From the Introduction to the newly released – and previously unpublished – Terror 1 Trilogy, by Ben Caldwell (New York, Bantam, 2023). Edited with an Introduction by Manny Huffman.
Hunter S. Thompson’s first novel, The Rum Diary, remained unpublished for decades, until Johnny Depp discovered the manuscript for it among Thompson’s papers during a social visit. Franz Kafka’s work – or at least most of it – would never have seen the light of day, but for Max Brod’s unwillingness to destroy his friend’s manuscripts after Kafka’s death. And the Epic of Gilgamesh would never have become the ancient classic that it is, had Hormuzd Rassam not discovered a bunch of Akkadian tablets in the ruins of a library in Nineveh.
Ben Caldwell is a retired Army colonel who served in the 1991 Gulf War and in subsequent US military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Today, he is a prominent military and defense analyst who advises governments and international contractors and is well known for his articles and books on insurgency and counterinsurgency, asymmetrical warfare, and other aspects of modern warmaking.
Ben also was my best friend in high school and a writer of fiction. Between 1983 and 1986, he produced a series of short novels about an unconventional black-ops unit working out of the then-Reagan White House. They were written in pen and pencil in small, spiral bound notebooks which Ben would carry around with him during the school day so he could jot things down whenever inspiration hit.
He never shared these with anyone except for me and a few other close friends, and in the Spring of 1986, just a few days after we had graduated, he came to my house for a visit that would propel me into the history of unpublished literature, though I didn’t realize it at the time.
Ben had brought the books with him, and once we’d gotten to my room, he explained why.
Ben: Manny, I want you to take these.
Me: What? Why? Aren’t you going to publish them?
Ben: Nah, they’re not good enough right now. And I’m off to Fort Jackson next week, for boot camp.
Me: Boot camp?! Are you nuts? I thought you were doing ROTC?
Ben: ROTC is for pussies.
Me: Uh, alright, so what’s with the books?
Ben: I don’t have the time to deal with them. Stick ‘em with your comic books and baseball cards and all the other stuff you collect. You know, for safekeeping.
So, Ben handed me the books and left. A week later he was in Fort Jackson. That Fall, I was off to college. And this was when our relationship essentially ended. We would check in on one another every few years. But, by the time the ‘90s came along, I had started graduate school and Ben was being deployed all over the place. Our lives had developed along entirely different paths, and we didn’t see or speak with each other again (aside from a brief phone conversation after Ben’s father died) until just a few months ago.
I did what Ben asked and stashed the books with my other collectibles where they stayed through my college and graduate school years. When I decided to sell my baseball cards and comic books, I moved Ben’s novels to another storage container, and when my wife and I moved into our first house, the books moved with us and disappeared from view and from memory as the years and then the decades went by.
Now, forty years later, my wife and I are retired and moving once again. In the process of emptying out our house, I rediscovered the trilogy, buried in the back of a closet. Though a bit faded and with the last book – which was left unfinished – sporting a partially torn cover, Ben’s fiction remains in an essentially unchanged state. They include: The Grapes of Roth (1983); Stumble into the Past (1985); and Who Needs School? (1986)
More accurately, this is Ben’s surviving fiction, as there is evidence in the manuscripts that the series included a fourth book, Raid Into Lebanon. The title seems familiar, but I can neither recall the writing of it nor its plot. Ben claims not to have it and also doesn’t remember writing it, though in a brief conversation on the matter he emphasized that he trusts the references in the books more than his memory. And though it is unclear where in the series Raid Into Lebanon belongs, Ben was always keen to tie in his stories with current events, so given the book’s title, we can reasonably infer that he wrote it sometime in 1984, in the wake of the 1983 bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut. This would place it second in the series, after The Grapes of Roth and before Stumble Into the Past and Who Needs School? (We know it must have been before Stumble Into the Past, because Raid Into Lebanon is referenced in Ethan Laver’s blurb in that book – see below.)
Re-reading the series, I was struck by some of its more notable elements: Ben’s infectious humor, bordering on slapstick; the wide array of influences that one can see in the plotting and set pieces (from Dungeons and Dragons to Don Pendleton’s Executioner series to Soldier of Fortune magazine to The A-Team to Peanuts (if you doubt the last one, check out the baseball game at the beginning of Grapes of Roth)); the featuring of child and teen action heroes, a la Red Dawn and The Goonies; and the remarkable, bestiary-style character rosters that appear in the second and third of the books, illustrated with Ben’s charming (and charmingly wicked) hand-drawn figures and characterizations. A selection:
From Stumble Into the Past:
- Brappphisswhew: This huge Fart Giant is the king of his kind. His floating crown is the key to the Domain of Peril, but it smells so bad that he usually isn’t bothered by adventurers.
- Head Clipper: Anti-goody-goody who owns a castle the size of Rhode Island.
- Ethan Laver: He was killed in the Raid Into Lebanon. Recently seen ripping off a bakery in Brooklyn.
- Ali Gertz: Dirty fighter. This guy went to Hebrew School with Ben (until they blew it up together). Pushes people in wheelchairs down hills and throws rocks at children from a distance.
- Gray Mouser (cat): Mouser first charms with good looks and then claws things into minced shit.
From Who Needs School?
