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In the midst of an August heat wave, on a Monday where the temperature topped out at 100 degrees, we buried my father in section 36 of the Arlington National Cemetery,
just down the hill from President Kennedy’s eternal ﬂame. My clear-est memory of those months found me standing over my father’s gravesite as the jets in missing man formation thundered overhead. I wore a gray gabardine suit on its way to being too small in the stom-ach and shoulders, a white shirt that belonged to my father, and the watch my grandmother had given him as a high school graduation present 48 summers before. As a squad of soldiers ﬁred their riﬂe salute into the humid afternoon, I stiﬂed the urge to raise my hand in salute.
I have worn the watch on just a handful of occasions. The fu-
neral. My senior prom. A summer wedding in the Cook County, Illinois courthouse. But the watch, an unremarkable Bulova tank, spends most of its time sequestered in a black leather jewelry box on my dresser, among orphaned cufﬂinks and a pair of tarnished silver collar stays — it’s fragile and unreliable, yet except for his World War II dog tags, it remains one of the few totems of my father that
I have kept, having long since jettisoned his ﬁrst sergeant’s uniform, the brass nameplate from his Pentagon ofﬁce. I have the watch; my sister has in her possession his medals, a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, along with the ﬂag that draped his casket, the emblem of thanks from a grateful nation.
My father died in the late summer of 1988, when Magnum, PI
had just ﬁnished sputtering through its ﬁnal season, including an arc of episodes where it was unclear whether or not Magnum was actually alive. I remember the episode where Magnum, having been shot for what seemed like the hundredth time during the show’s run (the actual tally, according to a fan’s web site, is eight) has a near-death experience; season seven ends with Magnum walking towards the light, to the saccharine sounds of John Denver’s “Looking for
Space.” And though I was a passing fan, I did not watch any of the last season; not the episode where Magnum learns that his assailant, a North Vietnamese general with two decades’ worth of grudges, has been set free, nor the two-hour ﬁnale where Magnum is reunited with his young daughter and somehow regains his commission as an ofﬁcer in the Navy.
The only thing I remember watching that fall was baseball: one
game, the opener of the 1988 World Series.
The Dodgers were my father’s team, and rooting for them that
year was an improbable dream, an act of faith much like Thomas Magnum’s undying support of the Detroit Tigers. Of course, the Ti-gers of the Magnum era were a juggernaut, constantly in contention and setting a record by opening their World Series-winning 1984 season with a record of 35-5. The Dodgers, on the other hand, had been out of Brooklyn for 28 years and still played the heartbreaking brand of baseball they had mastered in Flatbush. There were pre-
cious few championships in Chavez Ravine. The Dodgers excelled in one thing; they came close a lot.
The 1988 team, built out of role players and castoffs, featured
an ace pitcher, Orel Hershiser, who would literally throw his shoul-der out at the beginning of the next year, and an offensive leader, outﬁelder Kirk Gibson, whose body seemed to crumble a piece at a time. By the October playoffs, after Hershiser managed to start three games of a classic series victory over the New York Mets, then come out of the bullpen to save a fourth, the Dodgers felt like noth-ing more than a good story, a team of scrappy underachievers that made it farther than they ever should have.
On the night of the ﬁrst game of the World Series, I stumbled to
the Green Leafe Café, the only bar in my small Tidewater town that had both a television and a license to sell what the James City Coun-ty sheriff liked to call beverage alcohol. Watching the game wasn’t on my mind. Baseball was a distraction, a waste of summer Saturday
afternoons, watching the NBC Game of the Week with Joe Gara-giola and Tony Kubek. My father sat in his recliner, eating cheese puffs, washing them down with cans of whatever beer had been on sale that week at the 9th Street branch of Central Liquors.
So I wasn’t disappointed to ﬁnd that the television at the Green
Leafe did not work. I didn’t think much about baseball, until around 10:30. That’s when I heard my little voice. To quote a phrase used often in the voiceovers that gave each episode of Magnum
their dra-matic arc, I know what you’re thinking, and you’re probably right.
