By education, I’m a historian, by training a pilot and an illustrator, by trade an author and journalist. Born in 1948 at Ft. Sam Houston, San Antonio, Texas, I grew up an Air Force brat, the only son of a career USAF bomber pilot who retired to the Sacramento, California suburb of Fair Oaks in 1962. After primary schooling in Department of Defense schools in the U.S. and overseas, I graduated from Bella Vista High School in Fair Oaks (1966). Admitted to U.C. Berkeley with honors in 1966, and able to go only by means of a full Regents’ Scholarship, I expected to graduate with my class in 1970 with a degree in Astronomy (I had been president of the Astronomy Club in high school). Alas, the riots and chaos on campus repelled me, so I left U.C. after two quarters–but my studies at Berkeley were not over. Twenty-five years later, I returned to finish what I started and graduated from Berkeley in Dec. 1995 with High Honors in History, having decided that I was more interested in the culture wars swirling around questions like “who owns history?” and what academic historians supposedly knew and why they thought they knew it, than in astrophysics. I had additional reasons to return to study too; like many middle-aged men who were successful at their careers, I’d grown bored with my working life–magazine editing/writing and authoring books. So I called a pause to my book writing and dove back into undergraduate study.
It was very interesting being a student the age of some of my professors, but that’s another story. I was nearly derailed from my plan when, in November, 1995, during my history honors oral exam, Prof. Jim Kettner, head of the honors exam committee and also graduate-admissions boss for the History department, shook my hand, said, “Welcome to the club” (of historians) and then told me he looked forward to getting my graduate study application package so I could continue to research the work I had started with my honors thesis (on the causes and effects of drivers’ licensing in the U.S.). I was tempted to commit to the academic life, but I knew my future lay elsewhere, so I bid adieu to Berkeley again and returned to writing and editing, refreshed by my break, and now also working as an historian of technology.
That lay far ahead when I left Berkeley in 1967; the Vietnam War dominated life for those of us of military age, so in February, 1968, I entered the Air Force, serving on active duty from March 1968 to July, 1972. I did Basic Training at Amarillo AFB, where I took and passed the by-pass test to serve on active duty as an Illustrator, and where, on 21 May 1968, I was awarded the American Spirit Honor Medal. (A by-pass specialty is designated by the Air Force as one in which the skills and talents required can only be refined by training in uniform; most jobs called for a tech school, sometimes of long duration, but music and illustration, for example, were jobs one could do only after taking a test of skill and talent, to be graded by professional military practitioners.)
My active-duty assignments were in Texas (3500 Pilot Training Wing, Reese AFB) and England (513 Tactical Airlift Wing, 513 Combat Support Group, Headquarters Squadron, RAF Mildenhall); on separation from active duty on 5 July 1972, I was an E-5 (Staff Sergeant), and was in the individual ready reserve until honorable discharge, February, 1974.
Having worn glasses since I was 9 years old, I was not “rated” in the Air Force, meaning I couldn’t fly. However, I’d flown with my father from early in my childhood, and did get my pilot’s certificate as a civilian later.
Like many other military pilots, my father was also serious about mechanized speed in any form, and my mother rode motorcycles and horses too so, having inherited their speed-genes, I began going as fast as I could on two wheels and four as soon as I got my driver’s license in 1964 (though I’d been riding since a few days after President Kennedy was assassinated in November, 1963 on a “learner’s permit” aboard an 80cc Yamaha YG-1). One of my classmates was Carl Cranke, later to be a world-famous International Six Days Trial gold-medalist, but at Bella Vista, Carl rode a CB72 Honda with which he raced me aboard my 1964 Yamaha YDS-2 on the street all too often.
This sort of thing led to my finally going road-racing officially in March, 1967, while I was still at Berkeley, racing a new Yamaha 350cc YR-1. That bike put my in the top three finishers at every race I entered with it.
