When I was in college at the University of Oregon back in the 1980s, I set about writing my senior thesis on the Guadalcanal campaign. Anyone looking to learn about that pivotal battle in the Pacific will soon run across two incredible historians, Eric Hammel and Jim Hornfischer. Jim had yet to publish “Neptune’s Inferno,” but as a nineteen year old kid, I absorbed everything Eric wrote. I remember clearly the moment I read “Guadalcanal: Decision at Sea,” and had my eyes opened by Eric’s view that the US Navy’s surface leadership had been crippled by pre-war conformities. It took heavy losses and lots of weeding out to find fighting admirals up to the task in the Solomons, and it wouldn’t be until later in 1943 that those leaders made their impact.
Eric’s Guadalcanal series became the foundation for much of my senior thesis, but eager to add new material and dig into some primary source material, I spent one Christmas break at the Hoover Institute’s archives on the Stanford campus. While back home, I discovered that Eric didn’t live too far away from where I grew in Saratoga. He’d settled in Pacifica, just up the highway and on the coast south of San Francisco.
It is hard to overestimate how much Eric’s books impacted me back then. Studying military history at the University of Oregon was not a popular thing. There was overt hostility to me and my topics of choice at time, both by professors and fellow students, that continued into my grad school experience. I took refuge in Eric’s books, and the aviation works of Barrett Tillman. As I started my first M/A thesis in the early 1990s, which focused on naval aviation training from 1935-1941 and how effective it was in the first six months of the war, I wanted to see if the aviation leadership had the same institutional shortcomings Eric had written about in “Decision at Sea.” It didn’t, of course, and that was a saving grace for the U.S. effort in the first year of the Pacific War.
Anyway, I ended up changing my thesis to a biography of Colonel Gerald R. Johnson, and in 96 left the 9-5 world to try my hand at a writing career. It was a few years later that I contacted Eric, told him what his books meant to me, and struck up a friendship that changed my life.
By then, Eric was running his own publishing company, Pacifica Press. He was a shrewd and calculating businessman who always had a very hard-nosed, realistic view of the industry. In 1999, we met for dinner for the first time in the Bay Area and liked each other from the outset. He also unleashed a firehose of knowledge on me that helped shape my career path through what Stephen King once called “the tiger pit” of the publishing biz.
I’d wanted to write military history for one, very idealistic reason: the experiences of the men and women I’d been interviewing deserved to be remembered and preserved. That first night, Eric asked me why I wanted to be a writer. When I told him, he gave me the grizzled veteran’s take on my idealism. “That’s why I got into this too. But remember, what we’re really doing is writing male adventure stories. That approach is what sells.”
In the years that followed, we talked frequently on the phone. I saw him every time I went back to the Bay Area. He connected me with Ken Ruiz, and I became his collaborating author on “Luck of the Draw: From Savo to the Silent Service”. I loved the collaboration process so much that more than half my books ended up being collaborations. Eric was the one who introduced me to that type of writing.
We went to Quantico and the National Archives together in 2005 to scan WWII photos for a series of books he and I were working on under Richard Kane at Zenith Press. When I started working up “The Devil’s Sandbox: With the 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry in Iraq,” that year, Eric sold it to Zenith for me, and was originally going to be the lead author on it. He named the book, and even did a few interviews with 2-162 vets before his political views on the war caused him to withdraw and turn the project over to me. It ended up being the largest contract of my career to that point.
Eric taught me to be a professional. He showed me what I needed to do to have the chops to survive in a cut-throat and very difficult business, while still writing the things I loved to write. He was a crusty, gruff kind of guy who used that bristly character to conceal a very good and soft heart.
I remember one time in Virginia, when we were heading over to historian Harry Yeide’s house for dinner, we stopped to get a bottle of wine at a grocery store. I turned around and there was Eric, in the fruit aisle, dancing to an elevator-musak’s rendition of some 60’s hit. The pre-eminent Marine Corps historian, rocking out to Musak by a heaps of oranges and mangos. It was an epic sight.
Later, at the National Archives, I glimpsed a bit of Eric’s OCD. While walking to the cafeteria at NARA 2 to grab lunch, Eric noticed the framed images on the hallway wall were not straight. He stopped, studied them, then straightened them with meticulous care. This became a daily ritual while we were there. It honestly drove me crazy at the time, but when I look back now, I can’t help but laugh. He was such a quirky guy.
