Tom Clancy is dead. He was 66. While few articles are speculating as to the cause of death, Clancy was well known to be a heavy smoker; that no doubt contributed to his early demise.
I never met the man, but his books meant a whole lot to me. As I say to my students, I have to tell you this story to tell you that story.
You see, I’m a child of the Cold War. I wasn’t just a child during the Cold War, I was a child IN the Cold War.
In 1976, the US Air Force saw fit to station my father in Germany, at an air base called Sembach. We joined him there a year later (going to see Star Wars was the last big thing I did in the States before we left – thanks, Uncle Brian & Aunt Julie!).
This means that my father was attached to the 601st Tactical Air Control Wing, part of the 17th Air Force. I was too young then to grasp whatever it was he did, but I knew one thing – we lived near a base where they had OV-10s, and as a fourth grader, I was absolutely captivated by those slow, ugly bastards. I used to sit on the hill behind my elementary school and watch them take off and land, over and over. We lived in a little town called Otterberg in an apartment above a nice German family.
After Sembach, we lived near Hahn AFB for a short time. I traded the turboprop OV-10s for on-their-way-out F-4Es – still one of the coolest-looking fighters the USAF ever flew. I’m not sure which unit my father was part of, but it was either the 10th, 313th or 496th Tactical Fighter Group. Much to my ultimate dismay, we moved to another base before Hahn got its F-16s in 1979.
From Hahn, we took kind of a weird turn, as my father was sent to Neubrücke Kaserne, a tiny-ass Army installation not far from the border between Germany and Luxembourg. This was the first time since we left the States that we lived on base, in a shitty Army apartment building.
When we lived at Neubrücke, I lost all connection with what it was my father did for the USAF. “What’d you do at work today?” I’d ask. “Nothin’,” he’d say.
The weird thing about Neubrücke – beyond its very small size – was the buildings. Nearly every major building had a hallway that clearly went underground, but was blocked off by a locked gate. Sometimes I could see equipment stacked up on the other side of the gates, but usually it was just kind of ghostly. I learned later that, in the event of war, our little installation would quickly be converted to either a fallout shelter or a hospital, whichever was needed more. It was stocked to do either – or both.
I remember being excited one day when my father brought something home from work. It was a printout – you remember those big, roll-fed dot-matrix printers? They fed this wide paper that was striped with a pale green for readability. He showed me the printout. I thought I was finally going to get some insight into what he did all day, every day in that mountain he worked inside. Instead, what I saw was the printout of a text-based computerized Star Trek game – he’d finally beaten the Klingons, and was so proud of his accomplishment that he brought it home to show me. (Imagine Zork, but with the Enterprise.)
A fucking computer game. Who’d’a thunk it. Star Trek to boot.
It was several years later when I finally figured out that’s when he started his career in intelligence work, but that’s neither here nor there.
After Neubrücke, we moved to SHAPE HQ in Mons, Belgium. We lived in a tiny hamlet called Harmignies. Our bus driver and his backup were always armed. It seemed perfectly normal to us – after all, we’d been living on or near military bases nearly our whole lives at that point. I didn’t even blanche when I saw some knucklehead racing to get into an NBC suit, an Uzi or 2 certainly wouldn’t have phased me.
Sorry, I’m digressing.
The whole time we lived in Germany, we were never more than 100 miles from Frankfurt, which means we were never more than about 150 miles from Fulda, which means we were within just a few minutes’ flight time of the Fulda Gap.
“What’s the Fulda Gap?” I hear you cry.
The Fulda Gap is where NATO fully expected two entire Soviet tank armies to invade when the Cold War got hot. The air bases we lived at were forward support for US tanks (3rd Armored Division) and infantry (8th Mechanized Division) that were in place specifically to plug the Fulda Gap when World War 3 started.
Yeah. Lay that on a 10-year-old and see how he does with it.
By the time I was 14 years old – in 1984 – I had regular nightmares about exactly what a tactical nuclear weapon would do to me. I knew more about fighter planes and main battle tanks than any 9th grader should, and all of it scared the living shit out of me.
In one of his rare instances of paternal insight, my father realized that he could do something to help his oldest son. He came home from work one day and sat me down at the kitchen table. Very dramatically, he put his briefcase on the table and snapped open the latches.
“I’m going to give you something,” he said. “You can’t take it out of the house, and you can’t ever tell anybody you have it.” He looked at me with an intensity I’d never seen before. “Nobody. Ever.”
No pressure, right?
To this day, I don’t know if he was being melodramatic or if he could have really gotten in trouble, but he’d never shown that level of trust in me before, so I was nearly apoplectic trying to figure out what was going on.
