I had already hung up from my daily call to Dad from SB, when I realized it was D-Day and so called for the second time. He knew and said somberly “Those of us who were around then, in the service, never forget this day.”
My father has written a memoir of his days as a B 24 pilot over Germany and France (18 missions total), which I edited in the summer of 2010. Of course, FB friends who know my driven, smart, eccentric father, will not be surprised to know that Dad took none of my advice about colons, semi-colons and fragments. The book is not long–about 100 large print page including pictures of Dad in uniform and with/in his plane–but striking on multiple levels, not least the fact which most impressed him about his service and inspired him to write it in the first place: he was just 18 years old when he entered the Army Air Corps and flight training in December of 1942.
Dad was a 2nd Lieutenant in the 389th. He father rarely spoke about WWII when I was growing up. At 39, I am young to have a father who fought in WWII. He married my mother in 1966, when he was 41 and she was 26, just having passed the CA bar exam after graduating UCLA Law in 1965 as one of just twelve women in the class. He had been married once before. When he married Mom, with whom he celebrates his 45th wedding anniversary this August, he had two children, aged 5 and 12. I was born in 1972, when he was nearly 48. Most of my FB and real-life friends with fathers who fought in the war are in their 50s.
The wars which followed 9/11 prompted Dad to think about the war in a sustained way. I learned a lot about Dad through the book, as have his friends and relatives with whom he had never discussed his experiences. I’ve been trying to get him to publish the book and this week when I go down to LA, will explain what a Kindle is and how e-books work.
The books I’ve been hired to type from print books into Word, so that they can be released on Amazon as e-books, made me understand just how easy (and cheap) it is to publish a book on Kindle. He had gotten some ridiculous quote of 8K to self-publish and while that is not to him a frightening or even significant amount of money, the whole thing seemed like too big a hassle in spite of my offers to field all emails and do all logistical work for the book.
I had, as I said, already spoken to him about habitual and trivial matters: Mom’s or Hilma’s failure to keep him stocked with coffeecake and cookies and almond croissants. This is of course untrue, but if you read the blog last week about his “stale bread and decrepit fruit,” you will know he loves to bemoan his status as a poor, neglected old man, all the while multiple women (Mom, me, Hilma, Carolyn, Suzy) dote on him. He also said he didn’t want to do his Quickbooks today. This amuses all of us as the whole point of Quickbooks is, uh, to be quick. Yet Dad spends inordinate amounts of time on his computer on estate planning and books for the trust and household (which he took over from Mom when he retired).
With minor prodding, Dad launched into a rare reminiscence about the war. As readers of my FB page as well as Victorian Chick know, my parents and I were estranged for the better part of a decade. My father never discussed service beyond chasing women or dancing at the Officer’s Club. I heard the stories about his very handsome classmate at USC Law, Joe Wapner of People’s Court fame. Dad rarely makes a point of remarking on a man’s attractiveness so Joe must have been quite a stud. Both did well for themselves as students at USC Law class circa 1947.
I have a brother and sister I never considered half-siblings. But my brother was 11 and my sister 18 when I was born, so in some sense I was an only child. By the time I was ten, the two of them were out of the house, one in college and one married. A decade-long estrangement with an only child (given the inevitable focus and investment parents have with a single offspring) is a big deal. It’s all the more remarkable given the role I now play as Dad’s companion and caretaker 10 or so days a month. I know of not one person, even those who get on swimmingly with their parents with no past traumas, who could live with them 10 days a month.
On occasion, Dad enjoyed talking about the women the officers dated in the war, and in the book, I learned about two women “with whom [he] spent much of his free time.” One was an older woman who ran a gambling parlor in Boise, Idaho; the other was a peer named Elaine to whom he became engaged. She did attend his flight school graduation the week of D-Day in Pecos, Texas, but the relationship did not last.
Dad is a spectacular ballroom dancer. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, his parents were fairly well-known on the LA dance circuit (Ciro and the Trocadero, among others). He was poor as a small child, but by his early teens, his parents were solidly middle-class. By high school and the war, they were comfortable and during the postwar years, they became well-to-do. He lived in their beautiful home in Silverlake when at USC Law on the GI bill. In the 1930s, Barney and Bebe owned a beauty salon by the Wiltern Theater on Wilshire by Western.
