The Wax Bullet War

9781932010701_p0_v1_s260x420On September 12, 2001, a year and a half after finishing his military service, Sean Davis strolled into the Oregon National Guard’s recruiting office and re-enlisted. After dropping out of art school and working a dead-end government job, September 11 gave him a new sense of purpose and direction. Follow Sean Davis’ life as he discovers the oddities of a pop-up America in a hostile desert wasteland; loses his best friend in a violent ambush; returns, critically wounded, to confinement in a place that’s not his home; deals with the fallout of PTSD and the horror of what he experienced in that war zone; and finally, as he rediscovers art and its power to heal.

IMG_1350Sean Davis is a veteran of the Iraq war, an artist, and a writer with an interesting story. He attended art school before earning his bachelor’s degree in English from Portland State University and an MFA in Writing from Pacific University. Sean is currently the veterans service coordinator for the opera Canticle of the Black Madonna. Sean has worked on film with Human: The Movie and television on America’s Worst Tattoos. His art hangs in Six Days Gallery in the heart of the Alberta Arts District in Portland, Oregon. He has contributed to numerous publications including the Flaunt Magazine, Nailed Magazine, and The Good Men Project. He has also appeared on 60 Minutes and plays a big role in helping veterans in the Portland community.

This is a story for the mothers, fathers, family, and friends of war veterans. This is a collection of one soldier’s memories, for those of us who support the troops but not necessarily the war or the reasons behind it; for those of us who have no idea what soldiers actually go through on a daily basis in Iraq; for those of us who have loved ones who have gone through it.

 

Davis transcends politics without ignoring them to bring to light a story of the effects of war on a single soldier. It’s not a manual for fixing the military, foreign policy, or the ravaging effects of PTSD; rather, it’s a guidebook that nudges us along, points out the details, and tells us about things we never knew existed. It’s a beautiful, harrowing, powerful ride through the reality of veteran life in the 21st century.

Praise for The Wax Bullet War

The Wax Bullet War is not a book about battle and its glories. This is a book about duty and its consequences, about rising up from poverty and overcoming PTSD, and about love and art and picking up the pieces and moving on. Sean Davis’s language is pure and poetic and visionary, and his story, one of the finest accounts of the combat veteran’s experience you will ever read, is unforgettable from page to tightly-composed page. Every American and every citizen of the world should read this book and learn from its message of peace and forgiveness and human understanding. ~ Mike Magnuson, author of The Right Man for the Job, Lummox, and Heft on Wheels.

Sean Davis has opened up the soldier’s story wide enough for all of our humanity to emerge–messy, beautiful, chaotic, tender, violent, loving. The territory between soldier and artist is breathtaking.~ Lidia Yuknavitch author of The Chronology of Water, and Dora: A Headcase

The best kind of art breaks, inspires, haunts, and ultimately puts us back together in a slightly altered order so that we may see the world as we have never seen it before. Sean Davis’s The Bullet Wax War does precisely this—connecting our hearts and minds to the dark and perilous as we follow the author’s unflinching and dogged attempt to survive some of the most horrific episodes in recent American history. While the rest of us glanced at catastrophe from the safety of the evening TV news, Davis was on the ground, blood-soaked and broken in Haiti, Iraq, and New Orleans during Katrina, his bare hands dug in the aftermath of disaster and death. But The Bullet Wax War doesn’t just pay homage to soldiers; it grabs hold of anyone who has ever suffered insurmountable pain. Davis staggers and mends and fundamentally rises up to the artist in the man and the reader can’t help but rise up, too. This is a memoir of goodwill and resolve, of guts and sympathy as enormous as the tragedies and heroic misadventures themselves. ~Deborah Reed author of Things We Set on Fire

Sean Davis has penned a brilliant and totally absorbing account of life in the infantry during one of the most troubling times in modern American history. Funny, insightful, literate and poignant–this book will draw equal laughs and tears from its readers. It will stand as one of the best combat memoirs to come out of this new generation of warriors. ~ John R. Bruning author of The Devil’s Sandbox

Davis’ tale of training and combat in Iraq is an important reminder that our politics have consequences. And seriously, what was up with those wax bullets?” — David Axe, War is Boring

A brutally honest account of an ordinary young man surviving extraordinary situations.~ Danfung Dennis Director of the documentary Hell and Back Again

 

News for The Wax Bullet War:

http://ooligan.pdx.edu/sean-davis-at-powells/

http://www.rosecityreader.com/2014/05/author-interview-sean-davis.html?m=1

Wax Bullet War Pictures

Ooligan asked me to send them pictures of my life over the time period in the book. They were only able to use four pictures in the book, but I wanted to share more. I like more of an interactive experience with the books I’ve read and I have been lucky enough to know some of my favorite writers. I like emailing them and asking them about their stories so for the time being I’m doing the same thing for people who are interested in my book. Here are some other pictures and if you want to email me and ask about the book use this email: sean@arockorsomething.org

 

2 One-Acts being Produced

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Two of my one-act plays are in production right now. I’ve been writing plays since I was a kid. Of course today my brother and I don’t star in them anymore. The first of these two plays was commissioned by Mount Hood Community College. I started their reading series last year and they were great enough to have me start their reading series again this year. On November 5th at the Studio Theater on the Mt. Hood Community College campus I will be reading from The Wax Bullet War and showcasing my new one-act play called Chaos of Stars.

Directed by Archie Washington (Navy Veteran)

Stage Director – Brianna Ooms

Starring

Jarrett Brown (brother of combat veteran)

Gabe Vaught (combat veteran)

Tom Voytko (5 tour combat veteran)

Elizabeth Davis

I wrote another one-act play called Of Menudo and Murder which is a homage to one of my favorite screen and stage writers Martin McDonough. I was selected from a bunch of other plays to be produced on live television. Here’s the link of the decision. This play will get cast on October 25& 26.

