I was 12 years old when I saw Darryl F. Zanuck’s The Longest Day for the first time. It was sometime during the summer of 1975 – I don’t recall the exact date, but it was around the tail end of my summer vacation from elementary school.
Back then, my widowed mother, Beatriz Diaz-Granados, and I lived in a house in Westchester, a residential neighborhood in unincorporated Dade County, not far from Miami. My older half-sister Vicky had just moved out under less-than-happy circumstances, so Mom and I were still adjusting to the calmer and less-tense environment at home.
At the time, we only had one television set – my mother’s Zenith color TV. Until earlier that spring – shortly before Vicky moved out of the house that we’d all shared since the fall of 1972 – I had owned a small portable black-and-white television, also from Zenith. But I was deprived of its use when a thunderstorm passed over our area and a lightning bolt struck somewhere close to the house whilst Vicky and I watched TV in our respective rooms.
The lightning strike must have hit somewhere extremely close to the house; I didn’t see where it landed, but my bedroom was briefly illuminated by a brilliant blue-white flash – sort of like the ones from old school camera flashbulbs, but 100 times brighter – and the whole house trembled with the K-r-a-a-a-a-k BOOM! of thunder that followed a millisecond later. My 9”-screen black-and-white TV, which I’d owned for about a year, flickered off with a quiet but final “Click!” So, apparently, did Vicky’s, which was set on a small TV table in her bedroom, which was across the hall from mine. (In a scene that would have been comical under different circumstances, Vicky and I exited our rooms simultaneously, stood in front of our respective bedroom doors, and said, in unison, “What happened?”)
At first, Vicky speculated that the power was out, but was disabused of that notion when she flipped the hall light switch to “on” and the ceiling lamp came on, illuminating the dark hallway between our rooms with a soft, warm yellow-white glow. I saw that my night light – I slept with one still because I was terrified of sleeping in total darkness – still worked, as did my alarm clock/radio. The only two electronic devices that were obviously dead were our two TV sets, fried by the powerful bolt of lightning that had struck nearby.
That episode lay in the not-so-distant past during my Summer Vacation of 1975, as did Vicky’s sudden – and involuntary – departure from our Westchester home. And even though Mom had promised to replace my killed-by-lightning TV as soon as she could, her first priority had been to transform Vicky’s former bedroom into a guest room in case my grandparents or any other relatives came to visit from Colombia.
So, on the weekend in question – which must have been shortly before the start of summer vacation – when The Longest Day was shown as a late night offering by one of the Big Three networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC), I had no TV of my own.
I don’t remember how I found out that the 1962 adaptation of Cornelius Ryan’s best-selling book about D-Day (June 6, 1944) was going to air – divided into two parts – over two consecutive nights on that weekend. It’s possible that I might have seen the listings on the South Florida edition of TV Guide; Mom bought an issue every week, and eventually became a subscriber when we moved to our townhouse in Fountainbleau Park in 1978. Or maybe I saw a network promo for the rare showing of the classic war film. The important thing here is that I knew The Longest Day was going to be on TV, and that I really wanted to watch it.
You see, The Longest Day is one of the first books that I remember reading as a child. I’m sure that there were others; I learned to read – and to love reading – at the age of three, doubtlessly encouraged by my maternal grandmother, whom we all called Tata, when we lived in Colombia.
Obviously, I’m not sure how I came across the issue of the Spanish language edition of Reader’s Digest that featured a condensed version of Ryan’s 1959 book about the first 24 hours of the Normandy invasion. Sometimes I think I might have read it at my grandparents’ house in the section of Bogota called Santa Barbara; other times I think that my Uncle Octavio – Mom’s brother – gave it to me to peruse. It doesn’t matter, really. What does matter, though, is that even though it was condensed and translated from English – a language that I wasn’t familiar with at the age of six anyway – to Spanish, Ryan’s account of how American, British, Canadian, French, and other Allied forces stormed ashore on five invasion beaches or dropped from the skies in parachutes or gliders to liberate France from German armies that had occupied the country for almost four years.
From that moment on, I was a young, precocious, and enthusiastic World War II buff. Maybe I was too young to comprehend the political and ideological reasons for the war, and I tended to see everything in starkly simplistic terms (Germany was bad, Japan was bad, Italy was also bad, the Allies were the good guys), but I was fascinated, nonetheless. I loved the hardware – the planes, the tanks, the ships, the uniforms, the personal weapons and equipment, and the helmets – and I also appreciated the fact that in many ways, World War II was a necessary war, if not necessarily a good one. (This nugget of wisdom was passed on to me by my cosmopolitan grandfather, who we all called Quique. A highly educated man who had gone to a private military academy in New York State as a young man and studied in Europe and Colombia, Quique often had long conversations with me about history and allowed me to read some of the books in his library when we were still living in Bogota.)
