Monday, November 11, 2019

A Writing Lesson From A Veteran

I am fortunate to know several veterans who have served on fronts in the Middle East, Vietnam, Korea, and in World War Two. They come from all walks of life, people from all corners of our country brought to the same place to serve our country. Some saw combat, some were wounded, others never fired their weapon, but they all came back with stories. They had experiences that few could comprehend, and people who didn't served could never fathom. These are stories that everyone needs to hear.

"In Flanders Field"
Now, when people hear the words veteran and stories, it's easy to think about the war stories - a chopper pilot coming under fire in Vietnam, a unit fighting through an ambush, and all the other things that civilians see in the movies. While such stories are important, someone doesn't need to be one of the men raising the flag at Iwo Jima to have an important story. Rather, everything veterans went through, including training, bad meals, going overseas for the first time, and all those quiet moments of contemplation in a foreign land, are important stories because they describe a world few people know.

In almost every writing workshop I participate in, there's at least one veteran who wants to write their story. In one particular group, a gentleman arrived with this exact intention - to tell his story. We will call him Lenny. He had served our country proudly, but when he came home he went about the business of working, getting married, raising a family and so forth. His life had plenty of stories just from his work and hobbies, but now he wanted to revisit his time in the service. He sat down with our group, explained what he wanted to do, and before too long, he was writing about different episodes of his time in the service.

These weren't front-line stories by any stretch, but they fascinated everyone. One day he's a young man growing up on the south side of Chicago, then he's training for Navy service on the west coast, then he's thousands of miles away in equatorial heat, moving tons of high-grade explosives. These were insights into a world nobody else in the group had ever even considered, much less experienced, and we loved his stories.

What was also fascinating about this was watching Lenny grow as a writer. His writing wasn't perfect, but as he wrote, he got better. He got in touch with the heart of the stories, he developed a voice that was very much his own. When he showed up that one Wednesday evening, he admitted he did not have any real experience with writing stories. However, he dedicated himself to the process and told his stories, and in time, Lenny became a writer.

Incidentally, I left out one detail that might be the most important part of the story. When Lenny showed up for that first meeting and set out his goal, he was ninety years old. A World War Two veteran who served in the Pacific, he decided to start writing when he was ninety.

For those who say they are too old to become a writer, they need to meet Lenny.

This year, Lenny (whose actual name is Sylvester Kapocius) had his first book, "To Manus and Back," published, telling many (but nowhere near all) of his stories from his time with the Lion Four unit, loading ships from a base on Manus Island. As the editor of the book, I had the opportunity to learn a lot from his experiences. However, what I also learned is how one person's dedication can make anything happen.

Thank a veteran for their service today. And listen to their stories - they are more priceless than you know.

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