Authors: David - First Blood 01 Morrell
In the summer of 1968, I was 25, a graduate student at Penn State University. Specializing in American literature, I'd finished my M.A. thesis on Ernest Hemingway and was starting my doctoral dissertation on John Earth. But in my heart, what I wanted to be was a novelist.
I knew that few novelists made a living at it, so I'd decided to become a literature professor, an occupation in which I'd be surrounded by books and allowed time to write. A Penn State faculty member, Philip Klass, whose science-fiction pseudonym is William Tenn, had given me generous instruction in the techniques of fiction writing. Still, as Klass had pointed out, 'I can teach you how to write but not what to write about.'
What would I write about?
By chance, I watched a television program that changed my life. The program was The CBS Evening News, and on that sultry August evening, Walter Cronkite contrasted two stories whose friction flashed like lightning through my mind.
The first story showed a fire fight in Vietnam. Sweaty American soldiers crouched in the jungle, shooting bursts from M-16s to repel an enemy attack. Incoming bullets kicked up dirt and shredded leaves. Medics scrambled to assist the wounded. An officer barked coordinates into a two-way radio, demanding air support. The fatigue, determination, and fear on the faces of the soldiers were dismayingly vivid.
The second story showed a different sort of battle. That steamy summer, the inner cities of America had erupted into violence. In nightmarish images, National Guardsmen clutched M- 16s and stalked along the rubble of burning streets, dodging rocks, wary of snipers among devastated vehicles and gutted buildings.
Each news story, distressing enough on its own, became doubly so when paired with the other. It occurred to me that, if I'd turned down the sound, if I hadn't heard each story's reporter explain what I was watching, I might have thought that both film clips were two aspects of one horror. A fire fight outside Saigon, a riot within it. A riot within an American city, a fire fight outside it. Vietnam and America.
What if? I thought. Those magic words are the seed of all fiction. What if I wrote a book in which the Vietnam war literally came home to America? There hadn't been a war on American soil since the end of the Civil War in 1865. With America splitting apart because of Vietnam, maybe it was time to write a novel that dramatized the philosophical division in our society, that shoved the brutality of war right under our noses.
I decided my catalytic character would be a Vietnam veteran, a Green Beret who, after many harrowing missions, had been captured by the enemy, escaped, and returned home to be given America's highest distinction, the Congressional Medal of Honor. But he would bring something back with him from Southeast Asia, what we now call posttrauma stress syndrome. Haunted by nightmares about what he had done in the war, embittered by civilian indifference and sometimes hostility toward the sacrifice he had made for his country, he would drop out of society to wander the backroads of the nation he loved. He would let his hair grow long, stop shaving, carry his few possessions in a rolled-up sleeping bag slung over his shoulder, and look like what we then called a hippie. In what I loosely thought of as an allegory, he would represent the disaffected.
His name would be. I am asked about his name more than anything else. One of my graduate school languages was French, and on an autumn afternoon, as I read a course assignment, I was struck by the difference between the look and the pronunciation of the name of the author I was reading, Rimbaud. An hour later, my wife came home from buying groceries. She mentioned that she'd bought some apples of a type she'd never heard about before. Rambo. A French author's name and the name of an apple collided, and I recognized the sound of force.
While Rambo represented the disaffected, I needed someone to embody the establishment. Another news report, this time in print, aroused my indignation. In a Southwestern American town, a group of hitchhiking hippies had been picked up by the local police, stripped, hosed, and shaved - not just their beards but their hair. The hippies had then been given back their clothes and driven to a desert road, where they were abandoned to walk to the next town, thirty miles away. I remembered the harassment that my own recently grown mustache and long hair had caused me. 'Why don't you get a haircut? What the hell are you, a man or a woman?' I wondered what Rambo's reaction would be if he were subjected to the insults those hippies had received.
