What it would be like to step out the door of an airplane a couple of thousand feet up, in the dark, with people shooting at you, is beyond my ability to imagine. But John did that on D-Day in 1944. That would be 71 years ago yesterday. I’ve heard that many people who survived it had flashbacks on the date every year for the rest of their lives.
I used to try to take John for lunch or a couple of beers on the day, until he died. I worked with him at the L.A. Times in the early 60s. He was a photographer and I was a writer, and we sometimes teamed on an assignment. Nothing dramatic; we worked for the Promotion Department, not hard news.
He drove one of those slick little 57 Ford two-seaters with the portholes. When we finished whatever it was -- publicizing a retail advertising client, interviewing a contest winner -- John would drive us back to the Redwood Room, the bar located physically in a corner of the building the newspaper was in; the bar was sort of an annex. The bartender and all the waitresses would greet him by name, and before it was over they knew me just as well.
Lou Nightly -- the banner over the front window announced “Lou Wilson Nightly at the Piano," and the “Wilson” dropped out early on -- Lou Nightly would assign a theme song to each of the regulars and would launch into it when he saw one coming through the door. Mine was “Danny Boy.” I don't know why, you‘d have to ask Lou. Too late now, I’m sure.
John was one of three WWII guys I became friends with, all named John, oddly. Whether it was the war, or the Depression before that, that shaped them, or just coincidence, all had something -- "integrity" is a word that comes to mind. When you were a friend, that was it. Probably the same for an enemy, but I didn’t have to deal with that part.
We visited John at the VA hospital, a few days before he died, as it turned out. We were directed to a day room, but when I looked in there was only one man in it and it wasn’t John. The attendant insisted, though, and when I looked really closely, yes it was him. The cancer had aged him so much so fast I hadn’t recognized him.