Episode 7: Here's A Tip: Don't Die
Rolf Yngve & Gill Sotu
Justin Hudnall: Welcome to Incoming, the series featuring the true stories of American veterans and service members, told in their own words, straight from their own mouths. I’m Justin Hudnall. Today’s episode of Incoming has a very precise theme going for it: Navy vets with established literary and artistic reputations, who live in San Diego, and who do me favors when I ask them to. Like, be on this show. Out the gate on today’s episode, we’re hanging out with ROLF YNGVE, who rose from seaman to captain during a thirty-five year active-duty career in the US Navy, in which he served as a surface warfare officer, commanded a destroyer, served as the US Defense Attaché to Rome, and deployed for naval operations at sea with eleven different ships and staffs. Rolf writes a lot nowadays, getting good use out of his MFA from Warren Wilson College, and he teaches resume writing to veterans in recovery at Veterans Village of San Diego. We’re also lucky enough to have him on the Board of So Say We All, so without I’ll let Rolf tell you the rest. Rolf Yngve: My name is Rolf Yngve, and my piece is titled” Two Safety Tips for Those Returning from Deployments.” Here’s a tip: don’t die. Of course, in our profession, the ships, the sea, the battlefield all have their accidents and errors, blunders and bad luck. Your timing can be off. You can get caught up with the wrong crowd. Things happen. Sometimes fate. We know this. But, blunder and bad luck aside, there are always some people who think dying might be preferable to return. Here’s an example: coming back from deployment once, I told my pal (let’s call him Dwarf) I was so depressed about my wife leaving me that I was thinking of shooting myself. As luck would have it, the tool was in hand. We were on a skeet range. Dwarf was so short he had to offset that issue by getting his bench press up to twice his weight. He stood on a box to see properly over a destroyer’s bridge wing. Firearms always have an offsetting effect. Dwarf liked offsets. No wonder he liked skeet. In naval practice, though, there is no offset for what we call a suicide ideation. Having heard me ideate suicide, Dwarf was regulation compelled to tell my captain. The captain, then, would take me off the ship, have me examined then detached for some assignment where my potential suicide would result in no-skin-off-his-nose. Actually, my captain would have shipped me off because he was worried about me. This guy was a particularly good man, like Dwarf, a shipmate. And when you have a shipmate like Dwarf, he doesn’t tell anyone about your suicide ideation. Instead, he looks at that shotgun for shooting clay targets, and tells you, “Don’t shoot yourself. Shoot her.” It had never occurred to me. “See—you shoot yourself, you just go. Disappear. Whatever happens after that doesn’t count for shit. We’ll just have to find some way to fill your spot on the watch bill. You think she’ll care? I gave it some thought. I told him she might. “So you’re going to do it to make her feel bad? So she’ll pay attention? That’s why you want to shoot yourself? Shoot her. So you go to jail? Maybe you’ll get out, maybe not, but you won’t have to worry about her. You want to shoot yourself to make her feel bad? You’re missing the point. Besides—if you shoot yourself, you’ll make somebody have to read that teary-weary, dumb-ass letter you’re going to write.” I had already written the letter. I’ve always liked those letters from the combat dead, the ones that start, “Dear Mom and Dad, in case something happens…” The letters no one sees unless some blunder, bad luck or fate gets in the way. Hoping to measure up, I bought expensive stationary, cream-colored from an expensive store. I wrote a couple of drafts, then copied a letter out by hand, measured every word. I mimicked that special courage and grace only the dead can bear, hoping if some blunder or bad luck occurred someone might read it and care about me. I wrote it to my wife, kept it in my safe to be opened and inventoried if I tried out the shotgun on my forehead. I didn’t have to write a stupid, teary-weary, dumb-ass letter. It was already finished, ready, waiting to go. “Look,” Dwarf told me. “Don’t shoot her. But don’t shoot yourself—that’s beyond dumb. Here. Shoot a clay pigeon instead. It’s not all about you, asshole, you’ve got shipmates, too. You’ve got us, and we’ve got you.” Here’s another tip: be careful what you leave behind. The way this works, when you don’t pay the rent for your storage box, people buy up the contents and sell whatever they can. While I was away for Desert Storm, some guy got all my stuff, sold the skis, beat up furniture, old lamps, dishes, fishing gear and forgotten clothes. Then, for some reason, he looked through all the boxes of papers and bills, stories I’d written, childhood clippings my mother gave me, junk, all junk. And he found a letter. That’s why he called my dad. The storage box scavenger found his phone number in one of the pieces of mail, asked Dad if I was all right. Did I want my papers back? Dad told him he’d let me know. The scavenger lived out in the East County portion of San Diego where the citizens and architecture are equally weathered. He had a couple of dogs, ordinary, stray-looking dogs, friendly and curious, and