Wednesday, October 2, 2013

What They Leave Behind

I remember being about eight-years-old when my mother said, “Death comes in threes.” The passing of the third-of-three well known people prompted her to say that. I can’t remember who, but Humphrey Bogart comes to mind. She was just talking out loud, but being a kid, I picked up on it and asked her what she meant. She explained to me that they say Death came in threes; ‘they’ being, I found out later, the folks at Old Wives' Tales. She said that if someone dies that you know; whether you know of them, or know them personally, it always seemed that two more followed after the first one passed. 

It is, of course, an old wives' tale.

So why is it, that it turns out to be true more often than not?

In June of this year, we lost Vince Flynn. Mr. Flynn is probably the single most influential person in my life as far as putting pen to paper. That is an analogy, of course, but Flynn’s tenacity and perseverance, and his rise from obscurity to the heights of the New York Times Best Seller list led me to believe that I could actually succeed as a writer. He inspired me to try.
In August we lost Elmore Leonard, a giant in crime fiction, and the uncontested king of dialogue. Referred to asA Novelist Who Made Crime an Art, and His Bad Guys ‘Fun’,” his “Ten Rules for GoodWriting” is a guide for any novice to emulate, and a bible for the rest of us. I confess I’ve never read Leonard, but I have found myself addicted to his screenplays—Get Shorty, 3:10 to Yuma, and Justified … a show I never missed. 
Then today I heard the sad news of the passing of Tom Clancy. Mr. Clancy holds a special place in my heart for a couple reasons.  
I never used to be much of a reader. I’d pick up a book here and there, but there was no consistency, no passion. In 1986, when my son was in his early, learning-to-read years, I wasn’t much of a role model. It was TV all the time, and my son was gravitating in that direction. It was my fault according to his mother—my wife—as she later informed me.

One day we were in a shopping mall and we passed a bookstore. I don’t remember which one. My wife turned, stopped me with a hand to my chest, and said, “Why don’t you set a good example for your son? Buy a book … and read it.”
It was less of a suggestion and more of an admonishment. Guilt is such a powerful motivator. I turned to the nearest in-store display that I could reach without moving and picked the thickest paperback I saw. The title was Red Storm Rising—by Tom Clancy. I took it home and started reading it that night.

I was hooked by the second page.

I don’t read much faster than I talk, about 200 words per minute, so you’ll understand that in the following weeks, I cursed Mr. Clancy because he kept me up to 4am reading his damn book. It got so bad that the wife complained that I wasn’t doing anything around the house. Sometimes, there just ain’t no pleasin’ ‘em. 
Clancy wrote about the things I was doing, the things I lived. During The Cold War I flew Navy in a P-2V Neptune and a P-3 Orion—airborne anti-submarine platforms. The P-3 was State-of the-Art at the time. He wrote about them, submarines, the military, and I freaking loved it! I bought and read every book he ever wrote—hard cover—up through Executive Order. When he shifted away from novels for a short time, I lost track of him. I wasn’t particularly interested in video games.
I guess, in summary, my mother was right, old wives' tales an’ all. Within the span of several months, we have lost three of the greatest writers of our time. Their unique styles and stories may be copied, maybe even partially plagiarized, but their accomplishments will never be duplicated. Flynn worked a commercial real estate company and gave up his job to become required reading in the CIA anit-terrorist divisions. Clancy was an insurance agent and became one of this century’s foremost experts on the Cold War and military tactics.
I cut and pasted the following from The New York Times, so I hope they don’t sue me, but I found this intriguing.
In a 1986 interview, Mr. Clancy said, “When I met Navy Secretary John Lehman last year, the first thing he asked me about the book was, ‘Who the hell cleared it?’ ”
No one did, Mr. Clancy insisted; all of his knowledge came from technical manuals, interviews with submarine experts and books on military matters, he said. While he spent time on military bases, visited the Pentagon and dined with military leaders, he said, he did not want to know any classified information.
“I hang my hat on getting as many things right as I can,” Mr. Clancy once said in an interview. “I’ve made up stuff that’s turned out to be real — that’s the spooky part.”
The “spooky” part for me is that the things fiction writers write, oft become reality. Guys like Flynn and Leonard and Clancy have left behind a legacy for the rest of us to learn from, to emulate, and to aspire to. That may not be grammatically correct, but is it really that important?
Elmore would probably say no...
... because it’s how people talk.
God rest you, Tom Clancy, and thank you.

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