WHEN I WAS WRITING
A Literary Memoir
Installment Six: Space Brats, Episode One
Orlando Jackson Purdom enlisted in the United States Navy in 1925-- about the time Robert Anson Heinlein entered Annapolis. He wasnít named Purdom at the time. His last name had been Winchenbach when he had been born in Maine in 1908. He had his name legally changed to Purdom when he turned twenty-one, with the permission of the foster parents who had taken him in.
When he was still a pre-schooler, his mother left her husband and traveled the entire length of the east coast, from Maine to Florida. She took her five youngest children with her but she couldnít support them on the wages she could bring home. She did what women in her position did in those days and put them in an orphanage. A family named Moore gave my father a foster home for three years and sent him back. When he was eleven, a couple named Anna and Thomas Ezekiel Purdom gave him his second foster home.
At the age of seventeen my father was a young man from a broken home, with an eighth grade education, and no job prospects. The Great Depression, he liked to point out, hit Florida before it ravaged the rest of the country. He was a prime example of a type of recruit the military establishments of the Western nation-states have been attracting ever since their governments first organized permanent military forces.
Military life has many disadvantages. Itís restrictive. The pay is low. It cuts you off from normal social contacts with women. And, of course, thereís always a chance some politician will start a war before you receive your first pension check. Military organizations compensate for the drawbacks by offering recruits like my father opportunities they wouldnít have in civilian life.
His first ship, the Marblehead, was a cruiser that took him to Nicaragua, where he participated in the landing force that defeated the first Sandanistas and put the Somoza dictatorship in power. From Central America, the ship traveled to China and the civil wars that were boiling in that part of the globe.
For most of the 1930ís, he served in the engine rooms of submarines. He had seen his first submarines when the Marblehead had returned to port in Connecticut and he had asked about them. When somebody told him submarines belonged to "the dungaree Navy" he had decided that was what he wanted.
On December 7, 1941, he was an enlisted man who had been assigned to recruiting duty in Tampa. In the normal course of things, he would probably have retired a few years later as a chief petty officer, or perhaps a warrant officer. Instead, he became part of the massive buildup triggered by Pearl Harbor. A short time after the Japanese attack, he became a chief. A month later he became a warrant officer. Sometime in 1942 or 43, he became an ensign-- the lowest rank of commissioned officer. By the end of the war, he was a full lieutenant-- the equivalent of a captain in the army. He had become a mustang-- the military term for an officer who has risen from the ranks.
Chief petty officers are the equivalents of senior sergeants in the army but they probably have a little more prestige and authority. In all the services, the general term for sergeants and petty officers is non-commissioned officer or NCO. Regular officers are called commissioned officers because they have a commission-- a general grant of authority-- from a governmental authority such as the Congress in the United States and the Crown in the United Kingdom. Warrant officer is a rank that falls between the NCOís and the commissioned officers. The warrant officer rank is usually held by specialists such as helicopter pilots who have command authority within their special area of expertise.
My father spent most of WWII on surface ships. His first assignment was a water tanker that carried water from Florida to the Guantanomo naval base in Cuba. His second ship was a new minesweeper called the Tide. As a warrant officer, he served as the Tideís engineering officer when the ship was put into commission. The job normally called for a commissioned officer but the Tideís captain interviewed the young lieutenant who was assigned to the post and decided he would rather have an experienced man like my father. My father was still in charge of the engine room when the Tide made its maiden voyage across the Atlantic, as an escort ship in a convoy that was carrying ammunition and fuel in support of the invasion of Sicily.
On June 6, 1944, the Tide was part of the minesweeper flotilla that led the invasion fleet out of the channel ports. It was assigned to Force U, the American force that assaulted Utah Beach. On June 7, it hit a mine and joined the small group of minesweepers that carry epitaphs like "mined off Normandy" or "mined off Okinawa" in the lists published in naval reference books.
My father wasnít on it at the time. He had been shifted to the Pacific after he became a commissioned officer. He was the engineering officer on a destroyer-escort called the Hilbert when it saw action during the Marianas Turkey Shoot. He had been posted to a minesweeper and a destroyer-escort, as far as I can tell, because both ships used diesel-electric engines-- the same combination of diesel and electric power he had worked with on submarines.
He ended the war at Pearl Harbor, overhauling submarines so they could be returned to combat. He had returned to submarine duty because Admiral Nimitz had sent a message to his Pacific fleet commanders requesting the names of every man who had submarine experience. The American submarine campaign in the Pacific had been a devastating success.
In the Atlantic, the German submarine campaign had been a catastrophe for Germany. In the Pacific, the American submarines had overwhelmed the Japanese. By the end of the war, surface transportation had become so dangerous the Japanese actually used their own submarines to carry cargo.
Lieutenant Purdom spent a year in San Diego, as part of the team that conducted the massive demobilization that followed the war. He retired at his permanent rank, chief petty officer, with twenty two years service. In October of 1950, three months after the North Korean invasion of South Korea, he was recalled to active duty as a chief. He spent the next three years in a series of training assignments that included a summer at Annapolis and two years at the Bainbridge Naval Training Station in Maryland. He retired for the second time in 1953 and remained in the Fleet Reserve until he completed a full thirty years of active and inactive duty. On the day of his final retirement, he was given the customary promotion to his highest rank and became Lt. O.J. Purdom (USN ret). He retained that status until he died over forty years later.
