Jack D. Hunter's Blog

2 October 2007

Painting ancient aviation history often leads me into some bizarre corners — some easily confirmed or documented, but many more remaining apocryphal — that give different slants on long-ago events and the people involved in them. And that's a source of much of the fun I get with this little cottage industry of mine.

For instance, one of my patrons is a keen fan of the late, great German ace and "father of aerial combat tactics," Oswald Boelcke. He asked me to do a painting that depicts "something new and different" about Boelcke, meaning something other that that huge cliché, the ace's fatal collision with one of his mates during a dogfight with a gaggle of British planes.

I began digging, and soon discovered that, while Boelcke was a consummate flier and leader of men, he was personally a small, boyish-looking blond-and-blue-eyed prankster who had a great fondness for the ladies. And all the ladies doted on him because he was the Teutonic version of "a cute little dude." In the air and on the parade ground, he was a serious soldier, but on his own time with trusted friends, he was said to be a barrel of laughs. And, lo and behold, one of his most notorious exploits — one that's alleged to have earned him a severe reprimand from the High Command — was the day in 1916 when he took his current girl friend, a nurse at a military hospital, for a sightseeing ride in his single-seater Fokker D-III fighter plane.

Now that must have been a sight to behold. The cockpit of that particular airplane (serial number: Fok DIII 352/16) was small enough to suggest that the pilot didn't climb in and drive the plane like a vehicle, he pulled it on, like donning a motorized snow suit with wings.

So then: if there was hardly room for Boelcke, where in the world did he put his sweetie? On his lap, of course, a position that would accommodate her torso and allow him to see ahead over her shoulder. But nurses of those days had legs, just like those of today. Where did Fraeulein von Pumpernickel's legs go in that tiny cubicle which, even under the best of conditions, allowed the pilot barely enough room to move the rudder pedals and stick and to adjust the engine control mechanisms? I leave you to decide for yourselves. (And please, no wisecracks about Boelcke's founding of the Mile-High Club!)

My solution, given the need to show the plane flying low over the hospital while Fraeulein von Pumpernickel waved to her assembled colleagues below, was to place her sort of sidesaddle on Boelcke's lap, inferring that she had her legs tucked at an angle, permitted by the fuselage side and out of the way enough to allow Boelcke his basic control of the ship. And, believe me, I don't want even to think about all that high-altitude hasslin' and wrasslin' without benefit of solidly affixed safety belts. The Fraeulein was lucky I gave her a helmet to keep her 1916 hairdo from flapping in Boelcke's face and a pair of goggles that allowed her to keep her 1916 eyes open in all that 1916 wind. But shoulder and lap belts? Fa-gedda-bow-dit.

Still, the painting turned out pretty good.

* * * *

Hardly a week goes by without someone confiding, "I've always wanted to write a novel, but I can't seem to find the time."

I usually joke back with an amended aphorism, "Be careful of what you want — you might just get it."

Every novelist I know tells it differently, but each eventually delivers a variation on the theme: Giving yourself to such work carries a price and you must be prepared to pay it. If you're not, take up sky diving, because the risks to your health are fewer and the exaltation is far greater.

So how did I get to be a novelist?

I've been asked a thousand times, and it's a question with a thousand answers, almost all of them ambiguous, contradictory, imprecise, mystical. Considered on Monday, I see it pragmatically as little more than a moonlighting gamble undertaken years ago in the hope of making additional cash. On Tuesday, I perceive it to be my lifelong attempt to elevate a boyhood interest into Something Important. By Wednesday, Divine Intervention comes to mind, the creepy feeling that a higher metaphysical power commandeered my soul and led it to the typewriter, where I was to Be Profound. (Portentous music here.) On Thursday I'm back to Monday.

Whatever the motivation and whatever the rewards — and there have been many of them, to be sure — there has been a peculiar, variegated, seemingly endless price to pay.

The first cost was the loss of a lifestyle. At the time I undertook my first novel, I was a corporate suit, a parish priest in the Church of the Holy Profit. Having conformed to the company catechism for so many years, I had unwittingly become the kind of person I really didn't want to be: a play actor, pretending to be an amiably ruthless conniver in Brooks Brothers gray, giving 24 hours a day to helping the company make more money and clout in the expectation that the company would grant me more money and clout in return. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, except that it wasn't the real me. And I found that if I was to write that novel that had been bugging me for years, I'd have to forgo the company-town country-club whirl and reserve nights and weekends for myself. With that simple decision, I was transformed from an incipient Babbitt to a closet nerd.

Which led to the next part of the price — the concomitant isolation, the self-imposed solitude that ran contrary to the gregarious life I'd been leading. I found myself entirely on my own. Nobody could help me do the work. No one could spell me off. Worse, there was nobody to talk to, nobody to me give me advice and encouragement, because I feared failure so much I wanted nobody — even my wife — to know what I was trying to do. I couldn't stand the thought of rolling eyes and smirks when the word was out: "He says he's writing a novel."

Then, when at last the work was published and did indeed prove to be successful, came the real isolation — the discovery that the lunch-bunch kept meeting, but somehow I was no longer included. There was an iciness in departmental meetings, stilted good-mornings in the corridors, cynical condescension from my bosses, the sullen unwillingness of my peers even to mention the novel and the avalanche of publicity it was receiving. I recognized finally that I'd done a baddie; I'd moonlighted, as so many of them were doing (including the bosses), and, unforgivably, I'd made a bundle from it.

Family and my few real friends exulted in my apotheosis, and it was great to find I'd been spared the need to continue hiding my fear of failure from them. But even in those quarters I noted a difference — the sense that they were now looking at me in a new and indefinable way. I'd become an aberration in the rhythm of their lives, and it seemed to make them a tad uneasy. Which, of course, made me more than a tad unhappy.

What had I done? Where had everybody gone?

And then there was the long-term price: the labeling, the political typecasting gradually laid on me over the Culture-War years by the publishing elite and their media sycophants. Subsequent to Nam I had metamorphosed from an Edgar winner who, according to The New York Times, "writes with impressive authority [and has] the God-given skill of making you avidly turn the page," to a right-wing drum-beater for cornball American values and happy endings whose final novel received not even a mention in the mainstream media.

Believe me, this is by no means to be construed as a whine. I've been truly lucky and have had a great ride. I've had published all the entertainment novels that were in me, I guess, and the consequent gratification leaves nothing to whine about. It is, rather, a blunt heads-up to aspiring novelists: more than ever before in American history your work will be continuously vulnerable to political correctness and the propensity for chic calumny among whatever elite currently prevails.

For any chance at success, you must want to be a writer more than anything else. You must close your mind to the vulnerability laid on you by forces beyond your control and write your heart out.

Another aphorism claims that a good story, well told, will eventually find its way into the public eye. That may be so, but you must recognize and accept that, beyond the grinding, lonely labor and coolie wages that put it there, other prices will have to be paid.

Copyright © 2007 by Jack D. Hunter.  All rights reserved.  No part of this document may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.