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Scott McGaugh

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Edgy Interview: Scott McGaugh

Scott McGaugh is one of those clients I’m just a little in awe of. The man has written 11(!) books and is working on a 12th. Yes, I write A LOT, but speaking as one who has authored zero real books, Scott’s output of true-life page turners is amazing. I met him when he was the marketing director at the USS Midway Museum, and he struck me then as a force of nature leading the operation on this massive floating museum. As you’ll read, Scott’s no longer at the Museum, but he’s not done yet.

Which book are you proudest of and why?

Honestly, it always has been my latest book. I had never taken a writing class past high school when I wrote my first book “Midway Magic” before the USS Midway Museum  opened in 2004. The 10 books that have followed have been a remarkable journey. I’ve learned the art of targeted and efficient research (I was the only student in class who rejoiced at a term paper requirement); understand the difference between day-to-day writing and the true art of crafting a “cracking good story” across 80,000 words; when to write with my head and how to write from my heart; and to take joy in what I discover and in the opportunity to pass it along to the reader.

My current project is “Sitting Ducks,” about the unsung World War II C-47 pilots and aircrews ordered to deliver thousands of paratroopers and gliders behind enemy lines. In aircraft that had no weapons, no armor, and were piloted on a straight line only a few hundred feet above the enemy with no way to “fight back.”

Your book Honor Before Glory deals with themes of racial prejudice. How much of that still exists in America?

Repeated reports of law enforcement conduct and the thinly disguised platforms of far too many elected officials have left me heartbroken over the realization that racial prejudice is far more prevalent than I had once thought.

To me, the bigger issue is the number of Americans who vote for these “public servants.” How can so many voters feel so disenfranchised, angry, and hopeless that they support the selfish and close-minded over the selfless? Empowering them on election day, despite their barbarism? Perhaps we humans remain driven by our clannish and tribal DNA far more than we would like to think. Perhaps we are not as civilized as we would like to think. And that is disheartening, to say the least.

What draws you to writing about military topics?

In some ways, what inspires me is how those in uniform have sacrificed and accomplished so much and then have blended back into America with almost no fanfare, no recognition. What makes Japanese Americans volunteer from behind barbed wire in World War II? Or young men volunteering to fly one-way missions into enemy territory with no guns, no armor, and no second chances? And then come home to finish school, raise families, develop careers, volunteer, and pay their taxes with hardly a “thank you.” And for most, that is just fine.

Despite the tragedy of war, I am in awe of those who are asked — or ordered — to stand on the front line and expect little in return. It is the aftermath of military service that often is as inspirational as the acts of military service.

You’re affiliated with the SEAL Museum that’s coming to San Diego. Tell us what to expect.

Opening Spring 2025, it will be an authentic look at the life of SEALs and their families. Former SEALs are designing the multi-media, interactive museum. With the latest technology, it will be a one-of-a-kind immersive experience spanning training, missions, and individual heroism by SEALs who believe “The Deed is All.” Former SEALs also will serve as docents throughout the museum.

Give us your best Midway Museum story.

One day I was with a family that had brought their grandfather to visit Midway. He had served aboard Midway 60 years earlier. He was so old and frail that I worried he would not be able to make it through the day. But at one point on the flight deck, he grew silent, looked off in the distance, and then down at his grandson. “This is where I learned to be a man,” he said.

Difficult moments have been when I led mothers and fathers to the locations where their sons had given their lives to America while serving on Midway. Giving them the private time they needed where they sons had died in uniform. There also have been occasions when Midway volunteers have restored a space just so a family still grieving could visit, or where former Midway sailors could find some closure by returning to where fellow shipmates had died in an explosion years earlier.

Which American from history do you identify with most and why?

In “recent” history,  greatly admired General Colin Powell. He commanded respect and home and abroad. I’m not big on celebrities, but meeting General Powell was a real thrill, especially because he was in the first book I wrote, “Midway Magic.”

General Colin Powell: Meeting a hero

Who is your favorite artist — any medium – and why?

I attended Uppsala University in Sweden on a fellowship. I was stunned at the sculptures in public plazas, museums, train stations, atop buildings, surrounding the entrance doors to Notre Dame, and elsewhere. I wish I knew the names of those sculptors (beyond Michaelangelo) who could evoke such passion and emotion out of rock. But I can still see their work as if it was yesterday.

What was your favorite musical genre as a teenager and what do you listen to now?

My admittedly eclectic “ABC Cardio Playlist” reveals me: Alabama, Beach Boys, Creedance, Doobie Brothers, Eagles, Frankie Valli, Gordon Lightfoot, Heart, Jackson Browne, etc. The power of nostalgia is remarkable. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate songs that tell a story more than those with repetitious stanzas. What we used to call “crooners,” like today’s Michael Buble, Colbie Caillat, and even some contemporary county western artists. A song’s story often will hook me more than the voice.

