Novelist Tom Clancy, master of the techno-thriller, died on October 1st. His debut Cold War novel, The Hunt for Red October, was an American literary landmark.
Two years ago on These Stone Walls, I wrote a post for All Souls Day entitled “The Holy Longing: An All Souls Day Spark for Broken Hearts.” Some readers who have lost loved ones very dear to them found solace in its depiction of death as a continuation of all that binds human hearts and souls together in life. Like all of you, I have lost people whose departure left a great void in my life.
It’s rare that such a void is left by someone I knew only through books, but news of the death of writer, Tom Clancy at age 66 on October 1st left such a void. I cannot let All Souls Day pass without recalling the nearly three decades I’ve spent in the company of Tom Clancy.
I’ll never forget the day we “met.” It was Christmas Eve, 1984. Due to a sudden illness, I stood in for another priest at a 4:00 PM Christmas Eve Mass at Saint Bernard Parish in Keene, New Hampshire. I had no homily prepared, but the noise of a church filled with excited children and frazzled parents conspired against one anyway. So I decided in my impromptu homily to at least try to get a few points of order across.
Standing in the body of the church with a microphone in hand I began with a question: “Who can tell me why children should always be quiet and still during the homily at Mass?” One hand shot up in the front, so I held the microphone out to a little girl in the first pew. Proudly standing up, she put her finger to her lips and whispered loudly into the mic, “BECAUSE PEOPLE ARE SLEEPIN’!”
Of course, it brought the house down and earned that little girl – who today would be about 38 years old – a rousing round of applause from the parishioners of Saint Bernard’s. It lessened the tension a bit from what had been a tough Advent for me in that parish, a set of events I described in an Advent post last year entitled “Electile Dysfunction: Accommodations and the Advent of 1984.”
But that’s not really the moment I’ll never forget. After that Mass, a teenager from the parish walked into the Sacristy to hand me a hastily wrapped gift. In fact, it looked as though he wrapped it during the homily! “We’re not ALL sleeping,” he said about the little girl’s remark. I laughed, and when it was clear that he wasn’t leaving in any hurry, I asked whether he wanted me to open his gift. He did. I joked about needing bolt cutters to get through all the tape. It was a book. It was Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October. “Oh, wow!” I said. “How did you know I’ve been wanting to read this?”
It was a lie. I admit it. But it was a white lie. It was the sort of lie one tells to spare the feelings of someone who gives you a book you’ve never heard of and had no plan to read. I remember hearing about a circa 1980 interview of Barbara Walters with “Miss Lillian,” a Grand Dame of the U.S. South and the mother of then President Jimmy Carter. Miss Lillian – to the chagrin of presidential handlers – declared that her son, the President, “has nevah told a lie.”
“Never?!” prodded Barbara Walters. “Well, perhaps just a white lie,” Miss Lillian hastily added. “Can you give us an example of a white lie?” asked Barbara Walters. After a thoughtful pause, Miss Lillian looked her in the eye and reportedly said in her pronounced Southern drawl, “Do you remembah backstage when Ah said you look really naace in thaat dress?” Barbara was speechless! First time ever!
Mine was that sort of lie. The young giver of that gift would be about 43 years old today, and if he is reading this I want to apologize for my white lie. Then I also want to tell him that his gift changed the course of my life with books. I had read somewhere that First Lady Nancy Reagan also gave that book as a gift that Christmas. True to his penchant for adding new words to the modern American English lexicon, President Ronald Reagan declared The Hunt for Red October to be “unputdownable!”
So after a few weeks collecting dust on my office bookshelf – the very same office you saw and read of in Ryan MacDonald’s recent guest post – I took The Hunt for Red October down from the shelf and opened its pages late one winter night.
“WHO THE HELL CLEARED THIS?”
After busy days I have a habit of reading late at night, a habit that began almost 30 years ago with this gift of Tom Clancy’s first novel. Parishioners commented that they drove down Keene’s Main Street at night to see the lights on in my office, and “poor Father burning midnight oil at his desk.” I was doing nothing of the sort. I was submersed in The Hunt for Red October, at sea in an astonishing story of courage and patriotism.
In the early 1980s, the Cold War was freezing over again. The race to develop a “Star Wars” defense against nuclear Armageddon dominated the news. President Ronald Reagan had thrown down the gauntlet, calling the Soviet Union an “Evil Empire.” Pope John Paul II was working diligently to dismantle the Soviet machine in Poland. The Soviet KGB was suspected of being behind an almost deadly attempt to assassinate the pope, an event I wrote of in “The Beatification of Pope John Paul II: When the Wall Fell.” As revealed in that post, it was an event that later formed yet another powerful and stunning – and ultimately true – Tom Clancy/Jack Ryan thriller, Red Rabbit.
In the midst of this glacial stand-off between superpowers that peaked in 1984, Tom Clancy published The Hunt for Red October. Its plot gripped me from page one. The Soviets launched the maiden voyage of their newest, coolest Cold War weapon, a massive, silent, and virtually undetectable ballistic nuclear missile submarine called the “Red October.” Before embarking, the Red October’s Captain, the secretly renegade Marko Ramius, mailed a letter to his superiors indicating his intent to defect and hand over the prized sub’s technology and nuclear arsenal to the government of the United States.
