The Next Best Thing
Growing up, I remember my dad talking about his experiences during WWII in the Pacific. I remember studying every page of his Seabee book and seeing photos of him in uniform as Chief Petty Officer. I remember a little cigar box with tissue inside that held his dog tags, a shell casing, his Navy ring, a watch, and other mementos. I imagined the stories that embodied each item tucked away in the top drawer of his dresser.
I’m second to the youngest of five kids. My beloved mom had breast cancer when I was 31/2. Back then a diagnosis like that was usually a death sentence. She dodged a bullet then but suffered the consequences of antiquated treatments that left behind their ragged remains. I remember we visited her in the hospital. My dad wasn’t there yet, but his identical twin Uncle Charles was. When he picked me up and held me, I felt safe. I knew he wasn’t my dad, but he was the next best thing. When my father passed away in 2006 I became parentless and Uncle Charles, twin-less – but we had each other.
I grew up hearing about my uncle’s experiences in the war as a bombardier. May 29, 1943, my dad was stationed in Alaska, working on Mount Ballyhoo. He had a feeling come over him, a horrible feeling that something had happened to his twin. He got himself back to base camp to call his folks, but they had not heard anything. Two weeks later, they got word Charles’ B-17 was shot down and he was missing in action. It happened on the exact day, the exact moment my dad had that horrible feeling on Mount Ballyhoo.
Flash forward to 2010. I decided to tell my Uncle’s story through a documentary – his experiences flying in the Mighty Eighth, losing half his crew in an air battle and his time as a prisoner of war in Stalag Luft III where the Great Escape happened. He was 93 when we started shooting the interviews – ready and laser sharp. We witnessed him relive his war experiences as if they were happening in the moment.
The old stories and the new ones started to paint a picture. I found many treasures in his box of artifacts and records like my Grandmother’s letters to her three sons at war. I wept as a read them. I never knew her while she was alive, but I was getting to know her through the letters. I could sense her intelligence, kindness, unconditional love, unwavering faith in God, and incredible strength. Spending so much time with my uncle, I also realized how much we had in common – music, storytelling, filmmaking, and more.
I asked him one day, who in the family reminds you most of my dad? I thought possibly my sons, my brothers, but instead, he looked me squarely in the eyes and without saying a word, gently pointed his finger at me. It warmed my heart. I felt safe. Although he wasn’t my dad, he was the next best thing – a man of great character, generosity, kindness, compassion, and love.
Louise’s film sharing her uncle’s story, “Stalag Luft III – One Man’s Story,” is screening at the 2019 Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival (MSPIFF).Learn More