The Christmas Bombing, and Courage

Over the weekend I visited a homeless shelter. Not to call attention to that, but it is related to this story.

I brought some copies of my books to donate, and, not sure how, went to the check-in window to talk with whoever was working it.

A volunteer, an older man – gray, glasses, moustache (guess that’s me without the moustache) – was there and I first asked him where I could get a cup of coffee. Nice as he could be he directed me around the corner to come in and help myself. I then presented my books to donate to the “library” which was little more that a wooden box outside by a shack. He looked at the covers. “You a pilot?” he asked. Yes, I said, back in the day, and my novels are about today’s aviators. How about you, I asked him.

“Yeah, Vietnam. C-7’s at first.”

Yes, the Caribou, I said.

“Yes,” he said, surprised that anyone would know that (those of you who know me well are smiling). He then added, “Then I went to B-52’s.”

I was impressed and said “wow” or something like that.

“Yeah, I was in Linebacker II.”

Wow I said, with my eyes big and full of respect. The “Christmas Bombing” I added.

“Yeah, the Christmas Bombing. I was there – glad I made it.”

The so-called “Christmas Bombing” in December 1972 ended the Vietnam War. For over ten days hundreds of B-52 sorties originating from Guam and Thailand rained destruction on Hanoi to get the North Vietnamese back to the table, end the war, and bring our POWs home. The powerful but lumbering B-52s had not yet ventured into the Hanoi area of North Vietnam, the most heavily defended airspace on earth. Lethal surface-to-air missiles took a fearsome toll, but the bombers kept coming. I knew about their need to change tactics to avoid greater losses, but what can you do in an airplane bigger than most airliners and not much more maneuverable? The crews knew the dangers, and after three nights of doing the same thing, how dumb that was. But they persevered – they went in.

So when my friend and fellow aviator Ed Beakley sent this fascinating video clip to his network, the story of one man who displayed courage and spoke truth to power, I watched with new-found respect. BGen G.R. Sullivan said no, we aren’t going to keep coming at them the same way night after night, and he took a courageous stand for his men. The men in this clip are all in their 70’s and 80’s now; the youngest might be 68. Take 35 minutes to watch this story, the story of Linebacker II, that served to end the Vietnam War, which began 45 years ago tonight, December 18, 1972.

My new friend at the shelter described going in at night, seeing bombers ahead of him burst into brilliant flame when hit, and watching the flaming wreckage fall to earth amid fireworks of rockets climbing to meet the next targeted bomber. He told me that he just tightened up in the cockpit and all but closed his eyes waiting for it to be over, a sensation I’ve heard related by other Vietnam aircrew. He obviously survived, and said he soon left the Air Force, having served our country with honor…and serving society today as a volunteer. Looking at him today you would never know what he did then. Shakespeare wrote that, “Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages, What feats he did that day.”

Tonight, let’s lift a glass to the aviators – in Thailand and Guam and aboard the carriers at sea – of Linebacker II as you enjoy Sully: A General’s Decision (Painting by Robert Bausch, USAF Art Collection)

America’s Team?

The Jacksonville Jaguars football team has a soft spot in my heart.

I was flying Hornets in Jacksonville during the 1996 season, the year they went to the AFC Championship game in only their second year of existence. Jacksonville fell in love with the Jaguars at first sight, and what a fun team, with Tony making huge running lanes for Natrone, and Mark throwing bombs to Jimmy and Keenan. Coach Coughlin was the stern task-master that called the shots, and the Jags owned Jacksonville.

My friend and qualified Hornet tailhooker Sam Kouvaris of Channel 4 hosted a weekly TV show about the team, as is found in most NFL cities. Sam invited my boys and I to the studio the following season for a taping of the show, and afterward the players he had as guests – they were not the stars mentioned above – signed autographs for the kids and a few dads. (Not me!)

