friends.

“Say nothing,” Dieter told me, clenching my arm. “Just come.”

Only later, when we were safely ensconced back at his apartment, sharing a hash-bowl, did I find out the reason.

“Gundred saw two RAF there, watching you,” he said. “She told us to get you out of there.”

Gundred already knew what my old German landlords (as well as all parties at that moment struggling for supremacy in Southeast Asia) slowly came to realize. Once you gave up the territory of your hearts and minds and your physical geography to whomever decided to have a temper tantrum because of their beliefs—political, religious or otherwise—it was hard as hell to get it back, if ever. And by the time their German Autumn arrived, everyone there realized it as well.

Copyright 2013 James Snyder]]>
<![CDATA[The Dutchman]]>Tue, 13 Aug 2013 12:54:02 GMThttp://jamessnyder.net/berlin-diaries/the-dutchmanWhen I was a boy, my family moved to a dilapidated old fishing camp, north of San Francisco and at the south end of the Napa Valley, called Cuttings Wharf. I never went back after we moved away, but I would guess the place is only a memory now. However, when we arrived there, in the early
60’s, it was a squat village of several dozen elevated white and green-trim cabins, strung out along the muddy and polluted Napa River. It was a fantastic place to spend some time, growing up—the roily, always flooding, turd-filled river at hand; the muddy, snake-filled reeds growing amuck; crawling beneath this or that thin-floored cabin to eavesdrop on the crumbling domains of other
poor families; daily dog and kid fights; spitting, feline armies of abandoned, double-pawed cats, chasing about rats that looked like humping, overweight dachshunds; flocking water-birds of every size and description, but especially the vast squadrons of dive-bombing, shitting gulls, attacking the beleaguered line of fishing boats, scurrying to launch or trailer themselves; the obligatory and omnipresent snapping  turtles and croaking bullfrogs; and—my personal favorite—the immigrant gangs that roamed the camp like salivating Huns and would chase you within an inch of your life, if you wandered too far abroad. Every kid should have such experiences, at least once in their life, if for no other reason, to maybe hone their appreciation for those finer things allotted them. In my novel American Warrior the old place is called China Slough, but the stench and poverty and real danger remain.

Some weeks after we arrived there, and I finally became brave or foolish enough to venture out, I discovered something. Someone. Out riding my handmade bike one day after school, I saw an old man, standing upon his wraparound porch that overlooked the river, doing some sort of strange, slow dance, like tai chi, but more menacing. His was the last cabin at the end of the main muddy road through the camp, and the first thing I noticed were all the brightly colored bottles—bottles of every shape and size, and filled with a Crayola-box variety of colored waters—sitting atop the porch railing. Then I saw him emerge from around the corner of his cabin and, closing his eyes, begin his
weird, trancelike dance. I sat there on my bike, mesmerized, watching him until he was finished and went back inside. After that, almost every day, I would ride down the road and stash my bike in the nearby cattails. Then I would squat behind the rusted hull of an old abandoned car there and wait. Some days he appeared; some days he didn’t. But I would stay there, until near dark, waiting for him; afterward, riding my bike slowly back to my own cabin, wondering. This went on for several
weeks, until, one afternoon, the old man suddenly looked over at me and motioned me to join him. It was the first time he had taken notice I was even there, that I was aware of.

 In an interview I did with Dian Moore of BookPleasures.com I mentioned the old man, but I wasn’t entirely forthcoming about our relationship. While I knew him, he made me promise that I would never talk to anyone about him, his very existence, to a soul. He never told me why, but I always knew he was someone filled with delicious secrets, regardless, and that was playing at the back of my mind during the interview. So I left him out, mostly. But I’ve thought about it since then and wanted to reveal a little more about him. Not a lot. But he was such an amazing person, and I don’t think he would begrudge me too much, saying a little more. At least, I hope he wouldn’t.

As a similar scene that makes its way into the novel, we had tea that afternoon and talked. He told me he was a Dutchman, retired from the Dutch military and from the Mare Island Naval Shipyard, and now lived there alone—except, of course, for his enormous, foul-tempered, orange tabby named Mazy—on the bank of the river. He was enjoying his retirement, he told me, smoking his pipe. He enjoyed being left alone. And when I asked him about his strange dance—what was he doing there?—he only winked at me and said it was something from long ago, something from his "abandoned past," as he put it, and didn’t want to talk about. So I let it go.

After that, I began to visit him often, at least, two or three times each week, and we would talk, and sometimes fish, sitting side by side on his sagging porch. And that’s where, one twilight evening, with the unseen frogs beginning to rise up in croaking chorus, he suddenly began to talk about this thing called Pentjak Silat, the martial art of the Asian archipelago the Dutch soldiers called Attack Dance. He told me he had learned it as a young boy, had practiced it for years, and that it was a dangerous, forbidding thing to know. To use.

