When opportunity knocks, what does one do? For some, that question haunts every decision when they reflect on lost opportunities. For others, there is no question – grab the brass ring and run, consequences be damned. And then there are the more than few who never see nor hear opportunity’s presence. On a recent evening, my wife and I were attending an awards/recognition dinner as paid guest at a randomly selected table. A well established ethic in the writing community is the lack of formality when it comes to this kind of affair or others for that matter. Three gentlemen joined us at the table, sans black tie and introduced themselves. Two of the three were escorts for an honored guest, Dan Levin.
After adequately displaying my ignorance of Mr. Levin’s personal triumphs, I was politely updated throughout the proceedings as to the history of the random company that chose our table:
Dan Levin, born in Russia in 1914, served in the U.S. Marine Corps in World War ll as a sergeant/combat correspondent, then worked as a State Department reporter at the United Nations. Later he was a newspaper reporter, an editor, and a businessman. He decided on a career change at what then must have seemed late in life and, at fifty, earned a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Chicago. Thereafter, he became a teacher first at Wayne State University, then briefly at Kent State University, and finally at the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University. He has been a Fullbright Scholar and visiting lecturer in South Korea and also at the University of Odessa during the last days of the Soviet Union. Although he became Professor Emeritus in the English Department at C.W. Post nearly thirty years ago, he has continued to teach creative writing and comparative literature there. (Introduction by Edmund Miller, Waiting for B-Train, Poems by Dan Levin, 2010).
The biography continues as does Mr. Levin to this day, but the most gripping of his experiences to this student of history is his survival of the battle of Iwo Jima in the Pacific campaign. It took the better part of an hour before we realized we had something in common beyond writing. Though removed by three decades, we both served in combat. And so, a new story begins.
The idea was that of Richard Walsh, a guest of Mr. Levin and protégée. The conversation generated its own energy as we recognized the wealth of stories, told and untold, that cried for an audience of the knowledgeable. What better venue than veterans’ homes and hospitals? Richard went to work, and in short order Dan Levin and Ron Scott were scheduled to read and elaborate on their respective experiences from World War ll and Vietnam at the Stony Brook Veterans Home. With the exception of nurses and administrators, the entire audience had front row seats. They, to a man, occupied wheelchairs. This was unchartered waters for both Dan and me, so our motto was to shoot from the hip, interact with the audience. And interact they did. Despite meds and anti-depressant ingredients to their diets, our audience became alive as Dan read poems written on the eve of the Iwo Jima assault from the deck of an aircraft carrier. He also did not fail to present the up close and personal reality of combat when the typewriter was exchanged for flame thrower.
On my behalf, I felt the amalgamation of two generations from opposite cultures. Not withstanding the color of our skins, we were both victims of incredulous periods of history that mirrored our paths. Like Dan, in Vietnam the need for typewriter was replaced with the utility of an M16. Unlike Dan, my tour was calendar based. Stay alive for twelve months and you go home. 55,000 did not fulfill the contract. My mission became one of restoring color to the souls of those who fought and may be forgotten before its too late. Dan Levin glanced at me and smiled. Instantly, I knew this was the beginning of a new friendship. Needless to say, we look forward to our next stage before veterans and the public. All are welcomed. I will keep you posted.