"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
I was sitting on the exam room table in the doctor’s office, waiting for the physical required for all soldiers being discharged from the Army. My belly swelled beneath my maternity Army combat uniform, reminding me once again that there was a baby in there. It had only been a few months since I’d returned from Iraq. Everything had happened so fast I’d hardly had time to think. The only thing I knew for sure is that I did not want to face single parenthood in the military.
The doctor, an old retired Marine officer, sat down. “So,” he said, “was there enough room on the plane for all of the pregnant ladies coming back?”
Inwardly, I bristled. One of the stigmas attached to a female getting pregnant on a deployment is the assumption that she did it on purpose. It’s whispered about any time the word “pregnancy” comes up right before and during a combat tour. The unspoken code is that a good soldier will have an abortion, continue the mission, and get some sympathy because she chose duty over motherhood. But for the woman who chooses motherhood over duty, well, she must have been trying to get out of deployment.
I’d spent most of my military career feeling like a substandard soldier. I really didn’t want one more reason to add to an already lengthy list.
I’d joined the Army right out of high school. The life had seemed so glamorous, and my recruiter swore up and down that I would be a world traveler. But as an innocent, home-schooled girl from the suburbs of the Midwest, I was unprepared for military life. I sobbed my way through basic training. As a child, my tears had been a way to pacify an overly strict father, so whenever my 4-foot-11 male drill sergeant got in my face, I dissolved into waterworks. It earned me the nickname of “Crybaby LeRoy.” It finally caught the attention of the female drill sergeant.
Most female soldiers feel like they have to prove their toughness — and female drill sergeants are particularly notoriously for this because they have to establish themselves as authority figures over males. They were inevitably stricter, especially with other females; they had to prove they weren’t soft.
One day, we were learning to use pugil sticks (which were basically giant Q-Tips we used to beat each other to a pulp) and I was going up against a tall, frail-looking girl everybody thought I could take. But she came at me so mercilessly I never even had the chance to raise my stick before I was on the ground wondering what in the hell just happened. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” the female drill sergeant screeched at me. “YOU DIDN’T EVEN FIGHT BACK!” (Cue crying.) This scenario seemed to be a metaphor for the rest of my military career.
By the time my boots hit the sand in Iraq, I was tired. I had spent the last five years getting pummeled by life in the Army — an abusive marriage, a nasty divorce, an unsuccessful relationship, getting raped by a co-worker, and an alcohol problem that had only added fuel to an already roaring fire. Though I was on the road to recovery with six months of sobriety under my belt, I was mentally and spiritually exhausted. Truth be told, I was looking forward to a year in the desert. As a child in Sunday school, I’d heard stories about saints who went to the desert looking for spiritual peace — the very desert where I now found myself. I envisioned a life made less complicated by distractions with a simple job to perform and lots of time for personal reflection. I needed this deployment, I thought. I need some quiet.
When I met J., I wasn’t looking for a relationship. But Iraq had turned out to be more alienating that I’d originally thought. I was disconnected from everything familiar, surrounded by people who did not understand my sobriety or my sudden need for spirituality, and I felt more alone than I ever had in my life. J. was fresh out of a relationship where he’d been cheated on and was feeling rejected and hurt. After a month of friendship, we sought solace in each other’s arms. We thought we were in love, but the reality was that we were suffering from isolation, and were willing to settle for any closer connection with another human being. We needed assurance that our lives were worth living, that we had value to something else.
Three months later, J. left to go on mid-tour leave. In the days leading up to this separation, my mind could not shut off. I knew that something was going to happen and it was probably not going to be good. I also did not seem to be adjusting well to desert life. Every morning at 8 o’clock sharp, I was in the bathroom puking up my breakfast. When I went on my daily trip to pick up the mail for our unit, I fell asleep at the wheel when waiting at an intersection for a convoy to pass. I was exhausted. Everything seemed to be ridiculously hard and I was sure it was because of the blazing heat. But I put on my brave face when J. and I said goodbye. He kissed me, looked into my eyes, and said, “I love you. I’ll be back.” It was like a moment in a cheesy movie where the guy swears he’ll return but the audience knows it’s not true. Even though I nodded, I knew in my gut I’d never see him again.
My symptoms did not improve after he left. I finally confided my troubles to my roommate, who was a mother of five children, and she told me I needed to get a pregnancy test. I rejected the idea at first. We had been using condoms. We were safe. That couldn’t happen to me. I had been married for two years without getting pregnant. I’d been in a year-long relationship without getting pregnant. It was impossible that I’d get pregnant in a relationship that had barely been alive for six weeks. But after another day of puking my guts up in the bathroom and another day of a missing period, I finally caved. I shamefacedly snuck a pregnancy test to the register at the post-exchange and refused to make eye contact with the cashier.