I remember we were comparing notes one day as to how our interest in military history started. I told him how in 7th grade, I decided I was going to write a book on the Marines who defended Wake Island. I joined the Wake Island association, wrote to Commander Cunningham and other members of the garrison, and even interviewed one of the 3 inch AA gunners who defended the skies over the atoll.
Eric started laughing. Then he told me that at age sixteen, he secured an interview with General Lawton “Lightning Joe” Collins. He was already working on his first Guadalcanal book as a teen-ager, and Collins had commanded the 25th Infantry Division on the island before going on to greater fame as Patton’s most aggressive and dependable corps commander in Europe.
At the appointed time and day, Eric showed up at Lightning Joe’s office, dressed in a suit. When his secretary led him into meet the general, he was shocked to see a teen-age boy standing at the edge of his desk.
“What happened?” I asked Eric.
Eric looked embarrassed, and kind of sad. “He threw me out.”
For Eric, that was a minor setback. He ended up writing and publishing four books on Guadalcanal’s land, air and sea battles. Lightning Joe should have stowed his ego and let Eric interview him. 🙂
Anyway, that fall, Eric introduced me to James Hornfischer, author of “Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors” and an agent who was focused on non-fiction and military related projects. I pitched a book idea about the role of reporters and wire stringer photojournalists in Iraq to Jim, who passed on it. Then he came back to me and asked if I’d be interested in collaborating with a U.S. Army NCO named David Bellavia to write his account of one platoon’s experiences during the 2nd Battle of Fallujah in November 2004.
That set the stage for “House to House.” I’d been used to subsisting on free-lance writing gigs, consulting work, managing a small historic archive for collectors and other historians to make end’s meet back then. During September of 2005, I embedded with 2-162 when the unit deployed to New Orleans during the post-Katrina relief operation. That experience left me with deep trauma that took almost a year to sort through and unpack. I dumped a lot of that baggage on Eric during those months, telling him the things we saw in the city during that terrible month. It caused The Devil’s Sandbox to be delayed by a couple of months, which put my family in a tight financial spot.
I finished the Devil’s Sandbox while recovering from pneumonia that spring of 2006. Between writing sessions, I interviewed David Bellavia and prepared the proposal for House to House. When Jim deemed it ready, he took it to market.
I had low expectations. The Sandbox had been the most lucrative book contract of my career, and it was still not enough to survive on. So when the first offer for David’s book came in, I was like, “JUMP ON IT!” Hell yes! Jenn and I were really struggling that summer and unsure if we could keep the house. That first offer was like the Deus Ex Machina Stephen King wrote of in “On Writing” when his agent sold “Carrie.”
Jim told me to shut up. This was just the start. I did. And after that, I trusted Jim for fifteen years with my career. House to House eventually went to auction, and we signed with Simon & Schuster’s imprint, Free Press.
A year after I came home from New Orleans a mid-list unknown historian, Jim had put me in the highest echelon of the publishing business. I will never forget walking into Jenn’s classroom (she was a math teacher), smiling and telling her that House to House had sold.
Jim had changed our lives completely. And he’d done it on a verbal handshake. In 15 years, I never signed an agency agreement with Jim. We worked entirely on a gentleman’s agreement.
In the years that followed, Jim handed me many collaborations. I worked on photo books at the same time for Zenith Press, including one that Eric passed to me (Battle of the Bulge). I no longer had to consult, or scrounge free-lance gigs. It was an amazing time.
I considered Jim a friend from the outset. He’d been an editor in New York, he was a lawyer by training, and had written his own narrative non-fiction military history books in “Last Stand” and “Ship of Ghosts.” That versatility made him an invaluable human being. He showed me the business at that level, taught me how to write for a larger audience than WWII fans, and relentlessly worked with me to improve my writing and storytelling.
It was an amazing partnership. I worked insane hours to deliver projects with incredibly tight timelines. Jim would call me to check on my progress and say, “How’s the hardest working man in show business?” Later, after several of our books were optioned by LA studios, he started calling me, “Johnny Hollywood” as a joke. Eventually, he just called me Johnny.
