Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Talking with Eric Gansworth, part 2

The Military

Part 2 of a conversation with Eric Gansworth, author of If I Ever Get Out of Here, which took place on CCBC-Net in February as part of a discussion of his book. We're making it available here with Mr. Gansworth's permission.

Eric Gansworth

We have noted the similarities and differences between the military base George lives on and the reservation Lewis lives on, as well as the different experiences of military life represented by George's dad and Uncle Albert. Do you have any connection with the military yourself?

Lewis’s discovery of the world beyond his was like my own. My first non-Indian house visit had been at the home of my friend Chuck, the military-son friend mentioned above. So I learned quite a bit then, as we’d been very close, for a painfully short period of time. I also followed up during researching this book with one of the other guys George’s life is partially borrowed from. My two oldest brothers had been in the military. My oldest was drafted and sent over as infantry to Viet Nam, even though he was in college--deferments apparently were not available to all college students. Our next brother did not wish to share that fate, so he enlisted in the Air Force and successfully stayed on the periphery of combat in his time. My uncles and my father had all been drafted in World War II. There’s a long and complicated history of Indians, military service and patriotism, that seems very odd to me. That said, I almost wound up in the Marines, myself.

I’d been working as a laborer for minimum wage in high school and asked a guidance counselor if the SAT exam administrators took payment in installments. The counselor told me I was not really college material and shouldn’t waste my money. I didn’t know any better, so I listened to him. A number of my friends had enlisted in the Marines, and because of that, I agreed to meet a recruiter when he called my mom’s house one day looking for me. I was all ready to sign, but there was one snag.

At the time, New York State had a program for impoverished families that, weirdly now, seems sort of Hunger Games-ish. As I remember it, if you lived below a certain poverty line and had really disastrously, health-impairing crooked teeth, you could “audition” with the state health department and every year, one kid from every county was selected to have braces funded by the state. I won for Niagara County that year! Adhesive braces were available then, but as I understood it, the participating orthodontists were required to use the least expensive, base line adequate materials on these state-funded cases, so I got the braces that they hammered onto your teeth, with a spring loaded gun, fitting them by using a trial and error method, which was excruciating.

On the day The Marine recruiter picked me up to enlist, he told me I’d have to have my braces removed and reinstalled once basic training was over. I decide there was no way I could go through that again, so I asked him to turn around and take me home. I suppose I have the hierarchical nature of health-care in America to thank for my not having become a Marine. I suspect I’d have a very different life now, had I gone through with the enlistment, but the ghost of that day stays with me. I was ten minutes away from signing on the dotted line when the recruiter told me they’d have to pull my braces off and start again several months later, so na├»ve I had no idea what actual Boot Camp would have in store for me had I gone through with it.

Next up: Writing for Teens

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