I found him working on an RV he told me he got after it was repossessed. Ageless sort of man in a sun bleached ball cap, whiskey voice. “I was sorry I had to sell your goods after I read that letter. Go ahead and take your papers. Here’s this.” He handed it to me, a cream-colored envelope bought in an expensive store, a teary-weary letter I’d written practicing to be dead. Now a stranger standing on a hardscrabble porch in the east county heat was telling me, “I thought you’d died, thought your family might have wanted it. You know, I’m glad to be able to give it to you. I’m a vet, too. Glad you’re okay.” He held out his hand, I shook it. He looked me carefully up and down. “How was it over there?” I told him it was better than I had expected, not as good as I had hoped, because you’re supposed to say something like that coming back from deployment. He nodded the way he was supposed to nod. And how was that, the way he was supposed to nod? As if he understood. As if it was okay. As if I was forgiven. I had not realized I would need this forgiveness. But there it was, given. That night, I went through those papers and got rid of bills I never paid, letters I never sent, tax forms never filed, all the stuff I had kept out of guilt or laziness, and my apartment filled with all those years when I had been happy, when I thought my wife had been happy—all the years away, all the longing, wishing, waiting sorrow for the end of one deployment or another, the movement on and on, arriving, departing, preparing to go, gone. Never there. The last four years of our marriage, we had lived with each other less than six months. It was a Saturday night when other people were out on the town having fun, dancing, telling jokes, preening and flirting over their date-night dinners, full of hope. I hadn’t thought much about my former wife for a long time. Before I shredded my teary-weary, dumb-ass letter, I read it all again feeling that stunning embarrassment over the blunders of the younger me. How could I write that sort of letter, hoping it would get printed someday? How could I hope for one of those battlefield moments, some accident of fate, error, bad timing or bad luck intervening as if somehow it would make sense out of the life I’d quit trying to carry forward? How could I have been so stupid to actually consider that shotgun? Me living, not killed, not shot by myself or anyone else, this miserable, humiliating letter showed up and I realized, then, what the east county scavenger had forgiven. I had thought I needed to remember. My duty was to remember. It’s not true. You do not have to remember the truth. We don’t have to remember how we felt. We can heal. We can move on, find our own places. Here are two tips for those of you returning from deployment: Don’t die. Be careful what you leave behind. Do that—and it won’t matter the way you were; you can fix it. Do that—and you can find a way to be forgiven, and a way to forget. Do that—and there is still a chance you’ll find the love you let go. [Transition music.] Rolf: Well it was pretty simple. It was 1971, I’d already gotten one draft notice and gotten out of it by staying in school, and I didn’t think that was such a good idea anymore. Besides I was flunking out. And the uh, I knew they were going to draft me again so I got down to the Navy and got a recruiter talked into accepting me rather than being drafted into the Army. And the reason for that was that I always liked the ocean and sea and sailing and that sort of stuff. And a friend of mine said to me well, which would you rather do? Dig ditches for two years or go sailing? So I joined the Navy. Justin: Pretty good call when you put it in that context. Rolf: Yeah yeah. Plus you know it was 71’. There were a lot of us getting out of the draft one way or the other. Justin: And how long did you stay in? I mean you’re a career man. Rolf: Yeah I was thirty-five years active duty. So I enlisted as a Seaman and I wound up as a Captain a long time later. So there must have been something I liked about it. Justin: You talk in your piece about how hard that was on your relationship. How, when you were away, did you mediate those great pauses in-between correspondences. Justin: Well you know I have to tell you: I wasn’t good at it. Alright? I mean today it’s a lot easy to sort of just write an e-mail and people get worried when they don’t hear something, there’s a lot of connectivity too, but you know I think it’s also an awful lot having to do with just the way you’re thinking about things. At the time, and the way I look back on it is a lot of the separation was caused in the sense of separation because I didn’t communicate enough and why didn’t I do that? Maybe it’s because I felt I was in a different life, and when you’d come home that would be one life, and then at sea the other one would be another life, and the question became, “which one’s real?” Justin: Right. That’s an interesting point. Do you feel like there’s a psychological value in compartmentalizing those two different lives, like you don’t— Rolf: I don’t have a clue. I don’t have a clue. I mean I really don’t know, I’ve watched people compartmentalize and do really well with it over a long period of time, other people can’t do it. For me it became difficult. It’s like having a split personality, you’re