Wednesday, December 25, 2013


Recently I turned 65, which officially makes me a Senior Citizen.  Surprisingly, the clock turning over another “milestone” number did not bother me very much, other than the attendant flail in signing up for Medicare.

But I did reflect on a few previous chronological events, and here’s how I remember them:

Eighteen.  Old enough to vote, which still strikes me as an extraordinarily bad idea.  It’s right up-down there with sixteen-year-old drivers.  (In case anybody thinks THAT’S a good idea, consult the nearest parents or insurance agents.)  Yes, I’ve heard all the rationales for reducing the age of “maturity” from 21 to 18, and none of them hold up.  “If you’re old enough to die for your country, you’re old enough to vote.”  Well, actually no, you’re not.  Presumably voting requires mature judgment, which is rare enough in people 40 to 70 years of age, let alone teenagers.  And ignoring the huge majority of U.S. military history from Bunker Hill onward, if it were true, why do all 50 states still hold the drinking age at 21?

Twenty-one.  Which was FORTY-FOUR years ago.  For obscure reasons, I vaguely remember thinking that Things Would Be Different From Now On, but mainly they continued on the trajectory I’d launched at 18.  I was a year from collecting my journalism diploma from the University of Oregon and naively thought that the sheepskin would open the door to a career, especially with my string of published articles and some broadcast experience.  But actually, I got more of a practical education when my first job interview at a Portland TV station ended with, “You’re the wrong sex and the wrong color.” 

Thirty.  That one I remember for its surprisingly mild impact.  Unlike ladies’ oft-reported angst, maybe my attitude was a Guy Thing.  “OK, I’m 30.  This isn’t so bad.  Actually it feels dang good!”

As they say in Hollywood, lapse-dissolve, fade in to Forty.  Now that’s 33 1/3 percent older than Thirty, which is Statistically Significant.  But honestly, I barely thought about it.  I was past the halfway mark of the Biblical threescore and ten but I was reasonably successful, enjoying my work and only somewhat aware that I was still single.  Forty was not bad, not bad at all.

Fifty.  Or, more accurately, FIFTY!!!  Now that’s a Serious Number.  When The Big Five-Oh rolls over on the odometer you know you’re farther from The Beginning than The End.  It’s a time for talking stock, considering where you’ve been, where you want to go, and computing the time-space continuum as the days begin trickling-dwindling down.  As Der Tag approached I didn’t actually sulk but I admit to moping some.  Maybe for as much a couple of weeks.  But then I awoke one morning and realized that I could continue in Mope Mode or I could shed it, because either way I was still gonna be Fifty.

So I decided to throw myself a Big Five-Oh Party.  I still have the announcement, which included:

How to mark half a century on this earth?

Answer: throw a party for those you met along the way.  Those whom you value, who shared the good times as well as the bad, who helped you over some of the rough spots, and who mattered.  Especially those who still do.

Nobody could list all the people or all the events that shaped each of us into who we are—that would take a very large book, and I’ve written a couple dozen.  But here’s some who mattered most:

My parents, who gave me life and a moral compass.

My brothers, who gave me grief for years.  Then one day I was able to leave them behind when I went off to school and started kindergarten.

My wingmen, most of whom were better “sticks” but might have flown off the edge of the earth without somebody to navigate for them.

My pards who rode the shooting ranges of the New West to a national championship.

My editors, some of whom are smart enough to leave my prose alone.

My publishers, some of whom actually seem interested in selling books.

My friends.  Their numbers dwindle, making them all the more valuable.

Today, in 2013, I guesstimate that nearly half of those who attended that event are gone, including my mother and my best-ever best friend.  Yet others have arisen as our orbits crossed, and I’m increasingly grateful for them—and even moreso for my bride, Sally.

There have been enormous changes in 15 years.  Neither the nation nor the world is better off than in 1998, and some usually-optimistic folks have a hard time believing that things will improve anytime soon. 

However, if you’ll check back in ten years I’ll be glad to amend that view if conditions warrant it.

