I first saw “Casablanca” in tiny dive in Georgetown in the 1960’s. Forerunner to today’s “Movie Taverns,” it was a little hole in the wall that served popcorn and beer at café tables in a small black-painted room with a big screen. The place ran nostalgic old movies, the entrance fee came with three bottles of brew and they didn’t card! We thought it was the coolest place ever. Imagine being able to watch movies and drink beer! In those days it was terribly avant-garde to watch old black & whites – about par with foreign films, which were almost as hard to find, but didn’t come with Budweiser. I remember it surprised my boyfriend when I began to sing along with Sam. My dad and mom had been singing “As Time Goes By” to each other since I was a little girl. I knew every word.
In those days, my father never talked about the war and I knew very little of my parents’ history. It wasn’t until a few years later, when my husband went off to Vietnam that I began to understand the backstory of Ilsa and Rick and my mom and dad.
Jump ahead 35 years to my Mom’s stroke. Assuming caretaker duties alongside my dad and daughter, I began visiting every day. By this time my father had retired from two careers and was still working on his third – writing military history.
His first book grew out of an effort to reconnect with his old WWII buddies from Company M (47th Infantry Regiment, 9th Infantry Division). He managed to find them all, no mean feat almost fifty years after the fact. Some were dead of course, but the survivors responded with an outpouring of anecdotes that cried out to be shared, hence the first book. Their personal intimate accounts touched us all and began to erode my Dad’s reticence about discussing anything emotional.
I wish you could have known him. He always said, “They broke the mold when they made me.” I think it’s true. I’ve never met anyone quite like him. He stood six-foot two in his prime with red hair and twinkly brown eyes. My dad never told jokes but he could quip with the best of them. He loved music, books, movies, booze and my mom. He combined the persistence of a salmon swimming upstream with the courage of a tiger, but he was as even-tempered, stoic and pragmatic as they come.
I’ll give you an example. After he’d finished his third battle book (“El Guettar: Crucible of Leadership,” Sedjenane: The Pay-off Battle,” and” Remagen: Springboard to Victory.”) he decided to present them to then Commander-in Chief Bill Clinton. Fully cognizant of the “6 Degrees of Separation” theory he began making phone calls. Meanwhile, confident in his own powers of persuasion, he ordered a custom built wooden box from a local woodworker and had it inlaid with the 9th Infantry Division patch. Sure enough, several months later on Memorial Day, with my mother standing proudly beside him at the White House, he handed the matched set to President Bill Clinton. That was my dad.
This all occurred before the stroke that left my mom paralyzed on her left side. That’s when Dad’s true colors came out. His devotion never faltered. Nor did hers. They were Ilsa and Rick sacrificing daily for each other. My Dad gave up time, energy, privacy and travel. My mom became almost saint like in her refusal to complain and remained firmly fixed in an attitude of gratitude and good-will. As we shared meals and hung out together, more and more stories began to come out about their war experiences at home and abroad. Dad took to watching old war movies, including Casablanca, on TV. More memories emerged as he critiqued them, though Bogie always got a pass.
Years later, after my mom died, we held the memorial service in their living room. My sister and Dad had picked out pictures of our mom, had them blown up and framed and hung on the wall to form the back of a shrine for the ceremony. The central piece was an enlarged portrait of our beautiful, dewy-faced, blonde, blue-eyed mother as a young woman. At the end of the service, Dad turned to the picture, raised his glass and said, “Here’s looking at you, kid.”