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.