Stephen Coonts' Journal

Western Stories

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I am a fan of western short stories and novels that I read while growing up and still reread today when I need something light with a good style. My two favorite western writers are Elmore Leonard and Louis L’Amour.

Elmore Leonard grew up in Detroit and after college decided that he wanted to become a writer. He wanted to learn the craft and make money selling stories at the same time, so he picked a popular genre, westerns, and began writing. His western short stories were published in the 1950s in most of the popular slick magazines of the day and in some of the better pulp western magazines. They are collected in THE COMPLETE WESTERN STORIES OF ELMORE LEONARD, published by William Morrow in 2004, a collection that is still available today in trade paperback.

Leonard’s day job was writing copy for an ad agency. He apparently never visited Arizona, which is the setting for all his western stories, including his novels, until many years after the literary crimes were committed. He researched the area, read books about he frontier and pored over the monthly magazine ARIZONA HIGHWAYS to see what the area looked like. Then he let his imagination soar. It was in these stories that he perfected the crisp, cutting dialogue that would become his trademark. By the end of the 1950s Leonard realized that the western genre was dying, so he switched to the crime-infested streets of the big cities. Still, it is his western stories that are a writer’s style book.

In my opinion his best two short stories are THE TONTO WOMAN, first published in 1982 and a classic in any genre, and 3:10 TO YUMA, which was made into a movie in the 1950s and refilmed recently. Leonard also wrote eight western novels, including HOMBRE, 1961, made into a movie with Paul Newman, and VALDEZ IS COMING, 1970, filmed with Burt Lancaster as Valdez. Both are great movies, but the novels are better.

Louis L’Amour began writing pulp stories in the late 1930s. By the early 1950s he had switched to westerns almost exclusively, and there he used a formula that disgusted critics and earned him a legion of fans. His heroes were not embattled farmers, miners, merchants, railroad moguls, or angst-soaked young men and women trying to find themselves. His heroes were common men who were wide at the shoulder, narrow at the hip and fast with a gun. The formula is still popular today. His novels were published by Bantam, which still reprints them regularly and places them in every paperback stand in the nation, including your favorite grocery and airport bookstore.

L’Amour was a heavy user of the first-person narrative, and it is fair to say he perfected it. I fell in love with it from reading his novels and decided to allow my character Tommy Carmellini tell his own story in future novels. That has worked well for me, even though first person is a difficult way to tell a thriller.

Although L’Amour wrote a lot of forgettable stuff, he wrote some great stories too. My four favorites are: HELLER WITH A GUN, 1955, made into a movie with the title HELLER IN PINK TIGHTS; LAST STAND AT PAPAGO WELLS, 1957; HIGH LONESOME, 1962; and MUSTANG MAN, 1966. Just when you think you have L’Amour’s formula all figured out, you will be delighted by CONAGHER, 1969, which was made into a movie starring Sam Elliott and Katharine Ross. It’s a love story and just flat terrific.

Louis L’Amour sold more stories to the movies than any other writer before or since, over fifty. Movies of his books have starred most of the A-list male and female stars of that era, including John Wayne, Sean Connery, Bridgette Bardot, Anthony Quinn, and Sophia Loren, to name just a few.

When you need some light escapist reading, go back to those imaginary days of the old west when every man carried a gun and the good guys always won. Let Elmore Leonard and Louis L’Amour take you there.


Written by stephencoonts

October 7, 2016 at 11:52 am

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The novel, Liberty’s Last Stand, published June 13, 2016, by Regnery Publishing in all formats, is a departure for me from the non-political action-adventure thrillers that have paid my bills for most of the last thirty years.  Perhaps best described as a political thriller, the plot is that a leftist president, Barry Soetoro, declares martial law in America after three coordinated terrorist incidents kill several hundred people.  He goes further, suspending the writ of habeas corpus, jailing political enemies, confiscating guns in violation of the 2nd Amendment, stifling dissent and free speech in violation of the First Amendment, refusing to allow the courts to rule on government actions, and canceling the 2016 elections.  Apparently Soetoro wants to become a dictator and rule by decree.  Texas declares its independence, followed by almost a dozen other states.  The result is another American civil war.

Many people have asked me why I wrote it, so I decided to alter the formula “for the money” and give a thoughtful answer.  America seems split by a cultural divide that Barack Obama has made wider and deeper during his seven plus years in office.  Civil discourse about political issues is becoming more and more difficult these days, with both sides vilifying the other and refusing to compromise.  Compromise is the heart of democracy.  None of us in our relationships ever gets everything we want, not with our spouse, our children, our coworkers, our neighbors, or our political choices.  Compromise is the very essence of human existence.  Yet in public life today we seem to have ditched that option.

