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Guest post by Rolf Margenau
I used to get a bit huffy when Garrison Keillor poked fun at English majors on The Prairie Home Companion. Of course, he was an English major and turned that training and his amazing natural talent for story telling into a national institution. I, too, was an English major, the victim of a benighted youth who believed an English major might actually be appropriate training for a paying job. As graduation drew near, I noticed that friends who majored in engineering, accounting, biology and other sciences were considering remunerative job offers while I was contemplating becoming a mail carrier for the summer.
My dream that someone would suffer a case of pluperfect subjunctive in a theater and I could answer the urgent call for an English major was dashed. I found myself looking over my shoulder as though searching for someone else when the subject of English major came up. The occasional short story I sold for fifty or seventy-five dollars was encouraging, but hardly enough to support a wife and one and a half children (one was on the way).
So, I placed the college degree in a revered spot and I went off to law school in hopes that would result in actual employment. Fortunately, it did.
Flash forward to a recently retired lawyer who ran out of preferred chores to do and finally followed his first wife’s request to tidy up the basement. A battered dresser that served as the receptacle for orphan things that fit nowhere else looked ready for the trash heap. I checked the drawers and discovered a cardboard box containing letters carefully tied with cotton string. Apparently they were not worthy of an actual ribbon. Even in the dim light, they seemed familiar.
They were the three hundred and seven letters I had written my future wife, carefully numbered sequentially and tied in four little packages. Most of the letters were from Korea during a sixteen-month tour beginning early in 1954, a few months after the armistice. They were a combination of journal and love letter. The writing wasn’t terrible, and the last few paragraphs, the love letter part, were heartfelt but sentimental and sophomoric. I was glad she was able to overlook the letters and marry me anyway.
However, she must have believed they were worth saving and, as I reread them, almost sixty years later, they did provide a chronicle of the places I visited, the soldiers I met and vignettes of army life during hard times. Some of it was even funny. There were photos of friends and places that caused me to recall them and memories of that time came rushing back. The thought occurred that, with seventy plus years of life experience under my somewhat expanded belt, perhaps I could dust off that English major and write about those long ago times.
A little research was in order. I spoke with my four grandsons who confessed to little or no knowledge of the first cold war conflict where over thirty five thousand young Americans lost their lives. They were not aware that a state of war still existed between north and south Korea, and that twenty eight thousand of our troops are still stationed there.
Next, I called two of my oldest friends who served in Korea with me. Not only were they enthusiastic about the project, they couldn’t stop telling me their stories and recollections of the time there. I took many notes and added them to the pile of letters. Not trusting the accuracy of ancient memories, I consulted the library and spent nine months reading histories about the war. There was much new information, especially about the Chinese intervention and the massive corruption of the Syngman Rhee regime.
Then I discovered a few manila folders wedged in back of a filing cabinet which contained my notes and press clippings from the period. I suppose this is the place where I confess that I was reassigned from the infantry to the 7th Infantry Division Public Information Office soon after I arrived in Korea. My tour of duty was spent reporting on events in Korea and I worked as a correspondent for the Pacific Stars and Stripes out of Tokyo. Heady times for a twenty-year-old stripling.
So, in my seventy-fifth year I assembled facts, rumors, stories and excerpts from my letters about Korea. I needed to protect myself against unwarranted assumptions from my wife and daughters that aspects of the fiction I planned to write actually happened to me. I decided to avoid potential embarrassment and invented Wylie Cypher, an alter ego. It was Wylie who trained for the infantry, shipped off to Korea and engaged in adventures ribald, dangerous, sad and poignant in the land of the morning calm.
The English major kicked into high gear. It was Wylie, me, and the other characters that popped out of nowhere to find a home within the digital pages of my computer. Unexpected was the fact that many of the characters actually spoke to me, not always admiringly. That was disturbing. I spoke with other writers who confirmed it was so. “Yeah, that happens a lot” they told me.
A major character was Wylie’s friend, Shit Dad Rowe. He was a ne’er-do-well who constantly flaunted army regulations and found ingenious ways to side step authority. Wylie sometimes interceded on his behalf. When things got sticky Rowe would complain that was not the way he would have handled this situation and made me rewrite the section, sometimes twice, until he was satisfied. Other times Wylie would be sent down one narrative path and choose a totally unforeseen detour. And, of course, there was a love interest, Amelia. I visualized her as a warm-hearted brunet with dark eyes (a bit like the young woman who received Wylie’s love letters). She came to life as a sparkly red head with emerald green eyes who ran an orphanage for mixed race Korean toddlers. Every time Amelia appeared in a scene I had no idea what she was about to do next.
Ultimately, the story of Wylie and his friends filled four hundred pages and was published. The letters and e-mails fellow veterans send along, telling us how true to life the stories are, move Wylie and me. My daughters are trying to guess how much is not fiction. I had so much fun telling the story that a sequel was published in March this year. Wylie is now seventy-five, dealing with the needs of four women and doing battle with a large agricultural corporation. Magic beans and political chicanery are involved. Private Rowe is now the senior senator from Louisiana – and he is still telling me how to write his story. That book, Master Gardener, will be followed by the story of Wylie’s potentially fatal involvement with the Sendero Luminoso communist guerilla movement in Peru in the 80s. One of its main characters is a five hundred year old child mummy.
Of course, the English major is metaphor for buried and perhaps forgotten talents within us all. I have discovered it is never too late to exhume them and let them breathe new life. I suspect there may be a Wylie lurking just around your next corner. Welcome him.
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