The adventures of a New Jersey college professor with very strange friends, colleagues, and family members.

Monday, December 22, 2008

My Vietnam War Story

In 1985, I starred in The Unsinkable Molly Brown. It’s a dreadful show, really, but when you think about it, there are only a handful of musicals that have a strong female lead only (with the exception of Funny Girl or Evita). Despite the show’s awfulness, I vowed to give it my all. Fortunately, I had a very strong supporting cast.

The worst week of any theatrical run is Dress and Tech Week, because that’s when you find out everything that goes wrong. Costumes don’t fit (I’ll bet you didn’t know that professional theatre costumes—especially elaborate period pieces—are only held together with Velcro. All those buttons are purely for show, and if the actress turns wrong, she ends up naked on the stage), lighting cues are missed, props disappear, scenery falls down around your ears, you deal with the orchestra for the first time—everything.

We generally opened on a Friday night. However, the Thursday night before, we always had a special free preview for senior citizens and the residents of our local Veterans Hospital. I’m not sure why veterans were so interested in musical theatre, but they showed up faithfully every time anyway.

Here’s where my ego goes off the charts.

My absolute favorite part of any live performance is when, after the curtain calls (which are pretty damn awesome too, let me tell you), the cast stands in the hall in the back of the stage and the audience files past us telling us how good we were. Keep in mind that I was hearing all these compliments while I was still flying on adrenaline and endorphins, clutching a ton of flowers and kind of shaking. To this day, I tell my students that that particular rush is better than any drug—legal or illegal—I have ever taken.

Finally it seemed to be over, so I went into my dressing room to change into my street clothes and meet up with my friends at the diner. While I was doing this, my friend Sue knocked on the door and told me that “a guy wanted to see me in the hall.”

“What guy?”

“I don’t know, he’s just a guy.”

“Does he have a name? What does he want?”

“How the hell would I know,” she asked, getting irritated. “Just come out.”

I put everything down and went out into the hall. Waiting for me was a bearded man with longish hair in a flannel shirt and jeans. He was in a wheelchair. He looked to be about 50 years old.

He had no legs from the knees down.

I wasn’t sure what to do, but when he saw me, his eyes brightened. He wheeled himself over. “Hello,” he said, in a nice voice. “My name is Gary.”

I shook his hand. “Hi, Gary,” I said. “I hear you wanted to see me?”

“Yes,” he said, still not letting go of my hand. “I’ve been coming to these plays since I’ve been in the V.A. hospital. And I have never seen a performance like yours. Ever.”

“Thank you,” I said, not knowing what else to say.

“I just have to ask,” he said, seriously. “How do you get the courage to do that?”

I blinked. “Do what?”

“Get up there in front of six hundred people and sing, dance, and act. I don’t get it. You’re the bravest person I’ve ever seen.”

I looked in his eyes, which were soft and grey. Very quietly I said; “You were in Vietnam, weren’t you?”

He nodded. “Yes, ma'am. Two tours,” he said. “Marines.”

I was trying very hard not to cry, and was failing at it. “Sir,” I said, “if you don’t mind me saying, I think what you did was a hell of a lot braver than what I just did. And if my acting gave you any kind of distraction from the memories you must have of that—well, I’ve more than done my job.”

I might have gone on babbling forever, but he took my hand. “Honey,” he said, “all that stuff I did over there—I’m proud to have done it, but there was never any beauty in it. The show I just saw you do…that has beauty in it.”

That’s when I lost it. Through tears, I asked Gary if I could take a picture of us. He said of course. I rounded up Victor (who always had a camera at the ready) and we took some shots.

The bus back to the V.A. Hospital was leaving, so he had to go. I pushed him down the hall, kissed his cheek, and we hugged. We both said “Semper Fi”, and I never saw him again.

I have that picture framed and on my office wall.

I never knew his last name.

Next time: How I helped convict my mailman of a felony!