Martin Caidin: An Appreciation
Originally published in Locus Magazine, Vol38, Nr 5, May 1997



What can you say about a man who taught himself to fly by stealing an airplane at the age of 14? If this sounds more like an extraordinary character from some improbable piece of fiction, I’d say that you were getting warm.

Martin Caidin stood for all that was neat in this world; a real character. One could describe him in any number of ways: boisterous, opinionated, mischievous, and wholly unpretentious; his heart was as large as downtown, and was dwarfed only by his intellect. Working with Marty both as an artist and a writer (and at times, a guinea pig), I often wondered where his curiosity would take us, and was never disappointed.

I first met Marty when I tried to trade his airplane for a handful of magic beans. Instead, I ended up singing “Happy Birthday” to his wife Dee Dee before being hauled off by two burly and massive medieval guards. The Caidins and I have been bestest buds ever since.

Marty was himself an adventure. He would regale me with his exploits as a man who told a tale no matter how implausible it might sound, and regardless of whether you believed him or not. He knew what he was saying was true; to hell with you if you doubted it.

Case in point: find the book Everything But the Flak. It is a truly remarkable novel of the last formation flight of B-17 bombers that Marty led across the Atlantic Ocean for the movie “The War Lover,” which nearly didn’t get made. Why? Because when Marty and his fellow pilots landed in Lisbon to refuel, they were immediately arrested. Seems they had flown into the middle of a Portuguese Civil War and a rebel B-17 had just bombed a government air base. It didn’t help matters that the dilapidated planes were coming in on smoking engines and feathered props. End result-- a three night stay, courtesy of the Lisbon Chief of Police, who it turned out later, was a big fan of his.

Marty was a post-war associate of the Tuskegee Airmen, the distinguished group of African-American pilots who, after electing him H.N.I.C. for the day, held him down and covered him with black shoe polish. He was an honorary Portuguese Admiral (granted by the Chief of Naval Operations of Portugal to keep him from being arrested after he buzzed a Portuguese Destroyer) and a City of Lisbon Bridge Inspector, an honorific title bestowed by that same Chief of Police when the mayor complained about Marty’s habit of flying under bridges.

And there was Iron Annie, the Junkers Ju-52 that he and Dee Dee had restored with loving and cautious detail. Many’s the time I would look up and squint against the glaring sun to see a lumbering, three-engined piece of history crawl across the Florida sky.

I found out that when he upgraded the engines, he had donated the original German BMWs to the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum and wrote them off on his taxes for a rather phenomenal sum. The IRS of course didn’t like seeing numbers that large, and so contacted the Smithsonian. They asked if there was someone who could verify the true value of donated engines. “Oh, yes,” they replied, “just call Martin Caidin. He’s an expert on that sort of thing...”

Ask anyone connected with aviation; if they didn’t know Martin Caidin, they knew of him. Especially at the Cape...

During the last Gemini flight, the countdown was going well. With the engine startup sequence initiated, everything was go; that is, until Marty stood up not one hundred yards from the launch pad to get the finest view available of the historic liftoff. NASA could not abort the launch at that point, and so with bated breath, Mission Control continued. Marty told me that it took weeks for his eyebrows to grow back.

It was because of his close association with the space program that gave Marty the unique insight necessary to write Marooned, a fabulous work which still ranks as one of Science Fiction’s classics. In it, an American crew is trapped in space with a swiftly dwindling oxygen supply, and it is the Russians who come to the rescue. A friend who did business in the Soviet Union took a copy of Marooned and gave it to an official there.

“What? A book where the Russian is the good guy? Perhaps there is hope for you filthy Capitalists after all...”

Nonetheless, the book addressed the serious problem of rescue in space, because the docking hatches were incompatible between the two craft. Because of that book, the Apollo-Soyuz project was born. Marty wasn’t even aware of that until after the release of official documents following the fall of the Soviet Regime.

And who grew up in the seventies without watching the Six Million Dollar Schmuck or the Bionic Broad? (His words, not mine.) Thanks to Marty’s book Cyborg, we have in Colonel Steve Austin a cultural icon which fueled the fantasy of kids everywhere, some of whom are working on improved prosthetics/bionics today.

Marty’s books span the spectrum of literature from historic non-fiction, to science fiction, to hard science, and so on. Zoboa, The Messiah Stone, Exit Earth, The Last Dogfight, Thunderbolt, No Man’s World, Natural or Supernatural?, The Final Countdown; over one hundred forty books and countless articles for almost every publication imaginable. As an up and coming writer myself, if I can produce one tenth of what he did, I would consider my career a success.

I once mentioned to him that I might like to become a writer. His reply? “So f*cking write.” I wish now that I had begun writing sooner, but even in these last years, I have learned so much. Even his most trivial insights have been invaluable and enlightened me beyond measure; it pains me that I will receive them no more.

Caidin was not a mentor; rather, an inspiration. Who else could pound out a complete novel in three days, yank it from the typewriter, and send it to a publisher? I’ve seen him do it, and on more than one occasion. He made it all seem so easy that if I had any idea how difficult and discouraging this field could be, I probably wouldn’t’ve bothered.

Marty taught me manuscript formats, the mark of a good cigar, how to play with a waitress’s mind without pissing her off, how to keep a sense of humor throughout the most difficult situations, and most important of all, the value of a true friend.

I consider myself quite lucky to have known Martin and Dee Dee, and honestly feel sorry for those of you who will only know him through his books, because you have truly missed one of the world’s great people. Every day I write I think of him, and every time I light a cigar, I’ll see his bright-eyed, mustachioed face behind the curls of smoke saying, “What are you looking at?”

© Matt DiPalma