Continuing the odyssey as told in Forks in the Road
Before leaving Lackland AFB in 1958 I spent time reviewing how I spent some significant days there. It was where I came as a 17-year-old Colored boy from Valdosta, Georgia, the deep South, seeking manhood in a setting so alien from the racially segregated environment of my youth. During my seven years there I became a husband and father twice. While still using athletic skills from high school I became the starting quarterback of the base championship football team, comprising ex-college stars who were staying fit to finish their tour and return to the NFL. And I remembered the friendships that gave assurance of inclusion and how mutual pledges are honored by persons of goodwill. Because of this I was wiser. On the morning of my departure, I returned to the spot on the parade field where I promised to return, another day, another person. And I said goodbye.
This is a very long story.
Within another month my life changed beyond my imagination. Nothing I had done prepared me for what would be, at age 24, not just another fork in the road, or even another highway, but a rebirth. When I arrived at South Ruislip Air Base, England, as a senior surgical technician, one physician who greeted me was Lieutenant Colonel James Van Pelt, M.D., Chief of Obstetrics & Gynecology. Thirteen years earlier, on August 9, 1945, he performed a different operation. Then, he was Captain James Van Pelt, navigator of the B-29 to Nagasaki.
One day, as I entered the surgical workroom, two other senior technicians read the Daily Bulletin. They laughed and joked about an announcement which invited interested persons to apply for duty with a special team called On Target, which traveled to other bases throughout England, France, Germany, Scotland, and Norway. Both technicians playfully emoted and expressed interest in applying. Because their qualifications matched mine, I surmised that the On Target team must be a medical inspection team which visited other medical facilities. The Bulletin directed applicants to contact Mr. John Briley, a civilian employee, at Headquarters, Third Air Force, the building directly behind the hospital. I paid him a visit. John Briley cordially greeted me and promptly asked, “Tell me about your acting experience.” I thought the question an unusual way to begin an interview about my medical training and experience, so I casually answered that my last performance was in the first grade. Furthermore, I proudly announced that I still remembered part of the song I sang as I wore a costume of a bear. His eyes registered mild perplexity. Then he asked, “What do you think of On Target?” I answered. “If it’s on target it must be OK, since off-target signifies a miss.” Though not amused, his eyes did acknowledge my witty response. Now we were both confused, so I openly declared, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” His gaze now signaled befuddlement and annoyance. He expressed both. “Sergeant Alexander your record shows you have been here for three months. By your own admission you are unfamiliar with On Target, which means you have failed to attend three mandatory monthly sessions of Commanders Call.” My prompt reply was, “And I might miss the next one, unless you tell me what you’re talking about, since it seems something was not covered in my incoming orientation.” As he fidgeted for an approach to preserve both of our dignities, we looked at each other and broke into such loud laughter that Joan, his secretary, entered and asked, in a most penetrating English accent, “Are you two daft?” – (a polite British way of asking, have you two lost your minds?) My host then did something else unusual. He rose from his desk, walked over to me, extended his hand, and said, “Let’s start over. My name is Jack Briley. Can I call you Jim, or Alex?” I again gave permission to a temporary substitute for James Edward Alexander. He then gave me a document of approximately 30 pages, which he said was a script. Only three months earlier the word script had entered my vocabulary as the money we Americans used to transact business on base. What he gave me was not money. Then he instructed me to read the lines after the bold name STATZA, and that he would read those after the bold name DAVE. Suddenly, the telephone rang. The call was for Jack, but the call might well have been the most important telephone call of my military career; possibly for the re-direction of my life, and the caller didn’t even know my name. After no more than three minutes, Jack finished his conversation and redirected his attention to me. He began reading Dave’s lines. I responded as Statza. We finished the first page. Before he turned to page 2, he paused and gave me a strange look. In the middle of page 2 he stopped and gave me a longer stare, but he said nothing. In the middle of page 3 he paused again, then asked, “How long have you been doing that?” Equally puzzled, I asked, “Doing what? And why am I reading this?” He explained his surprise. “You are not reading. You are delivering those lines from memory. Within the time span of my telephone conversation, you apparently memorized three pages of dialogue. Now tell me, how long have you been able to do that?” I faced him directly and declared, “I have absolutely no idea what happened, how it happened, or your purpose.” He gave me some answers.
In 1953 John Briley was studying in England for a Ph.D. in Elizabethan drama. When he reported for reserve duty at Headquarters Third Air Force, his writing and communications skills landed him in the Office of the Directorate of Information. He and another talented officer, Lieutenant Wilson Brydon, convinced their superiors that some of the information commanders wanted disseminated to the troops could be efficiently delivered in a novel “theatrical” fashion by regular GIs portraying characters within the tragedy-comedy spectrum. Briley further suggested that following his two-week tour of duty as a reserve officer, he should continue in a newly created position as civilian employee to write the scripts, direct the “actors” and administer the innovative program. It was a case of the employee creating his job. With cautious approval from his superiors, Jack Briley searched the records for military personnel in England who had acting experience, regardless service, regardless of rank. Among the GIs who answered the call were Airman Larry Hagman, and Army Private Frank Gorshin. Larry Hagman was in England as a member of the cast of South Pacific, which starred his mother, Mary Martin. When he entered the Air Force, he was assigned to a “Special Services” unit and continued to produce and direct entertainment for the troops. Frank Gorshin was a 19-year-old soldier in 1953 who also was a Special Services entertainer serving in England. Both young GIs were part of the original On Target team, long before Larry recited lines as JR Ewing on the television show Dallas, or before Frank’s role as The Riddler in Batman. They also had finished their military service before I knew their names. Other GIs had replaced them, and now Briley was auditioning approximately 75 persons to fill a new vacancy on the team. Our interview was not going well. We cordially said goodbye and I returned to my duties in surgery.
