Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Airborne From the Skies of Blue


Robin writes: Screenwriter Steve Latshaw has written guest posts for us before, and he always shares his interesting perspective as a man from America's heartland working in the crazy world of Hollywood. Recently, he lost his beloved father, and since he knew I had been through this too, we talked about it on the phone. This is a significant signpost in a person's life. The result was this piece from Steve: the title is from the official song of the 82nd Airborne, in which is father served.

Don Latshaw in the countryside he loved.

Airborne From the Skies of Blue
a Guest Post
by Steve Latshaw

My father, Don Latshaw, was a great and good man. Rock solid, firm but understanding, even when he didn’t always understand me, which could be tough.  I remember, when I was a kid, about eight years old, one night, just before bed, I tried to impress him with all the stuff I knew. He pretended not to know the answers to the historical questions my single digit mind posed, just so I could show off my expertise. I asked him questions.  And he laughed as he deliberately gave the wrong answer and I called him on it.  This was after watching an old Army picture on TV.  Probably The Longest Day, one of his favorites, which he used as an opportunity to teach me about regular Americans who crossed the ocean to save the world.  

Dad had been a paratrooper, in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, and he was proud of it.  So were we all.  My brother gave him the most incredible gift, late in his life.  Dad came home one day to find a 1950s Korean War-era jeep in his driveway, just like he’d driven back at Fort Bragg. My brother had found, purchased and restored it in secret.  Dad lived on the edge of a state park and traveled the roads and trails in those woods, like the hard charger he was.

I used to have my own Army uniform as a child. It had a white strip bearing the name “Latshaw” above the left shirt pocket, just like Dad’s. In the mid 1960s I’d wear his helmet, darn near swimming in it, and guard the neighborhood, reliving the things he’d taught me about how to be a soldier.  


Steve Latshaw, in his junior fatigue uniform. Wearing a real steel pot from his father's time in the Army.

Dad slipped away from us earlier this month, and I’m feeling it.  As you can read, the memories are coming home and crowding in. Fun ones, too. Dad was a serious man but he had that great laugh, sometimes coming in the middle of hard moments, when we least expected it.  And he had a grin the size of the entire country.  His laugh was my favorite sound in the world.  I can hear it now.  And the day is bright because of it.

I’ve been sitting in front of the tube these days, viewing a lot of 1960s TV shows, the sort of stuff I grew up on.  Mostly the World War II programs Dad and I sat through together.  I’m trying to connect with the classics that got me excited as a kid.  Life is changing, like the fall colors.  I guess I’m searching for my past in order to find my future.  I’ve done it before, even talked about it on this blog, a version of which we published three years ago.  But now the search seems more urgent, and the words and memories keep echoing in my head.
  
Dad liked the more serious movies and shows, when it came to men at war.  It was serious business.  He didn’t have much patience for Hogan’s Heroes or a Martin and Lewis movie about paratroopers called Jumping Jacks (1952).  Not old enough to be a World War II vet, he was a paratrooper and a staff sergeant back in the 1950s, when that Dean and Jerry picture was still playing theaters. Dad wasn’t a fan of war, having an adult’s understanding of its horrors; but, he was proud of his service during the Cold War.  In the 82nd Airborne, he was on the tarmac, ready to fly into battle during the Suez Crisis. Ready for anything. Even Vietnam.  

In the 60s, after having been out for 7 years, he wanted to go into that jungle hell, too.  The Army offered him a commission to become a helicopter pilot, on a gunship.  At the time, the casualty rate for chopper pilots was very high.  And still he wanted to go. But his maturity stepped in; he knew he had a responsibility to raise a family.  So he turned down the commission and served his country in other ways, most notably as one of the finest Scoutmasters the Boy Scouts ever saw. He and I watched those shows together because they were just really good and made us proud of the kind of men America would let us be. They made me proud of Dad.  

He told all these stories and was really patient with my endless questions about his Army career. He was happy to show me how to use a ripcord (he had one of his old ones, back from when he’d pulled his reserve chute on a training jump).  He taught me how to land and roll. And years later, in his fifties, he decided to take up skydiving—for the fun of it.  He was a hard charger. And a patriot.  And he raised us to be the same.

During those years, between 1964 and 1968, I grew up on a steady diet of World War II television.  Rat Patrol, with Chris George and those cool jeeps with the machine guns in the back, speeding through the desert; Twelve O’Clock High, about B-17 pilots during World War II, Monday nights at 6:30 p.m. Central Time (in 1964 I got to stay up until 7:30). That usually meant I’d pick two half-hour shows to make the time seem longer.  But Monday nights I picked the hour show so I could fly with Robert Lansing’s “Colonel Savage” and Paul Burke’s “Colonel Gallagher” and the 918th Bomber Group).

