How do you talk about the death of a little boy?
In April of 1990, I received a piece of fan mail. There was a little boy from Long Island who was a patient at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. His name was Kyle, and at the time he was 6. His grandfather, I learned, had read one of my books to the little guy, and Kyle enjoyed it. There was more to the letter, some subtextual things, and this one grabbed me rather hard. It gave me an address, from which I got a phone number. So I called, and asked what I might do for Kyle. At the time I had a box full of poster-size aircraft photos -- gifts from McDonnell-Douglas, the defense contractor -- and since little boys usually like pictures of fighter planes, I sent a bunch.
Chemotherapy, a form of treatment as thoroughly vile as it is vitally necessary, typically causes a child's hair to fall out. This does give the excuse to wear hats, however, and I sent a few of those as well.
Kyle suffered from Ewing's sarcoma, a fast-growing cancer that afflicts young people, starting in a bone and moving, in time, to the lungs. There are no good forms of cancer, and this sort is worse than most. I'd later learn that Kyle's personal version of cancer was mobile, virulent and unusually resistant to medical -- science. The odds never looked good, but this little guy was a fighter. He was also unusually bright, possessed of an active, questioning mind. It's a fact that children stricken with serious disease are kicked way up the learning curve. They somehow become adults very quickly, though they never quite lose a child's innocence. The result of this is both immensely sad and wonderfully charming. In any case, keeping the little guy entertained and distracted became a major diversion for me. It was like a little flag on the Rolodex. Whenever I happened to visit a new place I wondered if Kyle would like a souvenir, which would necessitate a letter explaining where I'd picked up the new gewgaw. Even so, sooner or later you run out of fresh ideas.
At that point I started calling in markers. It has been my privilege to make numerous friends in the U.S. military. These men and women have daily access to the most intricate bits of hardware known to civilized man, and kids invariably find them as interesting as I do.
The first such unit I "pinged" was the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing, the people who own and operate the F-117A stealth fighter. Little prompting was needed. People in uniform live by the warrior's code. Rule No. 1: The first duty of the strong is to protect the weak. Our people understand that. The first packet of material was followed by letters of encouragement even after the 37th deployed to fight in the Persian Gulf war. Kyle got one of the first videos of "my" movie -- "The Hunt for Red October" -- and just about memorized it. He wanted to see the USS Dallas, the submarine depicted in the story. It couldn't be just any submarine -- it had to be Dallas, but it was away on deployment, the Pentagon told me.
On the Friday before the shooting started in the Persian Gulf, a little light bulb went off in my head, the one you get that says, "Why don't you call . . . " And so I phoned up to Long Island, and learned that Kyle had just spent his first day in school in a year and a half.
Ewing's was gone, his parents told me. It was over. The little guy had lucked out and slain his particular dragon. That was some feeling. I got the word out as quickly as I could, especially to the 37th TFW in Saudi Arabia, and then I got back to work on my new book, secure in the knowledge that the good guys had won a small but important battle. Getting up to see Kyle became a matter of lower priority. Kids have more fun with other kids than they do with stuffy adults.
On a business trip in March, I called home, as usual, for messages, and the news was bad: Mr. Ewing was back. The early return after surgery, CAT scans and abusive chemotherapy was a particularly evil omen, but the people at Sloan-Kettering did not want to give up on my little friend. He was being blasted with hard gamma-radiation, and if the new growth in his leg was killed, and if the CAT scan showed no additional activity elsewhere, then Kyle would be lucky enough merely to have his left leg surgically removed, followed by another bout of chemotherapy. Otherwise . . .
The family hadn't wanted to bother me with the news for fear of interfering with my new book, and Kyle didn't want me to know because, his dad explained, I might stop liking him if I discovered he was losing a leg. Kids think that way, of course. The emotional impact of this was horrific, but there was work to be done.