THE NEW KIDS is Live on Kindle!

This is just a quick notice that the fifth novel in my “No Merciful War” sries, The New Kids, is now live and available as an ebook on Amazon Kindle!

More later, have to run errands this morning, and only put it up late yesterday. I still have some dress-up work to do, but it’s available.

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Ghosts of Facebook

Ghosts are a real thing, and they exist on Facebook.

I know this because Facebook keeps reminding me of, among other things, a friend’s birthday. Or a post I shared with that friend, or that was shared with me, one or two or six years in the past. Or it’s the occasion of our “Friendversary.”

So today, November 26, is my friend J. R. Hafer’s birthday. I got that notification a few minutes ago, and sat there looking at it for awhile. Mostly because J.R. passed away in 2018, a few days before his birthday.

I don’t remember our the date of our “Friendversary,” but I remember very well the first time I met J.R. He grew up here in Hickory, NC, and would visit from his home in Florida with his lovely wife Myra. J.R. belonged to that oddball fraternity of pilots and aviation enthusiasts, the Hickory Aviation Museum, and at that time I worked at the Hickory Regional Airport. I think I was in the terminal building, probably replacing trashbags or checking the bathrooms or something equally glamorous. J.R. came up with a mutual acquaintance from the Museum, who performed introductions.

At the time I had just published my first book, Everything We Had, about two brothers caught up in the early Pacific air war in 1941. We were talking about books and of course, being an aggressive author in search of readers, I asked why he hadn’t read MY book. I think it took him aback a little bit, but we exchanged addresses and I sent him a complimentary copy.

There’s a stage when you first start publishing where you are on absolute pins and needles about the reception of your (baby!) book. You’ve absolutely no idea how it will be received, and, of course, you know you’re the best writer around (writers are like fighter pilots that way), you just hope everyone else sees that too. Unlike fighter pilots, a writer can’t crawl up a reader’s six and … well, complete that image in your own mind. Every sale is a victory, let’s put it that way.

In truth I’d half-forgotten about sending the book to J.R., and when, two weeks later, I got a phone call from a number with a Florida area code I started not to answer it. Durned telemarketers, I thought, and answered it anyway.

It was J.R.

Calling me to rave about my book. Which rave review he backed up with another on Amazon.

You HOPE for things like that. And when it happens you’re floored. Sort of like, “You mean, I really am almost as good as I have to tell myself I am to keep writing?”

I remember that moment distinctly. There don’t tend to be too many moments like that in your life.

Today is J.R.’s birthday, and I wish he were still here, because I’d like to share with him that my new book, The New Kids, should be available on Amazon by mid-December.

Personally I believe in ghosts, and not just the ghosts on Facebook. So I hope J.R., and the other phantoms of my personal pantheon, are looking over my shoulder right now. Hopefully they’re all rolling their eyes and prodding me with ectoplasmic fingers and saying something like, “Don’t brag about it until you hit the SEND button!”

Anyway, J.R., this one’s for you. Happy birthday, and I wish you were still around so I could share this one with you.

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Release of The Struggles On Audible

Over the last five months I narrated and produced my first audiobook, The Struggles, now available on Audible and coming to Amazon and iTunes in time for the weekend!

For the audio version I did a lot of edits on the stories as originally published, mostly cleaned up the prose and added a bit here and some new, hopefully better, ideas there, as well as including two new stories, “Divine Wind” and “Reboot” and a poem, “Delivery Driver.”

Given all those edits I’m going to pull the present ebook edition of The Struggles from Kindle and submit the revised edition. I’ll try to do that over the next week or two.

Narrating and producing an audiobook for the first time as an almost total noob to the field was challenging. I won’t say it was a steep learning curve but it did mean a lot of trial and error and patience (NOT one of my virtues) and listening carefully to recordings for the sound quality as much as content. I think I came pretty close to studio standard, for recording in my study and having to stop while the garbage trucks go down the street or helicopters fly over or the cat decides to hop up on my lap and help me work.

I found that narrating a story is almost as satisfying to the creative process as writing a story. Many of the same sensations as well, not really wanting to sit down and do it, and wishing you weren’t while you are, but then when you’re done for the day you think “that wasn’t so bad” and in awhile you’re looking forward to doing it again.

Here’s a link to the book on Audible where you can also listen to a free sample.

