Dan Corfield teaches writing at Golden West College in Huntington Beach, California. His fiction appears in various literary journals and his poetry can be found in Beside the City of Angels: An Anthology of Long Beach Poetry. He enjoys surfing and playing beach volleyball in his spare time.
The first class I took when I got back was Theory of Football. It was a three-unit course, ninety bucks per unit, and it ran for sixteen weeks. Thankfully, I didn’t have to pay for any of it, what with the GI Bill and all. I wanted to see how I would do before taking on a bigger load. Would I be able to sit still long enough, focus on the teacher, do my homework, read? All these things I wasn’t sure about, so it was important to choose an easy class.
I got a B minus.
Even though I had played football in high school — I was a wide receiver — I never realized how complicated it could be. All the strategies and plays, both offensive and defensive. So many schemes and philosophies. Our teacher, who happened to be the head football coach of the college, would draw a dozen plays on the board and then we would have to fill in all the arrows that showed where everybody was supposed to go. He was an old school, grizzly-faced, stickler-for-details type of coach. I knew a lot of the plays but certainly not all of them. I studied, got some wrong, got some right.
All in all, I was glad I took the class because it answered the one question I really needed answered: Could I sit in a classroom for sixteen weeks and not lose it?
The following semester I signed up for two more classes: Introduction to First Aid and English 100. Another easy one and a real one too. I hadn’t done so hot in any of my English classes in high school — it’s just that I’m not much of a reader. The only reason I passed high school English was because I completed all the assignments, showed up on time, and worked hard. But this was college.
On the first day of spring semester, I sat on a wooden bench outside the humanities building hesitant to go inside. Across the quad stood McCarthy Hall with its cement pillars and half dozen steps, its wooden doors that parted from the middle.
I looked at my watch. In five more minutes I would be sitting in one of those classrooms. With my backpack strapped across my shoulders, I watched the seconds tick. Then I got up and stepped across the grass, up those steps.
My English 100 professor was a guy named Paul Tayyar. He wasn’t much older than me, ten years at most. I could tell right away he enjoyed being a teacher. He dressed professionally, ties and slacks. He spoke with authority. On the very first day, he told us to be prepared to do two things all semester long: read and write. He’d said this with a smile, as if this was going to be one of the biggest challenges we would ever face, while at the same time a wonderful adventure.
I chose a seat in the front, off to the side. There were about thirty other students in the class. As I listened, I couldn’t help but notice my leg was twitching. I looked around the room and studied the looks on people’s faces. There was nothing much in any of them, but I could feel my own face giving away all my secrets.
Shit. Reading and writing. Of course I knew this day was coming. Sure, I had to read and write in the Army. But this was different, this was literature. In Theory of Football, we had to read only one book, That First Season. It was about the old time coach, Vince Lombardi, and how he had turned the Green Bay Packers into a championship team, a dynasty. It made sense for us to read that book, seeing as we could learn a lot about football from what Lombardi had done. Then, if we decided to be a coach someday, we could apply everything in those pages to our own team.
I’ve never known what to apply to my life from reading some long-ass poem by Shakespeare or a story about a psycho who chops up his neighbor and buries him under his floorboards. Actually, most of the stories I’ve ever read in an English class just told me that life is a miserable, horrible thing to endure.
While Tayyar was going over the syllabus, I felt my head begin to throb. I was sweating just sitting there at my desk. It felt like the walls were closing in on me. I considered walking outside to get some air, but then I did what they told me to do at the VA hospital. I let it come: the panic, the fear, the doubt. I didn’t fight it, but let the emotions wash over me, like an ocean wave. The next thing I knew, Tayyar was looking up at the clock, telling us we were excused for the day.
