I Never Did Know Anything, but Now I Know that I Don't Know
by William Turner
Are you someone that’s going to sacrifice for the greater good or someone who’s going to be selfish? Maybe that’s why I have this hesitancy to side with any sort of characteristics or ideals or definitions that on the outside are so important, like liberal, like conservative, like republican, like democrat. I know that there’s more important things. Just surviving, you know. That’s a noble fight. It doesn’t matter if I’m republican or democrat or conservative or liberal. Am I someone that’s going to try for others or try for myself?
Prologue: Only Two Chapters Between Two Worlds
I know you probably have people who are saying like chapter one through twelve or like a Dickens novel. I’ve got two. That’s all I got. They’re all titled off of Billy Joel lyrics. Chapter one would be “Angry Young Man” and chapter two would be “Just Surviving is a Noble Fight.” I guess I'm just not self-reflective enough to come up with more than two chapters. Maybe I feel like it might be a little self-assuming to have more than two chapters.
I was raised in a very Catholic conservative home. I was raised on these ideals, and that through college probably was probably my angry young man chapter. So tied to certain ideals and defending them just because they’re the ideals you have and you were given. And then as I gained my own experiences, especially in my time in the military and my time now over the last two, two and a half, three years, and getting exposed to people of all different shapes and colors and backgrounds and whatever. You meet people who don’t fit your ideals but fit the of idea of what you think a good person is, and it makes you second guess whether or not those things you’ve lived by your whole life are really who the determining factor in what's right and what's wrong.
You know when the [Billy Joel] song says “I once believed in causes too. I had my pointless point of view. But now I know surviving is a noble fight”? That’s the basic gist of it. I'm pushed to apathy out of confusion maybe and frustration. I’m not some nihilist or anything who’s saying, “There's no point to anything. Well blah blah blah blah.” I'm just saying that maybe that’s not my role in life.
Maybe I don’t want to be in a camp. It's like I know person A from this camp who I love and respect and admire and emulate. And then person B from the other camp is also someone I love respect and admire and emulate and want to be that person. How am I supposed to pick a side? I don’t know. It’s just, maybe it comes down to cowardice or something. I don’t know. Not wanting to pick a horse but at the same time, you know…
For instance, I love my girlfriend I live with. I'm in love with – I love her more than anything in the world. She’s a far-left wacko liberal, bordering on commie. And then my dad: Someone I love, I admire. I want to be that person when I have kids. He’s a wacko righty, you know. I used to think Rush Hour was called Rush Hour because that’s when my Dad listened to Rush Limbaugh.
It’s weird that interview is coming at this time because a crux issue for my family that’s pro-life, and my girlfriend that’s going in the midwifery, and she’s all about reproductive rights and she’s so hard pro-choice. I don’t know, when I was little, when I was probably eight or something, my sister, who was in high school at the time, took me to one of those lines, outside of an abortion clinic. And I remember standing there when I was eight holding a sign and I was raised my whole life to think, “This is what's right. This is an absolute truth” and now some of the people I'm closest with in the world, who I know are good human beings don’t agree with that absolute truth. And what do you do with an absolute truth when that’s the case? I think the thing that’s pushing me to the middle so much, or pushing me – I don’t even want to say the middle – pushing me to apathy. Because I say I'm a moderate. I say like "ohh I believe in this cause or I believe in that cause or I agree with this side on this and this side on this” which is like the social studies teacher in me. But really, I try not to care about anything. Like I don’t want to have a position on any of these because then I'm going to have to defend it and get demonized by someone that I like. And I don’t want these people to think less of me because I have an opinion. So I just don’t have an opinion on some of these things.
I just spent so much time with one extreme in my family and when I was in the Marine Corps, which is so very conservative. Then my time in college and my time now with the people I am with now and in like I guess all of my higher education – I’ve been around extremists so much from both sides, that I don’t know. I’m not sure if I tied my shoes right this morning. How am I supposed to be sure what the proper foreign policy in the middle east is? Or when fucking life starts? I have to research what the Truman doctrine is before I it to teach it to kids. I’m not sure about anything.
I take shit from both sides. My family thinks I’m a liberal and [my girlfriend] and all her friends think I’m a fricking fascist. And I don’t even want to cite the comparisons between Marines and storm troopers because I’ve been down that road.
And now and probably, because when I was in the military, everyone in the Marine Corps – ok not everyone – 99.9 % of the people in the Marine Corps are extreme right conservative and like “don’t tread on me.” You know all, every cliché you can think of, molon labe, come and take ‘em type of attitude. And it’s ridiculous, almost.
