In this Father’s Day edition of Expatriate Act, your host sits down with his pops to discuss the old man’s prepubescent escape from the seminary, his enlistment in the Air Force, his narrow evasion of the Vietnam War, his reassignment to Greenland (where he encountered many a musk ox, including an especially noteworthy one named Willie), his reassignment to Greece, the successful courtship of the love of his life, their reassignment to North Dakota, his work with Minuteman III missiles at the peak of the Cold War, his reassignment to Nebraska, his adjustment to civilian life, a local scandal called Donglegate, an even greater scandal involving Nixon-level phone tapping on the part of the Bellevue, Nebraska Chief of Police, his forced retirement, and his successful career (starting at age 67) as a best-selling Western novelist. This interview is available both in transcript form and in robot voice form for the alphabetically impaired.
Petit: When you were rather young, you very nearly joined the seminary, if I recall correctly.
Dad: Oh, yeah. Yep.
Petit: How old were you when you did that?
Petit: Was that because of familial pressure or —
Dad: Oh, no. I was thirteen. I had no idea what sex was. When I was an eighth grader, a parish priest handed me a book and I looked at it and went, “Oh my God.” Eventually, I ran away.
Petit: You ran away from the seminary.
Petit: You ran away from —
Petit: Okay, well — yeah, I can see that. It’s intimidating at that age.
Dad: When you’re thirteen and you’re reading a book and it says “your winkie has to go in there,” you go, “oh, shit, God!”
Petit: I get that. You know, it’s going in there, but is it going to come back out? Or what’s going to happen? It’s very daunting stuff. So the seminary was one way in which you wouldn’t ever have to do that thing. But I imagine that, over the years, your perspective changed.
Dad: One day you discover them: boobies.
Petit: Yeah, that happened to me, too. I think it happened overnight. I woke up and I realized, “Whoa. What are these things?” Granted, I never even entertained the thought of joining the seminary. It was just not an option past a certain point. But didn’t you have some weird nickname for them when you were a kid?
Petit: I’ve never heard of that before.
Dad: Me neither!
Petit: Was it some other kid who came up with that?
Dad: I don’t know!
Petit: Never heard of meagles. I’ve heard of all sorts of other terminologies for that part of the female anatomy, but I would imagine that meagles are not widely known outside of Cranston, Rhode Island.
Petit: Warwick, Rhode Island. So, after you ditched the seminary you went to college —
Dad: No. Then I went to high school. Then I joined the Air Force.
Petit: Right after high school.
Dad: Oh, yeah.
Petit: What’d they have you doing in the Air Force at first?
Dad: Well, first they asked me what I wanted to do. I said, “Anything but become a medic.”
Petit: So they made you a medic.
Dad: They told us “Half of you are going to Vietnam as medics.”
Petit: Holy shit.
Dad: Another forty would go to tech school to become medics. Six would become x-ray techs. Six would become pharmacy techs. And where we were sent was based on our medical knowledge. On the first test, I scored 15%. One five. Fifteen percent.
Petit: On purpose?
Dad: No. I had no idea about anything medical.
Petit: Because you hadn’t studied that before.
Dad: I hated medicine, which is why I didn’t want to be a medic. I hated blood, you know.
Petit: Yeah, me too.
Dad: When they told us, “We give you an assignment based on how well you did,” I said, “Oh my God.”
Petit: You thought you might go to Vietnam.
Dad: Yeah! After that — well, there were 128 of us in the class and, for the first time in my life, I studied my ass off. I finished second.
Petit: You finished second in the class?
Petit: So you got to be an x-ray tech?
Petit: Did they send you to Greenland right away?
Dad: No. I went home. I was supposed to be going to Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio, Texas. When I got home I received a telegram sending me to Laredo, Texas. So, off I went. That was in April of ‘69, I guess. I got there. Then I got married. We moved into an apartment off base. Then, in ‘71, I re-enlisted.
Petit: When did the Vietnam War end again?
