Perfect Family Tales And Other Trivia

The art of the short-story writer is that of the cartoonist. It is the magical craft of creating entire worlds with a few simple strokes of a pen. Tales told by an idiot? Maybe! But my tales are also a mix of reality and fantasy; truth and lies; some based on my own family; others, not. Readers must guess which characters are real; who are inventions - and who are an amalgam of both. Please draw the boundaries for yourself.

Friday, 25 September 2015

‘Why They Went AWOL’

“I have a story to tell about the opening of the film, Saving Private Ryan. This was about 17 years ago and my then best friend – I’m sad to say we’re no longer in touch - took me to a local premiere of the movie.

“Believe me, what happened to a bunch of old guys sitting in the audience behind us was just as frightening as some of the action on screen.

“It seemed so real, although it was a different time, a  different  campaign. I  felt  like  I  was  back  in   Vietnam, with bullets bouncing round my head and the stench of napalm everywhere.

“Yeah. It was the sound …  the uncannily realistic noise of bullets hitting flesh which made me put my head down. Once you hear it, you never forget it and if that doesn't turn you, I don't know what does.

“Then you see and hear skin ripped open.  Jagged  bones  stick  out.  Brains  splatter.  You  glimpse a  wrist without its familiar hand; a splintered femur sticking out of shredded meat where there was once a leg. And blood; there is always so much blood.

“My old friend was one of those gung-ho military types who wanted to join the armed forces for all the reasons war films scream at you. Eventually, he did.

“I think  he  managed  to  get into  a specialist air force unit. But as we lost  contact years ago, I’m not one hundred per cent sure.

“Anyway, at the time I didn't have a television so I knew nothing about the film except that it was a World War 2 story about a platoon and that it starred Tom Hanks. My friend was very excited about it and billed it as ''super-hard-core-realistic’.

“When we got our tickets and went to sit down, the studio was quite full and the centre rows were dominated by a crowd of about twenty old men. They all looked very serious and I had a distinct impression that they were war veterans.

“We sat several rows in front of them. Then the movie started. It’s D-Day and  we’re thrust immediately into a massive grinder without pity or remorse and we stared slack-jawed while men were turned into meat and sprayed about the beaches.

“I felt heavy, stunned and simultaneously desperate to look away and compelled to keep on watching while searching for  some sort of redemption that would rationalise all that death; justify the sacrifices made. But there was none.

“At last, night fell but the accompanying curtain of darkened silence crashed like a volley of gunfire from a hilltop.

“Then something made me turn around to see how the old guys had coped. But their  seats  were  empty.  They’d all sneaked out.

“We stayed to watch the rest of the  film,  somehow  stumbling  through  scene after scene of brutality and misery. Finally, it was over and as the credits rolled  I sighed a micro-mini yawn of relief.

“But that was short-lived. Before we left the building I needed to use the rest room and as I pushed open the door, I discovered the men who’d gone ‘AWOL’!

“They were all in there. Weeping. Some were clutching the wash basins hiding their faces. Others hid inside the toilet cubicles. A few were hugging one another while still more simply stood alone. Silent. They tried to hide their feelings but this  made things much worse.

“The  movie’s  opening  scenes had  dug  something up out of the souls of those men; something they'd buried and kept secret for God knows how long. It was so powerful they couldn't even get out the building before it broke them down.

“I reckon they shouldn't have been there. They should have been with family and friends; perhaps somewhere private where men may weep openly – shamelessly. They should have been on a couch, in a living room, like my grandfather, drinking buttermilk and watching The Price is Right.

“They should have been anywhere but that filthy, public toilet, in tears, trying to keep out of the way of the young men trotting in and out just to take a pee. It was much worse seeing that than anything the film had shovelled at me.

“There was nothing I could say or do. So I crept out. Wordless”.

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Here’s Pete Seeger’s story behind Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

“I had been reading a long novel—And Quiet Flows the Don—about the Don River in Russia and the Cossacks who lived along it in the 19th century. It describes the Cossack soldiers galloping off to join the Czar’s army, singing as they go. Three lines from a song are quoted in the book:

‘Where are the flowers? The girls plucked them. Where are the girls? They’re all married. Where are the men? They’re all in the army’.

“I never got around to looking up the song, but I wrote down those three lines.

“Later, in an airplane, I was dozing, and it occurred to me that the line ‘long time passing’—which I had also written in a notebook—would sing well. Then I thought, ‘When will we ever learn.’ Suddenly, within 20 minutes, I had a song. There were just three verses. I stuck the lyrics to a microphone and sang it at Oberlin College. This was in 1955.

“One of the students there had a summer job as a camp counsellor. He took the song to the camp and sang it to the kids. It was very short. He gave it rhythm, which I hadn’t done. The kids played around with it, singing:

‘Where have all the counsellors gone?  Open curfew, everyone’.

“The counsellor added two actual verses:

‘Where have all the soldiers gone?  Gone to graveyards every one.  Where have all the graveyards gone?  Covered with flowers every one’.

Joe Hickerson is his name, and I give him 20 per cent of the royalties. That song still brings in thousands of dollars from all around the world”.

  • No matter the war – or the era - the savagery is the same. The above is amalgam and lightly fictionalised version of the candid thoughts expressed by contributors to the website about Steven Spielberg’s film, Saving Private Ryan. 

Natalie Wood

(© Natalie Irene Wood – 25 September 2015)

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