When a person dies, surprisingly, your relationship with them doesn’t end. Memories stick around and buried ones pop up at the most unexpected times. And with the passing years, we gain a new perspective, a clearer understanding.
My Father the Spy-Catcher
My relationship with my father – a master-spy catcher during WWII who died almost 10 years ago from Alzheimer’s – continues to grow because five years ago I began to write a play about him.
My father was a complicated, insecure and angry man who flew into rages. Highly intelligent and multi-lingual, he served in the Army’s Counter Intelligence Corps during WWII. He caught spies in Italy from the time the Allies invaded in the fall of 1943 until the Germans were routed in 1945, and then he was sent to Austria where he continued his spy-catching. He had bragged often enough about an article in The Saturday Evening Post (in 1948) that had declared him a master spy-catcher who had caught more spies than any other counter intelligence agent in history. He bragged, but the details were always missing. And it wasn’t until after his death that I began to unearth those details.
Part of my inheritance included four footlockers stuffed with old family letters, postcards, papers and photographs, many of which date back to the early 1900’s! In those trunks, when I finally faced their contents, I discovered my father. I turned up reams of carbon paper copies of notes about the spies he caught, which he had written at the request of the author of that Saturday Evening Post article, his commanding officer Joel Spingarn. There were letters back and forth between the two former C.I.C. agents, some of them alarming, implying they had not always played by the rules in interrogating those spies.
The Secrets in the Briefcase
I might add that as Alzheimer’s stole my father’s mind he began to carry a battered leather briefcase with him when he left the house and hide it when he had visitors. He was paranoid someone would steal his tax returns, will, and other important papers, so he locked them inside the briefcase. I found the briefcase in one of the trunks and inside it was a yellowed poster with mug shots of 20 Italian spies blazoned with the headline (in Italian) that anyone caught spying would be executed. My father had written on this poster that he had caught ten of those spies. He had caught 40 or 50 in all, but I had never realized most were executed. This explained why he had become fearful that the families of the spies he caught were coming to get him.
I almost overlooked a small crumbling leather datebook tucked into a pocket of the briefcase. I caught my breath when I read the brief notations made in tiny, almost indecipherable handwriting. It began with his C.I.C. training – I learned he was sent on pretend spy-catching missions in Chicago and was trained to use a machine gun and to drive a motorcycle and a tank. When he left my mother, his bride of a year and a half, after a 3-day furlough before being shipped overseas, he “thought he was saying good-bye forever”. He sailed to Africa in a convoy of 50 ships and was fired on by a German submarine, which he thought was “great fun”. And he referred to himself and his comrades as “C.I.C. guinea pigs”. I also learned my father had been in charge of the R.I.P. – refugee interrogation post and prison. I had always known my father to be an honorable and moral – even if angry and unfulfilled – man, but now I began to wonder just what he had done and who he really was.
From all these papers -- and from a lot of reading and research on WWII in Italy and the C.I.C. -- I pieced together an account of my father. He had not just caught spies, but he endured all the horror, deprivation and gore of war. He entered Naples just after the Germans had retreated and destroyed the city, leaving it without electricity, food or water and booby-trapped with mines. He was charged with figuring out which Italians were enemy agents and which were unfortunate citizens. He narrowly escaped being killed by German bombs and experienced the terror of repeated air raids. He was responsible for the deaths of as many as 40 people – enemy agents, yes, but still human beings whose language he spoke and country he loved.
I began to realize my father likely suffered from PTSD. His bed was always a tangle of sheets and blankets; he was impatient, bitter, easily triggered to anger, unable to be truly intimate with anyone, and had low self-esteem. I had also been researching PTSD and Alzheimer’s and discovered that many WWII veterans entering their 80’s and 90’s who begin to suffer from dementia also show acute symptoms of PTSD for the first time.
All this reading and research helped me begin to craft the character George into a believable character with a past that explained his present and his relationship with his family. Yet, the plot of my play needed work. I had intended it to be about a family dealing with Alzheimer’s but it had now blossomed into something much much more. When my writing mentor suggested that I “raise the stakes” by making the son a Vietnam Veteran, I was electrified. Yes! That provided the conflict needed for a dramatic story. I would contrast the “good war” with the “bad war”. The play’s main plot would revolve around the attempted reconciliation between father and son veterans – one a hero, one a deserter.