One of the casualties of our refusal to compromise is the United States Constitution.  This document, along with the attached Bill of Rights, adopted in the late 18th century, is without question the finest political document struck off by the hand of man.  It creates a federalist system of three branches of government, the executive, the legislative, and the judiciary, and leaves all powers not delegated to the federal government to the states.  Certainly the world has changed dramatically since the Constitution and Bill of Rights were written and adopted in the 1780s.  The Supreme Court, in the case of Marbury v. Madison, adopted for itself the right of judicial review of all laws passed by Congress to ensure they fit within the constitutional framework, which meant that the Court necessarily became the arbiter of constitutional interpretation.

Today two points of view push constitutional interpretation.  The conservative viewpoint was perhaps best represented by the late Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, who believed that the constitution was a political contract, and as such should be interpreted in light of what the founders meant when it was adopted, and ditto for the Amendments.  The constitution  does indeed provide a method for amending it, for the working politicians who wrote it knew that from time to time changing conditions and circumstances would make that desirable.  This view has been called the “strict constructionalist” approach, or original meaning approach, and leads to strict statutory interpretation.  Scalia also believed it led to a defense of the states’ right to decide political questions in their sphere, and not be coopted by a Congress that increasingly tries to make rules about every aspect of American life.

The liberal approach to constitutional interpretation may be called the “living document” approach.  Liberals believe that they have the power to constantly redefine the meaning of the constitution and the amendments, changing them as they see fit.  Scalia thought this a slippery slope .  It means that the political contract that is the foundation of American liberties and the source of all federal power means whatever the liberals say it means today.  This approach has, for the liberals, the wonderful advantage of allowing them to change our fundamental law without the bother of going through the amendment process.

For several generations Congress has abdicated its lawmaking powers to federal agencies, who now make law by “rule-making.”  Clearly, Congress finds itself unable to cope with their duty to oversee the bureaucracies, and almost always leave to the courts the job of keeping the bureaucrats on the straight and narrow.  The courts have done little better than the Congress.  Large, amorphous federal bureaucracies rule our lives, regulating everything from school curricula and lunches to creeks, swamps, food quality, air quality, and the warnings required on cigarettes and mattresses.  No aspect of American life has been spared by the amazing interpretation of the constitution’s Interstate Commerce clause.

Under President Obama, we have seen serious executive overreach, much of it plainly unconstitutional, and we have found that the courts and Congress seem unable or unwilling to reign him in.  Obama ignored the bankruptcy laws to give General Motors unions priority over creditors, and the courts acquiesced and ignored the plain language of the statutes.  He has ignored the immigration statutes and re-written the Affordable Care Act.  The list goes on and on. Bureaucrats have said that they will obey the executive regardless of what the law actually is.

The current attorney general, Ms Lynch, has announced that the government will prosecute those who argue against “global warming” and wants to define “hate speech” as including any realistic remark about the failings of Islam.  All this seems to be ignored by the press and the Congress and the courts, probably because no one has yet been dragged before a judge.  But plainly, the First Amendment that the Supreme Court has so jealously guarded through the centuries as the bedrock of our liberties is under attack.

As is the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms.  This amendment was added to the bill of rights not to protect the right to go deer hunting, but because the founders believed that the best defense a free people could have against future tyranny was the right to own firearms.  Today in America some people are willing to jettison that right.  They are apparently willing to rely upon the probity of the knaves, fools, nincompoops and self-annointed messiahs we elect to public office.  Ben Franklin once noted, and I am paraphrasing, that people who would trade liberty for promised security usually end up with neither.

The Obama administration and the liberals seem to think that all these extra-constitutional excursions will have no precedent value going forward.  Oh, how wrong they are.  Allowing presidents and bureaucrats and law enforcement to ignore the constitution will have huge unintended consequences in the years to come.

I am not sanguine.  I wrote Liberty’s Last Stand as a warning.  The political contract is more fragile than you think.  I have read some of the reviews, and liberals seem to hate this book.  Maybe they would have liked it better if the rogue president tearing up the constitution were a conservative, and those opposing him liberals.  Maybe we should do that version for them.

Written by stephencoonts

June 21, 2016 at 9:29 am

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A-6 Days

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When I was young I lived a great adventure.  I joined the United States navy and went to flight school.  Then I got lucky.  The naval bureaucracy sent me to NAS Whidbey Island to fly A-6 Intruders.

So the adventure began.  I soon met my first A-6.  Walked around it, touched it, climbed into the cockpit and smiled broadly.  The Intruder was, and, if you can find one in a museum, still is a big,ugly thing, sort of a flying drumstick, fat in the front tapering to a delicate-looking, gorgeous shapely tail.  It sported the sexy tail because the jet exhausts were at the wing root, so the plane didn’t have a couple of pipes running out the back.

