One of the key action sequences in Johnny Graphic and the Etheric Bomb takes place on a small island in the Greater Ocean (Pacific), near the country of Rotonesia (Indonesia). This remote island is called Old Number One and it is an abandoned cassava plantation that had been owned by Dame Honoria’s father. (Cassava is the root crop used to make tapioca pudding.) Needless to say, Johnny and his friends have an exciting and dangerous sojourn on Old Number One.
Someone who read the book recently asked me how I thought up Old Number One. All of the locations in the book are based, in part, on places that I’ve visited. Zenith, for example, is modeled on the town I grew up in–Duluth, Minnesota. Old Number One is based on a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean. But what’s my connection to it?
I used to be a travel writer. And perhaps the biggest trip I took was out to Micronesia, in the western Pacific. I visited the island nations of Yap and Palau. And while I was there I had the chance to spend a weekend on the little island of Peleliu, a part of Palau. This was a particularly meaningful visit for me.
During World War II there had been a terrible battle on Peleliu between Japanese forces and the U. S. Marines and Army. My dad was an Army medic there during the battle and he would never talk to me about it. I think it must have been a horrible experience that he wanted to forget. But I was always curious about the place.
Peleliu is a hot, humid, tropical backwater full of jungle undergrowth. There is a little village and a small population living around the island. What struck me most about Peleliu, though, was its geology. The island is made of ancient sea-bottom formations that heaved up out of the ocean and created Peleliu and its ridges of coral. These “coral mountains” form the spine of the island. The caves in them provided tenacious defensive positions for the Japanese during the battle. Here’s my photo of one of the coral hills, called “Radio Hill,” as it looks now.
Here’s an old Army photo from my dad’s scrapbook of one of the coral hills after the 1944 battle, with all its vegetation stripped away by artillery bombardment. Can you see the man in front and the two Sherman tanks on the top of the hill?
I wanted these coral hills to play a part in Johnny Graphic, and they are central to Johnny’s trek across Old Number One. I wanted to convey how sharp and nasty the coral rock was. You didn’t want to fall on it, or it could cut you up.
I also wanted the heat and the bugs to play roles. When I was on Peleliu, my legs got bitten all over by black flies. The bites became infected–dozens of red dots all over my legs. I had to take two courses of antibiotics. Here’s how I put Johnny through something similar:
“Leaves and branches and thorns grabbed at the three kids at every step. Johnny took the lead and had to slash the undergrowth with a machete. Clouds of insects swarmed around, pestering and biting.”
It all comes down to the fact that we draw on the encyclopedias that are our brains when we write any kind of fiction or poetry–taking what we need from an experience here and a memory there. My visit to Peleliu was so vivid, so memorable, that I’ve always wanted to create a fictional island just like it. And the result is Old Number One.