It’s a Book! It’s a Miniseries! It’s…History!

The following was originally written for Open Books’ Read All About It blog, August 23, 2011. Re-posted with permission. Support literacy in Chicago by supporting Open Books.

Band of Brothers ~ The Book

Band of Brothers ~ The Book

One of our getting-to-know you questions we sometimes answer around the room during Open Books writing field trips is “What’s your favorite kind of book.” Depending on the age of the students, we’ll get an array of genres, titles, series, authors, etc.  “Scary books” and “funny books” are popular amongst the younger ones.  Harry Potter, Junie B. Jones, fiction, non-fiction, and adventure books are all cited.  When I’m feeling a little sassy and want to get a reaction, I’ll stray from the more conventional “literary fiction” and answer “World War II Memoirs.” Yeah, that’s my field trip trump card.

I blame Stephen Ambrose.  In 2006, I finally got around to watching the HBO-Spielberg-Hanks-produced 2001 Miniseries Band of Brothers based on Ambrose’s book, when I borrowed the DVDs from my brother.  A long time history fan, particularly that era that’s still (barely) within our grasp, I hunkered down in my and my partner Ernie’s house in South Bend, Indiana and followed the story of Easy Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne. And sobbed. And became a little obsessed. And found fan sites and official sites.  Looked up all the actors on IMDd, found photos of the real guys, found out who was still alive and who wasn’t. Wanted more, more, MORE. I bought my own DVDs in 2009, and have re-watched it in its entirety every summer since. And I’m still a sobbing mess at the end of each episode.

The Real Band of Brothers

The Real Band of Brothers

Of course, it started the book. Actually, it started with Hitler and that whole reality of WWII thing. But it started with the book.  Which I finally read (my brother’s copy again) last year (and since picked up my own at the Open Books store) and retraced the story, getting a different perspective and more behind the scenes.  I’ve also read (SPOILER ALERT) books by Easy Company vets, Easy Company Soldier by Donald Malarkey and Parachute Infantry by David Kenyon Webster (published posthumously and a major source for Ambrose and the screenwriters). Again, different and deeper perspectives.

When Hanks and company produced last year’s follow up series, The Pacific (also very good, though I don’t yet have the DVDs), I rushed out to pick up its source books, E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed and Robert Leckie’s Helmet for My Pillow (with an eye out for their other books, both fairly prolific writers).  I recently picked up a book by Gene Garrison, a veteran of Patton’s Third Army, entitled Unless Victory Comes, which will give me another in to the Battle of the Bulge.  Band of Brothers as a whole has served as a sort of gate-way drug to further reading, just as Harry Potter and the Twilight series (or Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary depending on one’s age…) have gotten even more books into young readers’ hands.  And all that’s a good thing.

Band of Brothers ~ The Actors

Band of Brothers ~ The Actors

There are more books by and about other veterans of both series, which I’d like to eventually pick up. Band of Brothers has really launched an entire niche industry of publications, artwork, lectures, and official tours to Normandy and other sites. It’s inspired a whole legion of fans from history and military die-hards to younger fan girls and boys (not that these groups are exclusive…) who post animated photos on Tumblr.com, write fan fiction portraying the “characters” in less than chaste situations, and edit film clips to rock and pop songs on YouTube. There is also an ongoing series of actor interviews that’s been celebrating the series’ 10 year anniversary since June of last year.  Their Jumping For Heroes event to raise money for a memorial in Normandy took place on August 21 of this year.

Thinking about this fandom is fascinating–there is a sort of falling in love with these guys—the real guys, their personas and relationships as filtered through art, the actors who played them, what they did.  There is borderline fetish, hero worship, pride, and gratitude.  There is a trying to make sense of our own lives through them.  It is a connection to our own family histories. With that, I feel in some ways I know more about these guys than I do either of my own grandfathers.  I didn’t have all the conversations about these things that grandfathers and grandsons should have before it’s too late. I’ve since been going through my dad’s dad’s Army photos and learning more through my grandmother, and just working with what I have.

 

My grandfather, Frank Van Kerckhove (kneeling, 2nd from right), with his own band of brothers. He trained for the Pacific, but remained States-side working the Signal Corp and weapons inspection.

My grandfather, Frank Van Kerckhove (kneeling, 2nd from right), with his own band of brothers. He trained for the Pacific, but remained States-side working the Signal Corp and weapons inspection.