In my novel, the establishment's representative became a police chief, Wilfred Teasle. Wary of stereotypes, I wanted him as complex as the action would allow. I made Teasle old enough to be Rambo's father. That created a generation gap, with the added dimension that Teasle wishes he had a son. Next, I decided that Teasle would be a Korean War hero, his Distinguished Service Cross second only to Rambo's Congressional Medal of Honor. There were many other facets to his character, and in each case, the intention was to make him as motivated and sympathetic as Rambo, because the viewpoints that divided America came from deep, well-meant convictions.
To empathize their polarity, I structured the novel so that a scene from Rambo's perspective would be followed by one from Teasle's, the subsequent scene from Rambo's, the next scene again from Teasle's. That tactic, I hoped, would make the reader identify with each character and at the same time feel ambivalent about them. Who was the hero, who the villain, or were both men heroes, both men villains? The final confrontation between Rambo and Teasle would show that in this microcosmic version of the Vietnam war and American attitudes about it, escalating force results in disaster. Nobody wins.
Due to the rigors of graduate school, I didn't complete First Blood until after I'd graduated from Penn State in 1970 and taught at the University of Iowa for a year. Following the novel's publication in 1972, it was translated into eighteen languages and eventually became the basis for a well-known 1982 film. If you're familiar only with the movie, you'll find a startling surprise at the end of the novel, but the film company changed that conclusion and, as a consequence, was able to produce two Rambo sequels. I wasn't involved with those films. However, I did write a novelization for each of them in an effort to supply the characterization that the latter movies omitted. Not that I object to the movies. They're spectacular in terms of their action. At the same time, I'm aware of the controversy they caused and think it's ironic that a novel about political polarization in America (for and against the Vietnam war) resulted in films that generated similar polarization (for and against Ronald Reagan) a decade after the novel was written.
Sometimes I compare the Rambo books and movies to trains that are similar but headed in different directions. Sometimes I think of Rambo as a son who grew up and out of his father's control. Sometimes I read or hear Rambo's name in a newspaper, a magazine, on the radio, on television - in reference to politicians, financiers, athletes, whomever - used as a noun, an adjective, or a verb, whatever - and it takes me a moment before I remind myself that if not for the CBS Evening News, if not for Rimbaud, my wife, and the name of an apple, if not for Philip Klass and my determination to be a fiction writer, the new edition of the Oxford English Dictionary wouldn't have cited this novel as the source for the creation of a word.
Rambo. Complicated, troubled, indeed haunted, too often misunderstood. If you've heard about him but haven't met him before, he's about to surprise you.
David Morrell PART ONE
His name was Rambo, and he was just some nothing kid for all anybody knew, standing by the pump of a gas station at the outskirts of Madison, Kentucky. He had a long heavy beard, and his hair was hanging down over his ears to his neck, and he had his hand out trying to thumb a ride from a car that was stopped at the pump. To see him there, leaning on one hip, a Coke bottle in his hand and a rolled-up sleeping bag near his boots on the tar pavement, you could never have guessed that on Tuesday, a day later, most of the police in Basalt County would be hunting him down. Certainly you could not have guessed that by Thursday he would be running from the Kentucky National Guard and the police of six counties and a good many private citizens who liked to shoot. But then from just seeing him there ragged and dusty by the pump of the gas station, you could never have figured the kind of kid Rambo was, or what was about to make it all begin.
Rambo knew there was going to be trouble, though. Big trouble, if somebody didn't watch out. The car he was trying to thumb a ride with nearly ran him over when it left the pump. The station attendant crammed a charge slip and a book of trade stamps into his pocket and grinned at the tire marks on the hot tar close to Rambo's feet. Then the police car pulled out of traffic toward him and he recognized the start of the pattern again and stiffened. 'No, by God. Not this time. This time I won't be pushed.'