Like many people who grew up in military families, I didnít think there was anything special about my childhood. Some peopleís fathers were lawyers or bricklayers. Mine was in the navy.
We moved more than most families, of course. I spent my childhood traveling around a big triangle. The state where I was born, Connecticut, occupied one point and Tampa and San Diego occupied the others. When Pearl Harbor was bombed, we were living on a lake on the outskirts of Tampa. For most of WWII, my mother, my sister and I holed up with my motherís relatives in West Haven, Connecticut. My motherís parents were Italian immigrants who had arrived in Hartford in 1908, so my Connecticut years were a New England, Italian-American version of a 1940s boyhood. I went sledding in the winter, listened to the Lone Ranger and the Shadow on the radio, ate a big spaghetti dinner on Sunday afternoon, and watched my two female cousins cover their heads with scarves when they went to confession late Saturday night and mass early Sunday morning. After the war, we spent a year at the navy base in San Diego, put in another year in West Haven, and returned to another place on the outskirts of Tampa in 1948. In Florida, I swam in creeks and springs, knocked over tin cans with my Daisy Red Ryder Carbine air rifle, ate chickens and rabbits we had raised ourselves, and listened to accept-Jesus-and-be-saved sermons at the local Baptist church, which we visited on Sunday morning and Sunday evening, and sometimes on Wednesday evening, too. The last place I lived before I left home and started my premature attempt at college was the chief petty officerís housing at Bainbridge Naval Training Station, where we lived in the gray, gypsum-board buildings my mother dubbed "cardboard city" and I checked books out of the base library, flashed my ID card at a guard when I went through the base gates, and watched movies in a theater in which the audience was segregated by rank.
Moving is the first thing people think of when they hear you had a military childhood, As Mary Edwards Wertsch points out in her book Military Brats, "Where are you from?" is one of the ploys Americans use to start conversations with strangers. Most former military brats have trouble answering it and their difficulties tend to separate them from the civilian population. I started thinking about military childhoods, in fact, when somebody asked me where I was from and I mumbled-- inaccurately-- that I had grown up on navy bases.
"So thatís whatís wrong with you," she said.
She was only joking and I took it that way. But I looked around the room and realized none of the people around me had spent part of their childhood on military bases.
We were attending a social evening at the church Sara had chosen in West Philadelphia. It was sometime in the mid-seventies, as I remember it. I would have been approaching forty. The only person in the room who had ever worn a uniform, besides me, had spent four years as a naval officer primarily because he felt that was a better option than one year as an infantryman in Vietnam. We lived in the area around the University of Pennsylvania and most of the people we knew had advanced degrees. As I had learned after I finished my own draft time, the army rarely drafted anyone over twenty-six. If you could get a student deferment until you finished a doctorate, you could usually avoid military service.
The idea that there was something special about military childhoods stuck with me. I found myself looking at my personal attitudes from a different perspective.
The subject crystallized for me in 1980, when I saw The Great Santini-- the movie based on Pat Conroyís novel about a military family dominated by a Marine fighter pilot. Like thousands of other people that year, I saw a variation on my own childhood projected onto the screen.
Over the next few years, I made several attempts to write an essay about military childhoods for the Welcomat. It seemed like an obvious subject. But none of my efforts worked out. One day in 1991, after I had spent several days struggling with the subject, I told myself that I really wanted to write science fiction stories, not essays. Could I write a science fiction story about military childhoods? I opened up a file on my computer and started typing notes.
From the beginning, I knew I had to grapple with a basic conflict. My working definition of a science fiction story is a story in which the dramatic situation is created by some change that could take place in the future. In this story, however, I wanted to write about the kind of military childhood I had experienced in the 1940s and 50s. If I wanted to sell the story to a science fiction market, I would have to make sure the background contained plenty of science fiction elements.
I decided, first of all, that the story should be set off-Earth. I considered the kind of standard interstellar future used in most military science fiction series but that approach didnít appeal to me. In those kind of stories-- which are generally descended from C.S. Foresterís Horatio Hornblower sailing ship series-- the background includes ray guns and starships but the characters are basically contemporary humans who serve in a military organization that resembles contemporary armies and navies. Star Trek is, of course, the most familiar example. Most readers could have accepted that kind of background, with family conflicts that could have taken place in the middle of the twentieth century, forty years in the past, but I donít enjoy stories that are set hundreds of years in the future and ignore all the developments in biology and psychology that will probably shape the real future that awaits us.
I decided to set the story in an interplanetary future a couple of hundred years from now. After a little digging in my reference library, I opted for a heavily colonized solar system based on space ships powered by hydrogen fusion ion engines. Humans would live in lunar cities, asteroid cities, and cities that orbited Earth, Venus, and Mercury. My primary source for the general characteristics of the space ships and the interplanetary setting was a book about the future called A Step Further Out by Jerry Pournelle, another SF writer with a solid science background
Most of the residents of those cities, furthermore, would be Asians. I had used a solar system colonized mostly by Asians in one of my unsold novels. The countries that had initiated the colonization of the Western Hemisphere had been Spain and Portugal, I had reasoned, but they had eventually been superseded by Britain and France. Russia and the United States had pioneered space exploration but none of the characters in my story would have names that were identifiably Russian or American. They would mostly be Asians, with a smattering of Europeans.
