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.”

“Playing Guns” @ Essay Fiesta!

Hello Friends!  The latest News is my up-coming reading at this month’s Essay Fiesta!  7:00 PM, Monday, February 15, 2010 at The Book Cellar, 4736-38 N. Lincoln Avenue in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood.

Essay Fiesta is a new FREE monthly reading series (which kicked off this past November).  Raffle tickets will be sold to benefit the work of the Howard Brown Health Center, Chicago’s leader in GLBT health.  Check out Essay Fiesta’s Facebook Page for more info, to become a Fan, and to RSVP (Official Event to be posted soon, I’m sure….)

The line-up will be announced bit by bit.  So far, myself and author Randy Richardson have been made official.

I will be reading my piece, Playing Guns, which has its tiny roots in the Arlene Malinowski’s solo performance class at Chicago Dramatists in 2005, and was later workshopped for real via my coursework at Indiana University-South Bend.  I’ve written about the piece here on this site a coupla times.

Join us for a Valentine’s Day hangover cure, or to celebrate President’s Day, or for whatever old reason you feel.  Can’t wait to see you!

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…..