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Confronting my demons and finding my dad

Journalist Stephen Rodrick tackles a memoir about his Navy pilot father killed at sea


Interview by Cathy Booth Thomas

In an airless stateroom aboard the USS Kitty Hawk, I find my dead father.

Somewhere off the Vietnamese coast, the roar of an F/A-18 Hornet shot from the carrier’s number two catapult blasts me awake. Pilots learn to sleep through the bash and rattle of launches and recoveries. But I’m not a pilot, just a reporter, a tourist by another name.

Now, my father was a pilot. He could sleep through man-overboard drills, at-sea replenishments, and the occasional typhoon, pretty much everything except Sunday Mass. When I was a boy, he chased sky and sea off this very ship. One day, his plane dipped imperceptibly – a wing tapping the ocean – and disintegrated. All that remained was black oil and a white helmet floating on a blue sea.

Still groggy, I watch my roommate – a no-nonsense pilot – through the blue curtain of my bunk. He studies today’s flight schedule and puts on his flight suit for his first mission. He runs a razor over his face and slaps on aftershave. A moment later, the door slams behind him. I detect a familiar scent, one that is flinty and masculine. I jump down from the bunk and open the medicine cabinet. Inside is his blue bottle of Aqua Velva After Shave. I remove the cap and inhale.

The smell takes me back. …

– The Magical Stranger: A Son’s Journey into His Father’s Life

If you Google Stephen Rodrick’s name, one of the first things that pops up after the Wikipedia entry and his Twitter account is The New York Times Magazine entry on Stephen and Lindsay Lohan. No, they’re not an item. They were fellow cellmates during the 21-day shoot of Paul Schrader’s movie The Canyons, which stars Lohan in what Stephen calls her “creative misbehaving” mode. Stephen is known for his rapier-sharp magazine profiles whether he’s writing about celebrities or criminals in Men’s Journal, Rolling Stone or the Times magazine. His stories have been in so many “Best of” compilations that we can’t list them all (Political Writing, Sports Writing, Crime Reporting, Best of Men’s Journal, Best of Runner’s World). And the amazing thing is, he did it all while writing an unsentimental memoir of his Navy pilot father, who was killed at sea when Stephen was 13. Researched over four years, the book made him sick (literally) and opened uncomfortable doors into his own psyche and journalist-always-on-the-road lifestyle. Stephen tells Mayborn magazine about his journey back to 1979 and the plane crash that shaped his life and his book, The Magical Stranger: A Son’s Journey into His Father’s Life.

What made you decide to look into your father’s death and write about it?

What were the obstacles, especially the emotional one that kept you from writing about him for decades? I contacted my dad’s old squadron looking for coffee mugs for my mother. After 30 years, hers were pretty worn out. Eventually, the commanding officer got back to me and invited me out for his change-of-command ceremony, which was happening two days shy of the 30th anniversary of the day my father took command of VAQ-135 [Electronic Attack Squadron 35]. It was the first time I’d spent on Whidbey Island since our family fled shortly after my Dad’s crash. I went to the ceremony and I went to the chapel where my father’s memorial service was held. I cried a lot. In some ways that trip didn’t slay the dragon, but convinced me the dragon wasn’t going to eat me whole. I’d avoided the place for three decades because it was the source of my family’s greatest pain, but walking around in the cool July air I felt something in my bones. Whidbey Island was the closest thing to home I knew as a boy. It’s where I delivered The Seattle Times and served as the world’s worst altar boy. It was still inside me. Then I learned the squadron was about to transition to a new jet and my dad’s plane, the EA-6B Prowler, was being phased out. If I was going to write about the men of his old squadron flying his old plane, it was now or never.

My father wasn’t real to me. He was more holy relic than flesh and blood in our family. His pictures hung on the wall and there was a flag from a grateful nation, but we never ever talked about him. And when I say never, I mean never. Years could go by without a direct reference to him even though he was the love of my mother’s life. She never dated again even though she was only 36 when he died. I used to think that was noble, but then I just thought it was sad. It wasn’t until I reached my father’s age that I began to look at his life and what it meant to grow up with a man who was a ghost even when he was alive. I wrote about him and the Navy for Men’s Journal in 2002 and it was a bit of a breakthrough, but let’s just say the reaction to breaking through the wall wasn’t met with enthusiasm by all loved ones. I think they knew if I was going to confront my demons, they’d have to do it a little themselves. I think that scared them to death.

