February 14, 2014

Old soldiers tell excellent stories

Filed under: Commentary — Tags: , , , — Bob Patterson @ 1:26 pm

When two members of the United States Marine Corps, getting away temporarily from the rigors of combat on Guadalcanal, were put in a jail cell in New Zealand and told to sleep it off, they couldn’t shut off the adrenaline flow and so they spent most of the night telling each other their life stories.  Norm W. was impressed by the other guy’s determination to tell his story in a book that would be written “after the war.”  In the mid-Fifties, Norm noticed the publicity about the release of the film “Battle Cry” and headed straight for the nearest theater showing it.  He just had to see the new flick because the back story of the life of the author Leon Uris was the same information he had been told in New Zealand .

Norm told many wonderful stories about his experiences.  Once when a group of Marines wanted to have a sing-a-long in a New Zealand tavern, they were temporarily stymied by the fact that the place didn’t have a piano.  Luckily a near by gin-mill did have one so the Marines “borrowed” it and proceeded to have an impromptu songfest.  Norm’s stepson recorded one of his tales and just like in the movie “Big Fish” only regretted the fact that he hadn’t recorded more after Norm passed away.

Alan Lomax went around the USA recording and transcribing folk songs and earned a place in the Pop Culture Hall of Fame.  Why then doesn’t an enterprising film school student tape the every shrinking supply of World War II vets telling their stories?  There are plenty of excellent stories lurking inside some old infantry men who are very anxious to pass their stories on to future generations.  We don’t mean interviews such as featured in the Ken Burns films that discuss the overall strategy for WWII.  Where are the interviews that record for posterity the day to day events that get told at various reunions?

For example, once, many moons ago, the World’s Laziest Journalist was in the stacks at the Santa Monica Public Library trying to do some fact checking on WWII.  An old guy asked us why we were looking at the books in one particular section.

The 109 Regiment from the 28th Division, from our hometown of Scranton Pa., had been involved in the Battle of the Bulge.  The old guy pointed to the group of books on that particular topic and told us about the time he had seen a quiet empty café and (despite the fact it was against regulations) he parked his tractor trailer and had a quiet, memorable lunch.  He spoke enough French to get his food and pay the bill.  The village seemed to be a ghost town.  The next day he learned that Bastogne, where he had stopped for the meal, was in German held Territory.

One neighbor in Scranton told a story about talking to a German POW and discovering that the Kraut knew most of the popular bars in the North Eastern Pennsylvania town.

When we were young, we were strongly cautioned to realize that the slapstick comedy of the Three Stooges was not to be imitated or taken seriously because it was unrealistic.  We were told that an uncle in the Seabees had been attacked (on Guadalcanal) by an enemy soldier and had defended himself by killing the guy by hitting him on the head with an empty bucket.

Last year, on December 7, we heard news reports that the number of people who had survived the attack on Pearl Harbor had fallen to such a low number that the annual reunions in Hawaii were too impractical to continue.

While living in the Hollywood area, if we had collected a nickel for every time we heard the offer “we’ll write the script together and split the payoff,” we’d have enough today to buy a very fancy coffee latte.

We had a co-worker in Santa Monica who had a neighbor who had been one of the “Red tailed devils” (i.e. a Tuskegee airman).

Didn’t Tonight show host Jack Paar tell a story about the captain of a U. S. Navy ship that hid his girlfriend as a stowaway in the captain’s quarters for an entire deployment?

In Paar’s era, late night talk shows featured some fine examples of storytelling, but when the bean counters discovered that talk shows could be used to hawk Hollywood’s latest films, the talk show format became a series of disguised sales pitches which we call “promobabble.”

A once sentence synopsis of a plot for a potential movie is called a “pitch” in tinseltown parlance and Bo Zenga, who was the King of the Pitch became a movie director, so he would be a great potential audience for one particular WWII nurse’s story.  She was captured, became a P. O. W., escaped and made the journey to a neutral country and spent the rest of the war in that location.  It was “the Great Escape” with a woman protagonist.  Yeah, we know where Zenga’s office is.  Should we send him a query letter asking if we can “pitch” the old pitcher or what?  Should we contact a member of the Writer’s Guild and offer him half the proceeds if he can get his agent to make the pitch successfully?

Has the life story of combat photographer Dickey Chapelle ever been told in a movie?

Once, on a flight from Los Angeles to NYC, we expected the woman next to us to display snapshots of he world’s greatest grandchildren for our approval.  When we questioned her she said that she had spent WWII working in Washington D. C. as a secretary for a member of the government bureaucracy named William Donovan.  Wait just a darn minute!  We had heard Wild Bill Donovan, the founder of the group that became the CIA, called many things, but we had never heard him be labeled as a member of the government bureaucracy.  We often wonder if she ever got around to writing her autobiography.

Obviously not all tales from WWII have commercial movie potential but with all the film schools turning out all the next generation’s award winning documentary film makers, why aren’t those youngsters doing the Leadbellly act and interviewing on camera the continuously diminishing supply of WWII veterans?

In the past, we did some online fact checking and found that in the San Francisco Bay Area there are some storytelling competitions.  When we went back to recheck that fact for this column we learned that there is an annual storytelling event which will be held

Recently Coach John Madden told KCBS listeners that golf tournaments that get rained out are the best because the golfers get to hand out in the clubhouse and tell their best stories (again).

There are a bunch of Irish bars in the San Francisco Bay Area and one, the Starry Plough,  offers Irish dancing and songs, but there doesn’t seem to be one fooking bar where an open mike is available for a real storytelling opportunity and/or competition.  WTF?  What would happen if an Irish bar had a storytelling competition?  Jesus, Mary, and Joseph it would be “Katie bar the door” time, eh?

[Photo editor’s note:  The Berkeley artist, known as “Hardley Notee Sayahblay” on Facebook, is renowned for his digital images, but only a few get to know his ability as a raconteur who voices an Infantryman’s complaints about the Korean War.  We tried to select an image of him that implies an underlying back story.]

Robert McKee’s book, “Story,” is an excellent look at the art of storytelling from the scriptwriter’s point of view.  In it, McKee wrote (page 196):  “In essence we have told one another the same tale, one way or anther, since the dawn of humanity, and that story could be successfully called The Quest.  All stories take the form of a Quest.”

We asked the disk jockey  to play songs that tell a story and he selected the Bill Parsons (AKA Bobby Bare) song “All American Boy,” Tom T. Hall’s “Forty Dollars,” and Red Sovine’s “Phantom 309.”  Our DJ will include a memorial spin of Shirley Temple’s “Good Ship Lollypop.”  We have to go see “Monument Men.”  Have a “they all lived happily ever after” type week.

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