The University of Indianapolis hosted writer and Hoosier native Jim McGarrah as part of the Kellogg Writers Series.
Not a seat was empty on Tuesday, Feb. 18, as professors and students packed the Trustees Dining Hall to listen.
At the beginning of the reading, Associate Professor of English Elizabeth Weber read a long list of McGarrah’s accomplishments, which include a Kennedy Center Award in 2001 and the 2010 Eric Hoffer Award for Legacy Nonfiction. Weber mentioned several of the various jobs that McGarrah has held throughout his life.
“He has been a horse trainer, a janitor, a social worker and a mailman,” Weber said and laughed. “But it’s all part of the training to be a poet.”
Without missing a beat, McGarrah leapt into his own introduction as he shouted out, “I drink, too. That’s part of it.”
McGarrah began by reading a recent essay entitled “Yonder.” He wrote this essay after an academic colleague asked him to write about a word he used in his childhood but no longer hears in his adult life. The essay is about his grandfather and the life lessons that were imparted to him as a young boy in Princeton, Ind.
Sophomore religion major Joe Krall was particularly struck by the portrayal of McGarrah’s hometown.
“I really liked his description of the Midwest. He really summed up the atmosphere of the Midwest in the 50s.” Krall said.
McGarrah shared poems and stories that presented details about his life. Including driving at night on black ice by the Canadian border and sleepless nights as a soldier in Vietnam when every sound he heard might have been his last.
The Kellogg Writers Series authors often fit the theme of the University Series. Every year a theme is chosen, and all of the lecturers who are asked to speak have a connection to these themes. This year’s University Series theme is “Stepping Up.”
“As an ex-Marine who served his country during the war in Vietnam, McGarrah certainly ‘stepped up,’” Weber said. “His memoir, ‘A Temporary Sort of Peace,’ was about his service as a soldier in the Vietnam War, so his writing also fit the theme of ‘Stepping Up.’”
While most of the work he shared with the audience was primarily lighter and included anecdotes and observations filled with dry wit and imagery, he did not completely stray from his more somber material.
“You could hear the full moon keening as it rose to wait for death. Its only job was to end someone’s loneliness forever by lighting the path of a sniper’s bullet or casting a dim shadow across a trip wire,” McGarrah said.
McGarrah said he and several of his friends returned home from the war incredibly shaken, and they could feel what they experienced at war affecting their lives.
“Who here has heard of post traumatic stress disorder?” He asked the audience. “I’m sure you’ve heard about it a lot, especially with all the veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. But after the war in Vietnam was over, the government didn’t consider it a real disease.”
McGarrah recounted the process veterans had to go through to claim disability as the result of PTSD, in particular the struggles a close friend went through. McGarrah has written several essays and a book about his experiences in the war as well as opinion pieces on the treatment of veterans. An audience member asked him whether he had done a lot of writing while in Vietnam.
“No, mostly ducking,” McGarrah said. “No, I couldn’t write about it until I was about 30. There’s this Ernest Hemingway quote about distancing yourself from painful experiences that I like to think about. I think that when you have a big, emotional experience, you want to write about it right away … [but] you can’t really examine what your experience, in reality, is.”