My father, Sam Notkin, passed away on March 5 of this year, just shy of his 87th birthday. He was a kind, generous, patient, thoughtful, and extremely brilliant man, with many talents including an encyclopedic knowledge of world history. He was a painter, amateur astronomer, chess master, and attended the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki as the reserve for the United States fencing team. He was also an enigma.
Dad saw heavy action during World War II with the 99th Combat Infantry Division. He had originally enlisted in officer training school and was slated to serve in the Pacific Theater of Operations (it is lucky for me that he did not, because I probably would not be sitting here typing this if he had landed at Iwo Jima or Tarawa), but long-term plans for the invasion of Europe in 1944 took him out of the officer stream and he served his time as a private, first class, in France, Belgium, and Germany. He was twice decorated for “meritorious achievement against the enemy” during the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944, after crawling back under fire, while wounded, and emptying his rifle into the company radio, so it would not fall into the hands of an advancing SS panzer division. Dad’s best friend, Andrew Yeaple, after whom my brother is named, did not come back from the war. Dad did not speak about his military experiences much, if ever, and it was only a few years ago that I was able to extract details from him during an interview I conducted for the book Duty, Honor, and Valor. I am familiar with this phenomenon among veterans; some of their experiences must have been so horrific they did not care to relive them in later years. That being said, my father absolutely loved a good war movie.
In the early 1970s, there stood quietly on one of the main roads in South Croydon—a suburb of London—a charming little independent cinema named The Classic. It had a single screen and, in classic fashion, placed framed still photos from the current featured movie by the entrance. The building is long gone, replaced now by some drab, modernist office block—a grim fate shared by so many unique indy movie houses, crushed under the heavy boots of characterless, multiplex mall-based cinemas (and what a bitter irony that the “American” Multi-Cinema chain, better known as AMC, has been taken over by the totalitarian Chinese; a topic for a future blog, no doubt).
When I was about ten, fairly late one evening, Dad took me to see the World War II epic, The Longest Day, at The Classic. It is a long film. We sat in the balcony, and watched the entire masterpiece in its original black and white. Despite my young age—an age at which I firmly believed girls and romance to be mushy—that evening seemed like the first time Dad and I went out to do something together as “men.” As we were waiting for the lights to go down, he winked at me, and said: “This is one of the great movies. There is no kissing in it.” So began my lifelong fascination with military history, particularly the European Theater of Operations during World War II, and particularly in particular, the D-Day landings in Normandy on June 6, 1944.
The Longest Day immediately became one of my favorite films and so it remains. Some years, while I was growing up, the dear old BBC would screen The Longest Day in all its magnificence on June 6—and commercial-free to boot, since it was the BBC—to commemorate the D-Day landings. At some point in the 1980s, our family acquired its first VCR and my mother recorded the film for me. Thus began a happy ritual for me, in which Dad and I watched The Longest Day every year on June 6. After I moved to Tucson we were no longer able to sit in the same room and relive the adventure together, but Dad never failed to call me and leave a voice mail including the phrase: “Jean has a long moustache,” that being a coded message alerting the French Resistance of the pending invasion. I wrote, at some length, about this small but heartwarming annual event, and the movie itself in The Logical Lizard last year.
So, yesterday, I was more than a little sad. Of course, I watched the movie, alone, but there would be no coded message from Dad this year, or any other years. And then my friend Howard Streitfeld, a witty fellow with a mischievous yet kind sense of humor, called from New York to remind me, slyly, that “Jean has a long moustache.”
Thank you Howard.
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