Author Archives: tomburkhalter

About tomburkhalter

Tom Burkhalter lives in Hickory, NC. He volunteers at the Hickory Aviation Museum.

A Comment on “The Professionals” and Writing

I’m in the middle of writing Thanks for the Memories. Right now, I’m somewhere in that stage between draft one and draft two, where it gets kind of ugly and discouraging and the pieces aren’t coming together and you feel like whining and stumbling around the house with your lip pooched out, and lucky you are that She Who Must Be Obeyed isn’t home, ‘cause you’d be told to wash dishes or mow the lawn until you quit being childish.

 

Then, you read a scene, and when you finish you realize you have a piece of the true thread of the story, and that thread reaches forward and backward along the story line, and for some reason when that happened to me just now I thought of a scene in one of my all-time favorite movies.

 

If you’ve never seen “The Professionals,” made in 1966 and starring Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, and Jack Palance, put it in the slot for the next movie night. It’s a desperado film pure and simple, set against the backdrop of Mexico in 1916. There is a moment that spoke to me the first time I saw the movie, decades ago, and speaks to me even now across all the spacetime intervening.

 

What Captain Jesus Raza, played by Jack Palance, says about how one sees the revolution, is equally true about writing. I could write that scene as two writers in a bar, but that wouldn’t be nearly as dramatic. “We die [keep writing] because we are committed.” Here’s a link to a clip of that scene.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nDW2FR7AChc

 

But be sure to watch the movie! It’s a classic.

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Spin Recovery in the P-39

The first time I was in a spin it was in a sailplane with very docile handling characteristics, the Schweizer 2-33. Spin recovery is a necessary skill to master in a sailplane, since you spend a lot of time turning inside a thermal a few miles an hour above stall speed. Misjudge that, let your speed drop, tighten the turn a little bit too much, and you depart controlled flight.

But not to worry, not in the 2-33. Center the controls to break the rotation, stick a little forward to pick up airspeed, and the sailplane is flying again.

That’s two pretty simple, even instinctive moves. You can do it in a second or less.

The pilot’s manual for the P-39 Airacobra sets out a recovery technique that’s a little more complicated. There are two phases, pre-recovery and recovery. In the pre-recovery phase, the pilot has to close the throttle, set the propeller control to the low RPM position, and pull the control stick into your lap. Get it? The throttle is at your left hand, the propeller control is just behind the throttle, so that’s a one-two movement as you pull the stick back into your lap.

Now remember the airplane is not in a controlled maneuver. The manual describes the spin as being oscillatory in rate. Sometimes it spins fast, sometimes it spins slow. You don’t have any control over the rate. You have to decide when the airplane is slowing down or speeding up. You have to know that because, to effect recovery, you have to apply full opposite rudder when spin is at its slowest. All this time your surroundings — clouds, ground, horizon — are spinning around you. Imagine standing on one of those old playground merry-go-rounds, right in the center, as your friends push on it to make it go faster. That’s a start on what it would be like, except this spin happens in three dimensions, not two. So you wait for the rudder to take effect and push the stick full forward while applying ailerons against the spin. The actual language used in the manual is interesting: “The spin is usually oscillatory in rate, and it is mandatory that the opposite rudder be applied when the spin is at its slowest.” I particularly like that word “mandatory.” It’s the sort of emphasis you don’t often find in a pilot’s manual.

If you follow the procedure above, “…the airplane will recover in one-half turn. If the procedure is not followed closely, the airplane may not recover.” I think the implications of that last sentence deserve examination. You must follow the procedure closely, i.e., you do exactly what the manual says, or you’re going in.

No wonder the manual begins the section on spins with the statement “Deliberate spinning is not recommended.”

Just for a little context, follow the link below, which takes you to a War Department film on spin and tumble tests in the P-39. Bell Aircraft test pilots did these tests because pilots flying the P-39 insisted that the airplane would, in the right circumstances, literally tumble end over end.  You’ll probably also see why the manual included words like “mandatory” and “closely.”