Carole Lombard and other stars were regulars and my great-aunt Jean, whom people called Beans for no apparent reason, was Lombard’s manicurist. Jean of course died long before I was born, but my brother and sister remember her and she was, by all accounts, quite a character, one year older than my grandmother, the youngest of ten Jewish children in Hell’s Kitchen. They were not lower middle class: they were dirt poor.
Jean married and divorced the same man twice. Jean (at least as Grandma told it) vacillated. Whether it was husbands or beds, she couldn’t make up her mind and went back and forth between a full and a queen, much to Grandma’s dismay. Jean suffered from none of Grandma’s rigidity and inner turmoil and could be quite impulsive. One day she called Grandma, her closest sibling however much she drove my domineering and slightly insane grandmother up a wall, after a brief period of no contact: “I’m in Omaha, Bebe. I live here now.” Just like that. No job, no friends, no man, very little money.
Jean’s prowess at cards (particularly gin) was family legend. A skilled manicurist but not probably as brilliant as my far crazier grandmother, she was uniquely resourceful. Still, for a Jewish woman of that age and era to pick up and move to Omaha, Nebraska–the middle of nowhere to someone from New York in Los Angeles–is quite remarkable. The Bishops, their family name, did not lack for chutzpah.
But beyond the occasional stories about boys being boys, Dad did not talk about the war. His commanding officer was Colonel Jimmy Stewart. I have posted on FB, and will post later on Victorian Chick, the story of my father seeing Jimmy Stewart at my Westlake School for Girls graduation. I did not hear this story until a few years ago, when I reconciled with my parents. My brother tells it best, as he was sitting next to Dad and Stewart the whole time. (I still don’t know which girl was related to Stewart, as I knew all the girls in my class of 115 or so and none was named Stewart.)
Dad saw Stewart in his wheelchair and instantly recognized him. Dad was a baby in the war, the youngest in his flight training class at 18 (born 1924). Stewart was born in 1908 and a grown man at the time. Dad walked up to Stewart and simply said, “Colonel Stewart.” Fully to grasp the significance this, one has to understand my father’s attitude toward Hollywood, actors, and the entertainment industry in general, in spite of having grown up in LA proper and lived in the heart of the industry during his marriage to Mom. And I attended an industry school in which it was rare to have two lawyer parents, particularly civil servants (a judge and a prosecutor).
People sometimes take me to task for name dropping, but they simply have not a clue what that school meant to all of us, nor do they realize that the major driving forces in television from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s sent their children there. This remarkable school emphasized reading, writing, art, dance, music, and drama (they weren’t breeding engineers and doctors at St. Augustine). We called our teachers and principal (and the parents of friends) by their first names. We had no letter grades. And yet out of a class of 25 kids, half went to Ivies, Stanford, or flagship state schools like Berkeley and UCLA. Gwyneth Paltrow and Maya Rudolph, about whom I blogged this weekend in the Bridesmaids review, were classmates of mine.
Dad never socialized with the parents of my friends, with the exception of one dinner on the boat with Richard and Roseanna Levinson (Columbo, Murder She Wrote writer) and an annual Christmas/Hanukah party at Bob’s and Sabrina Schiller’s (writer of I Love Lucy, All in the Family, and Maude). Dad resisted even that but they were carpool parents (and Sabrina was a fine cook famous for her chili) so it was impolite not to go.
It’s not that Dad prefers lawyers and judges. In truth, my father is slightly misanthropic and anti-social outside of a small inner circle. A favorite phrase of his is, “There are more horses asses running around the world than horses.” He definitely prefers lawyers to doctors, whom he regards (with a few notable exceptions) as dull, devoid of commonsense and smart only about their specialities.
