Oedipus Wrecks – The Anti-Hero in Literature and Life.

Went to my 35th reunion a few weekends ago, and come to find out one of my classmates, Lieutenant General Darryl Williams, is now the Superintendent of The United States Military Academy. The reception after the football game, which we won, miraculously enough, was in the garden of his house, the oldest still-standing structure on post, with a panoramic view of the plain. There were a couple of M1 Abram tanks parked in the road right out front, I kid you not, and every so often a helicopter would land on the lawn, discharge some soldiers, in combat gear and weapons, and depart. 

Every time I go back to that fantastic fortress of solitude and knowledge, I’m always reminded of my historic comrades in (un)arms, ingrates and disrupters all, and fellow expellees: Edgar Allen Poe, Timothy Leary, James McNeil Whistler to name a few of the more famous ones. It’s funny how the worm turns, though – and in ways you don’t expect, or could even dream of. A few years ago a classmate of mine, Scott Sajer, found out I had been in the film business (that’s a howling catastrophe for another time), and asked me if I’d take a look at his father’s movie script. I said sure. His dad sends it to me, and it’s on Major General stationery. I read the whole thing while standing at attention – an MG to a plebe is akin to God, with a capital “G” – and once a plebe, always a plebe as the saying goes.

And as the saying goes, I went. Kind of kicked to the curb. More like unkind of kicked. But only after a year on corrections table, and another year walking punishment tours – both of which didn’t have their intended effect. Whenever people ask me about my time in uniform I tell them that I had a love/hate relationship with the army. We both hated it when I was in; and both loved it when I was finally a civilian puke again.

Seriously, I’d say the General and I became intellectual brothers over the course of the next few months (not intellectual equals though, just to be clear), and it’s very intimate to mold and massage someone else’s labor of love. A few years ago I somehow ended up connecting with a Colonel on LinkedIn, and after corresponding for a few weeks, and becoming friendly, she asked me to take a look at her book manuscript. It was a tremendous leap of faith for her, and responsibility for me, a virtual stranger, and I just wanted to make sure she took my criticism with a grain of salt. So I sent her my transcript, which I'll sum up for you in three words: Two. Point. Zero. Which I’m actually proud as hell of: a tenth over is a tenth wasted IMHO.

She was the classic, highly-motivated first generation immigrant, and went on to great success, getting her Masters at Oxford. She then was tapped to be some muckety-muck’s aide-de-camp at NATO, etc, etc. , and now commands a battalion I believe in Seattle. Anyway, she sends me the manuscript, and I red-pencilled the heck out of it, taking out my revenge fantasies on all the hurt and hazing I suffered at the hands of thick-skulled, narcissistic, field-grade thugs when I was a peon. Not. I told Henry, which is what I call her for some unknown reason (she calls me EM, for English Major, the only rank I ever held), that she had to change the title, first and immediately. The Lionesses sounded like a trite, white-kide Rousseauian back-to-nature college thesis. The title should be: How to Fight Like a Girl,which Henry has done her whole life, admirable. No, that’s not right – she’s always fought like a lady.

The point is, the shoe’s now on the other foot, and it almost fits. Which I’m not happy about, to be honest with you. I liked the chafed bunions and collapsed arches and blisters from the intentional ill-fit, figuratively speaking – badges of discomfort and validation for proactive recalcitrance and occasional snits and sulks that I wore and bore stupidly and proudly.

So I’m standing in the Supe’s beautiful terraced backyard, a jardin a la francaise, I think is the correct term and style, but I could be wrong, talking to my classmate Gene Stockel, who was and is one of the hilariousest and coolest motherfunkers and best of men I’ve ever met. He stands somewhat sideways, like a curious, apologetic giraffe, with his long neck elegant, and looks at you as if you should have taken the last hoovy-doovy that came around on the serving tray, and wonders why you didn’t. I was having a conversation with Steve Tryon about his book, I forget the name of it right now, giving him an outsider’s point of view, and offering to preview his second edition, coming out at Christmas. 

Sidebar note: I read the second edition last week and told Steve in an email that the title, the front cover photograph, the font, and the color of the book jacket were all wrong, and his chapter order and third person narrative needed to be changed. If he wanted to sell books. If he just wanted to feel good about his accomplishment, and the book is a very well-written and dense treatise on the civic responsibility of Americans, then he should pat himself on the back because it was mission accomplished. If he actually wanted to sell copies, then that was going to take a ton of painful changes, and a complete re-writing in the first person.

Gene was listening in on the conversation, head tilted in curious wonder, and said to me afterwards that I’m pretty inspiring and should be teaching people how to write. I said, tongue-in-cheek, yeah, I’ll come here and show the cadets how to think and act like a fatuous imbecile! Gene said no joke, they’d love it.

I never seriously considered it, but on reflection, I think I could bring a unique perspective (leadership by counterexample) and impart a lot of valuable lessons and invaluable skills. The course I have in mind is something like Oedipus Wrecks: The Anti-Hero’s Journey in Literature and Life – which I could teach with my eyes closed since I’ve lived it every single day of my life. Seriously, the cadets would be immersed in the archetypal mythological stories told and retold throughout history, starting with Sophocles, through to Montaigne, Thoreau, Churchill, and including Jung and Solzhenitsyn. They would learn how to listen carefully, make coherent arguments, and express themselves with originality, clarity, and wit. I’ve always believed that if you can articulate yourself properly, it makes you incredibly powerful and lethal in the best possible way, anywhere in the world. Words matter.

I proposed this idea to several other classmates, and Mike Lerario responded immediately: “Brother, I’d go back to being a cadet to take that class. Brilliant course idea and exactly the kind of critical and creative thinking our future leaders need.”

I’ve sent a letter to General Williams. I’ll keep you posted, kids.


November 05, 2018 — Johnny Mustard