I realized that I didnít know enough about Asian cultures to write about contemporary Chinese or Japanese characters, but I felt I could write about people who were descended from Asian ancestors. They would all be immigrants, after all. Americans may think of themselves as Italian-Americans or Polish-Americans, but we are really just Americans, with attitudes that have primarily been shaped by the country we were born in.
My characters would all be living in a highly technological society, in addition. Engineers and scientists are engineers and scientists. In this case they would also be military people who had been molded by military society.
I added another differentiator when I decided my military force would be an international peace-enforcing organization, rather than a national force. But that presented me with another problem. What should I call the international government that controlled it? Should I assume the United Nations had been replaced by a new, more powerful world government, in the same way the UN had replaced the League of Nations after World War II? Or should I assume the UN had evolved into a true world government, with its own military forces and other powers?
Many science fiction writers have opted for the first choice. If you type World Federation or ReUnited Nations (as in the stories Mack Reynolds wrote in the sixties), your readers know youíre talking about a stronger organization than the current UN.
I decided my world government would be called the United Nations. I indicated it was an improved version of the current organization mostly by referring to it as "the Secretariat" in a number of places. The fact that it had its own military force would tell readers something, too.
Gender bending was another obvious way to put some distance between my imaginary future and the real past. In the world I had lived in as a child, the father was always the military person in the family. "Domestic violence" was usually called "wife beating". In my story, the parents of the troubled child would both be sergeants and they would both have some training in unarmed combat. When one of the spouses showed up at the infirmary with a broken collarbone, claiming the injury had been caused by a fall off a ladder, the injured party could be the husband just as often as the wife.
The history of the viewpoint character, a military family therapist named Dorothy Min, included another bit of gender tweaking. Dorothy has been raised by a single parent after the other parent ran off when she was still an infant. But in her case, her mother abandoned the family and her father accepted responsibility for the child.
The child at the center of the story is a seven year old boy named Deni Wei-Kolin. As I developed his family situation, I focused on two themes: the stresses created by a family environment that changes every couple of years and the psychological turmoil triggered by the death of a parent.
Robert Duval played the military father in The Great Santini. In an interview, he once said that he had no trouble understanding the situation in the movie, since he is the son of a career naval officer who made admiral. When his father was away, Duval said, he lived with a mother who was too easy on him. When his father was home, he had to live with a father who was too hard on him.
The interviewer thought that sounded too pat but it is precisely the situation many naval sons have to struggle with. I had lived with a variation of it myself. When my father was away-- and he was gone for almost four years, with one or two minor interruptions, during WWII-- I enjoyed an autonomous existence. My mother and my aunt treated me the way most women probably treat boys. They didnít care what I did as long as I stayed out of trouble. I could read, build model airplanes, play marbles, and shoot ants with my water pistol, without any sense anyone was trying to control my activities.
When my father was home, on the other hand, I had to cope with a presence that had been shaped by an authoritarian culture. My father, in addition, had never had a father and probably had no idea how to be one.
In the story, I generalized the conflict between autonomous and authoritarian environments into the more general concept of a changing environment. It seemed to me the change was just as important as the nature of the two environments. Most boys can probably learn to live with an authoritarian father. In my case, I think I handled the autonomous half of my childhood reasonably well. I became a bookworm, but I think thatís more desirable than a childhood devoted to violence and vandalism, even though I realize there are people who disagree. When my father came home, however, the kid who was used to controlling his own life had to face someone who had other ideas.
In the story, we are told that Deni Wei-Kolin has lived with three environments in his seven years. When his mother is away, he lives with "an easy-going, enjoy-it-while-you-can father whose basic indolence was punctuated by periods in which Assault Sergeant Kolin became obsessed by the belief his son needed Ďdisciplineí." When his father is away, his days are dominated by a "goal-oriented mother who believed every moment of a child's life should be as productive as she could make it." When they are both home, Deni "frequently found himself pressing against a wall, knees doubled against his chest, while they engaged in Ďdomestic disputesí that sometimes ended in bruised faces and even broken bones."
The possible death of a parent is one of the special realities of military family life. Pat Conroy touches on the psychological complexities at the end of The Great Santini when the son tells his mother he has often prayed for his fatherís death and heís now afraid one of those prayers has actually worked. In my story, that guilt reaction becomes the central concern of the plot. Deniís mother is killed at the beginning of the story. And Deni hates both his parents.
In spite of all the science fictional details I had come up with, I still didnít have a true science fiction story. I merely had a disguised version of the 1940s and 50s.
As I may have said before, the critical moment in plotting stories is, for me, the moment when I find myself thinking "What a great story this will make." Sometimes that rush of excitement hits me when I first get the idea. Sometimes it comes later, after Iíve been exploring the original idea for awhile.
In this case, I stumbled into that all-important moment when I asked myself how Dorothy Min would treat Deniís family. Would she just sit and talk with them? Wouldnít psychotherapists have more to offer by the time weíre actually colonizing the solar system?