Teaching, Stage Plays, Movies, and More

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The opera is over and the book tour is winding down, but I’m keeping busy. I’m teaching English and Writing at two colleges here in Portland. Mount Hood Community College has asked me back to read and this time to produce a one act play. I’ll read from my book for about fifteen or twenty minutes and then put the play on. The play is about a veteran recovering from some serious troubles after returning from two deployments. It’s all based off the life of a friend I’ve been helping out and it’s meant to inform people on what some combat veterans go through, but to also inspire other veterans. The American Legion magazine will be doing a story on the play and how the Am Leg needs new leadership to survive. I recently became the post commander on Post 134 on Alberta Street.

The play is called Chaos of Stars and it’s cast. Our first table read is today, but, unfortunately, I’m going to miss it because I have a reading at the Beaverton Public Library.

I was also asked to write a script for a feature length sci fi movie by a friend of mine. He does a lot of FX for the SyFy Channel. Of course I said yes, so I’ve been working on it for about a month now. My friend on the editing staff of Flaunt Magazine asked me to write a short piece on Hemingway and his six-toed cats. I’m trying to come up with a good angle to hit that. I did a bit of research already and found that Teddy Roosevelt also had a six-toed cat named Slippers. Coincidence that these two macho men had the same sort of cat? I’ve stayed away from writing for long enough that I think I want to get back to it soon. I’ve also been in the mood to write a fiction story soon. The idea is swirling around in my head.

I haven’t painted in a few months and that’s really getting to me. It’s just that all my free time has gone to the Legion or to teaching, or to the movie. There’s not enough time unless you make time for what you love. I think I’ll have a paint night next week.

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The Canticle of the Making of The Canticle of The Black Madonna

For the past year, maybe longer, I’ve been the veterans’ service coordinator for the opera The Canticle of The Black Madonna. If you don’t know it’s a story that takes place in Louisiana in 2010. An Afghanistan War veteran returns home to his family business on the Gulf being run by his wife. He has a lot of problems due to the conflict he experienced overseas and then the oil spill happens, and then there’s a hurricane, AND the wife gets pregnant. Man, talk about drama. 

The opera is the product of a four-year collaboration between composer Ethan Gans-Morse and librettist Tiziana DellaTovere. Together, they founded Anima Mundi Productions, which has raised the money, produced of the Opera, and offered a number of opportunities for veterans in the area. The two of them have been great to work with over this past year and they have a big hearts. 

We had our setbacks and dramas outside of the performance too. Every production will, especially a production with this many moving parts. The budget of this opera is somewhere in the six figure range; I’m talking around three hundred thousand dollars. The costumes were made, the stage was built, the actors cast, and throw into this as much veteran projects as they’d let me get away with. There are somewhere around 50 cast and crew members. Some of us like to say that an opera about making this opera would be just as good. 

So yes, we’ve had some outside drama, but this opera has done some incredible things. I have no doubt that this show will be amazing. I’ve been to most of the rehearsals since I have a part in it. The actors are the best. The costumes beautiful. The orchestra. The chorus. The world class talent they have with Kristine the director and Ryan the conductor. These are all the things you can go watch and they are obviously just awesome, but what you won’t see in the performance is the generosity of the cast, crew, and producers. 

Before I go into the other great things we did for vets with this project I’d like to speak a little on the supernumeraries. Without giving too much away the supers represent the main characters tormented memories of his past combat. We are haunting him. When I showed up with the other combat veterans for the first rehearsal we really weren’t prepared. This is a story we’ve all experienced, told through song with some powerful voices. The first day my stage instruction included touching Michael Mayes’ shoulder while he’s on his knees lamenting and, holy shit, I could feel his voice in my arm. I watched the scenes play out where the main character had his doubts about his new life outside the military, his guilt in surviving while others died, his problems with alcohol and his wife. I lived all that, and now here it was on stage with me one of the players. I couldn’t come to a rehearsal without tearing up, man. And then when we rehearsed the second act the main character told his wife about the ambush he was in where his Humvee was blown up, his friends killed, and then he came back to Louisiana during a hurricane? I lived all that. I was blown up, my friends were killed, then I went to New Orleans for Katrina. There were times where this opera became too real for me. I’m not going to lie, it was hard just to be there. It was hard for some of the other supers as well, but worth doing. Some of the feedback I received from the other supers were incredibly positive. 

Beyond casting combat veterans as supernumeraries (opera extras), there were some other amazing things happening. We did three weeks of art therapy sessions with veterans from these current wars to Vietnam. One of the veterans on the project needed almost 1,200 dollars or else the storage facility she had all her worldly possessions in would auction her stuff off. Anima Mundi paid that bill for her. The cast and crew raised money that I’ve used to help pay a combat veteran’s rent, and another combat veteran’s phone bill. We made sure that there would be a night all veterans could come and watch the performance for free and we also made sure there would be services and counsellors there just in case it becomes too real for them like it did for me in the beginning. After this is over we are having a panel discussion on what we’ve learned and how art can help combat veterans heal. This discussion will have some of the supers, a retired chaplain, and the executive producers of the opera. 

The show kicks off on Friday night and plays Saturday night as well. If you’re a veteran come out on Thursday night to watch the final dress rehearsal. While ‘the making of’ might just make a good opera I’ll have to say that the opera we’ve put together kicks ass. I hope you get a chance to see it. 

Here are some behind the scene photos: 

 

Sean Davis – Country Star

Eric on the .50 cal

Eric on the .50 cal

The real name of the friend and brother I lost in Iraq was Eric Scott McKinley. I changed his name to Simon in the book and I never really told anyone but I chose Simon because he was the artistic kid in Lord of the Flies, my favorite character. A lot of us sometimes relate the military to The Lord of the Flies. Funny but true.

Recently I had the opportunity to go to Nashville and write a song about him courtesy of Creativets. I had the privilege to work with Richard Casper, Matt Mason and Lance Carpenter and together we put together this song: Accidental Patriot. It’s called that because Eric wasn’t the best soldier until he found out we were actually going to war, then he excelled. I worked some cool stuff into the song. I was able to to get in Volunteers, that’s the name of my battalion (who are in Afghanistan right now). The song also talks about the Alpine Bakery on the river which is the bakery on the Willamette where Eric used to work. I also plugged Dunn Forest, the place we used to train. The end of the song talks about getting a statue of Eric at the skate park in Corvallis named after him. I’m giving the money from the book sales to that effort. Hopefully, we’ll be able get the memorial into the park in late August.

