Jim Deutsch was explaining that elusive concept called "America" to the well-bundled inhabitants of a Norwegian island last March -- polar bears loose on the snow, sunlight striking the steeple of the local church for the first time in months -- when he received word, by e-mail, that he would have a different job this spring. He would be the chief curator of the big party this week for the World War II generation.
Only in Washington are parties curated.
And now here he is, toiling in a cluttered cubicle decorated with a pinup of an Andrews Sisters tribute trio and a can of Spam. Trudging around the Mall -- the weather considerably warmer than in Norway -- checking out the layout of giant tents, fretting about the availability of water and grief counselors.
About 800,000 visitors are expected for the four-day festival starting Thursday that will accompany the dedication of the National World War II Memorial. There will be a pavilion for veterans to pass on stories to younger generations, another for military units to reunite, another for learning how to preserve heirlooms of the era, another for kids to try breaking codes and writing "V-Mail," and two more for period music and dancing.
"We want to make people aware of what it was like," says Deutsch, 55. "The second challenge is to do something meaningful for this generation. The reunion was to bring them together, pay tribute to them and have a good time."
No doubt there will be tears, too, hence the platoon of 40 grief counselors.
For a part-time professor with a taste for postwar film noir, whose previous jobs have included Census enumerator, bookmobile driver and monorail operator, this assignment made perfect sense. After a three-decade professional life where, by his choice, jobs rarely lasted more than a year, Deutsch was given an apt title by the Norwegians: roving scholar. His favorite subject: America. Sitting in his cubicle on the fourth floor of an obscure building in Chinatown, he scrolls through a list of names from the World War II generation that he began compiling in Norway. These are the people who will be having conversations with each other and with the public in the Wartime Stories pavilion.
Ernest Borgnine, Bob Dole, George McGovern, Ossie Davis, Howard Zinn, Bob Feller, Norman Mineta, Al Neuharth, Jack Palance, Alan Simpson, Mike Wallace . . .
A colleague leans over the top of the cubicle to report that Idella Ford, a World War II nurse who was to be in the program, may not be well enough. And Borgnine, who was a sailor in the war before he joined "McHale's Navy," may be busy with another project.
Hmm. Deutsch already knows Kurt Vonnegut, Yogi Berra and J.D. Salinger are unavailable -- he tried them. Walter Cronkite, Artie Shaw and Patty Andrews will be present via recorded interviews.
What about Tony Curtis?
Next he opens an e-mail from the owner of a Piper L-4 who lives on Capitol Hill. Deutsch wants him to land the vintage World War II reconnaissance plane on the Mall -- but the Secret Service is not enthusiastic.
What about trucking in the aircraft and reassembling it on the Mall?
Deutsch loves sweating such details. "We're not ivory tower academics," he says of the curatorial team. "We like to get our hands dirty and our boots muddy."
The reason big festivals on the Mall are curated is because when they are not, the results can be disastrous. Last September's spectacle by the National Football League, Pepsi Vanilla and Britney Spears will live in infamy.
The American Battle Monuments Commission -- which built the memorial -- knew whom to call to plan the $3.1 million Mall reunion and tribute: the Smithsonian Institution's Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, operated by the people who produce the annual Folklife Festival. Based in that Chinatown office, they are an unusual assembly of talents. About a third of the permanent staff of 50 are PhDs with a flair for public presentation. The rest are specialists in the design and technical fields necessary to put on a good show.
Creating the tribute has required hiring an additional 65 people -- including Deutsch, who is not on the permanent staff but has worked on several festivals over the years. Deutsch typed up the original proposal for the World War II tribute after brainstorming with Folklife Center Director Richard Kurin and Folklife Festival Director Diana Parker, who are overseeing the event. He works every day with technical and design directors, and relies on sub-curators and coordinators focusing on specific pavilions and overall logistics.
But Deutsch embodies the center's maverick blend of academic rigor, real-world curiosity and unpredictable whimsy that enables conversations across cultures -- or generations.
So how does a guy with a name like Deutsch end up with a job like this?