He opened his briefcase and brought out a crimson-red book. It was 8.5 x 11 and the title – “SOVIET MILITARY POWER” – was all that was on the cover, along with a tiny “1983” at the bottom.
“This is for you,” he said, “So you can understand what we’re up against. You know what we have and how we’ll use it if we need to, so I want you to see what the threat really is.”
I probably didn’t come out of my room except to eat or go to school for three days after that. I was so afraid of somebody finding this book that I hid it between the mattress and box spring of my bed.
(Yeah, I know. I should have been hiding Playboys there, but you already knew I was a nerd, so is this a big surprise?)
The book broke down in meticulous detail the stats, specs and capabilities of every piece of Soviet hardware, even fessing up when US/NATO intelligence knew very little (or nothing) about a weapons platform. It went on to detail how many of this or that were stationed where, even making some attempts to predict what Soviet strategies would be if a war started.
My father was right – having that book helped. A lot. The nightmares didn’t disappear, but they did lessen in frequency and intensity. The dreams lost their persecutory atmosphere as well, the idea that the Soviets were coming after ME.
I found out several years later that later volumes of this series (they put one out every year) weren’t classified – but they were hard to get. My father was able to nab a copy each year, at first due to his position working for the SACEUR (Supreme Allied Commander, Europe – a guy called General Bernard Rogers at the time) and later through his job on the bottom floor of the Pentagon. I filled out my collection – 1989 & 1990, the last 2 years of them, of course – at a library sale in the late 1990s.
Less than a year after giving me that first one, he brought home a book from work. It was an advance copy of the first work of fiction ever published by the Naval Institute Press. He read it in a couple of days and gave it to me – “You’re going to love this book,” he said.
The advance copy’s cover used a similar stark typeface to the Soviet Military Power reports, and it read, simply: The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy.
He was right – I loved that book. As soon as it was commercially available, I got my own copy, the first hardback book I ever spent my own money on.
Clancy’s next novel, Red Storm Rising, was even better. I later learned it was actually the first book he wrote, but “Red October” was the first he got published. If you read Red Storm first, you can see a lot of the sub chase sequences from Red October in them.
Red Storm Rising was epic in scope – World War 3 on land, at sea and in the air. It had some clunky characters (the clueless Air Force weather man in Iceland comes to mind), but the plot was solid and it was a fantastic read. I’ve read my copy so many times that it’s falling apart.
Clancy went the James Bond route after that, developing the character Jack Ryan (the hero of Red October) on and on until Ryan actually becomes the president of the United States. Patriot Games, The Cardinal in the Kremlin, Clear and Present Danger, The Sum of All Fears – all solid spy books.
What attracted me to Clancy’s writing was its military precision. He described the technology with loving detail; his description of stealth fighters in Red Storm will give you chills. He seemed to know as much (if not more) about military hardware as I did, and I always felt like he was writing those books just for me, that scared kid who grew up in Europe just a short drive from the Fulda Gap. You could tell he totally geeked out on the hardware, and I just ate it up.
After those books, though, I kind of lost interest in Clancy’s work. Without Remorse was OK. I found the climax of Debt of Honor (published 1994) to be completely implausible – what kind of crazy person would commandeer an airliner and crash it into a building? Debt also made me uncomfortable because it rode a wave of Japan-bashing that was sweeping the US at the time, and I’ve always had a fascination with Japan, its people and their culture.
Executive Orders was also an OK book, as was SSN, but neither was great. Clancy seemed to get some of his zing back when he brought back John Clark, a character from Clear and Present Danger and Without Remorse, and put him in charge of the book’s eponymous Rainbox Six counter-terrorist group.
I read The Bear and the Dragon and Red Rabbit, but that was pretty much it for me. I felt like Clancy lost what had made him great – the techno-spy-thriller aspects of his writing weren’t shining through like they did in his first few books. I never read his last solo book, The Teeth of the Tiger, because I couldn’t get into Jack Ryan’s son picking up his father’s mantle. This probably had something to do with the fact that, by 2003, my own father and I were quite distant from each other – we never had much of a relationship after 2001, and frankly, not much of one before that, either.
I wasn’t interested in reading any of the books Clancy co-wrote with other authors. I’m not a fan of co-written fiction books, so I just didn’t bother.
Red Storm Rising and The Hunt for Red October will always hold a special place in my heart because they helped me be less afraid of nuclear war. I saw in these books the intense ways in which the commanders of US & Soviet forces wanted to avoid throwing nukes – even when it seemed like the only possible option for victory.
One of Red October‘s main characters, the Captain Marko Ramius, astutely realizes his new submarine is – as we now call them – a WMD, purpose-built to sneak up on the USSR’s enemy and launch a devastating attack. He takes it upon himself to even the playing field and drastically reduce the possibility of nuclear war.
That always meant a lot to me.