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A Good Bit More Than 150 Words About a Drunken Sailor by Jim Ruland

Posted by on Oct 17, 2011 in Blog | 3 comments

Whenever I teach a Flash Fiction or Micro Memoir course at San Diego Writers, Ink my students invariably ask me where they can publish their work.

“On Facebook,” I tell them.

That’s usually good for a few laughs, but the truth is there have never been more opportunities for short form writing.

Short form fiction and nonfiction has become so fully integrated into the literary mainstream that there are a number of journals that specialize in it. Their names tend to give them away: Brevity, Nano, Quick Fiction, and my favorite The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts. You have to love the wit of a magazine devoted to short things that dares to have a long title.

But little did I know that my joke would soon become eerily prescient.

Shortly after a Micro Memoir workshop ended in September, I heard about the Reader’s Digest contest on Facebook “You’re Life…” Entrants are asked to tell their life story in 150 words or less. Impossible, right?

This was the perfect opportunity to put into practice what I preach to my students: When we write memoir, we’re not writing the story of our lives, but a story. It’s as true for a book-length story of survival as it is for a travel essay or a profile on a dating site. This who I was before; this is who I am today. It’s not about finding links between the past and the present. The story is the link.

The life-changing event of my youth was the two years I spent as a sailor in the U.S. Navy. The biggest challenge of my recent past is my ongoing recovery from alcoholism. So I decided to write about being a drunken sailor:

“When I was in the Navy, I drank like a sailor. When I got out of the Navy, I drank like a sailor. You could say I went overboard.”

Long story short: my entry was named an editor’s pick and my story started trending as one of the most popular submissions on the site. That meant I was (and hopefully when you read this, still am) in the running for a share of $50,000 in cash prizes, including a grand prize of $25,000.

(That’s approximately $166.66 a word, in case you were wondering.)

I find this difficult to believe. Every morning I get up and check the Reader’s Digest site to see if my story is still there, to ensure it’s not some fantastic dream I had after eating too much spicy food. And every morning I see my story, “Homeward Bound,” there on the site. Accompanying the story is a photograph from my sailor days. It was taken sometime in 1987. The ship I was stationed on went on a six-month tour of the Western Pacific. For half a year we bounced around the islands of the Philippines and Japan with memorable stops in Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia.

The photo was taken for a cruise book, which is comparable to a yearbook for the deployment. It’s a bogus record of where we went and who with, and photographs of what happened there. So that when sailors return to their families and their wives ask what they’ve been up to for the last six months, they can produce the cruise book with photos of sailors doing things like fishing and playing volleyball.

You know how they say a picture is worth a thousand words? Mine calls to mind two: bad attitude.

How bad? So bad that when I actually went overboard and caught amoebic dysentery nobody believed me. From my supervisors to my shipmates, everyone thought I was just really hung over. Such was my appetite for alcohol even then.

(What’s amoebic dysentery like, you ask? To clarify, I didn’t fall off the ship. The ship was moored in Subic Bay. I was in a punt painting the waterline when my punt mate broke the one unbreakable rule of small craft seamanship: don’t stand up in the boat. He stood up, the boat tipped over, and although the punt didn’t completely capsize, I got dunked, swallowed a mouthful of harbor water, and the bacteria you find in things like dead animals and raw sewage took a joyride through my immune system. I spent the next two days sitting on the toilet with a bucket in my lap wondering, fore or aft? Answer: Both at once. That’s what amoebic dysentery is like.)

The story I shared with Reader’s Digest is considerably more pleasant. It’s a good bit more metaphorical, too. It’s got mermaids and octopuses. My wife and daughter are in it. It has a happy ending, but why give it away when you can read it for yourself. After all, it’s only 150 words.

If you’d like to read it, just click here. VERY IMPORTANT: Make sure you log out from your Facebook account BEFORE you click the link.

If you like the story, you can vote for it. There are lots of stories there and you can vote for as many as you like. Or, better yet, you can submit your own.

Jim Ruland was stationed in San Diego in 1986 and when he left two years later, swore he wouldn’t be back. After attending Radford University in Radford, Virignia and Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona he returned to California. In 2004 he met his wife and she lured him back to San Diego for good. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including a NEA literature fellowship and a Bread Loaf scholarship. His work has recently appeared in Annalemma, Keyhole, Mississippi Review, New Delta Review, and the Normal School. He writes book reviews for the Los Angeles Times, interviews for Hobart, and a column for Razorcale. He is the author of the short story collection, Big Lonesome, and the host of the L.A.-based reading series Vermin on the Mount.


  1. James Eret says:

    This is a very interesting story. I can really relate. I served in the Navy from 1968-1972 and worked the “clean” harbor of Subic Bay in a punt as a SN Boatswain’s Mate-I wrote many poems about it but would not be family suitable but it was the first place outside the USA that I spent any time in-and what a wild place Subic Bay was! I have written a novel about my second ship in the Med but always wanted to work on stories about Wespac and the Vietnam War. Good luck in your writings.

    • Jim says:

      Thanks for your reply, James. And good luck with your stories!

  2. Sandy says:

    Hi Jim,

    I loved your essay! I entered the contest, too and thought it was so much fun checking the progress of my story each day as well. Do you know if the winners were notified yet?

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