Before my family finally moved away from the camp, some months later, I learned a few more things about my mysterious Dutchman, including how his wife and daughter died during World War II. It was something, he said, he had never been able to get past. He showed me the few bent and
tattered photographs he had of them—holding them out before my young-boy’s face as if I might help him with something, help him understand something—and said he looked forward to the moment he could be with them again. And that’s the moment, I guess, I came closest to understanding how he had arrived at that point I knew him.

He did show me a few things before I moved away. That is, things about his secret, dangerous art. When together we would stand on his porch, with his eerie, exotic gamelan music playing through the open windows behind us, and go through the basic foot movements, called langkahs, and upper-body movements, called jurus. Like Paul Brett in the beginning, I wasn’t very good. But one of my schoolteachers did drag me down to the principal’s office one day, where they both interrogated me as to just exactly what was going on. Who was abusing me? They knew something
was happening to me, they told me. They saw my black eye and bruises and the way I limped about, and they knew something was going  on.

I never did tell them about my secret Dutchman. I just said I lived in a rough neighborhood and got into fights. In fact, I’ve never revealed a single thing about him, as I promised him years ago, until now. So, forgive me, my old friend, and fill your lungs.

Copyright 2013 James Snyder]]>
<![CDATA[Connecting the Dots]]>Sat, 03 Aug 2013 17:55:15 GMThttp://jamessnyder.net/berlin-diaries/connecting-the-dotsReading Michael Herr’s Dispatches was an epiphany for me. I read it several years after I was discharged from the military, and was either making one last attempt at dealing with the cloistered,
self-involved world of academia or, more likely, wandering about somewhere. But I do remember thinking the book cover looked pretty cool when I purchased it in whatever bookstore, and I remember staying up all night reading the damn thing, slept for a few hours, and then read it again.

Now, it takes a lot for someone’s writing to stop me cold. I would say, after dealing for so long with my own literary demons, I am no longer an entirely “good” reader. Too skewed, perhaps, separating my own wheat from the chaff to maintain my good reader’s perspective for the pleasures afforded. Still, I’ll never forget the feeling I had, listening to that ruminating, world-weary voice telling me about the really old map hanging on the wall of his Saigon apartment, and haunted dead ground, and faces like the wind, and thinking: Uh-oh. I knew immediately Herr was a special writer, and I, as quickly, knew he was going to take me to places I had never been, or even realized I wanted to go. Which, after all, was the reason for all of it, wasn’t it?

I had never been to Nam, and had no overriding desire to go there. In junior high I can still remember the headlines from the Napa Register, telling about the firefights and major battles and the changing American scene in relation to that war. It seemed unreal, somehow, as I suppose it should. Something far away and remotely bothersome, like a distant, uncomfortable noise, you can’t quite locate the source of, but you wish it would stop. In high school a couple of guys who were a year or two ahead of me did go there. And I can recall the obits in the Register chronicling their homecoming. When my draft number drew close (and not fortunate enough, in John Fogarty’s
immortal words, to be a senator’s son), I enlisted. I was fortunate, however, in having taken some German in school, and a staff sergeant friend of mine, who knew someone from that mysterious and magical land known as Assignments, somehow snagged me a tour of duty in the land of my ancestors.

In Europe I was assigned to the Tactical Air Control Center (TACC), which basically was a mobile operations unit that became a sort of remote headquarters during NATO war-game operations. The way it worked was you would be sleeping soundly beneath six inches of soft German tic, when the
alert sirens would begin, sounding like the haunted moaning of giant wandering spirits, fading in and out over the countryside. For some reason Brussels HQ never seemed to play their cat-and-mouse games with the enemy during nice weather. It always seemed, rather, a nice blizzard was in progress when we all climbed into our deuce-and-a-halves and drove in convoy to some remote
mountaintop, where we set up our operations and began our war. For several days after, we would launch our reconnaissance and close-air-support sorties, and watch the ebb and flow of battle on the enormous plotting board of Europe. Then, after the last recon photo was taken and analyzed, the last bomb dropped, we would pack up and head home.

At the time, Europe was like a giant revolving door of soldiers rotating into and out of Vietnam. I worked with many who had been there, from grunts to pilots, all branches and national and religious affiliations. TACC Remote was like a thrilling magnet for soldiers with nothing better to do than come hang out and see how the war games were going. A riotous camp where the action was, and a certain edge-of-seat suspense filled the air, watching the flocks of missiles and squadrons of warplanes passing back and forth over the jagged, red ADIZ, or Air Defense Interceptor
Zone, as the two superpowers clashed.
 