Here is the demo of the song. I was holding out for the version they are going to use on the album, but I was too excited to share.

Here are some photos of my trip to Nashville

My latest in Flaunt Magazine

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ALL THE WORLD’S AN INTERLACED VIDEO ON X-DB BANDWIDTH

Self-Observations Column

Sean Davis

 

Analog has gone the way of the black-faced honeycreeper. Our collective subconscious is now displayed, updated, and transmitted in full HD for all the world to Like and comment on and critique. The American Dream has become electric. True, all the world’s a stage—and all the men and women merely players—but today every social media platform, every computer, every cell phone is a camera ready to broadcast everything we do; we have the ability to pick and choose which roles we play, what moments are promulgated, and the number of our close-ups. Instead of dreaming about being a movie star or a rock god or a celebrity one day in the future, every American can post pictures and videos of themselves in these designated roles, the more positive the feedback the greater the validation, and the closer our dreams come to being realized. Virtual reality has become reality, virtually, in varying degrees. But here’s the thing: Do achievements in this instant-feedback culture cheapen the experience when these celebrities don’t pay the dues worth celebrating?

Recently, twenty-year-old Jen Selter gained world renown. The source of her rise in prominence?  An Instagram selfie in a gym mirror. Since that initial posting she’s scored a Vanity Fair spread, gone on national television to discuss the cultural and socio-analytical implications of the “belfie”—that is, the taking and disseminating of a self-portrait of your butt—with Barbara Walters, and racked up over three million followers. Every picture she posts (mostly of her ass shrink-wrapped in spandex) gets thousands of Likes and comments within minutes (“Dat ass yum yum @jenselter,” mentions one follower; “whys dis hoe in a bikini on a roof,” wonders another). Today she’s a fitness columnist for the New York Post, despite the fact, as Selter admits, she has no formal fitness training, which begs the question: Without experience or credentials is she an expert or a novelty?

In 2008, a middle school kid named Lucas Cruikshank from Columbus, Nebraska started a YouTube channel. On this channel, he created “FRED,” a young character with the voice of a chipmunk. FRED—described by his creator as having ADHD and “severe anger-management problems”—likes to “sing, do the worm, and talk to the neighborhood squirrels.” In 2009, Cruikshank’s channel was the first in YouTube’s history to gain over one million followers. In 2010, his alter ego was turned into a motion picture, which subsequently earned the lowest rating ever—at 0%—on Rotten Tomatoes (“Fred is a withering, unerringly precise satirical pastiche of the me-first American Idol generation,” mentions one critic; “How could you make a movie based on a terrible 5 minute video?” wonders another). It was a box office flop, but also spawned two sequels, a television show, a Christmas album, and a line of T-shirts. The attention Cruikshank receives from followers and friends seems to trump the critics, and his success continues, somewhat, with the odd cameo.

Are the singers on  American Idol or The Voice real rock stars? Aren’t reality celebrities celebrities? The American Dream has evolved from working hard in order to achieve an almost impossible goal, to a daily prescription we’re now able to write ourselves. But is it as potent? And what about the side effects of this drug? According to statistics on the Megan Meier Foundation page, named after a 13-year-old girl who hung herself as a result of cyber-bullying (“M is for Modern, E is for Enthusiastic, G is for Goofy, A is for Alluring, N is for Neglected,” so said her MySpace page), it’s become a regular occurrence for children and adults alike to be shamed into taking their own lives due to social media posts and updates. The statistics also say that for one suicide there’s around 100 attempts. The flipside of this click-farming fame is depression and related mental health issues like addiction, narcissism, obsession—and surely more without a current diagnosis.

In a recent New York Times article, James Franco equates selfie attention with “power.” He writes that if he posts a photograph of his favorite book or poem, there’s little response and that sometimes he even loses followers, but when he posts a selfie the response is instant. “It’s what the movie studios want for their products, it’s what professional writers want for their work, it’s what newspapers want—hell, it’s what everyone wants: attention. Attention is power.”

Sure, Franco. But for most of the population sitting behind a webcam or standing before a mirror, it’s not always positive. For every “Belfie Queen” and YouTube sensation there are hundreds of thousands of people posting, tweeting, and making videos that will open them up to ridicule. Is Internet or reality television fame a shortcut that cheats society, or is it the natural evolution of what makes our country the best in the world: the American Dream? All the world’s a stage, but not everyone is ready for their close-up. If attention is power, does that make neglect weakness? It’s the classic tree-falling-in-the-forest conundrum:

Q: In a world where our dreams are digitized and uploaded and accessible, what happens if people stop watching?

A: Nothing.

http://www.flaunt.com/art/worlds-interlaced-video-x-db-bandwidth/

I’m a Manly Man Who Happens to Love Art, Opera, and Acting

The other day I was planning a BBQ with an old army buddy. Joe was my SAW gunner in Iraq and he said he couldn’t make it to the BBQ because he had a Rugby tournament. He picked a date and I said I couldn’t do it because I was doing a watercolor session with my opera friends. Another friend in the conversation thread said something to question my manliness.

I’m okay with that. I’m going for a more “cultured” image. When I was going to school to be a writer ten years ago I remember walking across the Mount Hood Community College campus and a young girl there asked me what I was going to school for. I told her to be a writer and a teacher. She shrugged and said I looked like the mechanic type.

I guess there aren’t a whole bunch of former infantry combat veterans becoming writing teachers, not yet. I know of more coming, and I’m happy for it. We have a lot to teach and some amazing experiences people can learn from. I found teaching college and leading men in combat isn’t as different as some people would believe. I use the same skill set. You lead by example. You find your students strengths and weaknesses and give them assignments to accordingly. You find out what motivates them. Turning in the assignments and completing the readings become your missions. There are some big differences, some are good (no one shooting at you), and some are bad (you can’t make your students do pushups).

