Renewed Dispatches

– Essay by Brian O’Hare –

My father was a big man. A larger-than-life presence. Not only physically (well over six feet and two-hundred something pounds) but psychically too. Like Homer’s Odysseus—the man took up a lot of space. And my father oozed mid-century New York Irish swagger—equal parts Jackie Gleason and spaghetti western era Clint Eastwood—who caught fastballs for the Pawtucket Red Sox and flew close-air support as a Marine in Vietnam—who was not only shot down, (“Hang your ass out enough times, it’s gonna get whacked…” he’d say like a hard-bitten homicide detective in Dassin’s The Naked City) but whose canopy refused to open when ejecting, prying it open like a can of Genesee beer with his Ka-Bar knife. Other kids’ dads wrote insurance policies or sold appliances. There’s nothing wrong with crockpots and can-openers, but honestly?—I was embarrassed for them. My father was a character par excellence. “You father was the shit and everyone knew it,” said a childhood friend. Truth. Looking back on his legacy after his death from Agent Orange related prostate cancer at the ripe old age of 56, it’s the Marine Corps, and by extension, the U.S. military that honed my father from mere ‘character’ into legend. The U.S. military seems to be a magnet for people like my father. A finishing school for legendary characters. 

This past month, I had the good fortune of embarking on an eight city book tour for the release of my 2021 Veterans Writing Award winning book of short stories Surrender, released on November 1st by Syracuse University Press. Off I went, from Los Angeles to New York City and back, hitting Syracuse, Ithaca NY, Quinnipiac University, Philadelphia, Greenville SC and Salt Lake City. I read from Surrender in some of the country’s best bookstores, art galleries and bars. And as satisfying as it was to share my work with the world, a seemingly never-ending party where I was forever the guest of honor, the best part of the experience in reality was the opportunity to connect. Being able to not only meet, but interact with a diverse tribe of Americans with a love of literature and sharing the stories of Surrender as our common bond. Our mother tongue. Our bridge to connection. (Mild alcohol and caffeine abuse didn’t hurt.) That said, I had the opportunity to meet a slew of fascinating human beings in every city I visited. I don’t know whether this is something in my blood, having come from such a epic (in the Homeric sense) character as my father, but I seem to attract such people to me. My life is richer for it. Here’s a few of the more memorable…

I didn’t know Rasheed well at the US Naval Academy, where we were both in the same class. Each class at the Naval Academy is small enough to think you know almost everyone worth knowing, and yet big enough to still surprise you. Rasheed surprised me. Rasheed showed up at my reading at Elliott Bay Books on Seattle’s Capitol Hill, with his brother and young son in tow. All three of us immediately took to one another—talking about how Seattle had changed since I’d lived there in the early 90s after getting out of the Marine Corps and seeking my path as a filmmaker and writer, about books and writing and movies. Rasheed, his son, who’s six, and I spent the next 36 hours together, drinking coffee and beer and eating oysters and talking. (His son is certifiably brilliant. The future is in very good hands.) Memorably, in between all of this, I rough-housed with his son, holding him upside down in a record store when his tooth, which had been threatening to come out for days, suddenly popped onto the tiled floor. And rather than being upset, his son was thrilled. He even wrote a story about it the following week in school. 

Jamie joined the Washington National Guard because he wanted to learn to blow things up. After serving his time, Jamie left the Guard to become a performance artist, a practice that I’d known nothing about until meeting him. After seeing one of his performances in an abandoned warehouse somewhere in pre-Amazonian Seattle, when you could work just enough to pay your rent and have enough left over to buy beer and pot, and to make art, Jamie changed the way I viewed performance art. He’d put all that good National Guard training to good use—in the pursuit of making bold art deconstructing his semi-rural Washington upbringing, full of guns, county fairs and redneck cowboys looking to beat the shit outta ‘art-fags’. Most memorably, as part of his ‘County Fair’ series, he drove in the demolition derby at the LA County Fair in his black, armored ’72 Lincoln Continental, ‘The Emancipator’. A portrait of the demolished Emancipator hangs over my mantelpiece in a baroque frame. Jamie came to my reading in Los Angeles, sadly without his performance artist wife and their three daughters, wearing either reading glasses from CVS or bonafide bifocals. He may have gotten older, but the fire is still there. The desire to blow shit up. To impact the world. Only now he does it with his family. 

