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Missive #105

Created by the bestselling SF novelist Jerry Pournelle, There Will Be War is a landmark science fiction anthology series that combines top-notch military science fiction with factual essays by various generals and military experts on everything from High Frontier and the Strategic Defense Initiative to the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Some of these stories or essays were good and some not so good. I’ll be reading the series slowly on my Fire 10 as breaks from other books that I’ll have on the Fire 8. It features some of the greatest military science fiction ever published; many science fiction greats were featured in the original nine-volume series. There Will Be War Volume I is edited by Jerry Pournelle and John F. Carr, and features 23 stories, articles, and poems. 

  • Reflex, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
  • Spanish Man’s Grave, James Warner Bellah Marius, Poul Anderson
  • The Soviet Strategic Threat From Space, Citizens Advisory Council on National Space Policy
  • Ender’s Game, Orson Scott
  • Card A Death in Realtime, Richard Sean McEnroe
  • Overdose, Spider Robinson
  • Saul’s Death: Two Sestinas, Joe Haldeman
  • Project High Frontier, Robert A. Heinlein and Lt. Gen. Daniel O. Graham USA (Ret.)
  • Two Poems, Jon Post Diasporah: A Prologue, W.R. Yates
  • His Truth Goes Marching On, Jerry Pournelle
  • THOR: Orbital Weapon System, Citizens Advisory Council on National Space Policy
  • The Defenders, Philip K. Dick
  • Unlimited Warfare, Hayford Peirce
  • The Battle, Robert Sheckley
  • Mercenaries and Military Virtue, Jerry Pournelle
  • Ranks of Bronze, David Drake
  • I Am Nothing, Eric Frank Russell
  • Call Him Lord, Gordon R. Dickson
  • Quiet Village, David McDaniel
  • The Strategy of Technology, Jerry Pournelle
  • The Widow’s Party, Rudyard Kipling

A quote from this first volume.

The depressing fact is that history is remarkably clear on one point: wealthy republics do not last long. Time after time they have risen to wealth and freedom; the citizens become wealthy and sophisticated; unwilling to volunteer to protect themselves, they go to conscription; this too becomes intolerable; and soon enough they turn to mercenaries.
Machiavelli understood that, and things have not much changed since his time—except that Americans know far less history than did the rulers of Florence and Milan and Venice.
For mercenaries are a dangerous necessity. If they are incompetent, they will ruin you. If they are competent there is always the temptation to rob the paymaster. — Mercenaries and Military Virtue, Jerry Pournelle

Thoughts on Death and Saying Goodbye to a Best Friend, orDespite Modern Medicine’s Best Efforts, it’s Still Not Optional
By John Ross

Copyright 2006 by John Ross.  Electronic reproduction of this article freely permitted provided it is reproduced in its entirety with attribution given.

I’ve been thinking about death more than usual the past few days.  Some backstory:

    In October of 1982 I bought my first airplane, a 1973 Citabria aerobatic trainer that I got from a busted Oklahoma wildcatter for $14,000 when oil prices collapsed.  It was in Enid to be repainted, but I had taken pictures of it, and I wanted to share my excitement with someone.  Not having any close friends immediately available, I logically went to a local bar, where I knew the bartender and where they served my favorite drink.  In those days, Boodles gin was my poison of choice, and Clamorgan’s, a watering hole on Clayton Road 1/2 mile from my house, was one of the few bars around that served it.  The place has long since closed, felled by allegations (true, as it turned out) that the bartenders were dealing cocaine and some of the waitresses were hooking in their off-hours.

    In 1982, however, “The Morgue” was usually in full party mode, and the evening I chose to go there was no exception.  I stood at the end of the bar, next to the server’s station, where I was in the best spot to chat up the busy procession of cute servers that picked up drinks for their table customers.

    Sitting on the end stool next to where I stood was a very attractive woman who looked for all the world like actress and ex-flower child (and David Carradine’s former squeeze) Barbara Hershey.  The woman to my right had one of the thickest manes of gorgeous brown hair I could remember seeing, just as  I remembered Barbara Hershey having in The Stunt Man. Soon after that film, the actress would appear as Chuck Yeager’s wife Glennis in The Right Stuff.  I didn’t think this woman sitting next to me at a bar in St. Louis was really Barbara Hershey, but she wasn’t saying anything, so I couldn’t be sure.  She had two drinks in front of her, and I kept waiting for her date to return from the men’s room so she’d say something and I could hear what her voice sounded like.