Tell us about your artistic talent(s).

I’m not sure it’s artistic, but over the years I’ve adopted various hobbies that required some “artistic” skills, such as collecting antique fountain pens and rebuilding them, complete with pigs’ bladders. And learning how to tie fishing flies that perfectly imitate caddis and may flies so closely that native German Brown trout take them (and then always are released). Or flies that fool halibut, salmon, and mako sharks (released, too).

You’ve written a lot of books, but what would you recommend we read?
Any story by my favorite author Ernest Hemingway. It’s magical how his stories evoke so much emotion through his economical, straightforward style. He empowers readers to become partners in the story, not passive recipients of a narrative. That is extremely difficult. As Mark Twain once said, “I apologize for such a long letter. I didn’t have time to write a short one.”

For lovers of history, I would recommend anything by historian Barbara Tuchman who earned two Pulitzer Prizes. Her style reflects her mandate that an author “must be in love with the subject.” That glistens in every line she wrote. And who can’t be enthralled by a writer like Anton Chekhov who said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

If you were a competitive eater, which food would be your specialty?

I suppose all things avocado.

I grew up on Mt. Helix back at a time when young girls rode their horses through the avocado groves. Along with raising horses, ducks, doves and chickens, we had an acre of avocado trees. The family joke is that we three kids skipped the Gerber’s baby food jars and went straight to guacamole. I sold avocados on a Casa de Oro street corner in the 6th grade to buy a 10-speed bike: 20 cents for “jumbos” (which no one sees today) and 10 cents for “smalls,” which still were larger than in the markets today.

Youthful avocado entrepreneur

Favorite cuisine and where do you get it?

Color me old-fashioned, but I’ll take a couple of Cornish game hens turning on our patio’s rotisserie for an hour at sunset anytime. It brings back great memories of my father at his BBQ, the scent of lighter fluid in the air. Meanwhile, I can “monitor” the birds for an hour out on the patio, cocktail nearby on a late summer afternoon… as the hummingbirds and orioles complete their day’s final flights to the hanging feeders.

When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be the next Vin Scully, doing play-by-play for the LA Dodgers. Every night I listened to him on the transistor radio hidden under my pillow after turning off the lights. “…Well, hi everybody and a very pleasant good day to you, wherever you may be…tonight, Juan Marichal and the San Franciso Giants match up with the Dodgers’ Sandy Koufax, two sparkling pitchers who…” “…in a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened…” (Kirt Gibson’s World Series home run) …“swung on and belted deep to center field…back goes Brock…to the track…to the wall…s—h—e—’s gone!”

What is your favorite moment from sports?

One year, my son had a campout in the backyard with friends for his birthday, complete with tents and roasted marshmallows over a fire ring. When the marshmallow supply ran out our neighbor, Steve Hendrickson who played for the San Diego Chargers, leaned over the fence and volunteered to make a run to the grocery store for more bags. I never forgot that “sports moment” of kindness and the youthful marshmallow fights that ensued.

What’s the best professional advice you’ve received and who gave it to you?

I recall complaining once to my father when I was young that I “didn’t have enough time” for something. He uncharacteristically barked at me. “Scott, you have all the time there is. 24 hours every single day. 24 hours! Don’t tell me you don’t have enough time. Tell me how you’re going to use that time. How you’re going to be smart about all the time you’ve been given.” As a type-A personality, that advice has been invaluable.

If your house were on fire, and you could run back in and retrieve one item, what would it be?

The obvious answers are family members, the cat, and the computer. So, setting those aside… I’ve never been one for an “I Love Me” wall covered with plaques, certificates and degrees. But when I retired as Midway’s founding marketing director, I was presented with a chrome-plated piece of the thick wire that the jets’ tailhooks grab on the flight deck, in appreciation of my 25 years’ service. To be given a piece of Midway as a “thank you” means the world to me. Next to it, a plaque from the San Diego Press Club in appreciation of my honesty and integrity in working with the news media for more than 35 years. Those two gestures still make me pause and reflect. Yes, two side-by-side items, in a tie.

A radio interview on KPBS

What’s the most meaningful thing you learned in the past year?

I have learned that when you get to a certain age (range), something will happen that drives home the point that you’re on the “back nine of life.” It might be the loss of a loved one, or a neighbor, or a stomach ache that is more than that. Maybe a headache like no other, or simply less mobility or a hip that needs to be replaced. That, in turn, spawns the realization that “someday” just might be sooner than “someday.” For me, it marks a new—and inevitable—chapter of life, one that places the first five, six, or seven decades in a different light.

To be sure, this isn’t a bad thing, but simply the inevitable turning of life’s pages. And that it is best to be fully aware and even embrace it, for it is as inevitable as the next incoming tide. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m goin’ fishin’!

 

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Scott McGaugh

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