Sunday, September 5, 2010

Author Interview with Theodore Jerome Cohen

Today we're talking with Theodore Jerome Cohen, author of Frozen in Time: Murder at the Bottom of the World.

FQ: First, tell us a little about your novel, Frozen in Time.

Frozen in Time is an historical novel. It is based on real events in my life. In fact, I’ve changed my last name in the book from ‘Cohen’ to ‘Stone’ for the telling of the tale. But the truth is, the story is drawn from the pages of the diary that I kept prior to and during my work on the 16th Chilean Expedition to the Antarctic, which extended from December 1961 through March 1962. The fundamental, underlying structure of the book is factual. The reader can believe everything said regarding the trip from Madison, Wisconsin, through Miami, to Lima, Santiago, Punta Arenas, and on to the South Shetland Islands, and finally, Base O’Higgins, Antarctica. As well, everything about time at sea or on the Ice (as we call it) is factual. The descriptions of the hurricanes at sea, calving of the continental glacier, near-death experiences...they’re all true. Around all that, of course, is woven the story of the bank theft and the murders. But I suspect you are going to ask about those events below, so I no doubt will have to come clean on those later.

FQ: When Ted Stone was supposedly a young geophysics grad student he was asked to go on the expedition of a lifetime. The team he joined was a mix of very talented people from the University of Wisconsin. When you participated in the 16th Chilean Expedition to the Antarctic, we’re assuming you went with a similar team. Would you care to tell us about it?

Yes, the team was as it is described in the book. There were four of us from the University of Wisconsin. The man who asked me to join the expedition—I called him ‘Grant Morris’ in the novel—was my lab instructor for Geology at UW. We still remain in contact, as I do with the other members of the group. Today, ‘Grant’ lives just south of Lima, on the Pacific Ocean, where he’s retired and enjoying the good life. His major professor also was a member of the team, and he still teaches at UW-Madison. Another of the professor’s students, ‘David Green’ in the book, today is a world-renowned volcanologist for the United States Geological Survey (USGS), and he travels the world assisting other countries with studies of their active volcanoes. The three of them are a great bunch of guys, and we really had fun together ...still do via e-mail.

FQ: It’s sometimes a very difficult task to mix fact and fiction. For example, you talked about the Great Chilean Earthquake which occurred in May of 1960, which in fact was the largest recorded earthquake in history. In your novel you weave in two somewhat seedy characters, Raul Lucero and Eduardo Bellolio, who rifled the safety deposit boxes at the Banco Central de Chile. Were these two men a figment of your imagination or did such an incident occur?

There’s no disputing the occurrence of the earthquake. Just an unbelievable geological event, to be sure. But yes, Lucero and Bellolio were a fiction. I needed two bad guys to kick off the action, and so, I had to create them. And because in fiction there are no boundaries, I was free to make them anything I wanted them to be. I had a lot of fun doing that. If there’s time, I’ll let you in on a secret regarding them and the story, but I’ll save that for last.

FQ: Decades ago schools of fish were much more abundant than they are today. Ted was overwhelmed by the sea life off the coast of Miami, especially the fearsome looking school of “young barracuda” who petrified him. Have you ever had any experience like this?

That scene off the coast of Miami, among the barracuda, occurred exactly as I experienced it. The whole trip on the University of Miami’s boat, Shor-Clif, occurred exactly as it was described in the book. It wasn’t the most pleasant experience, at first. But once I learned that the barracuda weren’t going to bother me, I paid them no attention.

FQ: Communication on remote outposts such as the Antarctic are extremely important to the safety of any group of people. Today many of the bands are down, a fact that would make life much more difficult. Would you like to talk about your interest in ham radio?

Ham radio, or Amateur Radio, has been my hobby since I was 12 years old. My callsign today is N4XX. I received my first Amateur Radio license when I was 13 years old. I was encouraged to pursue this hobby by my mother and her oldest brother, Harry Rubinstein (ex-9EEV (SK)), who is credited with the invention of the printed circuit. Because of my love for communications-electronics, I began studies at the University of Wisconsin in EE in the mid-1950s, only to turn to Physics in 1959. I just had to know what really made the world ‘tick’. From there, I earned a BS and MS in Physics and a PhD in Geophysics, only to be drawn back to communications-electronics in the 1970s because an old friend in the industry offered me a job that was too good to turn down. I stayed in communications-electronics for the remainder of my career. I would have to say that my background in communications-electronics, together with a capability to write, shaped my professional life.

FQ: Part of Ted’s job was to take readings with the Worden gravimeter, a rare and expensive instrument. Can you tell us about the function of a gravimeter and if you have had personal experience using it?

