In Part I of my interview with Dwight Jon Zimmerman, we discussed his long writing career working with Bill O’Reilly, Marvel Comics, and more.
In Part II, Dwight exclusively shares here an excerpt from his upcoming autobiography for RED ENGINE PRESS tentatively titled “Adventures in the Publishing Trade: and a Little Bit More about Life, Love, and the Pursuit of a Dream. It’s the story of a young man with a dream and the unlikely and impossible-to-plan path he took to achieve it.
Kathleen: You grew up in North Dakota and started out as a printer. How old were you when you moved to New York City, and where did you get the courage to make such a drastic change?
Dwight Jon Zimmerman: Oh, boy, the question you just asked! Joyce Faulkner and Pat Avery, fellow members of the Military Writers Society of America, own Red Engine Press, a small publishing company. Over the years at the organization’s annual conferences they heard many stories of my experiences in the publishing industry. One thing led to another and I’m presently writing my autobiography for them. With your permission I’d like to answer your question by providing this unedited draft excerpt of the chapter dealing with that event, because there was a lot of history behind making the decision I did. I should warn everyone, it’s not a happy anecdote.
I Cross My Rubicon
“I am not a bum.”
—Dwight Jon Zimmerman, circa. 1976
The distance between Grand Forks, North Dakota, where I worked, and Devils Lake, where I grew up, is 90 miles. One weekend in July 1976, I headed west from my apartment on a Sunday drive that I didn’t want to make, but had to.
Dwight’s dad 1972
Too many years have passed for me to remember anything about that day except the meeting I had with my father in the living room where I broke the news. I know that it happened sometime after lunch and that dad and I were alone. I had decided to tell the news first to him, because even though I knew he wouldn’t like hearing what I had to say, I thought he’d be a little more sympathetic than my mother. He was in his easy chair and I was sitting nearby on the couch when I said I had something I needed to tell him.
I said I was planning to quit my job at the UND Press in one year and travel to New York City and try to make a go of things at Marvel Comics where Dave [Kraft my high school friend] was working. I explained why I was making this decision—that I was young and single, and that I didn’t want to have the “what would have happened to me if” question hanging over my life. If things didn’t work out, then I’d know and move on with my life as a printer, as that was a skill I could use anywhere. In the meantime, I needed to store my possessions at home.
Dad was sixty-two and his health had been bad for several years, the consequence of alcoholism, bad eating habits, and no exercise. He’d already had one heart attack and two strokes. He was overweight, diabetic, and suffered from high blood pressure; in short, he was a sitting pathology. After I finished my speech he looked at me for a moment. Then he said, “Well, if you want to go out and be a bum, that’s your business.”
That’s all that I remember about what happened that day. I don’t remember telling my mother, and I don’t remember the drive back to Grand Forks that afternoon.
I do remember being hurt—and angry.
David Anthony Kraft (right) and I (left) showing off the latest issue of our science fiction and fantasy fanzine, OMNIFAN, circa 1970.
Since my sophomore year in high school, my relationship with my parents had been essentially a truce punctuated by arguments, invariably about something that I liked and wanted to do. With the exception of my decision to go to North Dakota State School of Science in Wahpeton where I learned the printing trade, they pretty much opposed everything. NDSSS had a reputation for being a “suitcase college.” On Friday afternoon, almost the entire student body would get in their cars and drive home for the weekend. Not me—home was the last place I wanted to go. I stayed at the near-deserted campus, enjoying the quiet and solitude. In fact the only time I went home was during the holidays. After that first year, I found an apartment with some friends. The habit of not going home carried over after I had moved to Grand Forks. Trips home were usually once-a-month affairs.
I thought that now being on my own, and with my sister recently married to Joel, I wouldn’t have a fight on my hands to do what I wanted to do. It turns out I was right, I didn’t. With his one-liner Dad had done something worse: he threw one of his guilt trips on me.