There are only a handful of people in the world who call me Johnny. All are people I grew up with back home in California. Jim was the only person in my life who called me that beyond my very tight-knit crew of childhood friends. At times, others have tried, but it felt wrong. My college dorm-mates nicknamed me “Bruno” and that stuck all through the 90s. But Johnny? Never. Until Jim.
A typical call would start, “Johnny B!”
And we’d go from there.
As our relationship evolved, Jim and I developed enough of a rapport to trust each other’s judgments. We fought like brothers at times. We were blunt to the point of rudeness at others. Jim kept wanting me to dial back the emotional side of my writing. “Less is more, less is more,” he would tell me. When I look back at the first few collaborations I worked on under Jim, I realize he was right. There was too much at times, and those moments became overheated. With Indestructible, I exercised a little bit more restraint.
That was the biggest difference between Jim and I. I am a very emotional person. Jim was a bit more restrained. When we worked together, I tried to draw more emotion out of him, and he tried to restrain me. In the end, we met in the middle, and the results spoke for themselves. There was true creative magic between us, and the battles we fought over the phone sharpened me and made me a better storyteller and writer. I could always count on Jim’s unvarnished opinion on my writing. I feared it, but I also knew that after he chewed me out, I’d be angry enough to push myself to another level. That was really the key. Jim pushed me hard to be better. And I responded.
The older I’ve gotten, the more restrained my interactions have become with people, including friends. As you age, topics become off limits that in your youth, you discuss freely. There’s that narrowing that happens, even among the closest friends. I’m not sure why life does that, but when I find somebody I can talk to about anything, openly without any restraint or restrictions, it is an intellectual joy. Jim was that person for me. There were no limits, there was no subject out of bounds, and no opinion that could not be challenged or defended. All our intellectual brawls were predicated on mutual respect. Hell, I flat-out admired Jim. He had a vision of storytelling that was broad and big. I get lost in the trees. He understood how New York publishing works, what editors wanted and the things we needed to do to bring them projects they could sell internally, then publish big once complete.
Jim’s sense for what would sell was almost 100% accurate. In the fifteen years we worked together, I wrote or collaborated on about sixteen books with Jim as my agent. In that decade and a half, we had three proposals that did not sell. And one of those got an offer, which we rejected as too small. And another one attracted interest, but instead of writing it, I went to Afghanistan.
That track record is a testament to Jim’s incredible, intuitive grasp on the marketplace. He was a master in that realm with few peers.
For all the work we’d done together, we didn’t actually meet face-to-face until 2016. I was driving across Texas after doing some final research for Indestructible’s release, and he asked me to stop in Austin to see him. I was absolutely gob-smacked when I met him. First, Jim was toweringly tall, something that could be incredibly intimidating had it not been for his exuberant personality. He was so excited to see me and show me his town. In one morning and afternoon, I met his family, had lunch at one of the best Tex-Mex restaurants in Austin, then got a complete tour of the military museum in town.
Jim reveled in his role as host. We even took a couple of selfies together. Can you imagine? Two middle-aged men snapping selfies beside WWII armored vehicles. I left Austin with my head-spinning. I’d never seen or known that side of Jim before. He was an incredibly fun, energetic guy. He was outgoing, kind and gracious. By then, I’d become a late-in-life introvert. The days of large parties and wanting big groups of people around me were long over. Afghanistan and the rugged homecoming I had in 2010-11, changed me completely in that realm. So Jim’s hospitality overwhelmed me a little. It also reminded me of who I’d once been, as I’d once been a lot like Jim before I went to Afghanistan.
In 2014, I had a (temporary) falling out with a co-author on a WWII project we were working up together. Jim was furious at me for an email I’d sent in the heat of the moment. I had been angry, and it was worded harshly to my co-author. Jim’s bedrock approach to the business was to never burn bridges, and I’d done that–at least for the short term–with that email. So he beat me up pretty good over it–and rightfully so.
As I was trying to figure out what to do next, my daughter approached me and said, “Dad, for my 16th birthday gift, I want you to write a book on your own. Something you’ve always wanted to write.”
In fact, I did have a bucket list of projects I’d drafted in my head. So. I drove back home to California, spent four days closeted in a hotel near Santa Cruz, and wrote the proposal for “Indestructible.” A week after I sent that angry email, I delivered a new proposal to Jim. It was a total surprise. The weeks that followed were a whirlwind as Jim shopped it in New York and it eventually was sold to Hachette. The moment was a big one for us, as it marked the first time I’d written a solo book for a top tier publisher.
