Hi. Allow me to introduce myself. I’ve been an American airman, a technical writer and instructor, a science advocate, and for the past four decades a TV and motion picture technologist working in New York and Hollywood. Recently retired, I’ve decided to reinvent myself yet again, this time as a novelist. Being the older brother of best-selling author/journalist Linda Stasi, I’m hoping there’s a genetic propensity for putting words on paper in a manner that might engage and entertain others.
A native New Yorker from a four-generation Colorado family, these days I live in L.A. with the woman who’s beautiful face, wise counsel, and kind heart have enchanted me from the moment our paths first crossed, my wife of 50 years, Gloria. To my further delight, our two adult children live nearby, albeit in the cool (interpret as you wish) part of town.
But, it was my novelist sister who persuaded me to try my own hand at crafting a novel. Writing long-form fiction, my dear sister said, would be a good way to preempt the brain-turning-to-molasses tendency that is said to follow the, uh, leisurely retirement upon which I’d just embarked and to which I’d been looking forward since kindergarten.
Thus forewarned, and finding myself adept at neither surfing, mountain biking, beach dancing, or marathon running as the drug commercials on daytime TV would have me believe are popular pastimes among white-haired (always white haired) retirees, writing seemed, if nothing else, a survivable alternative. I was certainly no stranger to the craft, having published a couple of engineering texts, about 30 peer-reviewed technical papers on communications, and numerous articles on public policy.
But writing a novel? That seemed a quite different endeavor and well outside my comfort zone.
But was it?
There’s always been a family gift for what my friends of Irish blood politely call malarkey. But to actually write down stuff I’d simply made up. Who could possibly care?
Try as I might, I could come up with but a single and unavoidable way to answer that question: do it!
I had only my life from which I might hope to draw insight if not inspiration. But, it was an interesting life and I dare say a fortunate one.
Looking back, I recall a typically restless youth, free of aspirations or direction.
I knew only that I was tired of school. So I took a respite from college after a single semester; an unwise choice on its face, especially so for the timing. It was the Sixties. Being young, unmarried, in good health and out of school meant facing the military draft and a mandatory two year stint in Uncle Sam’s Army. However, being the proud and adoring son of a WWII combat airman, I preempted that eventuality and opted instead for the Air Force and a four year hitch. Now, while that turned out to be a wise decision, to paraphrase Joseph Heller, there was a catch. USAF was not the best place for a guy who’d joined because he was tired of school. In fact, I would spend the better part of the next twenty months being schooled, twelve of those months in a windowless classroom, and six more in supervised study preparing for a battery of tests before they’d let me do the job for which all that training had ostensibly prepared me. But I can say with confidence that every minute of that training grind was worth it when I reported to my first duty station and the actual rubber hit the metaphorical road (or runway). Because at the tender age of twenty, I was a Ground Controlled Approach (GCA) technician. That meant I got to operate the most advanced version of the life-saving precision radar that some two decades earlier had made the Berlin Airlift possible. The AN/MPN-13 was the latest in a long line of “talk-down” systems made famous in the Montgomery Clift movie THE BIG LIFT, and later immortalized by the great Sir Arthur C. Clarke in his 1963 historical novel, GLIDESLOPE.
GCA was a system through which we fortunate few could verbally guide pilots down from altitude in any weather and with ever increasing accuracy right to the runway’s edge and do so regardless of the condition of their primary and far less versatile, sometimes damaged navigation systems. The responsibility was both awe-inspiring and sobering for a young guy. But it gave me direction, and I got to work with brilliant colleagues and equally brilliant pilots, some of the best in the world, one-on-one every day. (In fact, after we guided their airplane in on a particularly fog-shrouded night, I got to meet The Beatles! But that’s another story, and a funnier one.).
Like I said, fortunate.
My first civilian job after USAF was at Grumman Aerospace, and my training had again prepared me well. With the war in Vietnam heating up, so too was reconnaissance aircraft production and testing. I was rushed into flight crew status and assigned to the Flight Avionics department.
