One day, shortly after starting my first job that involved a lot of writing, I realized that I worked for a magician.
Seriously! My boss, another John, could look at a good piece of writing and make it amazing. All he used was a pencil.
I can recall standing next to him as he looked over my memo that first time. He changed a “this” to a “that,” reorganized a couple of words in another sentence and handed it back to me.
Naturally, I figured that since he was the boss he had to do something to contribute; after all, his name was going on it. But when I looked at the simple changes he made, I was astonished. Those simple changes made a huge difference.
“Everybody needs an editor,” John said, smiling.
That was close to 40 years ago, and since then I have used that line constantly. I’ve said that to everybody I’ve ever worked with. To writer friends. To blogging buddies. Because it’s true. No matter how good a writer you or I am, different eyes notice large and small ways to make something good, better.
If you’re writing a novel, drafting a memoir, compiling blog posts into a future best-seller, you need an editor. Someone who can help polish, perhaps shorten or reorder. Someone who can tell you if your work makes sense, or if there are areas that need clarification/reworking. Someone who can change some “this-es” to “that-s,” reorganize a bit, cut, and shine up that manuscript you’ve been working on.
I have someone to recommend.
Karen Kingsley is an old friend of mine who has been a professional writer/editor for her entire career. For the last 15 years, she has been a freelancer. Her website is Kingsley Ink.
She’s written and/or edited just about anything you can come up with: books (fiction and non-), websites, web content, essays, marketing materials, advertising, blogs, speeches, resumes, cover letters, Facebook posts, tweets, press releases.
This story kind of haunts me. I change my mind about it all the time. I try to work it out in my mind, but I can never be certain of what really happened. So now I’ll let you think about it, too.
In late June 1998, John, Jacob and I took my Dad, then aged 81, to Normandy, France, to visit the D-Day landing beaches, museums, the works. Dad was a WWII vet – he was in the U.S. Navy during the War, stationed on two different aircraft carriers in the Pacific. He fought in some of the big battles in the Pacific, as a gunner on an SBD Dauntless, a seriously cool little plane.
Dad was always fascinated by the D-Day landings, and he’d always wanted to visit Normandy. The planning, the strategy. The very real possibility that it could have failed. And he had lost friends there. Two of Dad’s closest childhood friends died there, they’d gone ashore at Omaha Beach. So when he came to visit us in Switzerland, we took a road trip.
The folks in Normandy, well, they love Americans. We stayed in Sainte-Mère-Église at a lovely farmhouse on the outskirts of town. The owner of the farm treated Dad like royalty, even though he told her he was fighting in the Pacific. The trip was, my Dad said forever afterwards, one of the highlights of his life.
Now, you know what happened on D-Day. The invasion began when the Allies sent paratroopers into some of the strategic areas slightly inland from the Normandy Beaches they would invade later on that day, on the morning of June 6th. There were many problems with the drops of these paratroopers. Some of the most dramatic stories came from survivors who dropped into Ste. Mère-Église.
You see, that night, June 5/6, there was a fire in the town hall. All the townspeople were out, along with the German occupiers, trying to put out the fire. It spread to several nearby buildings.
Ste Mere Eglise on fire, June 6, 1944. Photo credit: Normandie44canalblog.com\archives
Into the midst of this chaos, American paratroopers fell. Many of them were shot by German troops as they dropped, butchered. Others were caught on trees, on buildings –including John Steele. Steele had parachuted into the middle of town, and his parachute was caught on the church steeple. Steele played dead for many hours, with the church bell ringing in his ear, watching many of his fellow paratroopers die. Steele was memorably portrayed by Red Buttons in the movie The Longest Day.
There are still parachutes on many of the buildings commemorating the landings.
Things changed, the Allies won, the day/night. Ste. Mère-Églisewas the first town liberated by the Allies on June 6, 1944. D-Day. It was a vital victory for the Allies, for the French, and for the world.
John Steele survived and returned to Ste. Mère-Égliseafter the war.He opened up a restaurant that became a huge draw for tourists, including us. Our first night in town, we had reservations. But we were early, and the restaurant wasn’t yet open. So we went to a cafe/bar around the corner to get a drink while we waited for half an hour.