Thursday, November 21, 2013


Everyone in my generation knows where he was the Friday that JFK was assassinated.  Fifty years later it’s not hard to recall many of the details.

I was an Oregon high school freshman, sitting in Mr. Taylor’s third-period math class.  A senior named Mike entered the room and mentioned a radio report that the president had been shot in Texas.  Few of us seemed to believe it but, being sly in a feral teenage sort of way, we urged Mr. T to turn on the television.  (Even if the rumor were untrue, it could buy us some time away from algebra, or something.)  His room, which doubled for science and chemistry, was the only one in McEwen High with a TV.

Tall, rail-thin, and bright, Elvin Taylor succumbed to our pleas.  He turned on the black and white set, and sure enough: there was Walter Cronkite in shirtsleeves. 
We sat through the remainder of the class period, then heard from the principal.  Mr. Simpson said that we could go to lunch but classes were cancelled for the rest of the day.

Walking to the grade school cafeteria five blocks away, I was aware of some juniors and seniors hollering around me.  “Hey Joey, why’d you do it?” 

“Why do you think?  To get out of class!”

I was old enough to be disgusted but too young to challenge the imbeciles.  Only much later did I wonder what crass antics occurred at other schools across America.

Most of what I knew about Kennedy was from popular lore—the Camelot PR machine.  The handsome young war hero and devoted family man (!) with the elegant wife and two young children.  My parents were Republicans—my mother especially so—but they were also hard-over patriots.  Mother was a political junkie even before Watergate a decade later, and she had snagged JFK when he campaigned in 1960.  He inscribed a copy of Profiles in Courage to each of us boys, and I still have mine.  I hardly dare take it off the shelf, but the distinctive green ink remains fully legible: “To Barrett Tillman.  Warm regards, John F. Kennedy, U.S. Senator.”

Another thing I remember was sitting with the family watching the previous vice president address the nation.  In his slow, measured tones, Lyndon B. Johnson (events demonstrated that the B stood for Bastard) reassured the public that the government was stable and the country would recover.  My mother, a devoted Baptist who always thought the best in people, said, “He has a strength about him, doesn’t he?”  Little did we know.

That Sunday morning we skipped church to watch news coverage as Oswald was brought out by police.  Suddenly a burly figure emerged from the right, fired one shot, and the scene descended into chaos.  I remember exclaiming, “He shot him!”  Another four years passed before I saw someone killed in person (three others ensued) but the black and white TV image remains vivid.

Finally, the lingering memory is audio.  JFK’s funeral procession proceeded at the surprisingly brisk pace of muted drums playing a repeated cadence.  I was a serious percussionist at the time—school band and American Legion drum and bugle corps—and would win my first state championship the next year.  For days afterward I found myself playing the dirge with my fingers: flam, flam, flam, roll; flam, flam, flam, roll; flam, flam, flam, roll; flam, flam, tap-tap.

Then came 1964.  The Beatles and I Wanna Hold Your Hand (17 years later I wandered into Ringo’s wedding); the National Boy Scout Jamboree at Valley Forge; the Tonkin Gulf Incident, and LBJ (remember that middle initial) grabbed an opportunity to launch a war 90 days before a presidential election.

Much later I became interested in the mechanics of Lee Harvey Oswald’s infamous Six Seconds in Dallas.  As a competitive shooter, I wondered if he really could have pulled off the deed attributed to him.  Apart from the FBI reports and the flawed Warren Commission findings, it did seem possible that a marginal rifleman could have accomplished the feat.  People forget that the first round is a “freebie,” since the shooter starts the clock.  He is not responding to a Go signal such as the beep of a timer.  So in truth, LHO only had to get off two more rounds in five-point-something seconds—eminently possible even with a stiff bolt in the Mannlicher-Carcano.