Petit: So you’re still kinda like —
Dad: No. I volunteered to go to Vietnam, as an x-ray tech in a hospital. Anyway, I re-enlisted, basic preference: Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, which is out in the panhandle, near Pensacola. Beautiful. I was there not six months when I got an assignment. They said, “Hey, you have an order. You’re going to Greenland.” I said, “Get out of here.” But, yeah I was. Off I went.
Petit: Was there a particular city that you guys were close to?
Dad: There aren’t any.
Petit: Was it on the coast? I suppose it would have to have been.
Dad: Yeah. During World War II, it used to be called Bluie West-8, I think. It was used for repairing bombers and airplanes.
Petit: Headed to and from Europe?
Dad: Yeah. So, there was a big runway, and you had to fly around this fjord to get in there and, believe it or not, on the other side of the base was a big hotel and these 747s would fly in there, full of tourists.
Dad: Natives. Native tourists, right? The airplane would land and taxi, and these helicopters would take the tourists wherever they wanted to go. They also had direct flights to Copenhagen, and I passed up an opportunity to catch a free flight to Denmark.
Petit: Really? Why?
Dad: We had a crazy man from Copenhagen.
Petit: What was his name?
Dad: Björn. He went nuts after two years in Greenland.
Petit: Was it because of the excess sun in the summer or the darkness in the winter?
Dad: [waves hand dismissively] Danish people, after two years in Greenland, don’t have to pay taxes. This guy went to Greenland to skip out on taxes and never left. He went nuts. Somebody was supposed to fly with him back to Copenhagen. They gave me the job and I said no. Because he was nuts.
Petit: That’s what we, in the Peace Corps, would call a “wack evac,” I believe.
Dad: They eventually sent him back with a Danish handler. They were sitting there on the plane and Björn just goes … [straight Scandinavian gibberish].
Petit: Total gibberish. Did it mean anything in Danish?
Dad: Not to the Danish guy with him. His handler was confused and asked what Björn was talking about. Björn said, “I’m not talking to you. I’m talking to the guy in the seat next to you.” And the seat was empty.
Petit: Makes sense. Was he sane before he went to Greenland? Normal guy?
Dad: Yeah. He went stir crazy.
Petit: How old were you when you were in Greenland? Nineteen? Twenty?
Petit: And you were on x-ray tech duty?
Dad: Yeah, and once a week we had to ride the ambulance. One night we get a call to go pick up someone off base who had been injured. And we’re like, “Where?” And it was this American idiot who had gone camping by the fjord by himself, and had a musk ox step on his face.
Petit: Like, right on his mouth?
Petit: Well, a musk ox, from what I understand, is not a particularly dainty animal.
Dad: No. He lost some teeth. He came in, we intubated him — he was in shock and the air went right in through his mouth through his nose.
Petit: Wasn’t there a boxer or something who got punched in the nose and brain fluid started —
Dad: We had an airman come in, normal guy, with his head up and holding a bunch of tissues under his nose.
Petit: Like a nosebleed or something.
Petit: Except it wasn’t blood — it was, whaddya call it … brain …
Dad: Spinal fluid.
Petit: Right. Spinal fluid.
Dad: And I said, “Oh my God. What happened?” He said, “Nothing!” So we took him to this clinic and found a fissure in his skull. And we asked him, “What are you doing here?”
Petit: Right. You should be in the ER or something!
Dad: Somewhere overseas. We checked his medical records and the Head of the ENT department [at his previous assignment] had written that Admiral So-and-So has this fissure in his skull and should never be assigned somewhere outside of ten miles from any major medical facility. Right?
Petit: You’d think at that point it should just be, like — you should not be in the military.
Petit: How’d he get the fissure?
Dad: Congenital. Four pages later in this document: a red rubber stamp. Admiral So-and-So is cleared for reassignment in Greenland.
Petit: Was he just oozing spinal fluid all the time?
Dad: Usually when he was flying, because of the change in the air pressure.
Petit: Is that damaging at all? I mean — I’m no doctor, but constantly leaking spinal fluid can’t be good.
Dad: If you don’t stop it.
Petit: But otherwise, just rubber stamp him, let him go wherever he wants.
Petit: What ever happened with the musk ox guy? Did he get all his teeth back? Was he permanently deformed after that?