Something told me to go home, take out a beer, turn on the televi-sion. Some voice.
At home, my television, a serviceable 13-inch model from Sears,
had barely ﬁnished warming before I heard the Dodger Stadium crowd greet the gimpy-legged Gibson with a standing ovation as he limped to the plate to pinch hit. Before Gibson’s ﬁrst swing, my little voice told me something else, too. Turn on the radio. And I did, just
in time to tune in the CBS radio network and hear Jack Buck’s call of Gibson’s game-winning home run, I don’t believe what I just saw.
A day later, highlights of Gibson’s shot to right ﬁeld, intercut with scenes from Robert Redford’s ﬁlm version of The Natural
, would show just what a Hollywood ending baseball and real life could combine to produce. I didn’t much believe it either. But I should have trusted my little voice. Magnum would have been rooting for Gibson, too. After all, he’d started out as a Detroit Tiger.
It’s difﬁcult to label myself as more than a casual admirer of Mag-
. It’s easy to dismiss the series as camp, a paean to the Hawaii of garish shirts and Magnum’s ridiculously short Ocean Paciﬁc shorts; but it is precisely the lack of pretense that makes Tom Selleck’s private investigator a worthy and enduring hero. Yet he lived by a distinct
warrior’s code, and like many Vietnam veterans, Magnum sometimes found it difﬁcult to adapt the warrior’s role to that of a peacetime society.
My appreciation for the show seems more of a guilty pleasure,
something akin to my taste for SweetTarts or Lik’m’Aid Fun Dip. Though the movie studios routinely rob their vaults to rework far less successful television series into major motion pictures, Magnum
exists in stasis; a rumored theatrical ﬁlm starring George Clooney turned out to be the wishful thinking of fans, and only this August did Universal Studios ﬁnally manage the DVD release of the show’s ﬁrst season. Perhaps that is because Magnum
never inspired fanati-cism, at least nothing of the sort that marks a series like the orig-inal Star Trek
, where hundreds of rabid aﬁcionados can rattle off the name of any episode where Captain Kirk wore his green wrap-around shirt. Still Magnum
managed six consecutive years in the top 20, despite spending much of its run on CBS scheduled opposite the NBC comedy juggernaut anchored by The Cosby Show
debuted in December 1980, with a two-hour pilot that
quickly established its ethos; Magnum, a Naval intelligence ofﬁcer, had grown tired of the rigors of military life, and as he told vari-ous characters throughout the show’s eight-year run, he was nearing 40 without ever having been 20. So he resigned his commission and ﬁnagled a job as a security expert on the estate of mystery novelist Robin Masters, a jet-setting ﬁgure whose voice, in the show’s ﬁrst four seasons, was provided by Orson Welles. Magnum’s foil, played by John Hillerman, was the hilariously stiff and formal British major domo of Masters’ Oahu estate, a former British army master ser-geant and MI6 operative named Jonathan Quayle Higgins.
This back story distinguished Magnum
from most of the one-
hour police procedurals of the era. Magnum’s ﬁrst case as a private investigator (he loathed the word detective)—the death of a fellow Naval intelligence ofﬁcer accused of smuggling cocaine—led to the discovery that a French commando (played by a menacing and near-
ly silent Robert Loggia) once left behind by Magnum’s SEAL team had turned narcotics smuggler. So Thomas Magnum had a past, but it was neither as the disassociated Vietnam veteran of Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July, nor the single-minded jingoist of John Wayne’s The Green Berets. From the ﬁrst episode where he was forced to shoot an old friend in a grimy men’s room at the Honolulu airport, Magnum was an undeniably complex character.