Two years later, I was up at the cabin I write at in the Cascade Mountains and Jim called. We got to talking, and I mentioned to him the story of the 5th Air Force aces & the race to become the #1 USAAF ace. Jim stopped me in mid-sentence and said, “John, this is your next book! The Race of Aces!” I’d been wanting to write the story for years, but I never thought it was a big enough subject to appeal to Hachette. He helped me craft the proposal, and Hachette loved it. It became my second project for them, “Race of Aces.”
In the middle of working on ROA, Jim called me in May of 2018 to ask if I’d like to save a manuscript that had been rejected twice by its publisher. I’d done this once before with Jim back in 2008 with a book that became my first ghost writing project. With this new one, we had sixty days to rework the manuscript and get it approved, or it would be canceled. The original writer is a colleague and friend, and the thought of him having to give the advance back drove me to accept.
I spent the summer of 2018 working with an incredible principal–a legendary naval aviator from the Vietnam Era–starting from scratch to frame the book around an epic thirty-five year love story. It was an incredible experience, working with Jim and the naval officer that summer. Every day brought new challenges as we battled to complete the rewrite under the time constraint. We delivered it on time, and when it came out the following spring, the book did very well. After that, Jim and I both wanted to collaborate on another book someday in the future. We had a lot of fun working on it together, and didn’t want to let that magic go.
I always thought there would be plenty of time for another book.
A phone call from Jim in December 2019 was the first shockwave that disabused me of that. “John,” he said without preamble, “Do I sound sick to you?”
“No.” I replied.
He went on to tell me that doctors had found a tumor in the back of his eye. I knew he’d had vision problems for a couple of years. A tumor sounded awful. I had an image of Jim losing his sight–there is nothing more terrifying to a writer. How would he make a living?
He asked me to come to Austin and help him finish a book he’d been working on with a CIA officer. At the end of January, I packed my stuff into my GTO and headed for Texas. At the time, I’d been thinking about writing a book down the road on the 1918 flu pandemic and its effects on the front line troops in France. So when the first rumblings of a new airborne virus started seeping out of Wuhan at the beginning of the month, I got paranoid that we were in for another global pandemic. As I drove to Texas, I stayed mainly in remote hotels, and only in rooms that clerks assured me had not been used for at least 72 hours. I didn’t eat in restaurants, just in the car. I feared catching the new virus and bringing with me to Austin, getting Jim even sicker.
It was a weird time. I’d never been a germaphobe, and we never had more than a day or two’s supply of food in the house, since our grocery store is only a couple blocks from us. The fear I felt for this new virus propelled me to spent my nights on the road, ordering things off Amazon. Masks, five full biohazard suits, a respirator and lots of storable food started showing up at the front door while I was gone. My family thought I’d gone insane. I suppose I had, a little. But I’d spent a lot of time reading about the 1918 pandemic through the summer and fall of 2019 that worst case scenarios went straight to my head. And, I’m afraid I carried that paranoia to Austin.
When I arrived at the Hornfischer residence, I was shocked when Jim came out to welcome me. I misunderstood the battle he was facing. The tumor wasn’t behind his eye, it was in his brain. He was battling a GBM, the same type of tumor that claimed Senator John McCain a few years before. It was already affecting his movement and his eyesight. After he left me to unpack, I broke into tears. I had no idea he was fighting for his life.
I spent two weeks at the Hornfischers. In that time, I saw Jim’s attitude toward this battle. He was relentlessly positive, upbeat. Whenever anyone asked him how he felt, he would reply, “I feel great! Never better!” At times, he’d send me a text or two that gave me a glimpse into his inner fears. He’d sometimes lie awake at night, thinking about the enemy within his head, willing it to die. It became a conscious act for him, killing that terrible thing that had already claimed some of his mobility and eyesight.
I saw in Jim great courage. Tremendous courage, actually. He’d spend his life writing about combat and men who either measured up in it, or broke down in the midst of the trauma and the fighting. When called to his own life-battle, he not only measured up, he set the example for how to behave.
