Wild Geese: How I Became a Storyteller
BY JOHN E. McDONALD
The north woods are beautiful in the fall. Rain makes a hunting camp a special place. Kids were allowed on weekendsthis should have been outlawed during the ’50s. Not only did the boys have to work gathering wood carrying water filling the beer coolers they were exposed to too many veterans. A campfire good chow guns and beer and young boys to listen to their stories can cause veterans to warp young minds.
The things I learned from veterans have played a big part in my life. Damn, it was a scramble when moms picked us up at the hunting camp on Sunday afternoon; I had my nose buried in books trying to find all the places the vets had mentioned. Italy North Africa Burma Murmansk Russia Germany France and countless other places. I learned great words in a lot of different languages. Got to try them out in the schoolyard but not when the nuns were around.
One WWI vet had the best stories about rats in the trenches. All of us boys wondered what they had to clap about and why the WWII guys thought that was so funny. The guy who was in North Africa explained how to make home brew in a mess kit. It took many years for us kids to understand what the vets meant when they said the best place to hide was behind a politician.
Ralph rolled his own cigarettes and it took forever and he would light one with his Zippo then snap that lighter shut and say, “Yup, lost five Sherman tanks right out from under me just like this Zippo they lit every time.” The Navy guy would chime right in, “Damn, we could have used some of that fire on the Murmansk run.”
The hotter the campfire the more beer, and our ears perked up when we heard, “Don’t say anything to your mom.” Oh yeah, the fat Italian gal that cooked more than spaghetti, the English girl that couldn’t come out in the daylight. The French girl that was the fastest gal he had ever seen, the German gal he should have brought home cause she loved his bratwurst. There were a lot of good songs too. You always knew when the best stories were coming. The vet would start to pat his dog and hand out another beer: “This ain’t no shit now…”
A storyteller gave us boys mind movies in living color much better than TV. There always seemed to be a lesson in every story, mainly do the right thing no matter where you are. Death hit vets hard; their stories were told over and over again.
I really had no choice. I became a storyteller.
My grandfather and dad wanted me to be a doctor; my mom wanted me to be a priest. I just wanted to see what was over the next hill. The military life gave me discipline and enough freedom to discover more adventure than I really wanted. I asked my dad, “What should I be?” He said, “Be yourself, everything else is taken.”
An Army barracks is not a place for stories; it’s a place for lies. Out in the field is where you tell and hear stories. Everyone has a story if you listen. To understand a great story is to understand its characters.
Telling a story is easy; depending on your audience, you can keep changing it. Writing a story is much different; once the story is written and published, you can’t change it. Everyone has a story. Go to any library; there are hundreds of books to help writers. Books just on titles for your books, books on characters for your stories. Countless books on how to make millions with your first book and how it will outsell the Bible.
I was fortunate; I never wanted to write a thing. My letters home were written in big letters so I could fill two pages. What I could write to my family about war is boring until the shootin’ starts. Nine years in the military left me well equipped to do a lot of different jobs. Wherever I went, I met lots of different folks; the characters in my stories are based on real people I met worked and served with. None of my characters was superman or superwoman.
People are mostly the same. We all want good food for our families a roof over our head our bills paid and our governments leaving us alone. On the border in Germany before the Wall came down I was checking the concrete border markers. The Russians and Czechs gave me the finger and dared me to step into their minefields. Mooning them just made them laugh, but what really made them mad was throwing a couple of packs of Marlboros into the minefield.
Writers and storytellers read a lot. All of my life I have had books close by. Also relied on my imagination and watching people. There are only two classes of people: really rich and folks who are struggling. Sure we all have our differences but then life laughs at us all. Cancer strikes rich and poor; car crashes kill folks no matter what kind of car or truck you drive. Sooner or later we all arrive at a point in our lives where we find we are somewhat content with what we have and where we fit. Then death cheats us all and there’s a bill for that. We find out then that the government is not our friend.
If you want to test the system go over to the airport. I wore my vet hat to the Phoenix airport. I never went to the terrorist section where you take off your shoes and go through the body scan machine. Nope, waited where the sign said arrivals. Two homeland folks approached me: “Hey you a Vietnam vet?” They may have got that from my hat. I stand up and said, “Yup that I am.” The tubby one says, “How many guns have you brought with you today?” My wife says that I have a way with words so I was polite and said “just six.”
