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, 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.”

Band of Brothers Revisited


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.

Recent Writerly and Otherly Goings On

Frank & Julia

Since last time I posted some photos of WWII era photos of other people’s grandparents, etc, I thought I’d post one of my own. These are my grandparents, Frank & Julia, in front of my grandfather’s family store in Detroit circa 1942. It’s one of the ones I’ve actually scanned. One of eventual goals is to gather ALL these photos and get a digital archive going–as in bringing the laptop and scanner to Grandma’s house and go crazy. Not sure when that’ll happen. But it’s a goal.

One of my goals I did reach in conjunction with watching The War was finishing the transcription of the interview tape a couple of my brothers made with my grandparents in 2004. Last summer, I went through the tedious process of listening, playing, rewinding, etc, to get it all down. Last month, I went through and re-listened to some trouble spots, reformatted the document, did some fact and spell checking with my grandmother, and got it all together. Right now, it’s a simple word document laid out in standard play script format. It isn’t anything too fancy right now. When I do get more of these photos scanned, I could do something shiny with a publishing program or something. But I did get nerdy and include web links within the text to give some background info on various names, places, etc. That was fun. Next up is going through a tape with my uncle about my mother’s side of the family. That should be another trip!

Working on this also inspired a couple new story ideas which I’ve done some free-writing and thinking about. One is inspired by my grandfather’s bathroom at the basement at their last house in Detroit with all his golf magazines. I also had to laugh at one point while listening to the tape while my grandmother talked about driving through New Mexico with my uncle and some friends and how it was hard to find just “plain food” without all the spices. My grandmother’s head explodes if there’s an ounce of any kind of flair. I say this lovingly. 😛 It just made me think about where I come from and how this meat-potatoes-n-carrots diet translated into other things.

Other short stories are in various stages of development as well. I’m really digging the short stories. Not that I’ve never considered them before, but they are what my writerly brain is focusing on–and that’s not a bad thing. Trying to read more of them, too.

In familyness, our “Baby Tour ’08” is now complete. Earlier this summer, we spent some quality time with our niece, Morgan. I’m also her godfather–that was a special weekend for us. Ernie and I just got back from our trip to North Carolina to visit our nephew, Will. Yes, two of my brothers are daddies. Crazy! Will’s my buddy and I wanted to hide him in my suitcase. Since he’s further away, we don’t get to see him as much. The babyness inspired an assignment for my Creative Nonfiction class last semester, a piece called Progeny. I knew it was a piece I really wasn’t going to develop further until after they were born and I’d met them. So I’ll have to revisit the piece again. I do still have Australia photos to sort through and perhaps a few more posts.

The semester is starting up again in a couple weeks! It’ll be busy, but different for me this time around. I will get into all that next time.

Hoping your August is brilliant….

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