THE BLOG
05/31/2011 09:11 am ET | Updated Jul 31, 2011

Memorial Day, Father's Day and Getting Dad to Talk World War II

Every morning my father would wake up, walk over to his car and urinate all over his tires.

He was peeing for his country.

I suppose I should explain it was the winter of 1945 along the Siegfried Line and my dad was helping to hold positions won by the Allies in the Battle of the Bulge. Frank Mankiewicz was a private -- a Jeep driver in the 69th Infantry Division -- and it was so damn cold every morning that the ice froze the wheels in place. "It was the best source of warm water we had," he told me during our Memorial Day conversation.

This time of year, as Memorial Day runs into Father's Day, I always try to coax my dad into talking about World War II. But that's like getting him to discuss his favorite Kardashian (by the way, it would be Kim. He's not an idiot). It's not as if he won't answer my questions, but he's never started a dinner table conversation with "Did I ever tell you about the time I killed two Nazis with my canteen?"

"Why didn't you ever talk to me or Josh (my brother) about the war?" I ask him.

"I didn't, did I?" he ponders. "I don't know why I didn't. And I still don't now. I really don't. I guess I don't believe I was a hero...We just did what everybody else would've done."

I sense he feels some discomfort -- maybe even a hint of cynicism -- in the adulation we heap on the Greatest Generation, so I ask my dad what he thinks of all the fuss, of Tom Brokaw's books, of the pomp of Memorial Day?

"Oh, I love it," he says instantly and heartily. "I welcome it every year. I may not talk about it, but I like it when other people like Brokaw do." Then he pauses and laughs slightly. "In fact," he says, "I'm a little pissed I couldn't get into Brokaw's books. I have some stories."

You have some stories? Um, dude...you could tell them TO YOUR SONS!

But I love hearing my dad like this, a rare break from downplaying the sacrifices he and more than 15 million other Americans made from 1941-1945.

Truth is, part of the blame for keeping his stories to himself rests with me. If you push Frank Mankiewicz, he'll talk, yet I always backed away at the first sign of resistance (much like the French).

Nonetheless, in the last 10 or 15 years, probably since Saving Private Ryan to be honest, I've re-ordered my list of dad's accomplishments. And it's an impressive list. For a long time, his tenure as Bobby Kennedy's press secretary was the job I bragged about. He also ran George McGovern's campaign, was president of NPR, served as Latin American Director of the Peace Corps and even anchored the local news for a year in Washington. He wrote four terrific books and found himself on Nixon's White House Enemies List (come to think of it, that ought to be anyone's greatest achievement).

Now, though, his time as a grunt with the 69th , capturing Weissenfels, Eilenburg and Leipzig -- firing his mortar, driving his Jeep and whizzing on its tires -- is how I describe my dad. As a soldier. It's weird, because, as that list clearly indicates, dad is a super-liberal. His idea of gun control would be to ban them.

This is a man who traded a German Luger he took off a dead German officer for a Navy pea coat. "I was cold," he says.

So I love this one story I did get him to tell. Josh and I pried it out of him years ago. He's in an open field somewhere, with the forest a few hundred yards away. The Nazis are shooting and firing artillery on their position. Dad and his buddies are pretty sure the Germans are coming their way so they're all shooting in that direction as they run toward the safety of the trees. When dad's pistol is empty, he picks up a rifle from a dead German soldier and starts firing over his shoulder as he runs. Then, when that gun empties, he tosses it aside with the casual disregard of Jean-Claude Van Damme and continues running into the forest. The tagline writes itself, "Frank Mankiewicz is -- Universal Solider."

"Were you ever scared?" I ask him

"I wasn't really," he says, answering instantly. Then a pause. "Well, I thought we might be hit accidentally, from artillery."

Accidentally?

"I didn't really think there'd be actual killing. You know, point blank shooting."

No, I don't know. I don't know because I never had to decide whether to pick up the dead Nazi's gun or just keep running for the forest. I didn't have to worry about whether any of my best friends would get blown up "accidentally" by a German shell.

"Your scariest night?"

"We had to re-supply a company on a hill at night. Another Jeep driver and I alternated runs up and down the hill. It was pitch black, a really narrow road up a steep hill. I was sure I was going to drive right off the road, so when the German shells exploded, I could actually see the road. That was good. But then I thought they might hit me."

"Do you think about all of it now?"

Another instant answer. I barely even finish the question. "Oh, no...I don't think about any of it much."

"How's that possible?"

"It was so unnatural. I just kept waiting for it to end... so I could get back to my friends and go back to school at UCLA."

Dad volunteered. Went down to the recruiting office and signed up when he was 18 in December of '42. By then, you couldn't pick where you wanted to go. "Everybody had already signed up for the fancy stuff," he says. "The Air Corps, the Marines. Nobody had volunteered for the army, for the infantry." So then it was Camp Roberts in California, Camp Shelby in Mississippi and then eventually England, France, Belgium and Germany.

"We all volunteered. You were considered a real slacker if you didn't go. And you had to have a uniform. You couldn't not have one. The girls wouldn't respect you if you didn't."

Well, I'm pretty sure the girls respect you now. And so does everybody else, especially your sons. And now, I know you love hearing that.