Saturday, March 03, 2007


Life is crazy. It takes you to unexpected places at unforeseen times, stirs interesting thoughts, and throws up unanticipated events.

Like, for example, going through security at John Wayne airport in Orange Country, California. We were headed for Houston, Texas, and had allowed plenty of time at the airport - because the man with the kilt is always subject to special attention going through security, as regular readers of my blog will know.

I stripped down to essentials, as usual, and stepped through the metal detector. Not a peep. No alarm, nothing. I couldn't believe it. The buckles on the kilt always set it off. Always!! I almost said, "No, hang on, I'll go through again, it's bound to go off this time." But I didn't.

The female security officer looked at me sadly and shook her head, leaning forward to confide, "I was really hoping the alarm would go off. You know, the male security guys get so embarrassed when they have to search a guy in a skirt."

Okay, so we're travelling Wednesday, because our scheduled week in Huntsville, teaching creating writing at Sam Houston State University has been cut short. No one signed up for the course. But Dr. Richard Ward, former Dean of the university's College of Criminal Justice, still wanted us to come. He is an old friend and mentor, and the man who made the writing of the China Thrillers possible because of his contacts inside the Chinese police.

He is now the university's Associate Vice President for Research and Special Programs, and had arranged for us to give a talk to creative writing students at The Woodlands campus of the University of Houston. So we spent a couple of hours chatting with the students in a classroom in a space age building in the woods of Conroe - less than a mile away from where the denouement of "Snakehead" takes place.

Actually, that scene was set at Dick Ward's ranch just outside Huntsville, but for the purposes of the story I'd transplanted it to Conroe. Dick has never forgotten my description of the chaos inside his garage. Nor forgiven it. When we went to the ranch for dinner the following night, I discovered he had made a concerted effort to tidy it up for my benefit. His good lady wife, Michelle, had told him to bring us in the front door. But I sneaked around the side to take a peek in the garage.

It was... well, nearly tidy. Good job, Dick!

Dick is an extraordinary man of exceptional energy. He has made more than sixty trips to China, training the top five hundred cops there in the latest Western policing techniques. He is constantly globe-trotting, making connections, raising funds, placing students. Most of the major law enforcement agencies around the world are now populated by his former students. Talk about being well-connected!

Being around Dick is never dull. He sent one of his students to the airport to pick us up. A lad with a good Scots name, and sound Scottish heritage, Duncan McCallum. He was, however, a little nervous at driving the university's brand new white Ford Expedition with which Dick had charged him. He would not, he said, be able to face his mentor if he were to do it any damage. "If we have a wreck I'm afraid you're going to have to come with me to Mexico. I will simply have to disappear."

Thanks to Dick, we found ourselves, Thursday afternoon, at the George Bush Presidential Library, on the campus of Houston A & M University at College Station (popularly known as "The Aggies"), about an hour from Huntsville. I'm not talking here of George W Bush, the current President, but of his father, George Herbert Walker Bush, the former President.

Interestingly, I had been in the house set up in Beijing by Bush Senior when he was made special envoy to China in the 1970s. It is now the home of the US Ambassador, and I set a scene there at an ambassadorial party in "The Fourth Sacrifice".

I'm not sure I had ever really formed an opinion about George Bush Senior, but I found myself impressed, and even moved, by the public exhibit at the library. An eighteen-year-old war hero who flew bombing missions over the Pacific during World War Two - when he was shot down and very fortunate to be rescued; a father who suffered the tragedy of losing a daughter who was only four years old; a man who handled the rigours of running the CIA; a man with the wit and intelligence to make powerful speeches off the back of handwritten notes made minutes before getting up on the podium.

Both La Patronne and myself were moved, almost to tears, by a letter he had written to his mother reflecting on the loss of his daughter, and another written to his children on leaving Kennebunkport.

This is a man in his eighties who still makes parachute jumps, who lives by the old fashioned values taught him by his parents - values that seem all too scarce in today's society. I arrived at the library with an open mind, and left with the impression that here, perhaps, was one of the most unsung Presidents of recent times. A decent man.

Thanks also to Dick, we found ourselves today at the Houston Space Centre - chauffeured by our old friend, Ginny Wilson, a student of Dick's who had been assigned to babysit us during our last visit, and who was doing a wonderful job of babysitting once again. She is small, but perfectly formed, and has trouble reaching the pedals of the Expedition. But she is equally fearless and throws it around the freeways and the streets of Houston like a veteran truck driver.

It would probably not have occurred to us to visit the Space Centre. But I'm glad we did. They had the space capsules actually flown by astronauts of the various programmes that led, eventually, to the moon. Numerous artefacts of that extraordinary time of ingenuity and invention. How basic it all seemed. Clocks that told the time with mechanical counters, dials and knobs and switches that looked like a mock-up on a fifties film set. And yet it was all real. In unbelievably cramped conditions, brave men took extraordinary risks to push back the boundaries of space, with what was then cutting-edge, but untried, technology.

We looked at rocks from the moon, dust collected from it's surface, and touched a piece of moon stone more than one-and-a-half billion years old. We frolicked in the Sky Lab, and "flew" the shuttle. We ate the ice cream of the future - frozen granules that stuck to the palate.

And we wondered what had become of that spirit of adventure, the insatiable desire of man to push forward into the unknown. Somehow it seems to have turned inwards, got stalled by greed and complacency, in spite of all the technological advances.

In his speech given at Rice University in 1962, President John F. Kennedy said, "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win." Fine words that launched a fabulous adventure that reached its conclusion a mere seven years later.

But that was nearly forty years ago. One wonders where the impetus and inspiration will come from to kick-start that ambition. To re-launch the great adventure. And it seems unlikely to come from today's crop of mediocre leaders.

I am reminded of a famous quotation, "Two men look out from behind the same bars, one sees the gutter, the other the stars" , and I can't help thinking that we need to lift our heads again.

The "Cafe Texan" where we breakfast with the Wards...

An interesting logo in this typical Texan cafe...

Dick's "pet" long-horned steer...

The Ward ranch...

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