But then there was Combat!, the king of all the war shows.  Starring the most macho actor on TV—Vic Morrow as Sgt. Saunders—and the coolest, cool soldier from the sixties—Rick Jason, as Lt. Handley—this show followed a squad of American soldiers all over Europe, post D-Day. Top writer/directors like Burt Kennedy and Robert Altman and top guest stars like Robert Duvall and Tom Skerritt cut their teeth on this series. Movie stars like Lee Marvin and James Coburn showed up just to work with Vic.  It was brilliantly written and directed, with each episode playing big and intense, like an honest-to-God feature film.  And they still hold up. 


Tough guys from Combat! Vic Morrow and Rick Jason.


Violent? Absolutely. Realistic?  As real as TV would allow in the sixties. War is hell. (Somebody once asked director and W.W. II vet Sam Fuller how to make a realistic war film. He said: “Put a German with a Mauser rifle behind the screen and have him take pot shots at the audience.” Sam used to call “Action!” by firing his pistol into the sound stage ceiling.) 

But I digress. Combat! was not just the weekly, sixties version of the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan. Combat! was also about something. It was about American soldiers at their best, sometimes afraid, always trying to do the right thing in the face of overwhelming odds. Some of the characters were flawed, some of them made bad decisions and died for their mistakes. But, at the end of each episode, Dad and I bonded a little more and I learned a little bit more about being a man. And the irony here?  I found out years later that he’d always had a hankering to be an actor, which was a thrill when I cast him years later as Christopher Mitchum’s two-fisted chopper pilot in my own film Biohazard –The Alien Force. Dad had been a fan of Robert Mitchum’s since the forties; he was excited to play his scenes with Mitchum’s son. And as an actor, Dad’s work was as fine as any Hollywood guest star on Combat!


Don Latshaw and Chris Mitchum--with Chris looking a lot like his father Robert Mitchum.

Back to the future. Nowadays, thanks to a different kind of war show—the non-fiction kind—we all know what the soldiers always knew about the tired, hot ugliness of real conflict. When I was playing army as a kid, reenacting scenes from my favorite Combat! episodes with the neighbor kids, war was fun and exciting. As an adult I’m painfully aware that war is frightening and terrible and sad. There aren’t any tidy wrap-ups with “man-lessons” at the end of each day. I have a son in the Coast Guard. He goes in harm’s way, too, so I worry about him.  But I am also proud when I hear his stories—those he can tell me.

Stories. My work is telling them.  To do it I have to become that eight-year old kid again and go back to my favorite place and time on TV. For me, it’s 1966. The last season of Combat!   The first season in color. The season actor Rick Jason used to complain about because his uniform looked too nicely pressed in color. The episodes still hold up, but in viewing them, I always noticed an odd similarity about the locations used. I did some research back in 2009 and it turned out most of this last season (1966) was filmed in the middle of Beverly Hills, California, on a little lake surrounded by asphalt roads, concrete fences and pine trees called Franklin Canyon.  


Beverly Hills filled in for the fields of France in the old series Combat! on ABC.

One afternoon I took a drive up there to see if any of my childhood memories were hanging around, waiting for me. And, by gosh, they were.  Every inch of that place looked just as it did in 1966, as they were filming, and as Dad and I were watching. For the next few weeks I watched those fifth season color Combat! shows by night. By day I walked those Franklin Canyon roads and trails, hopping culverts, dropping into cement ditches, crouching behind concrete walls, remembering bits and pieces of my favorite TV series. 


Could be a gang of sinister Germans waiting for our boys right around that corner in Franklin Canyon.

 I even found a couple of spent brass (shell casings) from the show… from M1 rifles and Luger pistols, buried in the gravel and dirt.  They weren’t from World War II.  But they’d been buried there more than 40 years… since the 1960s, when the Combat! team was recreating that brutal conflict for ABC TV.  I relived my childhood and the various World War II battles we fought in the yards and around the houses near our homestead at 341 Linden Street in Decatur, Illinois. I almost expected to see Vic Morrow or Rick Jason, or the rest of the squad—Little John, Doc, Kirby, Cage—or my own comrades Doug and Scott Taylor and Mike Emich, all marching out of the trees to meet me. And I halfway expected to hear Mom or Dad yelling for me to come home for supper.  Home, again to that long ago time.  