Around the time I was in the army, I had decided medicine and psychology were the two areas in which we could expect changes that would have the biggest impact on our lives. Most of my science reading had been focused on those two disciplines. For a year and a half, in the late 60s, I had even worked as a part time science writer at the University of Pennsylvania, specializing in research projects in medicine, the life sciences, and psychology. I had sold several stories that depicted possible future approaches to psychotherapy, including a novel, The Barons of Behavior, in which advanced psychological techniques are applied to politics.
In my psychology stories, I had made heavy use of two concepts-- personality models and techniques for manipulating and modifying personalities. I decided to include both in this story. Dorothy would obviously try to improve the parenting Deni was getting and she would use advanced techniques to do it. She would start by developing accurate personality models that would help her determine the reactions of Deniís parents. Then, with the models as a guide, she would attempt to change their attitudes through counseling, "talk therapy", and a series of exercises and simulations.
But nothing she could do would convert these two people into the kind of parents their son needed. Her ultimate goal would be a psychological treatment that would protect Deni from the worst effects of his family situation. She would steer his parents toward the moment when they would understand their son needed the treatment and give her permission to apply it.
But no treatment like that would exist by itself. Dorothy obviously lived in a world in which humans possessed a powerful personality modification technology. A technology like that clearly had to be regulated. There had to be laws forbidding involuntary personality modification. If I alter your personality against your will, I am committing an act of violence. Most of us would feel it was an assault that was just as bad as murder or rape.
Once I started thinking along those lines, other ideas came pouring in. Under the law, Dorothy canít impose a personality modification on a child without his parentsí consent. But suppose his mother dies in combat? Dorothy knows Deni hates his parents and she knows two things will happen when he hears his mother is dead. First, he will feel a great rush of pleasure and relief. Then he will experience a massive guilt reaction which will lead to the immediate repression of his emotions and "the creation of a cluster of unconscious guilt feelings that will distort his entire personality."
Dorothy can prevent the worst effects of this catastrophe by treating Deni before he learns his mother is dead. But she canít do that legally without his fatherís permission. She also knows she can administer the treatment in private, without anyone knowing about it. She is faced with a legal and ethical dilemma. Shall she treat the child or obey the law?
And with that I knew I had finally coaxed a high energy science fiction situation out of the ideas I had been piling up. I could have started with the personality modification technology, come up with the dramatic situation, and realized I could place the story in a military setting and satisfy my urge to write a story about military childhoods. Instead, I started with the desire to write about military childhoods and nagged at my material until I had a science fiction idea that excited me.
Dorothyís dilemma has some obvious analogies with contemporary situations. There have been well publicized cases in which parents opposed a vaccination or a blood transfusion on religious grounds. Good story ideas usually face your characters with specific examples of general issues. Universality is one of the qualities you're looking for. In the contemporary cases I was familiar with, however, the law gave a government agency the power to impose a procedure. In Dorothyís story, the law restrains her.
One of my closest friends at the Gilded Cage coffee house was a black computer programmer who had grown up in the black neighborhood just south of center city. One evening, he entertained a bunch of us with stories about his encounters with segregation and bigotry. Every story he told evoked a burst of laughter. When he told us how he and some other students were shot at as they walked along a dark road near Lincoln University, we were all amused by his description of the way he leaped into a ditch. When he described his first visit to Wilmington, Delaware, we laughed at the embarassment of the storekeeper who had to tell his ignorant customer people like him were supposed to drink their cokes outside the store.
Many people who belong to minority groups internalize the message they receive from the majority. Years later, it occurred to me that my friend and I had something important in common. We had both survived childhoods in which the people around us kept telling us there was something wrong with us. We had both responded by deciding there wasnít anything wrong with us and there must therefore be something wrong with them.
I decided this would be the essence of the treatment Dorothy is trying to apply to Deni Wei-Kolin. In the story, itís called an ego strengthening emotional modification. Deni will be inoculated, in effect, against the self-destructive effects of his guilt reaction
At the time I wrote this story, self-esteem had become a buzzword. Almost any undesirable behavior, it seemed, could be explained by the perpetratorís lack of self-esteem. I deliberately avoided using the term throughout the story. I didnít want anyone to think I was merely exploiting a contemporary psychological fad. I had arrived at my ideas about the appropriate treatment for Deniís situation by a more personal route.
When my father was stationed at Bainbridge during the Korean War, I attended a small Maryland high school along with the other Bainbridge teenagers. One day our history teacher started talking about culture. Our cultures, he said, implant attitudes weíre hardly aware of. We all take it for granted, for example, that every movie theater will have two restrooms. Most of us would feel very uncomfortable if we went to a theater in a foreign country and it only had one restroom.
A friend of mine waved his hand. "The movie I go to has three restrooms."
The teacher frowned. "Three?"
"Men, women, and officers."
Civilians may think of moving when you they think about military childhoods, but I'm more interested in the impact of the military culture.
To me, the term culture denotes a set of customs, traditions, and attitudes. The adults who dominate our childhood tell us that weíre supposed to dress in a certain way or value certain things, and we accept it because itís the way everybody we know thinks and we donít have any alternatives our unstocked minds can offer in opposition. Most of us engage in some questioning when we reach adolescence, but we normally question trivial matters like clothing and hair styles or cosmic matters like religion and morality. We donít notice most of the stuff that lies in between until we come in contact with another cultural milieu.
The members of a true birth-culture share a common experience: they all grew up in that culture. I can read about Japanese or Samoan culture but I canít really acquire it because I didnít have that experience.
