Financial advisor Tony Clark never knows who?s going to walk into his Southwest Florida office. It?s usually older folks with the balance of their lives behind them and an investment portfolio in dire need of attention. Finances are personal, and Clark often endures lengthy descriptions of ailments, family problems, and bitter life stories as part of the job. Then Donald O?Brien walks into his office, gradually opens up about his story and pulls the young advisor into another world. Yes, he?s an honorable World War II veteran, and Clark loves hearing those stories and helping heroes in their closing years, but O?Brien was something more. After heroically flying night missions and battling the Nazis, he came home to begin a more startling occupation: master jewel thief. The doddering old man revealed a remarkable transition from ace pilot to the top of the FBI?s most wanted jewel thieves list. Little did Clark realize he?d soon have to make his own transition as he?s inextricably woven into the dangerous world of accomplices, treasure, violence, and regret.
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THE GERIATRIC PSYCHIATRIST
Retired folks are a pain in the ass. The more money they have, the less they want to spend. The more they love their hometown, the less they care about the paradise in which they spend the winter. The bigger the engine in their cars, the slower they drive. Nowhere is this immutable law more pronounced than in Southwest Florida, where gleaming-new 350-horse Cadillacs crawl along highways at 22 miles per hour, two skeletal hands clutching the steering wheel the only visible evidence of a driver. In Senior Citizen World, the more time they have to waste – usually yours – the more of a rush they're in. They don't really have to be anywhere, but they figure they'll get more for their nickel by claiming they must be somewhere else right now. It takes a real expert to make an appointment with the "busy" retired because they rarely schedule more than one activity per day.
"Lunch tomorrow, Mrs. Smith?"
"No, I have a doctor appointment."
"How about Thursday?"
"No, Thursday is my hair day."
"Well, Friday is bridge." And so it goes. "Can you visit on Saturday? I have the entire day." It wouldn't occur to someone long retired that Saturday is the one blessed day kept for myself.
I've come to imagine myself a psychiatric specialist for wealthy geriatrics. However, my business card says I'm a financial consultant. My job entails getting to know and understand each affluent, retired client well enough to invest their life savings in investments secure enough to allow them their daily three hours' sleep. Of course, the returns on the portfolio must be productive enough to cover the continued spoiling of grandchildren and countless early-bird specials.
Each client's tolerance for investment risk is a little different, and quantifying human character and emotion is always the challenge. Just as a soldier never knows how he'll handle his first night in a foxhole, I too can never predict how a new client will take the first market correction in retirement. Some can only panic, wanting to sell everything at the market's bottom. Many are excited by an upward market surge and want to buy shares at exorbitant prices. Emotions are inexorably linked to one's own money. Unfortunately, the correct move is usually the opposite of that demanded by fear and greed.
The job is all about communication, and that means listening. Every day I suffer through clients' agonizing and mundane details of people and things which no sane individual would examine. However, hidden amongst the mountains of painful stories about perfect grandchildren or the gruesome details of the last trip to the doctor, there's occasionally a diamond-in-the-rough I'll delegate to permanent memory. With a little luck, and mountains of patience, the legitimately true, life-changing narrative eventually emerges. I've heard blistering descriptions of Normandy on D-Day; Iwo Jima and ratholes full of Japs; communist death threats against union leaders in their attempt to control American labor; the creation and loss of fortunes; the genius of invention and the sorrow of heartbreaking loss. It's the best part of the job, by far.
Empathizing with failure is my specialty. When someone has suffered a significant financial loss, their tolerance of risk is forever altered – and gauging risk tolerance is my primary directive. Perhaps it was my father's own bankruptcy, ending generations of significant wealth, that allowed me to see the good things that come from nearly every failure. As a high school kid, moving to Florida and starting over with nothing after our home foreclosure was the highlight of my life. Helping my mother pay the bills while putting myself through college remains my proudest achievement. Isn't it strange how so many of us remember the best times being when we had absolutely nothing? Still, the long list of financial accreditations beside my professional title indicate my intention to master financial matters so as to never make the same faulty decisions as my father, and return to poverty.
Sometimes it is easier for the elderly to forget the fantastic parts of their lives than relive the pain that made those times extraordinary. Difficult as it is to talk about when one's ship was torpedoed and mates drowned, or how a business failed, everyone seems to feel better after discussing the source of their trauma. Importantly, my ability to listen and help clients put it all into proper perspective has created strong bonds of affection and appreciation. In a healthy, geriatric mind, a chronic failure in the past is merely a different-colored thread in the complex tapestry of their character.
Wins or losses, I try my best to pry those memories from clients' wrinkled past both professionally and for my own growth and amusement. My office dialogue is a daily rummage through grandma's jewelry drawer. Mostly cosmetic and the poorly constructed tarnished long ago, there's always one piece of treasure: timeless and exciting.
For me, that rare gem was Donny O'Brien.
