As long as I live, I will never forget the sound of my friend's voice on the phone, or the two words he managed, through tears, to blurt out: "He's back."
Before I explain what he meant, some background: It had only been a few days since I'd reluctantly sent him an unfinished version of my documentary series on the American experience during World War II, titled simply The War. In it, we had tried to gain a fresh perspective by focusing on the experiences of so-called ordinary people, most of whom came from four geographically diverse towns: Waterbury, Connecticut; Mobile, Alabama; Sacramento, California; and Luverne, Minnesota. Our labor of love, a seven-part, 15-hour series, puts you smack-dab in the middle of World War II.
After we had finished The Civil War, we vowed we would never take on the subject of war again. It was just too personal. Then we learned that 1,000 veterans of WWII are dying each day in America. If we didn't hear from them before they passed away, we would be guilty of a historical amnesia too irresponsible to bear. I am so glad we reconsidered. These veterans were, in some cases, telling us stories they had never told their kids or wives. We screened thousands of hours of brutal footage, looked at thousands of still photographs, combed through hundreds of hours of interview transcripts. We listened as Tom Hanks read the achingly moving newspaper columns of Al McIntosh, the editor of the Rock County Star Herald of Luverne. (In addition, Samuel L. Jackson, Josh Lucas, Eli Wallach and others bring to life individuals who did not survive and therefore could not be interviewed.)
The best part, though, was meeting those ordinary people who populated our film — factory workers and housewives, kids who collected scrap metal, and ball-turret gunners. They are all proud Americans who remind us of the promise of our great country: that in extraordinary times, there are no ordinary lives.
Everyone who worked on The War felt that we had been to war — that we had made lifelong friends whose stories had permanently touched our lives and that we could not wait to share it. But I didn't want to send out a copy before it was finished, even to my friend. He was persistent, though, as was his boss, who called me after I had said no. He explained that my friend's father was ill, would I reconsider? So I sent off the unfinished DVDs and was caught off guard by my friend's call.
"He's back," he whispered.
"I don't understand," I said.
"My dad has Alzheimer's, but I showed him the film and he started talking and he recognized me and my mom," he said. "For a while, he was lucid."
I couldn't help getting choked up. And if we never receive another kind word about the series we have worked on for so long, it will be OK. This one phone call is good enough for me.
Check out clips on Ken Burns in our Online Video Guide.
The Sept. 24 issue of TV Guide features House star Hugh Laurie's most irreverent interview ever and a look at the new season of How I Met Your Mother. Try four risk-free issues now!
Send your comments on this feature to firstname.lastname@example.org.