Bravo! The Project - A Documentary Film

Posts Tagged ‘Steven Hellwig’

Documentary Film,Khe Sanh,Marines,Other Musings,Vietnam War

September 3, 2014

Dancing–Redux

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This week the blog revisits a poignant encounter we had at The Wall in Washington DC while photographing the names of deceased Marines of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment.

Bamboo flooring echoes like an old-time wood-floored hallway. The crack of sound rebounds into the corners of rooms and rackets irritatingly when you are trying to film an interview. When the old Marine you are interviewing is nervous and keeps tapping his feet it’s mindful of M-16 fire off in the distance, down in a canyon or a draw denuded of elephant grass and triple-canopy jungle, just raw, red ground pocked by the plague of bomb craters, trenches, and dead snags.

Betty and I found this out the way you usually find things out…the hard way. Right in the middle of an interview, you emerge from the monsoon mist into an ambush of recognition that you didn’t even think about: the need to muffle the sounds the floor makes, or that you need gloves to handle the lights, to keep them from sizzling the fat on your hands. Or from pinching the webbing between the thumb and forefinger, or that you better chat with your subject for a while about the rudiments of interviews so they aren’t in a state of sheer fright when the beams snarl at them and the red light on the camera blinks its message that the interviewee is suddenly naked to the world.

The Wall at night

The Wall at night

And there are other things necessary when you make movies: research—patience, patience, patience—and more research and checking the validity of info, of sources.

This week in Washington, DC, we are doing research at Quantico and the National Archives. We’ve located films and photos and command chronologies and after-action reports and oral interviews conducted during 1968.

And things are moving forward. We will have a final trailer in the coming weeks, and we will then begin the editing process to finish the film.

As my old Marine Corps mate, Michael E. O’Hara, says, Betty and I are pilgrims, pilgrims of the body and the mind, in the realm of movies and film and memories. Across the big flat green eastern United States, roaming around looking for the threads that help it all make sense. The threads of story.

We’ve been to The Wall twice this trip to take photos and film the names. Last Sunday we went down early while the Park Service was tidying up after the twin revivals conducted by Glen Beck and Al Sharpton. The sun glared and dew coated the grass. A few people moved among the endless plastic bags of trash that lined the paths and walkways.

The wall was damp and looked like it had been hosed off and there was little hope we could immediately take any pictures because each name was coated with tiny bullets of water. I dug out my trusty big blue kerchief and began to wipe the water off the names. I started at panel 35 E with Steven Hellwig and was interrupted from my chore by an earnest young man and woman who asked me how to find names, understand the logic on the wall. Inside, I said to myself , what logic, logic to all this? But I didn’t because there isn’t a logic. I said, “Where you from?”

He smiled and so did she. “We’re from Alabama and we’ve been here for the Beck revival and we thought we’d come pay our respects to some men from our town who served and died.” I expected wild-eyed Beck followers but these people were polite and earnest. I explained how The Wall works and then went back to drying names and worked through the subsequent panels until I was at 46 E on my knees wiping off Gregory Kent and Jimmie Lafon McRae when a short man about my age holding a digital camera knelt next to me and asked if he could borrow my kerchief to dry a name when I was done.

He was tanned and had a hard New England accent. For some reason, I blurted, “Who you looking for?”

“Gregory Kent. He and I ran track together in high school and . . .”

I blurted, “I know him.”

He stared at me. “You know him?”

I hesitated. “I knew him. We served together.” The stare on his face made me think he wasn’t sure he believed me.

I pointed my finger at him like a pistol and went on, “You’re from Boston, right?”

“I live in Florida, but yes, I’m from Boston.”

I looked down and wiped the name again. “I served with him until he was killed on March 28, 1968, with this fellow.” I pointed two rows down to Jimmie Lafon McRae.

He sat back on his heels and looked at me like someone contemplating stabbing a snake.

Panel at The Wall with the names of Greg Kent and Jimmie L McRae

Panel at The Wall with the names of Greg Kent and Jimmie L McRae

I hesitated again and then nodded. “They stepped out of a hooch and were talking along with Ron Exum from Philadelphia. A mortar landed between them and Kent and McRae were killed.” I could have told him that there were shrapnel holes in Kent’s chest that spewed like oil gushers, but I didn’t.

The man said, “My name’s Sully Grasso and, and . . .”

I looked at the names and brushed at them though they were already dry. I thought about Greg Kent, and how he liked to talk about dancing. He said he loved to dance, dance, dance.

Sully Grasso said, “Greg Kent won the state championship and could have gone to the Olympic trials but he joined the Marines instead. I’m here for Glen Beck’s memorial and I want to take a picture and a tracing and I want to write an article . . . this is a miracle.”

I don’t think I believe in miracles but I didn’t tell him that. I just cleared my throat as I looked away. He took my photograph, twice, as I knelt there. He asked my name and the pertinent details of Kent’s death.

I wrote on a piece of yellow-lined paper from my yellow pad the barest of details as I remember them. He went to get something to trace names. Betty and I tried to take photos. Sully came back and took some more pictures and traced the names, Gregory Kent and Jimmie L McRae. Then he walked up to me. Tears swelled in his eyes. I couldn’t look at him. He leaned towards me and I stuck out my hand to shake in order to avoid more intimate shows of emotion, but he pulled me close and hugged me. He said, “God knows my heart and he sent you here to meet me. He knows my heart. I didn’t have any idea about how Greg died and now I know.”

I’m not sure I even believe in God, but I didn’t tell him that. The steps of people walking by echoed off the smooth surface of the wall. A multi-colored wreath stood at the junction of the monument’s east and west wings and an old, scuffed jungle boot stood there by itself, in front of panel 22 W. A red rosebud stuck up from inside the boot. I nodded at Sully and thought about how Kent liked to prance around and dance, his energy exploding out of him, and then he was dead.

On the screening front, BRAVO! will be shown in Nampa, Idaho, on September 25, 2014 at the Elks Lodge. Doors will open at 6:00 PM with the screening of the film at 6:30, followed by a Q & A session. Suggested donation, $10.00 to benefit the Wyakin Warrior Foundation. http://www.wyakin.org Joining us for the screening will be BRAVO! Marine Ron Rees. Noted Boise author Alan Heathcock has agreed to be the Master of Ceremonies for this event.

If you would like to host a screening of BRAVO! in your town this fall or winter, please contact us immediately.

DVDs of BRAVO! are available. For more information go to https://bravotheproject.com/buy-the-dvd/.

BRAVO! has a page on Facebook. Please “like” us and “share” the page at https://www.facebook.com/Bravotheproject/. It’s another way you can help us reach more people.