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For M.A. Schaffner, the late ’60s were like a time warp. The son of a Navy officer, Schaffner grew up in Washington and Yokohama, Japan. In 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, his father was assigned to a naval base at Subic Bay in the Philippines. Not only was the base populated exclusively by American military officers and civilians, but without access to television, Schaffner and his friends were uniquely isolated. “From 1968 to 1970, George Dewey High School in the Philippines was like something out of Happy Days,” Schaffner recalls. “We were probably the only Americans who were dressing in button-down, short-sleeved shirts and khaki slacks. When I came back to the States, the kids at school were doing mescaline deals at lunch.”
Outside of class, Schaffner passed the time by going on overnight hikes in the jungle. Donning fatigues and exploring the wilds of Southeast Asia proved to be notable for more than just the rain, the insects, and the rugged terrain he encountered, Schaffner says: It also served as preparation for the military career he always assumed he would have—but never did.
“Vietnam seemed to be our graduation present,” Schaffner says. “When I was 9 or 10, the only question was, ‘Will I join the French Foreign Legion and see some real action, or wimp out and become a naval officer?’ But my experience in the Philippines showed me for the first time what that would involve.”
Indeed, it’s an adolescent’s growing understanding of war—set in the Philippines and against the backdrop of the worsening conflict in Vietnam—that forms the core of Schaffner’s first novel, War Boys, due out next month. The book’s protagonist, Charles Barker, closely mirrors the teenaged Schaffner; the tale is, Schaffner says, a dual coming-of-age story—both of the boys and of a nation hobbled by violence and dissent.
The real-life Schaffner, who dropped out of college ROTC, risked the draft but ended up not being chosen—a fate, he believes, that ultimately satisfied even his career-military father.
Instead, Schaffner—now 47 and a resident of Arlington—decided to enter public service by becoming a federal employee. (He is currently employed by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.) About 15 years ago, he began writing poems on the side. He managed to place them in dozens of literary journals, and in 1996, he released a book-length collection of poetry called The Good Opinion of Squirrels.
He often jotted down ideas for his poems as he fed the squirrels in downtown parks during lunch hour. And raising Jenny, an abandoned squirrel, as a house pet during the ’90s instilled in Schaffner an admiration for the species’ agility and intelligence—and provided him with artistic inspiration. A history buff who is an enthusiastic participant in Civil War re-enactments, Schaffner also was surprised to notice occasional references to squirrels in the writings of such notables as Robert E. Lee and satirist Ambrose Bierce. Many of these references became the nut, as it were, of his poetic conceits.
One of those conceits is that—notwithstanding the human presence in Washington over the past 200-plus years—the true long-term inhabitants of this region are squirrels. “Sitting in Lafayette Square, I realized that the population of squirrels that lived there had occupied the metro area for hundreds of thousands—even millions—of years, and they were still there,” he says. “Say what you want; they had survived, and you’ve got to admire that. Not every creature has been so successful.” —Louis Jacobson