In that two weeks in February, I saw another side of Jim I’d never seen before in all our dealings together. He was a man of Faith whose outgoing nature drew a large circle of friends to him. When the family announced Jim’s condition, these friends rallied to his side in a way that was so beautiful, so loyal, that it reflected the kind of man he was. People were drawn to him, and he welcomed them into his life.
For those two weeks, I can’t remember more than one or two nights that didn’t have those friends over to visit. Dinners every night were social events. The families loyal to the Hornfischers had taken up the mantle to fight alongside them in all the ways they could–from morale support to logistical support and even medical support. Families came by every day to bring food for lunch and beautifully prepared dinners so Sharon, Jim’s wife, did not have the additional onus of feeding her family after fighting all the myriad of medical red tape battles each day for her husband.
It was deeply touching to see this. And to see Sharon’s bedrock of love and support for Jim, her furious fight to get him the medical treatments he needed–well, the will and determination to carry that weight was born entirely from their incredible connection. Jim and Sharon clearly shared the one-in-a-million Hollywood love. The devotion she displayed for her husband every day never ceased to amaze me. Privately, Jim would tell me he was the luckiest human on the planet to have her. So blessed.
I probably came across as a grey cloud at times during all the socializing. Being an introvert these days, I have a hard time being around a lot of people now. This is such a change for me–my 40th birthday party filled a local restaurant with my raucous crew back in 08. My 50th was shared only with my family.
In Austin, nearly every night there was a different group of people to meet and get to know. It wore me out, and took the edge of my filter which caused my anxieties about the virus spreading in China to emerge. I don’t think there was a gathering where I didn’t ask the guests their opinions on what they thought would happen with this virus. The guests for those evenings were often retired intelligence types, or fellow writers and clients of Jim’s. They all shared unique insights, especially the guests who still had contacts in that realm.
The culmination of all these gatherings came when we had dinner with George Friedman and the retired CIA officer whose book we were developing. George’s book, “The Storm Before the Calm” was coming out that month and I’d been reading it before he came to dinner. If you haven’t seen this book, I cannot recommend it enough. Literally two months after it hit shelves, the forecasts George made in it began to come true. The book became sort of a guidepost for me over the next year, and a hope that we’d emerge a better nation for all the turmoil as he predicts we will.
Anyway, as we were sitting in the Hornfischer’s dining room, eating dessert, I turned the conversation to the JFK assassination. For the next forty-five minutes, I sat and listened to experts in their field give their opinions on 11-22-63. It was one of the most fascinating nights I’ve ever spent. Jim sat at the head of the table, looking happy and engaged. I remember thinking that I hoped the night had taken his mind away from his battle, if just for a few hours. Looking back, I really hope it did.
One afternoon, we piled into the Hornfischer’s car to go see Hutch, Jim and Sharon’s oldest son, play baseball for his college team. I’d brought along my camera gear in case we had the opportunity to do this, and as I was loading up, I managed to drop a $1500 Sigma 135mm Art lens. The fall destroyed the autofocus motor, and I was utterly beside myself for doing something so stupid. Honestly, I was a bad guest at that point. I groused and moped in the back of the car, so bummed that I’d destroyed one of the most useful and oft used pieces of kit I owned.
Now, think about this. I’m in the back of the car all spun up and whiney over a camera lens while the two people in front are facing cancer and all its consequences. My selfishness was just inexcusable. Clue meter at zero.
Finally, Sharon had enough of my mopeyness. She turned around and said, “Suck it up!”
You don’t say no to a force of nature like Sharon. I shot the baseball game with two manual focus vintage lenses that I’d brought along for the journey and stowed my selfishness.
Toward the end of my time in Austin, Marc Resnick flew in to meet with us. Marc is one of the senior editors at St. Martin, and the spearhead of the CIA book. He and I had worked together on Level Zero Heroes back in 2013-14 with Michael Golembesky, and we’d become friends from that time. He became only the second editor I’ve met face-to-face in the 25 years I’ve been in the business.
Marc’s time in Austin with us was one of the true highlights of my professional career. At one point, I went out to grab drinks with him and our CIA officer principal on the book. I drove everyone home to Jim’s in the GTO–and promptly got lost getting back from downtown Austin. This was a moment for me.
If you may recall, my only post here on this website for 2020 details the GTO and what it means to me. Here was the vehicle with so much history, so much personal meaning to me, with a senior-level CIA officer in back and one of my favorite editors in riding shotgun. It was an unforgettable evening.
