Friday, May 4, 2012

B-17: An Origins Story

I've already told you about my illustrious start in writing back in the fall during the Origins blogfest, how my sixth grade teacher gave us an assignment that just set me on fire. I believe I've also said, in an early post that I can't find (or maybe it was in Origins, also), how I don't remember writing anything 'creative'* for nearly thirty years after that. By the time seventh grade was halfway through, I wasn't writing anything that wasn't for a school assignment.

Yet writing always remained an interest of mine. I wrote for my jobs, did it well, and enjoyed it. But the seed of fiction writing was still there, dormant in my mind. It started to germinate when I was in my mid-thirties, watered and warmed from an unlikely source: B-17, Queen of theSkies. From the box:

"B-17: Queen of the Skies" is a strategy game which re-creates the early bombing missions and aerial combat of the B-17 (F Model) bombers of the US Eighth Air Force over Europe between October 1942 and May 1943. "

(Note how the game company calls it a 'strategy game'. These games are also frequently called 'historical conflict simulations', though most players (mostly middle-aged men) just call them 'wargames.') I grew up with an interest in World War II, probably fueled by my father, who was old enough to remember the feeling of it, if not the substance (he was five when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor). Dad used to watch The World At War on PBS, which was the Gold Standard for war documentaries for a long time. I picked up that interest, too, and discovered board wargames through my older brother, though I have no idea where he got his first game from.

HISTORICAL NOTE: The B-17 was a heavy bomber used by the US Army Airforce in WWII. It carried 10 crew members, a goodly number of bombs, bristled with machine guns, and was notorious for its ability to take a pounding. B-17s regularly returned from missions with one engine running, missing entire tail sections, or with giant holes blown in the fuselage or cockpit area. The game works pretty well as a simulation because, when flying in formation, about the only decision in the hands of the crew is which enemy fighters do you shoot at. You had to fly in formation to and from the target. The game randomizes everything that is out of the crew's control.

Now, here's secret about wargames: though they're designed for two or more players, most of these games are played solitaire. A lot of these games are very large, with a lot of pieces, and very complicated rules. War, after all, is a complicated business. They also take a lot of time to play, and opponents are hard to find. I was fortunate. I only played once or twice with my brother, but I had a friend down the block who also liked to play.

Anyway, like my writing, my interest in wargames waned when I was in my roaring twenties, though I always kept tabs on it. In the late 90's I rediscovered this hobby, dug my games out of my parents' basement, and even bought one or two new ones. It was fun, but there's frustration in playing against yourself: there's no fog of war. There are no surprise attacks. When one side launches an attack, the other side knows if it's a feint or the real thing. It's fun, but not quite as satisfying.

Enter B-17. This was one of the first games that was designed to be played solitaire. And it had little set-up time and didn't take long to play. My friend down the block had it, and I remember he enjoyed it. I also came across some nostalgia tales about the game on a wargames forum I was on. So I bought a used copy and found it quite compelling. It's a simple game with a high replay value and, like a good book, has a lot of tension.

Now for some irony: I bought a used copy to play solitaire, and ended up playing in a group. And this is where my fiction writing started to regrow.

To make the game more interesting, the designer included crew roster sheets. You're encouraged to create fictional characters to populate your ten man crew (Yes, you could put yourself in there, but that's kind of creepy if you take shrapnel to the head or a bullet in the chest, isn't it?). It sounds a little strange, I know, but it adds to the game more than if you just went with Pilot, Copilot, Bombardier, Port Waist Gunner, etc. And once you open that door, to putting names down, it encourages the imagination.

I joined an online group that was playing the game together. It worked like this: the game manager would post a mission on his website. We, the players, had two weeks to fly the mission and post an After Action Report (AAR). The AAR was like the post-mission briefings crews had. Did you reach the target? Did you drop bombs on the target? Did you hit the target? Did you shoot down enemy aircraft? What damage did your craft take? Casualties? Etc. The form included a space for describing the mission, and this is where things got interesting, and where people got creative, describing weary flight crews, cold, hungry and tired, describing the horrors of their missions. And I soon found the creativity extended beyond the AARs: some of the game participants were writing little vignettes about their crews on the ground. Some of them were quite good, too. They riffed off of each other, too, so it became a work of independent, but semi-collaborative fiction. And it opened up something inside of me, and led to a burst of creativity I hadn't had in quite some time.

I wrote some interesting pieces as part of that game. One of the more bizarre ones involved the paranoid dream of the navigator on my second aircraft (the first crashed in an emergency landing), where he dreamed his crewmates threw him out of the plane because he wasn't 'one of them' (he was from Brooklyn, they were almost all from the south). On the next mission, he got killed, and I half-jokingly offered my writing services to the group. "Got a crew member you want dead?" I asked. "Let me know, I'll write about them."

Playing at war is kind of … sick, I know. But I can't deny that participating in this game definitely started the process of writing for me again. The bits I wrote as part of this online group primed the pump. I still focused on non-fiction: in the next couple of years, I actually started outlining two non-fiction books, submitted an essay for one of the thousands of Chicken Soup for the Soul books, and sent in something  for Highlights magazine. But B-17 renewed my thirst for fiction writing. It only took about another four years for me to really get going.

* In my view, ALL writing is creative, but I think you know what I mean here


  1. How cool, Jeff! Do you still participate in things like that, or has the novel taken over? :)

  2. It's so interesting to me how people find their way to their love of writing, or find their way back to it. If one has a passion for writing, all that is needed is a spark.


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