Every morning on my way to the hangar, though, I’d walk through Plant #2 and past a long row of the spindly-legged lunar modules where they stood in various stages of completion and where later I would get to work on a miniscule aspect of the communications systems of Project Apollo. Suffice to say, walking by those LEMs every day, I will never doubt that we went to the moon…six times!
Finally, with Grumman having funded my engineering studies, and with a family of my own now, I took a staid position instructing in the engineering school at the state university’s local campus. But I was quite young, and soon found that I was not yet ready to put aside the doing of things I was helping prepare others to do. So, after four teaching semesters, fortune smiled upon me once again. I answered a tiny want ad in the New York Times. It seemed that some new cable TV outfit was looking for an engineer. The little upstart went by the funny name Home Box Office. I knew nothing about television technology, but it was the seventies, and the country was in a recession. That meant unemployment in the technical disciplines was solidly into the double digits. Now, had I known that I’d be one of over 200 probably better qualified applicants for the HBO job, I’d surely have slinked (slunk? I don’t know) away unseen. But, in a perfect amalgam of luck and irony, it was my scant teaching experience that carried the day. I got the job! And a terrific job it was. Over the next few years I would find myself helping to build that wonderful company’s national satellite network, a network that would become the world’s first and largest of its kind, a bellwether for the media revolution to follow. The work entailed traveling (whenever possible in my own Piper Comanche airplane) to and through every state in the US designing, building, testing, and teaching all about this new technology. In doing so, I’d meet and work with Americans of every stripe as they plied their craft and lived their day-to-day lives. What an extraordinary learning experience those years were—and still are, perhaps more today than ever.
Then with a new decade came a new adventure. Growing weary of the constant travel, and in what was to be a departure from anything that went before, I walked out of the Time-Life Building, strolled across 6th Avenue and into the Warner Brothers Building where I was being recruited for the Director of Engineering job at a new TV network the entertainment giant was developing. After a day of grueling interviews, I’d finally worked my way up to meeting the new company’s president. My mind made up and my patience worn thin, I wasted no time in telling him I thought their idea was “…the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.” Though I hesitate to recommend this approach to any job seeker of sound mind, the exec made me an offer I couldn’t refuse; a year later, on August 1st, 1981 and after working nearly fifty straight hours with little sleep, I (while drinking celebratory champagne straight from the bottle) got to use my free hand to flip the switch that launched that decade’s phenomenon. MTV!
But soon the aviation bug bit again. I saw an opportunity, and I wrote a business plan. With generous funding and a couple of twin-engine airplanes, both fitted with our own purpose-designed equipment, I embarked upon a brief but exciting endeavor that involved an unlikely pairing of television technology and low level, old-school flying, the kind I liked best. Our little outfit soon won a national contract to perform high-tech aerial survey work. Work to be done always at night, and all over the US, its territories and protectorates. It was crazy-busy fun that contributed directly to aviation safety…and while it lasted, was a true adventure.
With time and maturity came other jobs, of course, bigger, more “grown up” jobs and an eventual network CTO/co-CEO title on my corner-office door. But the years flew by and the time would come to leave it all behind. I’d retire and just maybe take my kid sister’s advice and write that novel.
Once the decision was made, every experience, every success and failure, every character, every locale and circumstance that had somehow illuminated my fortunate life came to be grist for the writing mill. I need only put something into words. But where to start? What world was mine to invent?
Hell, I’d spent so many of my working years in the company of some of the world’s best story-tellers. Something must have rubbed off. And, though many were TV or movie industry professionals, my mind kept bringing me back to the denizens and experiences of a very different time. A brief time when it was by no means unusual to spent the occasional “dark and stormy night” sensibly waiting out the weather in a hangar or a pilot’s lounge at some small airstrip where one or two other of my kind had taken similar wee-hours refuge.
As has always been the nature of such otherwise boring layovers, my itinerant comrades could be counted on to spin a tale or two, most of which would stretch ones credulity but rarely failed to chill the spine or fire the imagination.
Little did I know that therein lay my story’s inspiration. With that realization, the circle was completed. The words started coming. A word became a sentence, a paragraph, a prologue, a chapter, another, and so on, until eventually I scrawled “The End.”
I had my novel. I hope you’ll enjoy reading THE STRAIT as much as I did writing it.