So, I’m a big manly man doing some things that some may not consider manly, and I love it. It took me a long time to get to this point. We used to say in the army that there are two types of infantrymen: smart ones and strong ones. It took me a while to start making money off my brain muscle instead of my back muscles.

So here’s what I have going on this summer. First and foremost I’ve been lucky enough to be asked to lead a workshop by LitReactor. One of the biggest reasons I thought I could really do this writing thing came from reading Chuck Palahnuik books. I love Fight Club, Survivor, Lullaby, I think I have all of them. LitReactor was founded by the team behind his website and he’s on there all the time. To have a workshop through them is kind of like I made it as a writer – whatever the definition of that is. It’s just really an amazing thing and I get to share all that I’ve learned so far about writing through trauma. Trauma doesn’t only come from combat. It really is a matter of perspective and once someone lives through something traumatic I believe one of the best ways to get through it is to write about it. That’s what I did and while I don’t think I’ll ever be the person I was before my trauma, I’m making it and I have a great life. It takes a while to get there. So here’s the link. Please, pass it along if you know someone who could benefit from it:   http://litreactor.com/classes/writing-through-trauma-with-veteran-and-memoirist-sean-davis

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Next weekend I’ll be leading some art sessions with combat veterans and their family members at the gallery I hang my art at. We will be using watercolors donated by the opera that I’m working on. The Canticle of The Black Madonna will be holding three art sessions with veterans and after the last one we will hold a reception and hang the veterans’ work for the month of August at Six Days Art Gallery right in the heart of the Albera Arts District here in Portland, Oregon. The opera will also be giving away tickets for opening night to veterans and their family members. My job is to fill all 800 seats of the Newmark Theatre in downtown Portland with veterans and family members. It will be an amazing night. The opera will be open to the public on September 5 and 6. Here’s the promotional video me and few other vets are in:

http://canticleoftheblackmadonna.com/

Finally, I will be rehearsing for the next couple of months in order to be on stage for The Telling Project. This is a new thing for me. I’m usually the writer behind the scenes. I’ve tried to stand in for absent actors during rehearsals of plays and I couldn’t remember the lines even though I wrote them. This should be fun. The Portland production will be on September 10-13 at the Portland Center of Performing Arts. Here’s a link:

http://thetellingproject.org/2014/05/15/chicago-portland-or-albuquerque-get-some/

Anyway, so that’s how I’ll be spending the summer being “unmanly”. You know, when I read to people, especially when there are a lot of Vietnam Vets in the audience I tell them that the first thing we should talk about with our warriors coming back from the battlefield are their feelings. It’s the one thing we avoid, but the most important. So far no one’s disagreed.

 

 

 

South San Francisco Reading

I had a blast in South City. The mayor showed up, many of the city counsel members, a half dozen Vietnam Veterans, and I had family show up, family I hadn’t seen in over 10 years. It was a great reconnection. I lived in South San Francisco when I was five. My grandfather was the head  of Public Works there for years and in the audience waiting to hear me read was a woman who remembered ol’ Ralph Davis. It was like coming home a little and making it. It was really an awesome experience. To add to this amazing experience one of the Vietnam Veterans stop the reading halfway through and tell me that after 41 years of being home from his war, I was the only one to understand, I was the only one that reached him. I didn’t know what to say. That’s why I wrote the book.

 

Here are some photos:

I had the best time on this road trip. I took my brother Vince and my nephew Jameson. Here’s a little photo essay of the San Fran road trip if you want to see what it’s like to drive from Portland to San Fran and back.

A Combat Vet’s take on what’s happening in Iraq right now.

Being a combat veteran and someone who wrote a book about the war… More than that- being someone who was critically wounded and lost a good friend during the war, I’ve been asked what I think about what’s happening in Iraq right now. What do I say? I knew it would happen. In my book I describe our actions in trying to bring democracy in Iraq like building sandcastles during low tide. When I was writing my book the first chapter I wrote was in the middle somewhere. It was a chapter called The Kid. I wrote this first because it became my metaphor for the war. Iraq is the kid. My squad is the US.

Right around where I ran into the Skittles kid in the book

Right around where I ran into the Skittles kid in the book

The Kid

The day we drove north into the war I sat in the passenger of my Humvee seat trying to take in every detail of my surroundings. The flat land ran so far into the horizon that I thought it might be possible the world wasn’t round at all. Kuwait was an absolute wasteland of blinding light and unbearable heat. It took hours before we saw patches of brown grass squeezing their way up through the sand. The only signs that any type of civilization had ever been there at all were the melting plastic bottles, curled cardboard, crushed aluminum cans, and pieces of Styrofoam dropped by the other military convoys on the way up.

At 0900 hours I noticed the salt stains dried into my uniform start to darken with sweat again, and the first sergeant’s RTO, or radio telephone operator, announced to the convoy that we had crossed into Iraq. There was no line in the sand, no fence, no boundary marker—only more of the same nothing. The next transmission said one of the maintenance trucks blew a tire. Since my squad’s two trucks were designated the QRF or quick reaction force we were ordered to stay with it until the tire was changed.

My Humvee parked in front of the five-ton maintenance truck and Sergeant McCreery’s Humvee parked behind. Other than our three vehicles I couldn’t see anything but flat land for hundreds of miles. There wasn’t a terrain feature or any discernable hill within eyesight.

The wrecker with the blown tire hadn’t been desert-painted yet, so it was still green, the only green for miles. I jumped out of my vehicle and walked over to talk to the driver of the big rig, fully aware as I stepped out that it was the first time I was setting foot on Iraqi soil.

No one from the truck got out of the cab, so I climbed up on the running board and looked in. I saw two white male soldiers and one black female soldier; all three had decided they weren’t getting out of the cab. The most I could convince them to do was roll down the window. When they did, all three wide-eyed faces were framed in the passenger side window. I asked if they could change the tire, being maintenance and all. That was pretty much their job. The female buck sergeant told me they didn’t have a spare.