 

 

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Today in History

Today is September 1, 2017. Seventy-eight years ago World War II began, when the Nazis invaded Poland. The United States of America didn’t come in to that war until December 7, 1941, or, more technically, December 8, 1941, when Congress voted to declare war on Japan. As a side note, the US wasn’t legally at war with Germany until December 10, 1941, when Nazi Germany declared war on the US. That, despite the fact that the US Navy was in an undeclared shooting war with the U-boats of the Kriegsmarine under the so-called “Neutrality Patrol.” That “Neutrality Patrol” was a risky endeavor for the US Navy. Some of you may have heard of the USS Reuben James, DD-245, a World War 1 era destroyer sunk by a U-boat on October 31, 1941, while engaged in Neutrality Patrol duty.

The US was at war with Germany, then, from December 10, 1941, through May 8, 1945 — VE Day — not quite three and a half years. The US was at war with Japan from December 8, 1941, through August 15, 1945, when Japan ceased hostilities, even though the formal surrender wasn’t signed until September 2, 1945. So, something less than three years and nine months for us Yanks, but nearly six years to the day for the British, who declared war on Nazi Germany on September 3, 1939.

World War II, in some ways, involved every single person in the United States, Europe, Russia, and Japan. Over twenty million died. Six million of those dead were deliberately exterminated by the Nazi policy of genocide towards those deemed to be “untermenschen” — Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, Slavs, those with birth defects and subnormal intelligence. This policy of “racial superiority” painted the Nazis as enemies of humanity and civilization for all time, a stain that will never, can never, be erased.

Lesser known to us in the West are the atrocities inflicted by the Empire of Japan upon the people of China. Some scholars contend that World War II actually began in 1937, when the Japanese went to war to conquer China. The Japanese religion of Shinto taught that the Japanese were superior to all other people of the Earth. This belief, like the Nazi belief in their own “racial superiority,” enabled the Japanese military to behave with the utmost bestiality in China and during the war with the Allies in the Pacific. The total casualties of that side of the war will never be known.

World War II ended 72 years ago. The veterans of that war are mostly gone. Too soon, they will all be gone. Their memories will be lost to us. The nature of the war they fought against fascism, bigotry, and intolerance is in danger of being lost with them.

Let’s remember a time when this entire country came together with a common cause, to defeat enemies who espoused genocide and bigotry as the norm.

Let’s keep that memory alive, lest we be scorned by those who fought for us.

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Boxcar Red Leader – A Review

I have the privilege of knowing veterans who have been kind enough to read and review my work over the years. Among them is a gentleman named Larry Huggins.

Larry is the real deal. Two tours in Vietnam, flying the F-105D Thunderchief, and the  F-105F “Wild Weasel.”

About the Weasels. There’s an old adage among fighter pilots regarding ground-attack missions: “One pass, haul ass.” In other words, don’t stick around to duel with the flak guns or, in more modern times, SAMs. Yet that was the mission of the Wild Weasels, to seek out and destroy SAM sites in North Vietnam. For courage and dedication to duty, the Weasels were among the very best. For sheer skill, also among the very best.

Larry survived combat in one of the most heavily-defended pieces of airspace in the world, and ended up a brigadier general, having flown in his career everything from J-3 Cubs to the F-16.

Now, when someone like Larry has kind words for an aviation story you’ve written, that’s pretty damned special to the writer. I know it is for me. Here, quoted with his permission, is what Larry had to say about Boxcar Red Leader:

Picked up your latest book at HAM on the way to Seabrooke Island, SC for our family reunion on Wednesday. Read it straight through Thur night. I can not for the life of me know how you can write like you are in the cockpit and at the controls of real airplanes. For someone that has not been in real dogfights, you sure as heck know as much about them as many combat ready fighter pilots do! Tom, you are simply amazing! Keep these books coming.

