In January or February of 1984, I was wrapping four years of military service. I was stationed at Vandenberg AFB on California’s central coast.
By this time I had decided the military was not for me. Nor did I want to pursue a career in law enforcement (my field in the USAF). I decided I would become a writer.
The seed of a writing career was planted by my brother Don during my first year in the Air Force, when I was stationed at Loring AFB in Maine. I had written him a letter and he had told my mother that he thought my writing had a natural flow to it. It was easy to read. I had been told the same thing by my journalism teacher in high school, but for whatever reason, I didn’t take it seriously then. But praise from Don meant a lot. I took it to heart.
All of those cold, long nights guarding the East Gate at Loring gave me lots of time to read. I read Anthony Burgess mostly. I also read the popular novelists of the day, such as John Irving and Robert Ludlum. When I got to Vandenberg and became a prison guard — again, long, lonely, quite nights — I read Joyce’s Ulysses. And I read lots of poetry. I particularly liked the Romantics, though I had recently discovered Eliot.
For a guy who wanted to write, however, I certainly had no faculty for the tools of my desired trade. I mean, I couldn’t spell (still can’t, really) and I didn’t have a clue about grammar or punctuation. I had slept through high school and failed to learn these basics. Sadly, I wasn’t even truly aware of how deficient my skills were.
I enrolled in my first college courses at Allen Hancock College in Santa Maria. English 101 was taught by Mr. Dermot O’Dwyer, a gentle Irish gentleman who shared my love for Burgess and Joyce (he had once met Burgess at a Bloomsday festival). Mr. O’Dwyer took a good deal of time with me, talking literature, listening to my crappy poems and encouraging me. He also gently and persistently scolded me for my abuse of the English language. It was the shame of turning in essays with these hideous faults that motivated me more than anything to learn about verbs and prepositions and predicates and possessive clauses.
I lived in a broken down trailer in Santa Maria, which is where I planned to live after my discharge. I had few friends, and certainly no girlfriends. I thought of myself as ugly and unworthy. I went to work or to class and I came home and wrote and studied. Once in a while, I would gather with a few other wannabe writers at a local pub for happy hour. That was my life.
On one particular 1984 morning, I was in the jail house office waiting for my relief to arrive, when I found myself transfixed by this black crow hoping around on the front lawn (yes, the jail had a front lawn, and it was quite a lush carpet of bermuda grass). As I waited, I decided to write a poem about what I saw there on the lawn.
I don’t know what it was about those first drafts that fired my imagination, but unlike previous poems, this one went through several revisions. I continued working on it when I got home that morning and after I got up from my day of sleep. A day or two later, I felt it was finished. I had never really worked at crafting a poem before, and I felt good about the results.
I showed it to Mr. O’Dwyer. He marvelled at it. He asked me to make copies for the entire class and had me read it aloud that afternoon. Most of the class was probably bored or jealous or worse by the whole exercise, but I was still proud.
There was one girl in the class who wasn’t bored or jealous. She was a girl whom I had certainly noticed in both English classes I had with her and my Philosophy 101 class. She was petit with smooth, luminescent skin, a perfect little nose, long brown hair and hazel eyes. She talked with me after class. We talked a while. I asked her to lunch. We went to lunch. We got to know each other a bit. We talked on the phone. I found out she loved horses and kept a horse stabled in Lompoc. A couple of times over the next few weeks, I went with Karen to watch her ride. I tried to write a poem about watching her ride, but never succeeded.
Karen and I drifted apart. We really just didn’t have much in common and soon phone conversations became strained and boring for both of us. I was too shy and insecure to take things beyond the talking stage, and maybe that was part of the reason things fizzled out.
But for a couple of weeks of my early college career, I was going out with the prettiest girl in the class — all because of a poem.
The poem is called Blackbird and you can read it here. If you like my poem, please drop a buck or two in the tip jar.