Terry: (laughing) Well, in any case, she was really sure of herself, so we just humored her. She gave us directions to find the guy who had the key to the house and she gave us a key to a strong box where all of her valuables were locked away in the upper bedroom of the house. I mean really, we probably wouldn’t even be able to find the house, you know. I had been in rural Asia a lot at that point and these structures don’t last. A strong wind will blow them down. So, I intended to write a travel piece and nothing else.
Lo and behold, we get there and the house is still there. It’s not some little shack; it’s a two story stone house and it’s been empty for 30 years more or less. They used the ground floor for a granary but the living quarters upstairs had never been used. And sure enough, the closet where she said the stuff was located was still there.
There was a lock the size of a soft ball, a Yale padlock, on the door to the closet and we had a key that fit but it wouldn’t turn; it was rusted shut. We soaked the lock in oil, but I wanted to break the door down because the door was about as thick as a piece of paper. We argued about it for a while, and while we were standing there arguing about it, the lock fell open.
We went into the closet and the trunk was there. It was an old steamer trunk and inside the trunk was a bunch of clothes and other things, and at the bottom of the trunk was another locked box, a little box. It had all the stuff she said was there – gold, currency and jade. I don’t think it was worth a ton of money but it was everything she had in the world. It was all still there. I was just floored, just astonished. So we took it. The grandmother had warned us not to tell anybody that we had the stuff because they’d want some of it. So we had to sneak it out of the village.
We got back to Guangzhou, the big city, and spilled all the stuff out on a bedspread. There was a ton of it. Millie and her cousin, who helped us find the village, kind of panicked and decided that we couldn’t take it all with us and had to leave some of it behind, which I found idiotic. They never check when you’re leaving a country, right? It’s when you’re coming in. But they were spooked and afraid we were going to lose it, so we left stuff in Hong Kong with another cousin. When we got back to the States to give it back to the grandma, she was not in the least bit surprised that we brought it back. All she wanted to know was “where’s the rest of it?” (Neely laughs) She was a character – Bak Bak.
Neely: You said that they left in staggered times. How did they get out of China?
Terry: Well, Millie’s grandfather, her father’s father, came to the U.S. in, it might have been the 30s, I’m not even sure, maybe the 40s. Anyhow he came by himself and worked as a house boy for a rich family in Oakland. He was a cook and did a bit of whatever around the house. It was not uncommon then that people would come and send money back to their family. They were farmers – everyone in this little village were farmers. They grew all their own food and everyone had a pig in their backyard. It was communal, predating Communism, where they all worked together. Nobody in the village had ever been as far Beijing.
So he would send money back and eventually Millie’s father went to join him in the U.S. Her father worked for a short time and then got drafted immediately and was sent to Korea to fight the Chinese, which is kind of hilarious. Not speaking any English whatsoever, he’s in the U.S. Army. Now the Korean War is over and the family left in China is Millie, the oldest child, her sister (eventually there would be two more), her mother and her grandmother. Millie and her grandmother stayed in the village while Millie’s mother and the other sister went to Hong Kong – back then you could go in and out of Hong Kong pretty regularly.
If you recall the history of it, the Revolution had succeeded, the government had fallen in China and the Communist Party was slowly exercising its control over the whole country. It just didn’t happen all at once; it was sort of bit by bit. So in the South they were able to come and go pretty much as they wanted for several years after the revolution. But it was always sort of dicey. You never knew how long it was going to last. And on one of these trips when Millie’s mom and sister were in Hong Kong, they sent word back, and I forget how they even knew that the border was going to be closed and that they couldn’t get back. She sent word that Millie and her grandmother had better get out as soon as they could. So that’s why they left all their stuff behind. They packed just a small bag and took off, got out and got to Hong Kong. Then the two girls, the mother and the grandmother came to the U.S. in the middle 50s; the dad had been there the whole time.
Neely: I think it would make a marvelous film and there might even be Chinese money you could tap if you found the right producer. And there’s the rub – the right producer.
Terry: Yeah. Absolutely.
