First thing I should say: I am completely stunned at the level of interest and support I’ve had for Poor Man’s Fight. My book has succeeded way beyond my expectations. The most that I had really hoped for was that it would do about as well as Good Intentions… but in just 17 days, I’ve probably sold as many copies of PMF as I sold of GI all last year. I cannot express what a difference this makes in my life and in my writing ambitions.
Thank you. Seriously. I don’t know what else to say but thank you.
Something about the book itself:
I’ve been meaning to write Poor Man’s Fight for at least 15 years. Maybe more.
All through childhood, I had no doubt that I would enlist in the military. I loved all things military. The G.I. Joe comic did more to teach me to read than any of my (very dedicated and capable) elementary teachers could. I had a lot of veterans in my family (Mom was Air Force and proud of it), and while none of them ever once put any expectation on me to do my time, my interests and world-view certainly did set that expectation.
It was the early ‘90s. I wanted to get involved in drug interdiction. The Coast Guard quickly became the obvious choice. I signed up. Boot camp was hard.
My first ship was much, much harder.
One of those constant themes I derived from all that reading of military history and military fiction as a kid was camaraderie. I didn’t go in looking for new friends, but I did naively take for granted that I would find new friendships easily. I’m a personable guy. I had a great many friends in high school. One might have even called me “popular,” but I hadn’t a clue until the day of graduation because I didn’t run with what I presumed was the “popular crowd.” So, yeah, I figured I’d probably be able to get along with most if not all of my shipmates, just like all the guys in all the TV shows I’d ever seen about war and all the movies I’d seen and…
…and, yeah, not so much.
I was a scrawny, nerdy nineteen-year-old kid from the “land of fruits and nuts” who had voted for Bill Clinton, for God’s sake. I got put on a 110’ patrol cutter out of Key West, Florida with fifteen older guys who had nothing in common with me except the uniform. I got seasick—a lot. I had been on boats before enlisting, and I had thought it was fine, but then I discovered what real water was like. I have never liked drinking, and these guys were largely enthusiastic drinkers in a party town. My roommate was a good ol’ boy from Alabama with racial attitudes that horrified me and my multicultural Los Angeleno sensibilities. I was plainly not man enough for my supervisor, or his supervisor, or the captain. And it’s very hard to stand up for yourself when there’s a formal, legal rank structure with you at the bottom.
It was the hardest, loneliest year of my life. It’s not fair to say that they were all dicks, or that they were jerks all the time, or that there was never any reason that they might be justifiably annoyed with me… but overall, it was miserable. By comparison, boot camp had been a blast.
Tanner’s story isn’t mine. Tanner isn’t me. We’ve got some significant commonalities, as many protagonists will have with their authors, but I made a point of making sure he diverged from me in a lot of ways. Tanner doesn’t want a uniform. I wanted to be a successful serviceman so badly it hurt.
But my experience on that first ship—I was only there for a year, and then I transferred out and things got better—really influenced me. It also inspired a good portion of Poor Man’s Fight, at least thematically. Like I said, I had always drawn the notion from books and film and TV that comrades were supposed to be, y’know, comrades. Friends. Or at least not constantly shitty to each other.
I wanted to do a book where none of that camaraderie happened, because I had never read that book before. It’s probably out there somewhere and I just haven’t discovered it, but just the same, I wanted to write that book.
There are a lot of stories from my ship I wish I could’ve somehow worked into Poor Man’s Fight. We rescued people and we caught drug smugglers and I was part of the “Haitian Vacation” of 1994. I saw no combat, but I nearly died so many other ways it’s kind of funny looking back on it now (unless you’re my mom). There was the point where we went into drydock for six weeks, and I kind of snapped and started pulling pranks and throwing out insults right back at everyone.
There was also the night I realized I could hack it after all, no matter how awful all the circumstances were. Luckily, that happened only one or two months into my time on the ship.
The day I arrived in Key West was the first day of a massive influx of refugees from Cuba. They came on anything that could float. I’ve seen a family of four on a raft no bigger than my dining room table. We picked them up by the dozen, and eventually offloaded them to a larger ship. This usually involved our Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat, kind of a Zodiac boat stowed on the back of the ship and launched through use of a big crane.
So one night, with maybe a hundred refugees on our deck and the seas getting nasty and rain falling, someone decided it was time to offload onto a larger ship. I went out into the rainy night along with the rest of the deck department to launch the RHIB.
The motion of the ocean, as they say, got uglier with every moment. We had hundreds of pounds of RHIB swinging over us. I was on one of the stabilizing lines, with water constantly spraying all over my face and my glasses. I got worried about my ability to do my job, and figured I should warn my boss.
“Jim!” I yelled. “I gotta tell you, man, my glasses are full of seawater. I can’t see what I’m doing too well!”
Jim was in his thirties and balding and running the controls on the crane, and admittedly wasn’t a complete jerk to me all the time. He just kept his bespectacled—and water-covered—eyes on what he was doing and said, “That’s okay, Elliott, I can’t see a damn thing, either.”
And right then, I stopped worrying about whether or not I could handle all this. All that hype about precision and professionalism from the recruiters and the advertising? Bullshit. It’s just people stumbling along as best they can, just like the rest of the real world. They make mistakes and screw up and pick up and move on anyway, ‘cause the job still has to be done. And dumber, jerkier people than me could do this job. Other people had lived through this. There was no reason I couldn’t, too.