Another announcement on the bulletin board listed a two-week management course, scheduled to begin the following Monday. Three days later I went to class. After the last day of the course, I wondered who had been selected to fill the actor vacancy. My curiosity guided me to Jack’s office. And, almost as if scripted, as I approached his door, Joan exited and said, “Sergeant Alexander, you should go straight away to your mailbox.” There, attached to a large package was a document which boldly stated MILITARY ORDER, followed by language which directed that Staff Sergeant Alexander, James E., be immediately assigned to The Directorate of Information, Headquarters, Third Air Force. Before opening the envelope, I stood for a long time motionless and silent, so long that another surgical technician touched me and asked, “Where are you?” My truthful reply was, “I don’t know. I have just been selected for the On Target team. In typical GI fashion he said, “No s—! Congratulations.” Then I opened the envelope and was notified that the OT team was on two week “down time”, and that my immediate reassignment also excused me from duty for that period. However, Briley ordered that I take the time to become familiar with the enclosed three scripts and be ready for the first reading upon return to duty. Next, I went straight away home and tried to explain to my wife Judy what OT was, which I had never seen, and what my new job would be, which was not what I was trained to do. When we assembled for rehearsals, the first order of business was for Jack to introduce me as the newest member. Two names were already familiar from the audition script. The stocky civilian said in a very deep voice, “I be Dave. Welcome to OT.” He was David Healy, a professional actor trained at the University of Texas. Dave hated to memorize lines, and detested rehearsals more. Yet he was a master at knowing the true meaning of a script and would extemporize through most performances with appropriate remarks. Another hand was extended with the announcement, “I’m Airman Second Class James Statza. I like girls. Do you have a sister?” Even if he had been wearing civilian clothes, Statza’s natural manner was a neon sign which read GI. He was frequently mistaken for the real actor Peter Sellers because they shared a striking physical resemblance. Waiting quietly and patiently was Airman First Class Ellis Fortune, another Texan. At the end of the day my management and supervisory skills detected that Ellis was a good actor, and that he was the one member who kept track of all costumes and equipment. Within the next two weeks I was introduced to a world beyond the scope of ordinary military exposure. Jack defined my new duties: In addition to learning and performing my roles on stage, I was required to read the daily edition of The Manchester Guardian and The London Times newspapers, both of which were new to me. To help me learn the craft of acting, I was given tickets and assigned the “duty” of attending various shows in London’s West End theatre district to observe professionals at work. Briley told me to learn the directions to The Old Vic, The Royal Haymarket Theatre, Drury Lane, Covent Garden Opera House, and The Royal Albert Hall. Furthermore, since our monthly travels took us near The Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon, Briley also ordered tickets for me to attend and learn from performances of King Lear, Coriolanus, The Merchant of Venice, Richard III, and Troilus and Cressida. I also attended a most memorable performance of Othello, starring Paul Robeson, as the Moor, Mary Ure, as Desdemona, and Sam Wanamaker, as Iago. In addition, to improve my speech delivery, Jack arranged for me to have private speech lessons from a teacher who also was assisting William Holden and Nancy Kwan. They were in London filming The World of Suzie Wong. We also scheduled breaks so that we could spend time in the real world. During one such period I accepted another challenge. Cambridge University invited all American forces located throughout Europe to select 25 persons to attend a special two-week course in international relations. I applied and was accepted. It was a most exhilarating academic experience that affirmed the power of self-discipline and reaching goals.
Even though I was assigned to On Target, I also was married, spending Monday to Friday away from home. To reconnect with my family, I periodically took breaks from OT and returned to the surgical suite. Another reason for the interruption was to stay current in my specialty, which determined my eligibility for promotions. I was still a staff sergeant (E-5) approaching my tenth year of service. During some of those years promotions were frozen due to a surplus of persons at my next grade level. But a new urgency boosted my need for advancement. In September 1960, Judy fixed June 1961 for the arrival of our third child. Kenneth Anthony didn’t disappoint his mother’s schedule; he arrived on June 30. Four days later, July 4th, just before joining the American Independence Day celebrations on the base, I visited my son in the nursery. When I held him, he opened his eyes, and it seemed he asked me a question: ‘Dad, how and where will you take care of me?’ He was our third child, and I had also asked and answered the question. Eight days earlier I reenlisted, extending my tour of active duty another six years. The first decade had passed quickly (tempus fugit). And now we were a family of five. At the end of this enlistment, I will have served for 16 years. We all knew I would stay and retire after 20 years, at age 37. Now, I had to project beyond my days in uniform.
On Target had guided me into an adventurous world where almost everything I did was outside the channels of the entire armed forces. Within the scope of so many new and varied roles and assignments, I was trained to think and speak differently. I paid careful attention to John Briley, the most organized and articulate person I had ever met. One month as he prepared to vacation with his family, he wrote four scripts for OT, added significantly to his thesis for a PhD, and performed his regular duties as the Director of Orientation Activities at Third Air Force Headquarters. It was a performance worth emulating. As the team travelled in chauffeured staff cars to bases throughout England and on specially assigned planes throughout Europe and Scandinavia, we played games that tested our knowledge and memory. There was so much that I didn’t know. So, again, I carried a pad to note what needed to be learned, and when the others slept, I studied my notes; preparing to keep the promise I made to myself a decade ago on the parade field. And then, it was time to return to the United States.
(John Briley continued to write scripts. In 1982 he won the Academy Award for writing the Best Original Screenplay for the movie Gandhi.)
Good memories are treasures that we horde for ourselves.
Sometimes they are the only currency that can buy peace of mind.
They give us safe passage to where we were once content.
Good memories are not exhausted by time.
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