Monday, January 4, 2016

Day Eighty-Nine. Influence: Richard E. Ristaino

When I think of Richard E. Ristaino - who was Risty when we knew him in Korea but Dick later on - I think of the quick mind, wit, and brilliance of a much-respected CIA officer who might, instead, have been a great American novelist.

I wonder whether his stellar performance in the intelligence community gave him compensation for the novel he never finished. And I think of a really good guy who influenced my life in big ways while his own life, near the end, became derailed.

Our work together was in intelligence but Dick strongly influenced my interest in American literature.

We had other interests—including working the North Korean tactical air problem as American airmen in Korea from 1958 to 1960—so it would have been easy to miss our shared passion for American authors and their works.

I like to tell stories, In time I evolved into a writer of mostly non-fiction, using writing to tell the real-life experiences of Americans at war.

Dick had loftier goals. Dick wanted to write the Great American Novel. In the 1950s, when American literature was looked at somewhat differently than today, everyone knew that meant becoming the great Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer or James Jones. Included in that circle of authors was James Salter of "The Hunters," who wrote lean, sparse prose about men at war before lapsing as a literary dilettante with pretentious tales of love and betrayal. Almost a decade after Salter when Joseph Heller's "Catch-22" appeared, Dick saw instantly how Heller had disguised tragedy as farce.

The late 1950s
Dick and I met at the Army Language School (today's Defense Language Institute) at the Presidio of Monterey, California. The year was 1958.

My Korean language class included Joe Fives and me. Dick's class, the one behind mine, included Larry E. Harry. These names resonate throughout my reminiscences, along with with the names of Bill Randol, who studied Korean at Yale, and Jerome Curtis and Pierre Messerli whom I met after the Air Force. Put the six names together and Dick Ristaino, Joe Fives, Larry Harry, Bill Randol, Jerome Curtis and Pierre Messerli were my closest friends throughout life.

Among the six, Dick was the only friend who wanted to be a writer.

Dick helped steer me to the work of Hemingway, Mailer, Jones, Salter and Heller. He loved those tough guy writers. He also loved the camaraderie of military service, just as those men had: Like them, we were irreverent American citizen-soldiers, ready at once to die for our country but not willing see anything serious about military discipline. Our sergeants were vastly overweight, with nothing like today's fitness program in existence then; Dick thought up terrific jokes about one, whom we called Fudd. We were the young, smart guys—through provenance, granted security clearances our bosses did not possess. It was hard for them to extract military conduct from us when they knew not what we were doing. I have no doubt that from the moment he arrived in Korea, Dick intended to write a book based on our experiences.

Perhaps more than any other author, we were influenced by Jere Peacock, who wrote "Valhalla" and "To Drill and Die." Peacock never received the recognition he deserved but he wrote with brilliant precision about the post-Armistice Korea we experienced, which was not quite peace and was not exactly war.

In Korea from 1958 to 1960, we monitored and studied North Korea's tactical air forces. We were upstarts. We caroused and drank. But we were damned good at the job use gave us and we took pride in it.

One day we were watching the morning mission take off, sitting outdoor in front of a Quonset when Dick pulled out a short story he'd written and let me look at it. He was aiming at a high-end, literary men's magazine like Esquire. (My own writing for the low-end men's adventure magazines had not yet met its first sale). I thought Dick's story was ready for publication but Dick balked at submitting it to a magazine. He continued to write stories and fragments of a novel.

Here's where it gets complicated with Dick. Where, for him, was the line between being an aficionado of American literature and becoming a creator of it? Dick soaked up every detail of what contemporary writers were doing, read their works, discussed their works and stayed alert for next developments. But while he talked of writing his own novel, did he ever sit and spend the lonely, long hours trying to make it happen? My photo above shows wife Marcia and daughter Elizabeth on the balcony of our flat in London, England in 1986. Today, neither Marcia nor Elizabeth is in possession of any long manuscript that emerged from Dick's typewriter.

I have no doubt Dick processed the thoughtfulness and talent to produce a great novel. But did his recalcitrance about showing his shorter works halt him in his tracks when it came to producing something long? Did his successes elsewhere prevent him from expending the effort toward
success where he craved it the most?

The early 1960s
I spent most of 1960-65 in San Francisco., Dick was in San Francisco much
of that time and often accompanied me on trips to my post office box to see, "whether Bob received any money from Phil Hirsch today."

I was being published in the men's adventure field. Phil, the editor of MAN'S, was my main benefactor. A check from his magazine, arriving magically in my P. O. box, was sometimes the difference between making the rent and having to stall. Dick was writing but not selling and not talking about his work. Never outgoing, he preferred to hold his literary aspirations to himself. How hard was he working at it? It was difficult to know.

We lived life large in the early 1960s,  those final years before the middle of the decade when Dick and I had to give our writing aspirations a back seat to serious government jobs. The Great Monopoly Scandal reportedly separately in my memoir about Bill Randol, was just one of our alcoholic hi-jinks.

Dick moved to Hawaii to study at the East West Center. There he met Marcia Reynders. They were a great match. The future Marcia Ristaino became an author in Chinese academe, including "China's Art of Revolution: The Mobilization of Discontent, 1927 and 1928." Marcia is lovely and brilliant; they had many years of happiness ahead before the derailment came. They had a fine daughter, Elizabeth. Both Dick and Marcia were CIA officers and both were much-respected. It would be impossible to exaggerate the superb reputation Dick held for his work on a subject I won't name. Nobody ever had stronger reason to postpone writing a novel on the side.

In 1965, I returned to Washington to join the Foreign Service, where no one minded that I wrote men's adventure stories on the side. Dick and Marcia were a couple but not not yet wed when The Great Fish Fry was held at Marcia's house in Alexandria, Virginia.