My auspicious start in motorcycle racing gave me reason to think I had the talent to develop the skills necessary to go racing professionally, eventually in Formula One Grand Prix cars. I raced motorcycles because I couldn’t afford a competitive open-wheeled “formula” car. But many racers had made their names racing bikes and then transitioned to cars, and I saw no reason why I could not do the same. So with the help of my father, my friends John Oram and Ted Crum who acted as tuners and pit crew for my racing efforts under the team name of “Thistle Racing Limited” (reflecting my Scottish heritage), I raced as often as I could until I entered the Air Force. And then I discovered, when stationed at Reese AFB, Texas, that road-racing by a young enlisted man was thought of by some in the command as good PR.
I got command approval to race without any trouble, and when I bought a new 1969 Kawasaki A1-R factory Grand Prix road-racing bike for the 250cc GP class, and secured some sponsorship from Price Sport Cycle in Lubbock, I won the first race of the ’69 season, at Austin International. A few weeks later, I arrived at Daytona International Speedway to race in two AMA races with the A1-R and Price Sport Cycle, and was there not on leave, but on official “Permissive TDY” or “temporary duty”–the same kind of TDY granted to tennis and golf pros.
Daytona was a bust for us because of mechanical problems, and I finished behind some of the same men I had beaten two weeks previously at Austin. The Kawasaki was beginning to seem jinxed, and in England, when I began racing it the next year, it continued its breakdowns at race after race.
Finally, with my TRL teammate SSGT Dick Tietjen, assigned to RAF Mildenhall as I was, we bought a new Norton Commando Production Racer, a 750cc four-stroke twin that was a “streetable” racing bike for “production” classes.
Unfortunately, it suffered almost as many breakdowns as the Kawasaki, and thus, when I went back to the States in 1972, I sold it and put off my racing ambitions until I could secure a job to support racing. When my friend John Oram called one day to tell me that the car-racing newspaper Competition Press & Autoweek was moving from its previous location in the San Francisco Bay Area to Reno, and that he knew of an art director job opening up there, I went to Reno and got the job, based on my portfolio of work as a professional illustrator in the Air Force, as well as my other work at RAF Mildenhall as a sports-car training instructor for the innovative “Safety Fast” program for all owners of sports cars on base.
Instituted by my friend and TRL Team Manager, Major Herb Hester, Safety Fast succeeded in dropping automobile fatalities at the base so dramatically that our parent organization, USAFE (United States Air Forces, Europe) almost adopted it for command-wide usage. (Alas, some powerful people, who didn’t like the track-based training, snuffed out the enthusiasm for it on the part of the brass.) Safety Fast was designed to show hotshot pilots and other go-fast types who bought English and European sports cars from the concessionaires on base at significantly reduced prices that they really were not the aces they thought they were, by means of the ages-old method by which Alpha males have always demonstrated superiority to would-be Alphas–beating, them, in short. Maj. Hester would do an initial chalk-talk in the training room, then we’d all decamp to a closed portion of a taxiway, where we’d laid out an autocross course with cones. The trainees were instructed to get to the start-finish line and then give it their best as drivers. Adrenaline flowing, they’d burn rubber, slide, grind gears and otherwise have a lot of fun, everyone of them convinced he was Ace on Base. We’d show them their times on a timing board, and then Maj. Hester would say that SGT Thompson would demonstrate the proper way to do it–in Hester’s wife’s little Morris sedan. I’d roll the dull green minicar to the line, motor away at the signal and then lap the course without screeches, tire burning, or other drama, and inevitably, cross the line with by far the fastest time.
Suitably chagrined, the trainees trooped back to the classroom and started to learn, being finally ready to learn, because they’d been put in their place. My predecessor as training instructor with Maj. Hester had been SSGT Dale Prochazka, a friend, who had been unfortunately killed driving a Formula Ford at Mallory Park.
At Autoweek, my racing plans evaporated after publisher Leon Mandel found out that I had written a motorsports column (“Wheels”) for the U.S. Air Traveller, the RAF Mildenhall newspaper, and convinced me to commit to writing road-tests of the-then often-lousy cars on sale as a sort of special-interest magazine public service. Eventually, however, working both as the art director and as a senior editor exhausted me and my patience, so, in October, 1974, embedded now in the special-interest magazine business and needing a job, I subsequently went to work in Los Angeles (Compton, actually) as the editor-in-chief of Road Test.