John, Dad, Jacob and I sat at a table, excitedly talking about our tour of the town. Ste. Mère-Église is seriously cool for all ages. There are still parachutes hanging in trees, on buildings. It is still a real town, but it is also a memorial to the men who fought and died there, and a place that welcomes veterans with affection and gratitude. Unlike much of France, the folks in Normandy remember. They made us feel very welcome
So sitting there at the table having a drink, we enthusiastically recounted what we’d seen so far. With two history buffs in the group, Jacob and I learned a lot from John and Dad. Placards explain the events of the night so that it is easily followed. We chatted about the history, explaining more to Jacob. We had seen so much already, and it was only our first night! The next day, we would visit the beaches. We were excited.
A man standing at the bar behind us was pretty excited too. Quite animated, in fact. But perhaps that was just because he had had three or four drinks too many.
“Damn, if I had it to do over again,” blared the drunk American at the bar. He followed it up with a string of obscenities that made my Dad, the sailor, blush. Then the drunk caught sight of me and 7-year-old Jacob. He wandered over to us and offered us his apologies. We politely accepted them. But he didn’t seem to take “no problem” as an answer. He introduced himself as Howard Something-or-other, and stood talking with us about how he had retired to Normandy.
Stupidly, I asked “What brought you to Normandy?”
“Well,” he said with a twinkle in his eye, “I happened to drop into town one night…”
“Oh, uhh, wow,” I said, looking skeptically between John and Dad. They didn’t seem to believe the guy either.
But Howard proceeded to tell his story:
“Yup,” he said, “I dropped in here one night. I landed in the cemetery over back by the Town Hall, which, as you know, was on fire.”
He continued: “First, I crapped my pants,” he announced, looking straight at my 7-year-old son who was mortified. I was pretty sure we didn’t need to hear that.
“Actually,” he said, “I really lucked out. The cemetery had a tall stone wall around it. And the Germans were occupied with the fire and then with the guys who were dropping into the middle of the town square. Me, I hid behind some gravestones until I realized that, hell, a cemetery is no place to die. So I made my way out, and linked up with my buddies.”
We didn’t believe a word of it. For one thing, the guy looked way too young. Remember, it was 1998, fifty-four years after the Normandy Invasion. Looking at him, I could see Howard couldn’t then have been more than 60 or 65. That put him in grammar school during the War. Besides, there was just something about him. None of us believed him.
Howard was meeting someone, and we had a dinner reservation. So we didn’t pursue his story.
But the next day when we went to buy postcards to send back home, well, we saw something rather surprising: A postcard of Howard Manoian.
Our Howard from the night before. The drunk. The faker. The guy whose heroic WWII story we didn’t believe, and to which we only listened to a bit of, and then only out of politeness.
We felt really stupid at not having tackled the guy and listened to the rest of his story. Peppered him with questions. What a horrible lost opportunity. Imagine, to hear a first-hand account of what happened that night. June 6, 1944.
“Well,” said Dad sadly, “he was a bit of a weirdo.”
* * *
Fast forward to May/June 2009. The Sixty-fifth Anniversary of the Normandy Landings.
A few days before the 65th Anniversary of the D-Day landings, John sent me an interesting email. It was a link to a Boston Herald article that exposed “an American fraud.”
Yup, you guessed it. Our Howard was revealed in the article to have not “dropped into” Ste. Mère-Église, after all. The article claimed that military records stated that instead, Howard was part of the invasion force that landed at Utah Beach.
Even though I hadn’t believed him when he was standing next to me, I was really sad to read the story. Imagine living a lie for all that time. For sixty years. Howard had lived, part-time, in Ste. Mère-Église for decades. He had attended many D-Day ceremonies over those sixty-five years. He had been telling his story, albeit often under the influence, for many, many years.
And so I was sad. Yes, the guy had been “a bit of a weirdo” to quote Dad. And yes, he had been rather inebriated. But was he a fraud? Could “Weird Howard” have been living a lie for all those years? If so, how sad, how pitiful. But how could that happen, I wondered, to tell this lie in a place where veterans of D-Day flock? In a place where, I thought, sooner or later, someone would recognize him?
* * *
In traveling about, and especially visiting many battlefields with John, the history buff, I am often astonished at the images of what soldiers and sailors face in battle. But I have never been anywhere like Normandy.
When you stand on the beaches, you crane your neck to look up the cliffs to and look up at where the troops had to go, the price of what we often take for granted looms out of the ghosts. The cliffs are high, ragged. With no climbing skills at all, I can’t imagine trying to get to the top, much less with guns pointed and firing in my direction. And yet they did. Many died. Many were wounded. Many are still there, buried at the top of the cliffs, overlooking Omaha Beach. I felt an almost religious appreciation for the Greatest Generation‘s sacrifices. There is no physical place that to me represents the ancient struggle of good versus evil. It is awe-inspiring.
