Next Up! former WVian John Mugaas, now a resident of Montana, talks about his muse and how he came to write about the USS Arizona: tune in! You’ll be glad you did!

Life:

My birth,1942, childhood and teenage years took place in Dillon, a small town in the southwest corner of Montana. After high school, my college career stuttered along ingloriously and I attended two different schools before transferring to, and, finally finding my groove at the University of Montana where I captured two degrees: B.A. in Zoology, and two years later an M.A. in Zoology. Serendipity struck, and Moorhead State University in Moorhead, Minnesota awarded me my first faculty appointment, a one year temporary Instructorship in Biology and a two year appointment as Research Associate. Two years later, Washington State University accepted me into their Zoophysiology Ph.D. program, and seven years after that, on Friday, August 13, 1976, I graduated. Southwestern at Memphis (now called Rhodes College) hired me for a three year temporary appointment as Assistant Professor of Biology. During that time I also collaborated in a kidney/endocrine research project at University of Tennessee Medical School. In 1979, West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine awarded me a tenure track appointment as Assistant Professor of Physiology; I taught there for twenty seven years and retired in 2006 at the rank of Professor. Upon retirement, I was awarded the title of Professor Emeritus. Since retirement, my wife and I have pursued our mutual interest in Natural History topics, and I continue to devote time to creative writing. In spring, 2012, we moved back to Montana to be near our grandchildren in Bozeman, wishing all the time that they lived in West Virginia, a place we had come to love.

Writing:

In the 8th grade, for a class assignment, I wrote an essay about a camping trip I had taken with my dad to an alpine lake. The lake perched precariously on the lip of a small hanging valley at the edge of tree line, and three jagged rocky peaks formed a protective arc around its backside. For three days, that little valley became my Valhalla. While writing that essay, I had my first encounter with the almost out of body experience associated with trying to describe, with just the right words, what I had experienced. At that time, I read every Zane Grey novel I could lay my hands on. His ability to use words to make me see, feel, smell and taste the beauty and perils of the Utah deserts deeply impressed me, and I wanted to make those mountains and that lake come to life in the same way. When I finished the piece, I couldn’t believe what I had experienced in writing it, or what I had written. Even though I felt proud of what I had produced, I almost did not hand in my essay. Who would believe I had written it? But I didn’t have time to rewrite it, or to write about something else, so in it went, right on time. Then, to my horror, a couple of days later the teacher read it to the class. He then said something to the effect, “Kid Mugaas, I didn’t know you were so romantic.” And this got a big laugh. This teacher had also taught my older brother—hence the title “Kid.” For someone as withdrawn and timid as me, that kind of “praise” was almost unbearable.

I knew nothing of the muses, but in retrospect, I believe that was my first encounter with one, Euterpe, perhaps, the muse of song and Elegiac poetry. The muses, still unknown to me, struck me twice in high school, both times in my senior English class. During my freshman year of college I tested into an advanced English class, where, each week we were assigned a creative writing exercise. Happily, the muse struck me almost weekly, and I was lucky enough to have two of my pieces published in the school’s literary magazine. During my graduate school days I finally learned of the muses from my mentors, and I could finally assign a causal agent for that peculiar out of body feeling that accompanies almost any form of prolonged creative concentration. During my years of scientific work and writing, a muse also helped, but was of a different sort. That muse seemed to be associated more with curiosity and questioning, problem solving, experimental design and data analysis than the mechanics of writing papers. Toward the end of my scientific career, my wife encouraged me to enroll in the first short story writing class offered by Belinda Anderson in Lewisburg. As I struggled to write that story, the first I had attempted in over 40 years, the muse that had swept me off my feet in the 8th grade, once again gripped my heart, and has been a close friend and intimate dance partner ever since. I’ve also found that writing under the influence of the muse demands disciplined revision to pull the active voice, clarity and excitement out of the passive chaos of a first draft, and to find those action verbs that make it sparkle. Unfortunately, the muse does not just hand those items to me, she only helps me find the discipline to do that work and practice those skills. Then she nags me to keep writing. There is also no guarantee the muse will induce me to  produce a piece that anyone but me likes, which is okay, because I write primarily to please myself. But, by the same token, I am pleased and honored when someone reads something I’ve written and tells me, like Cat did for Arizona, that they would like to publish it—that is as good as dancing with the muse.

