It’s March 2003, and a late snowstorm is capping what was the snowiest winter since 1978 when we were all kids and school closed for a week. I’ve got a wood stove and a novel to write, and I should be sitting in front of the one and working on the other. Instead, I’m in a Mazda minivan, yelling at the idiots on the road and occasionally acting like one myself, trying to get into Manhattan because CNN says they want to interview me. It’s usually an hour or so drive, but today will take almost three.
I lived in Newport News, Virginia, in the early 1990s. It snowed infrequently there and never amounted to much. Such was the snow paranoia that even a dusting would close schools and send the highways into careening, swerving disaster zones. I think about that now as I cross New Jersey on Route 202 then I-287 then I-78. I remember how we’d sit in the barracks, a bunch of guys from Pennsylvania and Ohio and Illinois and Oregon, drinking beer and laughing at the pictures on Channel 10 of greater Hampton Roads in massive lines at FoodLion for bread and water or in the gutter or median on the way to get there. “What’s with the bread and water?” my friend Troy would ask. He was from central Michigan. “Why do they always make a run on bread and water?”
Driving in Manhattan today sounds like suicide, so I park right out of the Lincoln Tunnel and start hoofing it from 42nd Street down to CNN’s building near Penn Station. It’s not every day you’re on TV, and even though I don’t have much hair, my wife spent a lot of time this morning trying to make it look half-decent. Within a minute my head is a frozen, wet mess, and it just doesn’t matter. I slip on the corner of 40th Street and 8th Avenue and maintain enough balance to hit my knees and not my head. I figure the camera won’t be panning down to my knees and try not to think about it. The security guard in the CNN lobby tells me I look bad, and I let him know I feel bad, too. The intern on the 22nd floor tells me I’m forty minutes early and recommends Starbucks across the street. I think of asking if she’s seen the street recently, decide she could care less, and head back down into the snow to wait it out with an expensive cup of coffee.
My army career, if you can call four years a career, was defined mostly by heat—a post near Virginia Beach, tours of duty in Somalia and Haiti—but it began with winter, freezing rain and snow, in the hills of Ft. Knox, Kentucky. So my bar for cold discomfort was set rather high, right from the start.
On the talking-head chain, I’m neither a retired general nor a former undersecretary of anything; I’m a writer. And not a journalist. Not even a memoirist, these guys penning tomes about their year of heat and dust in the first Gulf War. I am a veteran, but of two strange little countries whose conflicts barely held the American public’s interest at the time, let alone any memory of them now. I am a novelist, and novelists rate right above poets and plumbers in media interest. What all this boils down to is I will not be seeing the main CNN studio and the sexy anchor desk and bright lights. Nor, unfortunately, will I be seeing a stylist about my slight hair problem. I am instead in a cramped conference room right down the hall from the elevator, with a large cameraman trying to find a place to plug in his lights and a busy, friendly reporter apologizing that I had to drive through the snow and apologizing for me having to get my own coffee across the street and really, she says, you’re better off because the stuff here is just awful anyway. She sips from her cup and grimaces to prove it.
In Somalia we made our morning joe by emptying two or three packs of Taster’s Choice into a bottle of water, along with the required iodine tablet, two crushed aspirin, and a multivitamin. Shake hard and swill. I’m a novelist, but that’s a true story, and I told it on the radio to a half-million commuters when Terry Gross asked how I stayed awake and alert in what was rapidly turning into a combat zone. She laughed when I told her that story. It’s a funny story. I didn’t, though, tell her about the sergeant I invented the drink with, and how we would sit on a cot high up on Kismaayo hill in the hot, early mornings, staring through the clear plastic bottle at sunlight refracting through the tiny brown and red and yellow particles floating in the mix. My friend was quietly having a nervous breakdown, which may or may not have had anything to do with where we were in the world—like all true things, it was very complicated. I told Terry Gross about the coffee drink because it was a good story, but I didn’t tell her about my friend. That was an even better story, really—certainly a more important story. But there was no time, no time to tell the deeper story, and one thing I’m trying to learn is to stop talking when there’s not enough time to tell the whole story and tell it right.
So those were both true stories, but I’m a novelist, and any small bit of notoriety I have is due to my talent for making things up. Because Simon & Schuster told them, CNN knows I wrote a novel; but my novel is partially set in Somalia—which is holding steady in its struggle to remain uninteresting to the American media—and partially set on a Greyhound bus, a San Francisco porn shop, and a dishwashing station somewhere in Washington state—none of which are big news locales right now, if ever. But on this miserably snowy day in New York, American soldiers have started dying in numbers worth noticing in Iraq. The first to die was a Marine, Hispanic, not even an American citizen, and this smart (and, I think now, brave) CNN reporter called and asked if I’d noticed. Indeed, I had. None of the casualties and prisoners seemed to come from particularly prosperous families; did I know this? I did. It seems that very few members of the administration had ever been in combat themselves and not one of them had a child on the ground in Iraq; did I have an opinion on this? Yes, I did. Would I mind coming in and talking just a little about my book and maybe more about some of the men and women I’d served with and who they were and why they’d all agreed, in theory, to take a bullet for their nation? I said I would.
You don’t look at the camera when taping; only anchors do that. You look straight ahead, at the smart, brave reporter who’s been wondering if there are things the American people should know about those who fight, kill, and die in their name. I looked straight ahead, and before things really got rolling—while they’re fidgeting with position and shadow and my sweater muffling the microphone—what I’m thinking about is writers and novels and the 5,000 novels published every year and the 4,500 that go out of print every year and the high-school English teacher who said I wasn’t bad at stringing words together but wouldn’t amount to shit if I didn’t learn that “a lot” is two words not one and the ten years’ worth of notebooks in my garage that I filled before I had a single word published and the good friend of mine who is a better writer but unpublished and the two published writers who can’t get their phone calls returned now and then the CNN reporter looks at me and tells me how bad the coffee is and grimaces and that’s when I remember the coffee story I told on the radio. I say, “I’ve had worse” and leave it at that.
It’s such a big country we share, and lately it seems everyone is talking at once. You can’t get a word in edgewise; it’s hard to have your voice heard. And simply because of circumstance of who I once was combined with who I am now someone is asking my opinion—not for me to make something up, not to tell a good story. They’re asking what I think.
No soldier I knew ever talked about why they joined the army; what a stupid thing to talk about. I can’t even imagine. “Hey Troy, why’d you join the army?” I might say. “Hey Bauman, why don’t you shut the fuck up? I’m trying to watch TV over here.”
I don’t remember any writers I know discussing why we wanted to be writers, either, and that seems strange to me. Writers are a stuffy, fussy bunch—especially us’n lit’rary types—but no one stumbles or slips into writing novels, though, like you might stumble or slip into the army, almost as an afterthought, almost like you were born with enlistment papers in hand. Those of us who write once dreamed about writing and part of that is dreaming about the beautiful sentences we’ll produce and part of that is dreaming about someone caring about our opinion. The closer you were to really poor when you were twenty-two and dreaming, the larger the second part of the equation will be. No one has less of a voice in anything than a poor, dreaming, twenty-two-year-old army private somewhere in a foreign desert. So let there be no question as to why I’m here now, thirty-two, looking straight ahead, with bad hair and wet knees. Because someone asked my opinion and who am I to say no.
We talk on-camera forty minutes or so. It will be edited down to a manageable five minutes and run the next day. Except that the U.S. Army goes into Baghdad the next day and a week later I realize the piece is not going to run. They use a very small part of what I said almost four months later, and I’m not unhappy about how it all ends because although I do have an opinion I’m better at writing than speaking and better, I think, at making things up.