Like so many of the men now gray-haired grandfathers who flew A-6s, I would love to live the experience over again.  Would love to meet my fellow adventurers one more time, when we were young.  Would enjoy immensely sitting through the lectures about aircraft systems, studying emergency procedures ad infinitum, spending hours with my NATOPS manual; and finally donning a flight suit, steel-toed boots, G-suit, torso harness with survival vest, helmet, gloves, grabbing my bag with oxygen mask, charts and approach plates, and waddling out to my waiting steed.

If only I could once again settle into that ejection seat and flip switches and twist knobs.  WIth the yellow huffer roaring away, I would push the crank button and that right engine would began to turn.  

Soon we would be taxiing and my BN and I would be doing all those things pilots and BNs do to ensure their steed is indeed ready, including the takeoff checklist liturgy.

On the runway with the brakes firmly applied, I would advance the throttles, not too fast, not too slow, but just so, “smoothly”, as the book said.  The roar was always satisfying, a visceral howl that carried for miles.  Everyone on the base could hear the beast ready for flight.  The nose oleo would compress a little.  Yeeeah!

Then I would release the brakes and away we would go… faster and faster and faster and the stick would come alive and the nose would life itself off because I had the trim set just so, six degrees nose-up.  Free of the ground, climbing, I would stop the rotation, start feeding in forward trim, lift the gear handle.  Wait for the rollers to lock up, wait for the airspeed to build enough to lift the flaps and slats, checking that there were no warning lights… and my BN and I would roar off into the wild gray Whidbey yonder… again.

One more time.

I have flown airplanes most of my adult life.  But I fell in love with flying in A-6s.  What a sweet, honest airplane!  When you were up there cruising along on a sunlit day the sunshine would stream through that huge canopy and soon you would be thumbing the air conditioning to a cooler setting.  Sweating under your flight suit, running a finger up under your visor to swab sweat from your eyes, feeling the way the plane rode the air, responding to every control input, even the tiniest… well, the experience filled a place in my soul.

The men I met in the Navy (the squadrons were all male then) were universally interesting. A few were assholes, a few were super technocrats, but most were extremely competent young men somewhere on the spectrum between those poles.  These were men to fly with.  These were men to fight with.  And if necessary, these were men to die with.  They were good friends and good companions for life’s journey.

Walking out onto a flight deck, manning up, taking the cat shots, flying around a while and dropping some bombs (without getting shot at), doing a few whifferdils on the way back to the boat, then catching a wire (hopefully the third one) and strolling into the ready room to laugh and scratch with my shipmates–yes, I’d love to do that one more time.  Or two.

Hell, I’d pay to go on another A-6 cruise.  I remember poker in the JO’s bunkroom, mid-rat sliders, liberty in Hong Kong and Singapore.  It certainly wasn’t all fun and games, but life never is.  Naval Aviation was dangerous, people died doing this, combat was insanity, at times I was so scared that even today, all these years later, I remember the fear.  And yet… That was Life with a capital L, the 200-proof stuff, the pure, raw essence.

I recall one summer afternoon aboard USS Nimitz off the Virginia Capes.  I was the arresting gear officer that day.  The ship didn’t have any airplanes aboard, but an A-6 outfit in Oceana had flown an Intruder out so the captain could log some traps.  He wanted a thousand.  Heck, so did I.  He got them and I didn’t.

Anyway, I stood on the fantail looking up that 1,100-foot deck, watching the ship pitching gently up and down, riding the sea, while the lone A-6 with the captain at the stick taxied to Cat One, took the shot, came around and trapped and did it all again.  Over and over, pausing occasionally to hot-pump some more fuel.  I’ve forgotten how many traps he got, but if I had ben in that cockpit, I wouldn’t have stopped until the hook-point wore out or I wore out the #3 pennant.  

Yeah, I would do A-6s again.  In a heartbeat.

If only it could be so.

Written by stephencoonts

December 10, 2012 at 2:48 pm

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What were they thinking?

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The news these days is depressing.  I cringe when I see a newspaper.

 The trustees of Penn State had former FBI director Louis Freeh investigate how the football coach and college administration turned blind eyes to a pedophile predator in their midst, and did it for many years.  All to protect the “good name” of the football program.  To hell with Sandusky’s victims.  The NCAA will undoubtedly do something–they sure as hell better–and killing the football program at Penn State for a few years certainly seems justified.  What were these people thinking?

The big British bank, Barclays, just fired its CEO and COO for their involvement in fixing the LIBOR rate, which determines the interest rate on Trillions of dollars of debt world-wide.  The chairman of the board resigned.  Parliament and US authorities are just getting started.  It is entirely possible this scandal could doom the bank.  What were these people thinking? 

Then there is the CEO of PFGBest, an Iowa commodity broker, who tried to commit suicide and botched it.  Only after stealing over $215 million over twenty years.  Too bad he couldn’t even kill himself.  This on top of the collapse of commodity broker MF Global Holdings, who somehow lost $1.6 billion of clients’ money.  What were these people thinking?

