We all have things in our pasts that have directed us toward where and what we are today. Everything we are at any given instant is the summation of events from our past. Our lives are chalkboards from which nothing can ever be erased – covered over by later events, but never erased.
When I was in the second grade, at La Mesa Elementary School, in Albuquerque, NM, in 1955, my classmates and I were learning to read. I took to it like a duck to water. Even our rudimentary grasp of the written word opened up unfathomable universes to us – our parents could no longer write notes with the expectation that we wouldn’t find out what they said. Magazines, newspapers, billboards, cereal boxes, and a million other media were suddenly exposed to us. Given what a pack of filthy-minded wretches we were, even at that age, the metaphor of getting a glimpse of the wonders beneath a stripper’s cloak is not out of place. The written word is a drug, so addictive and mind-altering as to dwarf meth, cocaine, and all the other substances that may seem to stretch, but actually pervert the consciousness.
WAR AND THE SECOND-GRADER
So, all that heavy epistemological stuff aside, we discovered all kinds of things that had been right under our noses. Trenchant in my life were two such discoveries. First was the fact that my initials spell war. Wessley Alvis Rodgers. I was named for my mom’s great uncle on her dad’s side, Henry Wessley Hyatt, and her dad, Alvis Graves. My classmates cared not a fig for all that, though; they’d found something to tease me about. All day, every day at school, at play after school, and even in the school league baseball we played in the summer, I got teased about war. My reaction was not altogether unpredictable. I thought, “If they want me to be warlike, by thunder, I’ll give ‘em war to the knife and the knife to the hilt.” (Of course, I hadn’t read such bellicose hyperbole at that time, but the emotion was the same.)
I became the most blood-thirsty little creep you ever saw. Everything in my school work had to do with war: the sentences I wrote for my spelling words, the pictures I drew in art class, the songs I sang on the playground… I immersed myself in war, and became a poster boy for gun control and Ritalin, though only the former existed at the time. (My first schoolyard fist fight was over gun control in the 3rd grade. My second was in the 5th grade, when some damnyankee insulted Texas.) Late in my 2nd grade year, I got a copy of Adolf Galland’s “The First and the Last,” a history of the Luftwaffe in WWII. I have no idea on earth where I got it, but when my classmates were finding the Dick and Jane books growing old, I was up to my eyeballs in Goering’s perfidy, Hitler’s lunacy, and the hundred-proof fumes that reek from good aviation writing. My Boy Scout handbooks were defaced with warlike slogans, especially those relating to the Southern Confederacy and the Texas War for Independence.
It got so bad that, in my 6th grade year, Mom and Dad sat me down and had a serious talk with me about how horrible war is, and how it is nothing to make light of or joke about. It was years before I really understood what they were talking about. Dad was Marine veteran of the Pacific fighting, most notably on Iwo Jima, and Mom had lost several relatives, friends, and, though she never opened up to me about it, I think a lover or two in the war. I can now only imaging the distress I must have caused them with my fetish.
Two things happened in high school that had a positive effect on the course of my life by directly influencing my fascination with war. One came from my world history teacher, Mrs. Barbara Murdoch. Rather than beat me up about my foolishness, she used it as leverage to change my direction, as a judo practicant uses the momentum of his opponent against him. She pointed out that an interest in war is okay, but if I were to study war, I should study the entire subject. “Huh?” I probably said, staring at her like a cow at a new gate. She said that if I were to really understand war, and become a master of the subject, I needed to understand, not just the campaigns and battles, but the causes and effects of war. All wars have causes, no matter how irrational or contrived, and those causes enable the student to understand much more clearly the prosecution of the war. Then, all wars have effects, which all too often are the causes of the next war.
I was blown away! With a few sentences, Mrs. Murdoch had dynamited the walls I’d built around my mind, and exposed me to horizons I’d never imagined. It didn’t dawn on my for several years that if you study the causes of wars, the wars, and the results of wars, that’s pretty much the totality of history.
