Dennis Copson was born in the beach city of Far Rockaway, in New York City’s borough of Queens, in St Joseph’s Hospital, in the year of (Classified). His mother passed away when he was four-years-old, and he moved to Belfast, Maine, with his grandparents and several uncles to a farm on the coast. He remained in Maine until his senior year of high school when he moved back to New York to live with his aunt and uncle on Long Island.
After finishing high school there, he attended the local Nassau Community College for one year, then transferred to West Virginia University, Morgantown, West Virginia, to study aeronautical engineering, later upgraded to aerospace engineering. He left there in December 1966—his money for college, which he earned entirely himself, had run out.
Fearing a draft call to the United States Army was a sure thing once he no longer had a college deferment, he quickly joined the United States Marine Corps in January 1967, and almost immediately found himself at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina, standing on those infamous yellow footprints on a cold, dark, early January morning.
While there he was selected to become a candidate in the Marine Aviation Cadet program, destined to become a Marine Corps pilot after commissioning. However, he soon discovered he had a slight color blind deficiency which prevented him from ever flying. Undaunted, PFC Copson attended the 44th Special Officer Candidates Class (all but four of the class were enlisted Marines) at Officer Candidate School, Quantico, Virginia, the summer of his first year as a Marine.
As destiny would have it, 2nd Lt Copson became an 0302 Infantry Officer, served his first FMF tour as a platoon commander in the 2nd Marine Division at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, with Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines. Then he was off to where every Marine wanted to go—the Republic of Vietnam to fight the communists where he served with 3rd Recon Battalion.
Copson spent various tours of duty over a little more than a twenty-year career, mostly in Special Operations (Recon), and retired as a Major in February 1987.
Upon retirement he chose to remain in Oceanside, California, and pursue a career in Real Estate. He remains a happy, retired Californian, especially when he chats on the phone to his friend, Colonel Jim Bathurst, who tells him, in a very agitated tone, that the temperature in Crystal Lake, Illinois, is 28 degrees—in October!
Dennis has always valued reading fine books, the classics and others, from an early age and has always enjoyed writing. His 4th grade teacher said to him one afternoon, after he read the class a story he had written, “Dennis, you are going to be a writer someday!” and he never forgot her prophecy. He continued to study famous writers, continued to read best sellers—if they were nonfiction—and continued to learn the craft of writing.
The best experience he says he could have ever gotten, as it turns out, was being asked to be the editor for Jim Bathurst’s book, We’ll All Die As Marines. He considered it an honor to be a part of Colonel Bathurst’s great venture, and still does so.
Dennis believes Jim’s request came from an incident at Methodist College where both he and then Captain Bathurst were attending on the Marine Corps’s “bootstrap” program where the Marine Corps sent promising career officers without college degrees back to college for a maximum of two years to get that degree so they would be promoted into the field grade ranks. Without it they were history as officers.
Methodist College initiated the Alpha Chi Honor Society Chapter, of which Jim was elected president. He had a speech scheduled soon at the chapter installation dinner, and he writes in his book, “I labored over it for weeks until one day while sitting in the Student Union, Dennis wrote my speech in an hour. I never changed a word.”
Dennis is certain that chance meeting there at Methodist College sewed up the job as editor for Jim’s book more than thirty years later. Dennis, in his satiric ways of phrasing English, jokingly states, “That fella owes me—He sure does! I bailed him out on an important speech— made him sound like JFK at the installation dinner—and then thirty years later kept him on course to publish his book. Yes-siree, Bob, ain’t ever letting him forget it neither!”
Dennis then turned and strutted away with a big grin on his Irish face. But then he suddenly stopped in his tracks, turned and came back. There was more he wanted to say, more seriously.
Dennis looked around, and then began to speak in a hushed tone of voice, “Colonel Bathurst wrote the book, he’s the author, it was his story he had to put down on paper—not always easy. He had doubts he could do it. As his editor, I simply advised him, “Put words on paper—we’ll start there.” He had been working on the project for years, but not in an organized fashion—primarily and absolutely essential in writing a book—and not with the objective of an actual book. He simply intended to chronicle his career for his immediate family. But I knew he had a story that needed to be told.
“‘Words on Paper’ was the clarion call from then on out, but in somewhat of an orderly fashion, a chapter at a time. Damned if he didn’t do just that, and through the course of the four plus years, he got good at it, too.
“I had to cajole and persuade him to get intensely into the Vietnam War. As is the case with most Marines who’ve been to combat, they don’t like much to talk about it. Jim was out to visit me in California, and I remember discussing Vietnam with him while sitting in my living room one evening—as he enjoyed his favorite drink, a double single malt Scotch— what would be required in any book about his thirty-six-year career. Part of what an editor does—guide his writer if need be. As I explained that Vietnam and his involvement in it so heroically, at the tender rank of Sergeant, made him the officer he became—even to Colonel, he seemed to grasp the reality of what he needed to do. The Vietnam War began Jim’s career in earnest.