playing a role in both places, and then it doesn’t work. We can’t make that jive. I think a lot of people have that trouble coming back from deployment, especially when they’ve been overseas for as long as a lot of these guys have been in the last few years. Justin: What did you base the decision to retire on? Rolf: I was tired. I was 55 years old, I’d been in since I was 20. Um, I looked around and I thought, “you know, if I’m ever going to do anything else in life, ever put my finger on anything else, I need to leave.” I was coming at the end of a tour and my wife had also retired from the Navy, so we decided at that point it was time to make the move. Could have stayed another four or five years, but the truth of the matter is I wanted to get out, I wanted to study, wanted to go write. I wanted to do the kinds of things I’m doing now, working in the arts. Justin: Yeah, I was reading in some of the notes you sent me that you started writing while you were studying meteorology, when the Navy sent you off to college. Rolf: Yeah yeah I did, and it was great, um, these people at the university of Utah took me in like I was their mascot. I was in the graduated writing program, two wonderful teachers I had, a guy named Hal Mores passed and David Cranes (sp?) is still around and a bunch of graduate students encouraged me, and I wrote short stories ever after. It was part of my breathing. Justin: How did you work in your writing when you went back to sea? When it became part of your navy life? Rolf: Poorly. Ok, I mean one of the things you have to do in the Navy is you have to write a lot, especially as an officer. And you know, I liked doing my writing well. I liked to write well and it’s hard to write well, so I was always struggling with whatever report I had to write, and then when I got a chance, I would journal sometimes. I wrote a lot of stories, I was really surprised by how many stories that I wrote, but a lot of garbage. Justin: Was that the time you feel like you got rid of those required 20, 30, 40 stories a writer has to write before that are shit before they get to a good one? Rolf: Oh yeah exactly, I could see that coming. No actually, I thought I was just writing my way down into the absolute abyss, I just thought it was a slide down to the end. And at the end of it all, I sent this story to my friend David Craines and I said, “dude, what do you think? Is this reasonable work?” And he said, “Oh yeah, this is good, keep at it.” Sometimes you just need a little encouragement. Justin: In the uh… So tell me a little bit more about the story you elude to. With the suicide ideation you mention in the piece. Rolf: Yeah this is kind of interesting, no go on. Justin: You say in your piece that it was related to the dissolution of your marriage but what else was going on? Did you feel like it was the isolation of the military lifestyle? Talk to me about that period in your life when you were at that stage where you were considering more of an exit strategy. Rolf: Well it was a very odd period. I was all of a sudden really successful in the Navy. I was getting lots of strokes and I’d just come off a really successful tour on our ship, but everything else around me was falling apart. I couldn’t make the rest of my life function at all, literally, and I’m not kidding about trouble paying taxes, it was like I just had to focus on that one thing in order to somehow live up to the requirements, and the story is part of a longer piece, I was in my mid-thirties then, and I think this happens to a lot of people at that point in their lives, at least from my experiences with people that age. They begin to lose track of the things that they thought their life was going to be like. That was happening to me. And in the course of this, and this piece is part of a much longer work which talks a lot about a couple of tours at sea and some things that happened that affected me forever. Justin: Talk to me a little bit about how you feel military service is portrayed in the media, what do they get wrong, and what do you think a veteran writer brings to the genre? Rolf: Oh yeah, it’s a struggle. It’s a really good question. I think that the people in the military are very human. They have to deal with working with their emotions, they have to have a technical ability and they have to have a kind of focus. But I never see quite the same amount of doubt and fear that I actually experience when I was in the Navy. Restrepo is a wonderful piece, there he hit it, but that’s not fiction. That was absolutely filmed on the spot. And I think the things that Junger did with his two films are extraordinary, and they are truthful, but an awful lot of it depends upon a kind of stereotype we have of military people and what they are like and what they want to do and what they want out of life. Which is not accurate across the board. Justin: Do you feel like it’s easier now for a serviceman or woman getting out of the service today as opposed to when you joined thirty years ago to talk about their experiences or do you still feel there’s as strong as kind of a self-censorship? Rolf: I think the self-censorship is there. I think it’s very difficult, I mean, lately, for example, one of the thing’s that’s always been kind of a—I hate to put it as an irritant but it’s always been one of those things