Dad: Nope. They fixed him up. He was a civilian. He was an RCA contract worker. He worked on radars.
Petit: RCA? Like the record company, or the VHS company back in the day?
Petit: That actually relates to what I was going to ask you next. It’s obviously very different now. Our generation just steals music off the internet. We don’t listen to an entire album. We just listen to one or two songs and then we’re good. But you mentioned to me that on the Air Force Base, they used to have listening rooms, right?
Dad: Yeah, yeah.
Petit: You’d go in these listening rooms, check out a record and a pair of headphones, and boom: there you go. And I remember you describing to me the first time you listened to Sgt. Pepper’s —
Dad: Sgt. Pepper’s. I thought my head was going to explode.
Petit: Which track was that? “A Day in the Life,” with all the strings at the end, I imagine?
Dad: Yep, yep.
Petit: Nobody really had recording technology like that at the time. I mean, The Beatles.
Dad: Interesting story about music in Greenland, right? In Greenland, across the hall from me, was the new staff sergeant named Faustino Suviv. And Faustino had a temper. One night, the guy next door started blasting his music late at night while Faustino was trying to get some work done, so Faustino threw a baseball bat at him.
Petit: He threw a what?
Dad: A baseball bat. It went right through the guy’s door.
Petit: And it just stuck in there, or what?
Dad: Yeah! Later on, we had this sergeant named Joe — nice guy — and Joe liked soul music.
Petit: Like Sam Cooke? James Brown? Sam and Dave? That kinda stuff?
Dad: None of that. That’s the good stuff. I don’t know where he found it, but he found the worst soul music out there and listened to it all the time.
Petit: Poor taste.
Dad: Right. Everybody on base bought new stereos.
Petit: Because what else did you have to do up there?
Dad: Right. Joe bought a GE stereo for $49.95. It had a turntable with two plastic speakers. It sounded like crap.
Petit: For $49 bucks? I mean, back then, that must’ve been —
Dad: No. It was crap. You could buy a good amplifier for $200, you know what I mean?
Dad: And he had all these records, and he’d put three of them on —
Petit: With the kind of automatic robot arm kind of thing?
Dad: Yeah. I wasn’t that forward about it. I lived with it. But Faustino hated it. So he goes to the same shop, buys the same shitty stereo for $49.95, and starts blasting really bad mariachi music. So one day, everyone decided they’d had enough and they smashed them up.
Petit: Smashed up the stereos?
Dad: Both of them.
Petit: Who did? Everyone?
Dad: Everyone except for me.
Petit: So it was like the Cold War of shitty plastic GE stereos.
Petit: Mutually Assured Destruction — through sound.
Dad: Yep. It was weird.
Petit: How long were you there?
Dad: One year.
Petit: What was your reaction when they first told you that you were going to Greenland?
Dad: I didn’t believe ‘em.
Petit: You didn’t believe ‘em?
Dad: I said, “Get outta here.”
Petit: The Peace Corps, at first, told me that they were going to send me to Mongolia. I thought, “Hey, that sounds great!” Then I thought about it for a while and said, “You know what —” I mean, it sounded appealing to me until I thought about living in a yurt for two years.
Dad: [googling] See, there it is: Sondrestrom Air Base.
Petit: That picture’s from 1974. That must’ve been a little bit after the time that you were there.
Dad: That was the year I was there. Funny thing is, it closed in 1992. It is now Kangerlussuaq Airport, the main hub for flying in and out of Greenland.
Petit: So it’s just a regular airport now?
Petit: You mentioned before seeing an ice cap — what the heck is an ice cap? I know what a glacier is because in Georgia, I actually got to see one. But I really have no idea what an ice cap is.
Dad: It’s basically an unmoving glacier that’s miles thick. We went up to see the ice caps once in a while and the ice was just clear, and the water, when you drank it: no taste. It was just wet. Completely pure. One time, Faustino went up there and he was climbing this trail and he ran into a musk ox.
Petit: Like, face-to-face?
Petit: And they have horns, right? The curly ones?
Dad: Yeah. And they are mean.
Petit: They’re aggressive.
Dad: Very. He tried to take a picture of the thing, but it was blurry. He couldn’t focus.