 

What prompted you to write about the USS Arizona?

In one of her writing classes, Belinda Anderson used the Hero’s Journey as a model for how a story could be structured. She asked each of us to write a story using that model. We had to create a hero and present him or her with a call to action, describe our hero’s reluctance to accept the call, and create a circumstance that causes him/her to finally accept the challenge. A day or two later, the evening news featured a story about a man who had served on the USS Arizona at the time the Japanese Attacked Pearl Harbor. He survived the attack and continued his navy service during WWII on a different ship. He had recently died, and his ashes were being interred in the hull of the Arizona. The solemn beauty of the ceremony touched me deeply and I felt compelled to reeducate myself about the attack on Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona. I found a web site that detailed the complete history of Battleship USS Arizona, the Japanese attack, survivor lists, casualty lists, known living survivors, pictures of the attack, and first-hand accounts from Arizona survivors. By bed time I had my hero—a member of the USS Arizona’s crew killed in the attack, and I had his call to action as he and his shipmates began their eternal journey.

This story unfolded in my mind as though it had been placed there at some earlier time and I was just playing it back. I spent several days, sequestered away in my office at work, ignoring my responsibilities, writing it out longhand in a tablet. That draft was rough as a cob and I needed to work on some historical details, but I had the story I wanted. When I submitted the first typed copy to my writing class it was more or less a failure—no one understood it, and Belinda said it was not a story, that it read more like a touching sermon. I used feedback from the group and Belinda, to help me revise what I had produced. Over the years, I continued to clarify, shorten and refine the manuscript until it achieved the form published in Fed from the Blade.

Why did you choose to write about the sailors’ crossing over?

In my research, I found that it was not an uncommon practice for those Arizona crew members who had survived the attack to request that, upon their death, their ashes be interred in the hull of the ship. I also learned that almost all of those killed in the attack were left entombed in the ship. Those two facts made me wonder, what compelled the survivors to join their shipmates in this common burial ground?  I began to envision a story that treated the entire crew of the Arizona as a spiritual “band of brothers.” I imagined that the sudden catastrophic destruction of most of them had spiritually “fused” all of them together, survivors and those killed, and demanded that they would, in the end, share in the attainment of their spiritual rewards. And what immediately came to mind was to have those killed during the attack, cross over as a group and collect the survivors as their lives ended. I also wanted to use the concept that the spiritual world and physical world are separated by a “veil,” and to use that as a prop in the story.

What kind of responses have you had to this piece?

Most of my friends and relatives who have read Arizona have made no comment. One friend, a former navy man (post WWII), told me he really liked it, and was passing his copy of Fed from the Blade around to the members of his church choir so they could read it. I think most people are uncomfortable with a story that deals with the salvation aspects of the afterlife; it’s basically a conversation stopper.

The style you use is literary; that is with great attention to language, image, rhythm of words and sentences. Why did you choose to write the piece in this style?

Dying is a very personal experience, and I wanted to portray it as the natural consequence of life. What leads up to dying may be horrible or benign, but the actual moment(s) of death I chose to represent as a beautiful surrender. Once you have died, all known experience comes to a halt, and what happens next is anybody’s guess. My guess for this story was that there is some protocol and process associated with the afterlife that is common to all who die, and that these events prepare your spirit for its next life. To effectively separate that side of the veil from the chaos of the mortal side, I felt compelled to use an almost poem like prose.

Did you have any relatives either connected to the USS Arizona, another battleship, or a relative involved in WWII?

None of my relatives served in the navy, before or during WWII. I had several relatives that served with the army during WWII. On my mother’s side, her brother, Mike, spent the war as an MP at US Army facilities in California. Her cousin, Albert, an Army Infantryman, fought in the Pacific theater. Albert was wounded on Iwo Jima, but recovered in time to be trained for the invasion of Japan. Whenever I asked him about the war, he would say only that dropping the atomic bombs on Japan saved a lot of American soldiers. My father didn’t pass the Army physical, so he did not serve. But two of his brothers did. Both of them fought in Europe. One brother, Einar, was with the Army Engineers and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. I don’t know any details about the other brother’s war experience.