Neely: You grew up in a small town in Iowa with lots of brothers and sisters. For me, it’s hard to imagine you fitting into that environment. Were you a writer back then?
Terry: I was a nothing back then. It’s funny. I always read and liked to read but I was fundamentally pretty lazy or not interested in school whatsoever. I was bored to death by it. First time I ever seriously considered writing, I was in 7th or 8th grade, can’t remember which. We were given an essay test that had something to do with Africa. I can’t remember what the theme was but of course I hadn’t done any of the reading and hadn’t studied anything so I had no idea what to write. I just happened to see the paper of the girl sitting in front of me, just the title on her paper. (I can’t remember what it was now) but the title inspired me enough to write this essay; and I got an A on the essay not knowing anything. I remember thinking, there might be a future in this (Neely and Terry both laugh). It’s kind of a racket, right? I could do that.
Weirdly, that girl, well obviously she’s no longer a girl, just contacted me a couple of months ago. She had heard me on the radio talking about something and wondered if it was same Terry McDermott. She didn’t know that I had stolen her essay topic at the time. But just out of the blue I get this email and it had a different last name so I didn’t recognize it immediately. But I replied and it turned out to be this woman from my home town. We’ve been corresponding back and forth. I told her about stealing her answer from the test and she said she was quite happy about that. The test hadn’t done her much good so… That was the first time I thought about being a writer.
Neely: Where did the path from Nomansland, Iowa lead?
Terry: It was the Viet Nam era and I didn’t have the money to go to college. I came from a big family and there was no money there. I just wanted to get out. So when I was 17, I joined the Air Force, mainly because I didn’t want to get drafted and I wanted to leave and I knew I couldn’t go to school. It didn’t give me a lot of options. I spent 4 years in the Air Force and knew from literally the first day that it had been a horrible mistake. It was a bad four years.
On the other hand, when I got out, I had the GI Bill and I was ready to go to college; I was actually eager. And lo and behold! I turned out to be a great student. Who knew? I just found the university to be a smorgasbord. I couldn’t take enough classes. I’d have taken them all if they’d have let me. One of the early classes I took was a journalism class and it seemed fine. The teacher thought I was interesting, a possible journalist, and persuaded me to take another class. And from then on they started giving me money to go to school. I got some journalism scholarships, jobs and the rest is a sorry trail of bad newspapers and bad bosses and terrible editing - lots of arguments and fights, getting fired, quitting (laughing).
Bad newspapers… that was a tough fit. Every place I ever went seemed like a war to get to do what you wanted because they’re pretty rule-bound places. But I learned how to be pretty good at fighting those wars and at most of the places I worked I was eventually able to get to do the kind of stuff I wanted. It was always a fight because newspapers don’t like texture and detail and complication and what they really don’t like is long stories. So that was always difficult. But it worked out and by the time I got to LA in ’98, I pretty much knew how to get along, better. I had a good ten years at the LA Times. That lead me to the 9/11 coverage, which led me to the first book, and the second book, and even parts of the third book, too. It’s been a weird fun ride.
Neely: Going back to Viet Nam, there’s another brilliant piece you wrote, very very personal but it was about your passive resistance. What was the trigger?
Terry: As I mentioned, from day one, it was clear that I was an imperfect fit for the military and was constantly in trouble and constantly fighting… that appears to be a theme, doesn’t it. I just hate authority and that’s the whole point of the military. Why I didn’t figure that out before I joined, I don’t know, because it’s pretty damn obvious. But I didn’t. And among the things I didn’t like was the Viet Nam war.
My job in the Air Force was as a photo-interpreter. You looked at reconnaissance photography and picked bombing targets. The first year and a half I was in SAC headquarters in Omaha, underground, looking at satellite photography of the Soviet Union and finding targets there. That didn’t seem objectionable to me because no one was ever going to bomb them. You never even thought about it, you just did the work.