I wrote Everything We HadA Snowball’s Chance, and Boxcar Red Leader for a lot of reasons, some of which I’ve mentioned in this blog. But one major reason I wrote those books was to remember those guys, holding the line against the Japanese, in a time and a place where it was by no means certain that we’d be able to win. I think it important that we, as Americans, remember what we, as Americans, can do, when in Kipling’s words, fate lays upon us our task.

Thanks, Larry. Praise like this helps a writer keep going. And I’m hard at work on that next book!

 

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The Vast Ocean

This morning I finished reading Norman Dixon’s fascinating book, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence. It was sufficiently thought-provoking that I suspect I will have to go back and reread it several times, taking notes and making comments as I go.

However, I don’t intend to summarize the book or my impressions of its content. Instead I want to comment on the bibliography and chapter notes at the end of the book.

Perusing the bibliography of a non-fiction book is sometimes an exercise in self-congratulation and sometimes one of self-flagellation. I consider myself fairly well-read, and I was thinking, as I turned to the bibliography at the end, that I would find any number of books that I had already read. Partly this was because many of the factual accounts and a number of the conclusions reached by Dixon were in accord with things I had already read.

I didn’t count the number of works and papers cited by Dixon in his bibliography. They were numerous, somewhere between one hundred and two hundred, at a guess. I’m not a professional psychologist, so I didn’t think I’d be familiar with many of the papers or their authors, but I really did think at least some of the works cited by Dixon would be known to me. Or, at the least, I thought I’d know the authors.

Apparently I’m not as well-read as I thought. I recognized a mere handful of the authors, such as Liddell-Harte, Forester, and Glenn Wilson. The only book I read in that long list was Forester’s. That’s C.S. Forester, better known for his Horatio Hornblower series, but here cited as the author of a novel titled The General, which I read with great interest if not exactly pleasure when I was much younger.

In thinking over the reasons for this, one might be that Dixon’s work was first published in the mid-1970s, when I was still at university. Much of what I’ve read that would be relevant to Dixon’s subject matter I encountered 15 to 20 years later, when I became interested in the subject. So perhaps the relative familiarity of Dixon’s work derives from reading authors who came after him.

Or perhaps I’m not as well-read as I thought.

Regardless, I had to chuckle at myself when my certainty of a smug experience consisting of, “Yes, I’ve read that, very good” and “Aha, but of course he quoted from this,” and “I remember reading that, most intriguing” to a steadily growing confusion when I realized I had read virtually none of his sources!

This in turn led me to wonder at what point one may truly regard oneself as well-educated. One might perceive a certain complacent self-satisfaction in that term, perhaps, and that might be the lesson I should derive.

Sir Isaac Newton once remarked, if I remember the quote correctly, that however brilliant he was perceived by the rest of the world, to himself he always seemed like a small boy bending over to pick up pebbles on a beach that bordered a vast ocean. Curiosity impels me to look that up, and a moment’s Google search reveals the following from the Cambridge Library exhibition on Sir Isaac:

“I don’t know what I may seem to the world, but as to myself, I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

http://www.lib.cam.ac.uk/exhibitions/Footprints_of_the_Lion/introduction.html

So perhaps from time to time it does one good to be reminded how very, very vast that ocean of knowledge is, and perhaps to understand that any one man’s collection of pretty shells and pebbles is necessarily limited.

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The Struggles

In 2015 I published my first ebook, a collection of short stories titled The Struggles. The market for short stories is pretty slender these days, and at least two of the stories in the collection, “The Visit” and “Purple Heart,” have gone the rounds for decades. I figured that if those stories are to see the light of day, Amazon Kindle is the way to go.

Writing short stories can be fun, even though I’ve always seen myself as a novelist. I think there’s a kind of knack to writing short stories that’s a little different from the one needed to write novels. That knack can be learned, like most things, but for me it’s kind of hit-or-miss. If the story doesn’t have it, I toss it back in the hard drive while the germ germinates a little more in my mind. I doubt some of those seeds will ever come to fruition.

Besides, when I started writing, in 1968 at the ripe old age of 14, I saw myself as a novelist. Writing short stories came along a few years later.