Vocational cultures generally include a common experience, too. Lawyers go to law school. Doctors go to medical school. Physicists and English professors have to make it through graduate school. All these educational experiences have some effect on the personalities of the students. They are "socialized to the profession," as some writers like to put it.
The military culture has an arsenal of special experiences-- West Point, Annapolis, basic training, boot camp, Officer Candidate School, ranger school, jump school, NCO school, the Command and General Staff School at Leavenworth, and the ultimate final exam, armed combat itself. Most of the educational experiences are consciously designed to mold the personality of the trainee and weed out people who canít fit into the culture.
The entire culture, moreover, is shaped by the hard, brutal fact that human beings still settle some of their differences by fighting each other to the death. All the special elements of the military culture are designed to prepare people for the moment when the members of one branch of the culture will confront the members of another branch and they will attempt to kill each other.
The children of military parents receive this culture indirectly. They donít attend West Point. No one drives them through basic training. But they are exposed to it as children, when they are most receptive to culturization.
If you grow up in a naval family, as I did, the transmission of the military culture is something of a mystery. Navies operate out on the oceans, a long way from the sailorsí families, and naval parents spend a lot of time away from home. "The relationship between a sailor and his children tends to be a metaphysical one," Senator John McCain says in his autobiography, and he suggests that naval children receive their values and ideals through the mother.
My own experience supports that conclusion. It was my mother, for example, who read us an essay called The Flagmakers in which the flag speaks to a civil servant and tells him that we all make the flag, every day, as we go about our lives. She read it to us twice, in fact.
In many ways, my mother could be more navy than my father. When the Challenger space shuttle exploded in 1985, I discussed it with my mother while we were talking on the phone one evening.
"They wouldnít have made half as big a fuss about it," my mother said, "if they hadnít had a civilian on board."
I never heard her say it, but I think she was very proud of the fact that an Italian immigrantís daughter had become the wife of an officer in the great military force that liberated the world in the 1940s.
When I was five years old, around the time Pearl Harbor was attacked, we lived on a small lake on the outskirts of Tampa. One evening, when I was playing in the shallow water behind our house, my father advised me it was time I learned to swim. I was going to learn by the sink or swim method, he said. He was going to carry me out to where the water was over my head and drop me in.
Itís been over sixty years since I experienced those few terrifying steps but I can still remember how I felt. I screamed and cried all the way out but my father wouldnít relent. I donít know what happened when he dropped me into the deep water. I do know I never learned to swim. I became an underwater swimmer instead. When I was in my early teens, I could dive to the bottom of springs and swimming holes and stay there for two or three minutes. I could probably swim several hundred yards by swimming underwater and popping up to the surface every now and then for air.
When I thought about that incident as an adult, I always assumed sink-or-swim was some backwoods idea my father picked up during his childhood in Florida. It sounded like a rural, Florida-cracker theory, to my mind. Then, a few years before she died, my mother mentioned that my father had failed swimming when he had gone through Navy boot camp. When he reported to his first ship an officer asked the new men if they could swim. When my father admitted he couldnít, they threw him overboard and told him to swim around the ship
Christmas of 1944 brought me a more constructive encounter with the military culture. I was playing with my presents when I heard my mother talking to one of my aunts. Somebody had asked my mother what her husband was doing and she had explained that he was overhauling submarines at Pearl Harbor. The person she was talking to had said something about my father being safe and my mother had become very indignant. The officer who overhauled the submarine, she had explained, was also the officer who took it down on its test dives.
I was only eight at the time but I knew, instantly, that that was the way the world was supposed to work.
In the 1970ís, my son and I bicycled all over Philadelphia together. Most of the time I rode behind him. If any motorists barged into us from behind, I reasoned, they would have to get me first. When we came to intersections, however, I moved up beside him, checked things out, and rode through the intersection with him. I didnít tell him the intersection was safe and let him go through by himself. Thatís not the way you do it.
The encounter with the military culture that had the most direct influence on this story was an argument I had with my father during the Korean War. Generally speaking, itís a mistake to argue with military fathers who make you think of The Great Santini. Their experience and training have conditioned them to squash all challenges to their authority as soon as they detect the first hint of a challenge. You never know when youíre going to cross that line and trigger an unpleasant response.
In this case, we actually managed to shout at each other without straying into the danger zone. President Truman had just fired General MacArthur and I was convinced Truman had done the right thing. I believed the administrationís concept of limited war made sense under the circumstances and MacArthurís push to widen the war would be a disastrous mistake.
My father believed MacArthur was an authority on all things Asian. He was the expert, my father insisted, and Truman should acknowledge his superior wisdom and adapt his strategic ideas. Nothing could budge my father from that position.
Then, after we had stopped arguing, my father said, "But of course Truman had to fire him."
My father only had an eighth grade education but he understood the basic issue in the Truman-MacArthur fracas. Civilian control of the military is one of the foundations of our political system. MacArthur had the right-- the duty, actually-- to express his views in private conversations with the civilian authorities. But he had threatened the principle of civilian control when he had argued with his superiors in public.
At the end of my story, Dorothy Min defends her decision by referring to the training she received in "baby officerís school."
"A soldier," Dorothy says, "is someone who engages in legally authorized acts of violence. If you take away the law, then there's no difference between us and a bunch of thugs."