But Jimmy Stewart is Jimmy Stewart. As my brother and father tell the story, Stewart instantly perked up, his eyes becoming intensely alert: “No one has called me that for years!” They spoke about the war for a few minutes and then my father, not wishing to bother Stewart, then 80, walked away. Stewart instantly retreated inward, slumping back into his chair and his eyes glazing over once again. .
A few years ago, I heard the story. Dad became to talk about writing his WWII story. It’s not touchy-feely. It’s more a detailed recollection about his flight training and missions over Europe. Some people today are unaware that in flight training, one could flunk out quite easily at precise intervals, thus being returned to the infantry. This was a fate Dad and his cohort wished to avoid, as they all felt that dying on the ground slowly was far worse than blowing up and dying quickly (barring a POW experience after getting shot down).
I’ve read the book carefully and come to understand his experience far better. The end of the book includes the logs of his 18 missions, which blessedly came to an end when “his good friend Harry” dropped the bomb and saved him and his fellow pilots from having to go to B 29 flight training in the Pacific. And as he put it today, “Who the hell needed that?”
Dad began the conversation about D Day today with the general remark: “People today just don’t realize what it was like then, don’t realize what it was like for us to be involved in a war we really could have lost.” And of course “lost” has all kinds of implications for this country, our democracy and entire way of life, including the lives of the Allies. He began to speak more particularly about D Day and said that the turning point was not the invasion of France, but Stalingrad.
I was with my parents in LA over Memorial Day for five days and 30 Seconds Till Tokyo came on Turner Classics or one of their other Time Warner offerings. He and his best friend from UCLA, Elwy, both fought in the war and they both walked out of the theater when the movie opened. It was simply too painful and vivid for them to see. I take it Elwy is a lot thicker-skinned than my father, who has said of himself, since I was a little girl, that he lacks “psychic distance.” For this reason, he refuses to see movies about the Holocaust and war in general. Patton is an exception to his prior “no war movies” rule (whose corollary is the “no tzouris” rule).
So I was surprised when he watched the whole movie before I went out to dinner with new FB friends at Upper West that night. He told me that a new FB friend of mine Marion West, had some professional or training relationship with him after the war. I am still not entirely clear about their relationship, but West was born in 1929 and must ask him for clarification tomorrow.
Mom says it’s not a good idea for him to watch such painful material and I agree. It simply reminds him of a time he remembers as extraordinarily painful, of course, and gets him needlessly anxious. He told me he was in Pecos, TX, the day of D Day:
We had been expecting this, because Stalin had been
pressing the hell out of us to open a second front. He was right.
It had to be done. And we thought it was the beginning of the end
[when we started to see how it was going], but we knew a lot of men
would be killed doing it.
The German army had been very successful, though there had been
something of a stalemate at Stalingrad. It was complicated. But it
made a big difference. The tanks had to fight the Allies coming through
France and the Netherlands, a major problem for Hitler. Stalin was right.
When we heard [the news]… Well, when you’ve been in service, in and
around wars.. you know that landing on a beach by sea entails a major
loss of manpower. You lose a lot of guys. There is no way out of that.
Omaha and Normandy were terrible. All of it. Landing in North Africa,
Italy, Sicily. It was costly, but it had to be done. The South Pacific too.
Terribly expensive in terms of lives lost. That is
what that war was about [strategically). And the reason I wasn’t flying a
a B 29 in the Pacific was because of the big bomb our friend Harry dropped.
We were going to be dropping bombs over there. Who the hell needed
that? Oy Vey!
He ended roughly where he began: “There are a lot of people running around today who don’t know shit about WWII.”
Toward the end of this dense ten-minute conversation, he reflected on General Patton, whom a lot of people thought was a brilliant general but also an egotistical and slightly crazy. He cited the slapping of the soldier in the film and said that it was an enormously decisive and influential moment for the morale of the troops. Dad owns the film and watches it at least once a year. I have only seen the movie once and it was a long time ago. I must watch it one of my trips to LA in the next month (I go to NYC in July and also Cape Cod).
I hope I have done justice to his reflections. I love my father very much for all his very real flaws and eccentricities and am grateful to be able to share his story with readers of Victorian Chick and Facebook. I love you, Dad.