And really, it all started in and around Ste. Mère-Église.
* * *
In researching this post, I found conflicting information about Howard. Some folks say Howard was a fraud.
Others, including the French Government believe his story. And at the 65th Anniversary of D-Day, in 2009, the French Government awarded Howard their highest medal, the Legion of Honor for exemplary valor and service, even after the Boston Herald article “exposed him” as a fraud.
Howard in the center at the 65th Anniversary of the D-Day Landings (Google Image)
For the longest time, including when I originally wrote and posted this piece four years ago, I didn’t know what to think.
But today I find it hard to believe that anyone could live such a lie for over 60 years and not be exposed much, much earlier. He told his story over and over, like Mr. Bojangles, for drinks and tips. If he had gone ashore at Utah Beach, he would still qualify as a hero. Was “dropping into” Ste Mere Eglise somehow more heroic?
The folks who fought at Normandy, who fought in Europe and in the Pacific, regardless of in what capacity, division or from which country, well, they are all heroes. They all deserve our thanks.
More practically, the likelihood that Howard would have run into someone who recognized him from that day was pretty high. Folks return. Folks remember. I’m pretty sure at least some would have clear memories of who stood next to them on the landing craft or on a glider soaring silently above Ste. Mère-Église. Of whom they linked up with on the ground.
So in the intervening years, I have thought about Howard quite a bit. I wish we had heard more of his story. I wish, at a minimum, that we had bought him a beer (although he didn’t really need another one). I wish that Howard, who died in 2011, didn’t pass with a cloud over his head.
Of course I said yes, even though I had never before had any interest in going on stage. It wasn’t every day that I was asked to participate. Usually it was the popular kids who got to perform. I certainly didn’t qualify.
But Liza was in charge, and Liza was my friend. Liza was also the tallest kid in 6th grade. I was the third smallest (Betsy and Annette were smaller, if you’re wondering). So I was perfect for the part of George Washington’s granddaughter. Liza, the playwright and tall person, would play General George Washington at the end of the Revolutionary War.
We were set to perform Liza’s play in front of the 4th, 5th and 6th graders on the big stage in the auditorium. We were even allowed to open and close the stage curtains!
My part was small, but important — General George Washington’s granddaughter, Nelly. This is how my big scene was supposed to go.
Following a couple of battle scenes, General George/Liza appears in the living room of his granddaughter, Nelly, who is delighted to see him. Nelly/Elyse runs up to Grandpa/Liza, and jumps up to give Grandpa a big hug, and say:
“Grandpa!” Then I was to slowly get down, looking at how Grandpa George/Liza is dressed — in civilian clothes, and continue: “Where are your pretty soldier clothes?”
“I have put them away for good, Nelly,” Grandpa George/Liza responds. “The War is over.”
It didn’t quite go that way during our performance, though. Because you see, I was a little bit over excited. So when it was time for my big scene, well …
The curtain opened…
“GRANDPA!” I screamed, and I ran at Grandpa George/Liza like a ball of fury, and I jumped!
I jumped so hard, in fact, that Grandpa George/Liza dropped me on my butt before falling on his.
You know the adage “the show must go on? Well I’m assuming I’d never heard it. I was quite young you see.
I couldn’t stop laughing long enough to deliver the rest of my lines. Liza managed to choke hers out, somehow. We were greeted with riotous applause when we did our curtain call. I’m pretty sure that the kids in the audience liked the improvised version better than the original.
It was years before I would get up the courage to get on stage again. And while I never again literally fell flat, I did have additional humiliating experiences, so obviously my fear was justified.
I tell this story because someone who followed me in school, and performed in my high school acting group just hit the big time. And not with her butt.
Alison Porter, who won The Voice last night, also grew up in my hometown, Westport, Connecticut. She is wildly talented. And upright.
Of course I have never met her, or seen her perform in real life. Still, it’s good to see a hometown girl make good, standing on her own two feet.
“A haircut will make you feel better, Lease,” my niece, Jen, said as we wandered the mall. We were together in Florida to organize and attend my dad’s funeral. It was December, 2000.
For reasons I still don’t fully understand, my brother Bob, who was Dad’s primary caretaker at the end, was insistent.
