Read an Excerpt
“December 7, 1941: The day the world changed forever.”
James Rhodes—“Rhodey,” as his friends called him—was seated to the right of a large screen, mounted on a wall behind a podium. He acted as if being on stage was the most comfortable and natural thing in the world for him, rather than being what it was: incredibly nerve-racking. But Rhodey was far too accomplished a military man to let any display of nerves be evident. Besides, someone who had faced enemy fire should be able to deal with this stupid fear he had about public speaking. Still, he would have felt a little more comfortable if at least a couple of people in the audience were aiming weapons at him.
He was at the front of a huge ballroom, one of the larger meeting facilities in Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. The lighting in the room was dimmed, with the recorded voice of a narrator who sounded suspiciously like James Earl Jones coming through the PA system. There were about a hundred people seated at a dozen tables, the remains of their rubber-chicken dinners being collected by waiters and waitresses. On the screen was footage of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt seated in front of a radio microphone, delivering quite possibly the most famous radio address in history. The narrator continued portentously, “President Roosevelt declares the United States will build fifty thousand planes to fight the armies of Hirohito and Hitler . . .”
The image on the screen shifted. Invading Nazis were goose-stepping their way through the streets of Paris.
“Although no such capacity to build existed, Howard Stark, founder of the fledgling Stark Industries, answers his call to duty.”
The screen depicted a hangar in a small rural airfield. The landing strip that was visible was barely more than a dirt road. The words “Los Angeles” were superimposed over the picture just to establish a place. A man dressed in a 1940s-style suit was standing proudly in front of the hangar, arms akimbo. He had a pencil thin mustache and was wearing a fedora pushed back on his head. He was pointing proudly at the sign that read “Stark Industries.”
“. . . and builds not fifty, but a hundred thousand planes.”
Howard Stark, grinning ear to ear, was standing in the Oval Office. He was shaking hands with FDR. He looked like the happiest man in the world. FDR looked as if he were working to keep the smile on his face; perhaps, Rhodey thought, he’d just had an argument with Eleanor.
The image on the screen returned to Stark Industries, and it was obvious that time had passed. The forest that had been visible in the background was gone, razed to the ground. In its place was a row of hangars rather than the one, and the name “Stark” was spelled out via huge raised letters atop the hangars, like the “Hollywood” sign. The small, unimpressive runway had been replaced by smooth, endless vistas of concrete. It was a genuine airfield rather than just some small start-up endeavor, and it was covered with B-29 bombers just off the assembly line. They were rolling forward, gleaming in the sun, ready to fight for democracy around the world and—ideally—bomb Hitler and Hiro back to the Stone Age.
The image of them on the ground dissolved to the bombers in flight. This was not promotional footage taken by Stark Industries back in the day; this was newsreel footage, showing Stark bombers airborne. Their versatility in battle was clearly depicted as some of them were shown dropping bombs while others were spitting out paratroopers, cracking silk and descending upon the enemy.
All of them old men now, Rhodey thought as he saw young examples of the Greatest Generation hurling themselves into combat. Old men or young dead men, immortalized on film.
A mushroom cloud erupted in a New Mexico desert. The narrator said, “Later, Stark’s work on the Manhattan Project makes the end of the war possible.” There was Howard Stark again, observing the explosion alongside Robert Oppenheimer. One hoped that they were a sufficient distance to avoid getting their chromosomes scrambled courtesy of radiation.
Then again, that might go a long way toward explaining Tony, he thought, and then decided that that was a rather uncharitable attitude to have. Certainly it was unworthy of an Air Force officer.
“Stark Industries would go on to contribute to every major weapons system through the Cold War.” The visuals were now coming so quickly that they were almost a blur. The mind’s eye barely had time to register B-52s, ICBMs, nuclear subs gliding through the ocean, F-16s launching from carriers. A series of presidents flew by: Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon. And next to every one of them was Howard Stark. It almost reminded Rhodey of that Woody Allen film, Zelig, in which the actor/ director was visually inserted into great moments of history. The difference, of course, was that Howard Stark was really there.