MEASURE OF A MAN
Donny O'Brien, 80, walked into my office one quiet summer afternoon and asked if I knew anything about the stock market, which was a silly question to ask a money guy. I was young and eager, not yet 30 years old, but accustomed to dealing with cranky geriatrics of every sort. I assured Donny I knew the stock market intimately, which was the truth, and that I could use it to help him make money. The old guy grinned tightly, that craggy Mt. Rushmore face reshaping itself with a large measure of patience to accommodate this peppy kid in front of it. I asked all the right questions, taking notes, while Donny grudgingly and skeptically shared his relevant thoughts. They seemed quite ordinary at first.
As Donny talked, I was distracted by the appearance that framed him; this old guy had lived hard. Some seniors belie their age through easy living and care, and others through the many miracles of modern surgery. Many have hoed a row few of us could imagine, taking a beating from life while sometimes giving a beating right back. The end results are 80-year-olds who might look 55, or 65-year-olds who look a 110. Donny landed hard in the latter category.
A good half of Donny's scalp contained an outrageous mop of gray steel wool while the other half exhibited a catcher's mitt of spots and scars vaguely resembling a map of the Caribbean Islands. Once a proclaimed six-footer with an athlete's body, Donny had shrunk several inches from lugging around the weight of the world. He fought the stoop gamely, but the fight was abandoning him. Donny's brows, thick as any seniors should be, tangled over shocking-blue eyes that must have seen everything and missed nothing. Those damn eyes, when he turned them on you, seemed to give you hope, a sort of ridiculous hope that you were lucky to be there and that things would be more interesting from now on. These were either the eyes of a true priest blessed with the word handed down from on high, or they were the tools of a world-class con artist.
In Donny's case, they were both.
Donny's voice was cracked and grizzled to match his face; a half-octave lower than nature intended due to decades of cigarette and cigar smoke. When he spoke, he wasn't in a rush.
"I don't have much money," Donny half-heartedly confessed, "but I like to take a flyer now and then."
In the financial world, this statement generally meant the investor would require a lot of attention over odd and wild trades with very little hope of return and some potential liability for the broker. On the other hand, a savvy money professional never believes what an investor says about their net worth until he sees the numbers. A blowhard with a Bentley might not have enough money for gas on the car ride home, while a quiet grandmother wearing 20-year-old shoes might own half of downtown Denver.
For some, the lack of significant accumulated retirement savings reveals insufficient discipline and an overly casual attitude about life. Those are the ones who are more fun at happy hour, but make lousy clients. Others, you can just tell, didn't waste a cent as they passed through a richly-lived and exciting life. Initially, anyone would have thought Donny the former. And they would be wrong, as I was.
We talked for quite a bit that first time but ultimately didn't say anything worthwhile. I figured out, after some time, that Donny was testing me, measuring the hotshot in front of him, and determining if the kid would be a friend or foe. Donny had the skill of critical and accurate assessment; it was second nature to him. He could take the measure of a mark within minutes, but always spent extra time and effort to confirm his judgment; to make sure the person in his sights was precisely who and what Donny thought they were. In our initial meetings, Donny was following that very careful process with me, though I didn't quite understand it at the time. Taking pride in my own meticulous craft, I failed entirely to see I was the subject of Donny's scrutiny as well.
Donny visited my office often, sometimes dressed like a hobo, other times clad in some perfectly weird and wonderful outfit right out of a 1957 jazz club. Moderately edgy, Donny seemed to be holding himself back from some major decision or disclosure. In my experience, the closet eccentrics often make for the best stories, and Donny's troubled waters ran deep and cold. After he'd warmed to me a little, I sprung a standard question on him.
"Did you fight in the Big One, Donny?" To anyone over a certain age, "the Big One" meant World War II. After I'd asked the question, the look on Donny's face either conveyed he had a lot to say or I'd made a huge mistake. He took quite some time before saying anything at all, and I began to grow concerned.
"Yeah, I was in the war. Flew a little bit in Europe."
That was not the last time Donny would offer an understatement of vast proportions, not by a long shot.
Late afternoon, May 1941
The Air Corps was the best thing that ever happened to Donny O'Brien. Hell, what red-blooded American teenager wouldn't want to go overseas, shoot things up and not only didn't you get in trouble, they paid you for it. Fliers, as everyone knew, had the best gig in the war and Beau fighters had the best of even this great job. There was no one dropping bombs on you, no jagoff firing a machine gun at you, and no sergeant screaming at you to get out of the trench and charge some impregnable concrete block. Fliers slept in actual beds, ate real meals and, more than occasionally, chased after real pussy.
On the flipside, you had huge bursts and thunder claps of ack-ack exploding in your face, sneaky rat-bastard escort fighters hiding in every fucking cloud, and the occasional stall-outs over the English Channel, forcing you to wonder if your glide path was going to make you a greasy smear on the White Cliffs of Dover. The real coffee and English broads made up for the sheer, bone-wrenching terror of an unplanned dogfight. As tough as the combat might be, knowing you were going to lose half your squadron within six months made a flier's special hell that much warmer. But as the Frogs say, c'est la vie. Donny was going to hang onto the guys in his group while he could.
