Monday, May 28, 2012

Remember the Fallen, Those Who Gave Their Best

Memorial Day is a time of remembrance. We honor those who gave their lives for their country, and remember those who gave their best in service to their country. I know I shouldn't be, but I always feel a bit embarrassed when somebody says "thanks for your service." I guess it's because, unlike so many others, I was never shot at.

I enlisted in the Army Reserve for Aviation Cadet training in June of 1943, just out of high school. I wouldn't turn eighteen until the end of November, so wasn't called to active duty until January. D-Day in Europe was nearly six months away, and troops were fighting their way north in Italy. American and British bombers blasted away at targets in Germany, particularly Berlin.

With the air war going well, the U.S. Army Air Forces had more aircrew officers in the pipeline than needed. So they distributed us Aviation Cadets around bases in the South. I started out at Moody Field, Valdosta, GA, where I wound up doing KP (peeling potatoes, scrubbing pots and pans) and helping build a firing range the German POW's refused to participate in. When a College Training Detachment class opened at Winthrop College, a girls' school in Rock Hill, SC, I headed off to the first phase of training.

When nothing else opened up after that, I headed south to Sumpter, SC and Shaw Field, where luckier cadets were learning to fly the BT-13, also known as te Vultee Vibrator. I was assigned to the Air Inspector's Office, where I spent many hours filing Army Regulations. A lieutenant in the office test-flew aircraft after major inspections, and I rode the student seat on some of these missions. That was the closest I came to learning to fly.

In the spring of 1945, I finally made it to the San Antonio Aviation Cadet Center (now called Lackland Air Force Base) for the next class in Preflight School. We studied subjects like meteorology, aircraft identification, and Morse Code. But, alas, when that was over, there were no openings for flight training. I joined other cadets at Randolph Field, on the other side of the city, to be guinea pigs in the School of Aviation Medicine. We performed such chores as getting physicals by candidates for designation as Flight Surgeons and trying out pills for airsickness. In the latter case, we took the pills then sat in swing-like gondolas where we were swung back and forth, higher and higher, to see how long it would take for us to get sick. I've never had a problem with airsickness, so I wasn't much help.

After a few weeks of that routine, another cadet and I were transferred to the Officers Mess, which also housed the VOQ, or Visiting Officers Quarters. We had rooms in the VOQ and worked in the office. After the barracks I had occupied, this was luxury. Built in the 1930's as the showplace of the new Army Air Corps, Randolph was known as the West Point of the Air. Its buildings were designed in Spanish Colonial Revival Style architecture, a far cry from those on bases thrown up during World War II.

It was here that I got the idea of becoming a writer. My fellow cadet had spent a year at Yale before joining the service. While chatting one day about what we'd do after the war, he confided that if he were to start college again, he'd study journalism. I'd never done any writing, but that stirred my interest. When news of the Hiroshima bombing came shortly after that, I sat at the office typewriter and started a story involving the A-bomb. When I was discharged about three months after the war ended, I set my sights on journalism school and enrolled at the University of Tennessee in January 1946.

While I don't think I contributed much in World War II, except my presence in uniform, I played a more significant role in the Korean War after getting an Air Force commission through ROTC. I served in the Estimates Division of the Directorate of Intelligence at Fifth Air Force Headquarters in Seoul. My job was to monitor enemy air activity and report on its consequences. I spoke on the subject at briefings for United Nations personnel and was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for meritorious service.

At one time I had the chance to join a group from the DI that journeyed up to the front lines, but for some reason I wasn't unable to make it. So I missed my best opportunity to get shot at.

But on this Memorial Day, I salute all those who served in whatever capacity. And I wish all the survivors a happy life. Mine certainly has been.

Monday, May 21, 2012

True Story Behind Character Burke Hill

I have always been a fan of  Charles Lutwidge Dodgson's nonsense writing. Better known as Lewis Carroll, he was, of course, the author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. In the latter book he wrote a whimsical poem titled Jabberwocky, It features a dragon-like monster and includes the line "Beware the Jabberwock, my son." It seemed a great title for a book about a sinister plot called Operation Jabberwock.

For the main character, I turned to a man I had met back in the sixties when I was editor of Nashville Magazine. He was a close friend of one of my colleagues and I got to know him pretty well. He was an ex-FBI agent with a fascinating story to tell. I did a long interview with him, and we talked about writing a non-fiction book. Then he had second thoughts about doing it as a true story. The statute of limitations hadn't run out on some of the things he had done.

According to his story, and my colleague vouched for his authenticity, he had gone to Washington out of high school and worked as a clerk at FBI Headquarters while getting an accounting degree. His job included taking documents to Hoover's home, and he became closely associated with the director. He attended the FBI Academy after graduation and worked as a field agent. He was later tapped by Hoover to be a member of his Goon Squad, a select group of agents who carried out sometimes illegal acts for the director. According to my guy, some of it involved cases outside the U.S. Their files were kept in a segregated safe known as the "T Files."

Hoover had always been bugged by the FBI's inability to infiltrate La Cosa Nostra, as he called the Mafia. When he and his assistant came up with a plan, they chose my agent for the task. He was told to resign from the FBI, commit a few crimes to establish his bona fides, and work to get in with the mob in Las Vegas. Only the director and Assistant Director Bill Sullivan would know the real story. But after months of trying, he never managed to get connected. When he came back to Washington, Hoover refused to talk to him, calling him a failure. After that, the FBI harassed his efforts to get another job until he finally fled to the Alaskan oil fields.

All of this is covered in the background of my character, Burke Hill. I lost contact with the ex-agent before we got to the point of putting anything on paper. I learned he died several years ago. It makes for quite a story. You can check out Burke Hill and Beware the Jabberwock at

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Book Signing that Almost Wasn't

Some venues sound great on the surface but turn out to be something decidedly different. I spent the past two days at a book signing/selling event at Cool Springs mall in Franklin, TN, just south of Nashville. It's in one of the wealthiest counties in the U.S. People with money to buy anything they please. I had looked forward to it with glee.

Our U-shaped table had fifteen authors, at various times. Only three of us held the fort continuously. There were a few other authors, plus artists and crafts people. The organizers booked it as an event to promote literacy. They had a small area with chairs set up for an audience where, at different times, local TV and other personalities sat and read children's books. Not many kids showed up.

We were in a triangular nook just off the main first floor concourse, near an entrance (actually more an exit) to one of the primary department stores. Our table sat behind a free-standing elevator and stairway to the upper level of the mall. Unfortunately, the vast majority of shoppers passed along the corridor on the other side of the elevator and never saw us. There were no signs indicating our nice literary event was taking place around the corner.

One of our authors had a book about the Titanic which has done very well around the 100th anniversary of the sinking. He took some of his flyers and stood near the elevator, attempting to pass them out to shoppers. Few appeared interested, though he did sell a few books to people who wandered into our area.

Most of us enjoyed chatting about books and politics and such and watching shoppers pass without looking our way. I talked to a few who paused long enough to take one of my folders. One or two indicated they would check out my ebooks, and I finally found one couple that perused several covers, finally purchasing a copy of The Surest Poison, first book in my Sid Chance series.

Some of the other authors didn't sell a book. A couple sold to friends. The event continues this afternoon,  but I decided to pass up the opportunity. I felt modestly pleased at my single success. But I came away with the realization that you can't sell books in a mall unless you have mainstream exposure, where people know what you're there for and will take the time to pause and look. It was an interesting experience. More of a learning experience.