    I finally figured out that the second drink was a water back, and belatedly struck up a conversation with this woman who was nursing her red wine.  She was as depressed as I was jazzed, having just lost her job that day.  I learned she had taken a position with one of the companies that makes those stupid credit-card-sized plastic cards you see (or used to see) at the counter of convenience stores and gas stations, imprinted with flowers and insipid sayings like “Today Is the First Day of the Rest of Your Life” or other such drivel.  At the time, they sold for 50 cents or so, and my guess was that they were bought by people with IQs slightly above room temperature.

    Her job had been to dream up these sappy sayings, and she, a former high school English teacher, had been unsure as to what kind of output her bosses expected of her.  So she’d spent her entire first week coming up with several thousand inane comments like “Friends are Just Strangers You Haven’t Met Yet” and “Let Your Smile Be Like a Sunbeam, Warming Everyone Around You,” and handed in the list, suggesting to her superiors that they look it over and see if there was anything there they could use that week.  You can guess the rest: They immediately realized that they could use all of them, and that it was a couple years’ worth of copy.  So they took her list and reduced their overhead by firing her.

    The idea that an intelligent person would be upset at losing such a job struck me as mildly absurd at the time.  (Realize that in 1982 I was in my early 20s, with the enviable combination of no dependants and plenty of money, and I was blissfully unaware of the realities of being an out-of-work 38-year-old single parent.)  So I told her that she should start a company printing plastic cards with more cynical sayings on them.  We spent the next ten or twenty minutes dreaming up appropriate sayings that might be used by such a venture, such as “No Single Raindrop Feels Responsible for the Flood”* and other witticisms. Despite her depression at being suddenly jobless, she found the game funny enough to break into what I would later call her “thousand-watt smile,” and when this happened, I suggested that if my proposed business venture didn’t pan out, she could always get a job doing toothpaste ads.

    It seemed inevitable that she’d ask me to follow her in my car to her house, and of course I did.  The next morning at breakfast, after I’d learned her name, I persuaded Susie to be my date for a Halloween party I was hosting.  After some discussion about costumes (“I could wear a low-cut blouse with no bra and go as a boys’ boarding-school English teacher”) she agreed to get out her sewing machine and knock out a Wonder Woman costume.  I ripped up some clothes that had fit me when I was 13, painted myself green, and went as The Incredible Hulk.  At the party (and on a dare), I took Susie’s picture, posed with my three previous girlfriends.  “That’s his Warren Beatty shot,” Susie would later tell anyone who asked.

    For the next two years we were together pretty much constantly.  We’d occasionally run into her old classmates from high school who would consistently comment that she looked little different than she had at age 20, and give mock leers at her “boy toy.”  For Susie’s 40th birthday, we took her 15-year-old daughter Rachel to Six Flags, and while Rachel was off on one of the rides, I noticed one of those guys that for a dollar will guess either your weight or your age, your choice.  He guesses, then you either stand on a scale or pull out your driver’s license, and if he’s off by more than five pounds or three years, you get your pick of prizes. 

    After watching the guy go through about a dozen people without a miss, I handed him a dollar and told him to guess my girlfriend’s age.  After looking at me and then checking out her figure in her halter top and shorts, he said “Twenty-eight.”  Susie gave him her toothpaste-ad smile and handed him her driver’s license.  His jaw dropped as he said “Forty?” in disbelief. 

    “She’s forty?” a fat and very unattractive woman said to her male companion.  “I’m thirty-one and I don’t look like that.”  I looked at their left hands and noticed wedding bands.

    “Yeah, no shit,” the husband (who was also staring at Susie) said without thinking, as his wife gave him a look that would freeze nitrogen.

    “I don’t think that guy’s going to get any tonight,” I whispered to Susie as we went to collect Rachel.

    “Johnny, what’s even more depressing is that he’d want to,” she giggled. (Susie is the only person on earth who has ever called me by the diminutive.)

    “Hey, don’t you want your prize?” the man yelled.

    “I already got it,” I shouted back.

    It was a good day.

    Susie and I finally parted company after Susie took Rachel on a mother-daughter trip to Jamaica and met a single dad from around Denver (on vacation there with his daughter) who was looking to get married again.  When I found out, I suggested a big wedding, since Susie hadn’t had one with either of her first two marriages.  She initially protested, but my idea won out.  The ceremony was in my mother’s house, with about a hundred guests, and since Susie’s dad couldn’t bother to come up from Florida, I gave her away.**  The next day, she moved to Colorado.

