I’m sitting at the head of my parents’ dining table, suddenly in charge of running their eight millimeter film projector so the three of us can watch some old movies. My brother-in-law has given me a quick lesson, and I’ve drawn pictures of what the projector is supposed to look like when the film is correctly loaded. Now there is only me and my infant talent lying between my parents and an evening full of nostalgia. No pressure.
I pick through two plastic grocery bags full of Kodachrome films, each one in a small yellow mailing box, all taken by my dad. If I was in a Blockbuster, the movie sections would be labeled “Navy”, “Fishing”, and “Family”. Tonight we are watching Navy. I call out possible choices to my dad, who sits on the couch next to my mom, the back of their heads to me.
“What about ‘Tiger Balm #3’?” I say. We sit in the quiet while my dad considers this. “Nooo,” he says, and I can tell he’s concentrating. “That’s the Tiger Balm gardens in Hong Kong. You showed me that yesterday. Pick something else.” I guess we’re Tiger-Balmed out.
“How about ‘U.S.S. Midway Ops #4’?” I ask. Again we think this over. “I’m not sure what that is,” my dad says as loud as he can, his voice gruff. Unable to turn around, he speaks to the Da-Lite Picture King screen set up in front of him. “That’s my ship,” he says. “Try that one.”
I open the yellow box and read “Operations and Gunnery” on the inside flap. I take out the reel, press it onto the loading spindle, and begin the process of threading it through projector’s gears, looping it around, just enough space here, just enough tension there. My hands struggle to insert the lead-in strip into the tiny slot on the take-up reel; I bob and weave trying to find the sweet spot where I can see what I’m doing. Finally the film is loaded. Lamps out.
I find my chair and flip the projector’s switch on. The screen jumps to life with young sailors dressed in whites, hanging over the edge of metal railings, choppy blue sea in the background and all eyes turned towards the flight deck. The camera moves slowly from one end of the ship to the other, stopping at just the right moment to catch a plane coming in. A small plane with its pilot in a bubble lands perfectly and comes to a short stop. Its wings fold up and it rolls away. Dad-the-sailor is ready for the next one, and the next one, and the next one. So is Dad-the-king. He sits next to my mother, and I love the back of their heads so much, I watch them more than I do the planes. In the light that comes from the projector’s small but million-watt bulb, I do a quick check to see that all parts are moving, that the film is not unreeling onto the floor like yesterday.
I’m getting better at this.
Movie time is over and my mom goes to put her nighty on, but only after making sure my dad is up off the couch, firmly in control of his walker, and pointed towards the kitchen. Soon lemon cake, then the news, then pills, then eye drops, but not necessarily in that order because we go with the flow around here. The only part of that that my dad is interested in is the lemon cake. He has napped all day and isn’t ready for bed.
“Tell me something,” he says to me when we are both situated at the table. I nod. “Can you get on that machine of yours, and punch in a name, in hopes of finding someone?”
“Absolutely,” I say, lifting the lid of my laptop.
“I have often wondered,” he says, “what ever happened to my cousin Robert.”
I ask the full name and my dad clears his throat. “Liebeg. Robert Liebeg. L-I-E-B-E-G.”
“What do you think happened to Robert?” I ask while I type, information already coming up.
“He died in the Korean War,” my dad says deliberately, then raises a shaky hand and points his finger. “But that doesn’t mean I know what happened to him.”
I skim through a few results while my dad tells me what he remembers about Robert: “He was older than me, just by a few years, and he was bigger than I was. Husky guy.” He smiles a little and grunts instead of laughing. “We worked together one summer at a resort. He got me in a wheelbarrow once and pushed me all over the place.”
I’m finding a lot of information on POW Robert W. Liebeg from Love Company, including what looks like an entire book on his unit’s capture and confinement in Korea, written by one of the survivors. I tell my dad about this and ask if he wants me to read some of it to him. He gazes at me, his head tremoring slightly. I never know if his eyes are moist with real tears, or the artificial ones my mom puts in them four times a day.
“Most certainly,” he says, clearing his throat and sitting up a little straighter to listen.
While my mom plays a computer game in the den at the other end of the house, I read out loud to my dad about Love Company’s capture near Pyongyang. The details are almost immediately brutal. A few pages in, I come to a sentence that reports the execution of thirty men, all POW’S. No names are mentioned, just the number of men killed. I stop to ask my dad how he’s doing, and he’s not doing well.
“Thirty men,” he says, frowning. “But who were they? My cousin could’ve been one of them. He could have been in any number of those groups you just mentioned.” His cheeks are flushed and he is agitated.
We sit in the quiet. The kitchen clock ticks. It’s a good thing my mom’s not around, because if my dad could trade places with Robert, he probably would, and then I would really be in trouble.
I close the lid on my laptop and get my dad’s brown eyes to focus on my brown eyes. “Ready for some lemon cake?” I ask gently. Before he can answer, my mom rounds the corner in her bright floral nighty and sings out, “Who’s ready for some lemon cake!!”
Hearing might not be her long suit anymore, but her sense of timing is still sharp. She always saves us from ourselves.