Book research, curiosity led man to Egypt

David Johnson of Moorhead has always been fascinated by young people who rose to power at an early age, remained in power and accomplished great things. He has spent his retirement researching and writing about this subject and made it a central focus of his life. In fact, he even wrote three books on the subject, one published and two waiting to be published. These books are historical fiction, meaning the story is made up, but set in the past. He sometimes borrows historical facts of the time period in which it is set. “Somehow, it is important to try to understand (the characters) because it leads to better understanding ourselves,” he said. “This, of course, is the objective of historical fiction.”

Terrie Wold and her brother David Johnson took a ride on camels in Egypt. David wanted to travel to Egypt to help give him a better feel for the country as he wrote historical fiction books based in Egypt. Despite health challenges, David continues to explore the world. Terrie, a physician’s assistant who serves as his guardian, joined him on the trip to Egypt. Contributed photo

His published book in 2013, Ying Zheng: The First Emperor tells the story of a boy of 13 who became king in third century BC, China. At that time, China was divided into many states called the “Warring States Period.” Ying Zheng recruited men to fight for him by the age of 20 and defeated all the other states by the age of 38. According to the book descriptions, we remember him by his huge unopened tomb, the terracotta army that he buried, the largest water projects of all time, and major sections of the great wall of China that he built. His vision created the foundation of what we call China, and his influence remains a part of China today. Another book he wrote and researched was about Timur from Persia, a want-to-be relative of Genghis Khan, who became almost as ruthless.  Before these books though, David was fascinated by an Egyptian story of another young man who rose to power at an early age, Ahmose I. This story would take him on a quest to learn about ancient Egypt, strange customs like brother and sister marrying, and eventually to Egypt.

David was born in Sioux Falls, S.D., in 1945. His father was an auto mechanic and his mother a grade school teacher. He had two sisters.

“My parents inspired in me a love of learning. If I had a question about something as a child, they told me to go look it up.” His school years he remembered as “not learning much,” but he was an avid reader.  He loved reading forbidden books like Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, which were frowned upon because of Communist reference, especially back in the late 50’s.   David read these books because he wanted to understand. He said, “people jump to conclusions because they don’t take the time.”

David realized that growing up in Sioux Falls was the best place. He graduated from high school in 1963 at the height of the Vietnam War.

He remembered when his draft number came up.  He was 18 years old, and he and a buddy were riding in his car and listening to the radio when they heard the news. So instead of being drafted, he decided to enlist in the Navy, because he thought if got stuck in a submarine, there would be nobody shooting at him. He was tested and recruited to be an Aviation Fire Control Technician, where he worked on the systems that dropped the bombs.  He was on an aircraft carrier off the shore of the Gulf of Tonkin, right off the shore of Hanoi. According to Google, “The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorized President Lyndon Johnson to ‘take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression’ by the communist government of North Vietnam.” Unfortunately because of this, David was sent ashore and was shot at, and did shoot and kill others. David said he was also exposed to agent orange, which later caused him to get diabetes. He survived Vietnam and was discharged after four years. David recalled, “War is an unfortunate part of the human condition. The way you get by stuff like Vietnam is to say to yourself, it’s history. It doesn’t mean anything to what I am today. It helped create who I am. But who I am is now different.”

David interpreting hieroglyphics in Egypt. Contributed photo

Upon returning home from war, David enrolled in college in Brookings, S.D., majoring in forestry. He later decided against this and attended school at Northern State University in Aberdeen for business administration and political science. There he was inspired by two of his professors who got him interested in critical thinking. His main objective after college was getting a job, and with his background, he became an auditor account controller in charge of finance. In his professional life he did many things including: an auditor for Cenex and a quality manager for CCL Labels, where he specialized in identifying counterfeit pharmacy labels. He also opened an art gallery and taught art appreciation. He was married three times and had three children from the first marriage. When reflecting on his marriages, he said, “marriage was just a skill I wasn’t good at.” David would be the first to admit that parts of his adult life were not pretty, like bouts with alcoholism and unhealthy living.

David started getting interested in historical fiction after he retired at age 65 while living in Parker, SD. But, his unhealthy lifestyle and alcoholism followed him into retirement, which was exasperated by diabetes.