Everything said about the Worden gravimeter in the book are my actual experiences with the instrument. Everything. That’s me talking. The gravimeter can only measure differences in the pull of gravity between two places. The absolute pull of gravity (acceleration due to gravity) at any given place was measured using a set of pendulums ‘swung’ (as it is said) by another of Dr. Woollard’s teams, at the time. All of the gravity networks worldwide were tied into the pendulum stations.

FQ: One of my favorite quotes in the book was “Chess really is nothing more than a metaphor for life itself. When the game is over, the king and the pawn both go into the same box.” What is the origin of this quote? Cristian and Ted enjoyed the game. And you?

The quote is an Italian proverb. All of the chess games described in the book actually took place between the parties described and me. But know, of course, that I did not use the other parties’ real names.

FQ: You described the horrifying weather that ships sometimes had to endure on their trips south, especially that in the ‘Banana Belt” (Bransfield Strait). Did you have to endure a hair raising, Dramamine trip or was yours smooth? Tell us about your most terrifying sea travel story if you have one.

The weather was as described. Everything described in the book regarding the weather and the seas are actual descriptions of what we experienced...almost blow-by-blow descriptions (no pun intended!). Fortunately, I did not get seasick. Nor did ‘David Green’. However, both ‘Grant Morris’ and our professor got violently ill, and both had to be strapped into their bunks. Read the story about the crossing from South’s an excerpt. “Ted had been reading James A Mitchner’s Hawaii as a way to pass the time when he looked up at the chain hanging from a hook on the wall in their cabin. On it was a crucifix, which was swinging through a sixty degree arc, thirty degrees to one side, then thirty degrees to the other. I’ll take all the help I can get at this point, he thought.” (Frozen in Time: Murder at the Bottom of the World)

FQ: You related a horrifying scene of nature in action saying, “The Continental Glacier was calving before their eyes, with ice masses below where they were standing breaking off and falling into the sea.” Did you witness such a scene on your expedition? Perhaps you can tell us a bit more about this phenomenon.

This scene is described in the book as it actually happened. It was summer, of course, the Sun shown almost 24 hours every day (we were just above the Antarctic Circle), and the Continental Glacier was melting. Large crevasses would open, and near the sea, the glacier would calve, sending ice into the water. This not only created icebergs, but huge waves as well.

FQ: In passing you mention explorers such as Captain Robert F. Scott and Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton. What aspects of their lives, if any, fascinate you? Would you have loved to have been an Arctic explorer?

I was fascinated by their thirst for knowledge of what lay over the horizon. What’s out there? What has no man (or woman) seen? Unfortunately, many who tried to ‘conquer’ the Frozen Continent had no idea what it would take to do so. There’s a wonderful exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City that recounts one of the most stirring tales of the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration: the contest to be the first to reach the South Pole in 1911-1912. ( Knowing what I know now, I think I’ve done all the exploring I want to do in Antarctic. But that said, my wife, Susan (who is in the book as Susan Stone) and I do want to visit Antarctica together, and may, during the austral summer of 2011-2012.

FQ: I was very interested in your brief discussion about good and evil and the correlation you made with order and disorder. Keep on talking! We’d like to hear more about your philosophy of life.

There are several themes that run through all of my novels. They include a respect for parents, teachers, the military/police; deception, and the role it plays in Nature, Man, and Life; the question of why bad things happen to good people; and order and disorder, which I equate, at times, to good and evil. We live in a world where disorder (entropy) is increasing. We grow old and get sick, our cars rust, buildings crumble...the universe, in short, tends towards disorder. We, as human beings, can put order to things, but only on a local scale. Thus, we can work to stay healthy, repair our cars, erect new edifices or fix old ones. I think you get the picture.

One could, in an abstract sense, look at the struggle to impose order on a local scale as the juncture between religion and science. That is, it gives man purpose in the world. (And no, this is not a sermon...what I’m about to say came about from an exchange I had with the Religion Editor of The Washington Post following the Indonesian Tsunami some years ago. He asked: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” My response was that bad things happen both to good and to bad people simply because we live in a world where entropy (disorder) is increasing. Put another way, I told him, life could not exist if entropy were constant (there was no increase or decrease of order in our lives (every day was Ground Hog Day) or entropy, across the universe, decreased (everything became ordered, in which case, for example, we could not produce waste). Basically, in the latter two cases, what would people do with their lives? A religious person would say that having bad things occur in life was the price we paid for being given life itself. In a way, we have, here, the junction of science and religion.