    That union only lasted a couple of years (“Johnny, why did you let me marry that idiot, anyway?”), but Susie stayed in Denver, where she’d returned to her first love, teaching.  For a while, we’d get together for lunch or dinner every few years, when I was passing through Denver on my way to Aspen or she was in St. Louis visiting relatives.  In recent years, we only talked on the phone.  She told me about Peter, an engineer (I think) from California who lived on a houseboat, that she was spending summers and many weekends with.  “You’d really like him,” she told me. “He’s even more antisocial than you.”  This last, we both knew, was her highest possible compliment, referring to my unpopular but bedrock belief that one shouldn’t speak unless one has something to say, and, as writer George V. Higgins has pointed out, that relevance is the linchpin of conversation,. 

    Susie turned 62 on April 24, but there was no answer when I tried to call.  Then, a few days ago, Susie called me for the first time in many months.  Without bothering to give any irrelevant preamble, she told me she had inoperable brain cancer and the doctors had said she had perhaps three weeks to live.

    There isn’t much to say to news like that, and I told her as much.  I didn’t bother with the standard (and annoying) comments of “Are they sure?” or “Keep your hopes up, anything can happen.”  I certainly didn’t infuriate a lifelong agnostic with platitudes about “God having plans for her” or anything like that.

    She told me that although she was weak and needed to sleep more than usual, she was hosting a three week (or however) long party and would I come for a bit? 

    There was no way I would miss it.

    I arrived in Denver the day before yesterday.  After taking a lengthy shuttle ride from the out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere Denver International Airport, I arrived at Susie’s condo and used my cell phone to tell her I was at the (locked) outside door and would someone let me in?  Her boyfriend Peter soon opened the door, with no words but a huge grin, and Susie was right: I liked him immediately.

    Walking into the living room was like stepping into a Gary Larson cartoon.  There were piles upon piles of stuff, and framed pictures everywhere, most with post-it notes listing people’s names stuck to them, as Susie had been busy rounding up any of her possessions that might have significance to her friends and family, for them to take.  There were cats lounging, and two big, noisy parrots that Susie’s guests kept trying (unsuccessfully) to handle without getting bitten.  Frank Sinatra played on satellite radio, or maybe it was cable.

    Susie sat on the couch.  She had an eyepatch over her right eye, which I later learned was to prevent double vision and not to cover up an empty socket.  On top of the pirate look, what once had been a magnificent mane of brown hair was now, post-chemo, half-inch grey stubble.  On the trip over, I had prepared myself for what Susie might look like.  I had been prepared for her to ask me “How do I look?” and I had been prepared to answer “Like horsefuck,” but there she sat on the couch, hitting me with that thousand-watt, toothpaste-ad smile I hadn’t seen for so long, and all I could think was Man, I hope I look this good when I’m dying.  There wasn’t a single wrinkle anywhere on her face. 

    Susie quickly introduced me to everyone there (“Johnny is the kid I dated for two years when I was between husbands”) and urged me to eat some of the massive quantity of food that various guests had brought.  The air hummed with a kind of energy I had not anticipated, but should have.  As Susie and I talked, other friends and relatives kept trying to handle the squawking parrots, almost always getting scratched or bitten in the process. 

    The daughter and granddaughter of Susie’s older sister were there, and the great-niece, who I assumed was 17 or 18, had inherited Susie’s thousand-watt smile.  She also had the kind of hair her great-aunt had had when I’d known her, but in a scorching red color.  Sarah moved about with boundless, carefree energy, alternating between doing her homework, bringing food to Susie and me, getting bitten by the parrots (I’m not exaggerating here–she had scars all over her arms), and modeling her new designer jeans (“I finally found a size zero–small enough to show off my butt,” said without a milligram of self-consciousness as she stuck out her bottom.)  I soon learned that Sarah is in eighth grade, and I immediately imagined what a nervous wreck her father must be.  Then I remembered that when Susie’s daughter Rachel was 14, in 1985, she was going to Madonna and Prince concerts in her underwear.  The more things change…

    Throughout the day, various people dropped in with food, flowers, liquor, and other necessities.  In the early afternoon, another friend arrived.  It was the girl I dated for two years, starting soon after Susie got married and moved to Colorado.  She and I were both brokers at E.F. Hutton in the mid-’80s, before we went with other firms when Hutton got bought out.  She lives in Kentucky now, on a big tract of land with her husband and several horses, and makes a ton of money at the Louisville office of a national brokerage firm.  I hadn’t seen her for over a decade, until yesterday.  She looks the same.  She’s a generation younger than Susie, but they’ve been good friends ever since they’ve known each other.  It was old home week for J.R….