At the end of the two weeks, Jim and I had accomplished the hand-off of the CIA project. I headed home in the GTO, tripping into Tombstone and the US Army fort at Apache Pass. I wandered to the Salton Sea, stopped at Chino to see Planes of Fame and the legendary Chris Fahey, whom I had dinner with one night. The next day, I drove to see my folks in the Monterey Bay Area.
About a week after I got home, we went into lockdown as the Covid outbreak spread through Oregon and the rest of the country. In the weeks that followed, the pandemic made Jim’s struggle immeasurably more complex as he sought experimental treatments and surgeries to battle that enemy within.
Before I had left Austin, Sharon tried to wake me up. Out in the front yard one night, she told me Jim had been given only 18 months by his doctors. I had no idea what to say in the moment. And the truth is, I could not even fathom Jim losing this battle. Not with his heart, not with his energy and attitude. He was doing everything right. He’d exemplified the courage, resolve and relentless optimism a human needs to defeat such an insidious foe. The odds may not have been on his side, but both of us had spent years writing about victories against long odds.
In the months that followed, I retreated more and more into my own sense that Jim was invulnerable and tried my best to forget the conversation Sharon and I had that night. Jim’s communication became sporadic. He was difficult to get on the phone. His emails were filled with uncharacteristic typos. Instead of being understanding, I grew frustrated. Several times, we clashed on the phone, but not like the old days when our wills were equal. Jim didn’t have the energy to spare for such things. So I just came across as selfish again. In light of where this all went, I did not behave like an understanding friend. I wanted the relationship we’d always had, unwilling to believe or accept things were changing. Jim was slowly losing his battle.
As I finished up the CIA project that summer, I got word that Eric Hammel’s health was in decline. It had been several years since we’d spoken. In 2015-16, his public posts on his social media pages had taken on a hard edge. He made some public statements that shocked me so badly, that I wrote him a long message. At times, he could be his own worst enemy. He mentioned many times how during an interview with a CNN talking head about his Beirut book, he’d lost his temper and was never asked back onto the network again after that. He told me that as a cautionary tale–don’t do what I did, kid.
In those public posts, I saw him saying things that would alienate some of his core readership. When I messaged him, I mentioned that. It felt like his anger and opinions were shooting himself in the foot.
Eric wrote back and he sounded beside himself at the political situation in the country. He was so torn up over what was going on that he was reactive and angry. I’d watched people melt down on social media, costing friends and family members, for over a year. It got to the point during the 2016 election cycle that I just banned all political discussions off my social media pages and got good at blocking old friends who insisted on trying to start fights on my page. For the last five years, I’ve basically just used SM to post silly cat and dog photos I’ve taken with my vintage lenses. I can’t affect the political situation, and I don’t want to engage with people who are in the frame of mind where anyone who disagrees with them is a (pick your insult and ism) and an enemy of the country.
The back and forth Eric and I had that last time we spoke convinced me he was in that binary mindset. I just couldn’t deal with that at that time in my life. We’d just gone through major medical issues with Jenn and my daughter Renee. There was so much on my plate. Being berated for not agreeing with Eric’s politics was something I just didn’t want to pile onto the stress in my life back then.
He wrote another note and said he’d like to talk it out with me. He kept the door open, and I didn’t go through it. We lost touch.
When I heard he was in decline, I was furiously finishing Jim’s hand-off project, racing another crazy-tight deadline. I vowed to myself that when I finished the book, I’d reach out and make amends with Eric.
Two days later, Eric died. I finished the book two days after that. Memo: never miss a moment to make amends. Those windows close too quickly for delays.
While I was processing Eric’s death, I went up to Portland, Oregon and photographed the downtown one Thursday morning. I was accosted and nearly attacked at the Justice center by a man drinking a tall boy Coors Light at 9:30 in the morning. I photographed the 2nd Oregon Volunteers memorial covered in spray paint, with a despondent young men sitting at its base.
Afterward, I went to Taylor Marks’ memorial at Willamette National. It had been 11 years since he’d been killed in Iraq. Taylor was a founding member of our volunteer OPFOR group, the 973rd COB, and I was very, very close to him. Seeing his fellow Soldiers and John Walch, one of the longest-standing members of the 973rd, gave me a bit of solace.
