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What am I going to do...

Updated: Mar 12, 2023

What am I going to do... Forty years ago I stood in my driveway, alone to face the enormity of consequence that lay beneath that simple question. My oldest son was approaching military service age, and my thoughts were quite different than when I faced this decision at 20 years old. Vietnam was in full swing then, and the evening news brought little comfort to my friends and I. So, on something of a whim, I enlisted in the Army, for airborne training. I went on to become an armor officer, and trained to fight the Russians in Europe. But standing in my gravel driveway that day, under an afternoon sun as my son drove off to school, I was far less whimsical.

As I followed his car out of sight, I thought of war, friendship, and death. I thought of sitting in my fatigue uniform, reading the monthly Army Times and being drawn to that dreaded casualty list. I remember the shock of discovering the names of my closest friends. I could not know then that I would one day travel hundreds of miles to visit one of them again, lying where he had since his death over 50 years ago. I only knew that my son was almost 18, and so I asked myself that question, the question that seems so simple and so easy to dismiss by responding with the stock answer of “There’s noting I can do.” And if this is offered up quickly enough you may not have to look into the eyes of that terrifying option: the awareness that you in fact do have a choice. And that choice is to realize that there is something you can do. I spoke aloud, “What can I do about war?” and answered with a laugh, “What can you do—who do you think you are?” I sensed for a tiny moment the dark chasm that protects us from risk—lures us to remain helplessly safe within, paralyzed by possibility—and again spoke out under the sun, “Why don’t I find out.”

It happened just like that, and only because the need to protect my child was too strong to reassure myself that all was hopeless. And so I set out to do something. I learned video production for five years, and through a long series of coincident miracles, I ended up on a rainy Moscow night sitting in the office of the director of the largest documentary film studio in the Soviet Union. He had several men with him, and I had a short video to suggest my film style. I explained that I wanted to film jointly with them—two camera operators, two sound technicians, two of every position with one being from each country. We would film in both countries, create one version of the finished film unedited by anyone but ourselves, and air them nationally on the same day across 23 time zones. A year later, on another such night, we sat and watched this come to pass. On Soviet Channel 1, The Discovery Channel and selected PBS stations The Homeland Project aired, and so began the series that went on to perhaps bring our two nations just a bit closer together, through understanding why we were so far apart.

Did it do any good? Who knows? I do know what my most precious compliment for this three- year project was, however. While sitting with film crew colleagues in a most Russian bar—on May Day across from Red Square—I noticed a mixed group of young adults looking our way. One of the men came to our table and knelt down. The band was loud and the smoke heavy, but I heard him ask if I was the fellow in the films. I nodded, and he did the same. “We are from Romania. Keep making those movies, the world needs them now.” In the moment I pictured a long-ago gravel driveway, a question, an answer, and a shining sun. I thanked him.

An afterthought: I was going to write of an episode that took place as we were filming outside Leningrad in January of 1989. But this backstory sort of took off. Yet it may serve to support the mood and moment in the Leningrad snow that I would like to share with you next time. It’s something of the same parent/child theme—with a difficult decision—yet one with a different outcome. It’s a story I have never been able to tell without being taken back to the only moment I’ve had to turn away from the filming.


Afterwords: Perhaps the most difficult decision one can make is to allow the question of “what can I do?” to answer itself. First, you hear many voices insisting you cannot—dare not—do anything. But then a smaller yet familiar voice is heard—your voice—asking, “but why not?” This is when everything gets interesting.

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