the series built on this past, and Tom Selleck’s Magnum
became a World War II-type antihero—self-aware, ﬂawed, somewhat cynical, yet always tremendously loyal—think William Holden in Stalag 17
or Bridge on the River Kwai
. He skated by on good looks, charm, and a raised eyebrow or knowing wink; he added beers to an ongoing tab at the King Kamehameha Club (run by Orville Wright, the gunner on Magnum’s SEAL team) and was ferried around the islands by Theodore (T.C.) Calvin, the team’s chopper pilot.
fourth season opener, an episode titled “Home
From the Sea,” we learned the origin of Magnum’s tradition of spend-ing the Fourth of July alone; he spends the day in silent recollection of his father, killed in action during the Korean War. Magnum plans a long workout, paddling back to the estate after T.C.’s helicopter drops him miles out, but his surf ski is capsized by a passing plea-sure cruiser, and Magnum struggles to stay aﬂoat, treading water for nearly 24 hours, in danger of being carried out to sea by the currents of the Molokai Express.
While he’s adrift, Magnum recalls the day his father taught him
to tread water, timing him on the very watch that Magnum would inherit upon his father’s death. One of the episode’s last scenes is of a young Magnum at his father’s grave, saluting in a John-John Kennedy manner, the bulky Rolex dangling from his wrist. It’s the same watch, of course, that the older Magnum uses to time his ordeal
in the water, the watch Magnum wears through most of the show’s eight seasons. Only when Magnum’s three sidekicks each sense that something has happened to Thomas do they attempt a rescue, with Higgins eventually jumping into the swells of the Molokai Channel and pulling Magnum to safety.
A few anecdotes then about my father, the soldier. He played
the trumpet, was a founding member of the Washington Redskins marching band. Magnum played the saxophone. Magnum came from a line of Navy men, his father and his grandfather before that. My father and all his brothers served in the Army, three in Europe, two in the South Paciﬁc.
A bit of his back story as well. An infantryman in World War II,
a draftee, ferried to England as a passenger on a troop transport, the U.S.S. West Point; under its previous name, the America, the same
ship had delivered my grandparents, émigrés from a forgotten village in the Carpathian mountains, to Ellis Island in 1914.
The nickname of my father’s division, the 95th Infantry, came
from their German opponents, who called the advancing Americans the Iron Men of Metz. Metz, a fortiﬁed city annexed by the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War, had withstood the attacks of countless armies since the ﬁfth century. A head-on assault would have been fruitless. During the battle for Metz, most of the division snuck through the woods at night, bootlegging their way around the city, while a small task force remained behind to convince the Germans of an upcoming frontal attack. The regimental commander, a Texan colonel named Samuel Metcalfe, labeled it the hidden ball trick. Metz fell in less than a week, but only after hand-to-hand combat within the fortress walls ousted 300 German holdouts. My father took a few pieces of shrapnel, to the calf, the left knee. And the victory division (named for the roman V in the 95th’s division insignia) began its
drive across the Saar River into Germany.
During the march east towards Berlin, my father somehow man-
aged to keep, and type, a brief diary of those last few months, a timeline of the division’s travels. A typical entry from November: supplies and mail arrived 11/03. 379th Infantry makes a hundred ki-lometers in trucks, bivouacked near the banks of the Moselle.
I have this diary, about ten pages single-spaced. I have the rosary he carried in the left chest pocket of his M65 ﬁeld coat. His combat infantry badge. The prayer book, in English and old Slavonic, that contained the liturgy of the Byzantine Catholic church. I have these things, but none of the stories. Except in the vaguest references, my father rarely spoke about any of it. Not about the battle for Metz, or the crossing of the Saar River into Germany, and the counteroffensive before the Battle of the Bulge. Not about the Bronze Star and Purple Heart he won that winter, the medals kept in his dresser, still in their presentation cases.