But when I got to Viet Nam, and this was in 1970, so to some extent the war was actually already over. They knew it was going to be over and we weren’t gonna win; we were gonna leave. But they hadn’t made those decisions yet. So it was this really wild period where it was completely dissolute. I was in Saigon and it was just a madhouse. It was like nothing some little farm boy from Iowa had ever seen. It was crazy… drugs, guns, girls… just an insane period that I actually quite liked. I’d never really been in a city; I’d only lived in little towns or on Air Force bases. And here I was in Saigon and this was a feast of debauchery. I guess I’d found my natural home (both laugh). So I was having this like wonderful time enjoying the spoils of war at night.
During the day I was looking at film that would have been shot that morning of a hamlet in a border region and being told to find bombing targets there. They had run out of targets, basically. They had bombed everything that was possible to bomb. So they just kept bombing the same things over and over again. And I started, big shock, I know, fighting and arguing with the boss about what constituted targets or not. They just had to produce a list every day and to me that was just insane because we were just killing people who, as far as I could tell, had nothing to do with anything.
In some ways it’s easy to divorce yourself from the whole thing because you’re sitting in an air conditioned room with headphones on, listening to Jimmy Hendrix looking at a light table with images on it and circling them with a grease pencil and sending them up to the Air Force bomb wing. And that night, literally, they would bomb them. You’d get back the film the next day of the bomb run and the thing you circled is no longer there… it’s gone. And to me it just seemed like murder and it still does. There was no conscience to it at all. To me it seemed then that the more adept you get at war fighting, the easier it is to fight wars and the harder it is to take responsibility for them.
The drones are a perfect example. We can order drones to kill anybody because there’s no risk to us whatsoever. If we make a mistake, nobody on our side gets hurt. It’s some kid somewhere, or some next door neighbor. Presidents, even those who are sympathetic to peace, like I presume Obama is, find it really easy to fight wars at a distance. I just found it horrifying. I thought it was criminal.
I decided, in my infinite 19 year old wisdom, that I wasn’t going to do it anymore. So I quit my job, which I found out you’re not supposed to do in the military (Neely chuckles). That’s called desertion. I had actually thought about it a lot and decided I just couldn’t do it anymore. I was making a statement of principle and declined to do it anymore. It’s hard to imagine doing that now. I mean I was 19 years old and smoking dope and drinking beer; you do funny things. But I decided that I had to do it. I didn’t have a choice really, even knowing and thinking that that decision could be the end of my life; that I was going to end up in a jail somewhere forever. But I felt I had to do it.
So I quit. And the Air Force being the Air Force (and not being the Army) told me, “Why don’t you take some time off and think about it.” (Terry laughs) Imagine an Army unit doing that? And I said, “Well that’s not going to do any good because I’m pretty sure I know how I feel. I’ve been thinking about it for months now and that’s not going to change.” “Well, we’ll talk to you in a few days.” I was immediately removed from work. I wasn’t even allowed in the building because they took away all my security clearances. They assigned me to this First Sergeant who was supposed to look after me and figure out what to do with me. And sure enough, as soon as he told me to take a few days to think about it, he had a family emergency back in the United States and was sent home and never came back. I kind of got lost in the shuffle. So I was sitting there in this makeshift barracks in the Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon and basically set free.
I didn’t have a job, didn’t have anybody coming to see what I was doing; so I went native, more or less, and moved into Saigon and had a good time. I even got promoted (Neely hoots). Months and months went by and eventually I was sitting there in the barracks and some guy comes by and says, “I’m looking for Terry McDermott.” So I said, “That’s me.” And he says, “Where have you been?” And I go, “Just hangin’ around.” They had finally discovered that I was nowhere. At that point they gave me a lawyer and the lawyer said that the best thing to do was to declare that I was a conscientious objector. But I said, “I’m not really. I’m just objecting to this particular war and not to all wars.” And he said, “I know that and you know that, but let’s just make a claim. The worst they can do is deny the claim. We’ll figure out what to do after that.” So I made the claim and by the time it was heard, my tour in Viet Nam was up. The claim was denied but I was sent home. They immediately restored all my security clearances and sent me back into SAC headquarters to pick Russian bombing targets as if nothing had ever happened. It seems kind of comical now, but I felt so guilty for so long about that. It seemed like I’d made this great moral decision and it was met with a kind of empty laughter, you know what I mean? There was no consequence. It haunted me for years and years.
