A single spark can ignite a war that consumes the world.
Three Tibetan rebels
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The View From the Deck Plate
Kids spend a lot of time talking about what they want to be when they grow up. Or, at least they used to. I suppose it’s possible that this particular topic of conversation has fallen out of vogue sometime in the past decade or two. So perhaps I should say that, when I was a fledgling human—back in the age before dinosaurs—this subject came up pretty often. I talked about it with other kids, and with grownups. For some reason, adults loved to ask the question… What do you want to be when you grow up?
I had an answer, of course. Or rather, I had a series of answers which changed over time, as my picture of the world grew and evolved. According to my mother, when I was about three years old, my life’s ambition was to become a big cuddly lion. Apparently my plan was to wander from house-to-house, playing with all the children I met along the way. I don’t actually remember harboring the ambition to be an itinerant feline playmate, but I must trust to Mom’s memory of those days, which is presumably better than mine.
I do remember my next major career aspiration, though. At age four, I wanted to be a dump truck. Not a dump truck driver, mind you. A truck. A red one, with a yellow tilt bed, and big black tires. I have no idea how I planned to accomplish the transformation from human child to heavy equipment, but I wasn’t going to let minor technical details get in the way of my bright future as a piece of earth-moving machinery.
Alas, that dream also faded. Over the next couple of years, my career path of-choice changed more often than the weather. I wanted to be an inventor, a racecar driver, a zookeeper, a pirate, a stage magician, an astronaut, and a secret agent. I’m not sure if my visions of espionage were inspired by Maxwell Smart’s shoe-phone, or by Secret Squirrel’s machinegun-cane and cannon-hat. (That hat was pretty damned cool!)
But I didn’t figure out what I really wanted to do with my life until after my father passed away, when I was seven. Dad was a great storyteller. He made up wonderful stories about a chocolate milk drinking bear named Oliver, and his best friend: a little boy named Charlie. (My father’s first name was Charles, and his middle name was Oliver. I was twelve or thirteen years old before it dawned on me that Dad had named both of his main characters after himself.)
Oliver the Bear and Charlie had many strange adventures together, nearly all of which ended in humorous catastrophes of one sort of another. I loved those stories, and when my father died, I saw it as my duty to keep Oliver the Bear alive.
About a year later—when I was entertaining my little brother, Eric, with an Oliver the Bear adventure—I suddenly realized that I couldn’t remember how the story was supposed to end. It was the greatest tragedy I could imagine. I was actually forgetting my father’s stories! I knew immediately what I had to do. I had to write those stories down. I had to get them on paper, so they would never be lost.
The next day, I talked Mom into buying me a spiral notebook. When I got it home, I ran straight to my room and reached for a pencil. About half-way into the first paragraph, it hit me… This was it! This was the thing I had been born for. Not racecars. Not spy craft. Not outer space. This was my future: writing stories for other people to read.
I can still remember the blue cardboard cover of the spiral notebook, and the feel of the Number 2 pencil in my hand—the eraser ferule dented by tooth marks from my tendency to gnaw on writing implements. The visions in my head were not images of glory or commercial success. I didn’t picture myself on the New York Times best seller list. I was eight years old; I don’t think I knew that the best seller list existed. I didn’t imagine book signings, or fame, or wealth. I wasn’t even sure that a person could get paid for this whole writing thing. None of that mattered to me. I just wanted to write. I knew that I had found my calling, and that I would continue to pursue it for the rest of my life.
More than four decades have passed since the evening of that quiet revelation. Along the way, I had a long and successful career in the military, and I’ve dabbled in several civilian professions. But my true calling has always been the written word.
Sometimes I wonder what my life would be like if I had never decided to write down the Oliver the Bear stories. Would I have eventually stumbled into writing anyway? Is there something in my internal nature which would have ultimately drawn me toward the desire to write, even without the impetus of my father’s stories?
I’m not sure. Perhaps my life would have gone in a completely different direction. Who can say? I still think I would have made a pretty good dump truck.
Dear Mr. Summerland,
You probably don’t remember me. I was in your sixth grade math class at Isle of Hope Elementary School in 1970. I was the mouthy kid sitting at the desk nearest to the door. Torn between my desires to be a social rebel and my natural inclination to be the class clown, I did my best to make myself a pain in the ass that year.