My older boys, aged 10 and 8 at the time, stood in line for a chance to have these NFL football players sign their posters or jerseys or whatever they had. The players, heads down and not saying a word, signed what was placed in their hands by the adoring and awestruck kids. No smiling, no eye-contact. I felt bad for my boys, who even at a young age could sense that these grown men wished to be someplace else and not having to deal with the rock-bottom drudgery of being a pro athlete – signing autographs for kids. I don’t think anyone asked for a snapshot, too intimidated. The only sound heard was the squeaking of their Sharpie’s as they just scribbled their names as fast as they could.

The following week I took my family to NAS Cecil Field to see the Blue Angels perform at the Air Show. Over the years I’ve known many Blue Angel demo pilots and 1997 was no exception. I knew from talking to them that the demo could have had a close-call, and in the debrief there could be a frank – and I mean frank – reconstruction and personal accounting that left no doubt. Talk about putting your big-boy pants on, and rank means little or nothing. It’s six human beings who are risking their lives…no sugar-coating.

But before the debrief, and there is one after each demo, they pilots go to the crowd line and sign autographs. Not only that, they interact with the crowd, thank them for coming to see them, and pose for pictures. They do that until all have a chance for an autograph, or until pulled away to debrief or get back in their jets for the flight home. The photo above is of my friend Keith Hoskins, “Judge” as we know him by, taken when he was a Blue Angel demo pilot. Look at him smiling as he hands the little boy a program, down at his level, with what I am sure is a beaming parent behind the boy. This is not unusual…all the team members interact with the crowd this way. I assure you it is not an act, and despite the pressures of flying the demo, the long hours, the “commits,” the need to be “on” all the time representing the Navy and Marine Corps team, they make everyone feel special. All the guys (and gals) I’ve known on the team are great people.

I’m in my second season of “boycotting” the NFL. It’s more than disgust with Kaepernick and his fellow travelers taking a knee, more than the enabling of the league that allows these guys to hurt their product on company time. It is the ungratefulness they display, their sense of entitlement, playing a game for a living with the endorsement contracts and broadcast booth careers that follow. When the Blue Angel pilots finish their tours on the team they put on a green or khaki flight suit and go back to the fleet, America’s REAL team, deployed for months at a time, away from home, and risking their lives even more than when they performed the Loop Break Cross.

We saw the 2017 Jaguars, in England, make a political statement that at it’s core disrespects our country. Many of those that defend it live in Jacksonville, and word has it that this Veterans Day weekend they will make a statement of their own and not show up at Everbank Stadium. I have many retired shipmates in Jacksonville – they are seething at the Jags and won’t show up as they play the Chargers of all teams, a team that just last year jilted another Navy town. The Jaguars issued an apology to their fans, many of them active and retired military. Sorry guys, you screwed up and I think you are going to pay. When military guys screw up, and it happens, sometimes with spilled blood, there is a strict accounting. You are going to be held accountable, Jaguars, by the fans this time, not Coach Coughlin. Put your big-boy pants on and take it, and after this passes, smile at your good fortune and never take any of it for granted. Make every star-struck kid feel special…and earn back my respect. (And we’ll forgive…I’ve missed opportunities to make people feel special too.)

This stuff matters. Showing respect for the national anthem should bring us together as Americans. . Unfortunately, the disrespect trickles down. I was at a Division II football game in Pensacola over the weekend. The anthem was done with honor and the fans in this military town stood hand over hearts with respect. Scanning the sidelines, I noted that none of the players from either team were on them. Guess that’s a way for the schools to avoid even a hint of trouble vice setting a high standard for their student athletes to live up to. Is this going on elsewhere, a trend?

We need men and women to lead, now more than ever, in all parts of our imperfect society.

The Kindle Turns Ten

“This is like the Gutenberg Press,” my fellow author and Braveship Books publisher Jeff Edwards told me regarding eBooks in 2013. We were discussing my manuscript titled Raven One that had been rejected by New York agents and if it had a future. Jeff, who has had tremendous success as an independent novelist in the techno-thriller (USS Towers series) and science-fiction (Blues series) is a fellow veteran and someone I could trust. He convinced me that this eBook thing was real.

The Amazon Kindle E-reader turns 10 today, and like Jeff said, it revolutionized the way we read and approach reading. And publishing – big time.