“How are you driving into combat without a spare?” I jumped down and looked under the frame of the truck, hoping they were wrong. The female told me her supply sergeant couldn’t get her a one. One of the specialists told me that it didn’t matter anyway, because they didn’t have a hydraulic jack. The female then said her supply sergeant couldn’t get her one of those either. I walked back to my truck, leaving them calling out a list of all the equipment they should have had but didn’t.

I swung the door open on my side of the Humvee, plopped down on the seat, and shut my eyes tight, letting the sweat bead up and run down my cheeks. The sun shone so intensely that when I breathed in I could feel it warm the inside of my lungs.

“Are they pogues?” Eric asked. Pogue was sort of a dirty word in the infantry. It was slang for non-infantry, or someone who didn’t have to go through the same stress we did.

“Yeah, mechanics without a jack or a spare. Imagine if we went to war and forgot our guns.” I opened my eyes and sat up. “We’re going to need help getting these guys moving. Call it in to the next chalk, see if they can help.”

Zedwick yelled from the back of the truck, “Holy shit, Sergeant, there are kids out here.”

I turned and saw four boys dressed in rags and dirty dishdashas—ankle-length, shirt-like garments that most Iraqis wore—but with all the caked-on dirt and stains, they could have been wearing colored burlap sacks. The oldest had on green and couldn’t have been more than fifteen. A kid in blue with a block-shaped head almost as wide as his shoulders pushed a kid wearing an old gray private’s shirt with the word “ARMY” on the front. He must have gotten it from a soldier somehow. The youngest had to be around four years old, in brown rags that folded up around his feet and dragged in the sand.

The oldest recognized that I was in charge and walked toward me with a thumbs-up and a smile. I told him to go home in his language, but he kept moving with that smile like he had no doubt I would help him. He pinched the fingers of his right hand together and bounced them off his pursed lips.

“He wants food,” Zedwick said, standing in the back of my Humvee.

I looked back at him. “I know.”

My first instinct was to give them food and water, but one of the staff majors told us before heading out not to give them any. I didn’t want to start out my tour by disobeying orders. They were dirty, disheveled, and thin, but didn’t look starved. I hesitated for a second before shaking my head no, and the kid knew that hesitation meant I still had enough sentimentality in me to exploit.

The kid turned without missing a step and walked toward McCreery’s truck, giving the same motion and pointing to the four-year-old. The youngest child gave us all starving eyes. These kids were practiced actors and talented at playing the GIs’ heartstrings. They had to be; surviving in the desert demanded focus and determination. Every desert creature needed to be quick, and when the kid in green saw that he wasn’t going to get any scraps from my guys he produced a stack of Saddam bills from under his clothes.

We all eyed those bills. He held in his hands our first opportunity for a war trophy. The kid pointed to Brady, pointing at his cigarette, but it took a second before Brady realized this. When he did, he unclipped his extra ammo pouch, grabbed his smokes, and pulled one from his pack.

The kid peeled off a bill and held it out.

I should have stopped the transaction. Brady had just given a cigarette to a kid. Instead I yelled, “That money isn’t worth anything.”

“I know, Sergeant, but it has Saddam’s face on it.”

Now everyone in the squad wanted to trade something for Saddam money, and instead of putting a stop to it I decided to remove myself from the situation by stepping around the Humvee to piss by the driver’s-side wheel well. I finished and zipped up, and when I came back there were five more kids. “Where did they come from?”

“I have no idea, Sergeant. It’s like they just appeared from nowhere,” Zedwick said.

I looked into the distance and saw the mirror effect the heat waves created across the desert floor. It must have been cutting off our field of view. They either walked from a settlement somewhere out there in the complete desolation, which seemed impossible, or they had a tunnel system, which seemed more impossible. Either way, there they were. They called for food and water in their language and in ours. They pointed pleadingly at watches, pens, sunglasses, and anything else they saw. Then I heard Eric call my name. I turned to find another small crowd around my Humvee.

“Hey, hey, get the hell away from there. Lil byet, lil byet!” I yelled, which I was pretty sure meant “go home,” but either they didn’t understand or they ignored me, and more were coming. They started out as little black dots that broke the mirror effect, grew into silhouettes, and then, almost like magic, turned into little boys dressed in ragged clothes.

Stories had circulated, handed down from the brass—stories of these orphan panhandler children throwing grenades into Humvees, onto the laps of unsuspecting soldiers. I pictured my truck exploding. I yelled at them to leave and waved my arms at the swarm of beggar children. This time I got a few looks, but they soon went back to yelling and jumping at the guys in the trucks. How was it that these children didn’t recognize our chain of command? Our rank structure? They washed against the trucks like a wave. Some children started climbing up the big rig and this terrified the maintenance pogues. They quickly rolled up the windows on the cab of their truck.

Those kids crammed flush against our vehicles and pulled against the padlocked shovel-and-pick set mounted on the outside of the big rig. Little dirty hands grabbed at the rucksacks hanging off the outsides of the Humvees. If they hadn’t stolen anything yet, they would shortly. My arms shook and my chest jittered. I walked through the swarm of desert children to the older boy in green and hoped he spoke enough English that I could use him to get the mob back. He saw me approaching and looked me right in the eyes.

“We want food, water,” he said with a smile that let me know he had me right where he wanted me. I wondered how often he was able to play this little game of his.

“We don’t have enough. Make them leave and I’ll give some to you and your brothers.”

He set to work instantly, yelling in Arabic to the kid in blue and the one in the army shirt. The three of them screamed, pushed, and kicked the others until they dispersed. They acted with such enthusiasm that I almost changed my mind. Their hands waved wildly in the air and the stubborn kids who tried to stay received kicks in the stomach or bloodied noses. I had just put a small despot in power. The scene looked like a riot at an orphanage. Finally, they chased them all away into the desert, and soon only the original four stood there. The violence of the whole thing started the four-year-old crying, with snot running down his nose, over his lips, and down his chin.