The cruiser was marked CHIEF OF POLICE, MADISON. It stopped next to Rambo, its radio antenna swaying, and the policeman inside leaned across the front seat, opening the passenger door. He stared at the mud-crusted boots, the rumpled jeans ripped at the cuffs and patched on one thigh, the blue sweat shirt speckled with what looked like dry blood, the buckskin jacket. He lingered over the beard and the long hair. No, that's not what was bothering him. It was something else, and he couldn't quite put his finger on it. 'Well then, hop in,' he said.
But Rambo did not move.
'I said hop in,' the man repeated. 'Must be awful hot out there in that jacket.'
But Rambo just sipped his Coke, glanced up and down the street at the cars passing, looked down at the policeman in the cruiser, and stayed where he was.
'Something wrong with your hearing?' the policeman said. 'Get in here before you make me sore.'
Rambo studied him just as he himself had been studied: short and chunky behind the wheel, wrinkles around his eyes and shallow pockmarks in his cheeks that gave them a grain like weathered board.
'Don't stare at me,' the policeman said.
But Rambo kept on studying him: the gray uniform, top button of his shirt open, tie loose, the front of his shirt soaked dark with sweat. Rambo looked but could not see what kind his handgun was. The policeman had it holstered to the left away from the passenger side.
'I'm telling you,' the policeman said. 'I don't like being stared at.'
Rambo glanced around once more, then picked up his sleeping bag. As he got into the cruiser, he set the bag between himself and the policeman. 'Been waiting long?' the policeman asked.
'An hour. Since I came.'
'You could have waited a lot longer than that. People around here don't generally stop for a hitchhiker. Especially if he looks like you. It's against the law.'
'Looking like me?'
'Don't be smart. I mean hitchhiking's against the law. Too many people stop for a kid on the road, and next thing they're robbed or maybe dead. Close your door.'
Rambo took a slow sip of Coke before he did what he was told. He looked over at the gas station attendant who was still at the pump grinning as the policeman pulled the cruiser into traffic and headed downtown.
'No need to worry,' Rambo told the policeman. 'I won't try to rob you.'
'That's very funny. In case you missed the sign on the door, I'm the Chief of Police. Teasle. Wilfred Teasle. But then I don't guess there's much point in telling you my name.'
He drove on through a main intersection where the light was turning orange. Far down both sides of the street were stores squeezed together - a drug store, a pool hall, a gun and tackle shop, dozens more. Over the top of them, far back on the horizon, mountains rose up, tall and green, touched here and there with red and yellow where the leaves had begun to die.
Rambo watched a cloud shadow slip across the mountains.
'Where you headed?' he heard Teasle ask.
'Does it matter?'
'No. Come to think of it, I don't guess there's much point in knowing that either. Just the same - where you headed?'
'And maybe not.'
'Where did you sleep? In the woods?'
'It's safe enough now, I suppose. The nights are getting colder, and the snakes like to hole up instead of going out to hunt. Still, one of these times you might find yourself with a bed partner who's just crazy about your body heat.'
They passed a car wash, an A&P, a hamburger drive-in with a big Dr. Pepper sign in the window. 'Just look at that eyesore drive-in,' Teasle said. 'They put that thing here on the main street, and ever since, all we've had is kids parked, beeping their horns, throwing crap on the sidewalk.'
Rambo sipped his Coke.
'Somebody from town give you a ride in?' Teasle asked.
'I walked. I've been walking since after dawn.'
'Sure am sorry to hear that. Least this ride will help some, won't it?'
Rambo did not answer. He knew what was coming. They drove over a bridge and a stream into the town square, an old stone courthouse at the right end, more shops squeezed together down both sides.
'Yeah, the police station is right up there by the court-house,' Teasle said. But he drove right on through the square and down the street until there were only houses, first neat and prosperous, then gray cracked wooden shacks with children playing in the dirt in front. He went up a rise in the road between two cliffs to a level where there were no houses at all, only fields of stunted corn turning brown in the sun. And just after a sign that read YOU ARE NOW LEAVING MADISON. DRIVE SAFELY, he pulled off the pavement onto the gravel shoulder.