At RT, I refined my magazine-making skills and was able to hire some fine people, such as Larry Griffin, who combined his unique talents and training in photography with his dry humor in writing, and the magazine flourished. I found myself too often fruitlessly begging the magazine’s owner for increases in pay for the small staff and increases in budgets for contributors, though, and so, when, in 1976, I was asked by David E. Davis, Jr., editor-publisher of Car and Driver to visit him at the magazine’s offices on the seventh floor of One Park Avenue in New York City to discuss whether I’d like to work there, it didn’t take long to decide. I joined the C/D staff on 1 January 1977 as an executive editor, thereby becoming the youngest (still, as of April, 2014) executive editor (I was 28) of the magazine. With co-executive editor Patrick J. Bedard, I hoped to use Davis’ idea of “issue editors” to create better magazines. The problem besetting all monthly special-interest magazines was that the time lag between the creation of the magazine and its arrival on the newsstands was three months, but the pressure on the typically small editorial staffs was unrelenting, and compressed conception and execution of the concepts to very short periods, necessarily limiting what I used to call “Big Think.”
The tendency was to respond to what was happening “out there” (among enthusiasts, say, or the manufacturers, or among racers) rather than conceiving and executing fresh new editorial ideas. The ultimate goal of such attempts at Big Think and thereby, excellence in comparison with our competition (Motor Tend and Road & Track, primarily) was twofold; first, to expand readership numbers, giving our ad guys quantitative proof of our lead over our colleagues-cum-adversaries at other magazines, and second, of course, to help us with our own “psychic pay.”
But things didn’t work out as I’d hoped. After a little more than a year at One Park Avenue, New York, unwilling to make the move to Ann Arbor, Michigan that the publisher demanded, I left C/D in May, 1978 and accepted another publisher’s request to redesign Cycle Guide magazine, and then to become the editorial director overseeing the implementation of the redesign, once again in LA, beginning in July, 1978. Cycle Guide’s redo was very successful, and though its circulation stood at 92,000 when I took over its editorial direction, the combination of the redesign and editorial philosophy with new staffers helped it get to more than 200,000 by early 1981.
I had made my acceptance of the publisher’s request to go to California to direct the implementation of the redesign contingent on my being allowed to take a sabbatical to write my first novel–Recovery–and so, in 1979, with CG well on its way, I took the month of August to finish the book I had started in New York. My agent had taken the first three chapters I’d done to several publishers in NYC in 1977, and both had made offers on the book, which convinced us both that I should proceed with writing the full ms. in order to overcome what used to be called the “first novel” problem. That problem was the one created by a first-novelist getting an advance to finish his book and then becoming paralyzed. First novels by “unknown” authors do much better when they are presented to publishers as finished works, so my agent, Jacques de Spoelberch, took Recovery to auction in 1979 and the book was the subject of a mild “bidding war” between Dell-Delacorte and Warner Books. We accepted the deal from Warner, which included the commissioning of a sequel to Recovery and another novel, and it was published in 1980.
While I was writing the new novels, I was still retained as a consulting editorial director to CG, but interest in flying led to the final phase of my full-time magazine editing in March, 1982. After I’d sent a story called “The Peter Pan Perspective” to AOPA Pilot, which the editor-in-chief, Edward G. Tripp, liked, he asked me to think about joining the magazine in Bethesda, Maryland, inside the infamous D.C. Beltway. In March, 1982, I decided that using my magazine career to do something more useful than to help make corporate owners more money was attractive enough to join the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association as executive editor, and so my wife and family left our home in San Pedro, Calif. and moved to Bethesda.