Thanks for listening! Hope you enjoy it.

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Turn the Cup

Last week Lt. Col. Richard Cole, USAF-Ret., passed away on April 8. Col. Cole was the last surviving member of Doolittle’s Raiders at 103. During the mission he flew as copilot in the lead airplane.

One can only imagine what Cole felt during that mission, but try, if you will, for a moment, to put yourself in his place. It is the morning of April 18, 1942. America and its Allies are losing the war in the Pacific.

Pause and reflect on that. Seventy-seven years ago, this country was losing its war against Japan. Japan started the war with a surprise attack against the US Navy’s Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor. The day before that attack, the overwhelming majority of people in the US were against any involvement in the war in Europe, or active involvement in the war between Japan and China. Afterward, on the morning of December 8, young American men lined up for blocks outside of recruiting offices to enlist and fight Japan.

Only America didn’t have a lot to fight with, and wouldn’t for months to come. Those young men lining up to enlist that Monday morning would learn close-order drill with obsolete Springfield rifles, at best, and at worst, they’d drill with broomsticks as their fathers did in World War One. On that morning, America’s air forces had only a handful of heavy bombers to carry the war to the enemy, nearly all of them obsolete or obsolescent. The fighters that would clear the skies of Axis aircraft were still in their test phase. Medium bombers like the B-25 and the B-26 were only beginning to come off the assembly line.

The oceans protecting America from attack also prevented us from easily reaching our enemies in Europe and Asia.

But we could put sixteen B-25 medium bombers on the deck of an aircraft carrier, something neither bomber nor carrier had been designed for, and send that aircraft carrier close enough to Japan so that those medium bombers would have the range to attack Japan and fly to airfields in China. That was the plan. It gave the bomber crews at least a chance of survival.

In the event the task force sent to attack Japan was dis covered by a Japanese picket boat who radioed the news of their presence before being sunk.

Doolittle and his men had the range to strike Japan. They didn’t have the range to reach the Chinese airfields where they might reasonably hope to land, and live to fight another day. At best, they could reach the Chinese coast, most of which was occupied by the Japanese, where the odds of capture were very high. To attack Japan now meant the odds of surviving the mission were very small indeed.

It was already a volunteer mission, but the discovery of the task force well east of their planned launch point changed everything. Doolittle again asked for volunteers. He got them. All of them volunteered to go, knowing the odds against survival, already bad, were now much worse. It hadn’t become a suicide mission, but it was close.

I suspect, sitting in the cockpit of Doolittle’s B-25, looking at a very, very short stretch of flight deck, pitching up and down in the heavy sea running at the time, Richard Cole was afraid. I suspect he wasn’t alone. But I’m also certain he focused on his job, which was to help Jimmy Doolittle get their B-25 off the deck of the USS Hornet. I know that, because every B-25 got off the deck of the Hornetand attacked Japan.

That moment in history, along with many others in those first grim months of the war that put America’s back to the wall, should have served as a warning to the dictatorships of Japan and Germany that democracy does not produce weaklings or cowards. Democracy produces men and women whose stake in their country is far greater, even immeasurably greater, than those who serve the whim of a single person. To die for the Emperor, or der Fuehrer, is to die for a man, however vainglorious the trappings of office. To risk your life for America is to put your life on the line for every single one of your compatriots, for all Americans, that the idea of America may survive. Not for a man. For the ideal.

I believe everyone on that mission understood that ideal. And now the last living link to that moment, that mission, is severed. But their willingness to risk that sacrifice, in that mission, in that moment, meant the survival of the ideal that is most truly America.

The damage done to Japan by the bombs of Doolittle’s Raiders was relatively insignificant. Japan itself barely noted the raid.

Imagine the effect, though, upon discouraged Americans, bludgeoned by one defeat after another, with the forces of the Axis seemingly unstoppable and triumphant, when banner headlines carried the news: TOKYO BOMBED!

The exaltation of a moment when hope is renewed, when faith is renewed, when belief is renewed, is something we should seek to understand and always remember. It shouldn’t be moments in a war, not alone. When justice prevails in this country, when freedom is renewed and strengthened for every American, when the future becomes brighter and more accessible to all, those are the moments when the ideal of America is clarified. And those are the moment from which we draw the courage to look down a heaving flight deck and fling ourselves into the unknown to keep that idea, that ideal, alive.

