Tom Clancy and the Days of Cheap Suits

Here’s a true story I tell new friends after about our fifth dinner together. Except for one small footnote, it has nothing to do with OESH.

Back in the early-mid ‘80’s, every other weekend, I used to take the Amtrak train from Boston where I was in medical school, down to Manhattan where Bob worked.

The train took 4 ½ hours and I’d look forward to using all of that time to study. As the train was never full, I’d hope that no one would sit next to me. A little anti-social, yes, I know. But I was one serious student. What I’d do is lay out all my books, with the most disgusting pictures from my anatomy book showing. That, along with the fact that I often smelled of formaldehyde, was very effective in keeping everyone away.

But this one time, some middle-aged, slightly overweight, happy-go-lucky guy wearing what I will always remember as the picture definition of a “cheap suit,” asked if he could sit next to me. Before I could think of anything else disgusting I could do to discourage him, he planted himself right into the seat next to me.

“So, what are you studying? Can I buy you a drink?”

He introduced himself as an insurance salesman. Of course! That went right along with the Far-Side-comic-image of the loser guy trying to pick you up. In the same breath, he also told me that if all goes well, he wouldn’t be an insurance salesman much longer.

He told me he was writing a book that was going to be b-i-g. He described this complicated plot that I had a hard time following. It had something to do with spies, the Russians, and a submarine. He said that it was true. Apparently, a friend of his who worked for this special secret service for the government* had told him a lot of things that he wasn’t supposed to. And my new train guy friend decided to write a book about it.

He handed me a stack of pages and said, “See, here it is! Read it! Let me buy you another drink.”

I started reading it. Oh my gosh, I thought. This is bad – there is no way this will ever be a book. I felt sorry for the poor guy. There were so many typographical errors and it was written in such poor English, that I couldn’t help but edit it. For the rest of the trip I obsessed myself with marking it up with a pen every which way. I just wanted to help him. All the way to somewhere in Connecticut where he got off the train, I edited away while he talked and talked.

When Bob picked me up at Penn station, he asked if I got a lot of work done. I told him no, that this loser insurance salesman guy had sat next to me most of the way and that he was writing this loser book that I felt inclined to edit.

So, as it turns out, this “loser” guy’s name was Tom Clancy. And the “loser” book that he showed me was none other than the “Hunt for Red October.” About a year later, when I saw the advertisements for the book plastered all over our local bookstore, my jaw, just like in a Far Side comic, dropped.

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I never read the final book (I wonder if my edits ever made it) but I did see the movie, along with most his other movies. They were all awesome!

I always thought that one day I should write him even though I don’t think he’d remember, or want to remember that (somewhat stinky) medical student he tried to pick up. I struggled with what I might say to him. “Congratulations. I just want to apologize for thinking that you were a loser?” I kind of doubt, with all his fame and fortune, that he’d really care what I thought.

But now I regret that I never did write him.

I just learned that he passed away the night before last, interestingly, in the month of October…barely. He was only 66. Which means he was only about 36 when I met him. How in the world could I have thought he was “middle-aged”? I now consider 70 to be “middle aged.” And he never got to be that.

Clearly, I was the loser for not recognizing him as the winner he was. I should have picked up on the fact that he was just super happy. And super excited to tell not just me but the whole world a very thrilling story.

Tom, you’re awesome! Rest in peace.

*Ironically, years later, I learned what that secret service was when it was interested in OESH, before it was OESH – that’s another story…

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