I thought when I was at college, I felt like my conservativism was solidified or empowered by the opposition I was facing in school. Like these are people who are trying to change the way I think. I believe these certain things; I want this to be the truth and I spent four years getting a liberal arts degree in sociology and anthropology and I’m still conservative. Hell yeah! Good for me! I weathered the storm.
And then I spent four years with people who were conservative and extremist to the side I thought I was. And I was like “Whoa guys. Settle down. What the hell are you talking about?” Because some of the things people would say are just so ...I don’t know, so inflammatory, and so sure of themselves.
So being in college amongst liberals made me more conservative and being in the Marine Corps amongst conservatives made me more liberal. And now I feel like I’m slowly finding my voice as an individual. Being around [my girlfriend] and all of her very liberal friends and being around my family, and they’re all very conservative. It’s hard. And I don’t like talking about things. And part of my apathy comes from, I don’t want to engage in this conversation because it’s difficult and I'm going to alienate myself from somebody. And as a person I need to be liked.
Chapter 1: Angry Young Man
When I was a freshman in high school – so what’s that? Thirteen? That’s when my mom died. I think that was a huge turning point for me because my mom had been… we were a family of eight, very close, parents like model marriage and everything. My mom was an English teacher and would like ground us if we didn’t have our paperback book in our pockets or something.
She was like this force, you know? People just had to recognize this person. And then when she died, it was really difficult; one, because you’re fourteen and your mom died but, two, because the way it affects your dad and then, what growing up looks like from that point on. Not from just because you don’t have a mom but because of the way [it shapes everything]. It’s insane. I would call my dad ‘dude’ and stuff, because there were just three guys living in the house now. I can’t even begin to start processing the ways that that altered the course. But it’s clearly something that altered the course. That was incredibly formative for me.
Now, not only does it make you miss out on a bunch of things, but it also – kind of interesting maybe in a good way – it also gives you this ideal of a person to think about instead of an actual flawed human. If you had been a momma’s boy at thirteen or fourteen and your mom was perfect... if you could freeze that person in time, how would you think about your mom now as opposed to someone who is a real human you have had a relationship with? It’s like this ideal in your head maybe that’s fed into my need to fulfill these ideals like: be a good student, be the good athlete, be a Marine or whatever, be a teacher or something, because you want to be or aspire to this ideal.
That’s not real, I guess. That’s what I have in my head when I think of my mom, but I know she was a flawed person. I mean, I forget that she smoked, she was a smoker and everything. So like, that’s a flaw, but you know you don’t think about that when you’re thinking back. You think about “oh Mrs. Turner, who like 40 students showed up who hadn’t been in middle school for ten years to her funeral and stuff.” You think of the perfect and the ideal. I don’t know maybe that has something to do with my fear of the ideal or about having extreme views or something. I don’t know, but it’s weird.
If I can only give [this book] to one person, it would be my nonexistent son. You work so hard throughout your life, and through these chapters I guess, trying to figure out what kind of person you are or what kind of person you want to be and how to – and how to find some balance between those two, who you are and who you want to be, and it’s progressive, right? It’s to an end. And if you die and it’s done, well, what the hell?
As a historian, I like to think that we learn from written record, and I want where I left off to be taken up by the next me. And for me the next me would be my son, you know. The son I have not had yet. Or you know, the daughter if I only have girls, that’s fine. But you know, I think family’s very important. It's the continuation of the line I guess and we all try to get better from the last.
I haven’t read it, but I heard that the sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird? Y’know, To Kill a Mockingbird is all about how great and amazing and how righteous and pure Atticus Finch is. What I’ve heard about this new book is that Scout is older and finds out all these horrible things about Atticus Finch, and how he has racist tendencies and he's a bigot, and he judges people off the color of their skin and stuff. And you know, you look back at To Kill a Mockingbird, and it’s this ideal, pure image. It’s this simple image about Atticus. He’s Atticus. The AFI said he was the greatest hero of all time, Atticus Finch.
Then this book is all about the flaws he has, and you gotta try to rationalize those two, and yeah, Atticus Finch is flawed, and maybe he’s not – and maybe he has bigotry in him, and he has some prejudices and – but what’s the important thing? In his legacy, in the history of who Atticus Finch is, is he a bigot and a prejudiced person? Or is he that man who stood up and defended that black man accused of rape and showed his children the ideal and what they’re supposed to be? Even if he didn’t live up to and wasn’t always that ideal, he showed them what it was supposed to be. They can learn from his journey and what he wanted to become, maybe what he sought to become even though he might not have been it. And so that's why I would give it to my unborn son, because maybe he can get closer to what I want to be than I can.
Chapter 2: Just Surviving is a Noble Fight
Just becoming a Marine was just so foreign, because I grew up in a lower middle-class family. We never went hungry, so it’s not like I ever saw real hardship in life. We weren’t rich by any means, but I never saw real hardship. So I was kind of a soft person. You know, I was entitled. I was a little – pansy I think might be a good word or it. Or maybe not a good word for it, but an apt word.
