Puppet laryngitis: On stories, (Turkish) soldiers and writing: Part II

An image of an Ottoman-era military band – many of the male Karagoz puppets served in a military band of this nature before retiring to work as puppets in the Sultan


In honor of Veteran’s Day in the U.S., and in honor of my sore rotator cuff, today’s post is a reprise of a previous one, about one of the former soldiers in my present day life. Seni seviyorum canım!


Yesterday, the puppets were going a bit stir-crazy as it was cold out and as they had laryngitis this week (to varying degrees). Therefore, they cannot talk much – but they can make themselves known nonetheless – mostly by jumping on the keyboard and taking my Internet browser to all sorts of places OTHER than where I need to be – namely in the realm of preparing my classes for the Spring 2012 semester of teaching.

After they basically strong-armed me into posting about the role of childhood fairy-tales in the onset of the presence of the puppets in my life, the moved on to getting me to write about soldiers and stories – and yesterday – this resulted in a post about the generations before me in my family, and specifically about the stories of the soldiers in those generations. Today, however, I have decided to write about the role of my own beloved M.’s time in the Turkish military vis-a-vis storytelling. As I mentioned yesterday, M. escaped his experience alive despite all odds at one point, with many hysterical and some chilling stories to tell about his life as an art student turned lieutenant during his required service.

Soldiers, as I mentioned yesterday always seem to be the best storytellers. They have seen a lot about human nature even when it does not involve combat, I would argue. I know now, after reflecting upon it, that I learned a lot from the older soldiers in my lineage – both things that were spoken and unspoken. I even learned a lot the one time my Pop and I were flying to Kenya, in front of a set of mercenaries heading for the Central African Republic to do God-knows-what. Amidst their alcohol-driven hilarity and baravado in ribald storytelling of their own, my Pop attempted to maintain my honor, explaining that “soldiers behave like this sometimes, Liz, when they have seen a lot of terrible things go on.”At the time, I was a too-cool-for-school social worker in the Bronx, without much worry for the cursing and scandalous talk that sounded all-too like the talk in the arraignments courtroom in the Criminal Court. I scoffed at his caring a little bit inside (e.g. “I’m tough, I can handle it”) but secretly wondered what Pop had seen himself that might have been difficult, or whether he was just a student of human nature during his military years.

However, the current “was-a-soldier” in my life has also taught me a lot about the power of stories and the joy of stories in living and reflecting upon life as we go about it. My M., though, he is a raconteur originale when it comes to stories about the Turkish army. Of course, despite my feminist roots and leanings, I would be remiss if I did not admit that the romance (in the true sense of the word) of some of his stories did play a wee role in the wooing of me early on. I loved hearing about the impossible assignments he was given (account for all 30,000 maps in the map room), the staggeringly funny mis-placement of a free-thinking art student as a batallion leader told to go search for Kurdish rebels in mountains (I’ll leave him to tell that one) or the time his batallion was woken up at night and deposited in the wilderness with the order to “come home” – but couldn’t figure out where they were or what to do – so were picked up in the same spot 24 hours later (I’ll leave him to tell you about how moss grows on all sides of the tree – not just the north side). There were also quieter stories about the uniquely peaceful time he spent on leave looking for sea treasures near Hatay (Antakya) at the officer’s vacation spot – or even the horribly, gut-wrenchingly sad reality of not being allowed a visit home during his mother’s last weeks of life (Perihan Hanım, my fairy godmother for this relationship, is sighing, as she tried her mightiest to beat the powers of the Turkish military on this, but was not successful, which tells me she was around with M. way before me, hmmmm). These stories, and many more, slide off of his tongue as he gesticulates wildly to illustrate the goings on – his voice rising and rising louder and louder to emphasize a point or softer and softer in difficult moments. Stories make the world go round, indeed.

So, from M., I have learned the power of sharing military stories with whomever (male person) he meets as we range around Turkey. Never an elongated tea-drinking session goes by without discussions of where each man did their military service and the funny -and not so funny- things seen there. From watching these, and other interactions between men (as an outside who does not comprehend much Turkish yet), I can see the importance of extended conversation – and the stories woven in -can often have in any interaction. It is some sort of community-building exercise, I sometimes think, as well as a way to establish personage in a country where until 1923 or so, last names were not used. Perhaps this sort of sharing is a marker of sorts, a way of placing people in space and time – well, males, that is.