Two weeks later, we awoke to a sky turned blood red. Fluke winds and high temperatures caused massive wildfires to break out throughout Oregon. Two huge fires converged on Detroit, the little town near which I write when I retreat to the woods to finish my books. I’d been looking forward to going up there in September to get some time alone, to finish processing Eric’s death and to continue work on my own book projects now that Jim’s was finished for him.
I went up into the fire, but couldn’t get closer than 20 miles to the cabin. I spoke with firefighters from Mill City, two of whom had lost their own homes in the blaze, and they warned me to get out. The fire was cutting the last road down to the valley. I escaped out with bare minutes to spare. I’ll never forget the heat on my face as I foolishly stopped to take photos of the flames sweeping for the road.
Detroit was completely destroyed. Miraculously, the cabin I used to stay in survived. But with the town gone, there was no way to really write up there. No gas stations were left for 20+ miles. No stores. No restaurants left. Just desolation and burned out cars. This had been the happiest place for me in Oregon for over a decade.
Meanwhile, I kept the fiction in my head that Jim was doing well. He told me the surgery was a success. His PT was going great. When I talked to him on the phone, he painted the best possible picture. The latest MRIs looked great. He reported that the tumor had been killed. I thought he was going to be back and 100% in no time. I was absolutely living a delusion.
In December, he sent me an email that painted a very different picture. Gone was his relentless optimism. He was blunt about his chances. I was so rocked by his words that I could only write that I’d have to think them over and get back to him. Many times, I sat down to do that, but the words never came.
We emailed and called back and forth for the next three months. Gone was the glimpse that email provided. Back was the Jim imbued with relentless optimism and energy. When we spoke in March, he mentioned his tests all looked great, he was writing and working hard. He was back! I was so excited. He’d faced cancer down and kicked its teeth in. Larger than life as always, he’d beaten the odds after all.
Three weeks later, I learned that Jim had gone into hospice care.
He called to say goodbye to me a couple of days after I learned the news. His voice was weak. There was so much I wanted to say to him. I managed to try. I’ve always been grateful for all that he had done for me over the years. I told him that again. He changed my life. Gave me a career I could never have dreamed of in 2005. Thanks to his efforts on my behalf, we got my daughter Renee through college at Willamette University.
“That right there is an incredible thing,” he said in an emotion-choked voice.
We were a team that rose to every challenge, accomplished every goal. Writing with him was an intellectual joy. The level of honesty, the mutual pursuit for excellence–those were professional bedrocks for us. Every at bat, we swung for the fence.
“I can’t even imagine doing this without you Jim,” I told him as I cried quietly.
“I’ll always be there, John.”
I wanted to scream at the sheer unfairness of what was happening to my dear friend. Rail against the magnitude of the indignities. Why does this happen to good people?
We talked for a few more minutes. I told him I loved him.
Jim Hornfischer lost his battle a few weeks later.
I try to remember it isn’t the meeting or the end that matters, but what you make of the middle. Because of Jim Hornfischer, countless otherwise forgotten or unknown stories & experiences of our fellow Americans have been preserved for future generations. The hundreds of books he agented will live on in collections around the world, as will his own books. Though his life was cut so tragically short by that enemy within, he left gigantic footsteps in the sand. His legacy will be remembered far longer than most.
Thanks to him, when the day comes, and I lose my own battle with fate, I will go out knowing I have a small legacy too. I’ll have footsteps in the sand, thanks to Eric’s mentorship and Jim’s guidance. Indestructible. Race of Aces. Outlaw Platoon, House to House. The Trident. Level Zero Heroes. 53 Days on Starvation Island–these books are a testament to the two titans who took a chance on an unknown writer in Oregon and gave me a chance to learn and grow.
Now, after the worst year Americans have experienced in decades, two great voices are silent. Eric and Jim were historians above all, but they knew the point of history is to share it broadly. It is not the realm of the academic whose works are written for a select few. It is for all of us to engage with and share. They found the words that brought those audiences to their pages, a magnificent and rare ability that ensured the struggles on Guadalcanal, the charge of the USS Johnston and the fate of the Houston’s crew would be appreciated and celebrated by new generations of Americans.
As I sit here grieving, I try to remember that bigger picture. But the truth is, I miss my friends. Badly.