How did you begin your research? Can you tell us specific problems you had to overcome, including the logistics of getting the military to cooperate?

I did have to get the Navy’s approval and there was a jungle of red tape that I needed to hack through. However, I did have the sympathy ace in my pocket. It would have been heartless for the Navy to shut the project down after my father gave his life for the Navy. In the end, they gave in. While 90 percent of the Navy guys I came into contact with were helpful and great, I’d run into a captain or admiral at some point who was worried about what impact the book might have on his career — that kind of careerism is how you make admiral these days  — and I had to work around it. I think the Navy was hoping for a more rah-rah Go Navy book than what I wrote, but I wrote what I saw and what I saw were brave men and women both on the boat and back on the home front.

The gap between the sacrifices these guys and their families have made since 9/11 and the rest of the country gets wider every year. Most Americans just wave a flag on Memorial Day and don’t think about the actual sacrifices made and the reverberations it has on families like my own.

What about the logistics of writing the book between your “real” jobs?

That part was really tough. I basically worked two jobs at once and tried not to suck at either one of them. I thought I’d go insane if I spent two years solid on my father without any breaks. The magazine stories cleared my head so I could get back to the book with a new perspective. I wouldn’t recommend it though; it took a heavy toll on my health. I’d spend a month out on Whidbey Island then do a story and then maybe fly out to Dubai to jump on a carrier for a week or so. It led to some idiotic moments: I interviewed Jon Favreau about Robert Downey Jr. at 3 a.m. in the Sea of Japan and Favreau just kept saying “Are you really calling from an aircraft carrier?”

In a way, I mirrored my father’s never-home life. During the process, I ended up surrendering my gall bladder and appendix in short order. Maybe they would have exited my body anyway, but the stress and travel probably didn’t help. The appendix came out the day before Tailhook, the yearly naval aviation bacchanalia, and I convinced myself I could have the surgery and be on a flight the next day. It didn’t happen, but the fact I was contemplating it suggests I’d sort of lost my mind. I remember as a kid hearing about a star being hospitalized for “exhaustion.” Now I know what it means.

But here’s the thing: I loved it. I loved the book work and the magazine stories so I convinced myself doing two jobs I love wasn’t really work. Now, I’m sort of adding up the damage done. I’m 46 and I wouldn’t say my body has really bounced back from the 2009-2012 years.

Talk about the structure of the book. You put us in the present, which triggers a memory in the past. Is the book chronological as far as your research? Did you have difficulty with the structure? If so, how did you handle it?

I don’t have any organizational skills. Literally none. I routinely lose important documents and the year really isn’t complete if I’m not calling every magazine on April 13 and asking for replacement 1099s. I’m a high-functioning f—up. When I started the book, there were all these ideas of a giant corkboard with note cards and then the computerized version of it. And then I remembered it was me and I winged it. Not the research or the legwork or the revising, but my organization is the written equivalent of a guitarist who plays by ear. When I reached the writing point, I did write out about 40 chapter topics with two lines of description and I just started to write. In the end, all but one of the chapters made the book. I knew that I wanted to go back and forth with alternating chapters because I didn’t want the reader to get too far away from each character. I wrote them and then moved them around until they fell into a natural rhythm. Kids, don’t try this at home! But it works for me.

Is there a scene in the book that was particularly hard to write?

There was one section that was particularly hard to write, but there were days where I was writing about my father’s accident where actually turning on the computer in the morning seemed like an impossible show of will. You’re spending weeks examining documents that suggest a hundred different outcomes to his last flight if only this was different or that had happened or if they have scrubbed the mission etc.

I’d sit in my chair and wonder how different all our lives would have been and sometimes I’d just weep and crank up Oasis so my wife couldn’t hear. But the last half of the book was written in Los Angeles and my home office opens up into grass and I’d wander into the sunshine and feel the grass between my toes and hug my dog and then get back to work.

Tell us about the reporting/researching logistics. Did you come back and re-report after seeing something unfold before you on the ship, for instance? How you took notes during that harrowing flight at the end. How did you discover and deal with errors in other people’s memories?

For me, there’s only one secret to reporting: Be there. I’m not great at getting strangers to sit for hours trying to remember what kind of Snickers they had the day the Lusitania went down. So I tried to be there for as much as I could. But I’d spent so many weeks with the guys before I started writing and trying to re-create scenes that there was a good will and common language between us. So I could go to their house and we could go over stuff over beers. I was seen as one of the guys rather than the pesky reporter.