that’s kind of nicked me on the shoulder a little bit, and that was when people would say, “thank you for your service.” Which I knew, their heart was always in the right place to say, “thank you for your service,” but hearing it over and over, it kind of places me, it sort of tells me, “I’ve stereotyped you. I know what you are.” Justin: Do you feel like it’s a blow off? Rolf: Yeah, it could be a blow off. I think a lot of people feel that way. I work with the veterans at the Veterans Village of San Diego, I basically just help these guys write resumes, and I think everybody worries about being placed in a category when you tell them you’re a veteran. In the old days, you know, it was the Vietnam Veteran that was placed in a kind of political category at some point, there were all those stories about being spit on and stuff like that—by the way it never happened to me. I don’t know, maybe I was good looking enough or something, who knows, but the other thing is people today feel as though they are placed in a box, where if you say that you’re a veteran, especially a combat veteran, then somebody is automatically going to assume you’re struggling with an incredible burden of PTSD and guilt and the rest of it. But the truth of the matter is: people are different. They have a different view of these things that happen to them, and they respond differently. Justin: What do you think civilians get wrong the most about the veteran community? This is kind of turning into, “the problem with civilians is…” but it’s ok, they can take it. Rolf: I can’t tell you that I have any thought about that, what they get wrong the most, but the thing that I think is most hurtful sometimes is the perception that people are in the military because they couldn’t do anything else. I think that that’s, that perception is held by a lot of people, and I think that first of all it’s just not true, because it’s very hard to actually get into the military today, or to have a position in any of the armed forces, and the notion that some young man or some young woman joined the military because they didn’t have any other choice is just denigrating the whole aspect of what people do do, and what they feel about their service, see what I’m saying? I think that’s the most hurtful one. But I don’t think that it comes out of a real overall civilian misunderstanding about the military, I think that the people who know people who are in the armed forces, have spent any time around them or relatives or brothers or sisters, brothers sons husbands, you’ll see these people for who they are. And the people who don’t have experience with them, well what can they do? They have to read the newspaper which talks about the things that are reportable. Justin: What for you, when you were transitioning back into civilian life, was the most difficult challenge about that? You were doing it with a partner, your wife as you said was in the Navy so she was retired at the same time as you, right? Rolf: Yeah, she was. It was the first time either one of us, for both of us I think, and I’d hate to speak for Sharon completely but I saw this in her too. A lot of it was placing what happened to me into the right box in your memory, which is really what this story is about. You know it was the first time I really had a chance to consider everything that had gone on. It had sort of been a thirty-five year constant churn if you will. Every 18 months you’d change jobs, maybe sometimes once a year. You’re deploying all the time, lots of different places. Learning many many things. And I never really had a chance to carefully assess it. And so it was hard for me to place all of that experience and all the successes and the failures, and the guilt and the triumphs, somehow place it into understandable form for me if you will. Still working on it. Justin: So my last question that I ask everybody is: if you were to be introduced to somebody, man or woman, rotating out of the service today, what would be your piece of advice for them. Kind of redundant but if there’s anything additional. Rolf: I’m going to have to think about that for just a second… You know what I think my piece advice is? Love somebody. That’s it. I think that’s the most important thing for people who are leaving the service. They’ve just got to find someway to love somebody and they’ll be fine. Justin: Rolf Yngve. Thanks for being on Incoming. Rolf: Yeah, real pleasure. [Transition music.] Justin: Next up, to round out our time together, let me bring up that Swiss Army Knife of talent, the musician, the poet, the host, the producer, and most recently, the playwright you have to be living under a rock not to have heard of if you live here in San Diego where we produce Incoming, Mr. Gill Sotu, who responded to my call for works on the theme of coming home with not one but two knock out poems, the first of which you might have caught back on episode 2. Once is never enough with my man, so here’s your second helping of Mr. Gill Sotu. Gill Sotu: PROGRESS NOT PERFECTION Progress not perfection I am coming home... I learned what I could Saluted who I had to, and ate what they fed me If I never see another chicken fried steak on a plastic pink tray I'd die a happy man. I'm ready for the sun to know me by my first name again Tired of adapting, I have never been good at playing ocean This tree has roots that long to be planted Progress not perfection I'm coming home... I remember leaving, I remember the party they threw in honor of me sailing off to protect this country Not much fanfare in succeeding safely. Coming home is not as fancy Much like a divorce, people just want to know what's next And saying "I don't know" is like checking "other" when asked to list your ethnicity America doesn't do vague If we can't label it, it doesn't exist 4 years and no real combat, I always get the question, "Are you really a veteran?"