I rarely turned in my work assignments, and my version of class participation was geared toward chaos, rather than contribution. When you called on me, I usually responded with sarcasm, silence, or some bit of non sequitur humor. (Or at least, what passes for humor in a twelve year-old boy with attitude problems.)
Once, I insulted you so openly that you banished me to the Front Office for a week. When you allowed me to return to your class, I scaled back my assault by roughly fifteen-percent for a few days, and then the gloves came off again. I was back to my old disruptive self, striking snarky little blows against myriad injustices of the sixth grade.
As I said earlier, I doubt if you remember any of this. That year was memorable to me, because it was my first foray into social disobedience, my first attempt to explore the boundaries between order and disorder. The experience looms large in my mind, but I have no illusions that my petty transgressions made a lasting impression on your memory. I was just one of many pre-adolescent jerks who tried to make your job more difficult. You probably dealt with a hundred just like me over the span of your teaching career.
I won’t bore you with my motivations for acting like such a flaming butthead. Let’s just say that I thought I had justification at the time, and (hindsight being twenty-twenty) I have long since realized that my so-called “reasons” were nothing more than self-serving excuses.
I hope you’ll accept my heartfelt apologies. You were a good and dedicated teacher, and you never did anything to deserve my insults. I am sincerely sorry for the things I did and said in your classroom, but that’s not why I’m writing to you.
Instead, I wanted to tell you that I turned out okay. Mind you, I’m not a nuclear physicist or a neurosurgeon, and I think we can safely rule me out as a viable presidential candidate for the 2016 election, but I had a full and successful career in the military, followed by a solid career in industry. Somewhere in the middle of all that, I managed to write several award-winning novels, hook a few major movie options, and raise a couple of intelligent, polite, and generally civilized children. (Or at least, my meager contributions to their upbringing did not cause them to spiral into juvenile delinquency or addiction to reality television.)
Am I the most successful guy you’ll ever meet? Most definitely not. Am I the most successful student you ever taught? Almost certainly not. Even so, I’ve had a good and fruitful life, and it shows every sign of getting even better.
I mention some of my accomplishments, not to show how wonderful I am, but to make another point entirely. You succeeded with me. As unlikely as it may have seemed at the time, I learned from you. Nearly a half century later, I’m still using the mathematical concepts that you drummed into my head. You laid the groundwork that made it possible for me to study trigonometry and differential equations. In the 1980s, I designed a handheld torpedo gyro angle computer for the Navy, using principles of geometry that I gained under your tutelage.
You taught me, Mr. Summerland. While I was busy making your day miserable, I was also learning about math, and—more importantly—I was learning about how to handle adversity, and how to treat other people. In the face of my most raucous disruptions, you were calm, firm, and courteous. When I was showing the worst qualities of my character, you were demonstrating the best qualities of yours.
At the time, I probably seemed like a hopeless case. I wasn’t. I probably seemed to be oblivious to the lessons you were teaching. I wasn’t. It must have felt like you were wasting your time with me. You weren’t.
I am certain that I’m not the only one of your problem children who could write a letter like this. Over a long teaching career, must have encountered many of my spiritual brothers and sisters: disrespectful little hellions with overabundant mouths and no discernible indications of intelligence. The law of averages being what it is, some of your hopeless cases undoubtedly continued their descent toward chaos and failure. But I’m here to tell you that not all of us were as hopeless as we seemed. Some of us—maybe even most of us—managed to get our acts together.
I guess what I’m trying to say is this… You made a difference, Mr. Summerland, and not just to the students who paid attention and turned in their homework assignments. You made a difference to all of us, even the wastrels, and the class clowns, and the troublemakers. You taught us, and you molded us, and you imparted a bit of wisdom along the way.
You probably don’t remember me, but I remember you. And I am more grateful than I can say.
Jeff Edwards, San Diego, March 2013
#1 The most sophisticated computer in the universe can be reduced to babbling incoherence by a single illogical statement.
#2 There are more than 100 billion stars in this galaxy, but the odds of running into someone you know on an undiscovered alien planet are approximately one-in-four.
#3 A quick open-handed chop to the side of the neck will instantly render your enemy unconscious.
