Honor, Courage, and Commitment: How Joining the Military Saved my Writing Career
What if I could earn $1,000 in a night?
I could make this month’s car payment, go grocery shopping...
There you have it. I'd made up my mind. Call me crazy, reckless, desperate, or breathtakingly naive. I was. But after the death of my father, my grandparents, and my best friend over the course of a few months, taking my chances around the pole seemed like a better solution than waiting for a miracle to save me. I figured that dancing could give me the financial boost I needed to make it through the summer. Maybe I could take notes on my experience and use my observations in an essay of some sort—make this leap of faith into a useful academic perspective.
It’s strange that the impulse that lead me to take off my clothes for a living was the same impulse that lead me to join the Navy. I craved change in my life. I needed to do something drastic, something no one would ever expect from an introverted bookworm from New Jersey. I could write about my experience, gather inspiration from it, glean some treasure from the wreck.
Perhaps it isn’t just a coincidence that a girl who cares so little about her own well-being that she takes up stripping also cares little about maximizing her potential. I had not given up on my dream of being a writer, but I couldn’t count on myself to fulfill this dream; my mind was clouded, debilitated by grief and self-doubt, and the rewards for following that dream are earned slowly and laboriously. I cast my sights lower, to a stage scattered with dollar bills and shadows.
Besides, dancing gave me the opportunity to get cash, fast.
I didn’t have to wade through a swamp of rejections and disappointments. If one man didn’t want me, another would. One wallet is just as good as another.
So I began my metamorphosis: During the day, I was Liv: a psychology major with a minor in neuroscience, a convenience store clerk, a left-handed eccentric who enjoyed strange words and working out. By night, I was Bettie: a pin-up girl extraordinaire, the chick with the Pulp Fiction haircut in the black lace dress and blood red lipstick, from… Paris? Stockholm? New York City? Who cares. I’m from wherever you want.
Every night, I became a stranger’s fantasy. I laughed like I cared, smiled like I cared, danced and flirted and batted my eyes like I cared. I talked to small business owners about their ambitions. I talked to musicians about their music. I talked to professors about whatever it was that they professed (and tried not to smile like a bobcat if their specialty was philosophy, English, or any other stripe of the humanities). I learned how to charm a stranger, and how to translate charm into a profit.
One day, I stood next to one of my fellow dancers, Sally, at the bar. We sipped our beers in the neon-streaked darkness, waiting for a man to walk through the solid black door. This was perhaps the most anxiety provoking part of the night. Would a bachelor party arrive and buy dances from all of us? Or would that door remain closed as the night bled into the morning, and we would go home with empty pockets?
Sally looked at me from over the rim of her white, plastic cup, and after a pause, murmured a sentence that lodged itself in my mind for the rest of my life.
“I’m thinking about joining the National Guard.”
I felt my eyebrows raise in surprise. I tossed her a quick, “Really?” and took another sip, delighted for a reason I did not understand. “Why the national guard?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I just wanna get out of here.”
We went through our usual hustles, flitting from man to man to pollinate every whiskey-sodden flower, but I couldn’t shake what she had told me. Sally wanted out, and who could blame her? What kind of future could a strip club offer, anyway? The promise of drunken assholes and catfights between dancers?
I imagined the disappointment I would feel if my writing career did not pan out, and I wasted my future in this strobe-lit hellhole. I was getting my degree in psychology, but a jobless psychology major is basically a proverb. My scholastic ambitions had already carved a chasm in my finances, and I wondered if I would ever be able to afford an apartment, much less my own house.
At the end of the night, in the make-up room, I wiped my Egyptian-style eyeliner off and gazed at myself in the dusty mirror. No wrinkles yet, but, at twenty-six years old, every fleck of misplaced glitter reminded me of the luster I was losing every day.
Walking to my car, I gazed up at the glory blue of the rising sun, and watched a cloud of seagulls gather around the dumpster outside. Startled, they launched from the metal rim and took off toward the ocean, leaving the scattered trash of last night’s pizza behind.
And just like that, I made another decision.
I climbed into my car, went home, then looked up the nearest Navy recruitment office.
Basic training proved to be another Hell, but it had this much: warm showers and regular meals. It also gave me a promise that if I just followed the steps they laid out for me, I would advance. My life before arriving in Illinois lacked structure and discipline—I stayed up until dawn, slept until noon, and spent my days slogging through the motions of my day-job, my schoolwork, and, of course, my secret double-life as Bettie.
My life had changed, though. That was my one consolation.
I knew that going into the Navy would be one of the most difficult career choices that a girl with my personality could attempt. I was disorganized, unfocused, and lacked the discipline I needed to progress in my life. However, I firmly believed—and still do believe—that the only way we grow is if we force ourselves out of our comfort zones, and that was what I intended to do.
