I smoke. I smoke a lot. I smoke so fucking much that the amount of nicotine required to give me a buzz would kill Dale Gribble. On top of that my casual drinking is roughly on the same level as a Russian construction worker on holiday in Vegas. There’s been a number of times where I was just hanging around a bar trying to enjoy myself and someone wouldn’t leave me alone so we’d end up doing shots and they’d end up half dead in the head sick with alcohol poisoning while I ordered another glass of rum and walked outside for a cigarette. But let’s be clear on something, I don’t abuse alcohol. I teach it a fucking lesson. But we’ll save drinking stories for another day, today we’re going to be talking about chain smoking your problems away.
To say that tobacco is a stable of military culture is to say that the Pacific Ocean is slightly moist. The thing that plays into that, which most civilians seem not to be aware of, is the overbearing amount of downtime and colossal strain of boredom that comes with the monotony of having nothing to do. Say for example there’s a unit that gets every task they’re responsible for completing in the week accomplished before noon on Tuesday. They’re not going to just be let go. The two most likely things that will happen are being sent to clean something, even if it doesn’t need cleaned, or put on standby, which is just being sent to hang out somewhere until you’re needed. There were times that lasted for weeks when I was attached to infantry units where the schedule was get up for a formation that was held at five in the morning, then go hang out in your barracks room until about six that night. If you have a job that can be done in the rear, things aren’t often much better. Mechanics who get their shit fixed, administration people at smaller units, warehouse workers, if their tasks are completed, they still have to be available in case something comes up. Then if you’re deployed to a combat zone it gets worse. From what I’ve seen the standard schedule for a day with an infantry unit, you know, the guys that are fighting the damn war, is eight hours on patrol where something may or may not happen, eight hours on post just watching the desert with literally nothing else to do, and eight hours of rest to get anything personal one might need done. Such personal things include weapons maintenance, eating, cleaning and organizing gear, personal hygiene, and maybe even sleep. And keep in mind, you’re on the other side of the planet, it’s not like you can just go home. And this keeps up for at LEAST six months, if you’re not part something that might be filed under “The invasion.” Then God forbid you end up on ship where if you don’t have a job related to keeping the ship running, or you’re not pulled to be an auxiliary cook or cargo handler you have literally not a damn thing to do.
Then if you’re not deployed, and you’re single, you live in the barracks and there isn’t anything really to do there either and since you make less than twenty thousand dollars a year you either don’t have a car or it’s a piece of shit and you don’t want to risk it breaking down on the side of the highway trying to get somewhere. That and your plans for the night are to get so drunk you forget how to speak English and you wouldn’t make it past the MPs at the gate anyway and the closest bar is a sixty dollar taxi ride because they built the base you’re stationed at in the middle of fucking nowhere so locals wouldn’t complain about detonating thousand pound bombs, shooting rockets and artillery, and conducting live fire machine exercises at all hours of the night.
So where does that leave you?
The smoke pit. The authorized smoking area outside the barracks, on the FOB, or if you’re on ship down at RAS Station 5 colloquially referred to as the smoke deck. You’ve got all kinds of time to burn and nothing to do beside smoke cigarettes to pass the time.
These Smokepit end up serving as a forum. People from all over your area come here to burn off a smoky treat and shoot the shit with whoever will listen. They’ll share stories, laugh at jokes, bemoan their lovers, and they’ll do it happily to someone new who hasn’t heard it before because they’ve already told their squad mates the same story fifteen times and they’re tires of hearing about it.
I drew a lot of my stories from things I’ve heard in smoke pits. Hell, my working title for Smokepit Fairytales was “Tales from the Smokepit.” I added the Fairytales later due to the fact that most of what you hear there is embellished bullshit someone said so that a stranger would think they’re cool.
When I was in the Marines, I was a cameraman. If you want to get technical, officially I did everything in the field besides photography. I was an illustrator (drew things), a reproduction specialist (printer monkey), videographer, and a psychological warfare specialist (Psyops, messing with people’s heads), but I was never officially a photographer. However, photographers were the only people who actually went out do to shit in my field, so I picked up a camera, learned how to use it, and on three of my four deployments I held a position of a photographer. And that was the best job in the Marine Corps. Infantry guys only see infantry stuff, mechanics only see mechanical things, and artillerymen only see cannons. As a photographer I’ve managed to see it all. And a lot of it came from convincing someone that they needed pictures of something that was happening and going along for the ride. I wiggled my way onto my last three pumps that way. Sort of. Anyway, it’s gotten me to where I wanted to go. But with all that bouncing around, comes the burden of always being the new guy everywhere I went. People don’t like new guys or attachments, which I was both, when what you’re doing is dangerous or complicated. Being new, you don’t know how things are done the way they do them, you don’t know the people, and they see you as extra baggage. This is where I would strategically use cigarettes to fit myself into whatever hole I needed to be in.
Say for example I show up somewhere new. That unit is already a tight knit group and they don’t know you from Adam. They have no reason to want you around, and no reason to trust that you’re competent enough for anything besides maybe being an extra body to stand watch. The second part of fitting in these situations is knowing how to use the machinegun and being able to carry as much shit on your back and keep up. I was never a good runner, but I could haul a hundred pounds of gear and ammunition, on top my own weapon, ammo, camera gear, and body armor up a mountain like no one’s business. The key I found to getting that far in though was smoking. If someone from the unit walks up to the Smokepit and he didn’t have his smokes on him, or he was out, I could become his new best friend right then and there. I’d bum them a smoke, and in turn they’d stand there and smoke it while they talked to me. All of a sudden, I’m not a stranger anymore. Granted it didn’t always work, and it took me some time to figure out how to do it, giving people cigarettes makes you a friend. Hell, come to think of it, out of my core group of what I’d consider good friends there’s only one who either didn’t meet in the Smokepit or was roommates with. And that other guy was on three deployments with me.