The second thing that happened in high school was that I found a book of excerpts from the best writing about the War Between the States. It might have been Catton, or even Chamberlain, but at some point, I was struck dumb by the courage and persistence of those soldiers. Suddenly, war was not a lot of gunsmoke and blood; it was a revelation of the very greatest traits of humanity – and, yes, of the worst, but the real power is in the former. How could those men have gone back, day after day, for four years, to the same unspeakable butchery they’d seen a dozen times before? From that point on, the real wonder of war, for me, was not that so many died, but that so many offered themselves up for what they believed in, and that so many survived and prospered in their later years. (I have heard furious fire, where the roar of 30,000 rifles blended into a single Niagara of sound – an unarticulated roar, in which individual shots, even the gut-shaking bellow of individual cannon, were lost in the river, and I have been stricken by the thought that any had survived, at all. The miracle of war is not the death, but the life, and that realization has been central to my philosophy and my study of history for nigh 40 years.)
MUSIC AND THE WARMONGER
I said there were two things that happened that year. The second was the discovery by my classmates that my middle name, Alvis, was very close to the first name of a good-lookin’ kid from Tupelo, Mississippi who hit the big time in rock and roll that year. As with my initials, they teased me ceaselessly about Elvis. I couldn’t even walk into the cafeteria without hearing hoots and catcalls, and the boys squealing, “Ooohh! Elvis! Come kiss me!” like the teenage girls we saw on the news. (Not all of us had TV at the time. We didn’t get our first one until ’56.)
For some reason, I reacted to this teasing in a manner opposite to how I reacted to the war business. I decided that I hated rock and roll and everything and everyone associated with it. Oh! How I loathed every bar and every note of every rock and roll song ever written! Regards rock and roll, I became the exact opposite to what I was regards war.
That attitude lasted until I was in my 20’s, when I softened enough to tap my toe to “Great Balls of Fire,” or sway just a little to some of the love songs. I now enjoy quite a bit of the old rock and roll, and some of the newer stuff. Metal has never held any attraction to me, but I really do enjoy some of the rest of it. I’m pathetically ignorant of the history of the genre and its artists. “Have I ever listened to Cream? Shoot, I don’t even drink it in my coffee.”
My earliest musical memories are of the big bands. Mom and Dad loved that music, especially Glenn Miller. But Mom was a Texas gal, and had no qualms at all about singing along with Bob Wills and the like. When Johnny Horton’s “Honky Tonk Man” came out, Mom flipped for it. We listened to that LP over and over, until I can not only sing the words, but “boom-boom-thump” the drum part and “teow-te-teow-tooowww” the guitar licks. I still love every tune on that album. It broadened my musical tastes considerably.
While in the Marines in the late ‘60’s, I was heavily into the country music of that time, and even got into a few bar fights with guys who preferred soul music or rock. To this day, I shudder whenever I hear rap music because when Rap Brown was doing his thing, and the foundations of rap were being laid, the only people who listened to that stuff used to shoot at me with live ammunition and distressing frequency, which left a very resilient bad taste in my mouth. In the late 70’s I got interested in classical music and listened to that almost exclusively for a few years, and military band music, including bagpipes, has been a favorite – much to the horror of my wives and kids.
AND THE POINT IS…
Now here’s the point of all this blather. I responded to childhood teasing on two subjects in opposite ways, and that has done much to set the direction of my life. But how might I have turned out if I’d responded differently? What if I’d hated war and loved rock and roll? What a different man I’d have become! Shoot, I’d probably have died of syphilis or whites in Haight Ashbury, and never have become a man, at all!
Some things in our lives are trivial, and some are crucial. My reaction to teasing turned out to have been crucial, though no one could have predicted it at the time. (Well, there were those who predicted my fascination with war would have landed me on death row somewhere.) The catch is that we can’t tell which will be which until much later in our lives. We make the best decisions we can, and we go on down the road. Trying to second guess the Master’s plan for us – or fate, if you prefer – will make you nuts, and can effectively paralyze you. It’s sort of like Heisenberg’s principle: you can’t know everything there is to know about something without affecting it so that what you thought was true, isn’t, precisely because you tried to know it. Yeah H. makes my teeth itch sometimes, too.
Don’t let the fact that you can’t know what is important and what isn’t change what you do. Do your best, and treat everything as if it were important – on an analog scale of importance and urgency, of course! Because every decision you make has the potential of making you a warmonger or an acidhead, take none of them lightly, but don’t obsess and try to see every detail of the road ahead. At some point, you will be deliciously surprised, and maybe disappointed, but that’s okay.