I came out here across the bridge to try and write a story. Or an update. Maybe a dispatch of sorts.
It’s been hard lately. I’ve had a lot going on. I’ve been trying to finish the manuscript for my third book, Crossroads, for months now. I’m literally down to the last story, but I can’t get it done. It’s more than 84,000 words now, and I probably should just fire it off. But I can’t for some reason. I want to finish one last, good story.
I don’t know why I’m like this. Maybe it’s because my father inculcated me to finish well; “End on a good one,” I hear his voice say. Of course, that was in the context of sports; never leave the batting cage until you hit one final line drive. Never walk off the football field until you hit a long, high punt or split the uprights on a long field goal. Never exit the driving range without hitting a good golf shot.
You get the idea.
But how to finish?
The rhythm I had going for so many months has dropped off almost completely. It seems the ideas come fewer and longer in between, as if I have said everything I want to say. I don’t know if this means anything. I don’t think it does. I just think I’m tired. I’ve had a lot going on recently. But I’m not uninspired.
Sometimes you are just bereft of ideas. And then you look inward and grow contemplative. How do I get out of this?
I think I read where Hemingway addresses writers’ block by advising us to “Write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So I will try.
The writer’s life can be a lonesome one.
Even for those fortunate enough to be known primarily as writers. Try taking it up later in life after you’ve been branded with so many other labels that people want to keep permanently affixed to you. It’s a difficult path to carve through the proverbial forest where you’ve never gone before. And yet, I push forward.
So now I sit in Crystal Coast Brewing on a Monday. There are a total of three people in here, including me. From the looks of things, sitting in a brewery on a Monday, of all days, is not favored in these parts. From my time living here in 2008–2010, I remember how this area is more like the old Bible Belt than the place I just came from, Washington, DC. Maybe most of the people out here frown on this activity. Or maybe they’re just busier than I am at this moment. Or maybe they just make excuses for not doing what they really want to do. Maybe they don’t have my freedom.
Whatever the reason, I have the run of the place, and it’s nice. I can proceed at my own pace, unhurried by the staff. My thought processes and concentration are untrammeled by the cacophony of the crowds that surely must fill this place later in the week and on weekends. Like every single establishment like this in the capitol. It’s actually quiet. Imagine that.
There’s the buildup to a football game droning softly in the background on one of the big screens, but it doesn’t blare in here like it does in most parts of the country. The usual overpaid talking heads are blathering on about two teams I know nothing about; I don’t know what players are on their rosters, what their current records are, or where they are in the standings, and I don’t care.
I, like most Americans, was once addicted to football, but I cured myself of the affliction. For me, football has now entered the realm of English Premier League soccer, which plays on the big screens on weekend mornings and early afternoons on the northeast coast at most local Irish pubs or sports bars. I can’t identify any of those teams, players, or records either. And I don’t care. But the background movement and idle chatter on the TV screen that fails to register any hint of interest still provides a strange kind of soothing, ambient noise.
I turn my gaze back to my laptop screen. I glance left out through the window and observe a few vehicles pass by heading west and east. Many of the storefronts across the road are closed down for the season. But a few lights flicker here and there in the waning light.
My watch, set to military time, says it’s 17:53. I can feel the sun setting almost imperceptibly behind me through the building’s big picture windows. The warm glow on my back is now cooling a bit, so it must be dipping behind the dunes that separate the town of Atlantic Beach from the Atlantic beyond them.
Yes, I came out to Bogue Banks, the island that — along with the Intracoastal Waterway that passes between — shields the Crystal Coast and the towns of Beaufort, Morehead City, and Cape Carteret from the Atlantic; not as a lawyer, Marine, or any of the old labels. I came out here as a writer, looking for a story.
Atlantic Beach is the easternmost town and one of the five communities located on Bogue Banks. The population was 1,495 at the 2010 census, and it can’t be much more now. This is a languid little place anytime of the year, but especially in the late October dusk, the masses of summer tourists now safely ensconced back in the comfort of their homes, wherever that might be, away from here. One can cross the bridge and be deposited into a different world where the vehicles are now few and far in between, as the seasonal flux has slowly dissipated and by the eve of November, totally dissolved, and you’re left with only the locals, of which I’m one, again. Thankfully.
I’ve found this area provides me a kind of respite, calm, and perspective I’ve never quite captured anywhere else.
