Mesa resident, veteran pens new fiction thriller
Feb. 8—At age 92, Navy veteran J.B. Rivard uses cinematic storytelling for his newest book that almost went up in smoke.
"Low on Gas — High on Sky," about record-setting aviator Nick Mamer, partly inspired Rivard's newest novel that debuts on Feb. 7.
His "Dead Heat to Destiny" follows the lives and loves of three people imperiled in the cataclysm of WWI.
But both books almost never happened due in part to the 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center just outside St. Louis, Missouri, that destroyed 22 million veterans' personal records.
Mamer's grandchildren held onto a trunk full of memorabilia — including thousands of newspaper clippings, photos and documents — that gave a real insight to his military service and then inspired Rivard's novel.
"As a result of that, we got a real inside feel for this guy, and what he was like, and I'll tell you, it was inspiring because he was a true aviation whiz," Rivard said. "And this in turn inspired me to create the character Will Marra in this latest novel, because he's the same kind of guy."
In "Dead Heat to Destiny," Adrienne Boch deflects the romantic pursuit of Will Marra, an American student in Paris, while her cousin Gregor Steiner completes his training as an Imperial German Navy Officer, both unprepared for the beginning of World War One.
As the invading German army threatens Paris, Steiner captains a U-boat, Will becomes a pilot in the U.S. Army, and Adrienne's family flees an overrun Belgium. Meanwhile in Central America, a spy is recruited to defeat the United States.
As the story comes to a head, love hangs in the balance as the characters meet in a thrilling and emotionally riveting clash.
Spanning 1903 to 1917, the novel transports the reader to a variety of locales and — paired with his dedication to historical accuracy and his immersive writing style — Rivard offers readers a front row seat to the early 20th century's most compelling events.
Born in South Bend, Indiana, Rivard spent four years in in the U.S. Navy starting in 1951 and draws upon his own service as inspiration for penning "historically accurate fiction and nonfiction." A graduate of the University of Florida, he attended the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, and is an award-winning artist as well as an author.
He said he was "volun-told" to serve as a ground school instructor in Pensacola, Florida, where he taught airplane instruments and radio navigation.
"That introduced me to aviation during the Korean War and that was the time when Naval Aviation was switching from propeller-driven airplanes to jets," Rivard said.
In fact, Rivard remembers leaving the service when the Grumman F9F Panther, one of the Navy's first successful carrier-based jet fighters and Grumman's first jet fighter, entered service.
After the Navy, Rivard spent 25 years as a "nuclear engineer essentially" at U.S. National Laboratory, including in 1962, when he briefly served as a part of a safety radar crew.
His crew witnessed "quite a number of air-dropped nuclear weapon" detonations during Operation Dominic on Kiritimati atoll, aka Christmas Island, 1,300 miles south of Hawaii.
Operation Dominic was a series of 30 nuclear detonations in various forms at three different locations around the Pacific, all as a response to the Soviet Union's resumption of testing after the 1958 — 1961 moratorium.
"The drops that I witnessed were from a B-52 at 40,000 feet approximately, and then the bombs were detonated at various altitudes above the Pacific Ocean," Rivard said. "Our radar was a safety radar, which was intended to prevent the bombs from being dropped anywhere where they were not intended."
Rivard started trekking to Mesa around the turn of the century and officially called it home in 2020.
As he does in many of his books, Rivard thinks authors tend to have "considerable problems" when writing about events that take place a century ago.
His research for this recent book took him through the 1910s into German invasion of Belgium and France in 1914, the booming fashion industry in Paris 1910-1917, and the pursuit of Pancho Villa by General Pershing's Army in 1916, to name a few.
But in researching the buildup of the German Imperial Navy and its advances in U-boat design, Rivard said he found "a lack of very detailed information" about these submarines considered by many "superior at that time."
"It turns out that there are no submarines that have been preserved from World War One, and so you can't go to a museum and see one," Rivard said. "So, you have to live with photographs."
With only a handful of black-and-white photos of UB-110 and a copy of "The U-Boat: The Evolution and Technical History of German Submarines" by Eberhard Rössler, Rivard said he didn't find much in the way of U-Boat relics.
UB-110 was a German U-Boat commissioned into the German Imperial Navy for less than four months before it succumbed to a British depth charge and sunk near the Tyne River.
Spanning two continents and multiple countries, Rivard said he enjoys setting the protagonists against the stresses of growing up in a world in which things were happening beyond their control, as Europe turned to turmoil as a result of the German invasions in August 1914.
"That was a very challenging thing to write about and to try to illustrate in the form of action that the reader can enjoy," Rivard said. "And that makes for a very interesting set of circumstances against which these folks had to work and play and love and all the rest."
Rivard spent the good part of two years working on the novel and doesn't have any plans for a sequel, but enjoys writing about military history including a series last year about the 60th anniversary of "above ground" nuclear testing in American Legion Magazine.
Rivard believes people will enjoy this book and sees it as a fascinating study of the interaction of both family dynamic and romance in the conventional sense.
Rivard said adults of the 21st century are well-aware how unpleasant war is for participants.
"My story suggests how the war of a century ago impacted friend and foe, for both good and evil," Rivard said. "I hope readers find the story enjoyable!"
"Dead Heat To Destiny"
Available on barnesandnoble.com.
Learn more about J.B. Rivard: illusionsofmagic.com.