“Get some!” a buddy of mine named Louie would say. Louie was a short fat Mexican from Phoenix, who had been to Nam, and was finishing out his tour in Germany. We smoked a little hash and played guitar together, and Louie would talk about “the real war,” as he called it, and how he was having trouble dealing with it now. “It’s like a big fucking cluster of rattlesnakes, man, up inside my head, trying to unwind themselves.”

I had heard other such cryptic comments among the troops. And one time I went with Louie down to the German phone exchange so he could call his mom back in the states and tell her good bye. He just couldn’t handle it any longer, he told her, crying. It was late at night because of the time
difference, and Louie didn’t say too much as we walked back to the barracks. There, he said goodnight, and went waddling off to his room, shutting the door. In the morning he was back to his same old joking self, saying things like, “I’m glad Kennedy bought it down in Dallas, man. Those rich fucking fat cats sending us off like that. Let them get a taste of it.”

While I knew him, Louie never did buy the proverbial farm. And I never did really understand much of that war-rummaged kaleidoscope swirling around me there. But when I got back to the states and read Herr’s book, I was able to start connecting a few of the dots.

Copyright 2013 James Snyder]]>
<![CDATA[Nothing New in the West]]>Sat, 03 Aug 2013 17:21:34 GMThttp://jamessnyder.net/berlin-diaries/nothing-new-in-the-westI’ve read Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front several times in my life. The first time, I recall, I was a boy, living in an isolated fishing village in the Washington Puget-Sound area. There was a tiny library in the village and, for the time my family lived there, I think I read every book in the place, starting with Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, and then onward to eventually include Remarque’s tome to European group suicide. I can’t recall exactly what I thought then, but I do remember I kept a Favorite Books list, and All Quiet was on it.

I recall my high school reading of it better. I remember we read it for an English
class and discussed it afterward. I’m sure we all wrote much-labored essays
about the book’s technique and content, with our young minds reaching out to try and grasp the ungraspable But I do believe that’s where I began to understand the beautiful, heartbreaking wonder of his prose. I was also reading a lot of Hemingway then, which I loved, but I was starting to develop a writer’s instinct for the intricacies of the art, and I detected a practiced mannerism in Ernest’s stuff that was missing from Erich’s. Remarque’s prose seemed entirely effortless to me, stripped bare of any artifice, and revealing a scoured honesty to the point of mental anguish. The sentences rolling out, one after the other, like so many precise, jeweler’s-cut diamonds.

As a soldier stationed in Germany in the 70’s, I found a tattered paperback copy of the work in a Frankfurt bookstall, and took it back to my little apartment “on the economy,” as we called it. It was winter and my old German landlady came into the apartment to build a fire in the tiny stove that was my only source of heat, other than the occasional shot of lemon schnapps to quell the shivers. She saw me reading the book and clasped her hands together.

“So—wunderbar! Ein guter Dichter, nicht wahr?

She told me she had read Im Westen Nichts Neues (Nothing New in the West) when she was a girl and the book had just been published. She said it made her cry, because both her father and brother had died in that war and everyone felt that was the beginning of the end for Germany. They all felt that then, she repeated. And Remarque, unfortunately or no, had substantiated their feelings with his story of the ordeal they had all just been through.

Talking with the old woman had been a revelation for me then. It was one thing to long-admire something simply for its self, its own innate value. But it was a different experience to have someone, in a near literal sense, step out of the pages of the book, had actually lived the days and nights and experiences the book contained, and was there to look you in the eyes and say, “Yes, it’s true. It’s all true, just like he wrote.”

There is an accumulative effect to the work that was dangerously undetectable when I read it as a boy and in high school. But—when I first arrived in Germany and slept in barracks beneath the bunkered shadows of seven nuclear missiles (we referred to as the Seven Dwarfs) entombed within the fair hillside above; and then I went on war-game maneuvers where I saw entire cities—nations—disappear in an instant on the enormous, glowing, thermoplastic plotting-board of Europe; and the days and nights we were on high alert after the latest round of terrorists bombings; and on and on with the rest of it—I finally understood.

What Remarque was saying was that obviously war made no sense, to anything, anybody, but we went ahead and did it anyway. And that mankind, left to its determined self, would always sooner or later find its way back to war’s doorstep and the resultant annihilation. And, faced with such an unimaginable deceit, all he could do was find a way to process that and speak to it in the only way left him. And the rest of it be damned.

Copyright 2013 James Snyder
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