This is the situation when my story abruptly and literally walks in the door. It was the man who is the real life model on which I built a character named Dale Rider. The man knows this. He has read my stories and humbly opined that I made him out to be too accomplished. But when he does that he’s just being modest.
Since I haven’t actually seen him in several years, it takes me a moment to recognize him and him even longer to recognize me. It only happens when I walk up the bar to get a refill and say hello to him.
As recounted in some of my stories in Document and Cloudbreak, the man I call Dale Rider is senior enough to have served as an old Navy “frogman” in the days before people called them SEALs. He enlisted in the Navy at a very young age, and was one of the pioneering members of the organization which started off doing strictly underwater reconnaissance and demolition missions, but later evolved to become arguably the top special operations outfit in the world.
When I first met “Dale” a decade ago, he was in his mid-sixties, 6'4", and still looked like someone you didn’t want to trifle with. And today in his mid-seventies, he still looks like that, incredibly. Dale is roughly my father’s age.
But he was always easygoing and charismatic. He was also one of the original participants in the Iron Man Triathlon series, having completed the original 1978 race in Hawaii while still in the Navy. Back then, at 38, he was the oldest competitor. After running out of water during the marathon portion of the race, his “support crew” consisting of fellow Navy special-ops types resorted to giving him beer.
After retirement, Dale eschewed any work dealing with has past military career, and he and his wife run one of the local bed and breakfasts in the area. Dale — the old athlete and Navy diver — is the chef, and from personal experience, we know he serves up some of the best food in town. Though he has succeeded in recreating himself after his military career, his visage and presence are unmistakable; one look at him and I wonder what kinds of exploits Dale Rider has engaged in that most of us don’t know about.
We break the ice and do some preliminary catching up. “You writing anymore books?” he asks smiling. I tell him I am. “Good. Keep it up. We enjoy everything you write about this area. You capture it well,” he offers. I thank him for the compliment.
“So what are you guys doing here now?” he asks. I tell him I’m on orders for a while. “How long?” I tell him we will see, but that I hope it’s for a long time. We came down from the DC area, and we don’t want to go back, I inform him. I tell him the irony is DC is about the only place I can make a “normal” living now, but it’s the last place we would ever settle or retire. He nods silently and with understanding; he has spent his own fair share of time there.
“So are you going to stay this time?” he inquires with a wry smile, sort of baiting me. Dale knows the area got in my blood the first time we lived here. And he knows that once it gets in your blood, you will never get it out.
“I don’t know,” I admit. “We’d have to find jobs down here, and I’m a 20-plus year military and government lawyer. And the last time I looked around, there wasn’t much of a market for those skills around here,” I tell him. He ponders this for a minute.
“Well, you know, when we came out here neither of us had jobs either. Sure, I had my pension start to kick in, and the cost of living was so low back then we lived off of it for a while. You know our experience. We did a lot of little things to make ends meet before we hit our stride.”
I smile. This was coming from a man who had an arsenal of life experience and skills most — including me — don’t possess. “Yeah, but you’re able to pick things up and do stuff most of us can’t do,” I told him.
“Bullshit,” he suddenly posits. “You sell yourself short. You’ve done just as much and are capable of doing anything. You just need to change the paradigm through which you view things.”
“Paradigm.” It was the kind of word Dale and the other members of this local circle of retired military officers and intellectuals I’ve written about would occasionally sprinkle into their discussions. I know what the word means; it’s just that most people don’t speak like that.
“The paradigm through which I view things?” I repeated.
“Yeah. The way you look at your place in the world and what you do professionally. I used to be the same way. When I retired, I thought the only thing I could do was go to work for some defense contractor or something. But that was the last thing I wanted to do. In your defense, it also took me a while to grow beyond that way of thinking. But I got there eventually.”
A moment of silence passed.
He finally broke it. “Look, I need to head out. But when you get settled in, let’s get together with the other guys. You just need to hear about everything that’s going on around here. A lot has changed since you guys left. There’s a lot of opportunity. And you don’t need a law license or be in the military to do any of it. You just need to be willing to work. And I think you’ve got that down.”
With that, we stood and shook hands. I watched as the 6' 4" former commando and Ironman triathlete who now made highly-touted frittatas and Eggs Benedict walked out the door and headed off into the dwindling light.
I sat back down, looked at the empty screen, and started to write.
Maybe he was onto something.
Glen Hines is the author of two books, Document and Cloudbreak, available at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. He is presently at work on his third book, Crossroads, to be published in early 2019. His writing has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Task & Purpose, and the Human Development Project.