#4 By the twenty-third century, the technology to build surge suppressors, circuit breakers, and ground fault interrupters will be lost, causing electronic devices to burst into flames when an electrical overload occurs.
#5 On a starship with a crew of more than 400, only a handful of senior officers are competent to beam down to planets and handle problems.
#6 No matter how often you scan for life forms, a half-dozen humanoids dressed in ragged furs can ambush you from fifteen feet away.
#7 All extraterrestrial architects, regardless of their planets of origin, use the same trapezoidal shapes for door frames.
#8 The Prime Directive which forbids Starfleet from tampering with the evolution of alien societies can be disregarded if the captain doesn’t like they way the locals manage their internal affairs.
#9 Red shirts attract accidents, booby traps, carnivorous plants, and homicidal entities of all types. (Unless you happen to be an engineering officer with a Scottish accent, in which case you can wear a red shirt with impunity.)
#10 Warp drive, matter transportation, and photon torpedoes are child’s play, but seat belts are completely beyond the technological capability of any space faring species.
In 1893, Arthur Conan Doyle tried to kill Sherlock Holmes. I say tried, because his attempt at literary homicide (litericide?) was ultimately a failure. By all rights, it should have succeeded. As the writer, Doyle held the power to destroy that which he had created. Holmes, by contrast, was only a make-believe character. His very existence was subject to the whims and intentions of the man from whose imagination he had sprung. Doyle should have been able to kill off his fictional detective with a simple stroke of the pen, but things didn’t go according to plan.
It’s clear from Doyle’s journals and personal correspondence that the idea of offing Sherlock Holmes had been on his mind for at least a couple of years. In November 1891, he wrote to his mother: “I think of slaying Holmes… and winding him up for good and all. He takes my mind from better things.” His mother’s response was immediate and fervent: “You won’t! You can’t! You mustn’t!”
But Arthur Conan Doyle decided to go forward with the deed. He was tired of writing about Holmes, and he wanted to concentrate his energies on historical novels instead. During a vacation trip to Switzerland with his wife, Doyle visited Reichenbach Falls, a breathtaking natural waterfall in the Swiss Alps. Gazing at the 820 foot vertical drop, Doyle realized that he’d found the perfect spot for the death scene of Sherlock Holmes.
The resulting story, ‘The Final Problem,’ was published in the December 1893 edition of Strand Magazine. In it, Holmes battles his greatest opponent, Professor Moriarty. Detective and criminal mastermind struggle atop Reichenbach Falls, and eventually plunge to their mutual deaths. It was the perfect solution. Sherlock Holmes goes out in a blaze of glory; good triumphs over evil (or at least brings it to an end); and Doyle is finally free to move on to other projects.
If you don’t already know what happened next, you can probably guess the outcome. The fans did not share Doyle’s delight in the demise of Mr. Holmes, and they were not shy about voicing their displeasure. They wrote letters to newspapers and magazines, and (of course) to Arthur Conan Doyle himself, demanding the resurrection of their beloved Sherlock Holmes. Their response could be summed up in the three short sentences written by Doyle’s own mother. You won’t! You can’t! You mustn’t!
The letters kept coming. (And coming. And coming…) Three years. Five years. Seven years. And still the mail poured in.
Finally, Arthur Conan Doyle gave in to the unrelenting pressure of his readers. In August 1901, Strand Magazine published the first installment of ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles.’ Chronologically, the story was set before the fatal incident at Reichenbach Falls. The fans loved the new Holmes tale, but they weren’t going to fall for any of that tricky timeline shit. It wasn’t enough to crank out new Sherlock Holmes material. They insisted; their hero must be brought back from the grave.
In 1903, the year after he was knighted and became Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the famous author bowed again to the demands of his fans. He penned a story called ‘The Adventure of the Empty House,’ in which it’s revealed that only Moriarty died at Reichenbach Falls. Holmes, it transpires, faked his own death as a defense against his enemies.
When I first read Empty House in my early teens, it struck me as odd that the intrepid Sherlock Holmes would flee from rock-throwing opponents as he does in this story. It struck me as even stranger that Holmes—who had faced the maniacal genius Professor Moriarty without fear—would spend three years hiding from Colonel Sebastian Moran, one of Moriarty’s underlings. (Imagine Luke Skywalker strolling bravely into battle against Vader, and then going into hiding to escape random Storm Trooper #2973. Not exactly compelling character motivation, is it?)
