Universe (2005)

ISBN 0595360874
Reviewed by William E. Cooper for Reader Views (2/2007)

Reader Views welcomes Ron Standerfer, author of the action/adventure war novel, “The Eagle’s Last Flight.” Ron is being interviewed by Juanita Watson, Assistant Editor of Reader Views.

Juanita:  Thanks for talking with us today Ron.  We are excited to hear more about you and your unique wartime novel “The Eagle’s Last Flight.”  Would you start by telling us about your storyline?

Ron:  Certainly.  The book begins with Skip O’Neill, the hero of the book, lying in a hospital in New York City.  He is dying of leukemia, his wasted body showing scant evidence of the man he once was—an Air Force fighter pilot and decorated combat veteran. Although the end is near, he is determined to live until the new millennium, which is just a few hours away.  Meanwhile, he drifts in and out of a morphine-induced coma reliving his life of adventure as a fighter pilot.

Skip’s first assignment as a young lieutenant places him among hard drinking World War II and Korean War–era fighter pilots who quickly teach him their ways. He almost washes out of pilot training but is persistent and manages to graduate. In Vietnam, he proves to be a skillful and courageous pilot who faces dangers of all kinds with equanimity. But the greatest—and most deadly danger—materializes years after he volunteers to be an observer at an atomic test site.

In the end, Skip decides that when his time comes, he will dash at it fearlessly. He anticipates being greeted by departed friends—but what awaits him is something totally unexpected.

Juanita:  Ron, you’ve had an incredible life that serves to make this fictional account read like reality.  Would you tell us about your background?

Ron:  I was in the Air Force for twenty seven-years during the Cold War and Vietnam years between 1954 and 1981. During that time, I flew a variety of high performance fighters including the F-100, F-102, F-105, F-4 and A-7.  I might add that most of these aircraft reside in museums these days. It makes me feel like an antique! I flew over 230 combat missions during the Vietnam conflict and was awarded two Silver Stars, thirteen Air Medals and the Purple Heart. The latter was received after I was shot down over Tchepone, Laos in 1969. I retired from the Air Force as a full Colonel after tours in the Pentagon and Tactical Air Command headquarters in Virginia.

Juanita:  Is this your first book?  What inspired you to write this story?

Ron:  Yes, it is my first book. In 1998 my wife and I moved to Manhattan’s Upper West Side. It was a strange thing to do for a guy raised in the Midwest, but it suited my wife just fine. She was a big city girl from Warsaw, Poland and a lover of the arts as well. As soon as we unpacked, she went back to work, leaving me to cope with the Big Apple alone. Big mistake! I had way too much time on my hands. One of my favorite pastimes those days was hanging out at a local bar and restaurant on Columbus Avenue frequented by musicians from the philharmonic, opera singers, TV camera men, and stage hands at the Met—and I became the resident war story teller. Everyone seemed to like my stories and suggested I should write a book someday.

One afternoon after a particularly long lunch, I weaved my way home, struggled to unlock the apartment door with unfocused eyes, opened the door and found my wife waiting for me. She had left work early. “You have to get a life,” she said, “or you’re going to become an alcoholic.” She was right. The next day I decided to be a writer and write a book.  It was cheaper that being an alcoholic and a whole lot healthier.

Juanita:  Would you give us some background into your main character, Skip O’Neill.  How did you come up with his character, and is he based on you at all?

Ron:  Although the book is autobiographical in almost every way, I chose to write it as fiction because I didn’t want to cause pain or hurt the feelings of people who were part of my personal life during the past fifty years. Besides, who’s going to read a book about some guy named Ron Standerfer?  Anyway, when I created the main character, Skip O’Neill, I told him that he had no choice but to live my life exactly as I had during the twenty seven years I was in the Air Force. No exceptions.  My only proviso was that he was on his own when it came to his personal life—love, marriage, indiscretions etc.

The system worked very well, although somewhere in the middle of the book I realized that he was making decisions before I had time to think about them, and his words were bypassing my brain and flowing through my fingers to the keyboard. It was an exhilarating moment, for I realized that I had become God-like—creating a man in my own image and sending him out in the world to fend for himself. Talk about total immersion in my writing!  

Juanita: How detailed is your depiction of O’Neill’s training and combat experience?

Ron:  I knew from the beginning that if I make the book too technical the only people who would read it are old crock aviators like myself.  On the other hand, I was determined to put the readers in the cockpit with me whenever I was flying so they could experience the thrills, excitement and dangers of flying high performance aircraft.  For example, here’s an example of a dive bomb attack described in the book—an event that would get anyone breathing fast, especially when you are being shot at:

“Skip rolled the aircraft on to its back, and then pulled the nose through the horizon before rolling upright and into a steep dive.  Things were happening fast, as the airspeed increased and the altimeter unwound rapidly. When the target appeared in the windscreen, he began tracking it with his gun sight.  Out of the corner of his eye, he could see bright muzzle flashes from a nearby tree line; then red tracers began streaming across the nose of his aircraft.”

If the reader can picture that scene without a lot of thought, I’ve done my job.

