Interview with writer John Wagner

Today’s special
guest is writer John Wagner. We’re
chatting about his memoir, Baby Boomer
Army Brat.
Bio:
John has lived
in many places and has had many “careers.” One of the first of what would be
called Baby Boomers, John was born in Tennessee to an Army family shortly after
WW II. The family’s claim to fame is that, while John’s dad was fighting
overseas, his mother, Evelyn, became the first woman parole officer for the US
federal Justice Department. Then the Army sent the family to Germany (his dad,
an MP, provided post-war assistance to Displaced Persons), and later to a
variety of Army bases around the US. His dad’s last duty assignment was in Colorado,
where John went to junior high, high school, college, and had his first
permanent job. Until he moved to California (where he continues to live) after
becoming a lawyer, John considered Aurora, Colorado to be his family home.
John graduated
from Colorado Western State University, where he discovered creative writing
and considered pursuing a career as a writer. Then reality set in—he needed a
job—and he found work as social caseworker in the child abuse field in Colorado
Springs. Because of that experience, he applied to the University of Chicago’s renowned
School of Social Service Administration. After graduation from SSA, he worked
in the mental health field in New England and Wisconsin. Because of legal
issues arising in that work, he applied to the University of Wisconsin Law
School, where he excelled: being on the Law Review, on the Dean’s List
every semester, and receiving numerous honors. He was selected to serve as a
Law Clerk for the late Judge Robert Sprecher of the Seventh Circuit federal appeals
court.
John then moved
to California where he had a 30+ year career as a lawyer, developing a specialty
in challenging complex governmental rules and regulations, especially related
to healthcare. When California introduced “geographic managed care” for certain
counties, John was selected to be a patient advocate on the GMC Oversight
Committee.
John took a
three-year sabbatical from the law to work on human rights in Peru, where he
met his now-wife, Bella. His memoir of those turbulent times in Peru is: Troubled Mission: Fighting For Human Rights,
Spirituality, and Love in Violence-Ridden Peru
(Kelly House, 2015).
After he
retired from the law, John gradually realized he wanted to pursue his earlier
dream of becoming a writer. He wrote the above memoir of his experiences in
Peru and then this memoir of being one of the first Baby Boomers in the unique
subculture of the military. He is now working on a novel. John is a
self-described “old fart” who does not know much about social media and just
wants to focus on his writing.
Welcome, John. Please tell
us about your current release.
We all know
about the Baby Boomer generation. But no one, to my knowledge, has focused on
the experiences of this generation growing up within the military subculture,
which is very regimented and restrictive. As soon as they can understand, kids
are hit with this scary warning from their dads: “Everything you do reflects on
me and can destroy my career in the military.”
This was a time
before. Before the new civil rights laws (although during civil rights
demonstrations and violence from racist police and citizens). Before the explosion of new music—rock n
roll was exploding but the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the psychedelic and
blues music of the later 60s were yet to come. Before drugs, which were not seen as a mere “high” that might be
habit forming but as “mind-opening,” leading to a new conscious. (The “drug
scandal” in John’s junior high was about toothpicks dipped in cinnamon oil!) Above
all, before Vietnam—or, more
correctly, before the public knew about what the US and others were doing in
Vietnam. The military was respected and military personnel were “good guys,”
not “baby-killers.”
Baby Boomer Army Brat is about John’s coming-of-age
experiences within this subculture and during this time. But it is much more. He
reaches deep to reveal dark secrets and to grapple with how many experiences
would affect him for life: spirituality, sexuality, physical and sexual abuse,
having severe acne, and more. He does not complain. There is not an ounce of
self-pity. The book is a genuine voyage of hard-earned self-discovery.
What inspired you to write
this book?
Throughout the
years, as I reflected on my life, I realized how much I was shaped by the
military culture and how that made me different from non-military adults. Many
things I took as normal, they saw as weird and vice versa. I began to realize
that my experiences might be interesting to readers and might even offer some
lessons. In addition, in reading other memoirs, I felt frustrated when the
author did not really reach into their inner self but just rattled through a
series of events. I wanted to force myself to stretch, to grapple with my most
private and secret fears and struggles—as they occurred at the time and then
with later, hopefully mature, reflection.
Excerpt from Baby Boomer Army Brat:
Dad
got us up while it was still dark and made eggs and bacon. It was freezing. I
shivered as I got out of my sleeping bag but was warmed by the breakfast. When
we crawled out of the little trailer, we could just barely see the landscape.
Everything was cold, grey, and cloudy. I became cold all over again, but soon
enough, the sky turned blue and clear. Dad was wearing woolen Army pants, which
he saved for outdoor trips like this. Tom and I had jeans but with long
underwear underneath. We all had sweaters, hats, tall boots, and orange safety
vests as we started out into a meadow. After walking for a while, I felt
warmer. We walked spread out, in formation, letting Dad take the lead. I felt
like a soldier in Dad’s squad. I’d seen enough war movies to know I was
supposed to follow him and to be calm and quiet.
“Perfect,”
Dad stage-whispered. “Now be quiet.” Tom and I hadn’t been talking, but Dad
kept whispering his order to be quiet, just in case we were tempted to start
babbling.
As
we approached the area where the meadow turned into a forest, Dad held up his
hand to signal movement and that we should stop. I hadn’t seen anything. Typical.
I was mystified by Dad’s skills and wondered yet again why I had no abilities. He
raised his Mauser to his shoulder, twisting the shoulder strap into a tight
sling. He seemed to take forever, looking through the telescopic sight. I
looked to where the rifle was pointing but still didn’t see anything.
KA-POW!
I
saw something move. A deer, running. It had blended right into the landscape, a
combination of grey and brown. Dad wasn’t worried about keeping quiet now.
“Okay,
boys, now we have to follow it. Soon we’ll pick up the trail of blood.”
This
was the tough side of Dad. Dad, who could shoot a living being and talk
casually about following its blood trail. The same Dad who could smash us with
his fist and not care if we were hurt. The no-nonsense Dad who, if I had dared
to ask whether it was right to shoot an animal and follow its blood trail,
would have said, “This is the real world, son. You’d better learn to cope if
you want to live in it.”
I
pulled the thirty ought six, now much heavier than it had seemed before to my
shoulder. I watched the deer run and tried to track it in my sights. My eyes
were blurry, sweat had gotten in them, and my glasses had slipped crookedly
down my nose. I wiped my eyes but, by that time, the deer had turned out of
sight. I saw myself as if in a movie, a tough hunter on the outside, a queasy
sissy on the inside. It took a few minutes for us to get to where the deer had
been hit, and, sure enough, we saw a trail of blood. I hadn’t pulled the
trigger, but I still felt sick.
Yeah, this is what it
feels like to kill something,

