My parents really got into Ken Burns’ Civil War series back in 1990.
So when I first heard that the documentary filmmaker was taking on World War II, I came up with a plan. I would watch the multipart PBS special with my dad.
There were a few problems with this idea, though. For one thing, his vision had deteriorated significantly in recent years. In addition, his hearing was essentially shot. And it was a virtual certainty that he would fall asleep during the opening credits.
In the end, this family-viewing plan never even reached the proposal stage. My father’s health kept getting worse and worse. Sitting up for a TV marathon was not in the cards for him.
But I watched it all and even mentioned doing so a time or two to my dad. I didn’t tell him that I was sort of relieved that he wasn’t seeing it.
A few months ago, my mom mentioned that my father still had occasional war dreams at night. I didn’t say so, but I figured I had a pretty good idea what they were about.
For one reason or another, my older brother and sister — both of whom died in recent years — never seemed all that interested in World War II. But when I was a little kid, I was practically obsessed with the global conflict.
Naturally, I asked my father countless questions about his experiences in B-24s and then B-29s. And one of those queries prompted my first memory of witnessing him cry.
I don’t remember the question. But my dad started telling about seeing a friend’s B-24 on fire and drifting down, out of their bomber formation. Like predators spotting wounded prey, German fighters banked hard and zoomed in for the kill.
The ill-fated friend’s name was Big Dog Lewis.
My dad did not finish the story. He didn’t have to.
Big Dog Lewis never got to go home and have a son who didn’t know when to shut up.
Saturday night at Sacred Heart, not long before he died, my father listened to a different sort of PBS show — Lawrence Welk.
With the Army Air Corps nurse he married 63 years ago at his side, he heard the same ancient show played back-to-back on two different stations.
OK, it’s only speculation to suggest he actually knew it was on. He was pretty far gone by then.
But my mom thinks he opened his eyes a little during one soaring clarinet solo.
“Bill,” she said. “Bill!”
He didn’t answer.
Maybe he heard, though. Or perhaps he was dreaming.
If he was, I hope it was about watching my sister dance in a ballet or seeing my brother play high school football.
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