What was your worst job ever?
Hands down, my worst civilian job was hosing out henhouses. Each house held about twenty thousand cages and I cleaned a few. The job was so bad it was funny and I wrote a little about it in my new book. Like so many of my other jobs in agriculture, the best that can be said for it is that it only lasted for a few days.
What job was the best?
There’s something deeply satisfying about bringing in a harvest, no matter what the crop or how hard the labor. Then, horses are charming animals and I always loved being around and working with them. I especially enjoyed watching newborn foals, with a little nudging from their mothers, gathering their legs under them and wobbling to their feet, and then, in the coming days and weeks, watching them doubling and redoubling in size while learning how to be horses. But in terms of danger and adventure, thrills and spills and flat-out fun, felling big tree timber was my best job. There’s nothing like it. All I can compare it to is jumping out of airplanes and even that’s a stretch.
What writers have inspired you?
After the war I spent eight years living without electricity and during that time I devoured books. Since, as a present to myself, I quit school on my sixteenth birthday, you might say I was making up for lost time. History and philosophy fascinated me and I took a self-guided tour through world literature, enough of a tour to get a taste of some of its flavors. But I’m an American who has never doubted the wisdom of the Melting Pot; I love my people and it’s always been American history, philosophy, and literature that have been my wellsprings. Not because I think Americans are special. I’ve passed through enough foreign countries to know that all people are created equal, not the least because all people think they’re special. If I had to choose the one writer who has most inspired me, it’d have to be Twain.
Did your book turn out differently than you intended?
Since I set out to write a prequel to Walking Tractor that would, among other things, explain how I wound up a longhaired greenhorn logging the redwoods, the story was pre-existing and I just needed to remember how I was back when I was twenty-two years old and wintering in the loft of a teetering barn. I knew I was a messed-up combat vet, of course, but I’d forgotten how messed up and how it colored my thoughts and actions. War changes a person forever and it doesn’t matter who you are. War poisons the soul. So being a vet became a much bigger part of my book than I intended.
What was most difficult about writing your book?
Sometimes the worst part of surviving a war is coming home. Reliving some of my troubles and knowing how typical I was of vets, not just of my generation but of all generations, soured my mood some, given current events and all. Yet I couldn’t be honest without it and it motivated me to be honest with the young vets now wearing my boots the way I once wore the boots of my fathers.
If readers could get just one thing out of your book, what would it be? That nature is the great healer.
Any advice for young vets returning from today’s wars?
When I was growing up, one of my favorite “uncles” had landed in Normandy with the 82nd Airborne on D-Day. He never said a word about his experiences because he couldn’t bring himself to think about them. About twenty-five years ago I was working in the woods with an old dog-faced bulldozer operator. I must have said something wrong because, his voice fierce, he declared that he’d hiked from Omaha Beach to the Rhine River stepping on human corpses. We locked eyes, I saw his foxhole gaze, and I’ll be damned if the old coot wasn’t a teenager again.
As for advice, I hesitate to offer any, since my own “readjustment” hasn’t exactly been a model of success. But I do know that, at least until you’re ready to fly the nest, it’s crucially important to stay in contact with people who have gone through what you’ve gone through. Also it doesn’t hurt to remember that it isn’t foot soldiers that start wars and to learn to forgive. You survived for a reason and, if you give yourself a chance, you’ll find it soon enough.
Finally, tell me about your new story blog? What’s up with that?
After writing two books in four years, I have no desire to start another. Not yet, anyway. Still, my head is filled with stories. In my new book I wrote a little about my childhood and—surprise—I enjoyed it. Ten years ago I couldn’t have made such material entertaining, but now I can. As we say Out West, my childhood is a rich vein and so why not mine it? Since I also like writing about travel, beauty, making people laugh, and free-styling with my prose, why not start a story blog? Because military-style discipline has never been my strong suit, why not commit myself to posting three original stories per month for one full year? I still don’t know what “writer’s block” feels like, so maybe now I’ll find out. Maybe I’ll gain an audience, sell some books, and find my way to my next one. No doubt it’ll be fun.