“Jesus Christ,” Eric said, standing outside the driver’s-side door with the radio hand-mic clipped to his chin strap. The whole event had taken maybe thirty seconds.

“Z, give me four bottles of water and four MREs,” I said.

“Yes, Sergeant.”

I handed a thirty-two-ounce bottle of drinking water and an MRE to the kid in green, then the kid in blue, and down the line, but when I gave one to the four-year-old, the kid in blue grabbed it from him. The four-year-old started to cry louder.

“Hey, give that back to him,” I said.

The blockhead held both the water bottles and the MREs tight to his chest and stared at me.

“Give it back.” I took a step toward the oldest to have him tell his brother in Arabic. As soon as I broke eye contact, the blockhead took off running. The one in the ARMY shirt chased after and tackled him, and they went tumbling into the sand wrestling and gouging at each other. I thought for a moment that the second kid was getting the little one’s stuff for him, but when he grabbed the MREs that fell to the ground, he tried to take off with all of them himself. The one in blue caught the ARMY shirt kid’s leg, and they rolled around wrestling and biting each other. The oldest ran over and gathered up all the food and water that tumbled out, and took off sprinting. When the other two realized there was nothing left to fight about, they ran off chasing the oldest.

The four-year-old screamed like he was surrounded by devils. I looked at him and took a couple steps into the desert, but the others were gone.

I searched the horizon, but still couldn’t see anything but the blurry, mirrored sand. “What the hell?”

“Now what?” Eric asked.

“What the hell?” I didn’t know what else to say. I walked back to the truck and told Zedwick to give me another water and MRE. I opened the bottle, kneeled next to the kid, and held it out. He grabbed it and sipped between sobs. I unfolded a knife with my thumb and cut through the plastic MRE bag. Inside I found a chocolate-covered oatmeal bar and gave it to him. He went at it with both hands, shoving half into his mouth and letting his water fall to the sand, where it gushed out. I picked up his water bottle and sat beside him in the shade of my Humvee. While he started in on the meal, I took my helmet off and ran my hand through my sweat-soaked hair.

Fifteen minutes or so later the ground started to rumble, letting us know Chalk Six was coming.

Eric called from inside the truck. “Sean, I made radio contact. The second wrecker will be here in five mikes.”

It took ten minutes to fix the tire. I told the female buck sergeant to fall into Chalk Six’s convoy. She nodded but didn’t say thanks. Both the wrecker and the big rig pulled off, leaving me, my squad, and the kid.

The kid was in the middle of finishing the main meal of the MRE.

“We can take him with us,” Eric said, and jumped out of the truck to piss. His chin strap was always unbuttoned, his sleeves were rolled up almost to the elbow, and he left his flak vest pulled open so only half of the front was Velcroed together.

“What the hell, Eric?” I said. “You can’t even take care of yourself and you want to adopt?”

“I’m serious. We should take him with us. He can’t be more than four years old.”

“He’s got to have a family around here somewhere.” I looked down at the kid spooning the last bit of chili-mac from the plastic pouch into his chocolate-covered mouth. A small feeling that I just might take him with me started itching in my gut.

McCreery came out of his truck to see what was going on. “This is something out of Star Wars. I can’t believe people live in this wasteland.”

Eric climbed into the driver’s seat, put his head down, and spoke into the hand-mic. Then he called out, “They want us to catch up.”

The kid scratched some sand out of his hair, completely oblivious to anything else. I made a fist. “Shit.”

“They want to know what’s taking us so long,” Eric said.

I lifted my helmet and ran my hand through my hair. “What’s taking us so long? The big rig only left a minute ago.” I knew we’d lose radio contact in ten minutes or so, and it would be at least another couple hours before Chalk Seven came through. I couldn’t wait. We needed to get back to our chalk.

“Sean, come on, we have to take him with us,” Eric said.

I looked at Eric and wanted to agree. Taking the kid with us was the right thing to do.

“Are you kidding? He’ll find his way back to whatever mud hut he lives in,” McCreery said. “If we take him, his parents will put a jihad out on the next convoy.”

“Hell,” I said. I knew that this was the first desperate kid in a country full of desperate kids. I couldn’t go around saving them all and probably would be court-marshaled for abducting the child, even if I did it with the best of intentions, but could I leave a four-year-old in the middle of a wasteland? “Hell.”

I squatted down next to him. This got his attention, and he smiled at me and rubbed his nose.

“I gotta go, kid.”

His smile widened and I noticed he was missing a couple of his bottom teeth.

I looked up at Zedwick. “Give me two bottles of water.”

McCreery jumped in the cab of his truck. “The minute we leave those other kids are just going to push him down and take them, you know that.”

“I hope so.” Then he wouldn’t be alone in the desert. Zedwick handed down the two bottles of water and a bag of Skittles. I set the water beside him, ripped the bag, and poured some in his hands. He thanked me in Arabic.

“Let’s get out of this shithole,” McCreery shouted.

I stood up, looked at him, and yelled, “Shut the hell up. No one is going anywhere until this kid finishes his god-damned Skittles.”

No one moved until every piece of candy was gone. I told the kid in his language to go home and got in the truck. He hugged both bottles of water to his chest and started walking. I tried to watch him in the side mirror of the truck, but we kicked up so much dust that he disappeared.

A few hours later we were rolling through Baghdad, less than an hour after that we hit Taji. The war kept me busy after that and I didn’t think of the kid again until I was convalescing in an army hospital in Germany months later.

 

 

 

 

 

The Joys of a Common Name

When The Wax Bullet War was still incubating, the publisher gave me an information sheet to fill out and one of the questions was what name I wanted to publish the book under. While this is an easy question for most people it took me a few days to answer it. Like I wrote in my book my real name is Philip Sean Davis, but I haven’t gone by Phil or Philip since… I don’t know, decades. My father’s name was Phil and when I was a kid people called me little Phil or Philip. I never really saw myself as either and went by Sean as early as I could get away with it. Only my brothers still call me Philip, but everyone else knows me as Sean. How many Sean Davises are there in this world? Well, the ones I knew about were the Soccer Player and the gold medal winning speed skater. That was until my book came out under Sean Davis. One search on Amazon led me to another Sean Davis and his ummm…. marital aids?