In an earlier post I wrote about Richard Cole and the cups the Doolittle Raiders drank from at their reunions. One by one, as the survivors of the mission and the war passed away, those cups were turned over. Now the last cup is turned, and the last living link to what it was like to fly off a carrier deck and bomb Japan, in what, truthfully, was no more than the sort of gesture that tells an enemy the fight isn’t over, that link is dissolved.

Now all we have is history too easily forgotten. For the last cup, the last living link, is turned over. Now we must all remember the meaning behind those cups.

For those of us who remember, though, thank you, Col. Cole. Thank you for drinking from the cup. Thank you, and all who were with you, for your part in America.

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Good Airplane Movies

If you hang out with pilots for any length of time and the movies come up you’ll very likely hear the more or less unanimous opinion that Hollywood doesn’t make good movies about aviation.

I agree good aviation movies are few and far between, but it should be noted that an aviation movie is about people flying or otherwise involved with airplanes. An “aviation movie” should let the non-flying viewer glimpse what motivates otherwise normal people to learn to fly and deliberately, even eagerly, perform the unnatural act of flying.

Pilots don’t tend to talk about the faults in the story. That’s sort of secondary. They tend to focus on technical inaccuracies about the airplanes or the techniques of flying them. A particularly egregious example is a movie where a Spitfire pilot manages to break the speed of sound by “cross-controlling” – possibly a misunderstanding of the control reversal phenomenon experienced by some airplanes as they near Mach One – an event that, even at the time the film was made, was known to be not merely incorrect but something that would lead to the destruction of the aircraft and probably its pilot. Exceeding Mach One in a propeller-driven aircraft is an aerodynamic impossibility, anyway.

My personal favorite mistakes include identification of one type of airplane as another. The film “Midway” (1976) had aerial shots that identified an airplane with four engines (probably a C-130 Hercules) as a twin-engine PBY Catalina; a long shot of an aerial dogfight where the airplanes involved all appeared to have in-line engines, whereas all the airplanes at Midway had radial engines; or the scene where an American TBF torpedo bomber is identified as a Japanese “Kate” even though the white star of the US national insignia, as opposed to the red rising sun of Japan, is plainly visible.

Directors would probably argue, with some justice, that to most people an airplane is an airplane is an airplane and what the blank, they’ve all got wings, don’t they? So what difference does it make? Besides, it costs a lot of money to shoot those aerial scenes right. Look at Howard Hughes nearly going broke shooting “Hell’s Angels.”

So what’s the big deal?

Well…you don’t become a pilot unless flying means something to you beyond the ordinary, and given the vanishingly small percentage of people who actually become pilots, much less professional pilots, maybe it isn’t surprising that so few people understand why it’s important to pilots to get these “little details” right.

Because, you see, to pilots, especially professional pilots who may have lives riding on their skill and expertise, there’s no such thing as a small or unimportant detail. Little things can kill you.

So I suspect at least two reasons why pilots scowl at aviation movies. First, as noted, if overlooking details can result in damage, death, or disaster, then one can understand why pilots – the ones who tend to live longest, anyway – tend to acquire a thorough and painstaking knowledge of their craft and the airplanes they fly. It should also be understandable why pilots tend to be intolerant of mistakes and ignorance. Those can get you killed.

That seems pretty obvious, but there is a second reason, a little more subtle, and it involves the craft of writing a story. The fiction story usually requires something called “dramatic conflict” – a compelling reason, interesting to the reader, for the character or characters to be confronted with a problem to be solved. The detective story is a perfect example; the actions of the detective in solving the case carry the action of a story in a most satisfying way, if properly written.

If a pilot performs properly, aviation, from outside of the cockpit, appears uneventful, a transit between two points in varying degrees of comfort. Pilots work very hard indeed to achieve that level of apparent lack of drama.

When things go bad and pilots do what they’re supposed to do in an emergency, far more often than not dealing with the emergency, from outside the cockpit, still has that aura of the ordinary and uneventful. It’s not every day that Sully Sullenberger has to put an airliner into the Hudson, less than three minutes after departure, because both engines of his airplane ingest birds and flame out. I got a real kick out of listening to the tape of Sullenberger on the radio with the air traffic controllers. They’d ask him if he could reach this airport, or that airport, and Sully, being perhaps a tad busy, consistently replies with nothing more than “Unable.” That recording is available on YouTube. Listen to Sully’s voice. It’s the voice of a master at work.