I enjoyed working for the association and running the magazine, and tried (with only limited success) to fly as much as I could. General aviation faced serious problems in the early 1980s, chiefly from over-regulation by the government, and attacks by product-liability lawyers on the small manufacturers (small by comparison to, say, General Motors) of light aircraft, and both membership in AOPA and participation in aviation by “everyman” pilots were declining. Rising costs had much to do with the problems, too, as the early 1980s saw very high inflation. I believed that we at AOPA had an obligation to ensure that the dream of access to and involvement in flying by anyone who could meet the licensing requirements should not be snuffed out by the interests of the airlines or the regulators, so I worked hard to help spread what my friend and fellow historian Joe Corn famously called “The Winged Gospel” in his book of the same name.
In 1983, Ed Tripp nominated me to to the position of VP-Publications so I could be the chief operating officer of the publications division (we produced nine different publications every year), thus freeing him to work harder as senior VP. The Board of Trustees agreed and made me a vice president. I had structured my contract with AOPA so that I could take a working sabbatical for novels, and in mid-1984, took a couple of months to do so. However, in October, 1984, when another two of my novels sold simultaneously, I realized I could not continue to handle my AOPA responsibilities and also write seriously with the commitment the projects demanded, so I resigned and have been a freelance writer and editor since. Along the way, I’ve held masthead positions with Car and Driver, AutoWeek, Cycle World, CityBike, Urban Moto, RANGE, Air & Space/Smithsonian and Technology & Culture.
My life at speed on wheels and wings was exhilarating. But what I discovered as I lived the adventure of life was that, however interesting, captivating, satisfying or rewarding in other ways, the machines that made the journey possible were not as fascinating as the people I met along the way as I rode, drove, and flew through life. Thus it was these people who generated my desire to write books.
For example, my first novel–Recovery, published in hardback and paperback by Warner Books in 1980 and 1981–was based on the realities behind the work of the military men and women who held the line against the Soviet Union in Europe, especially those of the U.S. Military Liaison Mission in Potsdam, East Berlin. It likewise included aerospace technologies not then in use but in development, and consequently, many readers seemed to conclude that the book was entirely fiction of the fantasy/sci-fi sort, because they knew nothing or very little about the post-WWII Cold War, apart from what they read or saw in the mainstream media. Recovery nevertheless became a solid seller in the USA and overseas, and thanks to the efforts of my agent Jacques de Spoelberch and his film sub-agent, Gary Cosay, the book was made into a movie by a small Franco-American company called Filmaccord. They took a long time to transform my novel into their film, called “Honor Bound“(directed by Jeannot Szwarc and starring Tom Skerritt), and because its central “villain”–the Berlin Wall–fell before it was ready for release, after a couple of test-marketing audience previews, the directors of the company decided not to release it here. As “Red End,” however, it has been shown in Europe. Recovery also has been a best-seller in Japan thanks to the translation talents of Hiroshi Takami, appearing in a new edition most recently (2010) by Hayakawa, though Shinchosha originally published it.
Likewise, my next novel, Countdown to China, also for Warner Books and also starring Max Moss, the military hero of Recovery, centered on the all-too-real problem of technologically enhanced micromanagement by political leaders in military operations. Though some–mostly ex-military, like me–knew all too well then-President Lyndon Johnson’s boast in the Vietnam War that, “They can’t bomb a shithouse without asking my permission first,” most civilians probably had no idea just how crippling such micromanagement of military affairs could be. This novel’s purpose was to show how, in that period of the Cold War, a president could easily use the technology of the time to achieve purely self-serving political ends while appearing to be acting for the common good. It was left to the ingenuity of then-Master Sergeant Max Moss to defuse the crisis that the president created, and do it before World War III was inadvertently begun. My military life had shown me several times how crises like these came about, and how little–or nothing–civilians knew about them, or how close to nuclear war we came.