Paperbacks came about in the 1930’s but in 1971 Michael Hart digitized the Declaration of Independence. 1971 was also the year the first email was sent – between two main frame computers.

With the advent of the CD, Jurassic Park was released in 1985 on CD-ROM, and in 1993 Digital Book released 50 digital books on floppy disk. In 1998 the first dedicated eBook readers appeared, and the first ISBN for an eBook was issued.

In 2004 Random House and Harper Collins started to sell digital versions of their books. That was the same year Jeff Bezos of Amazon challenged his engineers to build the best eReader before their competitors could. They came up with what we know as the Kindle, so named by Michael Cronan and Karin Hibma, “to light a fire.”

In 2007 the Kindle sold out in 5.5 hours and was out of stock for five months. Barnes and Noble countered with the Nook in 2009, and today there is iBook, Google Books, Kobo and others, but they never caught on like Amazon Kindle. In 2011 eBooks outpaced paperback, and last year 6.9 million eBook titles are available. Last year, Amazon sold 485 million units of them.

They have revolutionized publishing, and for independents like me are a viable way to publish and get exposure to thousands of readers. Actually tens and hundreds of thousands of readers. Amazon dominates the market, and all an author like me must do is enter a MOBI zip drive on Kindle Direct Publishing…at no cost. Jeff was instrumental in formatting and guided me every step, but I, the author, set the price, and for a price point of less than five dollars a reader can download a novel onto their Kindle, or Kindle app on their phone. Amazon pays the authors 70% of the price – that the authors set! The authors keep their rights, and after sales decline after the initial splash can market them as they wish. The reader can keep an entire library on a thin tablet – or smart phone – and read them anywhere. Win-win.

After we finished discussing eBooks, Jeff said Print-on-Demand is next. I said I wanted to concentrate on eBooks for now. I could sense Jeff shaking his head on the other end of the line. Print-on-Demand is independent of eBooks and done through CreateSpace – another Amazon company. With a PDF format, same thing. Hit “enter” on CreateSpace at no cost and your 9×6″ trade paperback is out there. If only one person wants to read an actual book, they order it at the  CreateSpace store or on Amazon and Amazon prints one book and ships it to their door. For me though, 97% of my novel sales are Kindle…ninety-seven percent! With hundreds – no thousands – of downloads, this is serious income, and titles can stay in the top 100 of their genres forever – no need to pull old tiltles from shelves because their are no shelves. Here’s an image of Raven One on Kindle and the trade paperback with the new cover. To each his own!

EBooks continue to grow, but there is a newcomer – Audiobooks. Audiobooks are about to eclipse eBooks in sales – $3.5 billion last year – and here Amazon rules the roost too, with Audible. The most popular device to experience and audiobook? Your smart phone with the Audible app – right next to your Kindle app. The big publishing houses are all over this now, and both R1 and DH are on Audible, as well as Kindle and trade paperback. To each his (or her) own indeed.

I’ve received reviews and notes from readers in Europe, Australia, India, and even Russia. To be able to speak to people through my stories, to give them insight into my former world and a view of our society they would not otherwise experience is gratifying to say the least, and before the eBook they probably would never have been exposed to my works. “New York” would not publish me, although some NY agents were kind and encouraged me to keep trying. No regrets. They would not let me write the books I wanted to write anyway, and Jeff says we Braveship authors write “smart books for smart people.” If you want to publish, there’s never been a better time, and the only barrier is your own ability to write, cut, sand, and polish…then format. Don’t give up.

My sons got me the Kindle in these photos for Christmas a few years before Raven One was published in 2014. Last year Declared Hostile joined it. New York hasn’t called and I don’t wait by the phone for them – but Connecticut called! Tantor Media, based in Old Saybrook, CT, saw my works on Kindle and offered an audiobook contract, where you can find them today.

What will they think of next? Happy Birthday Kindle…wishing you many more.

Am I allowed to write that?