“Did You See the Sunrise?,” the third season’s two-part pre-
miere, is perhaps the show’s best installment. The scene: Magnum drinking a longneck Old Dusseldorf beer, seated at one of the round patio tables of the King Kamehameha Club. He taps his team ring against the glass bottleneck; the ring is a two-bar cross, the cross of Lorraine, a symbol of French resistance in World War II. Magnum waits to hear a story from Nuzo, a former team member, who has arrived in Hawaii with a spectacular claim: Ivan, the KGB colonel who once captured and tortured Magnum and his team at Doc Hue, is out to settle a score; Magnum and his men are the only escapees from Ivan’s custody.
“Sunrise” added more to Magnum’s back story—as part of a
Navy SEAL team, Magnum, his pilot T.C., and two cohorts, Nuzo and Cookie, were held captive for three months at a makeshift POW
camp—and combined the particulars with the very real struggles of Vietnam-era veterans suffering from delayed stress. In one epi-sode, we learn that Rick, played with unusual understatement by the gregarious Larry Manetti, was not an original member of the team; he replaced Cookie, murdered by Ivan at Doc Hue. We learn that Thomas was a POW. But mostly we learn how little Magnum, TC, Rick and their fellow veterans talk about anything that happened in Southeast Asia.
Yet Nuzo has ulterior motives, part of a complex scheme set in
motion a dozen years before in the jungles of Vietnam. And Ivan apparently is after Magnum; he assassinates Mac, another of Mag-num’s former Naval intelligence colleagues, with a car bomb that destroys the show’s signature red Ferrari. Before Mac turns the igni-tion key, he raises his head to ask Magnum, “Why don’t we go up to Poli Lookout? The sunrise ought to be amazing.” The plot, an ingenious melding of Stalag 17
and the John Frankenheimer version
of Manchurian Candidate
, leaves Magnum to face an unthinkable dilemma.
The episode climaxes in a ﬁnal confrontation between Magnum
and Ivan, after Ivan’s cover identity as a Bulgarian diplomat has been blown and the Colonel has been declared persona non grata by the State Department, but that isn’t good enough for Magnum. He acts out of loyalty, to the dead Cookie, to his team member T.C. (an un-witting pawn in Ivan’s plot), but mostly out of loyalty to a soldier’s ideal. Magnum pulls a gun, and Ivan gives Magnum his deﬁnition of the soldier’s code. “I know you, Thomas. I know you better than your own mother. I had you for three months at Doc Hue. You could shoot me, if I was armed, and coming after you. But here,” he says, waving his arms at the expanse of jungle, “like this? Never. Das vidanya
Magnum lowers his gun to his hip, and Ivan turns to walk back to
his car. Magnum asks, “Did you see the sunrise this morning?” And
when Ivan answers yes, Magnum raises his gun and ﬁres once. The episode ends with a muzzle ﬂash. For the remainder of the series, no character mentions the events of Doc Hue, or the name Ivan.
In the panic of the march on Berlin, a displaced person ap-
proached a small refueling convoy being directed by a young ser-geant named Kistulentz. He came close enough that my father drew his pistol. The man stopped, raised his hands, asked my father in Slavonic, “Po nasomu?”
Meaning, “Are you one of ours? Do you speak my language?”
My father nodded. There was never a simple answer to the ques-
tion of his identity. Po nasomu
meant the man was a Ruthenian, from the foothills of the Carpathian mountains. An area conquered at the beginning of both great wars. Ethnic Slavs, once part of the Austri-an-Hungarian empire. The question meant “Who are you?” By the
end of the war, the Ruthenians had no answer to the question. They were neither Russian nor Slovak.
The man threw down his threadbare wool coat, took a pocket
knife and cut open the lining of his topcoat, extracting a yellowed envelope. He told my father, in German, “Here are my papers.” A baptismal certiﬁcate from a Russian Orthodox church in northeast-ern Pennsylvania, 20 miles from my father’s hometown.
Later that afternoon, the men of the 379th battalion, 95th Infan-
try, rounded up the local displaced persons and put them on a truck for repatriation. At gunpoint. As the truck pulled away, headed east to the Russian sector, my father watched as the man made the sign of the cross, in the manner of the Orthodox church, right shoulder before left.