Petit: He was shaking.
Dad: I assume, yeah.
Petit: Was that the only kind of nature there? Musk oxen?
Dad: Oh, no. There were foxes.
Dad: You’d see them in the spring and they were brown or gray. But in the winter, they were completely white. On the base, they were scavengers. Anyway, here’s an interesting story about musk oxen: Willie. Willie the Musk Ox. There was a restaurant on base and, because of this restaurant, Willie wouldn’t leave the base. At one point, they herded him into a C-130 and dropped him off on the ice cap. But a few weeks later, Willie came right back. The thing with Willie, though, was that he didn’t like cars. So one day, the command flight sergeant — the flight sergeant general — was visiting to take a tour of the base. Willie was standing there in the middle of the road. The driver was US Army. The general was in the other seat. And the commander and the doctor were sitting in the jumpseats. And Willie’s standing there in the road. He walks away for a minute, but then walks right back. The general didn’t know the situation with Willie, so he honked the horn. Willie started grunting, then he rammed the front of the ambulance. Then he rammed the side. Now, musk oxen at the time were considered by Denmark to be a national protected species.
Petit: Like an endangered species kind of thing?
Dad: Sure. There were laws against killing musk oxen.
Petit: So there’s no shooting them or running them over or anything like that.
Dad: But the wing commander gives the order to some Danish major to shoot Willie.
Petit: Like, from a plane?
Petit: With a machine gun or something? On the ground?
Dad: Yeah, on the ground. Standing there with an M-16. So they gave him the order, the Dutch guy approved it, and someone else killed Wilile. So, eventually, the Danish major who authorized it was summoned by the King of Denmark. He had the major come to Copenhagen.
Petit: And what did the King of Denmark say unto him?
Dad: We don’t know. He never came back.
Petit: Was he dismissed or discharged or something?
Dad: We don’t know. Never found out.
Petit: The King of Denmark had some choice words for him.
Dad: Willie the Musk Ox — [is googling]. There he is.
Petit: That’s the same one?
Petit: That’s the same musk ox that you knew back in the seventies?
Petit: Holy shit.
[folk music interlude: “Willie the Musk Ox” by Al Perry]
Petit: That is bizarre. Now, this might have to do with the mental state of your friend Björn, there, but you were in Greenland for a year, so you probably got half the year of total darkness and half the year of total sunlight.
Dad: We lost the sun on November 11th and it came back on December the 13th.
Dad: What’s weirder is that every single month after December, you never sleep.
Petit: Right. In Sweden, they have Midsummer or whatever, where the sun just stays up a full twenty-four hours.
Dad: It used to drive us nuts. You couldn’t get to sleep because: sun’s up, sun’s up.
Petit: How late did the sun use to stay up?
Dad: It never went down.
Petit: Did that drive people nuts after a while?
Dad: Yeah! It gave people what we called “the big eye.” People would put aluminum foil up to block their windows, but it didn’t matter.
Petit: Right — because your circadian rhythms are all messed up. Was it similarly disorienting in the winter?
Dad: Oh, yeah. On January 9th, I think, I went to sleep and it was forty degrees below zero.
Petit: Holy shit.
Dad: But by the time I woke up, it was forty degrees above zero.
Petit: So a temperature shift of eighty degrees?
Petit: How warm did it get in the summer?
Dad: Eighty, eighty-five degrees. But in the winter, it would get so cold that if you wanted to drive anywhere, you’d have to pull up to the mechanic’s shed and the guy would fill the thing up with about a quart of oil, with the engine still running. If you turned it off, it just wouldn’t start up again unless you rocked it back and forth.
Petit: How many people were stationed there?
Dad: About 120.
Petit: And what did everyone do to stay sane? Play basketball?
Dad: I played a lot of basketball — one-on-one — with my friend Ron Leonard. And I beat him once.
Petit: Out of how many attempts?
Dad: About 300. We also had a swimming pool —
Petit: Indoor or outdoor?
Dad: What do you think? Indoor swimming pool. But you’d jump in and jump right back out because it was so fucking cold.
Petit: And then you were stationed in Greece?