You may have seen that the Biloxi, MS school board recently pulled Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird from their 8th grade required reading list. Apparently it makes some people uncomfortable. Unsaid is that it is the use of the n-word; never mind that the message of the story is one of courage and justice in the face of bigotry set in the vernacular of the day. What’s next, Gone With the Wind, and to answer my own question, yes, probably.

As a novelist, and reader, I appreciate and deliver authenticity. Lee and Margaret Mitchell pulled no punches and in their times wrote about society the way it was. Two fearless women who knew they would experience backlash from people they may have considered friends. Their stories did so much for our society, (talk about making people uncomfortable) and as time capsules allow us to see how far we’ve come.

In the hyper-sensitive society of today, can a novelist like me write novels without fear? Can I, a white Scots-Irish male, use the n-word in my novels if I wanted to? The answer is no, and while I don’t want to anyway, it is okay for hip-hop artists to use it in their songs or for African-Americans to use in everyday conversation. I’m also Catholic; am I allowed to bash the Catholic Church? Well, societies’ answer to that is yes, much of society encourages that, and it seems these days anyone can without fear, Catholic or no, and if I object that a non-Catholic is ripping my religion society tells me I’m the one with the problem.

I once had a reader ask me how I can write about an African-American character and give voice to his dialogue. Well, this character is a carrier pilot – will you grant me that I have some background in this area – who happens to be black. I served with aviators who happened to be black, or female (or Hispanic, atheist, Asian, homosexual, Jewish), and a theme of my novels is that the airplane does not care what kind of human being is flying it. This is true throughout the military…can you do the job? Nothing else matters. We bonded.

A better question some readers ask is how I can write about women, their feelings, fears, their worldviews as distinct minorities in the male-dominated culture of military aviation. This is more of a challenge, but because I’ve served alongside women, dealt with the issues, experienced the dynamic inside a military unit…I can and do write about it. Women make up roughly 15% of the force, we cannot “man” the fleet without them, but only 4% of carrier pilots are female even after the door to front-line combat units has been open for almost 25 years. They serve ably and attain high rank, all earned after decades of service. Politicians often say we need more women in combat, at all levels. Why? Will that demographic alone make us more combat effective? We’ve been in combat for most of the past 25 years and our performance is superb; I think we can say approaching flawless. Our force is diverse, but men and women in close quarters lead to real tensions, even today, let’s not kid ourselves. Or if you do not know, let me tell you.

I do not advocate turning back the clock – we couldn’t operate without women – but I do not think we need to push women into infantry and special forces. Convince me, a retired officer, that unit combat effectiveness will be increased.

Know who would ban my novels given half a chance? Some politically correct precincts of the Navy, and retired senior officers have conveyed this to me. While my novels are of strong men (Flip and Cajun) and women (Olive and Annie) at sea and in the air, I too pull no punches and write also of the tensions, racial and sexual, of human beings working under pressure with the fears and uncertainties found in warfare. I write of teamwork and camaraderie, of love of country and honor and accomplishment but also about political miscalculations and bad behavior, sometimes personal and sometimes institutional. I write of personal redemption while holding a mirror to our society (especially in Declared Hostile). The Navy (military) is a force for good in our world and I was privileged to serve with many great people but we were still people, flawed and prone to mistakes if we didn’t pay attention. I made plenty, and that I convey the human side of today’s military to fascinated readers who do not have a background helps them better understand the 1% who serve today. Would the Navy support the making of the movie TOP GUN the way it was made, today? I’m not sure. (I hear talk of TOP GUN II. Raven One would be the perfect vehicle. You be the judge.)

One can tell that Harper Lee and Margaret Mitchell loved the South, but were not so blinded they could not shed light on injustice where they saw it. Lee had more of an agenda, and Mitchell wrote of how things were amid the shocking and amusing schemes of selfish yet strong Scarlett. In their remarkable masterpieces, both gave voice to strong male and minority characters. Both knew we readers were smart enough to make our own conclusions, to be entertained, and to reflect. They faced backlash. Today’s novelists, in our overheated times, must not be afraid either. You readers are smart enough.

And if you have an 8th grader, buy him or her a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. Getting them to put down the video game to read it?…can’t help you there!

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