Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Son Remembers His WWII Dad

When I was nine or ten years old, my father took me to a college basketball game. As the clock ran out, a trumpeter in the pep band thought it would be cute to mark the demise of the rival team by playing Taps.

Dad was not amused.

“Shut up!” he roared.

The trumpeter played on, oblivious.

Dad got to his feet, fists clenched.

“I said, ‘Shut up!’” he bellowed even louder.

Embarrassed, I cringed in my seat. I’d never seen Dad this upset. But most people in the noisy auditorium were unaware of my father’s wrath. His anger was drowned out by cheers, and by amused laughter at the cleverness of the Taps-playing trumpeter.

Later, Dad explained to me that his strong emotions went back nearly 15 years when he was an officer on Gen. William Woodward’s staff during the 104th Infantry Division's assault on Nazi Germany. Under the leadership of Major General Terry Allen, the "Timberwolves" fought through Holland, Belgium, and into Germany, seeing unbelievable carnage.

Some men had become numb to it.

Dad told me about seeing a couple soldiers carelessly tossing dead bodies into the back of a truck to be hauled away from the battlefield. As Dad watched, a passing officer angrily chewed out the men:

“These are soldiers of the United States Army,” the officer yelled, “and they will be treated with respect!

Whenever Dad told that story, his voice would catch.

Fast forward. Spring, 1995 – fifty years after the Nazis surrendered, and some 35 years after Dad’s anger boiled over at that basketball game. His emotions were still raw as we sat together on the back porch of my home in suburban Atlanta.

Over the course of three days, I held a small Radio Shack tape recorder between us as he talked about his life. Not surprisingly, his days in combat with the 104th took up most of the eight hours I captured on tape.

Dad was a shy man, placid, slow to anger; rarely did he show much emotion of any kind, except laughter – he loved to laugh. So, it was unexpected when, during a taping session, he suddenly broke down and wept.

He’d been describing the day he came across a group of Timberwolf infantrymen who’d been caught in a crossfire and slaughtered.

“If it hadn’t been for those guys in the infantry,” Dad said, swiping at his tears, “I never would have survived the war.”

Dad died in 1996. I went in his place to the 56th Timberwolf reunion in Atlanta Aug. 28 to Sept.3, 2001. There I had a chance to relay his appreciation of the infantry to several of the Timberwolf veterans I met: George Bacon, Emmett Burke, Jess Carpenter, Robert Clark, Warren Colglazier, Art Decker, Mel Falck, Albert Fontana, Walter George, Vern Gilbert, Warren Jershky, John Rison Jones, Jr., Dick Karst, Matthew Kiley, Earl Lutz, Art Mason, Dick Matthews, John Montgomery, Navy Myers, Herbert Orton, Ernest Peters, Warren Pugh, Paul Radlinsky, Floyd Shockley, Art Sorenson, Charles Todd, Robert Tresnak, Phil Tretola, and Keith Zimmerman.

And I listened as many of them talked about sphincter-tightening experiences. The memories were old, but the tears were fresh.

One told me, “Think of the worst you could go through -- then double it.”

Another said he wrote down his story, but hid the manuscript in a safe deposit box for his children to read after his death.

“It’s too awful to talk about,” he explained, “plus none of them seem very interested in what I did during the war.”

One infantryman recounted the shock and horror of finding the bodies of some of his closest foxhole buddies “dead in the street.”

“I just shut down completely,” he said. “My emotions turned to ice. Suddenly, I had no one I could talk to.”

“Could you pray?” I asked.

“I could until [the] Nordhausen [concentration camp],” he replied. (On April 11, 1945, the 104th liberated the Mittelbau-Dora camp in Nordhausen, Germany. The bodies of 5,000 starved prisoners were stacked like cord wood and the few hundred survivors were like walking skeletons.) He told me it took years, and the help of several understanding people, to restore in him a semblance of faith.

“How did the war change you?” I asked several of the men I met.

“It made me mean,” one man confessed.

Some said it took years, and the patience of long-suffering spouses, before they were able to overcome their anger -- anger they didn’t even know they had until others pointed it out to them.

During my time with these men, I tried to resist my journalistic instinct to probe. Mostly, I listened. It was a rich experience. An experience, I fear, will be lost forever if more of us don’t encourage these men to tell their stories for history.

I’m glad I went to the Timberwolf reunion. For awhile, at least, it was like being with my dad again, talking about the days when he was young and freedom was at risk.

John DeDakis is a Senior Copy Editor at CNN in Washington, D.C. His father,
N. George DeDakis, remained in the Army Reserves after WWII, retiring as a Colonel in 1960. He practiced law in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and died May 29, 1996 at the age of 88. His son was with him at the end.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Overcoming the Fear of Rejection

I got an email recently from a young woman who told me she’s written a novel, but hasn’t shown it to anyone else because she’s afraid of having to deal with rejection.

Her instincts are correct -- she will experience rejection. And it’ll hurt. But it will also make the elation that comes with acceptance all the sweeter.

So, this is for all of you who have a book inside you somewhere. Maybe it’s just the nub of an idea that won’t go away; maybe all or part of it sits mouldering and neglected on your computer’s hard drive. But whatever the case, the fact that you’ve even thought about writing for publication should be a signal to pay attention to that inner nudge.

If the fear of rejection is holding you back, here are some suggestions on how to overcome it:

Expect to be Rejected: This, of course, is why you’re not letting anyone see your writing. But if you expect rejection, then you won’t be surprised when it happens. Every published author can tell you horror stories about having been rejected. In my case, 38 agents rejected the manuscript for “Fast Track,” my first novel, before I found Barbara Casey, my current agent – and she rejected the manuscript for “Bluff,” my second novel, twice before she deemed it publisher-ready. You know this instinctively and from experience: Rejection is part of life.

Identify What You’re Afraid of: Chances are you have in your mind a terrifying scenario in which someone will read your stuff and then dump on you mercilessly. Either they’ll puke and run away or they’ll be insulting. But let’s be realistic: How often has that ever happened to you? It’s more likely that you’ll experience polite indifference, which still hurts, but when you consider the range of possibilities, actual rejection could be much worse than it probably will be.

Cultivate Courage: It’s okay to be afraid. It’s a natural emotion we all experience. The question is what are you going to do with the fear? I’m always inspired by the guys who stormed the beaches of Normandy during World War II. Were they afraid? Of course, but they went forward anyway. Going forward is what differentiates cowardice from courage. Cowardice is letting fear paralyze you into inaction, but courage is fear in action. So, recognize your fear, embrace it, then move forward anyway. It produces confidence.

Learn From Rejection: Submitting your writing to someone else probably feels as daunting as facing enemy gunfire, but the good news is no one will be shooting bullets at you. Instead, if you’re lucky, you’ll get feedback that’s invaluable. Why invaluable? Because your goal as a writer is to connect with someone. Critical feedback is what you need in order to connect more effectively.

It’s Not About You: When you’re afraid of rejection, the focus is, understandably, on you. You have to start with yourself, but the goal is to get beyond this. Here’s why: Think of your writing as a gift that you’re giving to someone else. But tastes vary and your writing won’t resonate with everyone. People have the freedom to accept or reject your offering. Fine. The payoff comes when you realize that what you’ve written has touched someone else. That makes all the rejection worth it.

Here’s the saddest thing about rejection: If you give in to the paralyzing fear of being rejected, you will have succeeded in one major way – you will have succeeded in rejecting yourself.

John DeDakis is a Senior Copy Editor on CNN’s “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer” and the author of the mystery-suspense novel “Fast Track.” Visit his Web site at