“As I spoke, he listened with careful attention, sipping on his pricey Scotch and taking puffs on his less-than-pricey cigar. (That’s when he does his best thinking.) I could see the hurt on his face knowing he would have to, once again, relive old, painful experiences, and reopen all the old wounds that had yet to heal completely. But, I also saw that night the old wall of reluctance, built over the years to ward off any intent to address Vietnam with any substance, begin to weaken, maybe crack a bit. As he always did, he thought it over carefully, introspectively, then tackled it head on—and so extraordinarily that you can smell the cordite and hear the dreaded call “Corpsman Up!” as you read those ten Vietnam War chapters. He exceeded my expectations in that regard. Chapter 27, “Corporal Gary Wayne Olson, USMC,” is one of the best short pieces of literature about war I may have ever read—and I have read many. There was very little editing needed for that chapter; it was written from the heart. It’s right up there with Papa Hemingway, known for war writing. The ending, the last two paragraphs, are worth the price of the book itself. I only hope his family has read that chapter—”
In discussing that experience—book editing—which lasted more than four and one-half years, Copson says, “Nothing prepares you to be an editor; there are no college degrees in editing as far as I know. You just jump right into the middle of the writing as would any Marine into the fray, and you learn how to edit. Part of that process—every editor’s secret—is to learn how to piss off the author you’re working with at the time—regularly!—and then how to calm the waters after. This keeps the author on his toes making sure the editor isn’t making any significant changes to his writing; doing so sharpens an author’s focus, too.
“However, the first thing an aspiring editor absolutely must learn is that authors are very protective and sensitive folk—their writing consumes their energy, induces a me-against-the-world near-phobia at times, which is actually a good thing for it motivates the author to complete what he has begun, to prove to any doubters—and there are always those who doubt—that he has the ability and intelligence to tell his story in a compelling manner.
“Retired Colonel Jim Bathurst was no different. His fierce pride as a professional, career Marine, combined with my steadfast encouragement at times—as his editor and friend—spurred him on relentlessly. See, editors are actually good to have around. A good editor is the writer’s cheer squad, motivator, and even a guy you, a writer with angst, can have a cold brew with and vent when need be.
“Jim was the author, I was the editor, and we played out the love-hate relationship most all editors and authors have. We regularly got into some serious, I mean serious, discussions about some minor point or other of English grammar. (I recall one rather feisty bout: Jim had listed a number of people he wanted to mention as having attended his retirement ceremony. Such lists should be in alphabetical order by last names; that’s the gospel according to The Chicago Manual of Style, I believe. Jim, at first, refused to do so—his list was alphabetical by first name in most cases. We went back and forth for days—me providing references, page numbers, pertinent paragraphs—Jim asserting his prerogative as an author to ‘write his book his way!’—and he did have that right. He’d had enough of the rigid rules, regulations, and my quoting ‘the bible of publishing.’ In the end, guess who prevailed?)
“In each incidence, we soon resolved our differences, got back to the task at hand—the book—and worked our tails off for the entire time, determined to get a book published as near perfect, grammatically at least, as we could. I think we succeeded, and along with our grammatical “education” (For that’s what it was. Do you know what an em dash is? I’ve used one in this paragraph.), the book took on a life of its own and turned out quite well I’d say—and so has nearly 100 % of those who have read it. They all remark on how smoothly it reads, how it flows, how they couldn’t put it down. No author could hope for a better critique. And no editor could be more proud hearing those comments.
“Interestingly, in the Acknowledgements section of the book, Jim writes about our continual “haggling on the phone and in emails over grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc.” Jim concludes that aside by writing, (and I know damned well he was gritting his teeth when he wrote these words!) “He was most often right!” I’ll bet you dollars to donuts Stephen King doesn’t say something like that about his editor in any of the multitude of books he’s written!
“I always contend our work on that book was the equivalent of attaining a Master’s Degree in English—we both damned near wore the covers off our individual copies of The Chicago Manual of Style—and at least a half-dozen or more other reference books on writing. The best of them, besides the Chicago Manual? The Elements of Style, written so many years ago by a college English professor, and still the littlest book with the biggest emphasis on “style,” the essence of all writing, you will ever find. Vigorous writing is concise. ~William Strunk.”
Dennis concludes: “Being selected as the editor of the Colonel’s book was one of the highlights of my life in so many ways. It was such a challenging, interesting, dammed hard task, but always a rewarding day when we both learned something new about grammar, or style, or even spelling. My fellow Marine, best friend, and now a recognized author in his own right, even shared his Title Page with me. I’m there just below the author’s name: Edited by Major Dennis Copson, USMC, (Retired)—that’s another thing you will never see in Mr. King’s books, either!”
Dennis Copson has adopted two aphorisms as an upshot of his book-editing adventure:
“I am not Mr. Nice Guy—I’m an editor, dammit!”
“I don’t write ‘em, I only edit ‘em!”