GREENSBORO — Matt Armstrong knew his dad didn’t want him to go.
His dad, a doctor, couldn’t stand the thought of his middle child — the writer, the musician, the lecturer at N.C. A&T — going to Iraq and ending up dead.
His wife, Matt’s mother, had ovarian cancer. His father, the man Matt called Bumpa, had just died. And his other two children worked far from the crosshairs of conflict — his oldest son was an oncologist; his only daughter, a physical therapist.
Yet, here was Matt — the rebel, the Deadhead, the UNCG grad with an MFA in fiction. And he wanted to go to Iraq, to join his high school buddy, now a Navy SEAL, and write about what he saw and heard for their hometown newspaper.
Matt’s dad deep-sixed the assignment with The Winchester Star. The paper’s editor was one of his patients, and after a few well-placed words, Matt heard that the newspaper wouldn’t sponsor him.
Still, Matt remained
undaunted. He got credentials through Convergence Review, a periodical he helped create with the help of N.C. A&T where he taught four courses. And off he went.
Matt spent 18 days in Iraq. He accompanied soldiers looking for terrorists in the desert, and he was as scared as he has ever been. Meanwhile, he watched soldiers turn into peacekeepers, and he remembered what he always told his students:
“It’s all about firsthand experience and going into the field!”
Looking back, he felt so phony saying that. He needed to follow his own advice because he wanted wisdom he felt he hadn’t earned.
After he returned, Matt did write for The Winchester Star. It became a three-part series.
And his dad did like it. Then, he knew what he had to do — admit he was wrong.
“We Armstrongs are not good at that,” he told his son. “But I’m proud of you.”
“Dad, I’m 30, I’m a man,” Matt responded. “Do you not trust me? I want to be a writer. Now, will you quit badgering me about becoming a lawyer?”
“Yeah,” his dad responded.
That was five years ago. Dr. Jack Armstrong is still listening.
Matt turned 36 on Sunday. In the past year, he has had his share of creative moments.
An excerpt from his novel, “The 74th Virgin,” a war story about an Iraqi filmmaker who became a terrorist, won a Pushcart Prize and was published in its yearly anthology of the best writing from the literary press. The excerpt was one of 65 winners selected from thousands of entries.
Last fall, his band, Viva la Muerte, raised $10,000 in an online campaign to cover the cost of “All the Birds,” a 12-song recording described as “psychedelic Americana” and reminiscent of The Grateful Dead, Matt’s favorite band.
It’s a beautiful piece of work, with pedal steel guitar, mandolin, piano and songs full of love, death and serendipity. Matt wrote the songs.
Viva la Muerte includes a UNCG student, an insurance agent, a middle school teacher, a video game designer and two potters from Seagrove.
They put together “All the Birds” over nine months in a home studio in Greensboro’s Glenwood neighborhood. This summer, on the strength of that one record, Viva la Muerte was signed by Ex Umbra Records, a new label in New York City.
On Tuesday, “All the Birds” was released on Amazon.com.
Matt doesn’t teach any longer at A&T. His job got cut. This fall, he has a part-time gig teaching writing at Guilford College. Meanwhile, he works on his music — and more conversations with his dad.
It’s easier now. Matt’s mother is better — her cancer is in remission — and he and his dad talk writing, music and the band’s name. It’s Spanish for “Long Live Death.”
“Don’t you want to come up with a nicer name?” his dad asks.
Matt always says no.