It seems like my first official on-site blog should address another first: attendance at a conference. Granted, it was a little bit like the rest of my life– half military, half civilian. It was the War, Literature, and the Arts Conference, held at The United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Perhaps it was a strange introduction to writers’ conferences, but, as an army wife, everything bizarre about it was absolutely ordinary to me.
We had a rigid schedule; after showing identification and having our names checked off a list, we boarded a bus that took us through the guard gates and onto the Air Force Academy grounds. There were young, smiling cadets in their shiny dress blues, who made sure we crazy artists didn’t stumble off on our own and get lost on the parade grounds. We were not allowed to leave the main area of the conference EVER, unless guided by one of those cadets. Every sort of military uniform was represented among the attendees, from your current desert-ready Marine, Navy, and Army camouflage, to the snazzy dress blues that those Air Forcers shined up, to the office greens of the West Point English Department professors, to the strange little Star Trek outfits of even more of those adorable cadets. (Do I spot a trend? Am I in love with cadets? Perhaps. College students all over the world are doing keg stands and these cadets get up at 5 a.m, don uniforms, get into formation, debate Just War Theory, make out their wills, AND knowingly face deployments soon after graduation. From a gal who stupefied half of her brain cells in college, how can I not think these kids are super?)
While some of the writers maybe have done a double-take at all the uniforms and rules, this is the world I am most comfortable in. The in-between life of military and ordinary. The guard gates, the imposing face of military buildings, even the awkward mouthfuls of acronyms, make me feel safe. As do the salutes and disciplined ‘yes, sirs’ overheard at every turn. And I always feel relieved talking to people whose daily lives have been impacted by deployments, who feel lucky to spend Thanksgiving and Christmases with their spouses and kids: after a few short sentences we know that we share many experiences. We understand so much about each other immediately.
Cadets sat in the back of the lecture halls, drinking their Gatorades and chewing their gum like students who spent the previous night cramming everywhere else in the world. There was a sprinkling of more weathered military faces in the crowds, with rows of medals on their chests. There were a lot of men, yes, but also a lot of women. Women who were Air Force professors or Air Force students. Women who were instructors at small mid-western colleges and taught War Literature courses. Women poets. Women writers who had nothing to do with the military, and women writers who were military spouses like me. Sometimes the presenters wore uniforms, most often they did not. And while the themes might have been related to war, there was no topic that was off limits. Here we were, standing on official military property, near huge American flags and a hallway lined with paintings of American Air Force Deans who kept their students in tip-top order, yet everyone, from cadets timidly raising their hands, to poets reading anti-war comedic riffs, were able to speak their mind. Even within the rank and file world of the military, all types, religions, and political parties, were represented.
Ultimately, military-themed or not, I had the time of my life. Like I imagine most other conferences to be, there was a well defined delineation between the Famous and the Unfamous. The Famous were the key notes who dabbled in war: from Benjamin Busch, war photographer, ex-marine, actor and director; Mark Boal, previously embedded journalist-turned-screenwriter of Academy Award winning The Hurt Locker; Dexter Filkins, renowned foreign correspondent from The New York Times and author of the book The Forever War; and Brain Turner, Army veteran, of Here, Bullet and other acclaimed books of poetry. They had an entourage of dress-blued majors and colonels showing them around, they went to nice restaurants that required reservations, they did not take the bus with the rest of us, they did not stay at the Embassy Suites but somewhere rumored to have leather couches and personal Jacuzzis.
The Unfamous lapped up the “manager’s special” at the Embassy Suites and listened to spastically bad karaoke at the hotel bar afterwards (except for that dapper older gentleman who sang Sinatra. Thank you, handsome septuagenarian with your gold cuff links and suave twirling of your microphone!). But we Unfamous had fun, dammit. I hung out with a brilliant non-brat pack: Matt Gallagher of the electrifying war memoir Kaboom: Embracing the Suck of a Savage Little War, poet Victor Inzunza, literary critic Matt Hill, poet and English professor Bradley Johnson, Australian iCinema researcher Timothy Barker, fiction writer James Moad. We talked war and writing, MFA programs and literary magazines, new books and old, and, most informative for me, even after my third glass of Chardonnay, we took notes as Matt Gallagher, whose book came out a few months ago, told us about his book tour and what worked best when he gave a reading.
On the final day of the conference, I shared a panel with Matt Gallagher and James Moad. I hadn’t read any of my fiction in almost a decade, but I managed to stand up, read an excerpt, and I didn’t die. People even made eye contact with me afterwards and claimed that they just might order my book.
When the conference was finished, we Unfamous hopped on our bus and rode away from the military installation, the Air Force Academy and its strange nuclear silo-looking cadet chapel safely disappearing behind its check points and mountains. We grabbed our bags from the hotel, shared a long cab ride to the airport, talked excitedly about the conference, swapped business cards, promised to find each other on Facebook. We went through security, stripping off our shoes and belts and lap tops, forgetting perhaps, that all of these new security measures are a result of recent wars (no one had given a lecture about TSA).
We went directly to the airport gift shop, buying Colorado themed stuffed animals and t-shirts, admitting sheepishly that we were excited to fly home to our families. We did not run into any of the Famous when we boarded Economy Class.
And I? Well, I returned, very happily, to my mostly civilian world.