It’s just such a shift. It’s so – I can’t even describe it. Life changes so quickly and your perspective takes an 180 degree turn. The thing it taught me is the adaptability of people. You don’t think about it because when you get comfortable and when you get into a niche, you’re like this is how life has to be. And you never want it to change, because you’re comfortable, and you don’t think you can handle it when it changes. But when you’re in the military, and you're doing all this stuff and life changes on a dime at any moment. One day you could be living in North Carolina and someone wakes you up at three in the morning and they’re like, “Oh by tonight you’re going to be living in California with a whole new set of friends and a whole new way of life.” And you’re just like “Oh shit. Okay, that’s what's happening.”
You just have to adapt, and I learned that people can adapt. You can adapt to almost to anything. What you think is unbearable right now is luxury two hours down the road. You just think life could not change; it can't be different. “This is what I like. This is what I don’t.” Spouses die, jobs get lost, homes are ruined in tornadoes or something. You have to keep going. Stopping isn’t an option. You can’t just just lay down. And that’s another thing the military taught you.
Everyone talks about people changing or like losing innocence when they become a Marine or something. I don’t know if everyone says that, but that’s something my family expressed a worry. They’re like “oh no, we’re going to lose happy go lucky William. He's going to turn into some robot or something.” It’s like – no. I did four years, and I think it tempered me into a better version of myself. Y’know, I wasn’t so self-centered – I mean I’m still incredibly self-centered, but less so! It made me a little more cynical, a little more willing to question, honestly. Because nothing makes you want to question things more than having to obey orders blindly. Spend four years having to do everything you’re told? The rest of your life you’re going to be like “wait a minute, should I be fucking doing this or not?” Because I don’t have to anymore.
I can question things more now. That’s another thing: when things are taken away you learn how important they are, like the ability to question.
If I could make any change, I would go back, and I would want to have a combat deployment. I got deployed through the MEU – it’s called a marine expeditionary unit. You basically get on a ship and you sail around a certain area and act as like a 9-1-1 force if anything happens. It was amazing; I saw like 11 countries, but I spent most of my time in Kuwait and Jordan. But I never got to see combat.
If I could change anything, I would like maybe to have gone on a combat deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan. Just because you don’t join the Marines to not fight, y’know. And everyone has that question in their head like how would you react – that red badge of courage type of thing. As a Marine, you’re just taught – molded and indoctrinated and made to believe that combat is the true test of marine-ness. I don’t want to say masculinity, because that’s not really the case. Marine-ness. Honestly if you don’t have what’s called a combat action ribbon, which is something you get for being in combat, you’re treated a bit like a second-class citizen. Anyone who’s been to combat will tell you that no, it's not something you should want, but anyone who hasn’t will tell you that it’s something I want, you know.
That’s not to say that I don’t see the benefit of not. One, I didn’t get shot at. That’s a benefit. I guess. Other people might see it as a benefit. As a Marine, you don’t see that as a benefit, but like – but mainly, it’s this whole idea of – I think I may have touched on this idea before, but the idea of disillusionment or things not panning out to the ideal. When you join the Marine Corps because you want to fight, and you want to be a war hero or something. You want to kill bad guys. And then you spend four years training to do a job. Every day is about doing that job. And everything is about – honestly, about killing bad guys. It's like when someone does something well in the Marine Corps, they’ll say give ‘im one, and then everyone in the crowd yells “Kill!”
It’s all about this idea of fighting and closing with and destroying the enemy. And if you spend four years obsessed with that idea and everything you’re doing is oriented toward that ultimate goal, you EAS and you leave and you’re like, “Wait, I didn’t – I was supposed to do this thing that we kept talking about every day and training for every day and I never did it. What the fuck?”
Spending the last two and half years coming to terms with that disillusion and that I didn’t get to do what I thought I was meant to or what I joined to do – has been difficult. It’s been really hard. And I’ve had a lot of anger issues because of it. I had to into anger management and stuff.
I’m still having my foot in the door because I’m in the reserves still and I do this – this B.S. stuff like going for two days a month and pretending I’m still a Marine just in case something happens I might possibly have the ability to – to do something, you know. Even though I’ve spent two and a half years trying to come to terms that I didn’t and I won’t, part of me won’t accept that, and I’m making plans to go to officer candidate training to get trained to become an officer. I dunno – I can’t say goodbye to that idea of what I thought I was going to happen in the Marine Corps. But I’ve been trying to figure out – like not everything goes the way you plan. Sometimes you gotta fuckin’ deal with it.