Juanita:  Ron, would you tell us about your defining moment when you took your first airplane ride in a WWII bomber.  How did that experience change the course of your life?

Ron:  To tell you the truth, I had more important issues on my mind that day; namely, that I was about to flunk out of college and would soon be drafted into the Army to fight in Korea.  The aircraft was so noisy I couldn’t hear the person next to me, and to make matters worse, my ears got blocked on the descent before landing and I was in a lot of pain. Nevertheless, at some intuitive level I recognized exhilaration and freedom that flying offered and decided at that moment that if I had to go into the military, I wanted to be a pilot. How I was going to accomplish that, of course, I hadn’t a clue!

Juanita:  How did you go from being a fighter pilot to being present at the atomic test site?

Ron: Actually, it was the other way around.  I was a twenty two year old second lieutenant waiting to go to pilot training when asked to volunteer for the test.  They told me the test would be conducted near Las Vegas and that was good enough for me.  I actually volunteered to get away from a particularly nasty winter where I was stationed in Northern Maine.  All I wanted to do is have a little fun for a week or two.  Sounds like a twenty two year old doesn’t it?

Juanita:  Take us back to your own experience participating in an atomic test.  Where/when was it, what was your experience like?

Ron:  I remember it was chilly that morning at Yucca Flat, Nevada. As I stood on the platform with the others, I stomped my feet to keep warm and gazed anxiously at the seven hundred foot tower before me. Suspended below was a nuclear device capable of a detonation more than two times the size of the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. The tower was eight miles away, but it looked much closer. The device was set to go off in ten minutes. When the final countdown began, I placed my hands over my eyes and stood facing it as instructed. What happened next, was a flash of light so bright and blinding that the bones of my hands were visible as if by X-ray. I uncovered my eyes and saw a dark, dirty mushroom cloud ascending skyward, followed by a shock wave rolling across the desert, passing through me with a resounding thump. When it was over, they collected the dosimeter I was wearing, brushed me off with brooms to remove any radioactive fallout that might have clung to my uniform and sent me back to my squadron.  They used brooms to brush away radiation fallout—can you imagine that?

Juanita:  It is incredible that you were exposed to radiation fallout 8 miles away.  When did it become publicly known that these types of unprotected tests were going on?

Ron: There are news reels from 1957 showing people standing in front of hotels in Las Vegas watching the mushroom clouds, so it was not exactly a secret.  What wasn’t known at the time was that while people like me were standing eight miles away, Army and Marine units were in trenches less than a mile away and then conducting maneuvers at or near ground zero after the blast.

Juanita:  Why do you think the government used its own military as guinea pigs in these tests?  Do you think this type of testing is being done today?  What are your present day feelings on these types of research programs?

Ron:  I do not believe any human being should be used as a guinea pig for testing.  Hell, I’m not even sure guinea pigs should be used as guinea pigs, although I realize there may be exceptions to the latter for the good as mankind. Is such testing going on today?  I wouldn’t be surprised.  Our current government is not what I would characterize as a poster child for transparency and honesty.

Juanita:  Ron, do you have any statistics regarding the amount of military personnel that were put in harm’s way during the atomic testing?  Was leukemia the typical outcome of exposure to radiation?

Ron:  Statistics are hard to come by on that subject because the government did very few follow-up studies and was reluctant to release what data it had acquired.; but, here are some facts provided by the National Association of Atomic Veterans:
Between 1946 and 1962, over 400,000 military personnel were put in harm’s way, operating in some cases near ground zero minutes after detonation—without any special protective clothing. The government told them the radiation would be relatively harmless. And while guinea pigs used in the tests were carefully washed and observed for weeks, if not months. After the tests; humans were brushed off with brooms and returned to duty with no follow-up studies. There should be no problem, the government said. Twenty years later, the first and only study of test participants revealed that they were contracting leukemia at two to three times the normal rate. To date, approximately 280,000 “atomic veterans” have applied for medical benefits based on exposure to nuclear radiation. Of that number, just 50 claims have been approved. Time is running out for them. Fewer than 20,000 of their ranks are left. Many have cancer. Most are older than 75.

Juanita: Why is your book, a story about The Cold War, and Vietnam conflict still relevant today?

Ron:  I believe any period in history is relative to the present. It’s all a matter of identifying the relevant issues and connecting the dots. In the case of the atomic vets, for example, the government grossly understated the danger of radiation during atomic tests; misled the participants into believing that they were adequately protected from the effects of that radiation; and worst of all, broke the sacred vow traditionally made to veterans, namely that they will receive medical care for service connected disabilities for the rest of their lives.

These days the war in Iraq has taken center stage. Even the strongest supporters of the war admit that we underestimated the resolve of the insurgents who routinely take American and Iraqi lives through car bombs and other terrorist activities, and the war is taking far longer than anticipated. Meanwhile, there are still reports of shortages of critical safety equipment like bullet proof vests and vehicle armor. Underestimating the threat and inadequate protection. Sound familiar?

Juanita: What are your thoughts on the use of many controversial weapons, and lack of adequate protection for troops in the present day war in the Middle East?