Neely: You took a stand at great risk to yourself and you got off; but not for the stand. And nobody cared.
Terry: I just walked away. The day I left Viet Nam, one of the guys I knew there, an older guy, way wiser than me, said, “You got away clean.” I thought that was the harshest thing anybody had ever said to me in my life. (Terry laughs) I wasn’t trying to get away clean. But sometimes you get luck, I guess. And I got really lucky. If I’d know better, I’d have appreciated getting away and not mourned it for so long, which I did. It cost me a lot for the next ten years or maybe longer but in the end, I realize now that I was extraordinarily fortunate. There’s a Bob Dylan line about waiting for fortune to be kind and it was, there.
Neely: There’s also that old expression, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
Terry: Yeah, well, I…
Neely: …which you still do, don’t you.
Terry: … I take advice from anybody, gift horses or whatever. It was a weird period.
Neely: I know the feeling. It’s really hard when you finally, morally, at much risk to your psyche, take a stand and nobody notices and nobody cares.
Terry: Yeah. My family was deeply embarrassed. So when I came home they tried to act as if I were a returning war hero. (laughs)
Neely: Oh god!
Terry: And all I wanted to do was crawl into a corner and be left alone, you know. (Groan) Strange.
Neely: Well families so very rarely know what to do with any of us anyway.
Terry: That’s true.
Neely: So what’s your next project?
Terry: I want to do a book on baseball…
Neely: Oh yeah, that reminds me that I forgot to bring up that fabulous article you wrote about the semi-pro team in Iowa. I loved that story.
Terry: …on pitching and on pitchers and hitters, the competition between them and on deception. I’ve been a baseball fan my whole life so it’s something I know more about than terrorism or neuroscience. And it’s quite a bit more fun, certainly than terrorism. Neuroscience, which clearly you don’t know, is a lot of fun.
Neely: (laughing) You’re right, I didn’t know that. (more laughing) Although Larry’s having the time of his life right now.
Terry: That’s great. He’s doing what he wants to do
Terry: And it’s endlessly fascinating. Again, for people who don’t know anything about neuroscience, nobody knows shit. It’s just that it’s the same as the movie business, the Goldman line: “Nobody knows nothing.” Neuroscience is exactly the same. (Terry laughs) They’re just making shit up every day.
Neely: Well that’s the way it looks to me. But they’re having a lot of fun doing it and every once in a while they find something.
Terry: Right, right.
Neely: You know I’ll read that baseball book. As much as I dislike watching the game, I really really like reading about it.
Terry: I once said mockingly that intellectuals love baseball because it’s the only sport that’s slow enough for them to understand. (Neely laughs loudly)
Neely: I’m not sure I’d put myself in an intellectual category, but some of the best journalistic writing has often been on sports. Ring Lardner, Damon Runyon, Red Smith and Jim Murray. I just really enjoy their intellectualizing about a game that is visceral.
Terry: There’s been lots of good writing about baseball, partly I think it’s because of it’s place in the history of the country and its resonance of rural America. It’s basically played on a pasture. I think less than 3% of the population are farmers now. We’re no longer a rural country and baseball sort of ties us to that. That’s one of the big reasons I think, for its appeal to writers. It’s anachronistic, it’s out of time. You can try to make it a sport, but it’s a game.
Neely: Before I forget, what are you reading right now?
Terry: I just read The Bullpen Gospels, a memoir of pitching in the minor leagues by Dirk Hayhurst. Research for the baseball book has also included a return visit to decades of Bill James’ annual abstracts, which is superlative writing.
Neely: How about television or film?
Terry: I watch no episodic television other than Top Chef and thought almost every movie I saw in the last year was over-rated, including most of the Oscar nominees. I just saw "The Hunger Games," to which I was dragged by my daughter and thought it surprisingly good. We both cried when Rue died.
Neely: Sort of puts a crimp in my vision of your cynicism.
Well, whatever you write, I’ll read because I’m a huge huge fan. Thanks for taking the time. I hope The Hunt for KSM is a huge success.