Strutting and Fretting — A Retrospective

Being a playwright haunted my aspirations for much of the 20th Century. I didn’t hang around theater people in high school or college, but I still thought I would be a playwright. Some places put on my plays, and Contemporary Drama Service in Chicago published two books of short bare-stage one-acts called Rehearsals for Armageddon 1 and 2. One of plays in RFA 2 won the Olivet National Playwriting contest and was put on NPR. Some other plays were used by the Second City in Chicago, and other regional theaters. Still, when I discovered that the fourth most popular playwright in America made only $10,000 a year, it looked like this might not be a way to support a young family.

The only career opportunity, it turned out, was acting in your own plays. The ones you write inside yourself and win the leading role in. The role you make for yourself also gives you permission to operate in variable modes: as a creator,  a diligent worker, a leader, in ways that mere “positions” do not dictate. Those roles were ones I played throughout life. At first, I was just a student, but the draft channeled me into the role of a military person. The officer candidate program I entered to evade the draft allowed me to drop out and be in the Marine Reserve. On those reserve weekends, I became the senior private who always knew where to hide when there were potatoes to be peeled. It was excellent experience for later roles I was to play. In the early 60s I was mainly hiding from the Vietnam War, like many of my friends who married and had children as a draft dodge, or who took off to Canada (not far from Seattle), or found themselves 4F in the doctor’s office. I did not, and do not, disparage any of them. Humans are first of all a survival species, and surely the war would be over by the time I was called to fight.

I was also a gear-grinding truck driver (still a senior private) when I started Grad School in Oklahoma. This turned out not the best place to hide in plain sight in 1964 because I was almost called up from the Reserves to drive a truck through booby-trapped villages. The prospect did not appeal to me, so when I heard it was possible I could be reinstated in the officer program, I inquired. The Marines were losing 2nd Lieutenants daily – either to enemy fire and or to getting the hell out if they made it home. I said I would go through the last session and get my commission as officer, if they would let me go through graduate school for an M.A. They said OK, they were wanting more officers with graduate degrees. My thought: Surely the war would be over by then.

With that new military role lurking, I won a short story contest and was given a graduate teaching fellowship in 1965 at the University of Tulsa. I had been an undergraduate and graduate student, but being put in front of the class of freshman English students was a shock. What should I do with them? It seemed as if the University just wanted someone to babysit new students, and teaching fellowships are the cheapest babysitting you can get.

I took one look at their first short essays…loathsome in all. Somehow I had to use this role as a teacher to make better writers out of them. In the role of college instructor, I discovered that they would listen to me and do as I said. Never having had that responsibility, I tried to create a course to make them better writers. The university had no prescription…they just wanted us to pass the freshmen through and not fail the freshmen basketball players. So I started giving “F”s to most of the first student papers. I decided to have them write two short essays a week, one in-class essay and one at home essay to be turned in on Monday.  During the two days of class I gave them methodologies to use (compare and contrast, etc.) and subjects to use it on. This would end up generating 24 pieces of writing in 12 weeks with no mid-term or final test, just writing. I would randomly select to grade one of the two weekly essays, and for 25 students I corrected essays with extreme precision, line by line, like a copy editor at a newspaper.

We called it “English Roulette” and the students hated it. They called it illegal, and so I made an essay assignment out of that subject. (Funny thing, the “A” papers all found it “legal.”) All through that term these beginning university students thought I was the most horrible instructor they’d ever seen. But someone else was even more worried about my vicious writing class.

Two freshmen basketball players, who we shall call Lister and Freddy, had skipped most classes in high school, but gave Tulsa a chance to take the Missouri Valley Conference championship the next year.  Lister and Freddy COULD NOT complete a sentence in their first in class essay. Could not…When they received their first “F”s, I got a call from the coach, and then from my department head, and then from office of the University president. I was told my fellowship could be truncated the next quarter. But it was too late to transfer classes. The administration however, had lots of ways to terminate mere instructors, as I was. Maybe my days were short, and that would not hurt the feelings of the students who were sweating under English Roulette. Rebellious students were going to the administration to say I refused to grade half their papers, but I made a deal that if any of them contested the final grade I gave them, I would correct all their ungraded papers, and change the grade if it warranted. That quieted their ranks for a while. And allowed me to continue staying away from the military bargain.