During Ernie and my recent trip to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, one of the Band of Brothers actors was in attendance at the play his fiancé directed.  I happened to know he was going to be there because of his recent interview.  I saw him come in and sit in his seat. My heart pounded and I squealed inside like the fan boy that I am. But I was cool, yo.  And I didn’t end up talking to him, which I’m totally (I think ) at peace with.  But it’s like–You’re here, and despite all the other work you’ve done you are still Webster—Webster whose book I’ve read!  What would I say?  Maybe just a Thank you.  That would’ve been good.  But I remained calm….

In an essay of mine entitled Playing Guns where I tackle my youthful war games with brothers and friends, my family’s own military past, and my interest in war stories, I write: “Give me one soldier’s memoir over a dry shot-by-shot account.  While the places and triumphs and losses in each tug at me, I ultimately prefer legends over maps.”

Update of an Artist in August

It’s almost the middle of August, and summer is definitely trucking along.  We had a delightfully cool July but are definitely feeling some dog days this month.  A hot summer makes the relief of Autumn even more special.  For those who know me, Autumn is high holy season around here.  It’s my first back in the city.  I’ll definitely miss Indiana for it’s Autumness, but will seek out the city’s delights–but that’s a nerdy post for later.

To follow up on my Band of Brothers Revisited post, shortly after I posted it, a fellow WordPresser lead me to Alan Sepinwall’s blog, What’s Alan Watching?  He’s the TV critic for the New Jersey Star-Ledger.  This summer, he did an amazing series on Band of Brothers. I recently finished going through his posts and many of the comments.  Had I known about it (we were watching it at the same time!), I would’ve definitely joined in the conversation.  Alas, he wrote his last post about the same time I wrote my own BoB post.  I still want to comment on his final entry.  The whole thing is a wonderful in depth conversation for BoB nerds everywhere!

I’ve spent part of the last month haunting neighborhood used book stores (plus my indie bookstore down the street) looking for Malarkey’s and other related books. I think I want to read at least Malarkey’s before I borrow my brother’s copy of the BoB book, which I still haven’t read.  I want to despite the gnawing voices of the Ambrose haters on Amazon (which does have everything I want…).  I should stop reading things like that.  Just upsets me. 😛  I’m also interested in reading E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed, which is one of the sources for the upcoming The Pacific film.  How exciting that Sidney Philips will be a character in the new project!

I’ll save my WWII reading for the Fall, as I’m trying to focus on other reading this summer. My “To Read” list is growing with older and newer books (like, I still need to get to Sarah Vowell’s latest!), recent acquisitions, and books on Ernie’s shelf.  I’ve taken a couple times to sit outside–even go to the lake–and read my Walt Whitman collection. Perfect for summer on a blanket on the grass with the lake’s breeze.  Definitely won’t finish it this summer, but it’s good to have at my side when I’m inspired.  I also have the Best American Short Stories 2008 collection at my side when a dose of short fiction is in order.  I finally finished the 3rd (with six more to go!) Sookie Stackhouse book, Club Dead, and totally loving the new season of True Blood!  My current non-fiction reading is Michael Davis’ Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street. What a joy!  And it had me in tears in the first paragraph of the prologue for real.  I’m three chapters in, which is a fascinating account of the history of children’s television in general.  The Captain Kangaroo stuff is cool.  I’m trying to make more time to read actual books.  Less sitting in front of this computer and more reading, yo!  But the computer is good too.

On the writerly front, I’ve been focusing on two short stories this past month or so.  I’ve also been working to organize all my works in progress.  I’ll always be adding ideas, but I’m trying to focus on further developing my most developed work so I can start taking it to the next level.  One story is inspired by my neighborhood in South Bend.  I really love this piece (which I started in November for my short story edition of NaNoWriMo) and am getting more and more into it.  It’s also been good to harness my Indiana experience creatively–something I want to continue.  Another story is more fantastical and quirky and inspired by an Indiana friend of mine.  That’s all I’ll say for now. 🙂  These stories are written in 1st and 3rd person respectively, and if I’m going to flip flop between strories, I like that variety.  On the CNF front, I made it through the first draft of a story about Truman’s bar in Indiana.  I’ve also rebounded from Playing Guns rejection and am preparing it for another submission–to a place that’s perhaps a better fit.

I’ve also typed out my grandfather’s journal like I said I wanted to.  Very cool.  With that, I’ve registered another WordPress site which will be more family oriented.  Not sure how public it will be, but it will definitely be a cool place for family and friends hopefully.

