Who am I to write war stories? Shouldn’t such tales be left to those who’ve actually lived through the horrors and the glories of life on the battlefront? I’d acquiesce to these hard questions in a second if life were simple. But it’s not, and there are a few things you ought to know about me and my life experience before you judge my fitness to tell these tales of heroism.
With titles like “Dinosaur Wars” and stories like my Uncle Herb’s harrowing military adventures in the South Pacific in World War 2, it’s clear I have a strong bent in the warrior direction. But in some ways, as you’ll see, my stories have chosen me, rather than the other way around.
Most blatantly clear is my call to write the horrendous details of Herbert Albert Hopp’s proud but personally devastating days as a gunner aboard a torpedo bomber in the Navy in 1943. While Uncle Herb is gone without having committed his experiences to paper, it just so happens that I am highly trained as a writer, and also that I have been bequeathed a huge number of photos, documents and reminiscences of his tale of heroism in one of the pivotal battles of World War 2. Who else can or will write it?
Regarding my choice to frame the Dinosaur Wars stories in a military scope rather than finding some way to return dinosaurs to earth without the need to invoke war, I simply found it unlikely that humanity would sit by while our planet was recolonized by terrors from the ancient past without putting up some sort of fight.
So, that’s the genesis of my choice of subject matter, but let’s also have a look at my credentials as a war chronicler.
First, and most simplistic, is the fact that my ancestry includes the line that gave rise to Stonewall Jackson, who most historians agree was the greatest general of the American Civil War. He fought on the wrong side of that engagement, but it is also true that the South never lost a battle until they lost my Great Great Uncle Stonewall. So, some interesting blood runs in my veins. The fact that I share his first name, Thomas, and his birthday as well, adds a sense of deja vu to my connectedness to him. His military strategies are still taught at West Point and I have a sense that at least some of my inherent understanding of matters military comes at the instinctual level.
My own relationship with military service is an obscure one that I will try to elucidate here in a few words. In 1971, at the height of the Vietnam conflict, I was a college student with a good solid college deferment to excuse me from military service. Even though I was a long haired hippy of the first magnitude and was, and am, fundamentally against armed conflict in this world, nevertheless I saw the iniquity in the way the obligation was shared out among young Americans. I didn’t feel entitled to my college exemption from the war when others had no recourse but to go when called.
When the plans for a draft lottery were announced by the Nixon government, the whole concept of such a fatalistic approach to war service began to influence my thoughts and actions. I decided to cast my fate to the wind. I declined to re-register my student exemption as I was required to do every year and as a result I received in the mail a new draft card that listed my status as 1-A. I put the card in my wallet and waited to see what the draft lottery would bring. I didn’t mention my 1-A status to my parents, who would have freaked out at the prospect of their beloved son in the Army and risking his life in Vietnam for a war effort that they as well as many other parents had come to see as an unnecessary and unjustifiable cause.
As to my own inner thoughts during the weeks when that card was in my wallet and the lottery was drawing near, I can only tell you a few things. I was committed to the choice I’d made. If my birthday drew a low number, then I’d be getting all my long hair shaved off and shipping out to Nam in the not-too-distant future. If I drew a high number, then the draft would fulfill its allotment of young men and never reach my birthday, and I would be exempted from any military obligation for the rest of my life. I was truly at ease with the uncertainty of my situation. Exemption would reaffirm my hippy notions of living life in peace. Conscription by the Army, on the other hand, was the source of a lot of late-night thinking on my part.
I recall a line or two from a popular song at that time, Arlo Guthry’s “Alice’s Restaurant.” In it, he imagined trying to escape the draft by being declared unfit for service due to homicidal fanaticism. “I wanna eat dead burnt bodies,” he hollered. At the end of his exaggerated and humorous exploration of the subject, Guthry was supposedly disqualified for having littered. For whatever reason, the irony of the notion of me swinging from hippy pacifism to Gung-ho fanaticism stuck in my mind. If they draft me, I thought, I’ll show them the most murderous son-of-a-bitch that has ever hefted an M-16.
The luck of the draw released me from any obligation to make good on this half-threat, half-promise. I’ll never know what the effects might have been of the discipline of military training or the horror of facing another armed man who intended to kill me. I can’t and won’t defend or attempt to argue one way or another about any bravery or lack thereof that might lurk deep in my innards. I will never be tested.
Nevertheless, with all that said it is now I, the trained writer, who confront the need to tell stories that reach down into the heart of the warrior. Perhaps some folks will think I’m patently unqualified. Others, though, may see that in my way I am prepared by the willingness I once expressed to go and fight. That compels me to write these tales, as does and the inescapable fact that brave family forebears have lived the sorts of stories I intend to tell.