- Evan Lawrence: Long ago, he cut out one eye because it was a different color from the other one. Was almost arrested for mutilating a door-to-door perfume salesman.
- Marty Pennington: 🎵 “Thinks he’s great, but he’s not, 🎵 puts up his collar and acts like a snot.”🎵 This kid’s OK, but he uses too much cologne. And has bad breath.
- Mark Minsky: This fat ape is such a pest that he doesn’t have many friends, but has so many enemies that he has to schedule his fights.
- John Storm: Ran away from home to become a greasy terrorist.
- Jules Lepue: The head of the Foreign Language department. His odd voice tones get him mistaken for someone who speaks excellent French (which he doesn’t).
- James Blake: “Mr. Flake” is Ben’s name for this sleepy drunkard. Extremely boring. Extremely dead.
Ben conceived of Terror 1 as composed of our friend circle, with each of us assigned a specific role in the group based on his perception of our personalities and abilities. In an inspired twist, he featured villains who were drawn from kids whom we viewed as our “enemies” and from hated teachers. The main villain in Grapes of Roth, for example, is based on Alex Roth, a kid from our class. Students and unsympathetic faculty comprised the main opposition in Who Needs School? And the Dungeons and Dragons-inspired Stumble Into the Past, filled as it is with orcs and giants and sorcerers, sees Terror 1 fighting villains whose characteristics were drawn from the people who populated our world, both in school and out of it. Even Ben’s cats – “Button,” “Gray Mouser,” “Katfish,” and “Raoul” – join the team in this one.
In the first two books, Terror 1 is given its assignments directly from the White House: from Al Haig, who is later revealed to be a traitor and in league with the evil Roth in Grapes, and from President Reagan himself in Stumble Into the Past. The third book sees the group going rogue, with an assault on their school (another time-capsule element of these books, insofar as such a storyline carried none of the terrible associations then that it does today) and then a stint in prison. Who Needs School? is in fact a two-part work – Who Needs School? and Who Needs Jail? – but the second part remains unfinished. From Stumble Into the Past:
The red hotline lit up and began to ring. Ben reached over and picked up the receiver.
“Yes, Ben, this is Ron. I want you to put your team on Red Alert.”
“Why? What’s going on?”
“Well…this is gonna’ sound dumb. Huge barbarians carrying swords have suddenly appeared in Canada.” There was a long silence. “Ben? Ben? Are you still there?”
“Look, Ron, I know you’re tired. I know you have a lot of things to think about. Important things. But keep a hold of yourself. Take one of those pills the doctor prescribed.”
“I’m serious!” Ron yelled indignantly. “You just think I’m an immature baby!” Ben could almost see the tears running down the senile president’s face.
“Ron, calm down. I’m your friend.” The war room seemed to be getting a little stuffy. “Look, if you say there are … ah … huge barbarians with swords in Canada, well, I … ah … I believe you, Ron!”
Ben’s whole team covered their mouths and started coughing loudly, then burst out laughing.
“Shaddup!!! No, Ron, not you. So, what do you want us to do?”
“Oh goody! Oh boy! Oh gosh! You mean you’ll take the mission? Great! Go up to northern Canada in the van, with Handsomass. He’s got some really neato special weapons for you.”
Terror 1 wouldn’t be the team it was without its gadgets and weapons, and Ben did not skimp in this regard. The team’s van, with a design lifted straight out of The A-Team, appears in every installment of the series, though the details of its capabilities and armaments are only revealed fully in Who Needs School? and include twin mini-Howitzers in the rear bumper, front aiming .50 caliber machine guns, sophisticated radar, a fur-lined steering wheel, and a rear-facing, flashing “Eat Me” sign that flips up after running someone over. In The Grapes of Roth, we see Terror 1 members sporting a wide array of armaments that not only reflect the team’s focus on irregular warfare but Ben’s real-life enthusiasm for weapons of every type (and lots of them), including: A silenced, braked, .45 Colt Commando, with a 6x scope; Thompson .45 automatic; HK MP-5 submachine gun; M-16 5.56 Assault Rifle; .22 Beretta semi-automatic pistol; .44 Magnum revolver; and a flame thrower. And in Stumble Into the Past, as Ben and his team are tasked with repelling fantastical, sword-and-sorcery type invaders, they are outfitted with medieval-style weapons and armor: broadswords, maces, scale and plate armor, crossbows, and the like.
After finding and re-reading the manuscripts, I reached out to Ben, who is currently a Senior Fellow at one of the nation’s leading Defense-focused think tanks. He was thrilled that I’d kept the books all these years and that they remained in such good condition. When I told him I thought the trilogy was a masterpiece in its own way and should be published, he gave me his blessing and the relevant legal permissions, but was disinclined to edit the books or be involved in their publication. “They are what they are,” Ben told me. “Let them stay that way, for honor and for posterity.”
Publication proved complicated, and I am both impressed and pleased by Bantam’s handling of it. As so much of the charm of these books lies in their handwritten, hand drawn, hand crafted character, one would think it best to publish them as facsimiles. Alas, the years have left the writing and illustration faded to a degree that even the highest resolution reproductions are difficult to read in many places. Consequently, the editors at Bantam have decided to include both a complete facsimile as well as a full transcription of my dear friend’s colorful, nostalgic, 80’s soaked teen action-comedy, and I couldn’t be more pleased with the results.