For homework, we had to read two stories from our Norton anthology, a thick monster of a book that also had plays and poems in it. The first story was, according to Professor Tayyar, one of the greatest works of literature of the entire 20th century. It was about this guy who gets all jealous because his wife invites some blind dude home for dinner. Yep. That’s it. You see, the wife and the blind dude had been good friends in college. The jealous part made sense, but then nothing happened in the story. The blind guy and the husband smoke a joint and then they sit there in the living room watching a TV show about churches. The big ending comes when they draw a picture of a big old cathedral together. Big deal, I thought. So the dude feels sorry for the guy and helps him draw something he can’t see.
Greatest story ever? Hardly.
The second story made more sense. Again, not much happened, but I kind of liked this one. Some Russian doctor wrote it before he died of TB. He’d written a ton of great stories and some plays too. This story was really sad, which is why it was called “Misery.” It was about this horse and buggy driver whose son croaks and no one gives a damn. He tries to talk to the folks he gives rides to, but they’ve got their own shit to worry about so they don’t hear a goddamn thing he says. He ends up telling his horse about how much he misses his son. Then he feels better. The end.
When I got back from Afghanistan, I realized pretty quickly that most folks didn’t give a shit about what we were doing over there. Or, if they did, they certainly didn’t want to talk about it. Oh sure, it was on the news and stuff, but nobody seemed to be all that concerned about the fact that there were people, real people, fighting and dying in a country they couldn’t even locate on a map. Not once did I hear someone saying something about the war when I stood in line at Starbucks, or when I sat at the counter at the Denny’s near my house eating a club sandwich, but I sure overheard a lot of conversations about the size of Kim Kardashian’s ass.
But then again, its not like any of us vets were talking about it either. Hell, my own girlfriend, Kelly, who I’d been with even before being shipped overseas, kept saying there was something off in the way I talked to her whenever we got into a discussion about it.
“It’s like you go somewhere else,” she’d say.
This would make me kind of mad, but when I got mad all she’d say was, “Why are you mad?”
Then I’d get confused.
And then she’d say, “Why are you confused?”
Then she’d hug me, tears in her eyes.
But I would just stand there, shrugging my shoulders, thinking what the heck is she sad about?
Basically, my emotions were all out of whack and I knew it, at least when it came to talking about the war. Which is why the VA counselors told me I should get some therapy. That is, if I was still planning on marrying Kelly, which I was.
But come on, was I really supposed to tell Kelly why I couldn’t sleep at night? It didn’t seem like such a good idea telling the girl you love that you’re afraid you’re going to wake up at 2:00 a.m. and slit her throat because she reminds you of the bastards who were trying to blow your brains out for seven months. I mean, I’m no psychologist, but telling her how the nightmares seemed so real at times that it was all I could do to get out of bed and splash water on my face so I wouldn’t throw my hands around her neck and choke the very life out of her? No, that didn’t seem like such a good idea, to be sharing everything.
I’d been back for about a month when I decided to go to a group meeting at the VA hospital. It was for anyone suffering from combat trauma, which I suppose I was. It was held in a room that looked like it was being used for kids’ daycare during the daytime. There were cardboard letters of the alphabet stuck to a bulletin board and a giant calendar on the wall. Children’s books were spread across a small round table with tiny plastic chairs tucked underneath.
When I got there, an old dude with long gray hair warmly welcomed me. He told me he was the founding member. He’d fought in Korea. Then a fat lady showed up. Her son had been in Iraq, a Marine. She told me she’d been unable to communicate with him ever since he’d gotten back. I guess she was suffering from combat trauma too.
The group was free. It was also anonymous, meaning you were supposed to feel safe saying whatever the hell you wanted while you were there. Nobody would tell anybody outside the group what you had talked about. This seemed kind of odd considering we were all there because we hoped to overcome our fear of talking about all the fucked up shit that happened to us, all the fucked up shit that nobody wanted to talk about. Not only that, but we were all hoping to be able talk to the people outside the group the most, the ones we shouldn’t have been feeling so anonymous with.