...YES! My time served wasn't idyllic I may have missed a few musters I may have wrote a few poems when I should have been watching out for the enemy... One or two may have slipped by in the middle of a stanza... But I put on my patriotism one leg at a time just like the decorated, the wounded, the forgotten... None of us, perfect soldiers, sailors, marines None of us, perfect fathers, wives, husbands, nieces, or sons but all of us... have to come home, or find a new one. Do not expect us to return better Just be open Do not expect us to return stronger Just be open Do not expect us to return understanding what happened to the world in our absence... Just be open... And we will always love you for it. Progress not perfection We are coming home [Transition music.] Julia Evans: Talk to me about where you were in your life when you joined the Navy. Gill Sotu: Joining the Navy was a funny story, because all throughout high school, I had promised myself—promised myself—that I would never join the Navy. My father was in the military and he would go away for six months at a time and then only be home for three or four and then go out again and I directly linked the military to my parents’ divorce at a very young age. And so I saw that as breaking up families, and I felt the military as breaking up families, and I saw it with other kids my age and so I was never gonna do it. And then senior year rolls around and I hadn’t even applied to college yet, and the recruiter got me in a corner and was telling me about all the women you’re going to meet overseas, the women in Italy and Japan, and you’re going to go over here… And so testosterone filled eighteen year old, to travel, to meet beautiful women and get paid to do it, or you can apply to college and take your SAT’s… So since a lot of my boys were going in it too, then I just kind of went that way. And I don’t regret it. I don’t regret it. I believe I was able to do more in a short amount of time than a lot of people, but there’s other things I wish I could have done differently. But that’s where I was. I’m all about finding new adventures. Julia Evans: What was the real best part of the experience? Gill Sotu: It turned out the traveling was really the best part. It put a bug in my system I never want cured, and that’s to travel. So after the Navy I got a couple odd jobs and then worked for a travel agency for 14 years, and I continue to travel because it informed my world more than any book I can read, more than any one person I can talk to. Julia Evans: Gill Sotu, thanks for being on Incoming. Gill Sotu: No problem, thanks for having me. Julia Evans: That was Gill Sotu and that is our show. Incoming was produced by Justin Hudnall with help from myself, Julia Evans. Justin Hudnall: Our composer and musicians include: Chris Warren Ariana Warren and Kristopher Apple Thomas Torres is our assistant editor and Ikoi Hiroe provides transcription services In the studio: Nate John is web editor Kurt Kohnen is our Production Manager Emily Jankowski is our Audio Technician And John Decker is the Program Director who’s missing beard we mourn the most. Special thanks to WUNC Chapel Hill for helping us talk with Major Smith from all the way here in San Diego, they’re good people. You can find us on the web at kpbs.org/incoming or at incomingradio.org, and hey, listen up to this part because it’s really important: we want to hear what you have to tell us about the show, and about who you are and your, so shoot us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org so we can connect. Thanks for listening, we’ll talk again soon.
Today’s episode of Incoming has a very precise theme: Navy vets with established literary and artistic reputations, who live in San Diego, and who do favors when host Justin Hudnall asks them to — favors like appearing on this show.
Out the gate on today’s episode, we’re hanging out with Rolf Yngve, who rose from seaman to captain during a 35-year active-duty career in the US Navy, in which he served as a surface warfare officer, commanded a destroyer, served as the U.S. Defense Attaché to Rome, and deployed for naval operations at sea with 11 different ships and staffs.
Then, to round out our time together, we bring back that Swiss Army Knife of talent, the musician, the poet, the host, the producer, and most recently, the playwright you have to be living under a rock not to have heard of if you live here in San Diego where we produce Incoming, Mr. Gill Sotu. He responded to our call for works on the theme of coming home with not one but two knock-out poems, the first of which you might have caught back on episode two. Once is never enough though, so here’s your second helping of Mr. Gill Sotu.
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