At age 69, he suffered from a diabetic episode which really was considered a diabetic emergency caused by not eating properly, drinking too much and not taking insulin properly. The warning signs of hypoglycemia include confusion, dizziness, and nausea, feeling hungry, shaky, nervous, irritable or anxious, sweating, chills, and pale, clammy skin, rapid heartbeat, weakness and tiredness,  tingling in the mouth area, headaches, seizures, coma or loss of consciousness. He was found lying in his apartment after four days and eventually admitted to the hospital. He was told he would never walk again. David defied this and was soon out of a wheelchair into a walker and now walks with assistance. His sister, Terrie Wold, became his guardian and he moved to Moorhead four years ago to be closer to her. Despite his health issues, David’s desire to write and research remained.

After his near death experience, David decided it was time to get serious about working on his bucket list. On the list was completing his book about Ahmose I, the Egyptian Pharaoh and founder of the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt.

His book was set in 1550 B.C., and Egypt was dying as a nation and a culture.

“It was beset with weak central government, civil war, and invasions from both the north and south,” he said. “Amid all this chaos, a 10-year-old boy was named King in Upper (southern) Egypt. His name was Ahmose. This man managed to defeat all enemies and unite the country. His son, Amenhotep, strengthened the nation and this man’s successor, Thutmose, expanded it. My novel explored the lives of these three men.”

But David found that he wasn’t getting the information he wanted from research.

“I had the outline, but not the gut,’’ he recalled. He decided that to really be able to understand about Ahmose’s life, he would have to go to Egypt. In 2017, David began planning his trip to Egypt. His sister Terrie, who was a physician assistant, agreed to go with him, which was needed because of his health issues. Egypt, a country linking the Middle East with Northeast Africa, has had political uproar for years. In fact, right before David and Terrie got there, they had the Luxor massacre. According to Wikipedia, this was a bomb at Deir el-Bahari, an archaeological site and major tourist attraction across the Nile from Luxor, Egypt which killed 62 people, mostly tourists, on Nov. 17, 1997. The seven-day trip was planned and Terrie and David found that they were the only ones on the tour. David gave the tour guide the list of the places he wanted to see and they discussed the story he was writing. The tour guides were surprised by the depth of his knowledge. He even provided them with more details and stories while he was there about some of the sites that they visited. 

“It was so weird, not another place like this on earth,” he said.

His story began to come alive when he was there and experienced the sites, sounds and smells of ancient Egypt. He was bewildered about the tradition that Ahmose had married his sisters. According to Wikipedia, “The brother and sister, according to the tradition of Egyptian queens, married.  Ahmose I followed in the tradition of his father and married several of his sisters, making Ahmose-Nefertari his chief wife.”

The reason for this became more clear to David when he went to Egypt.

“If you accept that legitimate succession depends on bloodline, then such a marriage is necessary. A man can pass on the seed, but the child still grows in the mother. The mother supplies everything that becomes the child, including the child’s  blood,” he said. “There can be no royal child unless both the father and mother are royal, that is, from the same family.”

In Egypt, the story he had researched and written became real.

David Johnson at home in Moorhead. Photo by Deb Trygstad

“I saw the mummy with the ax head wound in his head that I researched and written about,” he said. “I knew about all of this history but when you actually see the stuff, it leaves an impact. The more you study this culture and read its literature, the more you realize that these people were not so alien or primitive after all.     They were intelligent and sophisticated. It is much the same when you talk to modern Egyptians. They may not be able to read the temple inscriptions, but they understand the wisdom that these ancients passed down. I talked to many people who were not scholars while I was in Egypt and found enlightenment.”

     One example, he mentioned… Why did the ancients have so many gods?

     “Look around you. Everything you see is a multiple of other things like it. This is true for every rock, tree, animal, or person. There is nothing in this world that it unique onto itself.”

What is next on David’s bucket list?

     “I would like to delve more into art history and write about the Renaissance times,” he said. “Then travel to Paris in April 2020 and see some of the paintings.”

In looking back at his life, David remarked “It is history. This is the heart of my expression.” To explain this, he quoted Henry David Thoreau, “You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land, there is no other life but this.”