I once asked my father if he knew the man’s fate. The answer was
yes, but he never offered details. Retelling this story a few months
before his death, my father paused and said, “I could have done something. Something more.” And ﬁnally, “He was one of ours.”
The episodes that truly sparkle, ones where the moral sides are
most clearly drawn, all add to the explication of Magnum’s history. A sense of duty permeated most of Magnum’s adventures, but like the William Holden characters Magnum himself admired, his sense of duty was never blind. His loyalties became personal, and that was part of the show’s magic. Magnum’s sense of duty sometimes meant punching a Marine colonel, or breaking his old uniform out of moth-balls to impersonate an ofﬁcer, or bribing his pal MacReynolds with a box of jelly doughnuts. The show lasted 162 episodes over eight seasons, but the six two-hour installments, all but one gravitating around the people or places Magnum knew in Southeast Asia, give the most insight into the relationships between Magnum’s loyalties and his complex past.
In the two-part episode “All for One,” Magnum and his team,
joined by Higgins, return to Cambodia in search of a rumored POW based solely on the word of a long-time antagonist. All for One be-came a good example of the show’s surprising humor; when former Green Beret Tyler McKinney arrives at Robin Masters’ estate, he tells Magnum, T.C. and Rick that he’s just been to an execution. Rick asks, “Whose?”
McKinney, played with cynical gusto by Robert Forster, an-
T.C. answers, “Well I guess somebody messed up then.”Magnum’s loyalty, to Rick and T.C., and to all the soldiers he
served with in Vietnam, means that he joins McKinney the next morning on a plane to Cambodia. He does all this despite the fact that McKinney once led him into an ambush. A doublecross is al-most certainly in the works in Cambodia; Rick takes a bullet and nearly dies; Higgins and Magnum are held prisoner brieﬂy by a sa-
distic Viet general—laid out in summary, it all sounds maudlin, the trope of a Chuck Norris movie. Yet by the time All for One reached the air, Magnum had been on for almost 100 episodes; we expected Magnum to take the longshot odds, even understood that Higgins, a subject of the Crown, believed that no man should have been left behind. We’d already had years to learn who these characters were, and despite the cantankerous nature of their relationships, we could trust their word as their bond.
We’re not much of a family now, at least in size, spread out across
the Midwest, pulled here and there by the strange conﬂuences of our various careers and loves. And because we come from a family that never talked, we don’t know each other all that well. At the holi-days, we make lists of the presents that we want and feign surprise when they arrive. We don’t talk that much about my father, having
either given up or settled our claims against him years ago; there are still questions that I’d like to know the answers to, but I don’t ask. That’s out of respect, too, for the ﬁne Navy man my mother married a couple of years back. But this year, I’ll put the Magnum
DVD set on my Christmas list, and when I get it, I’ll set aside a quiet weekend to run through my favorite episodes.
And I hope to spend the Fourth of July alone, the way I did this
year, the way I have most of the 16 years since my father died. On this most recent Fourth, I thought of my father, some 30 years home from his war, during the Bicentennial summer of 1976. It was the last Fourth of July I could remember spending with him; he stood in front of the barbecue, longneck beer in one hand, tongs in the other, turning over foot-long hunks of kielbasa as he choked from the smoke of the grill and the cigar clenched in his teeth. Later that night, we used his cigar to light bottle rockets and roman candles,
sending a fusillade out over our suburban cul de sac. I could have plugged myself into a similar scene this past summer, but instead I stayed behind, watching a handful of expatriated Americans explode their smuggled ﬁreworks over the still-chilled waters of a central Ontario lake. Children ran towards the water, a border collie chased them back from the edge. At the end of the day, the sunset reminded me of the inconsequential praises of a Neil Young song, big birds ﬂying across the sky, and by the light of the children’s sparklers, I sipped a gin and tonic before lowering myself into the lake, crawling yards out beyond the rocky point, wanting to see how long I could stay aﬂoat.
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