Dad: Two years. Two-and-a-half.
Petit: You were only in Greenland for one year, so that’s good. Two years might’ve driven you Björny.
Dad: I loved Greece.
Petit: Did you get a lot of R&R time there to see the country?
Dad: My ex-wife didn’t like to go anywhere. It was just home, base, home, base.
Petit: Where were you stationed in Greece?
Dad: Athens, at Hellenikon Air Base. While I was there, I really wanted to see Greece. I had a motorcycle.
Petit: Drive up into the mountains. Ancient ruins and all that stuff?
Dad: Here were are in Bellevue, Nebraska, and we have a hundred-year-old —
Petit: Oh, yeah. That crappy log cabin. It’s 150 years old!
Dad: I remember we went on a fishing trip and right there were some Roman aqueducts.
Petit: And what did you think of the Greek people?
Dad: … odd.
Dad: Everything was “tomorrow, tomorrow …”
Petit: Mañana, mañana …
Dad: To give you an idea, I needed to register my cars. Two cars, two motorcycles.
Petit: What kind of cars did you have?
Dad: I had a Volkswagen Karmann and a Ford Taunus. German cars. You couldn’t paint your car without paying taxes, and they charged you taxes based on the size of the motor. Because we were military, we didn’t have to pay any taxes, so I don’t think they liked us very much. But when you went to register a car, there wasn’t a line: just a crowd.
Petit: So, like in China, waiting for a train: whoever shoves their way to the front gets to be first in line.
Dad: Yeah. And when you finally made it, they took you down to a basement. And there you find this old man — I’m not kidding you — in this dark room. And he takes your papers and pulls out this giant ledger.
Petit: It sounds like something out of Kafka.
Dad: Or Indiana Jones.
Petit: He goes into the vault, pulls out this dusty old book, like the original Bible or something —
Dad: And he just looks at it and goes — tomorrow, tomorrow.
Petit: No ticket. What year is this? 1970 …
Petit: So about eight years before I came into existence?
Dad: Yeah. He would have you sign something and then he’d take the book back into these stacks, and you knew they’d never find it in a million years. If they were measuring your car, it usually took them an entire day.
Petit: I thought the DMV was bad; this sounds like hell on earth.
Dad: One of the funniest things was, I needed a part for my Ford. You go in and you just show the guy the part. He opens up a box and just starts rummaging around until he finds something that fits.
Petit: Eh, it’ll work. Close enough. Did you get stationed anywhere else outside of the United States?
Dad: Nope. Just Greenland and Greece.
Petit: I imagine Greece was probably your favorite of the two.
Dad: Oh, yeah. I love the Mediterranean.
Petit: Oddly, they stationed you in two places that, I think, are in alphabetical order. Greece and Greenland. I think if you flipped through the almanac —
Dad: I noticed.
Petit: And you met my mom — your wife — in Mississippi?
Dad: No. In Texas. Officer training school.
Petit: Where in Texas?
Dad: San Antonio. In September of 1980, we were having a flight meeting and I walked in and I saw your mom sitting in the corner, on the floor, just blah. I remember that. And then she broke her leg. Or maybe her foot.
Petit: She broke her hand at one point, I think.
Dad: Her hand. That’s right. She broke her hand. It really set her back. She was doing officer training and she was in my class. I asked her how she was doing, and she started crying.
Petit: And you were the x-ray tech, so you were allowed to ask such questions.
Dad: Well, at the time, I thought of her as a friend. She was just surprised that someone picked up on the fact that she wasn’t doing so well. Anyway, I was married and I didn’t think anything would happen. I remember trying to fix her up with my brother Dan. And that’s when my marriage blew up.
Petit: You tried to fix her up with Uncle Dan just to kind of keep her in your life?
Petit: Now, I don’t know if I have my uncles correct here, but Dan’s a little …
Petit: He’s a conspiracy theorist and what not.
Dad: Oh, yeah. So she was only there for three or four weeks. But guess who was in charge of their flight? Me.
Petit: There you go.
Dad: I remember telling our captain, “I know I’m in charge of her flight, but I care about OT (Officer Trainee) MacKenzie.” Anyway, I told my ex that I wanted a divorce and your mom was really a mix of hope and fear.