By the time the Red October departed the Barents Sea for the North Atlantic, the entire Soviet fleet had been deployed to hunt her down and destroy her. American military intelligence knew only that the Soviets had launched a major offensive. An alarmed U.S. Naval fleet deployed to meet them in the North Atlantic, bringing Cold War paranoia to the brink of World War III and nuclear annihilation.
Having few options in the book, the Soviets fabricated to U.S. intelligence a story that they were attempting to intercept a madman, a rogue captain intent on launching a nuclear strike against America. Captain Marko Ramius and the Red October were thus hunted across the Atlantic by the combined naval forces of the world’s two great superpowers operating in tandem, and in panic mode, but for different reasons.
Then the world met Jack Ryan, a somewhat geeky, self-effacing Irish Catholic C.I.A. analyst and historian. Ryan, with an investigator’s eye for detail, had studied Soviet naval policies and what files could be obtained on its personnel. Jack Ryan alone concluded that Captain Marko Ramius was not heading for the U.S. to launch nuclear missiles, but to defect. Ryan had to devise a plan to thwart his own country’s navy, and simultaneously that of the Soviet Union, to bring the defector and his massive submarine into safe harbor.
In the telling of this tale, Tom Clancy nearly got himself into a world of trouble. His understanding of U.S. Navy submarine tactics and weapons technology was so intricately detailed that he was suspected of dabbling in leaked and highly classified documents. When Navy Secretary, John Lehman read the book, he famously shouted, “WHO THE HELL CLEARED THIS?”
The truth is that Tom Clancy was an insurance salesman whose handicap – his acute nearsightedness – kept him out of the Navy. He wrote The Hunt for Red October on an IBM typewriter with notes he collected from his research in the public records of military technology and history available in public libraries and published manuals. His previous writing included only a brief article or two in technical publications.
The Hunt for Red October was so accurately detailed that its publishing rights were purchased by the Naval Institute Press for $5,000. Clancy hoped that it might sell enough copies to cover what he was paid for it. It became the Naval Institute’s first and only published novel, and then it became a phenomenal best seller – thanks in part to President Reagan’s declaration that it was “unputdownable.” And it was! It was also – at 387 pages – the smallest of a dozen novels in a series about Clancy’s hero – and alter ego – Jack Ryan.
THE WORLD THROUGH THE EYES OF JACK RYAN
After devouring The Hunt for Red October in 1984, for the next 25 years – and nearly 10,000 pages of a dozen techno-thrillers – I was privileged to see the world and its political history through the eyes of Tom Clancy’s great protagonist, Jack Ryan.
From that submarine hunt through the North Atlantic, Tom Clancy took us to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in Cardinal of the Kremlin, the Irish Republican Army’s terrorist branches in Patriot Games, the drug cartels of Columbia in Clear and Present Danger, and the threat of domestic terrorism in The Sum of All Fears. This list goes on for another seven titles in the Jack Ryan series alone as the length of Tom Clancy’s stories grew book by book to the 1,028-page tome, The Bear and the Dragon, all published by Putnam. I wrote of Tom Clancy again, and of his gift for analyzing and predicting world events, in one of the most important posts on TSW, “Hitler’s Pope, Nazi Crimes, and The New York Times.”
At the time of Tom Clancy’s death at age 66 on October 1st, he had amassed a literary franchise with 100 million books in print, seven titles that rose to number one on best seller lists, $787 million in box office revenues for film adaptations, and five films featuring his main character, Jack Ryan, successively portrayed by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, and Chris Pine (the latter, and his final book, due out in December).
I once made the chauvinistic mistake of calling Tom Clancy’s novels “guy books.” Mea culpa! It isn’t so, and I was divested of that view by several women I know who love his books. Writing in USA Today (“Clancy’s America knew what he was doing,” October 9) Laura Kenna wrote of Tom Clancy’s sure-footed patriotism as America stood firm against the multitude of clear and present dangers:
“We will miss Tom Clancy, his page-turning prose and the obsessive attention to detail that brought the texture of reality to his books. We have already been missing the political universe from which Clancy came and to which his books promised to transport us, a place never simple, but still certain, where clear convictions made flawed Americans into heroes.” (Laura Kenna, USA Today, Oct. 9, 2 013)
Tom Clancy was himself a flawed American hero who’s nearsighted handicap was in stark contrast to the clarity and certainty of vision that he gave to Jack Ryan, and to America. I think, today, Clancy might write of a new Cold War, not the one about nuclear warheads pointing at America, but the one about Americans pointing at each other. He might today write of a nation grown heavy and weary with debt and entitlement.
As Tom Clancy slipped from this world on October 1st, his country submerged itself into a sea of darker, murkier politics, those of a nation still naively singing the Blues while the Red October slips quietly away.
Editor’s Note: Father MacRae wants to thank TSW readers for their time, prayers, and sacrifices in light of Ryan MacDonald’s guest post last week. Please continue to share links to These Stone Walls among your friends and contacts, social networks, and in other Catholic blogs. Thank you.