I went to the meeting once a week for over a month before it occurred to me that it wasn’t helping all that much. First of all, there was just the three of us, so our stories got old pretty damn quick. And second, well, whenever I got home and Kelly asked me how it went, I could only tell her that I didn’t feel like talking about it. I mean, I had spent the last hour doing just that — talking about it. Why would I want to come home and talk about it some more?
So now I had two issues with Kelly. Not only was I unable to talk with her about what I did over there, but I was also afraid to talk with her about what I did in the meeting that was supposed to help me talk with her about what I did over there. So I stopped going.
But I had to do something, which is why I went back to school — to try a completely different environment. Sure, there were other vets on campus, some doing better than others, but for the most part, this was an entirely new world.
On the third day of class, Professor Tayyar explained how we were supposed to write our first essay. He made a list on the board of the six steps we were going to use so we didn’t get overwhelmed. He called this “the writing process” and said that these six steps should be used all semester long, no matter what type of essay we were writing. The syllabus said we would be writing six essays in all. They had different names and apparently different purposes, but according to Tayyar, the process was always the same.
This first essay was an autobiographical incident essay. Everyone was supposed to pick a significant event in their life and write 1,000 words about it. It could be about anything, really, as long as it was interesting. Tayyar said the key word was “incident.” He said this about ten times. He didn’t want to hear about all the boring shit we’d done since the day we were born, only one interesting event.
I guess if I had to read essays from a bunch of college freshmen, I would want them to be short too.
The first step of the writing process is the brainstorm. It’s just words and phrases written down quickly without much thought. The point is to get the juices flowing. Here’s what I put down:
Touchdown against Foothill
Kissing Sally Stevenson
Shrooming at Joshua Tree
Landing in Afghanistan
Daisy chain IED
First time at VA group
The first day back at school
Tayyar told us that we didn’t have to spend too much time on our brainstorms, no more than five minutes. He said that when it comes to writing an autobiographical incident essay the thing that you are going to want to write about is going to come out quickly because it’s dear to you and therefore on the tip of your awareness. In other words, you don’t have to dig too deep.
After we did the brainstorm, we had to pick one topic from the list and just start writing all about it.
“Don’t worry about grammar, spelling, or anything like that,” said Tayyar. “This is your rough draft.” And then he quoted Ernest Hemingway, who’d apparently said that all rough drafts are shit. Everyone kind of laughed at that.
This surfer-looking kid sitting in the back row popped off, “Well, heck, if it’s going to be shit, why do you want us to do it in the first place?”
Clearly, he’d missed the point.
Then Tayyar did something that was at first a little strange, but now, looking back, I can see it was pretty cool. He turned directly toward me and said, “You know, Hemingway was injured in a war too. Before he became a great writer, that is.”
How did he know I‘d been wounded in Afghanistan? Because I’d told him, of course. I was required to since I would be getting extra help from the EOPS office, which is the program on campus that gives assistance to disabled vets like me. All I had to do was give him a form to sign and then I would be able to get more time on tests and extra tutoring sessions, that sort of thing. It’s funny, when he signed the form, he looked at me and said, “So where did they get you?”
Coach Sherbeck, my Theory of Football instructor, and Professor Jespersen, my First Aid teacher, had simply taken the paper, signed it, and then handed it back. They didn’t ask me a thing. It felt awkward, standing there before them knowing they had just found out that I’d been wounded in war. The fact that Tayyar wanted to know the story of how I’d been hit and how it affected me was pretty cool.
So off we went on our rough drafts. As I was writing, my head began to do what Tayyar had warned the entire class our heads might do.
“Don’t let your thoughts get the better of you,” he’d said.
Apparently, all sorts of voices were bound to pop up and tell us what we were writing was no good, wrong, shit, worthless, stupid, asinine. According to Tayyar, this was normal. “Don’t censor yourself. Just keep moving your hand across the page. Don’t think. Just write.”