When I published The Struggles it was as much an experiment as anything else. The experimental part was to work with Amazon Kindle and gain some understanding of their publication process. Everything We Had was in process, and before I undertook trying to publish My First Novel, I wanted a better idea of what I needed to do.

So, an experiment…but maybe I’m wrong to write “as anything else.”

Writing a short story really is different from writing a novel. For me that difference touches that ineffable and indefinable term “art.” It’s not that a novel isn’t “art,” but it’s art in a different way. There’s something poignant about a short story, like looking down a street in the city in the rain, wondering what’s in the dark doorways hidden in shadows. A novel takes a walk down that street and looks in each doorway until you get to the end of the street. A short story might take you into one, and it’s what happens when you open it. But the mystery of those other doors, those other paths not taken, that mystery still remains.

Or, a short story is like a brief, intense love affair, while a novel is more like a marriage, or at least a “long-term relationship.” Or something like that.

Anyway this post was inspired by the fact that, yesterday, as I was looking over my sales reports on Amazon, I noticed the sale of an ebook. Oh, I thought, wonder which one that was. Boxcar Red LeaderA Snowball’s ChanceEverything We Had? When it wasn’t any of those, I suddenly remembered The Struggles — and there it was.

Someone bought a copy of The Struggles. I don’t know who you are, friend, but thank you, and I hope you enjoy it. Because those stories in many ways were harder to write and took more from me than the novels.

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Looking Forward with the Past

As readers of my previous post on this blog know, Boxcar Red Leader is now available on Kindle as an ebook and via KENP. It’s also available via CreateSpace as a paperback. Sales are not in the NYTBS range…yet! Many thanks to those of you who purchased and read the book, and the other two in the series so far. Please, tell all your friends, and if you feel so inclined write a review of the books on Amazon. You have no idea how much it helps!

So that’s one piece of news, and the other is about the two subsequent books in the series:  Thanks for the Memories and The New Boys. Not going to give anything away, but the survivors of the first three books will continue in those two volumes.

So, a little historical context:

Thanks for the Memories takes place in the summer and fall of 1942 in New Guinea. The Japanese, having been turned back at the Battle of the Coral Sea, and having suffered a crushing defeat at the Battle of Midway, are still nowhere close to being defeated. Allied forces in the South and Southwest Pacific theaters still operate on the slimmest of shoestrings. Yet with the resources at their disposal they must find a way not only to hold their ground but begin rolling back the might of the Japanese Empire.

In some ways that sounds like alternate history, doesn’t it? “The might of the Japanese Empire.” But any student of history will assure you, there was nothing “alternate” about the Japanese Army and Navy — particularly their Navy! — in 1942. Allied victory at Midway turned on the slimmest of margins; in five minutes, Dauntless dive bombers turned three Japanese carriers into blazing wrecks and salvaged victory from what was shaping up as a major defeat. Those five minutes in many ways overshadowed the valor of American airmen, mostly Navy but also Air Corps, who gave their lives and their blood in attacks foiled by flak and Zeros.

Torpedo Squadron Eight, for example, was nearly wiped out at Midway. Their commanding officer, John Waldron, was one of the first to go. Despite the death of their commanding officer, VT-8 pressed home their attack against odds that were literally, obviously, suicidal. Only a single man, Ensign George Gay, survived. His survival and rescue were flukes of pure luck.

The Japanese who witnessed the attack said that Torpedo Eight came on like samurai.

This type of courage was seen again and again in the Pacific.

That’s the war of Everything We Had, A Snowball’s Chance, Boxcar Red Leader, and Thanks for the Memories. Well, OK, so it’s a land war a long way to the south of Midway. The spirit was, is, the same.

But with The New Boys we’ll start looking across the Atlantic, to the war in Europe. That, of course, will be new ground entirely. Other books are in the research and planning stages.

While I get busy writing those two, everyone enjoy Boxcar Red Leader! Don’t feel shy about dropping me a line here to tell me what you think.

Thanks again!

— Tom Burkhalter

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