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Scott Daniel Staff Photo

I was born in Tacoma, Washington, a mid-sized urban port city on Puget Sound. I was born at Madigan Army Medical Center. My sister, who was 7 at the time, drove my mother to the hospital. My dad had been wounded in Vietnam weeks earlier, hit by mortar; due to an adminstrative error, he was sent to Letterman Army Hospital in San Franciso rather than to Tacoma. That must have been a new building: The Wikipedia article informs me that the historical buildings were torn down and replaced by a modern medical complex in 1969, the year of my birth. That new complex, in turn, was closed in 1994 when the base was decomissioned. It is now a part of Lucasfilm, the Letterman Digital Arts Center. That's pretty cool. My dad always told me that when I was born, he was at a hospital in San Fransisco, staring out the window, looking at the Golden Gate Bridge. That seems unlikely; my dad grew up in Texas and is prone to exaggeration. However, the base was located on the Presidio, the northern tip of the San Francisco penninsula, and is part of the Golden Gate park complex, and does seem possible that he did seem the bridge at some point in his stay and finessed the facts in the interests of good storytelling. I approve.

My dad recovered, to a degree. His right arm had limited functionality. His right hand was in consant danger of stiffening into a tangled curl of fingers. To keep it flexible, he had to constantly open and shut it, flexing it, working the muscles. When he drove, his right hand would perch on top of the steering wheel and it would flex constantly. For that reason, other drivers always thought he was waving at him and would wave back. So my sisters and I took it upon ourselves to wave at the people waving at us. That's how my father, seeking only to save the use of his right hand, set off a wave of congeniality that I like to think contributed to the South's continued reputation for hospitality.

I was not quite six weeks old when we moved from Tacoma, Washington, to Columbus, Georgia. My dad said I sat on his knee the whole way--sandwiched between his war-damaged torso and the steering wheel, a simple prototype of the airbag, which did not become a standard safety feature on American automobiles until the 1990s. For my dad, more of a westerner than a southerner, the defining moment in this 2,751 mile, 40-hour journey was not the crossing of the Mason-Dixon line (or its Midwestern counterpart) but rather the crossing of the Mississippi. He spoke of going over the Mississippi as of something heroic, even epic, I had done early in my life. For that reason, I've always had an inflated sense of the epicness of my own childhood.

We lived in Columbus for 10 years. It is a beautiful city, but perilous, a trap from which few children escape with their lives and their sanity in tact. Looking back, it is a wonder that I survived. Stories of my childhood brushes with mortality include one about eating rocks in the attic before my first birthday; pulling a steaming vaporizer off the kitchen table onto my head at two; sticking my thumb into the open hingework of a closing screen door--a heavy old screen door--and watching as the hinge shut and my thumb disappeared; jumping out of a treehouse and landing foot-first on the upturned prong of a hay rake (a child's version, but enough to put an eye-like gash in the center of my sole). . .