My father had led a hard life. The oldest of four children, two boys and two girls, he grew up on a small farm in Wells County. He was in his mid-teens when his father committed suicide or was murdered (I’ve heard differing accounts) during the Great Depression. His younger brother Gordon was mentally retarded. (I knew all of dad’s siblings. Gordon died in 1963. Margaret married, lived on a farm near the homestead, and died of accidental self-immolation in 1982. Connie, the youngest, married and moved to Idaho where she still lives.) He quit school after the eighth grade and knocked around the West working at a variety of jobs, one of them being a carnival barker. His first wife was a young woman looking to escape her family. That marriage soon ended in divorce. He married his second wife shortly before he enlisted in the Army about a month after his 28th birthday on April 25, 1942.
His MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) was Parts Clerk 348. After training in Camp Sutton, North Carolina, he was assigned to Company G, 255th Infantry Regiment, 63rd Infantry Division, rising to the rank of Tech Sergeant. His campaigns included Tunisia, Southern France, the Rhineland, and Central Europe. He received his honorable discharge on October 8, 1945. In addition to his campaign ribbons, he received the Good Conduct Medal.
Dwight’s mom 1972
Not long after he returned to North Dakota, his second wife divorced him. In a tale all too common during the war, she had married him for his service paycheck and death benefit insurance. When the latter didn’t happen, she was gone. Neither marriage resulted in children. That would come with dad’s third wife, my mother. In March 1953, Morris Zimmerman and Darlene Stolt eloped to South Dakota where they got married. On June 2, 1953, at a hospital in Harvey, North Dakota, I was born. My mother was twenty years old. Dad was thirty-nine. My sister, Mary, was born four years later; and in 1960 my brother, Chris, was prematurely born, delivered by Caesarian section.
Now, with the exception of some general statements about the war, and a couple of passing mentions of minor events, my father rarely talked about his life, and never mentioned the fact that mom was his third wife. The facts recounted here came from his mother, my Grandma Mabel, before she died in the early 1970s, and from his discharge paper, which I saw years after his death in 1981.
(An aside here. The circumstances of my father’s death have proved a constant source of amusement for me whenever I have to fill out the family history section of medical forms. When I get to the father section, after checking the “Deceased” box I proceed to the “Cause of Death” section where I write: “Surgery.” Invariably whenever the doctor gets to that answer, the physician’s brow furrows and I get a quizzical look. I then proceed to explain that while my father suffered from acute coronary disease that caused him in 1981 to undergo high-risk life-saving surgery, when the doctors opened up his chest they discovered there was nothing they could do. His heart was too damaged to repair. So, while the contributing factor of my father’s death was a bad heart, the form wasn’t asking for that information. It was asking for cause. And “cause” was surgery. He went into the operating room alive, and came out dead. QED. None of the doctors have been favorably impressed with me about that.)
So, though gaps existed, I knew things about my father’s life that he didn’t know I knew. Grandma Mabel’s statements about dad explained a lot of why he acted the way he did to us kids, specifically his paternal guilt manipulation of us.
Here I am on my Honda 100 circa 1972.
In the past when he played the guilt card, even when I carried through with what I wanted to do (like buying my first motorcycle) it was only after a lot of emotional soul-searching and agonizing. Not this time. Dad had pushed me too far. The emotion I was dealing with wasn’t guilt. It was anger.
Once in my apartment, I grabbed some paper and a pen and began writing him a letter. I began with a short recap of my decision to go to New York City, my reasons why, and his response. I concluded that first paragraph with the sentences: “You called me a bum. I am not a bum.”
With the second paragraph, I let him have it with both barrels. I wasn’t profane, and I didn’t reveal any of the facts about his life I had learned, but years of accumulated fury were behind the sentences that stated this was my life and I was going to live it my way.
Years of accumulated fury were behind my sentences. I had my first attack of nervous exhaustion when I was twelve years old. I remember lying on the couch one evening. Suddenly my heart started racing, my body started trembling, I had repeated heat flashes, and I started crying uncontrollably. I thought I was going to die, and said so. Dad rushed me to the hospital where I stayed for three days. When I got home I asked my mother what had happened to me. She said, “It was just nerves.”
I felt ashamed of myself for being weak. I endured two more attacks in senior high school. The second incident occurred in German class while I was taking a test. Now familiar with the symptoms, I managed to maintain sufficient control to finish the test and exit the class at its conclusion. I rushed home, skipping the rest of the school day. Mom also worked, so I was able to ride the spell out alone. The third bout happened at the end of school one day, so it was easier to for me to go into seclusion.