Petit: She was afraid that you’d go back to the ex and she’d convince you to stay and —
Dad: Yeah. I went back to the ex and I told her I wanted a divorce, and the first thing that she said was, “What’s in it for me?”
Petit: What’s in it for me?
Petit: Like, financially?
Petit: How romantic!
Dad: When I was in Greenland, she was thinking of divorcing me.
Petit: So she already had plans.
Dad: Oh, yeah.
Petit: If I remember correctly, mom’s rules for you — and I was telling a friend of mine this the other day, and she said, “Well, I get the one, but I don’t get the other.” — but mom’s rules for you were “No more motorcycles,” which makes total sense. You look at fatality statistics —
Dad: Oh, they’re crazy.
Petit: But the other one was, “No more fishing.”
Dad: Oh, I didn’t care about that.
Petit: Was that just because she thought it was gross?
Dad: No. Her father used to fish.
Petit: Oh, yeah.
Dad: So I drove in the middle of the night all the way from Missouri to San Antonio and your mom had been … tippling.
Petit: Because she was nervous or anxious about the situation?
Dad: She was a nervous wreck. I called her and she asked, “Where are you?” And I said, “I’m coming down to see you before I drive to California.”
Petit: What were you driving to California for?
Dad: To Vandenberg Air Force Base. Missile training. You know, ICBMs.
Petit: That was a new thing for you, right? How’d you get onto the missile training tip?
Dad: I was getting my degree.
Petit: What were you getting your degree in?
Dad: Healthcare management.
Petit: Was that at Park College?
Petit: And once again, the Air Force gives you everything you don’t want.
Dad: Right. They made me take the GMAT exam, and I scored in the 90th percentile.
Petit: You did really well on that.
Petit: So they said, “We could use this guy for something else.”
Dad: They asked me, “Do you really want to be a missile guy?” I said, “Sure. I don’t care.”
Petit: It was a prime time to be a missile guy. Cold War, right?
Petit: Where did mom wind up?
Dad: She finished training and wound up in Mississippi. In April, I was transferred to Grand Forks, North Dakota. They asked your mom where she wanted to go and she said “Grand Forks” and they said —
Petit: What the …
Dad: Pretty much.
Petit: So you were up in Grand Forks working with ICBMs — the Minuteman missile?
Petit: Now, in my imagination — I don’t know if I actually heard this from you or this is just the way I imagine it — but you’re in some underground silo or bunker, right?
Petit: And you have one half of the code and the other guy has the other half — or something like that? That was your technical title, right? Missile coder?
Dad: No, that was later. I started out as a missile combat crew member. I was working with the Minuteman III.
Petit: If you guys received a signal that the Soviets had shot nuclear warheads at the United States, what would your job have been?
Dad: Alright, here’s the way it worked. Remember the movie Wargames?
Petit: I vaguely remember it, but I heard that it sucked.
Dad: It was stupid for a few reasons. But the way it worked was: we had different grades of alert levels. Then we had numbers printed out on computer sheets. These numbers were in three books. One-time use. And if things get serious — if things get really, really serious — you tell the sergeant one of these numbers, say: 81. And he writes that down. The number on the sheet is called the RCN (Radar Control Number). So the sergeant says, “We’ve got a situation here,” and you’d say, “What’s your RCN?” He’d say something like “Alpha Whiskey.”
Petit: So, A-W.
Petit: Did they have a list of targets, for example, or a map of places they wanted to hit?
Dad: They didn’t have a map. But we knew that at any time, if there was a place we wanted to hit, we could hit it. In the silo, there was this hatch that you had to crank open. You had command of ten missiles that were in different stages of readiness: launch, inhibit, online, enabled.
Petit: And “enabled” means, “oh, shit.” You turn the key and —
Dad: Yeah. All day long, we heard messages. An alarm would go off. We’d write down the code: alpha whiskey 7 4 0 9 0 6, or something like that. And then you’d have to redo it. It was basically like: uh-oh, we’re ready. Uh-oh, we’re readier. And then, uh-oh: enabled. There were six enable codes. Basically, you and the commander open your compartments, take out your segments of the codes, and put them together. And then you wait. You don’t contact anyone else.
