The Real American Dream

Money to Burn: A Novel of Suspense

by James Grippando

This week marks the sixty-fifth anniversary of the death of two great American heroes—Sgt. Michael Strank and Cpl. Harlon Block, two of six Marines who raised the flag on Iwo Jima.  A third, PFC Franklin Sousley, was killed in action three weeks later, as the battle came to a close.  The battle of Iwo Jima was the bloodiest in the history of the United States Marine Corp, with almost seven thousand Americans killed and over 19,000 wounded.  More than a quarter of all Medals of Honor awarded to marines during World War II recognized the bravery of men who fought (and in many cases, died) on that Pacific Island. 

The Pulitzer-prize-winning photograph of the marines raising the American flag is probably the most enduring image of the Second World War.  Sadly, other memories—important memories—are fading. 

My father died last year, one of nearly a thousand World War II vets who die each day.  He lived through the Great Depression, stood in breadlines at age eleven, and spent the four best years of his life fighting the worst war the world has ever seen.  I know my eleven-year-old son now cherishes the World War II uniform his grandpa left him.  More than that, however, I hope my son will remember.   

I can’t say I’m optimistic.  Much of my concern arises from a recent experience I had in writing my latest novel, Money to Burn.  As a tribute to my father, a character named “Papa” plays a central role.  It’s a Wall Street thriller, and my father was about as far away from Wall Street as you could imagine—which is exactly the point.  The Greatest Generation is the perfect counterbalance to the greed and self centeredness that nearly destroyed us.  In an early draft, I described Papa as “part of the generation for whom 9/11 was a dark day, but for whom December 7 was the day that will live in infamy.”  The line was cut. 

“Why?” you might ask.  Simple:  Because too many of my younger readers wouldn’t have any idea what I was talking about.

I hated to lose that line, but I agreed to change it to fit the tone of a financial thriller.  The novel, after all, wasn’t about World War II.  The inspiration for the story came to me when, in March 2008—another anniversary to mark this week—a group of powerful hedge-fund managers gathered for a champagne breakfast at a Manhattan restaurant.  They specialized in short-trading—essentially betting that the value of a company’s stock will go down.  They were rumored to have been celebrating the fall of Bear Stearns, the first major investment bank to go the way of the T-Rex and the Dodo bird.   Over the next seven months, I would conduct my research by watching Wall Street implode in real time.  I was writing about short-sellers trading investment banks into oblivion.  Financial media fanning the flames by carelessly spreading dangerous rumors planted by unscrupulous traders.  Mortgage-backed securities and credit default swaps landing insurance giants on life support.  Fortunes lost overnight in Madoff-sized Ponzi schemes.  I was writing about the world of high rollers and high finance.

Or was I?

Through it all, the voice that spoke loudest to me was that of a fictional character—the one based on my father.   I wrote most of the outline for Money to Burn while at my father’s bedside in a skilled nursing facility.  After he passed, the novel seemed to write itself.  It was in the later stages of his illness, while reading early pages aloud to him, that I realized how much the crumbling financial world could have learned from a high-school graduate and a D-Day survivor who came home from the war, went to work in a print shop, supported his family, saved enough to retire at age fifty-five, and died with no debt.  Zero.

Yes, I changed the line about 9/11 and Pearl Harbor, I changed it to:  “Papa was part of the generation for whom the American Dream was not just to buy a home, but to actually pay off the mortgage.” 

What a concept.

This week—sixty-five years after the death of those Marines who are now symbols of American bravery—tell your kids about the real American Dream.  Tell them about Iwo Jima and “the day that will live in infamy.”

Shame on you if they don’t remember.

© Copyright James Grippando 2010

James Grippando is a national best-selling author of seventeen suspenseful thrillers in as many years, including Money to Burn, which will debut on the New York Times bestseller list.  His novels are enjoyed worldwide in twenty-six languages.

The opinions expressed in this editorial are those of the author and not necessarily of Glenn Beck or Mercury Radio Arts, Inc.