These stories are particularly dear to me; I consider them my milestones, the pieces that have defined and distinguished my work over the course of twenty-five years of magazine journalism– the adventures, hi-jinx, near-death moments, and wrenching intimate encounters that have helped to shape me as a journalist and a man.
Facing life’s trials, I have often found myself turning for guidance to the lessons I’ve learned in the company of my subjects, the many men (and women) I have lived with and listened to and written about. Fearless young marines irretrievably broken by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, recovering together in a barracks at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. America’s smartest men, carving out a life among the “norms.” Members of a once-proud street gang, their fortunes lost in a cloud of crack smoke. Near-feral boys in the slums of Philadelphia fighting pit bull dogs to the death. Vietnam vets who moved to Thailand after the war, seeking a cheaper cost of living and plenty of unattached sex. The Rev Al Sharpton—a man people love to hate. Blue collar tweekers smoking ice in Hawaii. Hip heroin addicts on the lower east side of Manhattan, searching for their muses in bindles of white powder. A diverse group from every imaginable culture, an assortment of winners and losers and cautionary tales, individual humans who opened their private worlds to me, they have served over time as my teachers, my village elders, my older brothers, my senior NCOs, my role models– both positive and negative.
When I think of the important men in my personal life, the list is much shorter. There is my father, 78, and my two grandfathers, gone now for many years. My maternal grandfather, Lee Rosenberg, sold shoes and other dry goods in a small store in rural Virginia. He had no apparent interests beyond his figures, his family, his evening constitutionals, his twice-daily prayers. My paternal grandfather, Harry H. Sager, a country lawyer, was largely deaf. At family gatherings, he’d often remove his hearing aid. He’d sit in the middle of everyone, lost in thought, his foot, which he fiddling ceaselessly side to side, a near-blur. Though I remember passing pleasant times with both Lee Rosenberg and Harry Sager—Lee always sharing his pepermint Chicklets; Harry always sending me down the street on little errands, letting me keep the change, until my pockets bulged– I know precious little about them. I was too young to think to ask; they never volunteered.
As for my father, Marvin Miles Sager, ever since I can remember, I have talked and he has listened. He has loved, supported, and provided, though he has not always agreed or understood. One thing he has never done was volunteer much about his history or his inner life. When I think of my father, I think of his generosity, his erect bearing, the way he opened the doors for the ladies, always helped them on with their coats. And I think of his hugs, so strong and all-enveloping as to be nearly crushing, so pleasantly scented with his signature Old Spice aftershave. But never once do I remember him saying something like, “When I was a boy such and such happened and I felt so and so.”
When I was in college—that four-year sleep-away camp where you stage the dress rehearsal for your later life– I wrote a letter to my Dad. “Tell me about yourself,” I begged, with all the anguished torment of a senior about to be turned loose on the real world. “Who are you? Are you ever afraid? How did you become a man?”
His reply came in due course, his doctor’s chicken scratch making it nearly impossible to read: “Do not try to dissect me, it cannot be done.”
It was an interesting choice of words for a man who’d majored in biology. I never again tried.
As it happened, I have spent pretty much the rest of my life dissecting people unrelated to me, the great majority of them men, looking into the deep recesses of their anechdotal souls. From Charlie Van Dyke, a fat man in a low fat world, to Marlon Brando, the flawed human model for today’s sensitive male; from Lieutenant Colonel Tim Maxwell, who can’t remember the word for “airport” but managed to start a whole program in the Marine Corps to benefit wounded marines, to NBA lightening rod Kobe Bryant, who has, through talent and relentless effort, lifted the craft of basketball into compelling art, the very model of perfection though sport that drove the Greek ideal… these men have done the lion’s share of making me the man I am today.