Reportedly the three shots were fired at a target angling slightly away from Oswald at about 12 mph, apparently between 46 and 88 yards.  Even with a four-power scope, that is not world-class shooting, and Oswald had shown he was an OK rifleman in the Marines.  My longtime shooting partner participated in controlled tests with a Mannlicher-Carcano and went three for three in the allotted time.  So did some others, and several duplicated LHO’s two hits.

Then there’s the Grassy Knoll.  Assuming a second shooter behind the fence, he could not have shot JFK from the front because Governor John Connolly was in the way.  In the time JFK was fully exposed to the fence, he presented roughly a 30 degree tracking shot from the right.  Even from roughly 30 yards that is not an optimum setup—Oswald chose the least challenging aspect, from above and almost straight behind.  Essentially a stationary target.

The other thing about the Grassy Knoll is that JFK’s wounds do not match the geometry.  If we can believe the autopsy, both hits came from above and behind.  A rifle shot from the right likely would have struck Jackie as well, sitting on the president’s left. 

Finally I’ll touch upon “the magic bullet.”  The round that hit both JFK and Connolly has been erroneously described as “pristine.”  But the base of the 6.5mm round is slightly compressed into an oval shape.  That’s because after exiting Kenney’s neck, it decelerated and deflected in the three feet between the seats.  Photos show Connolly’s entry wound as a profile of the bullet, typical of high-velocity projectiles tumbling after hitting objects as inconsequential as thin twigs.  The fact that it remained intact has been addressed by my friend and colleague, novelist Stephen Hunter.  In discussing his JFK novel, The Third Bullet, he notes that the bullet did exactly what its Italian designers intended in 1891.  It remained intact to penetrate the thick winter clothing and blood-bearing organs of Austrian soldiers.  That it inflicted multiple wounds on two bodies is not surprising, especially given the short range.

After half a century there is no lessening of fascination with the Kennedy mystique and the vagaries of the assassination.  I doubt that it will be any less on November 22, 2063.

Saturday, October 12, 2013


It’s been a tough week for the writing trade.  We lost two icons in eight  days, both naval oriented but far removed in subject, style, and fame.

On September 24 Cdr. Edward P. Stafford, USN (Ret) died in Florida at age 95.  If the name isn’t familiar to you, it should be.  Ed was author of The Big E, the superb 1962 study of USS Enterprise (CV-6).  Fifty years later it was still probably the finest ship “biography” ever penned.  No less an authority than Ernest Hemingway lent his support to Ed’s first literary endeavor.

Ed had the navy in his genes: his middle name was Peary, as his grandfather was Rear Admiral Robert E. Peary, the first to reach the North Pole.  That was in 1909, nine years before Ed was born.

Like so many of the WW II generation, Ed interrupted his college studies to serve in the navy.  His wartime experience as an officer aboard a minesweeper and destroyer escort provided the basis for his second and third books, both hugely overshadowed by The Big E.  After the war he completed Dartmouth, entered flight training, and flew one of the most hazardous missions possible as a “hurricane hunter.”

Ed also wrote a submarine book, The Far and the Deep, but the public came to know Ed via an unusual route for a naval aviator.  He was a contestant on the immensely popular TV quiz show The $64,000 Question, and collected the full amount.  But that was just as he began researching and writing The Big E, which took five years to complete.

In a manner of speaking, I got acquainted with Ed Stafford during a cross-country train trip in 1964.  I was a high school freshman, a year away from learning to fly, and inhaled the Dell paperback edition.  I still have it, as that well-thumbed volume was more important than I could have guessed at the time.  Ed Stafford’s fluid, often elegant prose had a profound influence upon my writing style, and his admiration for Enterprise planted a seed that took five decades to germinate.   In researching my own books from the 1970s onward, I came to know many of the CV6ers Ed had written about, and they formed the basis for my full-length history of the ship, published in 2012.

Ed and I established email contact early in my project, and he could not have been more supportive.  He urged me to include more about the ship’s company than he had been able to do, even though his text was twice the length of mine.  I was already inclined in that direction, and his impetus was confirmation of my intent.  (I should note that on September 3 we lost another notable CV6er, Arnold Olson, a radar technician in 1945 and longtime PR director for the association.  I could not have written the book as I did without Arne’s unstinting help.)