    Soon we were breaking out the photo albums, and everyone loved the Hulk/Wonder Woman pics, the “Warren Beatty” and “Madonna” shots, and a photo Susie hadn’t seen before, from a later Halloween where I’d painted myself black and gone out as Mr.T.  Friends and neighbors kept dropping in, and only one had that air of “This-is-just-so-awful-I-don’t-think-I-can-stand-it” that makes you want to slap them. 

    A little later, when Susie and I were talking together, a couple of young women came into the room where we were sitting and joined us.  They were former students of Susie’s, now both teachers in their mid-20s. They were both very nice women, but one of them exuded radiant energy, had a smile that rivaled that of her former mentor, and moved like a cat when she walked.  She wore those little oval reading glasses, and they made her look like something that my favorite calendar artist, Gil Elvgren, might have drawn if he’d done a scene featuring a librarian. 

    The four of us got into a discussion about the tendency of women to focus on negatives, and how Susie was a notable exception to the rule.  “When men relate a negative event,” I explained, “we tend to do it in such a way that we can laugh about it.” I proceeded to tell them the hilarious incident about my client whose wife asked him if she was the fattest woman he’d ever had sex with, and he’d made the colossal mistake of telling her the truth, which was “No.” (Go here to read about that story, about halfway down.)

    “Johnny, your life was always about the punch line.  That’s what attracted me to you so much.”

    I thought about that comment for a moment, and decided Susie had me pegged exactly.  I couldn’t remember the last time another woman had told me something about myself I didn’t already know.

    The women then talked with Susie for a while about how to handle a suspected case of parental abuse with one of the boys at the preschool, and then the two young teachers went to the kitchen to bring us some food. Susie looked at me.

    “You have my permission to contact her.”  I couldn’t help but laugh. 

    “Was it that obvious?”

    “Johnny, when it comes to me reading people, well, let’s just say that you are the large print edition.”

    “Wait a minute,” I said, grinning as I remembered something.  “You told me a few years ago that anyone younger than your daughter was off limits.” She smiled back.

    “That was a few years ago.  Things change.”

    “Yes. They do.”

    The two teachers came back with our food and beverages, and we talked some more about past times with Susie, both theirs and mine.  When Susie looked like she was about to nod off, I kissed her goodnight and said my goodbyes to all the people still there, went back to my hotel, and got up early this morning to go to the airport to catch my flight home.

    Susie, I know you’re reading this, because as soon as I hit “publish,’ I’m going to phone you and tell you to.  You’re right, my life has always been about the punch line.  There are plenty of them in this piece, and heaven knows there were a ton of them in the two years we spent together. (Tell your friends about the only time you ever got mad at me: That time I became preoccupied with a magazine at the airport newsstand and completely forgot that while you were watching our stuff, you needed to use the ladies’ room.)***

    Susie, I hope you’re able to enjoy your party as long as possible.  My life would have not been nearly so full if a jerk boss hadn’t fired a “sappy sayings” copywriter and she hadn’t needed to stop off for a drink one night in late October of 1982.  My life will surely be diminished when you’re not in it.

    But I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.

John Ross 5/18/2006

*Years later, I recall Susie reminding me of this phrase as one of the ones I came up with that night.  I can’t recall, and she (or I) may be projecting, as it’s a saying on a poster currently sold by a company that actually does sell de-motivational products. But it would have been perfect for her suggested company.

    **At the reception, Susie took a picture of her new husband, with me, and a friend she had a short fling with in 1981, next to him in the picture.  “Tit for tat,” she later said, and I referred to it as her “Madonna shot.”  I’m the only one who looks genuinely pleased to be in the photo.  That makes it even better.

    ***When Susie, bladder ready to pop, read me the riot act, I was horrified at how inconsiderate I had been, and I said, “I’m sorry, honey,” with such sincerity that she instantly burst out laughing as she realized how trivial the whole issue was.

Note: This was the last posting that John made in the ‘Ross In Range’ section of his website. Not sure why he stopped. He said when he started that “The one constant of Ross in Range is that, health permitting, I’m going to have a new one of these columns for you every single week. All columns will be archived here, so you can catch up on any that you missed.”
John died on April 29, 2022 so he quit posting long before.

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