None of these stories are available in this form anywhere on the Web or in print; all of them have been renovated, refined, re-edited, and, in some cases, subjected to healthy cuts. As I worked again on the pieces, sense memories came flooding back: The sounds of tires squealing and bullets splitting the air above my head, a drive drive-by shooting during my time with the Venice gang. The pitiful shriek emitted by one pit-bull as it was being mauled to death by another; the demonic howls of their teenage masters. Standing in the rain with the Reverend Al Sharpton and a small group of mourners, sobbing over the gravesite of Yousef Hawkins, a young black man I had never met, senselessly killed after finding himself in all-Italian Bensonhurst, Long Island. The way Charlie, the 680 pound renaissance man, thoroughly consumed his potato au gratin soup and the big round loaf of hollowed-out bread that served as its bowl. At the conclusion of the meal, his plate was so clean it looked as if it had just come out of the dishwasher. The way Mark, a once-promising musician, took out another bindle of China White heroin and snorted greedily, back on the junk after another failed attempt at quitting, full of grandiose answers and pitiful rationalizations, not convincing to anyone around, most especially himself.
“Thailand’s Home for Wayward Vets,” was my first magazine piece. It was commissioned during the summer of 1983, at a face-to-face meeting at Rolling Stone’s storied offices in Manhattan. There were iconic photos of rock stars on the walls, a bottle of Jack Daniels on the desk. Some kind of large and colorful talking bird occupied a cage on the window ledge, which commanded a view of Central Park. Then-managing editor David Rosenthal was so blown away by my idea—searching down American vets who were living in Thailand as expats after the Vietnam War—that he offered me $1,800 and no expenses to do the piece. (The story ran at a little over 5,000 words. You can figure out the pay rate if you want; I have made a commitment over the years not to drive myself crazy with that kind of math.)
One month later, having arranged a leave of absence from my job as a staff writer at The Washington Post, I was on a plane. In 1983, you could buy a ticket around the world for $2,000. You could go anywhere you wanted for as long as you wanted; you just had to keep traveling in the same general direction. And so I did, moving creatively eastward for the next three months.
Three months and one week later, I was sitting in the office of Post publisher Don Graham, saying goodbye to my career as a daily journalist. Everyone thought I’d gone insane.
On the other side of my journey thus far is “Wounded Warriors,” the paint still drying as I type this—a wrenching, thirty-plus thousand word piece based on my time at the U.S. Marine Corp’s Wounded Warrior Barracks at Camp Lejeune. I am not sorry I am finished. It was brutal work. One snapshot: A veteran gunny sergeant– he often loses his sight without warning—kneeling down to tie the boots of a twenty-five-year-old corporal, a former Sheriff’s deputy with an acrylic plate in his head, left side paralyzed. For these men, there will never be an end to the wars in Afganistan and Iraq; they are the best advertisement I know for peace—though I am certain my fond Devil Dogs will disagree with me on that. For the record, it is not their conduct of the war I question. In my mind, they are brave heroes, the best fighting men in the world, the righteousness of their cause notwithstanding.
Some interesting tidbits: I only met one marine who grew up in a two-parent household; most of the guys I interviewed said they didn’t know their fathers very well. All the marines I spent time with felt guilty for being wounded—except Robert Wild. He lost both frontal lobes of his brain as a result of a rocket attack that sent him flying head-first into a wall. He says he realizes now that joining the military and going to war was foolish, that it solved nothing, in his life or in Iraq.
“Wounded Warriors” is an expansion of a piece I did for my beloved mother-ship of the past decade, Esquire magazine. I cannot thank enough editor-in-chief David Granger and Deputy Editor Peter Griffin– my wonderful editorial colaborator, who have fostered and supported me and valued my work.
In one way or another, every one of us is a Wounded Warrior. All of us are engaged in wars, large or small, that may never end. Whether it’s war against racism and misunderstanding like Rev Sharpton’s, or war against known personal limits like Kobe Bryant’s, or war against pain and diminishment like the young marines’, or war against genetics and societal standards like Charlie’s, or war against crushing poverty and ignorance and disenfranchisement like Beo’s and Zeek’s, or war against the overwhelmingly potent call of the next hit of your drug of choice, like Mark’s and Robert Li’s and Sleeper’s and the rest… all of these men have lived deeply and experienced in earnest the highs and lows that life can deal. Each of them has played his hand. To as great a degree as possible, their struggles and life lessons are rendered here, respectfully submitted for your entertainment, for your guidance, for your enrichment.
And perhaps to haunt you, as they will forever haunt me.
Mike Sager, April 28, 2008, La Jolla, California