Petit: You don’t contact anybody?
Dad: No, no.
Petit: Wow. Is this going on everywhere? For example, in Minot, North Dakota, are they doing the same thing?
Dad: The same thing. Everywhere. You wait. You’re sitting there. And you just wait for the timer to hit zero.
Petit: Then you turn the key and — boom.
Dad: Yep. Two crew members have to do it. You enable the ICBMs, then another crew at another base approves the launch. One crew can’t do it alone.
Petit: So there was quite a bit of redundancy to it, so as to prevent accidental strikes?
Dad: Very much so. There were so many layers of redundancy that it would be impossible to put in the launch codes by mistake.
Petit: The Soviets seemed to have a few problems with that. I remember reading about a couple of instances where one officer had to disobey orders so as to avoid nuking the US over a false alarm. Were there any close calls where you guys thought that you might have to push the button, so to speak?
Dad: There were a few cases where crews were put in a higher state of readiness, but I never was.
Petit: Were the missiles pointed at any cities in particular? Like Stalingrad or, say, Tbilisi?
Dad: Nope. ICBMs are very accurate. Very accurate. We could hit anywhere that needed to be hit.
Petit: Correct me if I’m wrong — and I probably am — but ICBMs go right up to the edge of space and come back down, right?
Dad: No, they go way out into space and re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere. Then they hone in on their targets. As far as accuracy goes, I remember being shown an overhead once, and we all said, “Holy shit.” They called it CEP, or Circular Error Probable. Say you have ten warheads. They get launched — bang, bang, bang, bang. Then you draw a circle, figure out the radius, and the combined accuracy gets you to within at least 100 feet of your target. That’s scary.
Petit: Especially for 1980-something.
Petit: Did they have you working pretty odd hours doing the ICBM stuff? Like, graveyard shifts?
Dad: Twenty-four hour shifts. We got a couple of days off per week, but they could call you in for all sorts of reasons.
Petit: So you retired as a Major and returned to the simple pleasures of civilian life. You were the IT guy at City Hall in beautiful Bellevue, Nebraska. There was this incident that I remember growing up — I never quite understood what it was all about — but it was referred to as Donglegate. What the heck is a dongle?
Dad: A dongle is basically a thumb drive with an authorization code that gives you access to a computer.
Petit: So it’s a security thing?
Petit: What was the scandal behind that?
Dad: Understand that I pissed off two police chiefs, right? They hated my ass.
Petit: One of them — I remember you mentioning that his password was “fupet,” as in “fuck you, Petit.” Is that right?
Petit: Very clever.
Dad: I actually asked him about it. I said, “Interesting password.” He couldn’t look me in the eyes. Anyway, the dongle was in our server area and, one day, it went missing.
Petit: And they blamed you?
Dad: Yeah. Someone must have taken it from the server area, but it wouldn’t have been me.
Petit: And that’s when the Omaha World-Herald came calling?
Dad: No. They asked me about the illegal phone taps.
Petit: Illegal phone taps? Like, on you guys?
Dad: The reason that the first police chief hated me was because he was having cybersex on his office computer and saving the transcripts to the server.
Petit: Always a bright move.
Dad: And I saw them. So the police department wanted to keep the whole thing quiet. Naturally, they started watching me. One day, on the server, I found a list of phone numbers that they were actively recording, and there was my number on the list: they were recording my phone without telling me.
Petit: Which is a —
Dad: A felony. And what did I do? Your stupid father asked the Chief of Police, “Are you recording my phone calls?” He said, “Um, er, yes, we are.” I said, “You’re the police department. I don’t work for the police department. If you’re recording my calls, isn’t that a felony?”
Petit: It’s exactly the same if they were to tap my phone or any other civilian’s phone, isn’t it? Without a warrant, it’s a felony.
Dad: Yep. I asked him, “Is that a felony?” And he said, “Yes, I guess you’re right. It is a felony.” And I let it go. But he was so fucking mad at me, and I didn’t know. Then, they installed a new phone monitoring server and, because it was on the network, I looked at it and saw that they were recording everybody’s phones.