My relationship with Ed Stafford was unique, from reading his seminal book in 1964 to our final emails 49 years later.  In all that time I regret that I never shook his hand, but he remained my literary mentor just the same.

Then on October 1 came the unexpected news of Tom Clancy’s death.  He succumbed to heart failure though only 66.

I met Tom via a mutual friend and colleague, one of his nonfiction coauthors.  Because we shared the same literary agent at the time, Tom had provided an endorsement for my first novel, describing Warriors as “The most intelligent thriller I’ve read this year.”  That was 1991, when Tom was at the height of his career.  He gained nothing from helping me, and I’ve always been grateful for his generosity.

The first time we met, our friend John Gresham drove me to Tom’s mansion overlooking Chesapeake Bay.  Parked along the driveway on a concrete slab was a beautifully restored Sherman tank, apparently freshly painted.  Yup.  That had to be the place.

Tom entertained us in his library—and as a former city library commissioner I can speak with authority when I say that he outdid my Oregon hometown (population 950 when I was growing up).  Two sides of the room were floor to ceiling custom wood shelves with the non plus ultra of private libraries—moving ladders.  Most of his books at that time had multiple foreign editions, and I recall a lower shelf with what appeared to be Red Storm Rising in Polish.  He alluded to his basement rifle range--50 yards, I believe, good for .30 caliber--but unfortunately I didn’t get to see that facility, let alone partake of it.

Tom Clancy was one of the three most opinionated people I ever met, and that’s saying something.  Number One was an Israeli general and ace while Number Two was a really bright former Marine Corps officer. Tom was convinced that what he knew was golden, and others had said there was no point arguing with him.  So I didn't.  Besides, I was his guest.

However, let it be noted again: if Tom Clancy did not invent the techno-thriller he certainly defined it, shaped it, and dominated it as no one else ever had, and likely ever will.  Some students claim that Jules Verne conceived the genre but they’re wrong—Verne was the prototype sci-fi writer, as he mainly described technologies that were immature or did not exist. 

Some of Tom’s material was considered semi-scandalous for its depth of “secret” information.  Batguano.  Tom cited his open sources for anyone who cared to listen, though he did reveal some of his early “spies.”  Among his insurance clients were former naval persons, including some submariners who were happily surprised to find a civilian who seemed to speak their lingo.  Whatever “secrets” they revealed remain, well, secret!

In 2004 Tom and John invited me to add a chapter to the expanded version of Fighter Wing, his Air Force survey.  naturally I was delighted to contribute, even though my confidence in high-high tech never matched Tom's.  While I retain industrial-grade skepticism regarding the wisdom and workability of our massive stealth investment, it was rewarding to craft a lengthy addition to a Clancy book.

Tom and I never knew each other very well, but I remain grateful for his trust, his patronage, and the time we shared together.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013


Usually there’s nothing remarkable about a twelfth anniversary, but this year September 11 has taken on more meaning than usual.  Maybe it had to do with the way the “Million Muslim March” crashed and burned in D.C. (reportedly 21 showed up, including gawkers), compared to at least 75,000 bikers who came vastly closer to their intended Two Million Motorcycle March.

For whatever reason, this month provides reason for reflection:

I must have been one of the last people in America to learn of 9-11.  Dad and I were winterizing the trucks at the ranch that morning and I didn't return to the house until later to see the World Trade Center impacts on network continuous loops.  My first impression was shock but not a lot of surprise because the method was well known if only in fiction.  In fact, Tom Clancy and I both had written novels featuring aircraft diving into political targets.

My second immediate impression: "they" had put together a supremely well executed plan that had to be months in preparation.  I fully expected a Stage 2 step-down tactic such as shooting up a mall or blowing up a school, but obviously all the rotten eggs went in the same baskets. It turned out that I knew/know 3 Pentagon survivors from that day and was acquainted with one of the passengers on Flight 77. 