What other types of writing do you do?

I’m working on a novel. Hummmm, sorry, that’s such a cliché, but (blush) it’s true. It’s about half completed, and has been sitting in a file folder, buried in a box, for several years. But last winter I exposed it to the light, read it and still liked it, so this fall I will endeavor to finish it. For my short stories, I like to think that I’m not married to any genre and that I would like to write at least one story in every identifiable form. Plus, I have two young adolescent characters I’ve used in some short stories, “Buddy” and “Charlie,” that I would like to include in other stories. Family history—I’ve spent a lot of time this winter writing some of that.  Poetry? Drama? So much to do, so little time, sigh.

Who or what inspires you to write?

Foremost, I would have to say that Belinda Anderson has been my biggest inspiration to write fiction. Had I not taken her classes we would not be having this conversation. Her constant positive encouragement and example has made all the difference. And then there are those authors whose stories have inspired me: Zane Grey, Charles Dickens, James Jones, Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Service, John Steinbeck, Herman Wouk, Kurt Vonnegut,  John Irving, Farley Mowat, William Faulkner, Willa Cather, J. R. R. Tolken, Barbara Kingsolver, Louise Erdrich, Annie Proulx and Denise Giardina. And then there is that part that I can’t explain, that just wants to write, that is always cozying up to the muse.

Describe the place where you write (the most).

In Lewisburg, West Virginia, when our last child left home, we turned his bedroom into an office and I wrote there. It was in a daylight basement, and his room had a big window that faced west onto a part of our yard where I could watch the annual cycle of our rhubarb and asparagus. Prior to that, I wrote at the kitchen table or on a card table in a corner of the living room. In Bozeman, Montana, we have commandeered one of our bedrooms for office space and I do my writing there. My desk faces a large window that looks east, so it catches the morning sun and keeps my circadian clock set.

Please respond to this prompt:  By chance, you are introduced to a sailor who survived (on another ship) the Pearl Harbor attack. Write a brief fictional scene about a conversation you might have with this very elderly gentleman.

My friend, Ed Martin, 94 years young, and a WWII army veteran, meets me at the door of his home. A thunder boomer rumbles, deep and throaty, from somewhere around Kate’s Mountain; a parting comment from the brief rainstorm that just ended; the third or fourth of the day.

“I heard you drive up, so I thought I’d save you the trouble of knocking,” Ed says, opening the screen door to welcome me.

“Hi, Ed, thanks for the call. I’m glad you caught me, I haven’t been home much today, and I can’t tarry long. Lynn is at the Greenbrier Clinic. When she’s through, we’ll head for Greenbank. We have a meeting there this evening.”

We shake hands, and I step past him into his newly remodeled kitchen.

“Cups are on the counter next to the coffee pot, help yourself, if you like,” Ed says.

“Ummmm, Betty has been baking,” I say.

“Yes. There are fresh brownies on the coffee table in the living room, complements of the Chef, and her chief bottle washer. I also chopped the walnuts.”

I walk to the coffee pot and fill one of the sturdy white mugs before following Ed to the living room.

The touch of apprehension I felt on the drive to Ed’s is now full blown. My hands are like clammy ice cubes. I quickly pass the coffee cup from one hand to the other and wipe the palm of my free hand on the butt of my jeans.

I enter the living room behind Ed; he steps aside and sweeps his hand in a gallant gesture toward a small man sitting in a motorized wheelchair next to the couch. The man’s blue grey eyes are sharp and clear and look directly at me. The tip of his prominent, slightly bulbous nose and the tops of his cheeks are lightly laced with webs of red veins. His thin pale lips barely reveal his wide mouth. The freckles on his too white skin are pallid with age. They suggest his white hair had once been some shade of orange. He is clean shaven, and except for the laugh lines at the corners of his eyes and mouth, his face is remarkably free of wrinkles. A thin wattle of loose skin runs like the prow of a ship from the tip of his jutting chin to the open collar of his pastel orange sport shirt. He is otherwise clad in a light blue seersucker sport coat, unbuttoned at the waist, sky blue pants and brown suede slippers.