I sent him this parable:
I'm reminded of the joke in which a man is taking his priest through his garden, extolling the wondrous flowers and trees that he has cultivated and brought to bloom. Finally the priest can take no more and turning to the man says: "John, I know you have worked hard on this garden, but don't you think that you should give some credit to the Lord?" John thought for a moment and then said: "You might be right, father, but you should have seen this place when He was doing it Himself!"
In other words, without G_d putting disorder into the world, the gardener would have no purpose in life.

So, in a way, good and evil are part of the same story. Evil was put into our world to give purpose to our make the world a better place. And perhaps good and evil are an older, better understood battle between order and disorder, dating back, as it does, to Biblical times and having religious overtones.

FQ: Frozen in Time doesn't quite fit into the typical mystery or adventure genre. How would you describe it?

How about a Dark, Supernatural Thriller? Consider this.

John Milton’s Paradise Lost

Satan rallies his subjects (283-621)

Satan (Lucifer), “the superior fiend”, goes to the edge of the burning lake and calls to his legions who are lying inert on its surface. Note his sarcastic humour: he asks, in effect, “Are you having a rest? Have you chosen to lie in the lake as a way of adoring God (by readily bowing to His will)?”
The devils, waking, stir themselves, fly up into air, and assemble around Satan. The chief devils are named and described:

• Moloch (crude, warlike, blustering);
• Chemos (associated with sensual, orgiastic demon worship, idolatry);
• Astarte (a female equivalent of Chemos);
• Thammuz (a fertility god, believed to die and rise to life every year; associated with rebirth of vegetation);
• Dagon (god of the Philistines, referred to in the Biblical books of Judges and 1 Samuel);
• Rimmon (referred to in the Biblical book of 2 Kings);
• Osiris, Isis, Orus (gods of Egyptian mythology), and
• Belial (a deceitful, lustful and lewd god). 

The devil host assembles in military fashion. The devils move forward, and come to a halt ready for inspection by Satan. Milton describes the martial prowess and glory they retain despite their fall, and notes how moved Satan is by this display of loyalty.

Now, consider Frozen in Time:

In the story, we have Raul Lucero (Lucifer) and his “lieutenant”, Eduardo Bellolio (Belial). Note that the connection to the Fallen Angles in Bellolio’s case is through his last name. Bellolio is a real Chilean name, as is Lucero.

As for Lucero:

“Among the Lientur’s complement of five 0fficers and forty enlisted men were two non-commissioned officers, Chief Warrant Officer (CWO) Raul Lucero and Chief Petty Officer (CPO) Eduardo Bellolio. They had signed on for three-year tours of duty in late 1959 and were scheduled to participate with their vessel in the 16th Expedition to the Antarctic. Though both were slightly over five feet tall, Lucero was by far the heavier—stout, actually—weighing some twenty pounds more than Bellolio. Lucero had a full head of black hair and massive, muscular arms developed over years of working in naval construction. Aside from one drooping eyelid, the result of a childhood accident, he was a fine physical condition for a man in his late thirties.

“Lucero had risen rapidly within the enlisted ranks. Though a Chief Warrant Officer, his record was not without blemishes. In mid-1954, the Navy’s Office of Internal Affairs found evidence of him apparently having facilitated the transfer of naval supplies to the Chilean black market. Lucero bragged, “The Navy couldn’t hang a thing on me.”

“He was correct. The trail left behind by whomever was responsible was so complex and convoluted that investigators never were able to determine exactly what was taken from at least two Fleet Warehouses, much less the final destinations of the items stolen. There were indications that a naval officer, as well as people outside the Navy, may have been involved. However, the evidence was so ‘thing that naval investigators came away empty-handed.

“In the end, no action was taken against Lucero or anyone else. After four years of monitoring the suspects’ activities, Internal Affairs dropped the matter.”

And Bellolio:

“Bellolio was slightly built and a year younger than Lucero. He tended to be hot-tempered and impulsive, thinking little about the consequences of his actions. Though physically agile, he bore a two-inch scar across his left cheek, a constant reminder that others were just as quick as he was with una navaja de muelle.”

“Both men were covered with tattoos, products of the many parlors found in every port they visited. To them, the artful mementos that adorned their bodies were signs of machismo, something to be shared proudly with their brothers-in-arms. The works of art on their bodies depicted their loves, hates, triumphs, and love of country. Lucero was particularly proud of one faded black tattoo glorifying Death that could be found high on his upper left arm.”

(In Western literature and art, fallen angels became a popular theme primarily after Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667). Milton depicts a memorable Satan, Prince of the Air, who commits incest with his daughter, Sin, and they have a child, Death, who then rapes his Mother!)