But I couldn’t help it. I knew this had been the most significant thing that ever happened to me in my entire goddamn life. There was all this pressure to get it exactly right, as if writing this short little essay was somehow going to affect the rest of my days on Earth. Weirdly, I felt that Kelly was right there with me, standing over my shoulder as I wrote, reading each word as it came out.
Tayyar told us to take these memories and then organize them chronologically. “You do that, then you have what every good story has: a beginning, middle, and an end.”
Sounded simple enough.
There I was, sitting at my desk, trying to recall the daisy chain IED that blew off in my face, knocking me to kingdom come, when suddenly words were just pouring out, not sounding lame, but coming easily. Because I had stopped giving a shit. I was simply getting it all down.
I had a beginning: the day our Humvee squealed to a halt along the dirt road outside of Kandahar, the very moment Afghani gunfire cracked across the desert landscape, sizzling toward my head. And then from there the sights and sounds of rebel ambush.
Now I’m not saying my essay was great or anything. What I’m saying is it was, well, pretty damn cool how into it I was getting, how easily the whole story was spilling out before me, and, well, on top of that, how much I was actually enjoying the telling of my significant incident. For the first time since I’d gotten back, it felt like the right moment, the right opportunity, I suppose, to share how I’d almost gotten my head blown off and how fucking scared I’d been. Or, rather, how scared I have been ever since, scared of shit I’d never been scared of before — sudden noises, meeting new people, talking with Kelly, sleeping at night, and all sorts of shit I hate to admit.
Again, my essay wasn’t anything like what we’d read in the Norton anthology, no scenes involving a guy talking to a horse or a blind man drawing a church, no symbolic figures of old dudes with wings getting stuck in mud or teenage girls in supermarkets strutting around in bikinis acting all bitchy.
But it did have a hail of gunfire coming from far away hills. It had a squad of six soldiers ducking and covering, shouting, “Hit the fucking dirt!” And then “Move, move, move!” All of which was certainly true.
I sat there at my desk, lost in the moment, writing like I’d never written before, my hand and head in sync. Just let it all out, I told myself.
And so I wrote about how, hunched down inside the desert brush, we couldn’t see exactly where the shots were coming from. And how, when we moved to get a better look, the first explosion hit. How, in that instant, I watched my men drop down a second time, only I had been too late. Just as I turned around, the second explosion blew, then the third, then the fourth, then the fifth, a daisy chain of force so strong it threw me off my feet, the hot air scorching my face. Blown back, I crash landed, crushing my skull against my helmet, leaving me KO’d in that dry and dusty Afghani soil.
The middle part of my essay came when I wrote about waking up in a German hospital, having no recollection of being medevaced, no sense of what had really happened until my fellow grunt, Corporal Lance Dawkins, filled me in. He was standing over me, smiling, telling me how I’d gotten to my feet for a brief moment right after the explosion only to reach down and grab my crotch, apparently making sure that everything was still intact down there, before deciding to pass out. He said he knew I was going to be okay when he saw that.
But this middle part wasn’t coming as easily as the beginning had.
“There comes a point, even in a rough draft, when the initial rush slows down, and you have to work a little harder,” Professor Tayyar had said. “When this happens, just pause and think of all the concrete details you remember. Then put them down in the order they happened.”
Having paused to look up at the clock, I took a deep breath, and then I started writing again, remembering, of course, that this wasn’t supposed to be my entire life story. And so I wrote about what the VA doctor told me was wrong with me, how in the hospital I learned that I had a hematoma on my brain the size of a grapefruit, that I had lost all hearing in my right ear, and all the damage done because of my skull’s violent crash against my helmet would never be reversed. I also learned that I had four broken ribs, a torn ligament in my right knee, and a seriously sprained back. But of course the brain bruise was the worst. And I also learned I was done with the United States Army, and I was being shipped back home the next morning.
