My dad, the drone pilot, is losing to me again at Missile Command. He’s only on level three and is already desperate with the joystick, jerking it around and repeatedly stabbing the fire button like it’s Morse Code for I’ll be dead in three seconds. “The smart bombs are too smart!” he says, and winks. But the game we’re playing is thirty years old, and, trust me, the bombs aren’t that smart. And anyway, why is he winking? Maybe if he kept both eyes open, he’d successfully defend more cities.

Mom’s in bed. The baby, Avery, is in her crib being quiet for now. I should probably be in bed, too, since I have basketball in the morning, but while I was brushing my teeth, Dad found me in the bathroom and asked how my thumbs were feeling.

“They’re feeling restless,” I said.

“Then let’s have at it,” he said.

That’s our routine. So I spat into the sink and followed him downstairs.

“Hands down, this is the best part of my day,” he said as the cartridge loaded up and he went to work on the stack of Keebler cookies on the coffee table in front of us.

Michael Kardos

Michael Kardos is the author of the novels Before He Finds Her and The Three-Day Affair, the story collection One Last Good Time, and the textbook The Art and Craft of Fiction: A Writer’s Guide. His short stories have appeared in The Southern Review, Crazyhorse, Harvard Review, and elsewhere, and have won a 2015 Pushcart Prize. Originally from the Jersey Shore, he currently lives in Starkville, Mississippi, where he co-directs the creative writing program at Mississippi State University.

Patrick Ryan on “America, Etc.”

Every once in a while a story comes through our office that is so good and so relevant to the world we’re living in that I find myself sitting forward in my chair as I read, and by the time I get to the last page, I’m already eager—even antsy—to publish it. That’s how it was for me when I first read Michael Kardos’ “America, Etc.”

Jeremy is your average teen. He’s got two parents and a little sister. He plays basketball; he plays video games. In the evenings, after dinner, his dad often joins him at their vintage Atari console for a few rounds of Missile Command. And by day, his dad is a drone pilot.

Since we all started learning what drones are and how they’re used by the military, I’ve imagined what it would be like to sit in the “pilot’s seat” and steer a craft from halfway around the world. Even more bewildering is imagining what it must be like to cause destruction from such a great (and safe) distance. “America, Etc.” takes this line of imagining a step further: What would it be like if one of your parents was the person flying the drone, targeting distant cities and towns, dropping bombs at the flip of a switch, and then coming home each night to the safety and comfort of your home?

One Teen Story is thrilled to be ushering “America, Etc.” into the world. It’s a story that will draw you in, make you wonder, and make you care. And it might change the way you think about drone warfare.

Q&A by Patrick Ryan

PR: “America, Etc.” is about a teen whose father is a drone pilot. Have you ever known a drone pilot? Or did the story spring from your imagining what it would be like to know one?
MK: I don’t know anyone who files drones (or unmanned aerial vehicles, or remotely piloted aircrafts—the term itself is quite loaded and contested), though in writing this story I did a fair amount of reading up. Actually, the reading came first, and one question that kept coming up was whether the military personnel who fly these planes ought to be thought of as “real” pilots, or if instead they are something else (“operators”?). There are those who feel that you’re only a pilot if you’re in the air yourself and actually facing some degree of personal risk. Others say, nonsense. It seemed like a really interesting question to me.
PR: As I was reading this story, I kept thinking about how different it would be if Jeremy and his father were playing a more contemporary video game, rather than one so “archaic.” Can you tell us a little about your decision to make the video game they play an Atari (as opposed to something much more graphic)?
MK: I don’t always write stories in order, but this time around, the first thing I wrote was indeed the opening sentence. (“My dad, the drone pilot, is losing to me again at Missile Command.”) The irony felt right, how a guy whose job involves operating the most sophisticated and up-to-date flying technology would also be someone who can’t operate an 80s-era joystick. That seemed to evoke a sense of the dad and his limitations and anachronisms. Once I made that decision (which wasn’t really a decision at all, as much as a gut feeling), the other elements of the old Atari game—like the lousy graphics, and how you can never actually “win”—sort of fell into place, thematically speaking.
PR: One of the most interesting parts of the story, for me, concerns Jeremy and his friend Ted and how different their home situations are. Can you tell us a little about their dynamic?
MK: They are friends because they once lived on the base together, but now Ted is growing up faster than Jeremy is and they’re drifting apart. Ted is physically more mature, and he’s probably got more freedom while his father is overseas, and he’s privy to all sorts of things that Jeremy isn’t yet. I think Ted makes Jeremy look at the world around him a little more critically, and makes him realize just how squashed he is between being a kid and being an adult.
PR: In general, do you think Jeremy’s dad is proud of his work (being a drone pilot)? Not counting the incident the story centers around, do you think he feels good about what he does for a living?
MK: I suspect that Jeremy’s father is being pulled in several directions because of the odd contradictions in his life and work. He’s a trained historian—his interest is in things past—yet suddenly he’s on the cutting edge of waging war. He’s piloting an airplane in a war going on halfway around the world, yet he comes home every night for dinner. He’s trying to provide for his family, yet he’s losing his family, because he can’t tell them anything about what he does all day long. He’s had to give up part of his identity, and in doing so, he’s shaping a new one. I think part of the father’s dilemma is that has no idea whether to be proud or not, and no way to articulate his anxieties and ambivalences.
PR: What are you working on now?
MK: My novel Before He Finds Her is (finally) finished and due out in February. I’m not allowed to make any more changes to it! So I’m at the very early stages of two projects. One is an adult novel about a magician who becomes obsessed with a professional card cheat. The other is a young adult novel about a high school student who takes refuge from a host of problems (crumbling family; struggling rock band) in the theme-park haunted house where he works.
PR: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
MK: I’m very lucky—over the years, I’ve received lots of good advice from teachers and writer friends. I think the best advice might come from my wife, the poet Catherine Pierce, who from time to time reminds me to work on the thing that I most want to write, not the thing I feel I should write. Otherwise, the passion won’t be there and the writing will suffer. (I’ve also been known to boomerang that same advice back to her.)