My father had gone out on the Chesapeake Bay with his fishing pole, or whatever the hell you use to catch fish, and had brought home an ice chest of succulent grouper. I took the fish, minus Dad, to Marcia's on a hot summer night and Dick, Marcia, Betty Nash McGiver and I were still consuming fish and alcohol after dawn. The Great Fish Fry was such a grand event that when I asked her about it recently, Marcia could no longer remember the occasion. I hope Betty Nash's memory is similarly afflicted.

During that period, I worked hard to create chances to write. On numerous occasions, I knew that Dick, too, was working away with typewriter ribbon, carbon paper and white-out ink. But we both had other preoccupations.
I knew Dick's talent was larger than mine. But I was receiving checks from publishers. I wondered if Dick were holding back, wanting to experience government work before darkening some publisher's transom.

From 1965 to 1967, I completed my first Foreign Service tour in Madagascar. When I returned, Dick and Marcia were married and living on Kalorama Road in northwest Washington. At a party at their place, they introduced me to fellow CIA officer Mary Cinek. I later took Mary on a date. Only a total buffoon like me could take a girl to see the movie "Grand Prix," with its incessant engine noises and 2-hour, 50-minute running time. In the summer of 1967,  I brought my first car, a green 1967 Ford Mustang. Having several weeks of home leave following the Madagascar assignment, I drove that car 18,000 miles in seven weeks, visiting all forty-eight contiguous states and Canada and Mexico. I sent Mary postcards from this solo travel journey. I don't recall whether we ever met again. My next Foreign Service assignment was Korea, from 1967 to 1969 and my car became only the second Mustang in Korea. As for Mary, I was more interested in her than she in me so like Gertrude Stein's Oakland 
after you got there, there wasn't any there there. Photo on Kalorama depicts, left to right, Dick Ristaino, Mary Cinek and Marcia Ristaino.

In 1968, I met my wife Young Soon,

While I labored as a diplomat, Dick matured as an intelligence officer. Briefly (1986-87), Dick and I worked together in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research in the Department of State. We still found plenty of time to survey the world of American literature. Norman Mailer's "Advertisements for Myself" was a favorite topic of discussion. Mailer, it seemed, was running for title of Greatest American Writer as if waging a political campaign.

In 1997 James Salter's "The Hunters" was re-released after having been held out of print for decades at the author's request. Because I'd published a history of the F-86 Sabre, the great fighter Salter flew, I was invited to the launch party, held in Washington. I invited Dick to join me, We were excited to meet a author who, by then was a top American literary figure. Salter was not the talkative type, nor for that matter was Dick, but Dick cornered Salter and elicited from him insights on how he lived and worked.

In August 1998, while living in Norfolk, Bill and Polly Anna Randol organized a mini-reunion of our squadron in Korea, the 6929th Radio Squadron Mobile. Back row, from left: Richard E. Ristaino (June 22, 1937-October 1, 2008); Larry E. Harry (October 1, 1938-February 4, 2002); Polly Anna Randol. Front row: Young Soon Dorr, William T. Randol (May 22, 1939-March 9, 2008), Robert F. Dorr. As reported elsewhere on these pages, cancer survivor Larry succumbed to a heart attack in 2002 and Bill was diagnosed with ALS two years later.

The derailment
Before he started showing up with his own cancer symptoms, Dick developed an issue with alcohol that altered his behavior around everyone, especially those dearest to him. An incident in 1999 led to an estrangement between Dick and me. When Dick had surgery on December 4, 2001,
I expressed concern not by phoning Dick but by writing to Marcia. The medical stuff went into remission for a time. The demon rum, which may have prevented the great novel from appearing also caused Marcia, with much regret, to divorce Dick after decades of love and respect.

Eventually, Dick and I reconciled. On January 15, 2007, I had lunch with Dick at a familiar restaurant a mile or so from Central Intelligence Agency headquarters at Langley, Virginia. One topic of conversation was Clint Eastwood's "Letters from Iwo Jima," which Dick believed was the better of Eastwood's two companion Iwo Jima movies. As always, Dick was up to date of the latest books and movies. But speech came slowly to him. Never a big man, he seemed smaller.
While we maintained high spirits and an upbeat mood, it was obvious that Dick was ravaged by disease. It was the last time we met.

My photo of "The Hunters" is a hokey British cover rather than the more sedate 1990s version.

Salter sent it to me with a note saying, incorrectly I believe, that the book "could be written better." Salter, a screenwriter with "Downhill Racer" to his credit, hated the Robert Mitchum movie, as we all did.

More on author Salter: Sadly, Salter and I had differences over payment for the photos I provided in his memoir, "Gods of Tin."

Editor Jack Shoemaker at Counterpoint Publications attempted to make peace, a rare instance of the editor being the good guy, but my friendly links to Salter never recovered, even while my respect for his work never wavered.  When Salter died on January 19, 2015, the Washington Post quoted me: 'When 'The Hunters' was republished in the 1990s, military historian Robert F. Dorr pronounced it 'the finest work ever to appear in print — ever — about men who fly and fight.'"

Dick and I enjoyed decades of fine moments together and much if it revolved around American literature where Dick was both a mentor and a powerful influence in my life.

Watch for typos, please. Eighty-nine days have elapsed since I was diagnosed with a primary brain tumor. Typing is becoming harder,

Richard E. Ristaino (June 22, 1937-October 1, 2008), I owe you plenty. Yes, you were one of the major influences on my life, and more.


  1. Great read, very interesting. I enjoy reading these.

  2. Great entry! You have had an amazing life! Thank you for sharing.