Nathan and Kevin came to the reading at The Rest gallery in Ithaca, NY. They’re poets. Artists. Good ones too. Both Nathan and Kevin served in the US Army, in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. They’d both seen combat. Both been changed by what they saw. To look at Nathan and Kevin, later at Pete’s Cayuga bar, drinking beer around a small table in the back, they looked like art students from nearby Ithaca College or Cornell. But there’s a certain ‘something’ in their eyes, a look, an aura of ‘watchfulness’ about them, taking in everything. Maybe it’s the beer. Maybe it’s Iraq. Maybe both. As a token, an acknowledgment of our mutual search for meaning, for making art out of misery, out of suffering, Nathan gifted me with a copy of Corn, Coal & Yellow Ribbons, the book of poetry and art they’d collaborated on. The paper is even made from the fiber of what we’d call ‘utility’ uniforms in the Marines, or BDUs (battle dress uniforms) in the Army. But such differences are ultimately irrelevant. What mattered was the connection. Knowing the other was out there, working toward some hidden truth. 

Frank—at least that’s how I remember him—was a Marine. ‘Old Corps’ all the way. Frank’s a big guy, from the same mold as my old man, an imposing physical presence. He’s got ‘bearing’. The kind of guy, my father would say, that you’d instinctively call ‘sir’, naked in the shower—without a uniform to indicate that you were an officer. So I immediately noticed Frank standing at the back of the bar in the East Village of New York City. Serious as a heart-attack as they say. Who knows how he’d react to my stories? Tales of ‘demythologizing’ a certain kind of American manhood? Demythologizing our beloved Marine Corps? I’d soon find out. But after the story, Frank came alive, engaged not only by what I’d read, but by the diverse collection of poets, painters, writers, Wall Streeters, former Navy and Marines, and those that thrive in back rooms of New York City bars. In other words, New York City itself. Frank drove a fascinating discussion of my story ‘The Mail Thief’, about an enlisted Marine who steals an officer’s mail. He was respectful and passionate—clearly the story had hit someplace deep—he found me after the reading, hungry to talk more. After I signed his copy of the book, I was momentarily distracted by more conversation, more beer, more laughter—whatever—and he was gone. 

Laura was another Naval Academy classmate that I didn’t know well. This, I’m sad to say, had much to do with the way male and female midshipmen interacted (or didn’t) with one another at the Naval Academy. A kind of casual sexism (at best) buried deep within the fabric of the Navy and our school. But Laura persevered—she tracked Soviet submarines in the Navy. Even did a little counter-espionage. With her Southern charm, goofy sense of humor and prodigious mind, Laura was a natural for the job. The Soviets never stood a chance. I was more fortunate. Laura volunteered to pick me up at the airport in Greenville, waving the white flag of ‘surrender’ from her car. It was the first time we’d seen one-another since the 80s. That flag was a metaphor, a symbol—not only of my book, Surrender—but of how far we’d come since we’d last seen one another. Of how things change. Laura is a tireless champion. A ‘lifter-upper’. A fabulous and willing companion in exploration. A talented writer in her own right, in possession of an utterly unique world-view. She’s fearless. 

I’m not sure what to make of all this. These veterans. These people. What it ‘means’—if anything. The ‘influence’ we had upon one another. But maybe that’s not what’s important. The fact that we did cross paths, that our visions collided—that our hermetic worldviews were challenged. We’re stronger, better human beings, more tolerant of one another, for the experience. That’s the real value of doing any of this. The connection we have with other human beings. 



Brian OHare is a graduate of the US Naval Academy and former Marine Corps officer. His career began in a Baltimore bar, where legendary director John Waters cast him as a convict in Cry Baby. Currently, he’s an award-winning writer and filmmaker living in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in War, Literature and the Arts; Hobart, Electric Literature and others, and has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes. Most recently, National Book Award winner Phil Klay awarded Brian Syracuse University Press’ 2021 Veterans Writing Award for Surrender—his book of short stories published by Syracuse University Press. He was named a Writing Fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and served as Visiting Writer at CUNY/Kingsborough in Brooklyn. He’s currently producing Rizoo about a young girl deciding whether to wear the hijab for a class picture, as well as Cannon Shot, a feature documentary on the world’s largest croquet match between the US Naval Academy and across the street neighbor, St. John’s College. He’s at work on his debut novel.