Ron:  As a retired military officer and loyal American, I fully support what our armed forces are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. They voluntarily put themselves in harm’s way everyday. Why? Because they love their country and believe they are doing the right thing. All they ask in return is that we are always up front with them and always keep our promises. It’s not very much to ask considering what they do for us.

Juanita: “The Eagle’s Last Flight” is not just another fighter pilot story.  You’ve added deep undertones towards human relationships as well as the issue of death.  Would you comment?

Ron: I think as we grow older we begin a mourning process for valuable relationships we squandered when we were young and also begin to confront our mortality on a personal and up front basis.  I hate to admit it, but I am probably in that process now, and in particular, consider what happened to Skip at the end of the book as a kind of dress rehearsal for my own demise someday.  Will I be able to confront the end as courageously as he did?  I hope so.

Juanita: It sounds like your ending is not to be missed!  If you could talk to that younger “you” today, what would you say?  Ron, I’m sure that your answer could be an entire other book, but in light of your messages in “The Eagle’s Last Flight,” what wisdom would you share?

Ron: I would council the younger me to treasure your health above all; treat every friendship and romantic relationship as a gift from God not to be squandered; never let anyone tell you that you can’t do something; and most important of all, be very careful what you volunteer for.  Or, if that’s too complicated to remember, I’d simply tell him, “you are where you went!”

Juanita:  What do you personally like most about your lead character, Skip O’Neill?

Ron:  I like Skip because he is a lot like us—flawed in many ways, and given to moments of immaturity—yet filled with untapped reserves of courage and bravery, waiting to be tapped when needed.

Juanita:  Ron, reflecting back on your life, as I’m sure you have many times over in writing your book, have your thoughts changed at all regarding participating in the military?  What about towards the apparent lack of initiative taken by the government to first and foremost, protect their troops?

Ron: Every society needs a military, a police force and a fire department to insure we can live our lives in peace and security.  The military does not decide or even question when and where force should be used to make sure we are free.  Those decisions are made by our government which is democratically elected.  You wouldn’t have it any other way, believe me.  That’s how dictatorships are born.  I am proud to have been able to serve my country and would do it again if I had a chance.

Juanita:  Ron, what are you ultimately trying to convey with your book, “The Eagle’s Last Flight”?

Ron:  These things: first, we tend to view the words “hero” and “veteran” only in the context of a war—World War II veteran, Vietnam War hero etc.  This is a mistake.  As Skip’s experience shows, being in the military in peacetime can be every bit as dangerous as in war.  Case in point: When I was flying in Japan in the early sixties, we lost more pilots in our two squadrons in one year (ten) than in the year I was in Vietnam with four squadrons. Bottom line: a veteran is a veteran whether he was in a war or not and should be honored as such.  Second, the nightmare of the atomic tests teaches us that it is not always wise to put our lives in the hands of the government with complete trust.  There are times where that is necessary, of course, but young people thinking about putting their lives in harm’s way “just for the hell of it” should remember what President Reagan once said about nuclear disarmament—trust but verify.   If my book conveys those two messages I will be happy.

Juanita:  Reviews for your book are fantastic, and you’ve seemed to capture the interest of a wide variety of readers through your multi-themed approach to telling this story.  Who did you have in mind as your reading audience?  Are you surprised at the great response so far?

Ron: I hate to tell you this Juanita, but first time authors are surprised at everything!  I will say that I continue to view the target readership for my book to be a kind of expanding circle with military pilots and former military pilots in the center that eventually radiates out to readers of all kinds, especially those who are too young to remember the Cold War and Vietnam War.

Juanita:  How can readers find out more about you and “The Eagle’s Last Flight”?

Ron:  I thought you’d never ask!  By all means go to my website—www.EaglesLastFlight.com.  There are a lot of cool links there including a gallery of pictures of the F-100 Super Sabre, the aircraft I flew in Vietnam.  You can also browse through the book and read excerpts by clicking on the link just below the picture of the front cover. In a couple of weeks I’ll have a few chapters on the site that didn’t make it into the book because of size restrictions.

Juanita:  Do you have plans for writing your second book?

Ron:  I just started on one actually.  I am not ready to discuss the plot yet, but here are some key words:  Archaeology, suicide, kidnapping, murder, and one hell of a treasure hunt.  Oh yeah—and sex, lies and betrayals.

Juanita:  Ron, it has been a pleasure talking with you today.  We have enjoyed getting to know you and your book “The Eagle’s Last Flight,” and encourage readers to look for it in local and online bookstores.  Is there anything else you would like to share with your readers today?

Ron: Yes. The Eagle’s Last Flight is not a typical techno-thriller about military aviation and war—far from it.  Inside its covers are at least three story lines of interest to men and women, young and old alike—the story of one man’s struggle against a system whose peers deemed him not capable of succeeding; an enduring love story between a man and woman who faced all hardships together; and the story of a government betrayal that ultimately lead to the demise of a man who had given his all to his country.  Whichever story line interests you, I promise you’ll find the book to be a great read!