Only look up Sean Davis on Amazon if you’re 18 or older. This will pop up (forgive the pun) Falcon-Signature-Cock-Sean-Davis

So, then I had to call my beautiful Spanish grandmother and tell her not to Google me. I didn’t think this would be a problem, but she had just gotten a new computer and was doing a good job figuring it out. She even had a Facebook page and wanted to brag about her grandson. I told her to wait a while until the book was out. It was a very creative and awkward conversation when it came to the why.

So the book’s out now and it’s doing pretty well. Most the time when you put Sean Davis in a search engine either me or the soccer player comes up. The speed skater goes by Seanie now, which is a nickname of mine, but not one I’m prepared to write a book or article under. But, a friend of mine and fellow Portland writer had her birthday so I wanted to look up a great quote of hers to post while saying happy birthday. You see, I bought many copies of the book the quote was in, but I keep giving them away and find myself without it when I needed it. I looked up her quotes on Good Reads and then was curious if they had quoted me from my book. I know, complete hubris, but I searched for them. My book came up and all of these amazing reviews, but then on the right side it said other books from this author and it gave a couple I had no idea existed, including this one:

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/21393367-how-to-get-a-perfect-butt-in-4-minutes

21393367

“Get a butt like Kim Kardashian in 4 minutes”

I kind of wish I would have thought of writing this book, and now I wonder if it’s the same Sean Davis who has Latex versions of his Johnson for sale.

At any rate, I can see the value of all these Sean Davis products, but I can only claim credit for The Wax Bullet War. Although, I thought about buying some of the others and having them for sale at a few of my readings. I decided against this because I don’t know if there is a common enough audience. Plus the perfect butt book is just a pdf and it might be some sort of elaborate spam.

Anyway, my advice to others out there who are going to publish with a common name is to either pick an initial like Sean M. Davis author or Clean Freak, or Sean D. Davis PhD author of Common Factors in Family Therapy, or put what you do next to your name like seandavisphotography.com, or sean davis skater profile, like the kid in Tampa Florida who shares my name, the list goes on and on. Do that or just get so famous that there’s only really one of you. You know, like Dr. Dre did.

My Keynote Speech at Clackamas Community College

 

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Words

Thank you so much for having me here. I really appreciate this opportunity to speak to you here at the fifth year of Compose.

 

My name is Sean Davis and I wrote a book called The Wax Bullet War. It’s a book about my experiences from reenlisting in the military the day after September 11th, 2001 and then I jump ahead to about a few years ago. In the book I talk about my time training for the war, the day I was blown up and sent home, and then the long and difficult transition returning from infantry squad leader on the front line to civilian, but don’t worry, that’s not really what I’m going to talk about.

 

I had this other speech about how life is a series of footnotes for a writer, for anyone really, but I decided to go a different route today because I’ve been doing a lot of readings around the country. That other speech is good too. It even started with a Nabokov quote to make me sound smart. I’ll save it for some other conference.

 

Okay, I’m here to talk about words… I know, pretty general, right, but that’s what I want to talk about. I want to talk about words and I want to talk about greatness. How we can achieve greatness through words. Not only how we can achieve greatness, but why we need to achieve greatness.

 

Greatness to me doesn’t mean fame, or tons of money, or even success in writing or whatever else you do. My definition of success is the ability to overcome obstacles in our lives. Greatness is when we accomplish more than what’s expected of us, and sometimes more than even we believe possible. Greatness, sometimes, is simply surviving. Greatness is leaving a mark in this world.

 

So, now’s the part where I tell you about my life.

 

My mom dropped out of her sophomore year of high school to have me and she never went back to finish her diploma. Before she was twenty years old she had two more sons and her husband had left her. My brothers and I were raised dirt poor in the trailer parks in the Cascade Mountain range. We lived on food stamps, welfare and only wore hand me down clothes, we all huddled around kerosene heaters in the wintertime and when we couldn’t afford kerosene we burnt furniture. I mean we even shared bathwater to save money. We were the dirty family, the second-hand or maybe third-hand family, the kids everyone made fun of, the ones on government cheese and powdered milk.

 

As sob stories go this one’s not that bad. I know for a fact that many of you standing here had lives similar, probably worse. I’m not sure how you guys overcame it, but I escaped by reading. I couldn’t control how much money we had or how cool I was but I would do my best to be smarter.

 

I read books I had no business understanding as a middle schooler and high schooler: Plato’s Republic, Aristophanes, Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Nietzsche, Keirkagaard, and every time another book was mentioned in a book I was reading, I’d go and find that book and in all the books I’d always write all the words I couldn’t understand on the inside front cover to look up later. The inside covers were completely filled with words.

 

I lived on my own when I was sixteen in a one-bedroom guest-cottage in the backyard of an old couple’s house I really didn’t know well, but they were nice enough to only charge me a hundred dollars a month. I would go to school in the day and stock the shelves at the local grocery store at night to pay the rent and car payment and grocery bill. This was the way of things. There were a lot of guys like me in the small town I ended up in. I’m sure there are a lot of people here from small towns and maybe some of you at one time had that feeling that college was out of reach. I did. I had no idea how to go about even enrolling. The thought of it intimidated me.

 

The closest I got to going to college was driving to Portland and walking around the PSU campus not knowing if I should just walk into a classroom and ask a teacher or one of the students. I didn’t know and in the end I didn’t do either. I came to the conclusion that the whole college thing wasn’t meant for me, that’s how I felt. I have no doubt that someone here had felt that same way at one time, right?

 

I drove back to my small town where I was on the career track to be a cashier someday, or maybe I could have been assistant manager in the deli, or the tire store. It felt helpless, but I didn’t know what else to do. The one good thing I did do was keep reading. I kept reading and one day I opened up Dante’s Inferno and while I didn’t understand the satire and political criticisms I came across some words that really spoke to me:

 

You must shake off this slothfulness at once. Greatness is not for the man who lies under covers and sits on feathers; And those who use up their lives without greatness leave as little trace of themselves in the world as smoke in the air or foam in the water. So, rise up and master your exhaustion with the spirit that wins every battle.