With all this Indiana talk, I did take the time to reflect on my time there.  Here’s an excerpt from my Friends Only blog:

It was this random, amazing, frustrating, weird, beautiful, creative, inspiring, annoying experience in our lives. While we can definitely tell our “Indiana stories” boiled down to some laughable cocktail party tales, I get a little Stockard Channing at the end of Six Degrees of Separation where she seeks to make sure her experience truly becomes a meaningful part of her life. I know I will continue to do this myself in my work–whether in short stories, solo pieces, journal entries, or what have you. Just like I try to do with everything else. I can’t deny the new perspective our time there offered.

All the wonderful people I met along the way–those I’m still in touch with and those I’m not–will not be forgotten. 🙂

Finally, in NewTown Writers news, after a successful Solo Homo 7, the Fall 2009 event is in the works.  We wanted to do some sort of short plays event, and it looks to be gearing toward a Reading event with some brand new works.  I’m currently working with a number of members on developing their pieces–and looking to include a few more.  I’m wearing my producer & director hats on this one so I can focus my writerly energies on other things.  We’re looking to go up mid-October.  Will post more later!  I’ve also started attending the bi-weekly literary meetings.  I’d never done that before, mostly because of my old work schedule and not living in the city for a few years.  It’s been fun–I’ve been able to workshop one of my current stories as well as hear some of the work in progress for the fall.  And now that meetings are looking to be at the Center on Halsted, that’s a bonus since I can walk there.  Awesome!

Upcoming fun things are in the works. Looking forward to them and to getting more work done.  Will tell  you all about it….

Onward—->

Band of Brothers Revisited

band_of_brothers_still02

This afternoon, I finished watching the special features in the Band of Brothers DVD set.  Thus completing my 2nd full viewing of the film. I’d been keeping an eye out for a discounted copy since last time I watched it, I borrowed my brother’s set.  While back in South Bend for a day trip to teach class, we ventured over to the Best Buy, and there, on the shelf in the HBO section were new copies at 50% off for a limited time.  So for only about $30, each episode plus extras was mine.  Score!  AND with cheaper Indiana sales tax to boot.  Once upon a time, Ernie had expressed interest in watching it with me–mostly I think because of Ron Livingston and his Sex & The City connection.  When I brought it up with this purchase, he’d forgotten about his initial interest.  So I was on my own.  While Ernie was down in Kansas City this past month working down at the Coterie Theatre, I had plenty of time.  Watching it solo means I can rewind parts and get as obsessive as I want.

I’ve written about the film and its connection to my writing & family projects–and general WWII interest before.  So I guess this is a follow up to previous posts: Workshopping “Guns” and  The War. I’m not completely sure if this follow up will have a conclusive point, but we’ll see.

I’ll report that I’ve recently revisited my piece, Playing Guns. This past May had me working two deadlines.  I had my Solo Homo piece to work as well as my 2nd Story submission.  I wrestled with starting from scratch for this submission, but given the state of Life and Art I had to make some executive creative decisions.  I ultimately didn’t get a slot for the next round, but I feel good about my work on the piece.  I received some solid feedback and totally agreed with the things to work on as far as fitting the piece into the 2nd Story aesthetic.  I’ve also chatted with my new 2nd story pals and don’t feel discouraged at all. I love what the group does and hope to be more a part of it down the road.  This latest revision process found me restructuring and slicing and dicing (for both time and focus) and really had me looking at things with a magnifying glass.  I feel part of my problem, though, was that I was in a way trying to cram a non-2nd Story into a 2nd Story mold.  Some of it fit–and some of it didn’t.  Next time I can work on the piece with new found focus, but without any restraints (and I’ll have a better idea of what I’m doing for my next submission!)  Getting the piece readier and readier for Battles with Boys. It’s coming….

Back to the film.  I mention it indirectly in the piece.  War films and images play an important role in the story.  My interest and into obsession are a part of the story.  It’s so damn good.  I know it has its detractors and people who get their panties in a bunch over various things (various inaccuracies & poetic licenses, the anti-Stephen Ambrose camp, etc.), but I don’t get into that, and don’t let it bother me.  I appreciate and celebrate it for what it is (and before I forget, I can’t wait for the follow up, next year’s The Pacific!)  I love the story.  I love learning the stories behind the stories.  I love learning about the real guys behind the “characters.”  I love learning more about the actors (especially the lesser known ones.)  It’s EASY (pun intended) to become just a little obsessed. My “BoB” bookmarks are filled with things like THIS and THIS and THIS.  Though I do have my limits.  There are those who know which weapons came out when and who had what and noticed how they changed in the film and all that (even I, a huge Cure fan can’t rattle off remix titles like they were my own children as some fans can.)  But each to their passion, I say.  I haven’t read ALL the books.  The new one looks interesting.  I am interested in reading Tech Sgt. Don Malarkey’s (adorably played by Scott Grimes in the film), though.  I’m happy to have this film in my collection and will revisit it when inspired to–and continue to let it (and its gorgeous score) inspire me in Life and Art.