If pregnancy tests had bells and whistles on them, mine would have alerted the entire post. I felt the blood draining out of my face as I looked down at the positive result in my hand. The next day I sat in the troop medical clinic with the slip of paper declaring the reason I was being seen. The female medic who had seen my note was telling people in the back there was a pregnant soldier waiting. I knew how the gossip mill worked. Soon everyone would know. I hung my head in shame and refused to look at anyone as I went to talk to the doctor, who took some blood in order to confirm the positive test. After an hour, he returned and began telling me that he was going to give me prenatal vitamins and that my company needed to start the paperwork to send me back home.
I still couldn’t believe it. “Does that mean it’s positive?” I asked, clinging by my fingernails to the last thread of hope that this was all just a bad dream.
“Congratulations!” he said. I burst into tears like a child.
That night, I finally was able to get in touch with J. “Are you really pregnant?” he asked in disbelief.
“Yes. I went to the doctor this morning,” I said.
“Listen,” he said. “I cannot think of a worse time to tell you this but …”
I knew what was coming. “You’re getting back together with K., aren’t you.” It was more of a statement than a question.
The conversation that followed consisted of the usual phrases that go through breakup dialogue — you lied to me, how could you, etc. Except I couldn’t slam down the phone and write him off as a jerk for the rest of my life. We had created a child together. We had decisions to make. Decisions that I was in no condition to make but had to be made anyway, fast.
“Are you going to keep it?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “I can’t do an abortion. I just can’t.”
“OK,” he said. “I am going to be there for you and the baby. We will work this out. No matter what, I will be there for you.”
Strong words spoken in the heat of the moment, just like everything else about our relationship. In just 24 hours, my world had shattered. Tomorrow I would have to face everyone. Tomorrow everyone would know that I was pregnant and going home.
No one ever said to my face that they were disappointed in me, but I could see it in the eyes of my commander, my first sergeant and my boss. They all congratulated me but I sensed I had let them down in some way. They kept asking me what my plan was: Would I stay in the Army? It was clear they thought that was the best option for me as a single parent. I would have a steady income, health insurance, housing, etc. But the idea of raising my child alone, without a support system, away from his or her grandparents, with the chance of being gone for a year at a time for deployments — it didn’t sound like the kind of life I wanted for my child. My final decision came when the command sergeant major came to talk to me.
I was terrified of Comm. Sgt. Maj. J. He was the most gung-ho soldier I’d ever come across. He publicly jeered at soldiers who did not reenlist after their time in service was up. He was famous for his rages that usually involved lower-ranking soldiers doing endless amounts of push-ups or other physical activities. We all secretly thought that he was a little insane, but nobody dared say that out loud. So when my first sergeant told me Comm. Sgt. Maj. J. wanted to talk to me, I prepared myself for the chewing-out of a lifetime.
But it never came. He told me to “at ease” and then took me aside. In a gentle voice, he said, “I understand that you are pregnant.”
“Yes, Sergeant Major.”
“I understand that the father is not going to be involved.”
Tears caught my throat. I nodded in response.
“I think you should get out,” was the next unexpected phrase. “You should not be a single parent in the Army. Parenting is hard enough. Getting out is a good decision.”
That was enough for me. It was like the Army itself had just given me permission to do what I needed to do for me and my baby. Right then and there, I began to focus on what I needed to do to get out of Iraq, back to Fort Lewis, and out of the Army.
Unfortunately, I knew that not everyone shared my command sergeant major’s opinion. Instead of being seen as making a responsible parenting decision, you are seen as a faker, a soldier who couldn’t take the pressure and went to extreme lengths to get out. I’m sure there are some women who have. But it is unfair to assume that every single female who made a bad judgment call to have unprotected sex (or maybe even protected sex — nothing is ever 100 percent foolproof) did it in order to get pregnant and go home. I mean, really: What’s 18 months of blood, sweat and tears compared to 18 years?
But that logic didn’t help me at the doctor’s office. I sat on the exam table completely bewildered by the old Marine’s unkind remark. I felt angry that I was being falsely accused. The world as I knew it had come crashing down and I had struggled to make what I felt was a responsible decision. But I chose motherhood over the mission and in this guy’s world, I had made the wrong choice. Therefore, I was no longer worthy of respect.
I thought of J. and how he was in Iraq, consequence-free, at least for the time being. I had no way of knowing that his promise to be there for me and the baby would be meaningless, that I would eventually have to go after him for child support, and that he would one day sign away his paternal rights to the man who is now my husband. In that moment in the doctor’s office, I felt I had been kicked in the stomach while the other party responsible walked away. I had let everyone around me down, including, apparently, this Marine I did not know. But I wasn’t going to let the little person snuggled up in my belly down. One day, my son would be old enough to ask me questions, and I wanted to be able to tell him that I gave him the best life I possibly could. At the end of the day, my son was the only person I would have to explain myself to.
I met the old man’s contemptuous gaze with defiance. He signed my papers, and I left.
Bethany Saros is a writer, a runner, a mother and a wife -- not necessarily in that order. She lives in Minnesota with her husband and two children.More Bethany Saros.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)