About Frank Babb
I grew up during the Great Depression on a 140-acre farm about seven miles northwest of Maryville, a county seat town of 5,000 inhabitants in northwest Missouri. We lived with my paternal grandfather and my father’s schoolteacher sisters spent the summer months with us. On Sunday afternoons Father and his sisters, and any other family members who happened to be present, entertained Grandfather, Mother, and me with music from the piano, harmonium or pump organ, cornet, mandolin, and violin. Their repertoire was mostly from musicals, popular music, hymns, and occasionally arias sung by one aunt to rouse the jealousy of her sister. I was blessed with books and magazines and a grandfather, mother, and aunts to read them to me. Whether inherited or a habit, I’ve continued to read fiction and nonfiction on a daily basis even when I’d spent the day reading law books or legal documents as a lawyer. During World War II, our Philco radio, books, magazines, and newsreels at the Saturday night movies provided our information and entertainment.
After eight years at a one-room country school, I went to Horace Mann high School, the laboratory school at Northwest Missouri Teachers College in Maryville. Unless you lived in Maryville you had to pay tuition to go to its high school, but Horace Mann was free because its students were there to be practiced on by the budding teachers at the College. As a result my high school was populated by country kids and Maryville High by town kids, providing the basis for keen competition between the two groups.
I’d not paid much attention to “girls” in grade school. They were not interested in playing ball or other sports, and, except for one girl who ran faster than any of us, couldn’t keep up with the boys in running games. High school was different. I noticed them from the first day and their running ability wasn’t an issue. My first year was devoted to learning how to be a teenager, a task I took on eagerly with some success. It was time well spent because I continue to enjoy female company to this day. The time I spent as a child with my mother and aunts gave me a positive start for my high school social project.
After high school I continued on at Northwest Missouri State College, the word “Teachers” having been dropped from the name. Four years later I graduated, married a college sweetheart, and headed for Columbia University in New York for a Masters and Ph.D. But fate intervened, in this case my draft board, and before classes began in September 1954 Uncle Sam needed my services to finish the Korean War. Although most of my training class went to Korea, I ended up in Panama as a special agent in the Army Counterintelligence Corps (CIC), thanks to a total immersion, one-year Spanish class in high school that my girl friend prevailed on me to take instead of French.
My novel Hot Times in Panamá: What would you do to serve your country? is a fictionalized story suggested by some of the things I saw or participated in during my tour of duty. The Cold War was in full swing. We fought “Commies” wherever we found them based on the information provided by the followers of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the whims of the Panamanian Policia Secreta, our close friends in the endeavor. For most of us Americans these were trying times. After the exhilaration of winning World War II, we were now threatened by the Soviet Union, our former ally in the battle against Germany, Italy, and Japan. The Communists seemed to be pushing us back everywhere: Eastern Europe, the Berlin blockade, the fall of China, and retreat from Vietnam by the French. We felt betrayed by Americans who had spied for the Soviets during World War II and helped them make their nuclear bomb. The war in Korea was ending as a stalemate. Many Americans felt threatened and uneasy. This is how a farm kid from Northwest Missouri with a degree in English and French and one-year of Spanish ended up running agents and dealing with Commie sympathizers in a country he’d previously known only by its canal.
On separation from the Army I decided to go to Harvard Law School instead of returning to Columbia. As a part-time job I was a Teaching Fellow in the English Department of Harvard College for a couple of years, teaching grammar and writing to foreign students. My education started with living in New York City for several months, continued in Panama, and finished in Cambridge, MA. I was then ready for what came next.
In June 1959 I joined the law firm of McDermott, Will & Emery in Chicago where I practiced for the next thirty-two years, including an 8-year stint in Washington, D. C. to start an office for the firm. Specializing in corporate finance and governance, I worked on financings and mergers and acquisitions for banks, investment banks and public and private companies and served on the boards of several public companies. My service in the CIC provided valuable experience in dealing with people, situations and conflicts frequently encountered in the practice of law. I better understand who’s lying, the real (not stated) objectives of people, how much or how little you can trust people, dealing with people who are not interested in the truth, and how it feels to have an Uzi two feet from your belly button with a thug’s finger on the trigger.
In addition to reading as an avocation, physical exertion on a regular basis is a necessary part of my life. Like a lot of other things I’ve learned, it started on the farm with twelve and fourteen hour days milking cows, feeding hogs and steers, and then getting on a tractor to plow, plant, cultivate, and harvest the corn and grains we raised. In high school I played baseball and basketball. In law school and until recent years I played a lot of squash and tennis. On vacation in Colorado soon after moving to Chicago I discovered mountaineering, rock climbing, and skiing in the order of my love for these sports. They’ve taken me to the mountains in Colorado, Wyoming, and New England; the Andes in Bolivia and Ecuador; the Canadian Rockies and the sky slopes near Montreal; the Alps in Switzerland and France; and the Himalayas in Bhutan. Soon after I retired from my law firm, my wife, Ann, and friend, John Roberson, along with our friend and guide, the late Charlie Fowler, spent five glorious weeks in Bhutan hiking 100 miles and making five first ascents (at least there was no record of these mountains having been climbed by westerners). Climbing is the most exhilarating sport for me. Besides the views from the tops of peaks in various parts of the world, I’ve taken a 75-foot free fall off a face in the Colorado Rockies (four fractured lateral processes) and a night in a snowstorm on the summit of Illimani a 21,122-foot mountain in the Cordillera Real range of the Andes in Bolivia. When the snow stopped at four o’clock in the morning and the lights from the city of La Paz became visible, I knew the -40 degree temperature and snow and high winds we’d experience were worth it. To this day I can close my eyes and visualize that picture of La Paz and feel the satisfaction of being there.
Someone asked me when did I start writing fiction. As a child when I rewrote by hand the stories about Greek gods and fairy tales because I wasn’t satisfied with what they said? The reports I wrote about Communist and other nefarious activities in Panama, the facts sometimes needing a little coloring to get attention at Headquarters, which noted my reports as a standard for “good writing”? The prospectuses for public offerings I wrote as lawyer may have approached fiction, although none ever landed in court? I’ll take responsibility for “fiction” with my book Hot Times in Panamá.
But fiction writing isn’t easy. The author thinks he’s told the story accurately. Then a character telepathically accuses him that he’s never understood her and demands he write another story to get the “facts” right. What does a fictional character know about “fact”? How does she know what’s “right”? Writing’s sometimes living with the enemy. But I love it!