It was one day near the end of my junior year in high school that my mother kicked the parental support chair out from under me. She had a stock response whenever we complained about something: “You think you have it so bad? The kids in [name of a handy third world country] have it worse.” This time she raised the ante.
My parents and I had been going through a particularly stressful period. I was leaving for school when she looked up from the breakfast table and said, “You know, Dwight, you’re a disappointment to us.”
To use modern parlance, that was when Dwight Jon Zimmerman 1.0 died and Dwight Jon Zimmerman 2.0 was born. Though I still lived at home, from that point on I was both alone and on my own.
As I was writing, I realized a larger reality—that the roles of parent and child had become reversed and that I now had something that put me in control of our relationship from this point on: I had me.
And here I am on my Norton 850 Commando, circa 1978. I’m having a Coors in the front yard of my aunt’s house in Idaho (this at a time when Coors was only available in the West). Dave Kraft’s Norton 750 Commando is in the background. We were on a road trip to California–one of the best vacations I ever had!
Though the statements I was writing of my plans to go forward and the storing of my possessions at home were clear enough, I was also sending a between-the-lines message: “If you fight me any further on this, you will never hear from me again.”
I didn’t want to explicitly state that sentence, because that was the ultimate hammer I held. I didn’t want to use it because if I did, both sides would lose. Also, the threat of using it made it more powerful than its actual use.
The next day I dropped the letter in the mail.
The letter created uproar back home—so much so that my brother-in-law wrote me a blistering letter calling me, amongst other things, an ingrate and demanding I apologize to my “wonderful parents.” My sister’s first husband (she’s now on husband number three) was sticking his nose into business that didn’t concern him. But, knowing that I had made my point, a couple of days later I called home and when my mother answered the phone, apologized.
One year later, I was on a plane flying to New York City to start a new adventure.
DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, television and movie producer, and president of the Military Writers Society of America.
He co-authored the #1 New York Times bestselling young adult book, Lincoln’s Last Days, an adaptation of Bill O’Reilly’s New York Times #1 bestselling history Killing Lincoln. Lincoln’s Last Days won the 2013 Branson Stars and Flags Book Awards Grand Prize. It is the second year in a row Dwight has won the organization’s highest honor.
He penned a series of World War II 70th anniversary articles for the Defense Media Network website that chronologically recount that conflict, available at www.defensemedianetwork.com.
He is the author of Saga of the Sioux, the award winning, critically acclaimed young adult adaptation of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown. Saga of the Sioux won the 2012 Gold Medal in the Young Adult Non-Fiction category from the Military Writers Society of America and the 2012 Branson Stars and Flags Book Awards Grand Prize, the organization’s highest honor.
Dwight is the co-author, with John D. Gresham of Uncommon Valor: The Medal of Honor and the Six Warriors Who Earned It in Afghanistan and Iraq which received the Military Writers Society of America’s most prestigious honor, the MWSA Founder’s Award for 2010.
His first book, First Command: Paths to Leadership, which has a foreword by James M. McPherson, presents the pivotal challenges and events that occurred in the early careers of generals from George Washington to Colin Powell and how they overcame them. Dwight was the co-executive producer of the cable television miniseries based on his book. The miniseries debuted on the Military Channel in 2005 and has been regularly aired on the channel ever since. It won the 2005 Aurora Platinum Best of Show Award for Historical Programming. In 2009, the book received the Branson Stars and Flags Gold Medal Award in the Reference/Technical category. First Command is on the U.S. Army Chief of Infantry Recommended Reading List: Junior NCOs.
He’s written two acclaimed popular surveys of wars and weapons through the ages. The Book of War is about pivotal battles, leaders, and strategies from ancient to modern times and received the 2009 Gold Medal Award for Reference by the Military Writers Society of America. The Book of Weapons is a critically acclaimed sequel about important weapons, weapon designers, and arms manufacturers throughout history.
