Friday, December 02, 2005
Notes on Being a Jarhead Artist
Yesterday, December 1st, was a very special day for my family and myself. My nephew, 1st Lieutenant Richard "Joey" Fay promoted me to Warrant Officer in the United States Marine Corps. This promotion, though very satisfying professionally, is more gratifying in a profoundly timeless way. My father, and Joey's grandfather and namesake, was a young lieutenant with the very same unit, 2nd Battalion/7th Marine Regiment, during WW II. Joey performed the promotion ceremony flawlessly in front of 2/7's Command Post entrance at Camp Mercury, adjacent to Camp Fallujah.
What does it mean to be a Marine? To be an artist in the Marines? There's no simple answer for me to give. The best I can do is supply you with a couple little windows into my psyche.
First, I grew up listening to stories, tales and yarns about the Marines. My Dad was "Old Corps";a pre-WW II Marine. There is a powerful magic in family lore, in stories told and passed down from generation to generation. My father was a poor Irish Catholic kid from Boston. His father died in 1929 at the start of the Great Depression and left a family of six for my grandmother, Gammsy, to raise. Their main meals were often fried bologna sandwiches and something uniquely Irish called bubble and squeek. A sinister, the nuns at school would start his day by removing a sock and putting it over his left hand; the hand of the devil. This only made him ambidexterous. In the early summer of 1938 he, the youngest son, realized he wasn't going to enter the priesthood. Or, as he eloquently put it, "there was a red-headed girl down the street and, well...I knew I'd never be a priest." My father was as handsome a blue-eyed Black Irish tenor with the gift o' gab as you'd ever hope to meet this side of Dublin. Under his high school yearbook picture are the words "lady killer". In early summer of 1938 he went off with the Civilian Conservation Corps to a CCC camp in the wilds of Montana. This inner-city Mick thrived on the rigors of planting trees and clearing fire lanes. In the early Fall of that same year a team of Marine recruiters visited the camp and hand selected two young men to enlist. One of them was my father, and on October 4th he signed on at the recruiting station in Denver, Colorado. Three years later, after having seen half the world, he was a 21 year old lieutenant leading Marines in the jungles of Guadalcanal. Twice he "went to Kansas City and saw the elephant" (slang for being wounded in combat), survived a bout with malaria, and successfully kicked clinical morphine addiction. The essence of these experiences are summed up in my father's oft quoted favorite piece of poetry:
Out of the night that covers me
Black as the pit from pole to pole
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul
"Invictus" by William Ernest Henley
My father was also a gentle giant unhardened by his wartime ordeals. He was famous for his sense of humor and encyclopedic knowledge. Among the books in his small library were everything from Kahil Gibran's "The Prophet" to a footlocker packed with pulp science fiction novels. His was the voice, belting out the national anthem, that rose majestically above the crowd at any high school sports event;much to the embarrassment of my teenage self. Wearing only a t-shirt in the middle of winter, he would soak himself to the skin shoveling snow. If an adult was using foul language with children present, he was the guy who would straighten them out; with words, or if necessary, a quick right to the jaw. Neighborhood buddies knew it was my Dad who'd pile everyone into our big green Pontiac stationwagon and go searching for the perfect toboggan hill after a fresh snowfall. I can still see him in the garage, a sweat flecked Pall Mall cigarette clenched in his teeth, working on some happy homemaker project. He knew his life had been blessed. He escaped the poverty of the Depression and the veil of prejudice that overshadowed his childhood in Boston ("N.gg..s and Irish need not apply" regularly appeared in Boston Globe help wanted adds). He married the woman of his dreams and sired three sons, while all the original Marines in his company, save a dozen, never lived to do so. Even in his dying days he would call this "the best of all possible worlds."
These rites of passage tales stuck to my bones, and when I was a 21 years old, after dropping out of three colleges and managing to do little more with my life than grow hair down to my keester, I realized that I needed just that kind of experience. So, this former high school class salutorian left for the world's finest finishing school for young men, Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina. I surgically removed myself from a safe middle-class white bread cocoon. There, on August 23, 1975, standing on yellow footprints in the suffocating heat of a Carolina night with a Marine drill instructor screaming in my face with demonic intensity, my rite of passage commenced with a vengenance. It has, as Robert Frost would say, made all the difference. My road less traveled has been tread for many miles in combat boots.
There's a very politically incorrect racial joke who's punch line I'm not going to share with you. Sorry, however, I am going to use the set-up part of it. Here goes....A zebra goes to heaven and standing before Saint Peter asks one simple question, one which he hopes the good saint, or God himself will answer. "Was I a black zebra with white stripes, or a white zebra with black stripes." My version of this is probably going to be " Saint Peter, was I a Marine who was an artist, or an Artist who was a marine?" This past February I had my first museum exhibition open at the Farnsworth Museum and Wyeth Center in Rockland, Maine. Wow, was I thrilled! I even had my own protesters! One of the many things they took exception with was my appearance, or as one of them complained to the local press, "I'm offended that he would come dressed as a Marine, and not as an artist." Regretably, I had left my black beret, ragged blue jeans, tweed jacket, black turtleneck and ear-ring at home. Actually, other than the beret, this is exactly the case. I, and many others found it quite ironic that the protesters, members of the very liberal Maine Alliance of Visual Artists, would be dictating what another artist should wear. (Little did they know that the Marine standing before them in his dress uniform had tested out on personality profile quizes as a "cultural creative".) Life never ceases to amaze! I am very aware that I stand astride two very different worlds. Carl Jung, the great Swiss psychiatrist, writes at length about a concept he calls individuation; the never ending process of becoming an authentic human being. (This topic is also taken up by Gail Sheehy in her best seller "Passages") What he has to say is particularly meaningful to men in mid-life, a club I more than belong to. There are, according to Jung, two distinct paths. Most opt for what he calls the "retrogressive restoration of the persona"; of electing to settle into a stereotypical pattern of behavior avoiding mental, spiritual or psychic challenges. On the other path we stay in the "tension of opposites", and thereby continue to grow to the end of our days, and perhaps beyond. I will allow you dear reader to decide which path yours truly is on, and whether I'm a black zebra with white stripes, or a while zebra with black stripes. I leave you with a little Emily Dickinsonish poem of mine:
I am color subtle, muted, tertiary
Think not to know me with palette simple and primary.
For I am twilights November,
And gloam in February