Thursday, January 3, 2013

When Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction: The Life of Charles Durning

Would you believe this story if pitched to you as a novel?

Your protagonist is born in poverty, ninth of ten children, to a disabled war vet and an Irish immigrant mom. Five of his sisters die in childhood of scarlet fever or smallpox and his dad dies when he is 16. He lands in the first wave at Omaha Beach, where his unit is cut to pieces, but despite machine-gun and shrapnel wounds he kills eight Germans before the day is out. Later, having recovered from his wounds, he engages in hand-to-hand combat and is stabbed eight times by a bayonet, but he manages to overcome his opponent by bludgeoning him to death with a rock. When he sees that the Nazi soldier he's killed is only 15 or so, he cradles him in his arms and cries. Later, having recovered from his latest wounds, he is captured during the Battle of the Bulge and is one of only a handful of men to escape the infamous SS massacre of U.S. troops at Malmedy. Finally, a "million-dollar" wound sends him home. He battles post-war trauma for the rest of his life and struggles with menial jobs for more than a decade while pursuing a career as an actor. He's nearly 40 years old when he first tastes success but then rises to the top of his field.

Such was the life of veteran character actor Charles Durning, who died on Christmas Eve at 89, perhaps best known for his roles as the crooked cop in The Sting and Jessica Lange's clueless father, besotted with Dustin Hoffman's "Tootsie."

I read a lot of nonfiction accounts of World War II. Not the grand strategy nor how big battles played out, but the stories of individual soldiers and civilians caught up in the crazy maelstrom of those years. They have literally millions of stories to tell of the highest possible drama. Their lives are a reminder to me first, that while I sometimes may feel sorry for myself and all my woes, really I've had it pretty good: I've never known want, had loving parents who put me through college, never had to hit the beach and face machine guns, mortars and artillery raining death and destruction around me. Their lives, like Durning's, are reminders, too, of how many tales there are to be told of the human experience. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but sometimes fiction is the best way to tell it.

I suppose that's why some of us try to write it.

What do you think?


Dawn Simon said...

Wow, what a life he led! I like this post and the perspective it gives.

I hope 2013 is off to a great start! :)

Misha Gericke said...

No way! That's amazing!

I know what you mean. Although I like the strategy and big battle stuff, I also like to see the stories belonging to the ground level soldiers more.

I don't think I have the chops to write such emotion, though, just yet, so I read them for now. :-D

Lt. Cccyxx said...

Nothing like some consideration of the Second World War to put things in perspective. I'm also endlessly fascinated by the period for exactly the reason you pinpointed: it is the highest possible drama.

Roland D. Yeomans said...

I had no idea Mr. Durning survived so much. No wonder he could portray the depth and angst of W. C. Fields.

This is a broken world, and it breaks most of us. If we are lucky, we heal and become stronger at the broken places as with broken bones. Thanks for visiting my blog and commenting, Roland

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