The Long Way Around To Pay It Forward by Betsey Wilcox, Lt Col, USAF, NC (Ret)

The Long Way Around To Pay It Forward

How a war connected me to Virginia Heinlein and then to other veterans through Heinlein For Heroes.

I am a retired Air Force officer who has been reading Robert A. Heinlein books since I was 11 years old. It is safe to say that his writings were a major influence in my life. “Pravda Mean Truth”, in Expanded Universe, inspired me to travel to the Soviet Union in 1983 to see for myself. I was a civilian at the time, spoke a little Russian (better reader) and still had to get permission from the US Government because my father and brother both had Top Secret clearances. My visit confirmed for me that little had changed in the twenty years since the Heinleins had been there. I didn’t realized the feeling of being watched constantly, was so pervasive, until we were leaving. When the Finnair plane went wheels up, one could feel/hear then entire plane full of people heave huge sighs of relief.

In 1986 I joined the United States Air Force as a Nurse Corps Officer and attended my first science fiction convention in Oklahoma City (I am a late bloomer). I met many interesting people and made a friend for life at that convention. I realized that I might have a chance to meet my all-time favorite writer, Robert A. Heinlein by going to conventions and attend local as well as WorldCons for the next 3 years. Mr. Heinlein’s death in 1988 crushed that dream. Like many of you at the time, I sat down to put my feelings on paper with the intent of sending it to his widow, Virginia Heinlein. After pouring my heart out on paper, I didn’t need to send the letter and I put it away. As Christmas approached, I started thinking about Mrs. Heinlein. I sent a Christmas card and a letter telling her she inspired me as much as her husband had. I also related my adventures in the USSR 23 years after her visit. I wanted her to know that someone was thinking of her during the holidays. She sent me a very nice letter in return and I filed it away.

Fast-forward to August 1990. My job found me rapidly deployed to Saudi Arabia (and missing WorldCon). We started with a bare base, built our Air Transportable Hospital in 3 days, and saw 3500 patients in 6 weeks. Over many months, we received care packages from complete strangers, many of which contained books. One box alone had about 300 books, hog heaven for a reader cut off from the bookstore prior to the advent of Kindle.   I found a copy of Expanded Universe and happily read it again. There were other Heinlein books as well, and I kept some of them. In November 1990, I wrote to Mrs. Heinlein again and gave her a detailed description of our lives in the desert. She wrote back in December, and I wrote to her again in January 1991. She replied again and the letter included a discussion about her recent move to Florida and said “…a memo came around asking for contributions of various items for the men and women who were stationed in Saudi Arabia, so, while unpacking, I sent off something close to 500 paperback books—all science fiction, because that was one of the items requested in the memo.” She hoped that some of them came my way. I choose to think they did!

In 2011, I retired from the Air Force after 25 years of service. In 2012, I got the complete Virginia Edition of the complete works of Robert A. Heinlein. The question became what to do with all of my other copies of his work. I am absolutely morally opposed to throwing a book away so that was out. Taking them to a half price bookstore had not worked well for me in the past so they continued to sit on my shelf taking up valuable real estate. In late 2013 I heard about Heinlein For Heroes (H4H) and decided to send all of the paperback copies of his works on my shelves. Well, not all. For sentimental reasons I kept the very first Heinlein I bought, Farmer in the Sky from my 7th grade summer reading Scholastic Book Club program The Heinlein paperbacks I choose to believe came from Virginia Heinlein were in the mix of books that I donated.   I believe Mrs. Heinlein’s books helped me pay it forward to the next generation of warriors and I think she would be happy to know that her generosity in the 1990’s continues to benefit our military heroes to this day.


Betsey Wilcox, Lt Col, USAF, NC (Ret)



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