There's a documentary about the Marines that says the Marine Corps is an organized gang, or a cult that works. And it’s this idea of just being indoctrinated, this idea of kill bad guys, kill bad guys. When you fire a machine gun, the way they teach you to judge how long the bursts in the machine gun should be is you say a ditty to yourself in your head, and it’s “Die motherfucker die.” And when you say that, you let go of the trigger, and you pull it again, and say, “Die motherfucker die.” <pause> “Die motherfucker die.”<pause> “Die motherfucker die.”
That’s how you’re taught to shoot. The whole culture is based around this idea of aggression and violence and taking the fight to the enemy type of thing. And I mean it’s not – I can definitely see how that might be repulsive to some people and sound awful and terrible to someone on the outside, but when you’re on the inside you realize the virtues of that and the beautiful things that come with it as well. The absolute sacrifice to your friends and the complete giving of yourself to a cause or something and the virtues of aggression and going for things and pushing and trying.
I think about some of my friends from the Marine Corps. There’s one friend in particular that I would – I – it's absolute love, like – kind of like camaraderie and esprit de corps they call it and stuff. But it’s not. It’s just someone that you care so genuinely for and you would do anything for.
Y’know, in the military, you have people from every walk of life. I had poor white kids from Virginia – rural Virginia; I had poor black kids from urban Kentucky or something all in the same platoon, all working for the same thing, and all doing the exact same job and all treating each other solely based off of merit, whether or not they could do the job or not and... and at a certain point, your identities and all that shit doesn’t matter. You’re all doing the same thing and you’re in the same outfit and you’re wearing the same clothes... and these things that on the outside – and by outside I mean out of the Marine Corps – make all the difference and they’re so definitive mean nothing, and it’s just based off of what you can do, what kind of person you are. Are you someone that’s going to sacrifice for the greater good or someone who’s going to be selfish? And maybe that’s why I have this hesitancy to side with any sort of characteristics or ideals or definitions that on the outside are so important, like liberal, like conservative, like republican, like democrat – and when I know that there’s more important things. Just surviving, you know. That’s a noble fight. You don’t need – it doesn’t matter if I’m republican or democrat or conservative or liberal. Am I someone that’s going to try for others or try for myself? And I know people from both sides that are both ways.
We talked about this in anthropology class and sociology class – there's always going to be an Other. Everyone has an Other. This isn’t Thomas Moore’s Utopia. It’s not perfect. For the Marine Corps, the Other is very clear: Anyone that’s trying to kill us. And us is very clear: Anyone that’s willing to work together to stop them from killing us, or to stop the bad guy from winning. It’s simple; it’s clear; it’s pure. Life here in Chicago is not pure and simple. It’s complicated. It’s confusing. You don’t always know who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy. There’s no black and whites – it's all grey. It’s really frustrating. And I think that’s some of the problem, why there’s so many veteran suicides and stuff because life gets so much more complicated. You don’t have a clear Other anymore.
I know the idea – the violence – the idea of the Other – is repulsive to some people, but there’s always going to be an Other. If you’re pro-choice all the pro-lifers are the Other if you’re pro-life all the pro-choicers are the Other. The Other – in the military the Other is so dehumanized that when you see that happening in the civilian world you’re like, “Whoa, guys, what are you talking – they can’t be the Other, they can’t be the enemy. Because we kill the enemy. And we don’t want to kill these people."
Maybe my apathy or neutrality comes from a place of not knowing how to engage appropriately. I hadn’t even thought about that – like maybe I can’t take a side because taking a side means the extreme for me, and I don’t want be that extreme. We’re not trying to kill each other here. But some people are. I dunno – I've always been called – on ship, I had a nickname, I was called No Chill Turner. I had two speeds – I can go zero or I can go 100, and I can’t go 100 with this politics stuff, because going 100 means reckless abandon. It means damage and hurting other people and it means burning bridges and it means siding with – and so I go zero, so that I can go home at Thanksgiving and talk to my family and then come home to my girlfriend and coexist. ‘Cuz I don’t know how to not be combative about something I believe strongly in. I don’t feel strongly about things that are going to alienate you.
I Never Did Know Anything, but Now I Know that I Don't Know: Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Angry Young Man
In which William Turner recounts his life through college, including the death of his mother and his conservative upbringing.
Chapter 2: Just Surviving is a Noble Fight
In which William Turner joins the Marine Corps, serves four years, and resumes civilian life as a social studies teacher.
About the Author
Will Turner is a social studies teacher in Chicago Public Schools. He lives with his girlfriend and an English bulldog. He served for four years active duty as a Marine and is now in the reserves. He studied history and sociology at college and likes playing Dungeons and Dragons and watching Netflix.
 Greek phrase meaning "Come and take [them]" – used by pro-gun groups.
 American Film Institute
 End of active service