From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Author Spotlight: Chris Howard

“Lost Dogs and Fireplace Archeology” is set in the world of “army brats”. Did you grow up in a military family? If not, how did you learn about it?

My dad was a career Army officer in the Corps of Engineers, West Point class of ’58, then Purdue after being briefly stationed in Korea and Fort Ord in California. We moved all over the place, army posts on both coasts. We were in France and then Germany when I was really young, and I went to part of middle school and high school in Japan.

One of the most important features of army brat life in your story is the independence from adults that relatively young kids have. How important was that independence for the characters in forming your story?

I wanted to show what life feels like for the children of the men and women in the Army. I can’t say if it’s the same for everyone or for the other armed services, but I’m pretty sure it’s close. Growing up on posts like the Presidio of San Francisco, Zama in Japan, or anywhere, it’s like you live in a world that’s a bit different from the outside world, wider streets with less traffic, little city-states governed by their own laws, never too crowded, with a culture of its own.  Many posts are big, have lots of open space or forest with old abandoned buildings, proving grounds, dumpsters full of cool “military secrets”, and to any ten, eleven, twelve-year-old and up, it feels like you have the run of the place.  At the same time it also feels like there is this giant safety net around everything—that won’t let you fall too hard, and from that came the idea of the house spirit, the collected memories, laughter, sighs, rage, the obligatory sliver of your soul you donate to every house you live in, and from all that the house spirit does what it can to protect and comfort everyone passing through its walls.

I tell my kids “when I was your age” stories, and they look at me funny when I say things like “we’d ride our bicycles for miles and wait for the canon to fire before turning around to head home.” What canon? Then I have to explain that on some posts, they lower the flag at 5PM sharp and fire off a canon. Who needs a clock? You go home when you hear that canon fire, and you know you won’t get in trouble or show up late for dinner. I tell them the biggest birthday of your life isn’t sixteen when you can get a driver’s license, but ten when you get your own ID card, and you can go to the commissary or the PX by yourself, and buy your own stuff. I tell them my friends and I would exchange every penny we had for Yen, ride to Sobudai-mae station and take the train to Shinjuku to spend the day. I tell them my sister used to take a military helicopter to Yokohama every couple weeks for her orthodontist appointments. I tell them my sister and I went to four different high schools.

I hated moving when I was kid—still don’t like it. It bothers me a little that I don’t really remember who I grew up with, but I’ve seen things, done things, and been to places my kids will never get to see or do. I wouldn’t trade it for anything, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

Another side of the independence of the kids is symbolized by the “Lost Dogs”, who are momentarily forgotten and then lost permanently. To what extent are the kids, themselves, “lost dogs” forming packs in the absence of their parents?

In spite of all the apparent freedom we had, we were at the mercy of one or both of our parents’ duty schedules, and when the time came, we said goodbye to any friends we had made–and in all likelihood would never speak to again. But while it lasted, we formed groups, played baseball in warm monsoon rain, got in trouble together, were told to “go home” numerous times by the MPs, built forts, played with barbed wire, bought fireworks off-post and fired them at each other, and in general, tore shit up. Then it was time to move on.

On the other hand, the Lost Dogs are real. I don’t really know how often it happens, but I know it does. I saw them on the Presidio many times, really sad to see. These were pets who knew a big change was coming, couldn’t deal with the fear, and ran away from the only home they knew. Schedules are set, immunization appointments made, plane tickets issued, and there’s no turning back, no waiting for anyone.

We never lost anyone—pets or children. We had a Standard Dachshund named Chipper who lived sixteen years, tried to swim to France once from the coast of North Carolina, survived customs quarantines a few times, rode out a couple fourteen-hour plane trips to and from Japan with occasional barking in the hold, and could even play baseball when he felt like it—although he usually just snagged the ball and wouldn’t give it back.

One of my favorite lines in your story is about Building 780: “We unload at Building 780, temporary housing while they arrange our permanent temporary housing.” It does a great job, in just one line, of pointing at both the absurdity of some aspects of military life, but also at the out-of-sorts-ness of growing up. Even though it shows up late in the story, how centrally should we place Building 780 in your story?

The idea of housing always being temporary is definitely central to the story. Until my dad retired, my parents had never owned a house. Building 780 is a real place, temporary quarters for families moving in and out of Zama, home of USARJ (US Army Japan) about twenty miles south of Tokyo. In my own life, I think that does represent a shift to understanding how different our lives were from most American kids our age—how out of time we were, and even understanding how varied and incredibly beautiful this world is.

The story almost changes into a blurred travelogue as the main character moves from base to base. I didn’t move often when I grew up, but I still find that my childhood memories become more and more blurred in this way as I get older. Can we understand the frequent change of location and its related blurring of place to be a heightened view of the passage of childhood?

Definitely. I try to tell my own kids stories about walking to the Potomac River from our house at Fort Belvoir. I didn’t go alone. I can remember the smell of the forest, I can remember walking across the foot bridge, but, other than my brother, I couldn’t tell you who else was there. I can remember some of their faces. All their names are lost. And as far as places, some I remember well—better than the people, while others I remember mostly as quick flashes of action or an event, like sitting on a picnic outside our apartment in Germany.

Do you have anything else you’d like to add?

Both of my kids are teenagers now, and the one thing I really want them to do is see the world, even if it’s just a visit here and there, and over a lifetime. (We took them to Montreal last year for WorldCon—it was the first time they’ve used passports. Hey, it’s a start!) I’ve lived in several countries, but I’ve also been to India and Turkey, Switzerland and Korea, a bunch of other places, and one thing I really want for my kids—and think that everyone should want for themselves and their kids–is to see the world, walk the streets, ride the trains, breathe the air, listen to the voices in at least a dozen of the roughly two hundred nations out there beyond our borders. I think it’s important.

William Sullivan is a writer, computer programmer, and musician living in Austin, Texas. You can find his website at http://enkrates.com.