Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Band of Typists

"To most people, a veteran was a veteran - all were the same, whether one man had survived the deadliest combat or another had pounded a typewriter while in uniform." - Eugene Sledge, World War II hero featured in The Pacific.


Memo to Tom Hanks and Stephen Spielberg.

SUBJ: Treatment for proposed new HBO series.

Kudos on the success of Band of Brothers and The Pacific, two HBO miniseries that tell the stories of our soldiers during the Second World War. Each episode in these 10-part presentations has been compelling, educational and deeply moving. I particularly appreciated Part III of The Pacific, portraying the erotic Bacchanalia the GI's enjoyed on leave in Melbourne. My father must have been too busy during his own leave time in Melbourne in 1943 to put all that stuff in his diary.

No doubt you and HBO are considering future series on Americans at war, and God knows there's a lot of history to be told: Korea, Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Panama, Desert Storm, Iraq, Afghanistan and all the other missions accomplished. I'll stay peeled to my flat screen.
But just in case you're thinking hot wars evoke higher ratings than long twilight struggles, let me suggest that you may be overlooking a great topic: the Cold War.

No, seriously. You guys are old enough to remember starry winter nights between 1949 and 1989 when we'd sit tensely in open cars at drive-in theaters, our hands wandering over Mary Jane's sweater, our eyes straying warily to check-out streaks of light in the sky that might be ICBMs from the USSR. Or when JFK announced the Cuban Missile Crisis and we went sleepless for 14 days, convinced we'd awaken in the ashes of nuclear conflagration. Or when we heard Ronald Reagan test his mike with the words, "We start bombing Russia in 5 minutes" and didn't hear him say he was just kidding because we had to run upstairs to change our underwear.

If the Cold War wasn't bad enough on the home front, it was even more inconvenient for the women and men in uniform.

In the three years I was stationed in the 81st Combat Support Group, an Air Force unit in the United Kingdom, I was on duty 150 Sundays in a row (in part because I was a chaplain's assistant), pulled KP 36 times, walked the frigid flightline on augmentee guard duty for eight-hour stretches on 190 days and nights, and on six separate occasions struggled to stay awake all night on Charge-of-Quarters duty (CQ) answering the barracks telephone. By the time I was reassigned to McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas, I was a buck sergeant in charge of a bunch of airmen assigned to keeping the latrines spotless - an assignment for which there are no commendations or awards, except the personal satisfaction of knowing that my men regarded me as the "queen of latrine queens" in 1968.

Forty years later, the odor of toilet disinfectant summons my Cold War memories with Proustian vividness.

McConnell was not a bad place, although I always thought it unfriendly that a base in tornado alley would have missile silos but no cyclone cellars. Even so, I think RAF Bentwaters and Woodbridge, the twin bases where I served for three years, would be a better background for a ten-part series on the Cold War. They were neither the best of bases nor the worst of bases. There were far worst places for Cold Warriors to end up, including Thule, Greenland and Minot, N. Dak. And there were far better places, like Korat Royal Thai Air Base, Thailand, where no libido ever got flabby, or Homestead Air Force Base, Fla., where duty stations were air conditioned and shaded by palms.

Bentwaters and Woodridge were nestled in the heart of East Anglia, where sturdy thatched-roof bungalows dominated the green countryside, and Tudor villages with cobblestone streets were surrounded by thick hedgerows and heaths of purple heather. The bases themselves were designed with bland practicality, and drafty Quonset huts, many of them rusting since VE-Day, lined the runway.

But, Tom and Steve, I digress. Here are some ideas for Band of Typists, a ten-part series on the Cold War.

Part One. Close-up on a gentleman of a certain age, bespectacled, goateed, his receding hair combed straight back. He is looking at an invisible interviewer, not the camera. The man is struggling to control the emotion in his voice.
"I don't know if the people back in the States ever realized the sacrifices the men and women in uniform made in the Cold War," he is saying. "It was worse in the chapel than anywhere."
A plump man with a shaved head and pink face continues.
"Chaplains had to have their sermons typed on time or they couldn't preach on Sundays. And their handwriting was real terrible. One time I typed, 'Jesus Galls Us' and the chaplain read it out. The commander almost had us taken out and shot."
A third man wearing an obvious toupee has tears in his eyes.
"I had to type the chapel bulletins and take the masters to the base print shop. If the printer was late, there were no bulletins. Without bulletins, the services fell apart. A goddamn mess."
       The goateed man.
"One time the bulletins didn't show up for the Christmas Eve service. The chaplain was calling out Easter hymns. His typist caved under the stress - spent three months in the hospital in Lakenheath. Even after he got out, he wasn't the same."
The shaved-headed man.

"No one thought less of him, though. We'd all been there."
        The toupee-wearing man.

"The chaplain was charged to protect the mind, body and soul of the whole goddamned aerospace team. You know - the men and women who was protecting the country from the goddamn Red Menace."
        The goateed man.
"It was our job to keep the chaplain armed, intellectually and spiritually. The typewriter was our weapon in that war."
        The shaved-headed man.
"You quickly learned that the typewriter was your only friend, really."
        The goateed man.
"After a while you got so you knew every bell and key on your Underwood. You could field strip it, lay all the pieces on your desk, and put it back together inside of 20 minutes."
        The toupee-wearing man.
"Some guys took their typewriter to bed with them." (Shaking his head, he pauses to control his emotions.) "It got so goddamn lonely."
        The goateed man.
"The typewriter was an essential instrument in the Cold War. We used to sing this song while we marched: 'This is my weapon (gesturing to a typewriter), this is my gun (nodding self-consciously toward his groin), one is for working, one is for fun.'" (After moments of silence he smirks into the camera.)
        The shaved-headed man.
"I don't think any of us really knew how to type right - most of us were two-finger hunt-and-peckers."
        The goateed man.
"We didn't get all our fingers into play, but we were fast."
        The toupee-wearing man.
"We were Goddamn fast."
        The goateed man.
"We knew we had to be fast. If we didn't have the sermon typed, the chaplain couldn't preach. If the chaplain couldn't preach, the morale of the Aerospace Team would plummet."
        The shaved-headed man.
"You know what that means."
        The toupee-wearing man.
"Might as well goddamn surrender."
        The goateed man.
"But we were very seldom late with those sermons. We didn't think much about it then, but our typewriters and us were a helluva team."
        The shaved-headed man.
"I like to think of what one of my buddies said to his grandson. 'Grandpa, were you a hero in the Cold War?' And he replied, 'No, I wasn't a hero, son. But I served with typists.'"
        The goateed man.
(Holding up his index fingers.) "Look at the callouses. These two fingers did a lot of pecking for my country.
It was worth it, though. Next time you're at a Memorial Day or Veteran's Day parade and you see a clerk-typist in uniform, give 'im a salute."
        The toupee-wearing man.
"Say, hail to thee, typing guy. You're a goddamn hero."

That should get the ball rolling, Tom and Steve. There must be thousands of hour of interviews just like these. The scripts should write themselves.
Call me if you need more ideas.

1 comment:

  1. With this kind of training, how did you not end up in seminary? Oh, wait a minute, I know why...