Meanwhile, I watched the basketball practices and decided that anyone who could master 20 pick-and-roll plays and throw no-look passes to loose players cutting to the open space under the basket…could not be all stupid. I had Freddy and Lister stay after class to help me figure out what to do.

“Do you ever read anything?” I asked.

Lister looked at Freddy, and giggled. “Nope.”

“The sports pages, when it’s about you?”

“My mama like to read that to me,” Freddy offered.

Then I had a flash. “Do you every read anything your mama wouldn’t read to you?”

Freddy squirmed.

“Well, Lister’s brother he had this book we read on the team bus. We read that.”

“Can you get me that book?”

And so a newsprint book, its cheap paper pages curled and soiled by many fingers, which told sex-obsessed teen agers of erotic adventures they’d never dreamed of. This truly foul book, became the text for Freddy and Lister. I began by having them copy two pages a night, and I would correct those pages for how faithful they were, once a week while the rest of the class was doing in-class essays. Soon Freddy and Lister could copy the dirty book with perfection. From there I had them learn what made up sentences. They were not stupid.

But the administration was worried enough that they began holding little secret hearings on how to get rid of me, clear up to the time students were registering for their next semester. And then a funny thing happened: other instructors in other classes had seen samples of my student’s writing and were manuevering to see who could sign up my students. The administration heard about this too. And when they heard that Freddy and Lister were both getting “C”s in my class because they were actually writing credible paragraphs, it looked like they wouldn’t have to fire me after all. The basketball coach still looked a little sideways at me, like maybe I had created a couple of 6’ 9” literate sex-maniacs, but all was right in his world too.

Later I would become a college teacher again for a while, but before that in 1967 was another role, Marine Officer. It was scary as hell when I first walked into a base in uniform, and all these people were saluting me as I walked and I had to keep track of who saluted and salute back and then look for more senior officers I had to salute and pause while they saluted back. This seemed really crazy, but this was the military. What was just as tough, for an English teacher, was later when I made Captain. Then everyone of lesser rank was supposed to refer to you in the third person, as “Did the Captain see this?” or “Will the Captain want to inspect weapons now?” Who’s this Captain? Oh, they mean me…(I always had a sneaking hunch that those who knew enough to use the honorific were secretly joking. )

This was all the peacetime military, of course. I learned to play that role but never did understand the centuries of history that codified such peacetime behavior. The public could not be allowed to know that levels of formality in stateside bases that turned out quite different in Vietnam foxholes. In peacetime your uniforms were spotless, your shoes had a higher shine than anyone but your sergeants, who shined most of all. Same with brass on the belt buckle. It was all part of the role, and playing that role well pretty much allowed you to cruise through stateside duties.

On the other hand, there was the role one played in combat. It was not a democracy, and people would instantly do as you said, but you were acutely aware of your own role and without ever showing self-doubt, inside you were consciously questioning how to play it.  Reacting to incoming rounds was always a problem. Troops were quick to see you flinch.  I found you could make a quick glance to acknowledge the noise but needed to duck smoothly when necessary. Ducking smoothly was pure acting technique, when your wobbly legs wanted to collapse. You always had to be so busy getting supplies or radios or food for your troops such that you couldn’t be bothered with a few rounds flying in. And when heavy fire came in, or when you were defending a position, you had to be most concerned with getting things aligned for defense or sandbags filled or fields of fire crossing before anyone came.

Before I left for Vietnam, and thinking I might be a poet, I visited James Dickey, who was the Poet in Residence at the Library of Congress that year. He had won the National Book Award for Poetry (and would later do the book and movie Deliverance) but with an odd background for a poet, had also been an All-American halfback for Clemson, and was an Air Force fighter pilot during the Korean War. Somewhat sheepishly, I asked how he had handled the mental situation of an officer in combat. Dickey seemed to know what I was after: how to play that role. “There was just one thing I learned, but it always carried me through, always seemed to dictate the right posture. It’s simple, and hard as hell. You be dependable. Whatever is going on, you are dependable.”