In 1983, when I wrote the third in the Max Moss series, Bismarck Cross (for Tor Books), its central problem–the attempt to re-unify East and West Germany by rogue senior officers in the Deutsche Luftwaffe in the West and by highly placed counter-intelligence officers in the East–was thought by most people to be beyond unlikely. I asked a neighbor in my Maryland Beltway suburb, himself a senior officer in the West German military, for help in getting the background details right, and though he happily did so, he believed that East and West Germany would never be reunited in his lifetime. So, five years after the novel was published, and the Berlin Wall fell, I often wondered how my German friend reacted, just as I wondered what people who had read the book reacted when life went far beyond imitating, as it were, my art in the novel.
Another then-unlikely element of Bismarck Cross was the role of a major new character, Army Capt. Sandy Koppel, who was making her career in the Army and was seeking ever more challenging and dangerous missions, but who was prevented from participation in combat. Even so, I put Sandy Koppel and then-First Lieutenant Max Moss in combat at the end of the novel, when everything depended on their ability to survive and prevail.
Prevailing was and is a trait that men like Max Moss have in common; I have known a handful of such men, and they always seem to succeed where others fail. This too is a reality that often seems difficult for many people to accept, maybe because equality not merely of opportunity but of outcomes is so common a belief nowadays. People are of course not equal, and never have been, except in our Constitutional terms, and so it is that Max, despite owning traits that hamper him as much as help him, finds ways to do what others cannot, or will not.
This quality of persistence in order to prevail is often what defines men who become what others call heroes. Max is “heroic” in this sense, but he is also heroic in that he knows right from wrong and chooses right, no matter what the cost to him. In the context of reality being much stranger than fiction, I have been fortunate also in knowing men and women who have acted in this way when the chips were down, and though some paid the price in personal and often tragic ways, it always seemed to me that too much of what has passed for good writing in the last 40 years has de-emphasized the value of such behavior.
It was in that larger world of what used to be called contemporary fiction that I deliberately couched the stories of the five (so far) Max Moss novels as problems of ethics and morality as well as technologically centered “thrillers” with an emphasis on socio-political events of the possible near future. Choices have to be made by each of us in our lives, some small, seemingly, and some obviously momentous, and how and why we make those choices defines not only our personal but our societal history. Max has, as have some men of my acquaintance, a knack–maybe “curse” would be a better word– for finding himself at the intersections of events whose outcomes he and he alone can and must influence for better or worse.
The fourth and fifth Max Moss novels–Airburst and Top End (commissioned by Randall Toye at Worldwide Books)–focus on the strange and often unforeseeable ways in which events widely spaced in time and place can intersect to create crises which men (and women) with Max’s capabilities and character must act upon. The former story (conceived in the mid-1980s) involves Arab Islamic terrorists acquiring a “suitcase” nuclear weapon from Israel and attempting to use it in a light aircraft over the nation’s capital to extract military and political concessions from the United States and Israel. My years flying such aircraft and working at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association near D.C. aided this story’s verisimilitude, as did my knowing a bit more than most people did about aviation security. A gratifying nod to how the book succeeded in being accurate was that it was used as a briefing aid in an aviation-security seminar for airport operators not long after it was published. Also, the book proposed that unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) would soon become vital tools for many military aviation missions, and laid out what some of those could be–long before UAVs became part of the arsenals of the U.S. and other nations.
Top End dealt with the possible effects of privatization of some traditional government missions–in this case, border security. While on assignment in Australia in 1986, I’d read an editorial column in a Sydney newspaper condemning a plan the government was proposing to privatize aerial patrol of much of Australia’s immense shoreline, mainly in the Northern Territory, or “Top End” of Australia, as the Aussies call it. This struck me as dereliction of duty, since providing for the common defense of the nation is one of the fundamental duties of any government. Thus the plot for Top End centered on the activities of a man who creates a company to win the contract for shoreline surveillance of the northern and northwestern coast of Australia, and how such a man can so easily be someone who should not be in such a position of power. Max gets involved with the man–Rupert Halford–when thieves working for Halford steal electronics developed by Max’s father’s company in Sunnyvale, California, that are intended for use by the U.S. military. Though Moss Electronics’ insurance company pays for the loss, Max refuses to let the matter drop, and chases down the equipment and the man behind its theft when nobody else will.