“Dad wanted to have Bobby Darin’s Mac The Knife played at his funeral,” Bob insisted. So in the days before YouTube, Jen and I were on a mission, looking for a CD of the song. It was no easy feat, let me tell you, finding that recording.* Record stores were fading, and the stock held by the few remaining didn’t include too many hits from 1958. Jen and I were getting tired and frustrated.
But Jen was right, I looked awful.
My hair is my best feature and always has been. It’s strawberry blonde, thick and curly. It does what it wants to do, which is good, because I don’t like to fuss with it. And I always let whoever cuts my hair do what they want with it. It always looks better than when I tell the expert what to do.
Into the salon Jen and I went.
Mellie, the hairdresser I ended up with, was young — 19, she said. Her hair was black and pink, and she wore thick makeup and brass hoop earrings the size of hula hoops.
I looked at Jen skeptically.
“It’ll be fine,” she reassured me. Of course, she wasn’t getting her hair cut.
I told Mellie to trim my hair, that I was going to a funeral and needed to be presentable.
“How about …” Mellie started talking about different looks. But really, I didn’t care.
When she finished, she twirled my chair around like a playground carousel.
“There you go! You look … sassy!“
She’d given me the ugliest hairstyle I’ve ever seen — Jennifer Aniston haircut from friends. Cut short in the back, with long sides. It’s not a nice look on a human.
John and Jacob hadn’t been able to get to my Dad’s funeral — there were no flights available. John was gentle when he saw my new do, though. After all, I was grieving. A month later when I had all my hair cut off to get rid of the stupid style, John said “I was really surprised to see you with that style. You looked like Cooper [our English springer spaniel.] Long curly bits around your ears and nothing in back.”
Yesterday I had my long hair cut to chin length. When he was done, my longtime hairdresser Ric, who has never given me a bad cut, spun my chair around and proclaimed:
“Elyse, you look sassy!”
* We were, happily able to find a recording of Mack The Knife:
As a young woman, I dreamed of being an actress. So today/tonight, it is only fitting that I tell you this story.
You know how they say that life is what happens when you’re making other plans. It’s true. I’m living proof.
I had everything it takes to be a fine, award winning actress. I was talented, pretty, had good comedic timing, and a voice that could be heard in the cheap seats.
What I didn’t have was guts. Good guts. My GI tract erupted in high school leaving my future in the hands of jobs that offered health insurance instead of fame and glory. Damn.
Oh, and I lacked the guts to go for it anyway. Once I made a wrong exit and my acting career died in a broom closet, that is.
But even after leaving my dream in tatters with the mops and brooms, I continued to pipe-dream. That’s different than the real thing, and you don’t have to remember lines, or stage directions or what to do with props. It’s actually much easier. You get to keep your privacy, too, which is nice.
Most of my friends are aware of this fantasy of mine, and of my need to, from time to time, stand on a table (instead of a stage) and tell a story. It often involves alcoholic beverages. The table standing, not necessarily the story.
Right now I’m going to tell you about the night I received my Oscars. [Feel free to stop here if you’ve heard this one.]
It was an incredibly special night for me. An honor really. Well, actually, two honors. Two Oscars. Two Awards. But I only got to make one speech.
It was 1983, and some really fun people worked in my office that summer, one of whom, Jon, was from the area. Carol, Mike, Jon and I all went to Jon’s house one night. You see, 1983 was still in the Bronze Age, and Jon’s parents were on the cutting age of technology, because they had a VCR. And Risky Business had just come out on video.
In the middle of the movie, we took a beer/bathroom break. And guess what I spotted, casually stuck on the bookshelf in the TV room of Rob’s house.
It turned out that Jon’s father was a filmmaker. Documentary films. My pals presented me with two Oscars for Documentary Filmmaking. Sadly, not one of us had a camera. Probably just as well, because not many stars accept wearing blue jeans.
Receiving Oscar, and his twin, Oscar, was a special honor to me, since I had neither made, nor been in any documentary films, nor even fetched donuts and coffee for the real filmmakers. Regardless, I got to hold Oscar and Oscar, and I got to make a speech accepting my Academy Awards. So I am in an unusual club of people who have never actually acted or contributed in any way, shape or form to a movie, who has been presented an Academy Award.
Yes, I’mthat good.
[Yeah, it’s a repeat. But one can never have too many Academy Award stories. Amirite?]