I've asked WW II folks to compare their impressions between 7 December and 11 September. They seem split as to which was the greater shock but apparently Pearl was moreso because we didn't have 30+ years of conflict with Muslim extremists to set the stage.

Some fellow Boomers think that 9-11 had the greater effect, but that’s from our perspective, not our parents’.  The conventional wisdom holds that few Americans knew where Pearl Harbor was, but I believe more were aware of it than we suspect.  After all, it made news in 1940 when President Franklin Roosevelt ignored professional advice in moving the Pacific Fleet base from San Diego to Oahu.  In fact, he fired the four-star admiral commanding PacFleet and replaced him with Admiral Husband Kimmel, who had the conn on 7 December.

In the 9-11 aftermath, any politician within arm’s reach of a microphone was quick to deride the hijackers as “cowards.”  Terrorists, certainly.  Mass murderers, absolutely.  But cowards?  Consider this:

The 9-11 killers believed in their warped philosophy so fervently that they prematurely sacrificed their lives (the eldest was 30, the youngest were 20) for what they held dear: the jihadist cause.  How many politicians have ever placed themselves on death’s pathway for whatever they claim to believe in?  Has any politician left the Beltway and his accumulated perks to join the military or otherwise participate in the defense of Western Civilization?

In early 1942 numerous congressmen plus governors and judges responded to Pearl Harbor by joining up or seeking activation as reservists.  Many were motivated by politics, knowing that FDR would recall them to Washington in time for the fall elections.  But at least they went rather than running their mouths in sound bites.

Surviving Japanese suicide pilots (there are such, oddly enough) expressed resentment when some Americans compared the 9-11 perpetrators to WW II kamikazes.  The Japanese aviators held that because they were defending their homeland as military men, they did not merit comparison with Muslim terrorists who represented no nation-state.

Yet the distinction is minimal.  Whether Arabic or Japanese, the airborne suiciders chose to end their lives in the service of a cause.  The causes were certainly not admirable—a brutal empire and a homicidal zealotry—but we badly need some objectivity.  In dismissing the courage, initiative, and daring of such enemies from 1945 or 2001, we inflate ourselves at risk of enabling a repetition.  As the 9-11 commission astutely noted, the main American flaw was a lack of imagination.

In denigrating out enemies, we’re only setting ourselves up for another fall…..


For another perspective, I received this from my colleague “Boom” Powell, former naval aviator and commercial airline captain.  The flight he describes here was about two weeks after 9-11.

I saw Ground Zero last evening.  Marie told me to look for the hole.  I said I did not think anything would be visible.  Weather was poor, flight path not close.  I was wrong.

After flying mostly above the clouds from Norfolk while the sun set and a gray and turbulent descent, visibility underneath was crystal clear with urban lights glowing off the cloud base. The Verazzano Bridge was a positive fix. To the west, the Statue of Liberty was lighted with her torch and crown shining gold even at a distance. Up New York Harbor the buildings of lower Manhattan rose like dark cliffs from the water. Emanating from the ground in their midst was a bright light, volcanic in intensity.  The source of the light hidden by the dark sided buildings.  Unearthly.  Strange.  An apocalyptic radiance of catastrophe. Its brightness made starker by the dark shadows of the standing structures. Ground Zero indeed.  An opening to hell… except for the light’s color.

The light was pure, clear, white.  White; all colors, but no color.  White; the color of heaven, the color of snow, of summer cloud, the color of hope.

I stayed with my face against the airplane window until the vision was well past. There were glimpses of the arc lamps illuminating rescue and reclamation efforts – almost blinding in the night, but then the source was shielded again and only the fountain of light flooded up and out making the clouds as white as day. The rain had restarted when we got off at La Guardia and the wind was cold, biting, from the north. The summer of 2001 is gone.  And there is a lighted hole in Manhattan and our country’s soul.