Be careful what you wish for.
Petty Officers are like incompetence seeking missiles. They can zero in on bumbling recruit from a distance that would put most weapons systems to shame. I wasn’t surprised, then, when the cruelest Petty Officer of the bunch selected me as his favorite target. First, he declared that my hair was too long, so he made me wait in line with three other recruits for several hours to get a haircut. During the time we were away, he showed our other shipmates how to initial their gear. To catch up, I tried to look at my bunkmate’s gear and copy their example. That was a tremendous mistake—I wrote my initials on the wrong part of my shoes, and the Petty Officer responded by throwing the contents of my bag all over the room, including my underwear.
Other Petty Officers were more charitable, however. Upon learning that I enjoyed writing poetry and fiction, they allowed me to work on ship staff, writing schedules on whiteboards and editing speeches for my superiors. It still baffles me that they would award me promotions after I demonstrated such ineptitude on simple tasks, but Chief told me that I had a lot of heart, integrity, and courage
I still feel the warmth of those words.
No one cares about your strength of character as a dancer. Such attributes may be considered a liability. It was nice to be valued for characteristics other than my appearance.
Which made it all the worse that my career in the Navy was not to be.
Half-way through my physical training, my ulcerative colitis flared up, and I was medically discharged. I sat in a compartment with about one hundred other girls waiting to go home, which could take weeks, months, even years, depending on whether we fought to stay in the service. I was crestfallen. I fought back tears as I waited in line after line, shuffling from one building to the next, trying to come to terms with the fact that I had just lost the opportunity of a lifetime.
But during that time in the separation unit, I had only myself, my shipmates, and a notebook to pass the time.
So, I circled back to my heart’s ambition, this time as a discharged recruit waiting to go home, and I wrote.
I took apart my life one detail at a time, trying to figure out what weakness of mind was leading me astray, and I promised myself that I would be ruthless in my quest to become a better person. I felt braver than ever, braver than when I took off my clothes in front of a room full of strangers for wads of cash. Here, there was no glitter. There was sweat. I had been broken and humiliated in these halls, but hadn’t I experienced that already in the club? I was disappointed that my career in the Navy came to an abrupt halt, but life stirred beneath those ashes.
Before I left for basic training, my bedroom looked like a dusty, soda-can strewn wasteland. The windows were shrouded in a hazy dust, and a vanguard of dirty dishes secured the perimeter around my bed. Garlands of cobwebs lined my ceiling in grey tufts of grime. When I got home, I knew my first mission. I scrubbed my bedroom until it glistened like the inside of the Cat’s Eye Nebula.
Then I wrote a novel.
Over the next few months, I completed the first draft of a manuscript that I could polish and send to a publisher, if I desired. An ex-stripper, ex-navy recruit who struggled to finish a poem, sat down in a chair and wrote a book.
What had changed?
Upon writing the words “The End” I looked up from my keyboard and across my room. There in the corner was my bed, sheets tucked into crisp hospital corners on each end, topped off with a wrinkle-free comforter and a squarely-placed down pillow. The smell of tropical detergent wafted from the folded stacks of color-sorted shirts, sliding through the sunlit warmth of my polished window.
I no longer saw myself as someone whose life would one day mean something. I started treating myself like someone who actually cared about every day. I wouldn’t make one of my friends sleep in a dirty bed, or wear dirty clothes, so why expect that of myself?
I did not need the threat of force or humiliation. My desire to have a more pleasant moment-to-moment experience was enough.
The Navy hammered the words “Honor, Courage, and Commitment” into our minds the moment we boarded the bus to the airport, but I don’t think I understood the importance of this credo until I was dressed in civilian clothes again, standing at the beginning of my new chapter in my life. I no longer wanted to shy away from writing projects, for fear of losing motivation or experiencing rejection.
I began to see writing like running. It’s just you, the track, a clock, and the moment when you can’t take another step. It’s grinding until your last available store of strength has been pounded into the keyboard. Isn’t that what honor, courage, and commitment are for?
We are many people throughout the course of our lives; friends, lovers, writers, even strippers and sailors. Show up and do the best job you can. Care about yourself enough to make your life better, one adventure at a time.
Liv Miles is a full-time writer living in New England with her husband and baby girl. Her work can be read in literary journals such as Camden County College's "The Madison Review" and "Quixotica." Her past employment includes serving in the US Navy, exotic dancing in Atlantic City, working in a sandwich shop in the backwoods of New Jersey, and freelance editing on Fiverr.com. She earned her Associates Degree in Liberal Arts and Sciences from Camden County College and is currently completing her B.S. in psychology online at Indiana University East.
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