“John, I’d like you to meet Mr. McG_. Mr. McG_, this is my friend John Mugaas, the author of the story you just read. John, as I mentioned on the phone, Mr. McG_ served on the USS West Virginia when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.”

Mr. McG_ rises unsteadily to his feet as I walk around the coffee table to greet him. He keeps one hand on the arm of the wheelchair and extends his other one toward me.

“Ed’s being way too formal, John. Just call me D_. It’s nice to meet you.”

His hand is dry and smooth, and his grip, soft, mostly a gentle squeeze from his thumb. It reminds me of my late Uncle Frank’s handshake, and others who suffer from severe arthritis in their hands. “It’s a pleasure to meet you D_. You’re the first person I’ve ever met that was actually at Pearl Harbor during the attack.”

D_ smiles, releases my hand and eases himself back into his wheelchair. “There aren’t many of us left,” he says, and sighs.

I turn and acknowledge the other mutual friends Ed has assembled, Monica, the owner and operator of the Wylie House B&B, and her father, Carl, a WWII navy veteran.

“Hi, Betty, those brownies sure smell good.”

“Thank you,” she says with a smile.

I reach out and squeeze her hand. Ed directs me to a spot at the end of the couch next to D_’s wheelchair. I slide behind the coffee table and sit. I set my cup on a coaster and reach for a napkin and brownie.

“D_, what brings you to White Sulphur Springs?” I ask.

“My son brings me to the State Fair every year. We usually stay at the General Lewis Inn, but we were late contacting them and could not secure a reservation. However, my son did some calling and we were fortunate enough to find a room at Wylie House. I think that will be our destination each year from here on in.” D_ nods and smiles at Monica, and says, “Monica is an excellent hostess.”

D_ shifts positions in his wheelchair, and continues, “I usually spend each day at the Fair, but the weather today looked too unsettled, so I stayed behind. I’m not as waterproof as I used to be. And it’s lucky that I did, because I met Ed at Wylie House this afternoon. He came there with some tomatoes and zucchini for Monica and Carl. He found me sitting on the porch reading the paper.”

“Do you come to the Fair just because you like it, or is there another reason?” I ask.

D_ laughs and says, “A little of both. I judge the quilts, and then I stay on until after the draft horse pull.”

“Betty is a quilter,” I say.

“Yes, and a very good one,” D_ says, “So I couldn’t resist Ed’s invitation to come over and meet her. As you can see, we’ve been examining some of her work. Monica quilts also, you know, and she has shown me some of her pieces as well.”

“You must be a quilter also.” I say.

“Oh my, yes, and a tailor, too. I’ve made my own clothes for years.”

I glance at Ed. He has a bemused look on his face.

“Mother was a seamstress, and Father was a bee keeper and carpenter. Mother taught me to sew at a very early age, and I helped her do tailoring and quilting. Father had trained my older brother in the craft of bee keeping. My father died when I was 10. He was killed in a poker game by a man he accused of cheating. Father was a good man, but he could never resist the lure of a card game, especially poker. He didn’t drink, but he loved the pasteboards. After Father’s death I continued helping mother, and my brother took over the honey business. People in Charleston that were managers and such in the coal and chemical industries were willing pay for the services of expert people like my mother, and they were also willing to pay a good price for honey. When the depression hit, things became more difficult, but we managed to pay our bills, keep our home and raise a big garden. There were advantages to living on the edge of Charleston in those days.”

“Do you still quilt?” I ask.

“Look at these hands. Arthritis has made them useless. But up until 10 or 15 years ago I could still manage a needle. Now I do machine quilting. Quilting saved my life more than once. It has brought me only good things, and I’ll always be involved with some part of it.”

“I hate to interrupt,” Betty says, “But does anyone need more coffee? I’d be happy to fill your cup if you do.”

No one asks for a refill, and D_ continues, “When the war ended I went to college. I earned a degree in business and opened an independent insurance agency in Charleston. People had money, they had possessions and the insurance business boomed. It wasn’t long before I had good people working for me and I could devote more of my time to quilting. In fact, I hired a manager to make even more free time for myself, and, of course, my wife worked with me on the quilting.”

“When did you join the navy?” I ask.