Vietnam Veterans and Their Stories
My high-school boyfriend deserted to Canada after basic, and to this day I worry about what that move cost him -- but I also know what serving in Vietnam would have done to him. He had not asked me about enlisting in the Marines in the first place, so when he called to say goodbye before fleeing to Canada, I refused to talk to him. I was a college freshman -- he was my ex. But I now regret that I hung up on him. My college boyfriend got a medical deferment -- his parents paid a pshyciatrist to say he was "unstable". So I knew plenty of draft dogers or boys who got college deferments, but I had never really known anyone who had served -- or at least who served and talked about it -- until I met Charlene Edwards and her husband Michael Pergola.
Charlene was a photographer and working on a book of her photographs about people whose lives where influenced by the Vietnam War. Her husband Michael still suffered from flashbacks -- he had been a door-gunner on a helicopter that retrieved wounded and dead soliders from the battlefield. His buddy died in his arms. I helped Charlene edit her stories, and I became more sensitized than ever to the fallout from that disasterous war.
So with Michael's story in mind, I began researching Vietnam veterans. I watched all the Vietnam movies I had once avoided because they were too upsetting and bloody. I read novels and memoirs about Vietnam. One memoir in particular struck me because of its honesty. This book is And a Hard Rain Fell…GI’s True Story of the War in Vietnam by John Ketwig, now in its third edition. I began reading this book on a bus ride from DC to NYC where my first play, Bye, Mom!, was being produced; it totally engrossed me for the entire 5-hour ride.
This book offered me the story that I needed to make Andy believable. I had wanted Andy to be suffering from flashbacks unbeknownst to his family, and I wanted him to have fooled his family into thinking he had not seen much action in Vietnam. Ketwig had been a truck mechanic in Vietnam, yet he was sent out on recon every week, and the base where he worked was targeted by the North Vietnamese because it was a repair facility. Yet, he could have easily made his family believe otherwise. I also wanted my character to have experienced horrors and atrocities that caused his PTSD, but I did not want any audience members telling me that my character was exaggerated and those things could not have happened. I now was also developing a “political” voice for the first time in my life as the Iraq war showed no signs of ending, and I became increasingly concerend about the direction my country was heading.
As I did with my father’s real experiences in crafting George, I used Ketwigs’ experiences in Vietnam to craft Andy. After incorporating this material into my script, I wrote to Ketwig asking his permission to draw from his book. When I didn’t hear back, I fretted. Then one day my husband shouted to come see what he found inside Newsweek magazine – it was a misplaced postcard from Ketwig that read: “By all means use anything you want from my book. All I ask is that you invite me to the first performance!” I phoned him right away and we had a wonderful talk. John and his wife, Carolyn, whom he credits with saving his life after he returned from Vietnam, have attended two of the three readings of the play and the Fringe production. John told me several times with a lot of emotion in his voice, “You got it right!”
Ultimately, Missing Pages, while based on true stories and factual information is crafted into a fictional play about a family and events that “could have happened.” I made up a story that might have actually happened to my father or George. I found out from a letter I unearthed from one of the trunks that his grandparents' village in Northern Italy had been occupied by Germans who had executed men in the village square, and his childhood friends and relatives had been active Partisans instrumental in the Resistance that helped the Allies win the war. So I crafted a spy-catching story that could have happened to George – a story that could have haunted George (or my father) all his life. And I worked Ketwigs’ experiences into Andy’s on-going battle with PTSD and his feelings of betrayal by his father and his country.
The writing and the research I did while developing the characters of George and Andy changed my attitude toward my father. And the writing ultimately helped me forgive him for his rages, narcissism and grandiosity, as I began to realize that he had been a casualty of war.
A Story About Past Wars for Today's Veterans and Their Families
Missing Pages, because it deals with the lingering aftermath of war and the moral degradation of character that may be inevitable during war, is a timely piece. The story is highly relevant to today’s veterans who are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and to their families who are trying to love and live with each other again. Sometimes it’s easier to see what’s happening in the present if we examine it through the lens of the past, which allows the present to come more clearly into focus.
Behind the Scenes
It was pure serendipity, plain and simple. I (Susan, the playwright) met Diana, the director, in October, 2008, when I volunteered to work for Obama in Virginia. I was housed in Leesburg, Virginia, with Diana’s family because Diana had been working fulltime on the campaign as a member of Obama’s Arts Committee. I helped Diana out with some phone calling for a few days before I started ringing doorbells.
It was a happy coincidence when we discovered that Diana was an actor and director and I had written a politically provocative play. And even more coincidental that both Diana's father and step-father had life-long careers in intelligence. Diana knew all about espionage. I happened to have a copy of the script for Missing Pages in my suitcase because I was leaving immediately after the election to go to New York City for a reading of the play at Ensemble Studio Theatre. I hesitated only briefly before I handed the script over to Diana for bedtime reading. The verdict came a few days later. “I like it. I’d like to direct it.” The rest they say is history.