Doing what nobody else will also was behind the novel I co-authored with Walter J. Boyne, published in 1986 as The Wild Blue. I’d grown up in the postwar Air Force, and served in it during the Vietnam War. I knew first-hand the sacrifices made by the people who served in Air Force Blue since the service was created as a wholly separate branch in 1947. As a retired Air Force colonel, Walt knew the society well too, so he agreed with me that something should be written to fill in the blank pages of history made by us, our families, and those like us throughout the Cold War and Vietnam War period. I proposed a co-authored nonfiction social history, but Walt convinced me that the research we’d need for that simply didn’t exist, and that we’d could capture most of what we wanted people to know about by writing a novel together.
After I agreed, The Wild Blue was commissioned by Crown, and appeared in 1986, to become a New York Times best-seller in hardback and paperback. Many compromises were made in order to get it out, among them our plan for the book, which was proposed as an anthology. Crown rejected that approach, asking us to give the reader a “core cast” of characters who would live the history we wanted to illuminate from 1947 to 1987–no small order and one that strained believability to the breaking point. But both Walt and I knew Air Force people whose careers would seem fantastic, even unbelievable to most readers, so we stitched together our fictionalized social history and like the people in it, it soared.
But that, as they say, is another story entirely. As is the story told in my first nonfiction book, Bodies in Motion: Evolution and Experience in Motorcycling. Represented by my agent Deborah Clarke Grosvernor and initially commissioned by Howard E. Boyer, Jr., at the University of California Press in 1997 as a social history of motorcycling, it became something else entirely when I began asking questions that a strictly conventional social history could not answer. Specifically, I asked why some people have liked, even loved motorcycling since its advent as a popular pursuit more than a century ago, while others disliked and even hated it. Motorcycle lore is and always has been rich with stories about why this is, but they are like religious precepts: they can’t be verified.
As someone who entered higher education expecting to be an astrophysicist, and who spent as much time on science projects and reading in high school as he did going too fast on motorcycles and in cars, phenomena which can’t be scientifically defined or measured annoy me the way a burr under a saddle blanket annoys a horse. Most motorcyclists are happy with their lore, and don’t care what truths might lie behind it. They just want to ride and revel in their cultures and subcultures. And of course, those who either never think about or who actively dislike or even despise motorcycling and motorcyclists don’t much care about why either.
But I do, and so did the editor, Howard Boyer. As a rider himself as well as an editor who had commissioned important books about biology and behavior, Howard instantly gave me permission to pursue the science behind the “why” questions I posed, and the book that had been launched as a social history became the report of a years-long science-centered research effort. Along the way, I took the research into uncharted territory for books even remotely “about” motorcycling–into evolutionary biology and psychology, and into original research into the stimuli fed, willy-nilly, into riders and passengers on motorcycles as vibration. In 2001, a small donation to Stanford University and a bit of leverage from my friend Prof. James L. Adams of the engineering department made possible a vibration study of nine iconic motorcycles by graduate students who designed the test and equipment, than used it to determine what was being fed into a rider at the man-machine-interface points of the handlebar, seat, and footpeg.
When Bodies in Motion was completed and submitted as a draft to UC Press, it was politely but firmly declined for publication, in part because Howard had been fired and in part because it seemed the Press didn’t want to figure out how to market something that was midway between being a scholarly study and a popular moto-book. That’s when Andy Goldfine, a longtime friend and inventive genius who created the “Roadcrafter” riding suit that is still sold today by his company, Aerostich, asked to read the book. After he read it, he immediately also asked to publish it. He explains for himself why (you can read his Foreword at on the book’s website), but ultimately, I believe it is because that Andy is a truth-seeker, like me, and thinks that works which help us better understand ourselves as we really are ought to be supported and widely read.
If the story behind how Bodies in Motion was published seems unlikely, it is not because of the story. It is because of how one perceives what is likely and what is not. This should not be news to anyone. Long ago, Shakespeare reminded us of why through Hamlet’s observation to his Wittenberg University classmate that:
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
‘Nuff said. For now.