And how about the traders of JPMorgan Chase who managed to lose–are you ready for this?–$5.8 billion?  Doesn’t anyone check on these people?  Jamie Dimon is sweating in front of Congress.  Unfortunately the FDIC (that’s us, folks) insures the accounts in this bank.  Dimon should be fired.  

Ponzi schemers, thieves in suits, an attorney general who perjures himself in front of Congress…

What are we thinking, to tolerate all this?  Have you had enough?  I sure have!  But what am I going to do about it?  Darn if I know…

Written by stephencoonts

July 16, 2012 at 9:39 am

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Colorado Burning

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Yesterday, June 23, we drove up to Cascade, up Rt 24 west of Colorado Springs, for lunch at a little Colorado wine bar and grill. A plume of smoke, from perhaps a house fire, was rising on the ridge to the north. Small. As lunch progressed, it got bigger and bigger. Hot and windy. We drove on up behind Pike’s Peak, an afternoon ride, and found the smoke was pluming to 20 to 25k feet, and the column was thickening ominously. Fire trucks and fire fighters on the way down the canyon. The fire spread, evacuations started. After dark the blaze was visible from our deck, an ominous red monster.
This morning the fire has spread to 2,500 acres, no containment. They call it the Waldo Canyon fire. All the little communities are being evacuated, including Manitou Springs.
This morning the sun rose red in the smoke that spread loosely to the east. Blue sky everywhere else. Only a little wind out of the north. But in a few hours, the wind will shift to the south, 20 knots gusting to 35, temp 99 degrees. Some of the western subdivisions here in the Springs will be evacuated, one suspects.
THe big fire near Fort Collins has burned 90 square miles, over 200 homes.
Scary. And heartbreaking for the families that lose everything.

Written by stephencoonts

June 24, 2012 at 7:54 am

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My Hero

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Now that New York mayor Michael Bloomberg has solved all of New York’s problems and has the city ticking like a Swiss watch, he has decided to tackle bigger problems.  He recently announced that NYC was banning the sale of soft drinks in cups larger than 12 ounces.  Big soft drinks are killing fat people, of whom there are many.  Yet the very next day he went before television cameras to promote National Doughnut Day.  Only skinny people eat those.

Who could make this stuff up?  But wait, Mike Bloomberg isn’t finished.  A day or two ago he told the audience listening to his weekly radio show (do you have one of these?) that “it’s sometimes hard to spot a prostitute.”  This might have been a warning to us out-of-towners planning a New York visit.  Or it might have been merely a general comment on lonely Saturday nights in the Big Apple.  Ahh, the voice of experience.  I note that prostitution is one of the few industries in New York that lacks its own municipal regulatory agency and a dedicated commissioner.  Maybe Bloomberg intends to fix that.  

It’s a credit to America that we continue to produce giants like Mike Bloomberg who willingly endure the travails of public office.  Is this a great country or what?



Written by stephencoonts

June 17, 2012 at 4:32 am

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America’s Game

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Baseball is America’s game, and my favorite.  This past weekend Philadelphia pitcher Cole Hamels plunked a batter.  Ho hum.  But the guy he hit was Washington Nationals rookie phenom Bryce Harper, who went to first base as usual.  Then it got interesting.  A bit later Harper stole home, which is quite a feat, and one reason the Nationals signed him at the age of 17 for $10 million.  Yep.  He’s a future star.  Two innings later the Nationals pitcher plunked Hamels.  A little retaliation, which is baseball as usual.

Then it got interesting.  After the game Hamels was asked about the pitch that plunked Harper.  Hamels then astounded the nation.  He didn’t say, “It got away from me,” and “I was just trying to defend the plate,” and “I have a sore finger,” or “I slipped during my delivery.”  None of that.  He told the truth.  “I was trying to hit him,” Hamels said.  Holy Moly!  Doesn’t he understand that a pitcher NEVER says that.  NEVER EVER.  Predictably, Hamel was suspended for five games.  And Nationals GM Mike Rizzo called Hamel “gutless.”  Ha.  So Rizzo got fined an undisclosed amount.

Baseball players telling the truth!  What if politicians start doing it?  Celebrities?  Teenagers?  Husbands?  Wives?  Employees?  CEOs?  Doesn’t Hamel understand he is a role model for the rest of us?  What was he trying to do–ignite a revolution?   The press almost melted down when they heard Hamel’s explanation.  The foundations of our society cracked then and there.  Fortunately for us, the political scrum is in full swing, and enough lies have been told the last few days to repair Hamel’s damage.

We Americans are blessed that we have this game, and players like Cole Hamels and Bryce Harper and gruff buffoons like Rizzo.  Let’s play ball!



Written by stephencoonts

May 10, 2012 at 7:27 am

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