Given his Jewish/Irish upbringing – in an Italian/wop neighborhood no less – Donny never really belonged to any group he could call his own. He didn't imagine that his childhood was an actual train wreck but, fatherless to boot, he never had much of one. The Air Corps changed all that. Donny didn't just belong among these talented clowns, he was treasured by them, respected as a gifted flier and sought after for advice and ideas. Donny, it was noted, also had a way with women. He wasn't exactly a lady killer, but English girls loved Donny's shy humor and quiet manners, which earned him the accompaniment of many a wingman. The English girls – married, single or otherwise – felt a noble obligation to shag the fliers given they viewed these men as brave defenders of the home front. If the boys needed a warm memory on their way to battle the Hun and face certain death, the English girls were going to make that memory a lasting one.
There was another side to Donny's commitment to this war. Rumors of Nazi atrocities on the front lines were horrible enough, but the shocking stories of genocide against Jews – including his mother's own relatives – wiped away any remorse O'Brien might have felt about blowing the Nazi empire into oblivion. Every kill was an act of positive change in the world, and Donny would take any shot available to him to achieve those changes. Every pilot in his squadron felt some level of this grim determination; it motivated them, and they reveled in that single-minded mission.
It came as a bit of a shock to Donny that he turned out to be an excellent pilot, and one of rare talent and true inspiration. He had an intuitive feel for the air few fliers could match. At every step of his training, he excelled not just in his class, but surpassing his own instructors' abilities within a few lessons. Those same instructors pushed Donny to new heights, sensing his innate abilities, and inspiring him to achieve more. Air Corps instructors universally maintained a deep appreciation for those who possess an exceptional talent for their trade, burying any lingering jealousy in the knowledge that certain abilities were born in and must be nurtured in this life-and-death struggle for the world's future. Donny had that rare ability, and his teachers made it their mission to turn his talents loose on the Krauts.
The Beaufighter, for Donny and the Air Corps, was a perfect match of talent and weapon. Like a sniper with the ideal rifle, Donny and the Beaufighter were a match made for war. The first fighter to carry radar, the Beau could plot out Luftwaffe targets in any weather and with no visibility necessary. The onboard radar sets were immensely valuable, but also dangerous as enemy ground units could triangulate locations from the radar emissions, directing fighter groups to the attack.
Almost unbelievably sturdy and heavily armed, the twin-engine Beau could trade punches with Luftwaffe fighters but, even more importantly during the desperate Battle of Britain, it could stand up to the defensive pounding inflicted by Luftwaffe bombers during close attack runs. Hardly nimble with its relatively slow top-end speed, the Beau sliced deep into bomber formations, taking heavy barrages of machine gun fire while inflicting even more punishment on the lumbering Heinkels and Junkers.
The Bristol Beaufighter was deployed in numbers by Fighter Command just in time for the start of the Luftwaffe's nocturnal Blitz on Britain. With new radar sets installed onboard, "Beaus" had the ability to find approaching Luftwaffe planes and engage the bombers with devastating results. Boasting six 7.7mm machine guns in her wings and four 20mm cannon in the nose, a Beau shredded anything in her sites with devastating results. Slow by typical fighter standards, the Beau made up the difference by packing a thunderous wallop of lead. Moreover, its twin Hercules III engines were well-armored, deflecting or absorbing off-center shots while producing 1,400HP and a top speed more than 300 miles per hour. With its heavy weight, a Beau could dive like hell for the deck, gaining airspeed and matching lighter planes – a characteristic which saved more than one pilot making a mad dash for the cover of low coastal clouds.
Donny's passport identified him as British but, in fact, he was one of a few American pilots asked to fight for the Brits before Germany declared war on all Allies in December of 1941. Because he and his navigator were Americans, in case they were downed behind enemy lines, any American items were removed from their persons and plane, and they were vigorously trained on what to say or not to say if captured and facing Nazi interrogations. The two fliers formed the vanguard of future Americans who would soon be thrust into the looming World War, serving as sources of information and quasi-trainers for those to come. Donny was debriefed after each flight about the techniques he employed and the success of his methods. This information was sent stateside and utilized by instructors preparing pilots for the inevitable actions against Axis powers.
Excerpted from "The Sparkling Void"
Copyright © 2017 R Anthony Clark.
Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
The Geriatric Psychiatrist, 1,
Measure of a Man, 4,
Rainin' Hell, 7,
Back Home to the Neighborhood, 24,
A Score to Settle, 38,
The New Son, 45,
Go West, Young Crook, 50,
Big Grab in Beverly Hills, 56,
A Sparkling Age, 68,
California Bites Back, 85,
No Turning Back, 88,
Jersey Girl, 97,
Good Friends in the Right Places, 125,
The Sparkling Void, 132,
The FBI Strikes Back, 154,
Fade Out with a Friend, 157,
Art Collector, 166,
Someone's Watching!, 177,
Cop and Mouse, 185,
Westford Nightmare, 192,
Once a Hero ..., 209,
Closing the Void, 218,