This all keeps me thinking about family and history and our own stories.  I caught Diane Rhem’s show this morning (not on Chicago Public Radio, but on Michiana Public Radio–yay internet!).  She featured Vincent Cannato, author of American Passage about the history of Ellis Island.  The subject of immigration to Canada also came up–which is what my Grandpa V’s parents did back in the day (making me part Canadian, ya know!)  I have his handwritten story about his growing up there and his move to Detroit.  One of my projects for the near future (I thought maybe today, but we’ll see…) is to start transcribing it into a Word file.  If for nothing else but to preserve and share it.  But there’s also some tidbits of inspiration in there for other projects.  It’s good stuff.

All this is connected. Other people’s old photographs and stories; MY old photographs and stories. Maybe getting a feel from their lives can add to an understanding of my own history.  I still have access to some things, but unfortunately not to everything.

Right now, I feel like I’m at the borderline of public musings and private journaling and things that will become other things.  So I’ll end here and wish you all much love.

The War

Quentin C. Aanenson

One of my goals for the summer was to finish watching Ken Burns’ World War II documentary, The War. Last night, I reached that goal. I DVR’ed the film this past fall when it premiered. I was able to watch the first 3 or 4 parts (out of 7) over Christmas break. Then the new semester started and my time was shot out of the sky. So, after our trip down under, I started over. While I remembered much, it was still a good refresher and would help me with the through lines into the remaining parts.

SO good.

I’ve had a slight obsession of late with WWII. My family’s always been particularly interested in history. My brother, Steve, was a history major, and is a bit of a Civil War nerd (while others wrote song lyrics in their notebooks while bored in high school, he wrote out the battles of the Civil War. In order. And I think circled who won. 🙂 ) A few years ago, borrowed Burns’ Civil War documentary from my brother, which he has on VHS. I also borrowed his DVD’s of the amazing Band of Brothers film, which I adore. Watching that inspired me to purchase David Kenyon Webster’s Parachute Infantry memoir, which I read last summer. I realize it’s nothing that extraordinary to be interested in WWII. There are some hardcore–I don’t think “fans” is quite the right word. Hardcore enthusiasts–there, that’s better. And everyone has their reasons and niche interests.

One of my works-in-progress, the Creative Nonfiction/Solo Performance piece, Playing Guns, addresses this obsession as I try to figure it all out and make personal connections. In it, I write about my childhood friend, Danny, whose dad was in Viet Nam, about his attitude about playing guns, a staple of kids’ play. I write about my dad and his dad and their involvements (however indirect). I’ve written extensively about this piece in my post, Workshopping “Guns”, so I’ll not repeat myself too much here, and refer you to that entry.

Watching the film has gotten me thinking about the piece again, and I may even pull up the file once I post this. Lots of “family projects” to think about. Listening to the interviewees made me think about my own grandparents, especially my grandfather who’s no longer with us, and how I do regret not talking to him more about things. All is not totally lost, though. So I just need to work with what I have.

The film totally achieves what it set out to do–take a look at the war from the “bottom up,” focusing on the people who fought it along with their families. The bigger picture was a part of it, but not the main focus. The nitty-gritty political nuances and controversies and all that were not part of it. Those things are for other works. Burns and his right-hand-woman, Lynn Novick, found amazing people you just fall in love with. Especially Katharine Phillips, who’s kind of like a southern version of my grandmother. A segment with her brother, Sidney, is the only one where we hear the interviewer (Lynn herself perhaps?) ask a question. Sidney talked about returning home and re-learning how to speak with people, because in the middle of things, they mostly kept to verbs and nouns–and few adjectives. When (Lynn) asks her what adjectives, he smiles and says something like “Oh, I can’t say. My wife would reach down from Heaven and twap me on the head.” So funny! 🙂 Quentin Aanenson as pictured above is very eloquent and soft spoken in a way you’d expect someone from a Norwegian gentleman from Luverne, Minnesota to be. Such chilling and amazing insights. And dare I say, I had a little crush on him.

