Review Of The Iconoclast Goes To Sea

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/24/06


  One of the things I’m proudest of in regards to Cosmoetica is that I’ve never been a snob in regards to art. Whether or nor someone is famous, lauded, or not has no bearing on how I view the art in front of me. This has led me to some great poetry- the works of James A. Emanuel and Judith Wright, some odd films- The God Who Wasn’t There, and some interesting memoirs, even if self-published- Elliott Rais’s Stealing The Borders, about growing up in Soviet Union during the Second World War while avoiding the Nazis, and Eddie Stimpson, Jr.’s My Remembers, about growing up sharecropping in Texas during the Great Depression.

  In that same vein I want to briefly review another self published memoir called The Iconoclast Goes To Sea- Dilemma In Blues, by Jack DeBar Smith. It was released from the subsidy press called Dorrance Publishing, in 1998, and my even becoming aware of the book is an interesting enough tale. I was working, a few months ago, at a job for a company that publishes alumni directories for schools, universities, fraternal organizations, and the military, when, while answering a call about one of the U.S. Navy’s membership organizations (I believe it was the Navy League, not the U.S. Naval Institute), I came into contact with Mr. Smith, a retired insurance agent, and graduate of USC (Class of 1948), who was a pleasure to speak with, and he regaled me with tales of his Navy career during World War Two. In the course of the conversation about his career, he informed me about several of the books he’d written, including The Iconoclast Goes To Sea. So, a few weeks ago I ordered the book online.

  Interestingly enough, the book I received had Mr. Smith’s autographed message to someone in it- none other than Right Wing cable tv news personality Bill O’Reilly. The inscription reads thus:



To: “No Spin” Bill O’Reilly who saved the cable news for some truth, by not being just a “talking head.” Keep up your good work.

God Bless America.

Jack DeBar Smith



This book is my own “no spin zone” on our great Navy.


  Apparently, Mr. O’Reilly did not find the book such a good read, for he must have sold it back to the used book shop that sold it to me. That said, the book is a good read, although one expecting to find heroic war stories of derring do will be disappointed, for the 140 page book focuses mostly on Smith’s time preparing for service in the Navy, aboard the USS Antietam, CV36. In it, the reader is taken through the many stages of preparation, and the different towns and states Smith and his buddies- aka ‘swabbies’- trained in.

  This is a unique approach, for it chronicles a part of history often forgotten. It also reminded me of the first half of Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 film Full Metal Jacket, which takes place on the Marine training base of Parris Island, rather than in Vietnam. Smith also uses colloquialism of that time, as well of his own invention, and this eases the reader into a different world, unlike the typical MFA style of writing where the writer could be anyone for his or her style is so generic. In short, Smith’s writing style is unmistakably his own. He comes across as a real person, and a bit of a character. But that’s a very good thing, especially in this deliterate day and age.

  One can find out more about him by going to the website mentioned in his nod to O’Reilly, or by visiting http://www.iconoclasts.com/. However, the best way to get to understand a bit of Smith’s world is by reading his book. The book’s Foreword contains this warning, so to speak, and gives a good indication of Smith’s approach to writing and life:


  As I write this far below the flight deck, I can only wonder if it will ever be printed. After experiencing some of the things I’ve seen, it seems that there are a great many guys and gals in the Services who would appreciate reading about another’s military peregrinations, which no doubt, will be like and similar- and perhaps a wee bit nostalgic later on. So, to the men and women of all branches of the Armed Forces of this great and unbeatable United States, let me say, Read ‘em and weep! At least read it!!
This is probably along the lines you would express yourselves, if you thought you might possess gall enough to write openly and publicly, such a vapid interpretation of your own military imbroglios and peccadilloes. Any resemblance to people living or dead, is indubitably true, also for places and situations. Names have been changed to "protect the innocent" Heh, heh.
  From there the book chronicles the start of the war and how Smith got swept up in it. Given that the book was written pre-9/11 there’s a poignancy, and almost naïve-te, to the book’s start, decrying the attack on Pearl Harbor as the worst day of infamy in our nation’s history. Yet, the book settles in to a classic yarn teller’s style, which reminded me of old Paul Bunyan tales from my childhood:
  My first navy haircut was indeed some experience. Since cleanliness is next to godliness in the navy, steps are taken to ensure that the boot gets a clean shave. These barbers must have been ex-Montana sheep shearers. A complete haircut in thirty seconds! What hair does cover up! Very often you get a polite barber who asks you if you would like to keep the sideburns. Naturally, you are flattered and nod an affirmative, which is precisely what the scissor maniac wants. In forty-five seconds he hands them to you and almost roars himself into a convulsion. This poor soul has, no doubt, cut so much hair for so long a time that his mental state is in a deplorable condition, making him laugh at anything- even his own cutting hirsute jokes.
  This is raw, but good writing, yet in a workshop it would be bowdlerized and genericized. But, all good writing is individuated, and relays a sense of the experience described. Is this a particularly deep moment? No. But, look how the bluntly phrased cliché is neutered by the next sentence’s claim of the barbers. You simply do not get that sort of juxtaposition in most published contemporary writing. And this is a skill learnt by a raconteur, of course, with an iconoclastic streak, that cannot be taught in a classroom. You can either pick it up or not. Then, the mini-tale, itself, is a brilliantly sardonic one. True or not, it smells of the era, and this sort of writing fills the whole book. At times, Smith does layer on a bit too much guff and ‘milieu’, but overall it works to enhance the reading experience. Compared to the memoirs put out by young white loser suburbanites like Elizabeth Wurtzel, Dave Eggers, Brad Land, James Frey, or Augusten Burroughs, The Iconoclast Goes To Sea, offers both depth and real style; often in bad jokes and self-conscious asides (such as calling people who run things erudites). But it sure beats the self-flagellating and sheer boredom of the above mentioned bad writers.
  The book’s actual narrative ends on page 98, but the rest of the book has appendices which detail some of the aircraft the Antietam carried, photos, a history of the big vessel and its two predecessor vessels with the same name, as well as honoring the ship’s mascot dog named Zero. The book’s epilogue is where Smith details his first days aboard the Antietam, and the ship’s service during World War Two, in the final fourteen pages. That the final tenth of the book is where most any other writer would have started his tale is a tribute to an intuitive mind’s knowledge of what was really unique about his experiences- that which he experienced, not that the history books say is important.
  The book ends with these words:
  Perhaps some of you will now dig into your memories and recall your own experiences of military service. It was a tremendous time of both physical and mental stress which so many of us will never forget. This swabbie prays that it will never be repeated. ‘Be prepared’ is more than just a good old Boy Scout motto.

  As I read that ending I wondered if, in fifty years or so, there will be another such book written by a serviceman now in Iraq or Afghanistan, who will be thinking the same thing, and wondering why we were not prepared on 9/11/01, with so much warning. Nonetheless, for anyone in an interest in another small piece of history, from a generation that will not be around much longer, I urge you to visit Smith’s websites, and perhaps buy his book. Is it a great piece of literature? No. But it is a very good read, in that same way that fables and myths are good reads, and that’s far more than anyone can honestly say about the vast majority of crap that gets published and feted these days. Stay proud, swabbie!


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