“But Howard Stark’s greatest achievement would come in 1973 with the birth of his son, Tony, who—barely a year later—met his very first president,” said the possible James Earl Jones. There was President Gerald Ford, standing next to Howard Stark while cradling baby Tony. Howard Stark was looking slightly nervous; perhaps he was concerned that Ford, who occasionally garnered a reputation for clumsiness, might drop the infant. Moments later, as years subjectively whizzed by, four-year-old Tony was shown building a massive city entirely of blocks. Already one could see the gleam of determination and the excitement of discovery in his eyes. And then, just like that, Tony Stark was twelve years old, working alongside Howard to assemble a hot rod engine. A gleaming-red hot rod, the obvious eventual recipient of the engine, was visible in the background with its hood open.
“From early on, it was clear that Tony Stark had a unique gift. At seventeen he graduated at the top of his class from MIT.”
Tony Stark, looking unconscionably young, was shown in a hangar full of F-18s. He was climbing around inside a turbine engine while other workers were looking on in unfeigned amazement.
“Four years later, tragedy would pass the Stark mantle from father to son,” said the narrator. At Howard Stark’s funeral, Tony was shown alongside presidents both past and present. “The loss of a titan. But Tony did not let personal grief distract him from his duty. At twenty-one, he became the youngest-ever CEO of a Fortune 500 company.”
Tony was shown cutting the ribbon on a brand-new Arc reactor at Stark Industries West Coast headquarters. He was smiling, posing effortlessly for cameras. The difference between father and son was instantly evident. Whereas Howard Stark was stiff, even slightly uncomfortable on camera, making an effort to look at ease and not quite succeeding, Tony Stark was born to have a lens aimed in his direction. His body language was relaxed, his smile so perfect that Rhodey wondered if he didn’t practice it in the mirror.
“And with it came a new mandate: smarter weapons. Fewer casualties. A dedication to preserving life.”
A laser-guided bomb was shown hitting its target with a precision that previous generations of missiles could not even begin to achieve. Other examples of Stark weaponry flashed across the screen, a visual cascade of America’s modern military might. Rhodey’s voice became louder, building toward the climax of the presentation. “Today Tony Stark’s ingenuity continues to protect freedom and American interests around the globe.”
When Rhodey had seen the next visual in advance, he had winced inwardly. He had thought it was, frankly, a bit much. But Tony Stark had sat next to him, viewing the video when it had first been cut together, and personally approved the image that was now on the screen: a waving American flag superimposed with an Annie Liebovitz portrait of Tony.
The crowd, somewhat to Rhodey’s surprise, cheered in approval. Well, Stark had been right when he made that call, obviously. Nothing stirred a room full of top corporate executives and movers and shakers who were thriving on consumerism—not to mention military officers who revered the American flag—quite like an in-your-face symbol of the American way of life.
As the image on the screen faded out, the applause continued to swell. A light shined down on Rhodey, who blinked uncomfortably against the glare but tried to take it in stride. “As program manager and liaison to Stark Industries, I’ve had the honor of serving with a real patriot, a man whose life has been dedicated to protecting our troops on the front lines,” said Rhodey. “He’s a friend and a great mentor. A man who has always been there for his friends and his country. Ladies and gentlemen, this year’s Apogee Award winner, Mr. Tony Stark.”
Rhodey wouldn’t have thought it possible, but the applause actually kicked up a few notches. A spotlight swept across the darkened room and came to rest on Tony Stark’s chair.
Unfortunately, Tony Stark was not occupying it.
The applause slowly trailed off and the lights began to come up. There was a confused and clearly annoyed buzz from the occupants of the room. Rhodey felt his stomach clench, as it typically did when Tony Stark did something pigheaded.
A figure was making its way up toward the podium now. Rhodey squinted to make out who it was, and realized that it was Obadiah Stane. Stane, the chief financial officer of Stark Industries, was clearly about to try to do some damage control.
Stane had a shaved head and a salt-and-pepper beard that made him look older than he was, but he never seemed to mind. He was also one of the most personable people that Rhodey had ever met. Very little seemed to throw him off his game; he was, to use an overused word, unflappable. Rhodey supposed that when one had to deal with Tony Stark on a daily basis, it was either cultivate that attitude or lose one’s mind. Stane had obviously opted for the former.
“Thank you,” said Stane, as if the audience was expecting him and genuinely pleased to see him. “I, uhhhh, I’m not Tony Stark, but if I were Tony, I’d tell you how honored I am and . . . what a joy it is to receive this award.” He held the plaque, which had an image of the sun on it. “The best thing about Tony is also the worst thing. He’s always working.”