Back then, I didn’t know about Arthur Conan Doyle’s growing distaste for his famous detective character. I had no idea that Doyle had been soured by his failed bid to rid himself of Holmes. I just knew that the story didn’t work for me. As I delved further into the body of Doyle’s work, I found several more stories which seemed to lack the luster and energy of his best writings. They felt like half-hearted efforts to me. Don’t get me wrong, Sir Arthur was the man. Even his B-game was pretty damned fine, and I don’t pretend to aspire to anything approaching his level of talent. But the Holmes stories after Reichenbach Falls were written under what amounts to literary duress, and I believe Doyle’s lack of enthusiasm is detectable.
I think I was in my late twenties when I learned that ‘The Final Problem’ had been intended as the true end of Sherlock Holmes. I was just beginning to get serious about my own writing right about then, and I suddenly understood what had gone wrong with the later Holmes stories. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had elevated the desires of his readers above his creative instincts. He had allowed himself to be buffaloed into writing the stories they wanted to read, instead of the stories he wanted to write. In my opinion, he had stopped having fun.
When the significance of that idea hit me, I made a promise to myself that I would always write the stories I want to write. So far, I’ve managed to keep that promise. On at least three occasions, my insistence on sticking to it has cost me major publishing deals. Twice because I refused to dumb-down the plot of a novel to reach a non-existent lowest common denominator among readers; and once because I refused to artificially insert a love story into a plot that didn’t need one. (Don’t get me started about that, ‘cause I’ve got a whole blog-load of ranting to do on the subject.)
The bottom line is this… I enjoy writing. No, I love writing. I intend to continue doing it as long as it continues to be fun. With any luck, this happy little ride will last me the rest of my life. But I understand that I may not be so fortunate. One of these days, I may find myself eyeball-to-eyeball with the dilemma that Arthur Conan Doyle faced in 1893. What do you do when the magic is gone?
If that sad day ever comes, I’ll cash in some of my retirement funds for a ticket to Meiringen, Switzerland. I’ll pack myself a nice lunch, and set out for a spot about two kilometers from the southern town limits. And when no one is looking in my direction, I will drop my word processor down Reichenbach Falls.
As some of you may recall, my last book launch occurred on May 21, 2011, the date identified by a nationwide Christian fundamentalist group as the official start of Judgment Day. At the time, I was excited about having The Seventh Angel hit the shelves, so I was a bit concerned when I discovered that we had accidentally scheduled the launch event to coincide with the end of the world.
Somehow, despite a coast-to-coast campaign of doomsday billboards and radio advertisements, the human race managed to muddle through the death-of-all things, and (of considerably more importance to me) the sales for my new book were not affected by the threat of global extinction.
Now, I’m gearing up to launch Sword of Shiva this weekend, and what have we got? Another Apocalypse on the calendar. I mean, come on… Really? Another freaking Apocalypse?
Yep. Because tomorrow, December 21, 2012 is the date that the famous Mayan calendar reaches its end. According to pyramid freaks, crystal gazers, and homegrown doomsday theorists, the earth will be torn apart by fantastic seismic stresses, which will shatter the continents, rip the oceans from their beds, and cause Justin Bieber to go through puberty. Or, a giant asteroid (which is apparently invisible to all earthbound radars and telescopes), will zip down out of the sky and pummel our lovely planet into fragments smaller than my last royalty check. Or the earth’s magnetic polarity will suddenly reverse itself, zeroing out our credit cards, flatlining every cell tower and iPhone, and generally causing the end of all civilization. (Or at least the end of 4G coverage.)
I don’t know which of those horrible things (if any) will occur this weekend. I’m not even sure what the Mayan prophesies supposedly say about the end of the world. All I know is this… I’m getting damned tired of all these damned Apocalypses trying to interfere with my book launches. I mean, is this going to happen every time I release a new novel?
Come on universe (and all you ancient oracles of doom). Give a man a break here. I’m just trying to write my books, and maybe sign the occasional autograph. Is that so much to ask?