Last week at the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference in Seattle, Bob Dugoni (NY Times best-selling author) gave an extraordinary address in which he asked attendees to consider who they are as writers. He suggested we identify 5 things that define us as individuals. Knowing who you are helps you to understand the stories you write and the reasons you write them. The first item on my list was the grenade that blew up in my father's hand during his basic training at Ft. Jackson Army base during World War II. I have always realized that grenade blew up in the lives of his unborn children as well, but I was unaware of how much it influenced my writing. The photo below was taken three weeks before the grenade exploded. In it, I see a boy--in love with my mother and totally unaware of what awaits him. This event has inserted itself into my fiction and my poetry many times. I believed I was finished with it, but to my surprise this poem found me only a couple weeks ago.
WHOM SHALL WE BLAME?
On that July day in nineteen forty-four
you are eighteen, a country boy,
crawling through combat training at Ft. Jackson.
You see the piece of mud-caked metal
nuzzled beside a Hickory stump.
Too innocent to know there are things
in life we can reach for but shouldn’t,
you dig it out with your bare hands,
dust the treasure off on your khaki sleeve,
then toss it across the narrow field
of high grasses and bright yellow
dandelions to your best friend.
He turns it over, sniffs for a clue.
The smell takes him home….
Rich earth and shell-shaped blossoms
in his wife’s summer garden.
Baffled, he runs toward you,
pitches it back, an impromptu
baseball game between battle maneuvers.
When you reach up to catch it,
the pin dislodges and the grenade,
leftover from another war, explodes.
The boom reverberates for miles,
lifts your friend into a faultless sky,
a hero’s grave in Arlington.Now, so many years later, I imagine
your hand, my father’s hand,
its long, blood-stained fingers,
buried with the pieced-together fragments
of your lost friend. That when his wife is led,
as memory will, into that yesterday, she
carries a bouquet of fresh gardenias,
steps inside the perfect rows
of white crosses and kneels in thick,
fragrant grass beside the miniature flag
on his grave. She bows her head,
prays for her husband,
and she prays for your hand.
A few months ago, a writer friend visited. In the course of our conversations, I showed her this VA-issued orthopedic shoe I'd had bronzed by the same artist who'd done Kenny Rogers favorite cowboy boots. I keep it on the shelf in my writing room, just above my computer. It inspires me. And the purple laces make me smile and remember his wonderful sense of humor.
The shoe belonged to my father. He wore it, or one exactly like it, for fifty-three years. After he died, and I saw the way he'd laced them with those vibrant purple shoelaces, I knew that shoe was the one thing I wanted to keep. But I didn't know why until I tried to articulate its meaning for my friend.
You can barely see them in the photo, but there are two holes in the heel to accommodate the steel brace he wore from ankle to thigh. When a grenade exploded in my father's hand during his basic training at Fort Jackson Army base, he was 18 years old. It took off the fingers on his right hand and broke so many bones that he was in a body cast for months. The doctors wanted to amputate his right leg, believing he'd be better off without it.
For the remainder of his life, my dad had incurable osteomyelitis and a major bone in his leg was rotting. Still, he refused the amputation. When they finally removed the cast, his leg muscles had atrophied and halfway between his knee and ankle, an open wound drained through a hole in his leg. It smelled terrible, like something already dead. All hope that he'd ever stand on his own crumbling leg drained away from every one--every one except my father.
No one believed his leg could be made strong enough to hold his weight of 145 pounds. But my father was not deterred. He suffered through two more surgeries and several skin grafts. Finally, at his insistence, they measured and fitted him with a metal and leather brace. Two steel rods clamped into the 3-inch heel of a shoe designed to compensate for his two inches of lost bone. Grueling physical therapy became part of his daily routine.
My father hated the word, cripple. He did his physical therapy and a year later, he limped out of Valley Forge hospital with crutches, his orthopedic shoes, and that steel brace to support him. The nurses, doctors, secretaries, ward clerks
and the physical therapists lined the hallways as he inched through them like a football hero. Applause and whistles soared into the air around him. Some of the hospital personnel touched his back as he passed them, prodding him carefully forward. When he stumbled, my mother rushed forward, tried to push her way through to him, but his physical therapist held her back. He knew how much this walk meant to my father. When he reached the end of the corridor, my dad raised his good hand into the air and spread his fingers in the victory sign.
A few years before he died, he developed an aortic aneurysm. Because of the osteomyelitis, it could not be repaired in the usual way using mesh without amputating his diseased leg. My father would not agree to the surgery. With the size of that bubble in his aorta, it was only a matter of time until it blew. The irony didn't escape me. Another grenade--threatening to take his leg. We finally found a surgeon at Johns Hopkins who would repair it using a donor aorta. Once again, my father, a widower for more than a decade, walked out of the hospital.
His life long gift to me, his only daughter, was his tenacity. The way he never gave up on his dream to be whole. Tenacity is a wonderful gift for a writer. I can only hope that I will pursue my writing dreams with the same fervor with which he pursed his. Thanks to my writer friend, Martha R. for making me think about the reasons I wanted only my father's shoe. And thanks to my dad for the lessons of tenacity he taught me by his example.
Susan Clayton-Goldner was born in New Castle, Delaware and grew up with four brothers along the banks of the Delaware River. She is a graduate of the University of Arizona's Creative Writing Program. Susan has been writing most of her life. Her novels have been finalists for The Hemingway Award, the Heeken Foundation Fellowship, the Writers Foundation and the Publishing On-line Contest where she received a thousand dollar prize. Susan won the National Writers' Association Novel Award twice for unpublished novels and her poetry was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Susan's novels are currently represented by Elizabeth Kracht of the Kimberly Cameron Agency.
Her work has appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies including Animals as Teachers and Healers, published by Ballantine Books, Our Mothers/Ourselves, by the Greenwood Publishing Group, The Hawaii Pacific Review-Best of a Decade, and New Millennium Writings. Prior to moving to Oregon and writing full time, Susan worked as the Director of Corporate Relations for University Medical Center in Tucson, Arizona.Susan shares a life in Grants Pass, Oregon with her husband, Andreas, a blue-eyed feline named Topaz, her fictional characters, and more books than one person could count. Visit Susan's website at: susanclaytongoldner.com