November 11, 2016 is the fourth Veterans Day I will bring my show to the Reif Center for the Performing Arts in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. The public performance is November 10, then I have a student performance and a senior center engagement on November 11.
My last trip included a surprise at the senior center. Resident James Trembath had earned a Bronze Star medal for heroics at the Battle of Iwo Jima in March, 1945. However, Trembath's son told me there had never been a public ceremony for his father's Bronze Star. The award citation arrived in the mail seventy years ago and sat in a file in his father's house. So the son asked if I would read it aloud at the Senior Center. I said of course, and the son handed me the citation.
Everyone in the room welled with tears as I read the description of the actions of the modest old man they thought they knew well. At Iwo. Jima Trembeth spent three hours running through enemy bullets, hopping from one wounded soldier to another to bring relief. Amidst the hell fire of the raging battled he'd land in a fox hole with his medic's kit and ask, "what happened? I'm here to help you."
As I read the description of his actions I didn't dare make eye contact with James Trembeth, his son, or anyone else. He'd waited seventy years to have his actions finally recognized in public, so I didn't want my emotions to screw up his moment. The citation is below. Please take a couple seconds to read it.
Three of the widows at the Senior Center had husbands who served in World War Two. One of the husbands spent months in a German prison camp. As we talked more, the seniors opened up and shared many stories, including how the nearby mines of the Minnesota Iron Range worked round-the-clock to supply the war effort with its essential commodity, steel. Many of the residents spoke fondly of how united the country was during the war, and how they missed that. I asked if they felt united by our conversation. They laughed and agreed, were we united. I told them I feel the same every time I talk to people who lived through the war. Frankly, I feel it whenever I do the show.
The first time went to Grand Rapids the show was still called "The Mushroom Picker" (seemed like a brilliant title at the time) and the Reif Center's director, David Marty, had to be talked into bringing me. The quote I've been told is, "some guy telling war stories about his grandfather -- I fall asleep just thinking about it!" Against David's better judgement, he booked me. Then he and his staff sold out their 400-seat house and the audience response was electric. Just amazing, a high point of my first tour.
After the show, David came on stage and we chatted for over an hour. He strongly encouraged me to make the show a priority in my life because it is an important story for people to hear. He thought the show had the chops to tour nationally. He encouraged me to dream of what might be possible, and I've been running on that encouragement ever since. In a few days, I'll be back on David's stage.
The second time David had me to Grand Rapids I met a WWII vet who knew my grandfather. They were both stationed at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, TX before the war. And like my grandfather, the Grand Rapids veteran made it through 11 months of combat with just a few minor injuries. He brought books from the Second Infantry Division, including a roster that showed the division had as many casualties as men serving, 15,000. That is a 100% casualty rate; only constant reinforcements kept their numbers up.
He and I traded stories, laughed a lot, and then he saw the show with his daughter and grandchildren. David Marty made sure that he and all local veterans attended for free.
This next Grand Rapids gig is sandwiched between trips to Rochester, NY, New Orleans, and a gig at the George H. W. Bush Museum and Library in College Station, TX. It will be a return engagement to the Bush Museum and Library, as that organization has also become a champion of my show. George H. W. Bush was the Navy's youngest pilot in WWII, and then was president when Soviet Communism fell.
Veteran's Day this year falls just three days after the election. James Trembeth didn't care whether a foxhole was Republic or Democrat, conservative or liberal. Those men crying for help were simply Americans. And when I visit the Grand Rapids senior center this Friday I am certain the residents will comment on how united the country was back during the war. And when we talk about our country's shining moment of the 20th Century, we again will be united.