(Boy, that sounds like a Golden Age superhero titles, doesn’t it? Flyer’s helmet and goggles, short cape, boots and a half-moon logo on my chest.)
Ah, but it is not to be. Rather than fighting criminals or “Ratzis” the subject of today’s post has to do with the amount of freelance art work I did while serving in the Army – and it started the summer before my last year of undergraduate study.
Actually, it had been an issue since the day I signed up for ROTC. I knew that there would be a built-in conflict between the two career fields and I would bounce back and forth between planning for a career in the active army and a career in the design field combined with duty in the reserves. I would like to note that it never was a question of whether or not I would serve, but when I would serve. Too many Deitricks, Wrights, Lairds, and Williams had “taken the king’s shilling” for me to break with tradition.
It was going to be a little easier to do so when I hit the summer of 1978 though. I had one last year of school, a wife and a child on the way. I had put myself through school by way of the best school job ever: working as a roustabout for Chevron Oil at the Swanson River oil field on the Kenai Peninsula in the state of Alaska…and yes, there will be a post on that at a later time.
For some reason my skills took a vacation that summer. Summers before I would crank out drawings all summer long after work and on weekends, but that summer – yeesh. I don’t think I completed one major color piece and I came up with maybe a dozen sketchbook drawings, none of which were very good. I started to get a little panicky – as I said before I was going to be starting a family and was beginning to doubt that I’d be able to support them.
During that summer and the two summers before the head of operations in Alaska personally asked me to consider staying on full-time. (I believe his name was John Rollins). I was a good hand, I liked the people I was working with and it was a sure thing – which made it all that more heartbreaking when my boss T.H. Auldridge and some of the others on the roustabout gang strongly encouraged me to not stay on. They felt that with all the preparation I had made via schooling, mission work and military training I had too much going for me in the future to settle for Swanson River. It meant a lot that they felt s highly for me but at the same time it was hard shutting the door on that option.
So, Lori and I headed south and after a rough start to the school year (late registration, our housing plans falling apart and our truck dying) I went into the ROTC office and put in my application for active duty. Based on my grade point average, leadership and participation at school and my performance at FT Lewis I was given a regular army commission instead of a reserve commission on active duty. I was delighted to also get orders for flight school at FT Rucker for the following autumn so with everything squared away I settled down to just grinding through my school work and getting started on career as an Army officer the next fall.
…but then disaster struck. Whatever was keeping me from putting out decent artwork the summer before left me and I got much better at my work. My grades all went up at a minimum one entire grade level, everything I entered in the student show was accepted and walked away with a major award and I was able to start doing paying freelance illustration for gaming magazines and publishers. I was on my way to a bright future…then April of 1979 hit and that bright future turned into an olive drab one and I began to contend with a life-long dilemma – balancing the life-styles and mind-sets of two very divergent career fields.
The process was pretty much the same through all my active duty years. I had to have longer than usual dead-lines in order to accommodate extended hours at various times. Seeing my work in print was also sometimes under unusual circumstances; while taking a chemical warfare course I found my Cobra update illustration in a frame over an NBC NCO’s desk – it was my first experience with autographing work and I was ten days into JRX Brim Frost 1983 when I got my first look at the “kiddie Traveller” box cover I did for GDW while standing next to a C130 being off-loaded at Delta Creek assault strip.
Conditions under which projects were completed varied quite a bit too. While most of them were done as “moon-lighting” work at night and on weekends, some of them were not. I spent 6 months working full-time as an art director at the U.S. Army Aviation Digest while my medical grounding for eye problems was being considered; at that time I was working just like my civilian 9-to-5 graphic design counterparts. The image leading off this post (which depicts a helicopter, a Lear Jet and a hanger) was one that I had to split in; when reassured that I was not required to go and FTX at FT Greeley (AK) I took on the which was for ERA helicopters (and a major coup!) The next day I was told that I was in fact going, but with the collusion of my company commander Keith Kernek I was able to spend 4 days at FT Greeley conducting the down-load of the battalion airlift, sped home for 4 days to work on the illustration night and day, then back to Greeley to handle the retrograde airlift, then home when I spent two days finishing and prepping the art…then I collapsed. Incidentally, I bought my first computer with the money I made on that project.
(CPT Kernek used to say: “LTD, this art stuff is your real job. The army is just a hobby for you.”)
As time went by my clientele grew and I picked up a couple of industry awards. By 1983 I felt like I had enough work to warrant going full-time freelance so in May of that year I exchanged my green identification card for a pink one. Looking back I wish I had stayed in the Army and kept at a hobby, especially when computer-assisted illustration and design swept through the industry about ten years after I set up full-time. When asked about digital media I reply that I am of the Quigley: Down Under school of thought only with computers instead of pistols: it’s not that I can’t use them – it’s just that I don’t like to use them. Hindsight is of course 20-20, but I am very glad that teaching became a large part of my livelihood about the time the machines started taking over.