So, yep. As soon as I found out that The Longest Day was going to be on TV that weekend…I had to watch it.
The problem was, of course, that since my TV was fried by lightning, and Mom had not been able to get me a new one, I’d have to watch it – in Mom’s room.
So, this is – more or less – how that came about.
12-Year-Old Me: Er…Mom, can I ask you a favor?
Mom: Sure. What is it?
12-Year-Old Me: (hesitantly) Well, I noticed that The Longest Day is going to be on TV this weekend. Can I watch it?
Mom: Oh, your father and I saw it here in Miami when it was out in theaters when I was expecting you. He loved it. I thought it was good. When is It going to be on TV?
12-Year-Old Me: Saturday and Sunday. It’s in two parts, I think.
Mom: Well, it is a long movie. About three hours long, if I remember correctly. What time?
12-Year-Old Me: I think it’s going to be on Channel – at 11:30. You know, as a Late Show kind of thing.
Mom: That’s a bit late, isn’t it? I mean, it is summer, and you’re on vacation, but…11:30? I don’t know.
12-Year-Old Me: I know it’s late, Mom, but I’ve never seen it before….
Mom: I don’t know…you know that I don’t like to stay up late, especially now that I have so much stuff to do fixing the guest room.
12-Year-Old Me: What if I watch it with the volume turned down as much as possible while you sleep? I’ll sit on the floor, next to the bed, and you won’t even know I’m there. Please, Mom?
My mom looked at me with a neutral expression on her face. She didn’t like the idea of me watching TV in her room so late at night, perhaps thinking that she wouldn’t be able to sleep while I watched the movie. At the same time, however, she knew how much seeing The Longest Say for the first time meant to me. And considering that not so long ago she had shot down my hopes of seeing Steven Spielberg’s Jaws in theaters, she was willing to accommodate me on this occasion.
Mom: Okay. This is how we are going to do this. You can watch the first part of the movie on Saturday night. Now, I’m still going to go to sleep at my usual time, so don’t think that I’m going to make Jiffy Pop popcorn and watch it with you. You have to watch The Longest Day with the volume turned down as low as possible. And here’s my one condition: if the movie wakes me up at any time, you have to turn it off and go to your room. If it doesn’t – and if you can stay awake that late – then you can watch both parts.
I eagerly agreed. I wasn’t thrilled with the various loopholes, especially the one that stipulated that if Mom woke up, the whole exercise would be called off, but I knew it was either that or nothing. The volume thing I understood, but I was already experiencing hearing loss (a year later I had my hearing checked and was told I needed a hearing aid), so I knew I’d have to find a happy medium between a noise level that my mom could sleep through and one that would let me hear the dialogue, especially during battle scenes.
So, on the Saturday night in question, I changed into my PJs, brushed my teeth, and washed my face before going to Mom’s room at the appointed time. She had already gone to bed and was fast asleep, but she had left her lamp on so I could easily turn on the TV set and fiddle with the volume. I’d turn off the light as soon as the TV was on and I’d adjusted the sound.
I had almost perfect timing – as soon as I’d made the proper adjustments to the sound level on the TV during the break between the 11 PM news and the network’s Late Show and turned off Mom’s nightstand lamp, a voice-of-God announcer said something like, “And now, So-and-So Network presents: The Saturday Night Late Show. Tonight’s feature, Part I of Darryl F. Zanuck’s classic World War II film, The Longest Day, starring 42 international stars and based on the best-selling book by Cornelius Ryan.”
Nervously, I looked at my mother’s sleeping – or so I hoped -form, covered in her bedsheets and a bedspread. I looked for a sign – a sudden fluttering of her eyelids, or an unexpected movement of her head or hands – that she might be awakened.
But even as the film started with its iconic shot of a GI’s upended and abandoned helmet on a French beach, underscored by the sound of the surf and a timpani beating the Morse code for V-for-victory (three short beats – or “dots” – and a long one – a “dash,” the same cadence of the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony), Mom slept soundly.
Happily for me, she slept soundly throughout the entirety of the Saturday Late Show broadcast, although there were a few times when I lowered the volume even more – usually in scenes that involved roaring aircraft engines or gunshots. She also slept soundly during the even more intense Part Two, which encompassed the recreation of various landings and skirmishes between the movie’s Allied and German forces along the invasion front in Zanuck’s recreation of Normandy. (The scenes set on the beaches were filmed on the French island of Corsica, with warships and Marines from the U.S. Sixth Fleet portraying the Allied fleet and landing forces.) And somehow, I managed to stay awake on both nights to enjoy The Longest Day.
And that’s how I got to see The Longest Day for the first time.