I think they’ve helped my perspective in life… and in writing
By Jeff Salter
This week’s topic concerns how our writing has been affected by relocations and by experiencing other places.
By the end of my second grade school year, I had lived in MS, IL, GA, and LA; had traveled through at least four other states in the American Southwest; and had visited numerous National Parks and National Monuments. I had galivanted around the numerous wonders of Disneyland and even crossed the Mexican border into Juarez.
In the subsequent seven years, I traveled with my family as far as Seattle (visiting the World’s Fair in 1962), slipped into the Everglades in Florida, and visited both New York City and Washington D.C. Along the way, I’d gotten stranded (with my dad) in the Death Valley Desert… and I’d dipped my feet into both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Even as a youngster, I realized I’d been blessed to experience all those places and sights… and I was keenly aware that a lot of the kids I knew in Covington LA had never left the parish (county) we lived in.
I spent my H.S. sophomore year in a different state (Iowa) in a climate, region, and culture quite different from Louisiana. It was the first time I can remember being the unknown “new kid” and I was fortunate to quickly make friends with the only other unknown new kid — Luis DeLerma, born in Chile and most recently from Miami. Returning afterwards to my hometown of Covington LA for my junior and senior years, I believe I was a lot kinder with strangers… and especially more welcoming to new kids.
Another big adjustment was my freshman year at Mercer University in GA. I knew only one person on campus, the sophomore (Steve Carreker) who had shown me around campus during my recruiting visit the previous spring. A lot of the kids were from Macon and other cities in Georgia (and north Florida) and many already knew other students in our same class… or at least a few upperclassmen. [Oh, I did have a distant cousin on campus, someone I’d never even met before.]
Being thrust into a pool of fellow newbies was a broadening experience — nobody knew anything about me other than what they saw standing before them. It was an opportunity to “start over” in a sense. But unlike my experience in Iowa – where I was one of only two outsiders – most of the freshman at Mercer in the Fall of 1968 were also “outsiders” (in the sense of being thrown together with many strangers).
Probably the most jarring adjustment in my life to that point was my (January 1971) enlistment in the U.S. Air Force and those first days of Basic Training at Lackland AFB in San Antonio. Thrown together with 44 other guys, from all over the country — created a true melting pot of different personalities, abilities, races, and ethnicities.
But those eight weeks at Lackland were only temporary… and everybody knew it. Each of us would receive an assignment doing something new, someplace different… with people we’ve never seen before. All this, while situations were still “hot” in Southeast Asia.
Those involuntary AF assignments (and relocations to faraway places) were quite a shock to my system. In each case, starting over… and making all the adjustments to climate, personnel, and the rigid culture of a military base. Cannon AFB in NM was the easiest transition. Thule Air Base in N.W. Greenland was the hardest. McClellan AFB in Sacramento CA was the most expensive! In each new setting, I had to learn to adjust, make new friends, meet new neighbors, and (at Thule) live in a barracks again.
There have been other major changes: grad school, my first and second library jobs, joining new churches, etc. Then one of the biggest transitions of all — retirement and relocation to KY (where the only people I knew were half a dozen in-laws).
So, what have I covered here, with this recitation of my various moves and experiences?
For one, it’s about being flexible, open-minded, and having a positive outlook. Adjusting to new environments involves making huge steps into the literal unknown, usually with total strangers, often performing completely different functions. To quote Clint Eastwood in the 1986 film, Heartbreak Ridge, “Improvise, adapt, and overcome!”
And how does that translate to my writing?
For one, it gives me some perspectives on how my characters will (or won’t) adjust to their new circumstances, new co-workers, different jobs, different towns. It informs me how a person’s outlook and attitude can affect the success of their transition… and how their past experiences may carry over into their new environments.
I also know how it feels to be the odd man out (where everyone else already knows each other) and how to be one of many newbies (where all of them are strangers). Some of my characters have been there and it’s a good – often precarious – place for their stories to begin.
Have locations or RE-locations affected your life… or writing?
[JLS # 517]