“Each man entered the Navy at the same time, immediately after finishing their secondary school education. However, Bellolio’s rank was two levels beneath that of Lucero’s. This was the result of a Navy Board of Inquiry that found Bellolio complicit in the knifing death of an enlisted man some two years earlier during a fight at a brothel in Valparaiso. Bellolio never would talk about it—“I was set up,” he maintained—but according to Lucero, the issue involved him making gross, lewd comments to a Yugoslavian prostitute who was dancing with another sailor. “

Again, the Fall Angle Belial was known as the most gross and lewd of the Fallen Angles.

In the novel, too, Lucero is tipped off to the fact that Lt. Commander Cristian Barbudo (first name; allusion to Christ) has picked up his trail by another Chilean Navy non-commissioned officer in Santiago, Chief Warrant Officer Gabriel Osorio (“Gabriel”, of course, is known as G_d’s “messenger”. In Frozen in Time, Osorio is named for Osiris, another of the Fallen Angles. Osorio is a real Chilean name.) It’s Osorio who sends a message to Lucero, tipping him off to the fact that Lt. Cmdr. Barbudo has picked up the trail from the theft of the Central Bank of Chile and tied it to him and Bellolio both to the theft as well as to the death of Rodríguez.

“Lucero looked around to make sure no one was in the compartment. Then he whispered, “I received a ‘condolence’ message from Gabriel Osorio—Chief Warrant Officer Osorio—this afternoon. You remember me talking about him. We was on that rescue effort with the Norwegian relief ship MS Tottan that evacuated personnel from several sites occupied by French Antarctic researchers back in 1952. We both was assigned to the Lautaro back then. It was Hell! We lost two overboard in that storm off Kerguelen Island . . . never even had a chance to look for ‘em, not that it would have done any good. They probably was drowned within seconds of hitting the water. Terrible thing it was.”

“The ship’s officers and visiting scientists had their dinners in the Captain’s Mess, and frequently Ted was seated next to Lieutenant-Commander Cristian Barbudo, or ‘Cristian,’ as he asked Ted to call him. Cristian, a deeply religious man, was just under six feet tall and physically trim, something he attributed to working out in the ship’s gym every morning before breakfast. “It gives me a chance to clear my mind after going through my radio messages,” he joked, when Ted asked how he found the time to stay in shape.

“Cristian was four years older than Ted, married, and had two beautiful daughters, Daniela and Teresa. His wife, Maria, taught in a private school located near Viña del Mar, a major seaside resort town where they had made their home for the past four years.” has to ask: Did the Devil take over the 16th Chilean Expedition to the Antarctic, and was Nature’s furious response an attempt to eject him and his lieutenants from her pristine white land at the Bottom of the World.

“On his way to the Officer’s Mess, Ted encountered the captain of the Piloto Pardo in a passageway. The man, still smartly dressed in his neatly pressed uniform but looking exhausted, took off his wire rim glasses and gently rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. Shaking his head from side to side, he lamented, “I have participated in seven expeditions to the Antarctic. I have talked with my predecessors by radio. This one was by far the worst crossing in the history of Chilean Antarctic Expeditions!””

Was Cristian sacrificed in the process, his body to be delivered to the sea at some time well into the future?

“But when he looked to his left, Cristian was gone!

“Ted looked down, but Cristian was nowhere to be seen. Had he slipped over the edge in his sleep? Had he tried to make himself more comfortable, and in the process, fallen off the ledge, causing the piton to be torn from the wall simply because of the weight placed on it?

“He must have dropped hundreds of feet below the surface, thought Ted. He could be entombed for decades, if not centuries, frozen in time until the glacier, moving slowly to the sea, gives up his body to the ocean in one final act of Deliverance.”

Finally, when Lucero and Bellolio killed one another (if that’s really what happened . . . we don’t know what part Muñoz played), one is tempted to ask: was Muñoz corrupted by Lucifer (Lucero) before he died (or Muñoz killed him), forcing Muñoz to assume the identity of Lucifer?

Only one person who reviewed the book, my developmental editor, Virginia Smith, EdD, comprehended the novel at this level. But I’ll let you in on a secret. She used to teach college-level English.

So...did the Devil take over the expedition? Was Nature’s fury directed not at Man, but at the Devil? 

Who paid the price? Truth be told, the answer is: the innocent as well as the sinners. As I say in my synopsis:

It is a tale of greed, betrayal, and murder—one in which the reader is given a window into the frozen world at the bottom of the Earth that few people ever will read about, much less experience. Among other things, it explores why, though seemingly unfair, bad things happen to good people; how the battle between good and evil can change forever even the most innocent person; and most of all, the role deception plays in Nature, Man, and Life.

To learn more about Frozen in Time: Murder at the Bottom of the World please visit our website and read the review at: Feathered Quill Book Reviews.