The name is Hungarian Jewish. Jim Deutsch's grandfather got a job working on a ship before World War I, and when it docked in America, he got off and melted into the New World.
Deutsch's late father was a master sergeant in the Army, serving in the Pacific during World War II. He didn't talk about it much, but after the war he refused to eat rice.
Raised in New Jersey, Deutsch graduated from Williams College in 1970 with a degree in American civilization, a grab-bag discipline he chose because courses in film, music, history, English, philosophy, politics and art are all relevant.
He got a job as a reporter covering police for the Indianapolis Star, but decided he didn't have the heart to ask grieving loved ones for quotes. He drove his Volkswagen bus to Orlando, where he operated the monorail at Disney's Magic Kingdom. After a stint as a National Park Service ranger and archaeologist in Arizona, he piloted the VW to Fairbanks, where he became a librarian.
He picked up a master's degree in American studies from the University of Minnesota in 1976, then decided to spend some time in the Deep South. He consulted maps and novels and got a job as the sole reporter and photographer for the Yazoo City (Miss.) People's Press. A small-town reporter didn't have to be so pushy. Later, he took an administrative job with the library system in Billings, Mont., because it is on the Great Plains.
"I wanted to cover all the regions of the United States," Deutsch says. "That was very deliberate. My travels were a kind of non-academic way of continuing my education."
He sought employment in each place because he didn't want to be a "casual visitor." What did he discover? Some things you've heard about -- regional differences, the diversity that is the engine of popular culture. But Deutsch says that to grasp the particulars behind such generalizations, you must live them -- the smell of spring flowers in Mississippi, the seeming warmth of zero-degree weather in Alaska when you wear short sleeves because it is no longer 60 degrees below.
In the 1990s, he received a PhD from George Washington University, writing his dissertation on portrayals of returning WWII vets in film and fiction. Then he began traveling overseas, lecturing in Germany, Poland, Armenia, Belarus, Bulgaria, Kyrgyzstan, Romania, Turkey, explaining America and learning about those cultures. He also taught at GW while continuing his peculiar self-education -- becoming a Census enumerator in 2000 to get in people's homes and hear the statistics that underlay their stories. He also worked at the Folklife Festival. One year he wired cowboys for sound as they worked cattle within sight of the Capitol. He was one of the coordinators two other years, including the Silk Road festival of 2002, where he oversaw bringing the painted truck from Pakistan and the nomads from Kazakhstan.
When the World War II project came up, Deutsch's experience with festivals and his knowledge of the era made him a good candidate for curator.
His dissertation on portrayals of returning vets explored something that later generations may have forgotten about the greatest generation. So many of the movies and novels were dark. In "The Best Years of Our Lives," three veterans find themselves estranged from their families, alienated from their jobs or wrestling with disability. In "In a Lonely Place," Humphrey Bogart plays a maladjusted vet accused of murder. Frank Sinatra is the protagonist struggling with heroin addiction in the movie version of Nelson Algren's "The Man With the Golden Arm."
The popular portrayals run contrary to the image of postwar boom and optimism that many people think of today. According to Deutsch, 1946 had the highest divorce rate until the 1970s.
The disaffected vet from the Vietnam War is familiar, but World War II? Deutsch says it's a recurring element of American culture after all wars. Bleak post-Iraq war movies and literature are next.
"Some of these people literally went through hell," Deutsch says. "A common theme is the civilians back home don't understand what they went through."
He is sitting on a bench at the Mall, as finishing touches are put on tents for Wartime Stories and the Reunion Hall. The program he has curated is designed to go one more step toward helping later generations understand what the greatest generation went through. For each other, and for strangers, the aging men and women will conjure up the chill of the English Channel, the warmth of boyhood friendship across the fence of a Japanese internment camp, the self-denial of ration coupons, the hope of broken codes and victory gardens and big-band swing -- all the things they felt before they returned home to the smell of Mississippi flowers and the frostbite of Alaskan winters so long ago.
The roving scholar's work here is almost done. Next, he'll be teaching a course in films of the 1960s and planning a lecture tour of Mongolia.