Many readers may be surprised by this emphasis on law. How can you talk about laws when people are engaging in extreme violence? But soldiers do, in fact, operate within a legal framework. War itself is a legal concept. The things soldiers do would normally be considered crimes. They can kill people and destroy property because a government has given them the legal authority to do so. They are never given carte blanche to kill anyone they feel like shooting. At minimum, they are only authorized to attack the people and property of specific countries. Usually, they are given additional instructions that prohibit actions such as the deliberate targeting of civilians.
In practice, in the heat of battle, when their own lives are threatened and they sometimes have to make instant decisions, they canít be expected to observe all the legal niceties. Thatís understood. They have to be given some slack. But they are still operating within a mesh of laws.
General Tommy Franks presents a striking picture of this legal mesh in his book American Soldier. Near the beginning of the Afghanistan campaign that followed the 9/11 attacks, an unmanned aerial vehicle spotted a small convoy leaving the capital. The three vehicles fitted the profile for a Taliban leadership convoy.
Franks watched the convoy on a screen in Central Command headquarters in Florida. The UAV was a Predator, armed with Hellfire missiles, controlled by an operator located in a van outside the Pentagon. Franks could communicate with the UAV operator and receive more information from sources in Afghanistan.
A Navy captain who was a lawyer stood beside him. She was there to tell Franks if he could attack the convoy under the Law of Land Warfare and the Rules of Engagement he had been given by his government. As the convoy rolled through the night, she observed the scene on Frankís display, including a stop near a mosque, and rendered her judgment with phrases like "valid targetÖvalid target for HellfireÖ.no issuesÖ.valid targetÖ."
The relationship between the civilian government and the military forces that defend it is one of the most important problems a democracy has to deal with. An effective, secure resolution depends on officers and NCOís who understand-- and support-- the legal arrangements that control their vocation. They may grumble, they may complain, they may feel the government is run by a pack of fools, but they accept the need for civilian control. Even General MacArthur is supposed to have admitted that "I would have fired me, too" if he had been president. Anyone who has grown up in a military family probably has some understanding of the emotional complexities that keep that troubled, all-important relationship functioning the way we want it to function.
I called the story "Legacies" when I finished it. It took me three days, oddly enough, to come up with the title. I knew I wanted a word that referred to inheritance but the rather obvious word I was looking for kept hovering just outside the edge of my consciousness.
For me, this was largely a story about the inheritance of culture. Three of the characters in the story have been military brats. Each character comes from a different kind of military family and lives with a different kind of legacy.
Dorothyís superior officer, Medical Colonel Pao, "belonged to a sub-group that the sociologists who studied the military community sometimes referred to as the Ďmilitary aristocracy', Members of his family had been serving in United Nations military units since the years in which the first international brigades had been formed on Earth."
That kind of family tradition can be found all over the military services, even in a country, like the United States, where people tend to frown on hereditary connections. Senator John McCain-- Captain John McCain of the United States Navy-- is the son and grandson of an admiral. Michael Collins, the command module pilot on Apollo 11, went into the Air Force because he had three uncles who were army generals. General Douglas MacArthur was the son of General Arthur MacArthur. General Matthew B. Ridgeway-- one of my favorite American military leaders-- was the son of a colonel. General Norman Schwarzkopf is the son of Brigadier General Schwarzkopf. Anyone with a modest knowledge of US military history can come up with paragraphs of examples.
Children who are born into a family like Colonel Paoís have one big advantage over children born into first generation military families. Their parents know what a military childhood is like. They also, it seems to me, have a more relaxed attitude toward the military culture. But they are also faced with a family tradition that can push them into a vocation they might not have chosen if they had been born into a different family.
Deni Wei-Kolin comes from a version of the kind of military family I-- and Pat Conroy-- grew up in. In the future I visualized for the story, the colonization of the solar system is an economic free-for-all, with losers as well as winners. Deniís mother is strict and regimented because sheís compensating for the chaos of her poverty-stricken childhood family life. Deniís father comes from a future version of the broken home-- a big extended family created by multiple divorces. I had encountered a couple of families in which divorce had become a multi-generational way of life and children established relationships with adults like the-mother-of-my-fatherís-second-wife and the-brother-of-my-stepmotherís-ex-husband. Deniís father is the kid who got lost in the crowd and grew up without any serious adult attention.
Dorothyís childhood presents a more attractive picture. Her father is a classic example of the dutiful NCO. He was not a loving father, but he accepted responsibility for his child, when her mother deserted them, in the same way a good NCO accepts responsibility for the welfare of his troops. He studied the relevant literature and tried to avoid the pitfalls of military childhoods. He modeled his relationship with his daughter on one of the great relationships of military life-- the relationship between a young officer and the veteran sergeant who is supposed to guide the officer and help him learn his trade.
At one point in the story, Dorothy notes that many military parents compare the family to a military unit. My father liked to tell us the family was like a ship. He was the commanding officer, my mother was the executive officer, and the children were the enlisted personnel. That is, of course, a lousy model for family life. The children are the primary purpose of a family-- the payload of the ship, the objective of the mission. The family exists to nurture them-- to turn them into healthy, responsible adults. You canít do that if you treat them as if they were underlings.