Which hopefully doesn’t make me sound pervy, or anything. But there’s something so romantic–in all the word’s various connotations–of the old pictures of the guys in their uniforms and all. Makes me think of Evan Bachner’s At Ease photography books, which depict (mostly Navy) men of the time being natural, peaceful, and innocent. I remember reading one review (maybe it was even on the display card at UnAbridged bookstore) which talked about how the photos remind us that our fathers and grandfathers were once young, good-looking guys at time when they probably didn’t really think about how good looking they were, which gives them that innocence. Especially in their interaction with their friends. I think it’s also that these guys are men becoming men and we are witness to it with these photographs and stories. And we think about when we became men and how the generation gap presents similarities and differences. Which is a “whole nother” level I could incorporate into my piece. Or not. Or at least let it influence it indirectly. Now I’m overwhelming myself. 😛

So now, I need to burn the film onto DVD’s, though I did lose a few minutes of a couple episodes when the DVR “burped” for some reason. I can always check them out from the library to see if I missed anything major, and to check out the bonus features–though PBS did air a couple behind-the-scenes bits which were cool. I have both soundtracks already. And if I can get a discounted copy of the book, that’d be good too.

I’ve learned, I’m inspired, and so we’ll see what happens….

Katherine and Sidney Phillops

Katharine and Sidney Phillips

Workshopping “Guns”

This past Wednesday, the 20th, we workshopped my Creative Non-Fiction piece, Playing Guns. That, at least, is the working title. It’s not a very exciting one, I know. It’s a piece I’ve been working on off and on for a while now. It has its origins in the solo show class I took at Chicago Dramatists with the fabulous Arlene Malinowski in the fall of 2005. I started putting something together called The Sounds of Play, which included the sound effects for cars, Transformers, Dolly Pops (I had my gal pals too!), and of course, playing guns. Bang Bang Rat-a-tat-tat and all that.

I eventually took the guns part and paired it with my idea of writing about my grade school friend, Danny, whose hippie parents wouldn’t allow him to play guns. I’d wanted to write about Danny and this seemed like a perfect marriage.

From there, it evolved into musings on war and war stories and my own parents, especially my dad and grandfather (which may be part of the source for my pretty much neglecting the fact that girls played guns too, as pointed out in my class, but with no sisters and pretty much just my guy friends growing up participating, its a very male-centric piece, which I may or may not amend. We’ll see….) I did a major push on the piece this past summer in anticipation for this semester’s class. I was also in the middle of reading David Kenyon Webster’s Parachute Infantry: An American Paratrooper’s Memoir of D-Day and the Fall of the Third Reich. Webster was portrayed in the HBO film, Band of Brothers, and it was interesting to read moments and dialogue that made it directly into the film–and the liberties that the filmmakers took.

I talked to my dad and did a little fact-checking about the technicalities of his not being drafted into Vietnam. We also talked about his growing up post-WWII and how the family reacted to Vietnam. One of my other projects this summer involved transcribing a cassette tape discussion my brothers had with my grandparents a few years ago. My grandfather since passed away, and though I have some of the facts, I know there are things missing. That missing has made its way into the piece as well.

I eventually hit a wall with it. Couldn’t add or subtract a comma. I needed my class! We had a good discussion. I appreciated the comments and questions. One of the general topics we discuss is what is the piece About? I’m still not completely sure. It’s about a lot! It still needs some focus and shaping. I have all the response essays from my classmates, but I’m not quite ready (nor do I have the time!) to really go through them at the moment. Maybe over spring break (not that I won’t have other reading to do then!) I have my next piece to focus on for workshop #2. Thankfully, I had “Guns” under my belt, but one of the pieces has to come from one our three preliminary assignments. I spent a considerable amount of time this week living in 1994….

One of my classmates suspected the piece’s “performance” voice, and I was like You got me! I’ve struggled with Literary Voice vs. Performance Voice in the past. But the intention for “Guns” will be performance–but I do also want it to feel alive on the page, which I think it does. The plan is for it to be a part of my full length solo show, Battles With Boys, which will include many of the pieces listed on the Solo Performance page. That’s the plan anyway.

Hm, so my point to all this? I guess: Workshopping Good. 🙂 Seriously, though, I love this whole part of the process. I’ve had my solitary loner writing time, and this gets it out there a little, especially surrounded by cool peeps. The next one may be a little intense, I don’t know. It’s not due for a couple weeks. I have a draft done, but I can’t look at it right now. I need these couple weeks to be away from it before I turn it in–and I’m sure I’ll wince at a few things before I do so.

Alright, must get ready for work and read some of my classmates’ writings for next week…..