I thought, even though, technically, I hadn’t fired a shot. But that was its
own problem, I was not really a hunter, didn’t want to kill anything, was not a
manly man. I felt even worse than when I’d secretly shot and killed the
chipmunk with my BB gun in Rocky Mountain National Park a few months earlier.
Thinking of that moment, I didn’t remember any blood, maybe because I ran away
so quickly. Now, we—yes, it was “we,” no way to avoid that on a
technicality—had shot an animal, and now we were watching its life juices so we
could follow it and kill it. Why did I do it? Because it would have seemed cowardly
and shameful to refuse. I wanted to emulate Dad, but I also wanted to yell at
him for what he had done. Dad, why are we
doing this?
Cowardice won out. Not only did I follow Dad, I kept my eyes
peeled so I could follow the blood and be the first to spot the deer.
What exciting story are
you working on next?
Sorry, I have
to invoke author’s privilege. I have started the book, which I plan as a novel
rather than memoir. I know my overall theme, but I haven’t worked out all my
characters, locations, plot developments, etc. Who knows what’ll happen.
When did you first
consider yourself a writer?
When I was in
the first grade, I think, my parents gave me a toy typewriter that actually
worked. I decided I was going to be a journalist (and publisher) and start a
newspaper. I went around to our neighbors asking for any stories they had. That
was ok. But then I called my dad’s MP company, asking about any crimes going
on. Dad hit the roof! And actually my first writing as an older kid was
journalism-related. I was on the student newspaper in junior high, high school,
and college. It wasn’t until I took a Creative Writing course in college that I
discovered the wonderful possibilities of writing beyond a journalistic, “just
the facts ma’am,” approach. This was when I first started writing short stories
and thinking of myself, as least for the course, as a writer.
Then real life
struck and, after college, I realized I needed to work. I threw myself into my
work, first as a social worker, then as a law student and lawyer, so I never
even considered writing at night and I would have been too tired anyway. It
wasn’t until I retired from practicing law that I realized, hey, now I can do what I’ve always wanted to
do: write!
Do you write full-time? If so, what’s
your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write?
I try to keep
Tuesdays and Thursdays free for full-time research and writing. I try to work
until Rachel Maddow comes on. I love her analysis of current events. Mondays,
Wednesdays, and Fridays are for exercise, appointments, all the other demands
of life, and then if there’s time, research and writing. Evenings and weekends
are for further research or pleasure reading and watching too many movies on
Netflix or cable. I hate watching TV, not so much because of the many stupid
programs (which could easily suck me in), but because I just can’t stand
commercials. I have to put up with them for news programs, but otherwise, if I
watch any TV, I’ll gravitate to C-SPAN’s “Book TV” (weekends) or to Turner
Classic Movies.
I’ve had to
give up riding a motorcycle, which I often did on weekends. I still miss my
Harley, but I do have time to read more.
And I love
opera, especially those of Richard Wagner (no relation). I’m addicted to his
“Ring Cycles”—a series of four operas usually held over a week—and will travel
all over the world to see them. (This gets to be an expensive hobby!)
I’m really not
as dedicated a writer as I should be but once I’m in the flow of something, all
else fades away and I’ll stay with it as long as I can, skipping meals and
sleep sometimes. I have a web site but I really need to do a better job of
keeping it up. I confess I’m really not a social media person.
Finally, our
three children and five grandchildren live nearby and my wife and I enjoy
visiting them or having them over.
What would you say is your
interesting writing quirk?
Once I get
started, I can usually accomplish something. But it’s really hard for me to get
started. I’ll look for other things to do, decide I’m tired even if it’s nine
in the morning. I have to talk to myself, literally saying out loud, “OK, this
is your job now. So commute to your office [5 seconds] and get your ass in your
chair and get going.”
As a child, what did you
want to be when you grew up?
First baseman
for the St. Louis Cardinals, just like their famous Stan Musial. But when I got
into Little League, it turned out I was “all field, no hit.”
Anything additional you
want to share with the readers?
Keep reading
books! Support your local newspapers! We need to keep our intellects alive and
not be lured in by political parties or slogans—of any stripe. We can’t
capitulate to demagogues and shouters. Our democracy and freedom are precious,
but we can lose them if we don’t jealously guard them and think for ourselves. Supreme
Court Justice William O. Douglas had a wonderful quote:
“As
nightfall does not come all at once, neither does oppression. In both
instances, there is a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged. And
it is in such twilight that we all must be most aware of change in the
air—however slight—lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.”

Thank
you for being here today, John.

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