“1938. We had paid off our mortgage by then. Mother’s seamstress work and the bees kept up with our expenses and provided a little extra. I wanted to see the world, especially the oceans. I was 20 years old and had never been out of West Virginia. But every chance I got, I was in the library reading National Geographic, and I was just dying to go everywhere. So, mom and my brother gave me their blessing and the navy took me.”

“When were you assigned to the USS West Virginia?” I ask.

“May, 1939. The Pacific fleet had been gathered to Hawaii, and my orders put me on the USS West Virginia as a radio man. I was proud and excited to be on my State’s namesake. In 1940 and 1941 we spent long periods of time at sea doing tactical training, and then basing in Pearl Harbor. I fell in love with Hawaii. I spent as much shore leave as possible at the Bishop Museum learning about Hawaiian culture and history, and then touring Oahu to see places I had read about.”

“Where were you when the attack happened?” Carl asks.

“I was on the bridge of the West Virginia. Things happened very fast. We were struck by seven aerial torpedoes and started sinking. Arizona exploded and went down like a rock. We were moored close to her. Both ships were leaking fuel. The fuel coated the sea and when it ignited it surrounded both of them with walls of fire. At some point, bomb fragments raked the bridge. They fatally wounded the Captain and mangled my legs. I lost consciousness, and woke up in the hospital. A couple of days later they took both of my legs off just below the knees. That ended the war for me.”

“How long were you in the hospital?” Ed asks.

“Two years, counting rehab time. I met my wife, Alamea, there. She was Hawaiian and worked as an aide in the amputee ward. She came from a family of traditional artists that made and designed Kapa.”

“Pardon me, D_, what is Kapa?” Monica asks.

“Kapa is the Hawaiian version of Tapa. It’s a cloth made from paper mulberry tree bark. It’s made by pounding the bark’s inner layer into thin sheets. Island cultures all over the Pacific make it. She would bring items of Kapa that her family had made to the hospital and show them to us. The designs on them were beautiful and she would explain their significance. I was quite taken with her. I needed some way to get her to spend more time with me, so I told her about quilts and quilting. One thing led to another and I worked up a deal with her to fashion some of her Kapa into a quilt. In the process, I taught Alamea how to quilt so she could help me. We fell in love. Well, at least I fell in love, but by the time we finished that quilt, we had stitched our hearts and our lives into it. She said she loved me, but I had a hard time convincing her to marry me. She was 10 years older than me, and a widow with an 8 year old son. A native Hawaiian man, that her family liked, was wooing her. Her family did not like me. I was a double amputee from the mainland without much of a future; a white man that posed a threat to the stability of their family.”

“Ed, that sounds like the perfect plot for a novel,” Monica says.

D_ laughs. “Maybe I could contract it out to you, Ed. Quilting in Paradise by Ed Martin as told to him by D_ McG_.”

D_ continues, “But, I’m persistent and patient. Near the end of those two years, we were married, and, at the end of my rehab, Alamea and my new son came home with me to WV. Because of sugar rationing, my brother’s honey business was booming, but that’s another story.”

Ed’s phone rings. He stands and goes to the kitchen to answer it. When he comes back he says, “John, Lynn says she is ready. It’s too bad the two of you can’t join us for dinner, but I’m glad you got to meet D_ and hear some of his story.”

I stand, reach over and take D_’s hand. “I’m sure sorry I have to leave. It is a pleasure meeting you. I hope we can continue this discussion sometime in the future.”

“We can,” D_ says, “Why don’t you and your wife come to the Wylie house tomorrow morning for breakfast? In fact, Ed and Betty, why don’t you come too? I think 8:30 would be a civilized time to get together. Is that ok with you, Monica?”

“That would be lovely,” Monica says.

“Good, we can continue our conversation, and I have some questions for you, John,” D_ says. “And, John, I’ll leave you with something to chew on until tomorrow. The thing to remember is, that in spite of tragedy, triumph, war, or whatever other interruptions come your way. . . life, the important part, anyway, goes on, regardless of those distractions.”

I depart, excited and looking forward to tomorrow’s breakfast.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Next Up! former WVian John Mugaas, now a resident of Montana, talks about his muse and how he came to write about the USS Arizona: tune in! You’ll be glad you did!

  1. Good interview, and a great response to the story prompt. Keep writing!

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