It is also from M. that I have learned the art of using my body and voice in storytelling – whereas in the past it was just my arms and hands putting down what my mind created. I still can’t tell a story without closing my eyes as I envision the words on the page. In any case, I raise my glass tonight in honor of the soldier sitting in the other room, and to the fact that he is alive here, safe and sound, in our home, sharing the making of stories with me, on this cross-cultural road trip called our marriage – in and out of the blogosphere! The puppets are raising their glasses of sugary lemon-tea as well….“Şerefe!” they are crying out “to your honor, M. Bey!”

(Stay tuned for On stories, soldiers and writing: Part III, tomorrow – where I will talk about my students who are or were soldiers, and how I have learned from their storytelling…)

Puppet laryngitis: On stories, soldiers and writing: Part I

An image of a trench-written letter (Canadian, see this link for source)

Today, as I sat down to prepare my syllabus for the spring semester, the puppets took charge of my laptop – those puppets – they are the perpetrators of procrastination like none other.  I should mention that the puppets have laryngitis this week (to varying degrees) so they cannot talk much – but they can make themselves known nonetheless.  After they basically strong-armed me into posting about the role of childhood fairy-tales in the onset of the presence of the puppets in my life, the moved on to other topics -  but they were quite sly about it.

There was a lot of puppet-hopping and pointing and excited arm waving – and eventually they got me to navigate to the online place they really wanted me to go, namely, Archers of Okçular, the clever blog penned by an English expat living in southwestern Turkey.  Of course the clever joke is that Okçular is a word for archer – just had to mention it.  I adore this blog for many reasons – perhaps primary of which is the fact that I am always surprised by and interested in what Alan Fenn has to say on any given day.  It is never boring and always a fascinating window into the life of an Emiköy.

Today on this blog, there was a wonderful bit of writing in the form of a guest post from blogger Jack Scott (of Perking the Pansies fame, author of the new, best-selling-on-Amazon book Perking the Pansies: Jack and Liam Move to Turkey which you can purchase here). Today, Jack wasn’t talking about his (fascinating) book, rather, he was talking about his growing-up years as a military kid, including a stint in Malaya.  The images of his father, the professional soldier – and his Mum along for the ride – they were, well, enrapturing somehow.  I found myself lulled by the rhythm of the remembrance that Jack has penned.  It got me to thinking about the soldiers in my life, and how they have influenced me vis-a-vis the telling of stories.

So, when my eyes first hit the page that the puppets led me to, never being much of anything besides a peacenik, my eyebrows raised, much to the likely chagrin of my Grandpa the Scot, who fought in the trenches in WWI , my Uncle the Canadian, who fought in the trenches in WWII, my American grandfather who supported the WWII effort as an engineer, stateside at the Navy base near Portsmouth, Rhode Island, my American father who lived in post-war Germany for two years as a medic in a MASH unit during the Korean War – and of course my beloved M., who did his time in the Turkish military and escaped alive despite all odds at one point, with many hysterical stories to tell.  (Actually, he’s right with me on the peacenik front – but in any case – let me get back to the point of the day, stories, and soldiers).

Soldiers, you see, always seem to be the best storytellers.  They have seen a lot – even if not in combat – even if just waiting around in a German barracks for something to happen or driving along a Turkish road near Iskanderun heating up C-rations on the car manifold.  Perhaps it was growing up around all of these soldiers and all of their stories (and I count my adult life with M. as growing up time) that led me to appreciate the power of stories so much.  Now – some of these men never said a word about their experiences – but left trails of stories behind.  Some spoke sparingly of their soldiering days.  Some spoke with bravado about being near soldiers -and some spoke only when showing photos of the surrounds of their stories.  My M., though, he is a raconteur originale when it comes to stories about the Turkish army – but let me leave that generation for another day.