Everything that happened within the squadron is told through the eyes of James Hunter “Tupper” Ware, but I made trips to Key West and Whidbey and other places just to get the other side of the story from other officers involved. For Tupper, I always joke I didn’t go the extra mile, I went the extra 35,000 miles. We’d spent hundreds of hours talking for the book over two years and then I wrote it. I then met him in Bahrain and then Dubai the next year so we could go over the scenes line-by-line. I never read him passages, he insisted he didn’t want me to, and we’d go over things for five or six hours a day.

Oh and there was something else that helped with Tupper: He came with instructions – a journal. I’d been following him around for a year and one night we were in Pearl Harbor and I saw a leather-bound book on the nightstand. I thought it was a Bible. Turned out it was the third of three journals he’d been keeping since the day he took command. While I didn’t give his journal precedence over other people’s account, his contemporary notes written nightly made me more confident in the dialogue that I used.

For the family stuff, I checked with other members of my family and I tried to keep the dialogue short to absolutely what I remembered. For the stuff about my father and his men, all the dialogue comes from the guys still alive. There isn’t anything in there that is, say, third hand. Does it mean everything is right? No, memory is faulty, but I did the best I could.

What scenes did you feel you had to re-create, such as the ski trip? Why? What did those extra trips provide?

You know, there’s nothing in the book that I felt like I needed to re-create at least not in the sense of “I’m going to do this thing I did 30 years ago as a device.” The ski trip was just that: I was in the Northwest and Mount Baker is really the only mountain I know. It has a nostalgic pull because of my family. But I didn’t head out that day with the idea that I was going to try to re-trace my father’s tracks and nearly kill myself in the process. After it happened, I instantly knew it would go in the book. I may not be a master planner, but I’m not an idiot.

The same thing with my flight in my dad’s old jet. From the day I showed up, the Black Ravens were talking about getting me up on a flight and if I was going to write about them, I had to do it. Well, it played out nicely for the book with me basically flunking out of swim/survival qualifications and then booting a spectacular yellow fluid when we flipped upside down over Mount Rainier.

But again, it all seemed organic, as it happened, not a stunt to tick off and move to the next one.

Was the plan always to find modern-day pilots to re-create your father’s life at sea? How did you decide on Tupper?

I did know a huge component would be about my family, but there were publishers and agents who wanted me to do the book as just memoir and that was never the vision I had for it. I wanted to know my father’s life from talking to everyone I could who knew him, but I wanted to see what his life was like through the modern edition of the squadron. Initially, I was going to center it on the lives of the entire squadron, but that proved unwieldy. I settled on the skipper.

And I caught a break. Some skippers are nice guys, but drones, afraid to say anything that might piss someone off up the chain-of-command. Hunter “Tupper” Ware wasn’t that guy. He was the American man as hero: Eagle Scout, Naval Academy, test pilot, combat experience, and now skipper. But at the same time he was in pain. He’d been away from his wife and girls for about five years of his 18-year Navy career. He was taking command and, as he told me, it was breaking his heart. He had his dream job but he was missing entire years of his girls’ lives. Meanwhile his wife was telling him “Tupper, I’m tired, I can’t do this any longer.” So, fortuitously, Tupper represented everything about military life: sacrifice, glamour, and mostly loneliness. This is what I wanted to know about. Tupper opened the door.

Did you know from the beginning that the book would be as much about you and your relationship with your mom as your father? Did you worry about what your mother would think?

I did know I’d be writing explicitly and honestly about my family and I was prepared to do it, but then there reaches a point where you think Oh shit, other people are actually going to read this. I knew the book was going to be hard for my mother to read and it was. (She was the only one who got a pre-read.) I flew out to Michigan where she lives and gave her the book while I stayed with my sister. She called me a couple days later and we had lunch. She told me she loved it and I was so relieved. Alas, the next afternoon my sister told me, “You gotta go talk to Mom, she’s complaining about the book all over town.” I drove back over and that 30-minute strip of highway was the longest half-hour of my life not involving “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me.” She had one succinct and main complaint: “I come across as such a bitch.” I told her she didn’t but she rightly pointed out that even at her lowest point she kept us fed and in clean clothes and that was nowhere in the book. I told her she was right and added a few sentences. We did reach a peace about it and she said, “You’re hardest on yourself” and, to me, that was a great compliment.

How did you re-create your dad’s last days? Was that at the very end of your research? Or from material you squirreled away over the years? How did you re-create the conversation in his last days?

