Gustavus author Abigail Calkin’s latest book, The Soul of My Soldier, is part memoir and part poetry and essay collection about her 40-year marriage to Robert Giese, who served multiple tours in Vietnam and Desert Storm.
Calkin is touring Southeast reading from The Soul of my Soldier, and from her 2012 nonfiction book The Night Orion Fell, about Air Station Astoria’s most famous rescue.
Author Abigail Calkin will read from her new book The Soul of My Soldier, and from The Night Orion Fell, at 6:15 PM Friday (10-9-15) at Old Harbor Books in Sitka.
Abigail Calkin says her husband refuses to read her book. He even tried to persuade her to fictionalize it, and change names.
But Calkin felt there was more power in her real-life story. A lot of military spouses will know what she means.
One night my husband and I had gone to see the Deer Hunter. I’m not sure that we talked afterwards on the way home. And it was one of the first movies out after Vietnam, and it came about 10 years after he had gotten back. I went to get in bed, and as I lifted the covers he said, Don’t touch me! And he never behaves that way. And I said, Would you like me to sleep elsewhere? And he said, I think that would be a good idea. So I went downstairs and slept in a different bed and three hours later I woke up with a jolt, and went up to the bedroom and announced myself as I went in: This is Abigail, your wife. And he said, Abigail my wife… Abigail my wife. And he lifted up the covers and I crawled in and he just grabbed ahold of me as if he would never let go.
The Soul of My Soldier explores the terrain of post-traumatic stress disorder, but it is a love story from the very first page. Calkin remembers telling a friend about this incident at a writing workshop not too long ago, and realizing that her experience over the course of her marriage was profound enough to share.
“We’d been together at that point for almost 40 years. How could I not have realized that I was married to a soldier, and the impact that it has?”
Calkin married Robert Giese in the 1970s, not long after he had returned from 2 years in Vietnam. He was a medical corpsman, and eventually went on to become a registered nurse. He also reenlisted in the reserves without consulting Calkin, and was eventually deployed in Operation Desert Storm in 1990.
Calkin says that Giese reenlisted to earn extra money to buy a rototiller for the garden. But when the time came to ship out, he was all-business.
This is where the story of The Soul of My Soldier turns inward, as Calkin confronts the central issues of her relationship to not just a warrior, but to war.
“One of mine is that I was raised a Quaker, and I’m married to a guy who was in the military for 28 years. And I don’t know if I’ll ever resolve that. A friend of mine said, Abigail you could die never having resolved that and it will be okay.”
Calkin is also touring with a previous book, The Night Orion Fell, about the 1982 rescue of the fishing trawler Fargo off the coast of Oregon.
Calkin found the story serendipitously: She hired the protagonist’s wife to wallpaper a room in her home 20 years after the fact. The skipper of the Fargo, Larry Hills, was seriously injured in the accident that left his crewman dead. He only recently felt comfortable telling the story.
Calkin arranged an interview with Hills, and the book began there. The story has one terrifying aspect: After Hills’ deckhand was crushed in the trawl pulley, he became entangled himself trying to free him. Hills spent 40 hours wrapped under the cable, unable to move or call for help.
Hills and Calkins shared a reading list while she was researching the story. He, trying to educate her about commercial fishing; she, trying to connect him with similar stories.
“One of the ones I told him was Joe Simpson’s book, Touching the Void. He’s the mountain climber who was with a partner, and he fell down a crevasse in Patagonia. And of all the commercial fishing books, and all the accidents, Larry said this was the book he identified with the most. Just that sense of absolute loss of your own life that you’re looking at. There is no one who’s going to rescue you except you yourself.”
Eventually, Hills was rescued by a helicopter crew from Air Station Astoria, who devised a way to cut him free, while the Fargo drifted in stormy seas.
Calkin would like to follow-up The Night Orion Fell with a book of commercial fishing stories that she’s collected during her 18 years in Gustavus.
She’s also working on a sequel to The Soul of My Soldier.
“A collection of stories from other military wives, husbands, children, parents. They fall into my lap. There are a whole lot of people who have military stories that they’ve never told.”