Anyway, those relationships I built with tobacco, or maybe better phrased as the relationship I built with cigarettes themselves is one of the reason I chose to make the covers of my books look like packs of smokes. Lucky Strikes, Camels, Chesterfields, Marlboro Reds, Newport Blues, and Marlboro NXTs respectively.
And speaking of books, let’s get to the mood music behind Chainsmoke Your Problems Away. I wrote that, as well as Mourn the Liquid Dew of Youth, and Six Pistols and a Dagger all together in 2016 and 2017 while I was stationed in Twentynine Palms. Some of the stories inside are embellishments of things that happened while I was there, but the majority of it was taken from my days with the 11thMarine Expeditionary Unit in 2011-2012. As with my first book, only a handful of the stories depicted actually happened to me, the rest all came from things that I had heard on the Smokepit or things I’ve seen happen to other people, you know, besides the core plots of fighting space Russians and their zombie viruses, overthrowing the government, and turning to a life of piracy.
Inside these three books there is an internal playlist that comes from the songs the characters hear and sing inside the books. The sheet music for that is in the backs of the books the song happens in. You can listen to that on Spotify or download it from iTunes. Here’s a link where you can listen to it for free on this website.
Here is the music I listen to while writing Chainsmoke Your Problems Away. These are the songs that best reflect the internal mood to the songs.
Also, from here on out, Spoiler Warning.
Life on Mars, David Bowie.
The first obvious thing is that the characters are stationed on Mars, and this book’s about life. The second thing you may not have noticed was in the chapter where Glædwine (The girl with the mousey hair) is introduced at the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, she’s reviewing an incident where sailors got into a barfight in a dancehall while in port. She hooked to the screen, but the video is a frightening bore that she’d seen a thousand times or more.
Singapore, Tom Waits.
Singapore is a magical place. As a matter of fact, its name mean’s Lion City. Lion city is the main colony the character make port in. It’s just as wild as Thailand, but just a little bit cleaner. There’s a real place there named Orchard Tower, that incoming sailors call the Four Floors of Whores, because while the upper part of the building is an apartment building, the first four floors are all whore houses thinly disguised as bars. This is a golden little open secret about the place, because even if you don’t pay a lady of the night for her services, the drink are terribly cheap. You can get hammered while your buddy goes out back for a blow job and between the two of you, you only spent thirty bucks. I remember when I was there, I was drinking dollar liters of Tiger beer and one of my shipmates asked to borrow a few bucks so he could go get a hand job. I lent him the cash and went back to drinking. When we got back to ship I asked him for the money back, he insisted that he’d get it to me later. Later never came. For a while I would see him and say “You owe me twenty bucks.” Twenty bucks isn’t a big deal. If he asked to have it, I probably would have given it to him, but he asked to borrow it, and I liked giving him shit. Eventually “You owe me twenty bucks” turned into “You owe me a hand job.” A couple weeks later that guy’s nickname was Hand job for the rest of the deployment. Moral of the story, don’t borrow money in a brothel.
Lay It Down, Ratt.
This is a great song to listen to while driving around the desert in a Corvette at two hundred miles an hour. It’s also a good song to have stuck in your head while rawdogging randos. If there was enough room in a corvette to bone in, well Whitesnake would obviously trump Ratt, but this is a close second.
Every Rose Has Its Thorn, Poison
There’s a lot of emotional trauma and heartbreak in this book. I wanted to challenge myself to write a story that was anti-romance. There’s a million and a half romance novels out there on the market. I wanted to write the exact opposite. Romantic relationships in the military are hard on a good day when both people care. And when it doesn’t work out, you just have to internalize it and move on.
Thatch, Stockton, Chuck, and McKenzie are hell raisers in every sense of the word. And sometimes it feels tough to them, but they haven’t gotten enough of it. Being in the fire and the heat only adds to the effect.
Asian Hooker, Steel Panther
Remember what I just said about Singapore?
Kitchen Ace, Andrew Hulshult
This song is a metal cover of a song originally from the game DOOM. Doom, if you haven’t played it is about a Marine killing demons on Mars. Thatch and the gang are Marines stationed on Mars who go up to capture a Russian Bioweapon that turns people into demonic zombies. This song is rip and tear.
I Sawed the Demons, Adrew Hulshult
Same as above.
This one’s reflective of Thatch’s tumultuous relationship with Samum.
I’ve Seen That Movie Too, Elton John
Another one referring to Thatch and Samum’s relationship. Crazed star crossed lovers who don’t buy each other’s bullshit.
Party in the U.S.A., Miley Cyrus
By this time in the story, Mars is the USA, and when they’re not on ship, these characters are partying. That and this is one of the greatest party songs ever made. Fight me.
Alert! Metal Gear Solid Soundtrack
There was a good amount of sneaking around on Volgograd trying to either get into the hospital or away from it, and this song brings back memories of playing MGS and sneaking around trying not to get caught by the guards.
Hang’em All, Carpenter Brut
Electronic music that’s got an ominous tone. I think this would have fit while the Marines’ ship was going down and they were boarding the Russian vessel.