Guest post: Kim Jones
For the fourth time in two years, a nervous group of 30 adults at sat in class fingering notepads, readying laptops and snapped pen tops open and shut at the beginning of the Spring 2016 Write Your Journey Class. By the end of the class, they were closer than they could have imagined.
The class was inspired by the experience of the teacher, Francine Phillips, as an on-call minister volunteering under Care Ministries leader, Chris Rader. As a career journalist and author, Phillips knew the value of viewing our lives as a story and that identifying the parts of the story and the writing techniques of sharing our stories, helps people clarify and communicate the important learning moments in their lives.
“A lot of us don’t see our own realities,” said Phillips. “We don’t know if we are caught in a tragedy or a romantic comedy. When we lay it out for others, it becomes clear to us. We discover if we are building toward a climax or if we are tapering toward an ending or about to overcome a major conflict.”
The more the class learns to write well, they learn to appreciate the ups and downs they have lived through and how to share them. Using Biblical examples – the description of the banquet hall of Esther, the story of Paul’s transformation on the road to Damascus, the upside-down battle plan of Gideon – we see how details and reactions and dialogue all add to the story we are telling.
This spring, Write Your Journey was interrupted because Phillips broke her ankle halfway through the class and has had to stay off her leg for at least two months. The class has been rescheduled for the Fall of 2016.
Many of the students repeat the class and become better writers each term and further along in understanding and explaining their lives. For instance, retired career U.S. Naval Officer, Kermit Cain, was taking the class for the fourth time. The first time, his writing was precise and spare, reminiscent of the hundreds of military reports that he had written in his career. There were no descriptions or emotions included. Recently he sent a revision of his story to Phillips’ email and she got his permission to publish it in this blog. So, below is an advanced offering from Kermit Cain.
First Patrol in ‘Nam
by Kermit Cain
There is no dark as the dark of the jungle in Vietnam; it the dark of Dante, of Milton. There are two jungles in the jungle of ‘nam; the forest jungle and the jungle of the tree tops – where the entrails of the vines and creepers crawl upon the trunks and stanchions into the sunlight, then spreading out into a canopy that blocks out the sun, the sky, your existence on Earth. Noon there is as twilight or false dawn, the grays and greens interchange for an hour or two then wash away to shades of grey and darkness.
Sunset never arrives, just darkness. Darkness bereft of sky, of moon, of stars – nor of depth, of sound, of reason. Enveloped in a cloak of hopelessness your sojourn dictated an hour ago when the last glimmering vestige of glowing Western sky selected your squadron’s sleeping arrangement. No fire, no smoking, no talking, no movement until dawn. Two hours watches, your ears looking out as far as possible, your eyes providing floating lights and pin-prick colors to dance a few feet in front of you.
We had left the wire two days ago, had two more to go and hopefully only three back – humping less supplies and equipment then when we had left the compound. Strange how it works out, five man squad with only three people concentrating completely on the mission; I’m the fresh meat new guy, five days in country and already on a week extended patrol – I’m still worthless, don’t know anything, don’t contribute much and only remind the rest of the squad that someone else they knew died a week ago.
Then there’s “short timer” his paperclip chain is down to just over a foot long now, figure he must have tossed 75 to 80 away since the “99 and a wakeup” chain was started. He knew everything there was to know, but in ‘nam the “old timer” was also the short timer and he wasn’t going to die with only weeks to go, that left three out of five with skin totally in the game.
I pulled first watch – not trusting the FNG to be a middle string yet, 2000-2200 so I could probably pull seven hours of possible sleep before we saddled up and moved further North come light. I hated the night here, I hated the day also but the night, the night was a preview of hell. There’s no noise, no light – there’s nothing yet you know in the silence those of the night move; in the canopy above, the ground below and on and in every level in between these two extremes the creatures that rest and hide in the day come to life. We’re told to never slap an insect, never brush away a branch unless you use the barrel of your weapon, it could be one of the thirty plus poisonous snakes that live in ‘nam, numerous of which were nocturnal, all of which could kill you with one bite. You allowed any and all a fair share of your skin and body fluids each night on patrol.
My back against a tree, flak vest, helmet and jacket on to protect my neck from whatever might crawl, slide, drop or walk down from above I sat with what I could tell the pathway we’d traveled an hour or so earlier, staring out into black velvet and checking my watch periodically with one eye closed against the glow of the numbers and hands.
It was that nothing that was at first, not a sound so much as a feeling that there should have been or would be a sound – preempting the sound when it arrived. A sound so slight that it only registered in the back of my brain, awakening the vigilance before the awareness, but yes – a sound, a stirring of a leaf against the breeze in any other world but the breeze was never allowed here, the growth stopped any idea of wind being allowed to enter this reality. Movement was but that, movement and I, scared to death of death for a week now, just twenty but now nothing but a naked baby wanting nothing more than to return to the fetal position and sense life, froze in fear.
The movement became movement, my ears now hyper-alert, adrenaline surged and crested within me – knowing that something with purpose and intent had come within our circle and “what do I do?” was not a question that could be answered before the intent became too late.
The next noise centered my piece and I sprayed the clip into the movement, muzzle flashes like a rapid flashing beacon lighting up the target of white pajamas and red headband, a Vietcong had breached us and came within ten feet of our encampment.
She was six, maybe seven years old, it was hard to tell not only due to the fact they were all so small to begin with but most of the rounds had stitched her from the thighs up to her neck, each round pushing and blowing baseball chunks of flesh out of her body until little was left or only connected with threads. She had wanted to steal a box of supplies.
I stayed another eleven months in Vietnam, she was the only person I ever killed.