We got to be with Dad the night he left us a few weeks ago.  I joined my brother, sister and and the rest of the family at his side. We held his hand and he squeezed back some as he began that final journey.  The next morning was a beautiful fall day, bright blue sky, warm sunshine, a little chill in the air and incredible fall colors in the trees.  The kind of day Dad loved.  He was an avid outdoorsman.  It’s how I best remember him.  He loved to fish anywhere, lake, ocean, pond or especially a mountain stream, white water charging as fast as he did.  He taught us that, too.  We grew up camping, hunting, fishing, living and loving the outdoors.  Last week my brother painted me a word picture of the resting place Dad had chosen.  In and around the outdoors he loved.  It was the greatest gift I’d ever received, and a reminder of how he’d be with us always.

For me, I’m going back to Franklin Canyon this weekend.  I want to have the bittersweet pleasure of spending a little more time with Dad. He never got to visit the canyon on his trips to California, but he’ll be there with me, in spirit.  Both of us, as we were when the world was younger. We’ll walk those trails like we used to with Sarge and the guys of King Company on TV all those years ago.  We won’t play Army, cause that’s for kids.  But we’ll remember.  And I’ll try to show off my historical expertise 

And he’ll laugh.  The day will be bright. And the skies will be blue.

Steve Latshaw
Hollywood, California

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1 comment:

Chris Covington said...

Steve,

My condolences on your father's passing. My father died quite a while ago, in 1992, but your wonderful blog post brought back some terrific memories.

(And FYI, I read your post because I am an occasional reader of Robin's blog. Long, long ago…in college…she and I were friends, and there was even a "military" connection.)

I am a bit older than you, and my father was much older than yours (my father's 100th birthday would have been last month), but some of my memories are similar to yours.
• My father was also an 82nd Airborne paratrooper, and was stationed at Ft. Bragg in the early 1950's.
• Like you, I had an Army uniform as a child - including boots! (And I also "got to" wear the real thing years later, as an Army officer in the 1970's).
• My father was in WWII, and met my mother - who grew up in Nice, France - while forcing the Germans north from the French Riviera.
• I also remember pestering my Dad with Army questions... in many ways the worst of those memories was one day in the 50's when I peppered him relentlessly about how many Germans he killed in the war.... As I recall other boys in the neighborhood were bragging about their fathers’ war heroics, and I wanted to brag as well. Anyway, in that annoying way that young boys can have, I asked again and again... I remember my father trying to deflect, avoid and evade... I but I would not let up. Eventually he gave me a number, but I kinda knew then, and was certain soon thereafter, that he just gave me a number to shut me up. It was not the kind of question that should have been asked.... and, young as I was, deep down I knew that, and I did not forget it.
• The Army gave my Dad his choice of final assignments (we were in Germany at the time), and he chose California. I believe he was a Lt. Colonel at the time, and his specific job was to be the Army liaison to the film and TV industry. and as I recall his office was small - maybe 3 officers and 10 people - and located somewhere in North Hollywood. We settled in the San Fernando Valley.
• One of my Dad's primary jobs was technical consultant to the TV show "COMBAT." I don't think it involved any real difficult work...but, looking back on it now, why shouldn't he have had a "cush" job to finish his career? He was 50+ years old, a veteran of both WWII and Korea, and had certainly "earned" it. So he became a big fan of Vic Morrow and Rick Jason, and subsequently was also technical advisor for at least the pilot for The Rat Patrol. While he had seen some of the horrors of war - and like most of his generation, he would not talk about it - I think he was proud of his association with Combat.
• Growing up in a military family, I was a bit jaded by the military stuff, and, typical of many sons, unimpressed by whatever my father was doing at work. But I do have great memories of my father taking me to the set of Combat while I was in high school.... I guess it was in the Franklin Canyon you mentioned... although my memory would have suggested one of the canyons a bit west of the Valley. Both Vic Morrow and Rick Jason - particularly Jason (who I believe also had a role on the Virginian?) were very courteous to my father, and friendly to me.... so that was a real treat. (I should add that one of the other lasting memories I have was how "fake" everything seemed on the set, and how real the same scenes seemed on TV later, after guys like you do your magic.)
• As a final footnote, some things in life do seem to come full circle: I now have a son, an Army Captain and chopper pilot (Blackhawks), who is also Airborne qualified.

Anyway, paratroopers, the Army, a kind, strong father, "Combat"... it sounds like you have terrific memories, and you are smart to cherish them... as you said so well, your father will be with you always.

Again, please accept my condolences...thanks for sharing your memories, and for triggering my own.

Chris Covington
Lafayette, California