The Bear

My best friends in elementary school were John, nicknamed “Skip,” who lived a couple blocks away in one direction, and two brothers, Bobby and Ricky, who lived a couple blocks away in the other. We lived in a college town where my dad taught physics, and Bobby and Ricky’s dad was a big deal in the music department. He was also a wonderful guy and a WWII veteran. That made him into something like a mystical character to me. A lot of the fathers of my friends were in “the war”—my dad wasn’t because he was color blind. Talk about seeing the world as many shades of gray—that was my dad.

Skip’s father was what you might call the opposite of Bobby and Ricky’s. He had also been in the war, and my memories of this man are vivid through the passing decades. He lived in the darkened bedroom and was rarely seen. I heard him many times, snarling at his wife, a very nice lady, and yelling at his son over some misdemeanor. Skip never talked about the abuse that he and his mother were taking, but he didn’t have to. He wore the sadness everywhere, especially in school where he started to have trouble as the years passed.

To me as a kid, Skip’s father was a snarling bear in a cave. Skip and I never went near that part of their little ranch house; the basement door was near that bedroom, and we tiptoed so as not to poke the bear. There’s no one left to ask why he was like this; Skip died of a heart attack in the 1990s at a very young age because, I guess, if you lug that amount of sadness around long enough, it’ll wear you out. He was such a nice guy, probably because he knew how it felt when people weren’t nice. I wonder if Skip had any idea where his dad had seen action. Did he hit the beaches of Anzio or Normandy or Iwo? Was he ground crew for the heavies in England? Was he caught in the slaughter of the Bulge? Whatever had happened to him over there had left a wreck of a human back here, and laid waste to a family unit that deserved better.

I thought about that snarling bear for the first time in a couple generations because I’m involved in a project that’s analyzing 1945-46 in the life of Jimmy Stewart as he returned home from war and contemplated his future. He was one of 11,000 G.I.s who stepped off the Queen Elizabeth on August 31, 1945—maybe Skip’s father and Bobby’s stepped off with Jim, who knows. But all these guys who had just stared into the face of the most horrific war in human history now returned home to something just as terrifying: All had to make their way in a world that was different from the one they left behind. Now they actually had to live with the brides they had married in haste. They had to find jobs because the ones they had left had been filled by younger men or, in some cases, by women. Did you know that one of the greatest shortages of 1946 was the one for dress shirts for job interviews?

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

One day after stepping off the Queen Elizabeth, Jimmy Stewart condescended to hold a press conference after keeping the press at bay for the better part of four and a half years. That day he said he just wanted to make a comedy, “if anyone will have me.”

I am amazed at the bravery of these men. In Jim’s case, as detailed in Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, he had flown 20 combat missions over France and Germany and survived many close calls. I can’t imagine you’re ever quite the same again after a German fighter has flown straight at you-as-pilot and fired wing-mounted machine guns at the cockpit of your bomber. Or after an anti-aircraft shell has hit your plane over the heart of Germany and blown a hole in the flight deck between your feet. Or after you’ve seen the planes under your command break up in the air or explode in a fireball. That was Jim’s tiny little corner of the war, and most of the 11,000 others on the QE had lived through their own little corner, whether it involved bullets or shells or some psychological evil that was even worse. And there were hundreds of passenger ship dockings, each unloading 11,000 more men. And more and more and more.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

I have always been drawn to this shot as we first see Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life. He’s playing a young man of about 20 and we suspend our disbelief, but if you look closely, the face that had stared into the face of war is clearly visible under heavy makeup.

It’s easy not to really think about what combat soldiers see in any conflict in any spot in the world. Whatever that is, they can never unsee it, and it becomes part of the veteran’s mind, and in some cases a handicap that inhibits performance at home and on the job.

For the World War II veteran, it had to take tremendous courage to start over in a civilian world where the men you had counted on to have your back, the ones who had been part of what Jim called a “grand thing,” were now your competitors for jobs. You knew another vet by the look in his eye, and you resented the ones who didn’t have it because you knew they had spent the war at home for whatever reason. The veterans had also changed physically. Many had left as wiry 18-year-old boys and come home as square-shouldered men to the surprise of mothers and siblings. In Jim’s case, as noted in Farran Smith Nehme’s excellent Village Voice piece, going into the service at age 32 and serving four-plus hard years had left Jim “so careworn that no studio would cast him.”

Jim must have lived right because the one call that did come resulted in It’s a Wonderful Life, and that rollercoaster picture with the happy ending contains a tour-de-force Stewart performance that mirrors the crisis in his post-war personal life. He stood at a crossroads like so many million others and displayed courage enough to push his way forward. He survived. He thrived. He lived 50 more mostly wonderful years while consciously tamping down an ongoing loop of black memories. He controlled them; they didn’t control him. For Skip’s father and I’m sure millions of others it didn’t go so well, and I think I could make a case for poor Skip being another casualty of World War II, once removed.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Director Frank Capra chose to throw Jim in the deep end and shoot this scene first. Jim was suffering PTSD and his confidence was shot, all of which is imprinted in celluloid for posterity. The scene is full of clumsy energy and some very strange kisses between stars who, Jim would claim later, had no chemistry.

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