Dwight’s authored two graphic histories. The Vietnam War: A Graphic History, illustrated by Wayne Vansant, is a groundbreaking book that for the first time recounted the entire Vietnam War in the graphic novel format. The Vietnam War: A Graphic History received the 2010 Gold Medal Award: Artistic/Graphic from the Military Writers Society of America and the 2010 Branson Stars and Flags Gold Medal Award in the photography/graphics category. Military Review, the official journal of the U.S. Army, placed it on its recommended reading list. The Hammer and the Anvil, also with art by Wayne Vansant, is the critically acclaimed graphic biography of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.
Dwight’s young adult biography, Tecumseh: Shooting Star of the Shawnee received the 2010 Bronze Medal Award: Young Adult from the Military Writers Society of America and was a finalist in the young adult category in the 2011 Western Writers of America.
His book The Day the World Exploded is the critically acclaimed young adult adaptation of Simon Winchester’s bestselling Krakatoa.
Dwight is the co-author, with John D. Gresham, of the critically acclaimed history of seven pivotal special operations from the Vietnam War to present day, Beyond Hell and Back.
He’s written numerous articles on military subjects for Faircount Media for its military-themed print publications and its Defense Media Network website, and other publishers. His article, “Maritime Mobility,” for The Shield of Freedom, an annual publication about the Coast Guard, was selected by the Naval War College for use in its curriculum. And his article about a special operations mission during the Korean War led by the theater’s surgeon general that had high-stakes diplomatic consequences, originally published in The Year in Special Operations 2009 was selected for re-publication by the Journal of Special Operations Medicine.
Dwight has lectured at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the Naval War College, and has appeared on the FOX programs DEFCON-3 hosted by K.T. McFarland, and AMERICA NEWS HQ discussing military subjects.
“Pulitzer Prize-winning author Philip Caputo (right) and me holding the 2006 Connecticut Center for the Book award for 10,000 Days of Thunder. I had a great time collaborating with him on that young adult history of the Vietnam War. Since my name couldn’t go on the book, he insisted I attend with him the event at Hartford. Thankfully we won.” ~ DJZ
He was the host of “At Ease,” an hour-long program about authors and their projects, part of Veterans Radio Network. Information about the program is available at www.veteransradio.net. Guests on his program have included Rick Atkinson, Robert M. Edsel, Larry Bond, Thomas Fleming, Craig L. Symonds, Jake Tapper, and Stephen Coonts, amongst others.
He was a producer for the independent film, Trooper, which received the Bronze Remi Award at the 2010 Houston International Film Festival.
Dwight was the researcher for the critically acclaimed The New York Times Complete History of the Civil War, edited by Craig L. Symonds and Harold Holzer with a forward by former president Bill Clinton, and The New York Times Complete World War II edited by Richard Overy with a forward by Tom Brokaw.
He collaborated on a series of award winning young adult histories published by Atheneum. The authors of record included such Pulitzer Prize winners and bestselling authors as James M. McPherson’s Fields of Fury (Civil War) and Into the West (Reconstruction and settling of the frontier), Philip Caputo’s 10,000 Days of Thunder (Vietnam War), Stephen Ambrose’s The Good Fight (World War II), and Benson Bobrick’s Fight for Freedom (the American Revolution).
Dwight with a lot more hair–and darker!–sometime in the 1980s, doing balloon placement on a comic book story.
Dwight began his career in publishing at Marvel Comics, where he held a variety of editorial and staff positions. Among his Marvel comic book writing credits are stories for Spider-Man, The X-Men, and The Hulk, and other super heroes. In addition to his comic book stories, he has written a wide variety of children’s book adventures based on licensed product toy lines, most notably the Transformers. In 1992, he became executive editor of Topps Comics, a division of The Topps Company, and was responsible for the editorial and art direction of its lines of media tie-in comics based on The X-Files, Mars Attacks, Jurassic Park, Zorro, Xena: Warrior Princess and other movies and programs. In addition, Dwight was the writer, editor, and art director of Princess Diana the graphic novel biography of Diana, Princess of Wales published by Topps.
Dwight is the current president of the Military Writers Society of America. A native of Devils Lake, North Dakota, he presently lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife, Joëlle. They have two adult children.