Tommy Sampson grew up in a life of endless war. Wars fought by a corrupt government that stretched across the galaxy against a group of intergalactic cannibal terrorists that could strike at any moment. Some days it was hard to tell which group was worse. Some days they were the same group. When the Belron War veterans came home, the war came with them. Tommy wasn't so sure he could survive another round.
When I got to Iraq, I switched from soda to coffee, since it was just as much caffeine with none of the calories. That left more room for donuts at the Chapel on Sunday mornings. Once Sunday Service got out, I’d head up to the roof and drink coffee. The view over the base was beautiful. The mechanics of a war machine well-oiled with years of use. The balloons overseeing the base from the sky. The helicopters flying in formation patrolling the base. Sitting at the table, to my left the branches of a tree gnarled out from holes cut in the roof. Those branches reached all the way to the first floor and into the ground. I spent hours writing on my laptop, developing my early books.
It was there that I met a character named Tommy Sampson. The book opens when Tommy meets an engaging woman in a spaceport. I had a similar sort of adventure on my way back from the United States during mid-tour leave. I was stuck in Kuwait for a week. The sandstorms were keeping all the planes grounded. The bench across from me sat a beautiful and engaging woman, and we spent an entire week just getting to know each other. I wrote that week into ‘The Ballad of Tommy Sampson.’ There was a lot of me in him, but not much nuance. In the prologue, he seems almost sketched out. He’s a broke veteran, traveling the cosmos, but not much passed that. Life happened to Tommy. The plot drove his actions, like most younger people. While I had agency in my own personal life, the world around me was very controlled by the well-oiled machine. It would be years before I could assert the agency to organize my life. Looking back on early Tommy Sampson, I can see the guy I used to be before when I was just a passenger in life.
As the anthology continued and the storyline developed, I created a new avatar to memoir. Tommy Sampson stayed in stasis while I developed the character of Bruce Cambel. He served with Tommy on Belron and shows up in the prologue on the space station. Bruce becomes a sad figure in the Veterans of the Belron War and becomes a key player as his personal tragedy deepens. In the fourth book of the anthology, Bruce takes center stage. I was working through a failed relationship at the time, those intense summer flings that burn bright and flicker out. In the smoke of that whirlwind, I was adjusting to life off active duty. There was no second deployment on my horizon. I was home, and the jet lag was hitting hard. As I burned away the old life and created something new, I looked at myself and saw all the things I disliked. That internal reflection played out in Tommy and Bruce’s friendship. Bruce is disgusted by Tommy’s puppy dog love and devotion to simple ideas. But what Bruce wants is to believe in those ideas again. He resents Tommy’s ability to hope, because Bruce hoped big and lost everything. Tommy kept hoping and was rewarded.