Petit: It wasn’t just you at that point.
Dad: Now it was everybody.
Petit: So, that’s multiple felonies.
Dad: Yeah. So, we went round and round asking them if they were doing it, and they kept denying it. So we sued them. We sued the city, and they finally admitted they were doing it. Recording us. We never got anything out of it, but that’s how it became a story.
Petit: That’s how it got into the newspapers and everything?
Dad: Yeah, you can even find it online.
Petit: So you were in the doghouse for that one.
Dad: Then the dongle went missing. Needless to say, they went to Sarpy County and tried to get rid of my job. I asked them why they were doing it, but they wouldn’t fess up to anything. They were pissed at me for even asking about it.
Dad: And then the mayor put me on mandatory FMLA, kicked my ass out, and that was it.
Petit: That’s what happens when you get on the wrong side of corrupt people, I guess.
Dad: Yep. But it all worked out in the end.
Petit: It certainly did. You first started writing three or four years ago?
Dad: Nope. Two-and-a-half years ago.
Petit: When you first started out, did you see yourself becoming a successful —
Dad: Hell no.
Petit: No? Did you see yourself becoming successful at all?
Petit: How much did you sell your first books for on Amazon?
Dad: Same price that I sell them for now: 99 cents.
Petit: You’ve written 55 books?
Dad: Fifty-four books. Number 55 is in here [indicates laptop].
Petit: Any guess as to how many books you’ve sold total?
Dad: Oh, yeah. Right here [hands over stack of papers]. I love numbers. Look at that.
Petit: Which country has surprised you the most in terms of book sales?
Dad: The Netherlands. India — a lot of sales in India. Australia. Japan. England [sifting through papers].
Mom: [coming downstairs] Oh, God. You have some reading to do. Has he stopped talking yet?
Petit: [drops bowl of salad from Red Lobster] Ah, shit.
Mom: I’ll get it [goes back upstairs].
Dad: Look at the numbers.
Petit: Over four million words total. An average of 91,000 per book.
Mom: [has returned]
Petit: [glances up at mom] Sorry, mom.
Mom: [spritzing couch with Resolve] Men.
Petit: These are some pretty impressive statistics.
Mom: He’s doing alright for himself.
Petit: I won’t even ask —
Mom: No. We don’t advertise that.
Petit: We don’t promote that.
Mom: He didn’t get his first paycheck until what? June?
Dad: Look at that.
Petit: [glancing at sales chart] It’s almost … exponential. Seventeen books sold the first month, then 68, 43, 741, then boom: 10,500, 25,000, 45,000 …
Mom: That’s when he called me and asked how much I thought he’d made that month. I said, “$23.00.” He just started laughing.
Petit: Well, he made $5.95 the first month — you could’ve gone to Burger King with that!
Petit: I’ve written about 20,000 words of my own memoirs or whatever you want to call them, and they’ve been (for the most part) warmly received, but a few losers on the internet found their way to my page and asked, you know, “What’s the point of this stupid story?” That type of thing. How do you deal with critics, dad, or do you just ignore them?
Dad: I don’t even read them. In the early days, I read one or two posts. And the complaints were the same: the hero is too perfect, the heroine is too perfect, the bad guys are too evil, the hero always falls in love at the end, happily ever after, that kind of thing.
Petit: But they’re Westerns!
Mom: Right. That’s the whole point.
Dad: If I were to write them any other way, my readers would hang me.
Petit: Right. You’re not going to come out of the blue with some No Country for Old Men shit and freak these people out.
Mom: Oh, God no. The people who like his books are people who grew up watching Westerns on TV, going to John Wayne movies — and there are ladies who like romances. So it’s a generational thing. Thirty-year-olds today want … Game of Thrones.
Petit: So, dad knows his audience pretty well.
Mom: They write letters to him! He’s gotten a couple of letters. One was from a Senior Master Sergeant, I think? One of them was dying of leukemia.
Dad: Not anymore.
Mom: He’s dead?
Dad: No, he’s doing better.
Petit: Oh, good! A happy ending.