Sometimes you hear someone say something was the best advice they ever had. This was mine. Through a lot of tricky situations, whenever anyone looked to me I was dependable. Not heroic, not gung ho. Just dependable. There are other stories in this series which are about Vietnam, and I learned a lot there. Mostly I learned how to withstand some of the terrible things I saw, and to live with decisions I occasionally had about who I might be ordering into great danger. I do feel that I was a dependable officer, in the eyes of the incredibly loyal men I had, and the peers and senior officers I worked for. A few random medals that had nowhere to go landed on my chest. It was not epic, but I’m still alive and I hope relatively sane and I know glad overall. The combat officer role was totally incompatible with anything I have ever needed since, and I am glad of that too.

The college teacher role was about the same when I came back from South America in 1972, but the playwright role got me a job at Texas Instruments as a video producer.  They needed to dramatize videos about Supervisory Skills. It’s a good thing to be both a writer and producer on the same shows, because you have more conceptual leadership. Soon I became a program manager for series of shows, all produced in the TI studios, and then even hired other video producers, but the writing of the shows was always in my hands. That was a role I was most comfortable with, and when you coupled that with overall program manager it led to fairly harmonious productions. I did learn though, to let video directors take a lot of initiative in the kinds of shots and lighting and sound they used. A few times I had someone call me off the set and told the video directors to go ahead with a lot of the show’s taping. They got twice as much done without me looking over their shoulders, and did it twice as well.

That was a great experience with roles, and Texas Instruments was a wonderfully dynamic place to be needed, but a headhunter lead me to another role which many of my friends at TI disparaged, that of National Training Manager for the American Heart Association, which was also located in Dallas, Texas. They said it was a step backwards, they said it was a dead-end, they said it was career suicide. I thought otherwise. I kind of felt like having a position rather than a sort of perpetual project manager. Also, the American Heart Association was in trouble. Their national staff was not raising enough money to support necessary basic research in heart disease. Their national training manager position was a revolving door, with 5 new managers in the last 2 years. To me this smelled like opportunity, but I wasn’t sure how. In fact, it was an opportunity, but only if I could write an entirely new role. I took the job, to the wailing of friends and associates.

It turned out that this role would be either (a) a suck-up to everyone in the world, affiliates, national directors, or; (b) something entirely new I had to create. The previous training managers had tried to get acceptable dates from everyone in 48 affiliates and 12 chapters agreed with to form a national set of courses. Someone was always taking vacation or being pregnant or for 100 other reasons could not commit students to dates that other Affiliates agreed to.  Altogether over the last 2 years the training managers had held 3 courses, with mixed results because some Affiliates would not send staff to courses including teachers from other Affiliates. Politics had doomed it. And those kiss ass politics could doom me, an outsider, quickly.

So I started with regional travels to find out what various state Affiliates wanted to see in courses. This was a fortunate tack, because there was great overlap (which I could show in Venn diagrams on my next set of visits a few months later). Then, instead of trying to please everyone with an impossible schedule of courses, I created 8 National Center courses, and four of them were fundraising. They would be held on our schedule whether or not the Affiliates could send people. And one other thing, to be more proactive I needed to heighten the role of the National Center itself. I insisted when I was hired as being the National Training Manager, instead of Training Manager, National Center. It was a small change, but helped the role I was playing a lot.

Other roles followed: When I raised fundraising income by 30%, they let me in to technical areas, and I became Director of Advance Technology Development with my notions on creating computer simulated CPR training.  I ventured into areas of intimating role expertise when in fact no one had it.  Learning Medical Vocabulary helped a lot, since doctors in particular were much more comfortable with my messages.

Later I formed my own company and had to play the role of startup entrepreneur.  Being president and CEO and Chief Technology Officer and the whole legal department and events director is not unusual for the shifting roles you must put on to run a startup.  At first — and for years —  it was just keeping the wolf from howling at the door.  The trickiest part was dealing with eventual investors who were all about money, from day one to shut down. I had to appease them with projections and a few big contracts, when I really wanted to advance simulation learning with incredibly cool inventions. I cannot say I was the best entrepreneur, but in the vicious world of technical startups, I managed to run Ixion for 14 years without missing a payroll, and that is a role I am still proud of.

I gave talks on simulation for several years and finally retired without making a large fortune. Unfortunately….that was never a role I wrote for myself.  Living now in increasing obscurity is quite comfortable because I have no roles at all. Maybe some fading achievements, maybe some useful memories, but definitely….no more roles.


Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved