Sean’s Theory on Love

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Sean’s Theory on Love

 

“Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle’s compass come;

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.”

That was Shakespeare.

1972: two teenagers have sex under the bleachers of a high school football game. The sixteen-year-old girl finds out she was pregnant after a few months and their parents force them to marry. Five years later, the young man leaves the young woman with three toddler sons and no child support.

That was my childhood.

Mom was beautiful and had no problem finding admirers. She met most of the guys she went out with at The Hungry Hunter where she waited tables. It was a shitty little chain restaurant off of Highway 680 where a person could buy a decent steak from the front of the house or some Mexican dirt-weed from the dishwashers in the back. It didn’t matter if a guy was looking for the former or the latter, Mom would make an impression and many would ask her out, but they didn’t usually stick around once they found out she had three boys at home. A few of them did… for a while. Ernie lasted the longest. He was a pot-head Portuguese foreign car mechanic with an afro like a 70s basketball player and a handle-bar mustache. Ernie smiled all the time and we liked him well enough even though he usually smelled of motor oil and only had one enormous eyebrow that splayed across his forehead, and sometimes he would get so stoned that he would offer me the roach out of habit when we played Legos or Uno, but eventually he left too with a different waitress without kids from the Elmer’s across the street.

Back in 1640 A.D. Cyrano de Bergerac’s small French company of cadets were completely surrounded by Spanish soldiers as far as the eye can see in every direction during the Thirty Years War. Despite being under siege by a superior force, he still snuck out of his camp every night through miles of enemy territory, facing imminent death, all to just mail letters to his one true love.

The bravest thing I ever did for true love was looking up Kirsten Tackett’s parent’s phone number and then with my heart pounding in my throat, calling that number and waiting until she finished the question, “who is this” before hanging up. That was the first time I felt I was in love, so I looked to my estranged father for advice. He began this intimate father-son talk about the birds and the bees with his sure fire way to get rid of crabs. He told me if I ever found myself infested with the little fuckers to fill a fifty-gallon barrel with kerosene, take off all my clothes, shave my genitals, and jump in. He said it was a special type of searing pain most people will never feel in their lives but sometimes you have to deal with that shit when love’s involved. It always worked for him.

Dante Alighieri descended, hand over fist, through the horrors of all nine circles of hell, climbing through purgatory, and then up into heaven itself to find his beloved Beatrice after only meeting her in life twice over a nine-year period. He was so taken by this woman that he faced demons, crawled over Satan himself, and even impossibly ascended into eternal paradise just to see her again.

I broke up with my first serious girlfriend because she played the Grateful Dead way too much. Phish too. And while she didn’t mind having body odor she felt it necessary to burn incense all the goddamn time and smudge the house we shared on Belmont, weekly. Smudging is burning sage to purify the place from evil spirits or some shit.

When I was way too young I married the complete wrong girl and four years later I went through a horrible divorce that sent me spiraling into a weird time in my life that included stripping for middle-aged German hausfraus at second-rate ski resorts in the Bavarian Alps. I went through women at a dizzying and even self-destructive pace. I had no idea what the hell I was doing and that’s because I had no idea what “love” was.

How could I? I still believed the poets.

“My love is of a birth as rare

As ’tis for object strange and high;

It was begotten by Despair

Upon Impossibility.”

-Andrew Marvell

Beautiful… for the 17th Century, but today we have a different definition. In fact, we have several definitions. Today love is an open door. Love is all you need. Love is a battlefield. Love makes the world go round. Can’t buy me love. Let your love flow. Keep on loving you. Can’t stop falling in love. I love a rainy night. I love rock and roll, but what’s love got to do with it? You’ve lost that lovin’ feeling. The power of love. A crazy little thing called love. Baby, I love your way. You’re gonna have to face it your addicted to love. When a man loves a woman. Whitney Houston will always love you and Meatloaf would do anything for love, but he won’t do that.

Beyonce and Jay Z are crazy in love.

“Looking so crazy in love’s,
Got me looking, got me looking so crazy in love.

Uh oh, uh oh, uh oh, oh no no.”

Recently, looking back, I’ve come to believe that the reason I had fucked up all my relationships earlier in my life wasn’t because of me, or any characters flaws I might have had, it was because love used to be a many splendored thing, but by the time I found it, it was, “Honey why don’t we get drunk and screw? I just bought a waterbed. It’s filled up for me and you.”

Love today according to Kanye West, in a song he wrote for his darling wife Kim Kardashian-West, is best expressed in the third stanza where he sings, “I wanna fuck you hard on the sink. After that, give you somethin’ to drink. Step back, can’t get spunk on the mink.”

So, Sean’s theory on love: love isn’t something you can have someone else define for you. It isn’t something you can define for yourself until you’ve experienced the best and worst parts of it. Today I’ve been with the right person for almost ten years and I find that love is a beautiful mental illness, a mental illness that you can share with those closest to you. Love is finding a way to not blame anyone for a shitty childhood. Love is a fifty-gallon barrel of kerosene. Love is the best reason to try and fail. Love is ignoring the fact that your biggest pet peeve in the world is someone leaving the top off the toothpaste tube allowing the toothpaste at the top to get all crusty and gross and not freaking out about it even after asking nicely twenty to thirty times that she put the cap back on after using it.

But that’s just my theory. Don’t beat yourself up if you haven’t come up with one yourself. It’s not your fault. Listen: kiss, hold, caress, talk, smell, sight, sound, touch, sex, fuck… all of these things we use to fall in love or express our love are both nouns and verbs. So is love itself. Everything we do or say to express love in a relationship has at least two meanings. No wonder none of us can figure this shit out. And the word has been used so much over time it’s turned into a joke. So, I’m sorry, but Shakespeare’s full of shit, if love is anything at all, it is most definitely Time’s fool.

American Drug: The GOP’s New Mask

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The GOP chose to respond to President Obama’s State of the Union Address with the face of a female freshman senator from Iowa. While what she said didn’t impress anyone, the fact that she’s not a rich, old, white man should be noticed. Yes, instead of directly answering or even rebutting the president’s message, Senator Ernst carried on the GOP’s misguided ideology, but the fact that she was used as the new face of the Republicans could be a good thing.

Senator Ernst started her response to the president’s speech by telling us that she wasn’t going to respond to his speech. Of course this made little sense, since her responding to the speech was the whole reason the video was produced. Instead of initially responding, she decided to go on a long back story about how she needed to wear bread bags on her feet and sell biscuits at Hardees while saving for college. Yes, we get it. Joni, you grew up with hardships—or at least issues you perceived as hardships—but bread bag shoes does not a poverty-stricken child make.

Senator Ernst’s non-rebuttal of the president’s address rebutted quite a few of his facts, and while those facts can be disputed on both sides, I’d rather talk about her most popular sound bite. Joni told the American people, “We heard the message you sent in November loud and clear, and now we’re getting to work to change the direction Washington has been taking our country.”

While I’m glad the GOP has finally decided to listen to the American people, I wish they had started a little sooner. For instance, why didn’t they hear the fact that the approval rating for Congress—according to Gallup—has been under 20% since November 2012? And while I’m glad the GOP has finally decided to listen to the American people, I wish they wouldn’t make this into a talking point because this last midterm election had the lowest voter turnout in over 70 years, while at the same time had the most money ever spent on a midterm—the Republicans spent $581,781,171 while the Democrats spent $448,605,806. That’s over a billion dollars. That is the most that’s ever been spent on a midterm election in the history of our country. Only 13% of people under 30 voted, and these Millennials will outnumber the Baby boomers as our largest population in just a few short years. I’d be remised if I didn’t add one more fact: Congress’s reelection rate is over 90%.

So, putting all these facts together let’s reexamine what message was sent loud and clear by the American people. Most money ever spent in a midterm election + lowest voter turnout in 72 years + lowest sustained approval rating + astronomical reelection rate = what, exactly?

And let’s talk about the direction the GOP wants to take our country. We have record day after record day in the stock market. Unemployment is lower than it has been in a decade, and we’re finally getting out of this recession. Ernst said the Republicans are going to change the direction of our country. Why? What direction do they want to take us in?

This aside, the one positive we can take away from the GOP’s response is that they’ve taken the stance of the champion of the middle class. While this is highly suspect it can also be seen as foreshadowing for the next election. The Republicans love their talking points and if they say they want to work on economic inequality enough times, who knows, maybe someone will benefit from it. I may be an eternal optimist, but I hope some good will come of this, even if they are pretending to want to help the middle class. Wasn’t it Orwell who said if you wear the mask long enough it will start to fit your face?

 

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.