 

REPEAT

 

These words blew me away. This man who lived hundreds of years ago was speaking directly to me, telling me to stop stocking shelves in a small town super market, leave my shitty roommate situation, and go. Or at least that’s how I took it.

 

There’s no telling where you will or have found the words that move you, but I have no doubt that many of the people here have read that one passage from that one book and it changed your entire life. Right? Walt Whitman, William Blake, Maya Angelou, the Bible, who knows what it was for you, but for me it was these words in Dante’s Inferno.

So right after reading this, no, after getting off work, I drove home – I was working graveyard and didn’t get off until eleven in the morning. My roommates were already stoned and watching TV. I walked right to the phone book and looked up the Peace Corps. I was so nervous I thought I might hang up, but I dialed the number and they answered. I told them I wanted to travel to Africa to save the rhinos, I wanted to clean the drinking water for villages of people, I wanted to save the world. I pictured myself sitting in a grass shack with a stethoscope in my ears listening to the chest of a sick, but improving, native boy. The excitement swelled in my chest. It was something I’d never felt before. I couldn’t wait to get started… but then they asked me what my degree was in, you know, cause you need a degree to be in the Peace Corps and all. I didn’t know that.

 

So, the next week I joined the army infantry.

 

But the point is I left that small town existence because some old book put into words what I had been missing inside of me. I left to change my life. I left searching for greatness because I somehow connected with one stanza written hundreds of years before I was born. I traveled the world. I fought in a revolution in Haiti, I helped in humanitarian missions around the world, and lived in Europe for a few years. I fought in a war with brave men who won the Presidential Unit Citation. That’s the same award they gave the Seal Team for killing Osama bin Laden. The same award they gave the 101st for storming Normandy in WWII.

 

In that war I was critically injured. If I were to show you a photograph of the Humvee I was in after it was blown up you would say that no one could have survived that, and I almost didn’t.

 

I was knocked out instantly, cracked some ribs, tore my rotator cuffs, broke two bones in my arm, a my leg and knee, and received some nerve damage, but due to the amazing surgeons and doctors in three different army hospitals I was able to keep my right hand. And now, ten years later, I have just about full range of motion, but the physical injuries weren’t the worst of it. I had a very hard time coming back from the war. I’m not sure I’m all the way back right now. For years I had survivor’s guilt, I blamed myself for my friend dying since I was in charge of the squad. After the fire fights, seeing people die in horrible ways, I just couldn’t transition back into the civilian world. There was a time when I thought that everything would be easier, easier for me, easier for my family, easier for everyone if I just died. It was a dark time. I would just sit there or lie in bed thinking dark thoughts and drink.

 

Master your slothfulness at once… right? For the man who sits on feathers or lays under covers leaves as much of himself in this world as smoke in the air or foam in the water.

 

The words came back to me. I thought I had gone as far as I could go, but… master your exhaustion with the spirit that wins every battle.

 

Words saved my life. I’m not lying to you; I have that Canto tattooed on my shoulder now to remind me every morning. I do.

 

Words and art saved my life. I started to write my story down, and if you had seen me writing it down you would have thought I was a lunatic. Smashing the keyboard of my computer late into the wee hours of the morning, crying my eyes out, sobbing, breaking down. I was a mess, but that’s what it took, right? I needed to get it out of me and I could do that with words. It was amazing.

 

My book was picked up and it’s a good book, but getting it published isn’t the greatness I’m talking about. Don’t get me wrong, getting a book published is very difficult and if you do it take pride in that accomplishment, but you don’t need a book published to achieve that greatness. You don’t need to be famous. Sometimes just living through something makes you great.
Before and after the readings I’ve done I’m lucky enough to talk to the veterans and family members and their lives, what they lived through blows me away. World War II veterans, Korea, Vietnam, Gulf War, or just people somehow connected to the military who lived through incredible events. Right away we share this connection because of what I wrote or what I read. I’ve given my email or phone number out just about every reading and I’ve had people send me their stories. I’m including a few in the anthology that I’m editing now. Incredible.

 

I know I’m a combat vet and that’s what I wrote about, but you don’t need to have gone to war to know what I’m talking about. Who here is working a full time job, supporting a family, and going to school? That’s hard as hell. That’s greatness. Who here is a single parent, going to college? Just providing for a family is something you need to write about. That’s greatness in my book. Simply maintaining a marriage is difficult. That’s all greatness. Write about it. I know from experience that you writing about your experience can do a couple incredible things. First off, it can help you get through the difficult time. That’s what my book did for me. You can get those demons out one keystroke at a time. Shit, that sounded just as corny out loud than I thought it was going to. I’m sorry, but people all the time ask me if my book was cathartic. I tell them it saved my life. I was on the edge.

The second thing you will do by writing down your experience is inspire other people going through similar tough times. Who knows, maybe some crazy kid will read your words and get them tattooed on his or her arm.

 

It’s way too easy to give up and fall into a routine. It’s too easy to fall into the world of sitcoms, or videogames and not do anything in your life other than work and sleep. When you do that you’re leaving as much of yourself in this world as smoke in the air or foam in the water.

 

We all need to do great things. We do. Because if we don’t then what’s the point of it all? Make a mark on history. Do something great. You’re here right now so I know you want to. The good news is that we have an easy way to do it. Words… Words. Write a poem, write a song, write your story, make up a story, and leave in this life, a part of you. Achieve greatness. Rise up and master your exhaustion with the spirit that wins every battle. That’s the one thing I hope you remember about what I’m saying today, not who I am or the name of the book I wrote, but you have a responsibility to yourself to achieve greatness. Not only can someone else’s words speak to you, inspire you, and change your life, but your own words… writing your words can leave a mark in this word and inspire others.

 

Thank you.

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