Dorothyís father called his daughter Lieutenant. "For most of her childhood, she had seen herself as a younger person who was being guided and supported by an experienced, gently ironic senior who respected her potential." This relationship has continued into Dorothyís adulthood. The passages in which Captain Min discusses her problem with Sergeant Min are some of my favorite scenes in the story. I really enjoyed writing them.
In the opening of this story, I used a technical trick I associate with one of my favorite science fiction writers and editors, Frederik Pohl.
The literary problem that differentiates science fiction from other genres is the need to acquaint the reader with a complicated, unfamiliar background. In most science fiction stories, you can begin in the middle of the action, looking at the world through the eyes of a single character, and bring in the background as the story develops. In other stories, you need to nail down important aspects of the story right at the beginning.
Frederik Pohl frequently starts a story in the omniscient viewpoint. He speaks to the reader in his own voice for a few paragraphs and then slips into the mind of his main character. He doesnít start with a lecture, however. He always brings in the background by talking about a particular person.
I had used this technique once before, in the opening paragraph of "Sepoy", the fourth story I had sold Asimov's. It can be very effective but it can only work, in my opinion, if you ape another aspect of Pohlís technique. You have to give it your best writing. The voice of the author must be interesting in itself.
In "Legacies" the omniscient narrator begins by talking about Deni. Deni Wei-Kolin, he tells us, is asleep in the childcare center at HammarskjŲld station when the attack on Rinaswandi Base begins. Then, with the action opening established, he talks about the message coming in from Rinaswandi and communicates some basic facts about the background.
The narrator then switches to Rinaswandi Base. Deniís mother is the subject of the scene but we arenít looking at the battle through her eyes. The narrator tells the reader what she sees and feels, and fills in details she wouldnít think about.
The sixth paragraph is a bit of dialogue characterization. The senior officers have all been killed and the battle is being led by a junior officer who talks to his troops as if heís leading a sports team. The paragraph lets us hear a sample of his patter. Itís there largely because I felt the opening needed some dialogue.
The narrator then switches from the battle to a kind of case history. More background is brought in as the narrator talks about Deniís problems and feelings. The case history ends, thereís a break in the type, and we slip into Dorothyís mind-- the viewpoint maintained for the rest of the story.
The opening has a serious fault-- itís way too long. It takes up approximately 1400 words, about one tenth of the story.
The other technical trick used in the story is a technique I had employed in another decision story-- a short story called "Moon Child" that appeared in an anthology of new stories in 1974. As the story progresses, the reader mostly hears the arguments for option A. The story seems to be heading, inevitably, toward the moment when the protagonist chooses Option A. Then she chooses Option B. And explains her reasons after she has made her decision.
If this is done properly, it should come as a surprise but it should seem logical and even inevitable. Dorothyís decision grows out of her attitudes and her upbringing, and those aspects of her character have been described as the story moves along.
Structurally, "Legacies" is largely a story about a struggle against fate. For most of the story, Dorothy tries to avoid the moment when she will have to make a choice. There is a section in the middle of the story when Deni is sleeping. Dorothy wonít have to make her decision until he wakes up. She could spend the time wringing her hands and passively debating the pros and cons of her dilemma. Instead, she makes one last attempt to persuade Deniís father he should approve the ego strengthening emotional modification. The hero must struggle against her destiny. The audience has to see her fighting back.
Dorothyís biggest handicap is a fundamental element of the science fiction setting-- the solar system is a very big place and light, including radio waves, travels at a finite speed. Dorothyís messages have to travel for fifteen minutes before they reach the troop ship that is carrying Deniís father toward the battle zone. There is no way she can communicate with him directly. She has to construct a "semi-autonomous" computer program and hope it will handle the give and take of a conversation.
The off-Earth military force in the story is called the Fourth International Brigade. It is "an institution that could trace its origins to the Fourth Gurkha Rifles, the ancient, battle-scarred infantry regiment the Indian government had donated to the United Nations in the years when the Secretariat had acquired its first permanent forces. I will keep faith, the Gurkha motto had run-- and they had proved it in battle after battle, first in the service of the British Empire, then in the service of the Republic of India, and finally under the flag that was supposed to represent humanity's best response to its own capacity for violence." The Brigade maintains the Gurkha bagpipe tradition and its working language is Gurkhali.
The Indian Army of the British Empire was composed of native troops commanded by a small number of British officers. The French pioneered that kind of military organization in the eighteenth century and the British copied the idea.
The Gurkhas are tribesmen who conquered Nepal, on the northwestern border of India, in 1768. They fought the forces of the British East India Company in1814 and the British were impressed with their toughness and honorable behavior. The British won the war, but Nepal kept its independence, and signed a treaty of perpetual friendship that gave the British the right to recruit three regiments of Gurkhas.
When India became independent in 1948, the Brigade of Gurkhas contained ten regiments. Three regiments were transferred to the British Army. The other seven remained part of the Indian Army, with Indian officers.
The Gurkha regiments have compiled a record that has endeared them to all military romantics. They fought in several major campaigns during the Victorian era and they fought beside British troops in Italy, Burma, and Singapore during WWII. In 1982, the Seventh Gurkhas were part of the small professional force that retook the Falkland Islands from Argentina. The Gurkhas had acquired such a fierce reputation that the Argentine conscripts frequently abandoned their trenches without a fight when they heard they were facing a Gurkha assault.