As a young woman, my father and mother read my Glaswegian Grandpa’s letters home from the trenches in France out loud.  My Grandpa’s writing was almost devoid of emotion, I remember thinking, about the horrors he saw there – his friends blown to bits, literally, next to him, and, well, all over him.  My parents gave me a first-hand view into the realities of war as it was waged in person-to-person form.  I have an enduring image of the “luxury” my Grandpa lucked into upon being promoted – his own fox hole in the wet, sticky December mud, and the tin cup in which he heated his tea with a tiny candle even on the most grim of nights.   Raised a teetotaler by his uncle and aunt after he and his brother were orphaned, Grandpa soon took to the power of a good stiff drink in the trenches – following his cuppa with a bit of the tough stuff, whisky, I suppose.  Many years later, he was known for pouring the stiffest of Manhattans to my father, who could rarely make it to the dinner table after politely accepting one of these potent libations.

Although I don’t remember meeting my Grandfather as I was but a wee babe, his stories, never told verbally, live on in writing.  You can read about them in this book, where the life of a Sandhurst-graduated gent during WWII is paralleled to that of my Grandpa, who actually saw the trenches.  On the other hand, my American Grandfather, although not a soldier, had a lot of stories to tell about preparations for an invasion of the eastern coast of the U.S.  As I recall, he was very proud of his service in the form of bridge building an the laying of scaffolds for submarines and the like…but it was my Grandmother’s stories of the era that ring more strongly in my memory – of Grandpa depositing the family in Conway, New Hampshire, far from the potential front, of nights under blackouts in Quincy, MA and of the ration books for food.  She wove sad stories of deprivation that merged seamlessly from the family’s significant challenges in the Great Depression of the 1930s right into the war years of the 1940s.

Now my Uncle, also a combat veteran, did not have much to say about war, much like his father.  I can’t imagine that my uncle didn’t love stories – he was, after all, a scholar of Shakespeare, Ben Johnson and the Cavalier Poets (see his book here).  However, they weren’t often about the war.  The only time I can remember him telling a story was when he explained the great, silvery-white scar across his chest – the result of a shrapnel wound.  My uncle had fought hard to fight as a military man, it turns out – had been turned down by the Americans and the British for some medical reason – but was taken up by the Canadians – much to his thrill and my grandparents’ horror.

But the stories I remember most are from my father, who entertained us with army stories as often as we would hear them.  He often acted out the characters he knew in 1950s Germany on the American bases – shrilling through his teeth the phrase “keep always movin’” when we were too slow (an imitation of his drill sergeant) and “you straight, you straight,” about the African American private who had lost his mind after too much time in solitary confinement for some sort of interracial incident that I can’t remember.  All he could say after his ordeal was that phrase…meaning “you’re ok.”  Dad would say this to us in an effort to make us laugh if we fell and skinned our knee, for example, telling us that we were just fine.  I never put all the bits of that story together until later.  He told of the soldiers he knew who rolled grenades down bars before ducking for cover, of trips through the mountains to get to Paris to see some art – and tying his underwear into chains for the tires in order to make it through a mountain pass in the Alps.  He told of peeling potatoes, local Germans he cared for through their iron lungs – and of the family he befriended in the neighborhood.  The stench of vomit was hanging in the air as he spoke about the transport ship he lived on during the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean – and the splattering of vomitous stuff seemed right with us as he spoke of climbing up ladders to get out onto the deck as people hurled all around him.  We would laugh until we would cry, but we were learning some important lessons about what governments do to their people, I suppose.

As I grew older, Dad would talk about how his dreams of becoming a doctor began to wane as he was working as a medic in Germany – where in addition to being Phlebotomist #1 for the community around the base and constantly getting stuck with Syphilis-infected needles – he also had the job of conducting autopsies on all suicides in the area. I think he had one too many a view of drunken soldiers chopped to bits by the trains they “accidentally” walked in front of and the like.  It all seemed so pointless.  Dad’s stories, when taken together, were really painting a picture of the bleak realities of post-war Germany in that era.  I began to see the power of this form of social history for understanding more about the world around me.

Each of these men seemed to have a unique relationship with their history of soldiering – and I took a slight bit of something from each of them with respect to the power of stories shared – and not shared.  Perhaps this explains my eventual foray into the study of history and anthropology as an undergraduate student – and then to the world of social work – where all work centers around the stories of people framed as “clients”  – and where those stories will go next, with support…

In any case, I raise my glass in honor of the soldiers in my own family, and for the ways that they introduced me to the telling of difficult and funny stories – but real stories, as opposed to the fairy stories of my childhood imagination….

(Tune in tomorrow for Part II of this post, on stories, soldiers and writing)