The short one had what looked like a ball bat in his hand and a garage door opener on his shirt. He was pushing this button on his shirt and shaking like a leaf in a hurricane. The tubby one very polite had his hand on his taser and said to put my hands on top of my head drop my book and turn around. The black guy sitting across from me yelled to his wife at the drinking fountain: “Bessie bring the camera, they got a terrorist.” I looked around to see who it was.
Suddenly there were eight uniformed folks surrounding me. The ball bat turned out to be a metal detector. Part of the airport is offices for homeland security. Nicer than the waiting area. The bossnot a nice ladyexplained that certain folks are on their watch list and there are certain levels on that list. I asked and I was nice, “Does wearing this hat put me on the list or just being American?”
She was part of the party that escorted me out of the airport and said that many veterans had a very bad attitude took pleasure in hindering government authority and carried weapons and the profile fit. On the sidewalk she told me this was where I was to wait for my party and if I came back into the airport she had the authority to put me on the no-fly list and on my next visit to the airport to respect her officers don’t run my mouth leave my guns at home and have a nice day. If I wanted to smoke, stand in the street.
I had a good friend who was an editor. He loved my stories and suggested that I write them down. I wrote eleven books on a typewriter, the first in 2001. If what you write pleases, you have told a good story. If you get into the business, this is where it pays to be a veteran. Never quit until the battle is won. Read your rejection letters and throw them away. Learn and drive on.
After publishing four books I decided to learn the business endwhat happens after I create something. The publishing houses have layers of people working for them. I walked in and asked for directions. They do not mess around in New York. The lady at the front desk said Ask a cop so I said Wow there must be a million writers working here. She pointed me back to the street writers don’t work we only make money here.
I went to the Book Expo ended up in a circle of agents, the folks who sell your book to publishing houses. These men were all bigger than me. A guy with a beard says, “Oy, what’s wid de boots?” I kinda stuck my foot out and said, “These are Tony Lamas. Good boots last a long time.” Oy says, “Where are you from? Flushing?” I don’t know where that is so I says, “Arizona.”
His brother looks at his Rolex and points at another group of men just as nicely dressed and says, “Those are hillbilly book agents; you’ll have better luck with them. Oh, by the way, I’ll trade you these floorshines I’m wearing for your boots. I always wanted a pair like that.”
I wandered the show and found an author signing cookbooks. I asked how she got to be a best seller. She laughed and said read the front cover carefully. She was right: It said possible best seller. I said it’s twenty bucks for this book cool are you driving a Mercedes? She pointed at the group of agents: No they are, I take the subway. I learned that the money from writing goes to the top and stays there.
I had an advantage. Vietnam taught me more than how to run fast. I kept writing books, publishing my own, kept all my copyrights, sold books at book shows and a lot of other places. I had a lotta fun. My wife collected the money and the best part of it all was sending hundreds and hundreds of books to troops overseas. I did a book giveaway at Walter Reed. Wounded vets wanted their books signed and told me over and over they loved reading about Vietnam vets cause we were ass kickers, there was just no stopping us. No amount of money equals that.
In Las Vegas a Vietnam vet walked up to my table and says, “How about gimme that book right there.” I had nine of my books on the table. I says, “Don’t you want Here Piggy that’s the first of the series.” He moves around my wife and says, “You married to him, Honey? Man, you could do better than that,” and he leans over to me and says, “I already read Here Piggy. I knew that guy in Nam. He was not a what ya call a good grunt. He didn’t write that stuff about him, hell, he didn’t even fight, he was taking notes about me and what the other guys were doin’. There’s some good guys in the stories not all but some. I’ll make you a deal right here and now: You give me the whole series of books and I’ll let you write the rest of my story.”
I started to laugh and the vet even grinned and says, “I’ll make Mac out to be a good guy, well, enough of a good guy that you can make some money from it.” What could I do but give him another free book? He wanted it signed; it sells for more at the VFW.
We all have a story. Tell it. If you don’t want to write it down, then get a computer you talk into. It does it for you. If that’s too much, get a cell phone. I’m sure by now they have some kinda app that writes books. Write what you know. Enjoy what you’re writing and creating. If you write the next bestseller be humble. The publisher or agent is not going to be any nicer to you for putting money in his pocket.
I am working on a story on how to get the terrorists in the Middle East to stop killing Christians and hunt a more difficult target. First I have to explain that what they are doing is too easy and they should hunt editorsa very difficult target to hunt and hit. Once the editors understand that they are being hunted, why, you will never be able to find one. They will be out from behind their desks and computers faster than NASCAR. This is where I make my money: I’ll convince the editors union that book agents can pass for editors and are easier to hunt. All the bling they have made from writers slows them down.
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