I did a Freedom of Information request on my father’s accident and some guys at Senator McCain’s office helped cut through the red tape. But I had it for a few years and didn’t know how to interpret it. So I put it aside until I understood his world better. And then I shared the file with current Navy pilots and tracked down men from his squadron who were there. And then I tried to piece together the last 24 hours. Luckily, if you want to call it that, as part of the accident report an investigator re-created his last day and put it in the file. Between that and speaking with the men in his squadron, I pieced together what happened. Any conversation used means I found the other officer and he told me this is what the conversation was like. Again, I tried to keep the exchanges brief to keep them accurate and on-point.

Talk about the difference in the man who went to sea in 2002 on the USS Kitty Hawk and the one who went to the Gulf in 2012 on the USS Lincoln.

The guy in 2002 was a lot more cocky. He wasn’t divorced and thought it was still possible he’d live forever. That first trip was like three weeks in an amusement park. There were moments of sadness, but most of it was just Holy shit, this is awesome. Like a nugget, a rookie pilot, I just loved every moment on deck, every barely remembered, ill-gotten trip to Macau.

I’d say the guy in the book was wiser and sadder. I was divorced, something I knew my father would have judged me harshly on. I’d reached 40 and I’d had a helluva great time over the past decade, but I wasn’t married and I didn’t have kids and I could feel time slipping away. It was good because I could put myself in Hunter’s shoes. Not the kids of course, but the realization that all the cool things you got to do in life come with a cost, not everyone is going to sign up for a partner living that kind of nomadic life.

I was also in a much better place to write about my mother. If I’d written the book a decade ago, it would have been angrier and I’d have cast her as an irredeemable villain. But the older I got, the more I realized there were people I’d let people down in my own life and that she did the best she could under the worst circumstances. There’s a line in a song I like that goes, “Sometimes we don’t come through, sometimes we just get by” and I try to live my life from that viewpoint as much as I can.

   

Tell us about your work for The New York Times Magazine, Men’s Journal, Rolling Stone, specifically how you got there. What are the key elements of your writing that you think set you apart: empathy for those you write about, research, a writing formula?

An old friend would talk about some other writer and the harshest criticism he could level was “He doesn’t have the empathy gene.” If you don’t have the ability to understand that we’re all human then your writing is going to be overly judgey and self-righteous. Uh, like mine was when I started out! Now I try to limit my judgey and self-righteous side to my Twitter feed.

I think growing up as a Navy brat and always being the new kid not sure where the bathrooms are was a perfect preparation for magazine work. It really is borderline indefensible: A subject is gracious enough to give you a day, or a week, or a month to peer into their life and then I get to choose the five or six moments to illustrate that life. It seems pretty unfair, so I put in the extra time so I can tell myself: “I got him.” Those moments ring true because I saw a hell of a lot of moments. Maybe it’s because of my childhood, but I have always been a bit of a lone wolf with not a ton of mentors so I’ve learned things the hard way.

Now that I’m 86 [he’s joking, of course], I try to help the youngins out with advice and the main thing is “This is your job, this isn’t a role you’re playing.” Probably the thing that drives me most bananas about long-form writing is the vision of the act as “writer as cowboy hero.” You’re not a cowboy; you’re a witness to someone’s life so act accordingly. Drink your whiskey in private. And keep your voice down, I’m sleeping.

You’ve been in the Best American Sports Writing, Best American Crime Reporting, Best American Political Writing. How do you pick your topics? How did you develop an eye for clever stories?

That’s a tough one. Over the years, I’ve written mostly about sports, film and politics. I like to say that all three have a different layer of bullshit you need to swim through but it’s a different kind of bullshit so if you mix it up, it’s not so bad. I do have a contrarian, absurdist view of the world and I think I process things through those lenses. But I also have a self-deprecating streak a mile wide so no matter how screwed up the life of the person I’m writing about, I’ve been there in my own dark hole so I bring that empathy I was talking about before.

I’m not the greatest idea generator, I come up with two or three good ones a year and the rest I rely on the kindness of editors. I don’t need much. Last year my Men’s Journal editor just said ‘boomtown’ and next thing I knew I was living in a North Dakota boarding house.

I have never thought of it like this before, but my main career credo has been: I have no clue what the hell is going to happen next. I like that. It beats working for a living.

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Journalist Stephen Rodrick tackles a memoir about his Navy pilot father killed at sea
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