Even more, it’s not every day that a flight crew is confronted with engine failure combined with hydraulic failure resulting in inoperative controls, a condition highly likely to lead to a catastrophic departure from controlled flight, as nearly happened to United Flight 232 on July 19, 1989. That crew, aided by a United Airlines training check airman who was aboard, gave new meaning to cliches like “used every trick in the book” and “snatched victory from the jaws of death.” Victory in this case meant most of the passengers survived the crash landing, when casualties could easily have been 100%. They survived because the members of the flight crew were consummate practitioners of their craft.

In aviation, dramatic conflict usually means death or the danger thereof. That’s how most people see it, anyway. Maybe that’s why pilots don’t like aviation movies. No one likes to be reminded of how things can go to pieces and leave you to pick up the mess, if you can. Especially when the blank-blank details are wrong. Some fool kid might think it was right, go try it, and end up in a smoking hole at the scene of the accident.

All of that being said I’m going to recommend the following five movies as good aviation films, maybe not always spot-on with details, but true at least in spirit. These films, to me, show something very close to what it means to be a pilot. Feel free to agree or disagree with my choices, and by all means make other recommendations.

“Spirit of St. Louis” (1957)

“Dawn Patrol” (1938)

“Only Angels Have Wings” (1939)

“The Bridges at Toko-Ri” (1954)

“I Wanted Wings” (1941)

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Like Looking Through a Window

If you haven’t seen Peter Jackson’s documentary film “They Shall Never Grow Old” you should do so. In many ways it might be one of the most incredible films I’ve ever seen.

The film takes archival footage from the Imperial War Museum and BBC oral history interviews with World War I veterans to tell the story of soldiers in the Royal Army during World War I. Jackson chose this point of view for a look in depth at one aspect of the history of the war, and one may easily imagine a monumental documentary series done in the same fashion consisting of who knows how many episodes, covering different campaigns and services. The Royal Navy and the Royal Flying Corps are not mentioned, and I’d purely love to see the same treatment given to the RFC!

Everyone has seen the silent black-and-white film taken during the war. It tends to be grainy, either over- or under-exposed, scratched, jerky, and the motion of people looks awkward and hurried. The latter is due to the frame rate imposed by hand-cranked cameras in use at the time, which might be cranked at anywhere between ten frames a second or eighteen.

Jackson and his production team took the original film and processed it so that the original black and white appears very close to something that would have been shot as B&W with contemporary methods. The images are clean, crisp, properly exposed, and move at a frame rate restoring natural motion.

That in itself is a remarkable achievement.

However, the colorization process resulted in something positively unique. I’m going to say nothing more about it. You simply must see the film.

All of that, however, is as nothing beside the use of imagery to tell a story, and I will give one example. The series of images with the soldiers in the Sunken Lane prior to the Battle of the Somme will rend your heart. The images are clear enough that you can see the emotion on those faces. You may think you know what to expect in terms of fear and apprehension and even excitement, but that’s knowledge without experience.

These faces are right in front of you, almost as if you were looking through a window and not watching a film. And, as Peter Jackson points out, most of the lads in that picture were probably dead within an hour after it was taken.

One further thing among many deserves mention. The interviewees make the point that after the war, the people on the home front didn’t want to hear from the veterans what it was like. I think it would be interesting to know why that’s so, because to me it seems short-sighted, if only from the perspective of ignoring history. An experience in history paid with so much blood and suffering and waste and destruction should be told and retold and examined from every angle. It was called “the war to end all wars” and so it should have been. We all know it was not, and in fact was followed within a generation by another war even more terrible in all respects.

We owe it to those who were there to hear and understand, as best we are able, their story. Peter Jackson has given us a unique opportunity to do exactly that.

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Merry Christmas!

Here in Hickory, NC, it’s just after 7:00 a.m. on December 24.

But I have friends and readers in New Zealand and Australia, and, going east with the sun, in India, Italy, Germany, France, and Great Britain. For many of them it’s already Christmas Day.

So it doesn’t seem in the least premature to me to wish everyone, worldwide, whether you believe in Santa Claus or not, a very happy and a very Merry Christmas!

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