At the time I wrote this story, just after the 1991 war with Iraq, there was a flurry of interest in the idea of a permanent UN force. The UN official who had been in charge of peacekeeping forces, Brian Urquhart, noted in an interview that he was "always receiving proposals" suggesting that Gurkhas be employed in a UN rapid-deployment force.
The Gurkhas were frequently commended for being "natural soldiers." They were used to serving under foreign officers, so they could have been placed under some kind of international officer corps. The ten Gurhka regiments could have been reunited and formed the nucleus of an international army.
In my story, I assumed the UN army had started with established national regiments so the international soldiers could join units that had impressive military traditions-- an important aspect of the psychological appeals armies use to motivate their soldiers. I picked the Fourth Gurkhas as a small literary bow to John Masters, a writer who penned a number of best selling novels after WWII. Masters had been an officer in the second battalion of the Fourth Gurkhas. He is just about the only career military officer who became a novelist of any importance.
Many writers have been soldiers during wartime. Masters came from a family that had served the British government in India since the early 19th century. His father was a retired lieutenant colonel of the Indian Army and three of his uncles had served in the Indian Army, too. He went to the British military academy at Sandhurst in 1933, joined the Fourth Gurkhas, fought with the Chindits in Burma during WWII, and retired and became a writer after India received its independence. His best books give us a unique picture of the life and worldview of a career soldier. I would particularly recommend his novel The Ravi Lancers, and his two volumes of memoirs, Bugles and a Tiger and The Road Past Mandalay. The Ravi Lancers depicts the cultural and psychological tensions in an Indian Army regiment that fights in Europe during the First World War. Bugles and a Tiger tells about Masters' life in the Fourth Gurkhas before 1939. The Road Past Mandalay describes his experiences in Burma during World War II.
"Legacies" was over 13,000 words long when I typed the final sentence. I had sold five novels during the first part of my science fiction career, but my magazine sales had only included two novelettes, and I had limited both of those to 10,000 words. "Legacies" would be my longest magazine sale if anybody bought it. I cut it as much as I could but it was still running over 13,000 words when I mailed it off to Asimovís.
Gardner called me on the phone to let me know he wanted to buy the story. As I remember it, he called me right around the time our grandson Benjamin was born in late October,1992. He may even have called on the very day I hurried to Jefferson Hospital to meet the new arrival.
Gardner asked for one change. He wanted me to eliminate the final paragraphs, which described Deniís behavior as he watched the memorial service for his mother and the other people who had died with her. I agreed without any argument. I had originally thought of this as Deniís story; Dorothy was supposed to be the professional observer who views Deniís plight from the outside. Instead, it had become Dorothyís story. The change meant that it ended-- as it should-- with the scene in which Dorothy discusses her decision with Colonel Pao and the colonel offers her the only consolation at his command.
I had to rewrite the last few pages to bring in some of the material I had included in the original final scene. I did that fairly quickly-- by my standards-- and received the contracts from Asimovís a month or so later.
When I had been writing "Legacies", I had sometimes thought of it as a major work. The basic subject had a lot of personal importance and I thought it had all kinds of virtues as a science fiction story. I really looked forward to seeing it in print.
So naturally it sank without a trace. It received one or two Nebula recommendations, as my stories usually did, but that was about it. Nobody sent me fan letters. There was no indication anyone had even read it.
This is not an unusual occurrence. Writers work for an invisible audience. Nobody stands up and applauds when a story comes to an end. Most of us nod, or feel good for a moment, and go on to our next reading experience. Still, in this case it was a disappointment. This one, to me, was something special.
Several years later, after I went online and started participating in the Compuserve science fiction forum, I discovered the story had received a glowing review from Dave Truesdale, the editor of Tangent, a semi-professional publication that reviewed short fiction. "Legacies" came up during a discussion on the forum and Dave posted the text of his original review. He, too, thought it was odd that the story had received so little attention.
The illustration for the story was a small masterpiece. I put a copy of the whole magazine in a frame, opened to the illustration, and itís still sitting on a shelf in my work room. The artist, Alan M. Clark, had produced a two page spread with Deniís face in the foreground and the opening space battle exploding behind him. The mix of facial characteristics captured Deniís Eurasian heritage but the artist had also done something much more subtle. As Dorothy notes, all military children acquire "almost at birth, the two great commandments of military life: don't complain, don't talk about your feelings." In Clarkís portrait, Deni is staring out of the page with a blank, totally expressionless face, but you can sense, somehow, the emotional turmoil hidden behind his stoic mask.
Copyright 2005 by Tom Purdom. All rights reserved. This document may be printed out and archived for personal use. All other use is strictly prohibited.
("Legacies" has been reprinted in Space Soldiers, an anthology edited by Gardner Dozois and Jack Dann.)
When I was Writing: Installment One
When I was Writing: Installment Two When I was Writing: Installment Three
When I was Writing: Installment Four When I was Writing: Installment Five
When I was Writing: Installment Seven
When I was Writing: Installment Eight
When I was Writing: Installment Nine
When I was Writing: Installment Ten
Grieve for a Man (complete text)
Home | Science Fiction | Music Writing | Essays
Bio | FAQS | Writers | Friends and Relations | Quotes | Bibliography