By Marla Brown Fogelman
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, November 6, 2006
In a Delaware hospital, conveniently located right off Interstate 95, I walk into the intensive care unit looking for my father.
When I finally find him, after being given the wrong room number by the receptionist, I am grateful to see that he is perched straight up in his bed, facing the shower curtain that passes for a door in the ICU.
"You don't look so bad," I tell him, in the bantering tone we so often use with each other. My father raises a forefinger in greeting.
Attached to his finger is a small neon-red bulb that is supposed to monitor his pulse rate.
"ET, phone home," he says.
I smile at him, relieved. Despite Dad's having just had a tumor removed from the back of his brain, his well-honed sense of humor seems to be intact. Fortunately, his razor-sharp memory also seems unaffected.
Standing next to his bed, I think about how the preservation of memory has shaped our relationship. Throughout my childhood, Dad regaled me with stories of his stint in the Navy during World War II. The effect was so strong that I chose "The Caine Mutiny" by Herman Wouk as one of my favorite eighth-grade reads along with teen-romance novels by Betty Cavanna.
But it wasn't until more than four decades later that I decided to preserve his wartime memories in a more concrete way.
"I'd like to tape you," I had told him, explaining that this would be an "official" interview: I would be armed with a packet of questions from the Library of Congress's Veterans History Project.
On the drive from my home in Silver Spring to my parents' home in Wilmington, however, I started to worry that my father's initial receptiveness might dissolve into reticence or, even worse, the inability to take the whole idea seriously. Even as a 50-plus-year-old adult, I was still afraid of feeling like the little girl who would cry loudly and pitifully whenever her father teased her.
But as soon as I arrived, my parents welcomed me with stacks of photo albums, V-mail -- letters written on a special form that would be microfilmed to save shipping space, then enlarged at an overseas destination before delivery as a facsimile -- and a copy of a discharge document from the Navy Personnel Separation Center in Bainbridge, Md., for my father, Louis Brown.
While he signed the release form for the Library of Congress project, I set up the tape recorder.
"Just wait," I teased him, "you're going to be featured in a Smithsonian exhibit."
He liked that idea, but then my father, an inveterate storyteller, performer and barbershop chorus member, has never been afraid of the limelight. In that sense he and I are different, although in other ways, we are similar. Like him, I use humor and music to get through life. And sometimes I adopt the "I can take it or dish it out" attitude that I absorbed at his knee.
As the tape ran, I asked why he chose the Navy when he was drafted.
"I liked the uniforms," he said.
"Were you afraid?" I asked him.
"I never thought I would die," he said. "I was 18 and felt indestructible. At the time I shipped out to Guam, I was excited."
His mother, a Russian Jewish immigrant, was not so sanguine about her only child going off to war. But when the train taking him from the Anacostia Naval Station to San Francisco stopped in Chicago, my father cut a record at the USO to send home to "Mamale," as he called her.
"The other guys were all saying things like 'Hi, Mom' but when I got in there, I gave a little comedic talk on one side, and on the other side I introduced 'the famous singer who is going to sing one of your favorite songs, 'Bésame Mucho.' "
Apparently this recording provided my grandmother with many moments of comfort. She crooned "Bésame Mucho" in her deep, Yiddish-inflected contralto as she performed her daily chores, recalled my mother, who at the time was the "little girl next door" in Delaware.
"I think she sang this song the whole time he was away," my mother said.
A late-stage draftee, inducted in May 1944, Dad was supposed to go to Okinawa for the final campaign of the war in the Pacific. Instead, through an administrative fluke, he ended up spending 19 months on Guam as a ship's cook.
"I was lucky," he told me. "They sent us overseas too quickly and by the time our personnel files arrived, the invasion had already started without us."
During his stay on Guam, my father had one close brush with death -- from a grenade. But that didn't faze him as much as learning that a childhood buddy had been killed in Saipan.
"I couldn't believe that anybody could kill Sid," he said. "He was the toughest guy in our neighborhood."
In the ICU just nine months later, I think about how fortuitous it was that my father and I embarked on the oral history project. In all, I made three trips and filled three 90-minute tapes with his recollections of the war years.
Lacing his stories with a mix of self-deprecating wit and vivid dialogue, Dad filled me in on some tidbits of his experience that I hadn't previously known -- that the jungle in the center of Guam was called "the boondocks"; that for recreation he and the other servicemen were allowed two cans of beer three times a week; and that when he heard the war was over, he mixed a case of grapefruit juice and pure alcohol in a steel tub and got deliriously drunk.
"The most popular song at the time was 'I'll Be Seeing You in All the Old Familiar Places' -- you can understand why." Dad told me during one of the interviews. "You know, I get a little teary when I hear some of the old songs."
Now, studying my father in his blue-patterned hospital gown, I also get a little teary when I think of the experiences we shared while creating the record of his wartime memories. For me, it was a process that moved our relationship, like a time-travel vehicle, to a completely different dimension.
As we said goodbye after the second interview, the affection between us felt both deeper and more layered, like geologic strata that had been not eroded but cut away.
Later, after Dad is wheeled back into the room after his second MRI, I ask him how it went.
"It wasn't as bad as the first one," he says. "They piped in big-band music."
Then, as John the nurse takes his blood pressure, my ever-crooning father starts singing the first few stanzas of Glenn Miller's "In the Mood."
For information on the Veterans History Project, visithttp://www.loc.gov/vets.