Sunday, January 22, 2017

Once More unto the Breech...

Among the many requirements with you were forced to comply in order to graduate from the University of California, mandatory presence in the Reserve Officer's Training Corps, or ROTC, and either diving or jumping from a ten-meter board into a pool of water remain fixed in your memory as two of what you've come to think of as defining details.

Such details of definition have, over the years of your interest in reading, writing, editing, and teaching story, taken on a provocative and idiosyncratic presence, burrowing below conscious thought to the equivalent of muscle memory as you in fact read, write, edit the work of others, and attempt to teach yet others how to tell story.

So far as ROTC is concerned, you'd never thought to have anything to do with it until forced to accept it as a price to be paid for attending the University of California. The courses went through and past you in a blur until you were issued a rifle you were expected to maintain and carry with you during the weekly drill session. The rifle was also your occasion to have been offered a bit of advice from a ROTC faculty that in its way helped inform your sense of humor.

You knew the faculty member from his civilian reputation of having been an outstanding player for the lackluster UCLA football team. He now walked with a limp, carried a bamboo cane, extending the romantic notion of his having been wounded in the service of his country.

He recognized your relative ineptness for things military. One day, he took you aside to caution you about the inevitability of your own looming service to your country, most likely in Korea. "Soon," he said, "you will be taken to a firing range, where you will be issued ammunition, then directed to fire your weapon at a series of targets." He paused to let this sink in, then said, "I'm only going to tell you this once. When the time comes for you to discharge your weapon at one of these targets, you must set aside any pride of accomplishment. You must not aim at the targets assigned to you. If you aim at the targets assigned to you and are successful, you will have won an infantry marksman designation. Never aim at a target that is not yours."

You followed his advice, often with results that disturbed and confounded others. But you were not designated infantry.

At this far remove from your undergraduate days, you continue to cherish the notion of aiming at your own targets rather than those of someone else. You have been in any number of unwanted places, some of them quite disagreeable. You have been given any number of designations that were not congruent with your own designation of Self. But you have never been to Korea, and in one remarkable instance were even refused service in a Korean restaurant, where you went by yourself.

On a scale of one to ten, you'd rank your fear of heights at about five or six. There was no question in your mind that you would indeed step off the high-dive platform on which you stood, looking down at the pool below, where not long before, while playing water polo, you'd blocked an attempted goal spike.

While you mounted the steps to the platform, you even gave serious consideration to a dive rather than a jump, even considering the frill of an added somersault to the dive. Some of your classmates were more hesitant; they had to be coaxed and wheedled before taking the step. Their behavior made you at once scornful and sympathetic, bordering on empathetic.

But now, your name was called. The instructor, clipboard in hand, made eye contact with you, nodded, then tapped his clipboard with his pencil. Somehow, thoughts of a somersault vanished with the tapping of the pencil. In both heart and mind, you knew you would step off the platform. But not just yet.

The instructor nodded again.  "Okay," he said. "Welcome to the world of university graduates."

You looked down at the water. That was over thirty fucking feet. You thought of one of your favorite comedians, Jack Benny, when being confronted by a robber with "Your money, or your life."  To which, after a pause, Benny said, "I'm thinking. I'm thinking."

The instructor spread his palms.

You were thinking.

You were thinking about the devious route you took home from Hancock Park Elementary School, detouring on Lindenhurst and on Maryland streets, where there there were single-dwelling homes you'd scouted out, with owners who were away at work. You knew which houses suited your purpose--to seek the garage at the rear, whereupon you would clamber to the roof of said garage, then jump to the patch of grass below. For that precious moment of your fall, you were the person the third-grade you wished to be, aloft, alert, beyond any restraint except gravity. But you didn't even have to worry about gravity because you wouldn't have to study that until the fourth grade. Or so you thought.

By the time you studied gravity, you were on the other side of the continent, thousands of miles from Hancock Park Elementary School and in a world of racism and culture clash, where everyone--including your teacher--talked differently and thought you were the one who sounded funny because you didn't talk the way they did.

You stepped off the ten-meter board and once again entered free fall.

This is what you do every time you begin a new project, and what you need to keep in mind every time you bring a new character on stage. You set him or her in motion by requesting them to climb the platform, then either jump or dive into the story below.


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