And then I decided the middle part of my essay should also include how I acted those first few weeks once I was back home. How Kelly and I were having so much trouble talking to one another that we both began to sense a breaking apart. How, whenever I walked into the kitchen to grab something from the fridge and saw her standing there, I’d look her in the eye, as if something needed to be said, but then step past her. All day long we’d do this to each other — catch each other’s glance, pause, continue walking past. Perhaps she was the horse and buggy driver in that Russian doctor’s story, and perhaps I was, in that other story, the husband afraid to engage the blind man, only instead of drawing a church at the end to make everything okay, I just sulked about the house with my lips sealed tight.
And so I wrote about this too, how that daisy chain didn’t just blow me, Staff Sergeant Christopher Rodgers, off to kingdom come, but how it blew civilian Christopher Rodgers right off his feet as well. In writing this, I came to realize that although a significant incident may only last a few seconds in real time, it could easily drag on for the rest of one’s life if a person isn’t all that careful.
And here, thankfully, I sensed an ending coming. In recognizing and naming the feelings that were rising up, I sat there at my desk writing all this down. I began to sense that Kelly would want to hear what I had to say, that it would be good for us if I shared what I had written in my draft.
That night, before crawling into bed, I said to Kelly, “Do you want to hear what I wrote for my English class?”
“Of course I do,” she said. And then she put her book down, sat up straight, and adjusted the pillow behind her back.
“Okay,” I said. “But it’s not done yet. I mean, I don’t quite have the ending, but here’s what I have so far.” And then, sitting on the edge of the bed, I rested one foot on the floor, tucked the other beneath my butt, and began to read.
I could tell she liked it right away. Her expression changed. Her eyes widened. She was following my story, reacting the way I wanted her to react, even though I hadn’t realized I needed a reaction from her until the words left my mouth. I read the part about the ambush.
Without saying a word, she listened.
And then I told her how I felt when I heard the news that I was no longer going to be serving as an infantryman in the Army and how it didn’t matter all that much since I was coming home to her.
Her eyes watered, but instead of being confused by this, I understood these were tears of sadness and of joy.
As I continued, I knew she could see what I had seen, that she could hear what I had heard and feel what I had felt. This was what was truly significant about the entire incident. I could tell her now, by just reading what I had written down, and then after I was done, we could talk about it further, and perhaps about other things too.
After turning in our essays, Professor Tayyar told us we had to stand up in front of the class and give a short oral presentation about what we had written. So now I had to talk to everyone about what had happened to me over there. Of course I was nervous, but then again, everybody else would be when their turn to speak came. Thing is, we were all talking about a significant event, the incident that had shaped who we’d become.
It’s funny — as soon as I got up to the podium I recalled something that happened about a week after I’d gotten back. I was watching this program on television, a documentary about how hard it is to be a teenager today because, well, nobody has any idea who the heck they’re supposed to be. In this eerily bland studio setting, the moderator was sticking a mic in front of these poor kids and saying, “Tell us Brittany and Bobby and Billy and Cynthia, who do you think you are?” He was asking it all dramatically, as if these kids were supposed to have some sort of profound answer.
I remember sitting there in my robe on my couch in the middle of the day, reaching for my dog tags, groping for my answer as if he turned his attention through the TV and asked me.
But I no longer wore dog tags.
And so there I was, giving my little presentation, when at the end, the entire class began to clap. Nothing uproarious, just a respectful recognition of the courage it took to get up and share, the same clap that everybody else received when they finished sharing theirs. And then, walking back to my desk, I looked at Professor Tayyar.
“Nice job,” he said.
“Thanks,” I said. And then I sat down.
And while sitting at my desk, listening to the other presenters tell of their significant incidents, I remembered something else Tayyar had said. He had told us we should be willing to be flexible when we choose our brainstorms. In other words, though we think we know everything about the event because it happened to us, the very act of writing about it might lead us to some understanding we had yet to reach. Sure, it would still be the same event, but now it would take on even greater significance. “This too,” he had said, “you want to be sure to include in your final draft.”