Monday, April 29, 2013

Movie Monday: "When the Movies and Real Life Intersect" Edition

Did you ever see someone and just instinctively know he or she had a story to tell, a unique and interesting story. Not because they looked extraordinary, or did anything out of the ordinary, you understand. Just because they gave off a vibe or something.

(Bear with me. This is going to turn into Movie Monday eventually.)

I've had that experience, and it is an odd one. Maybe it seems odd to me because of the circumstances in which it happened in this case - my father was in the hospital, and ultimately died there. But, he was in the hospital for ten days before he died, which means that my mother and I spent a lot of time there during that ten days, much of it sitting in the lobby and waiting. And while we were waiting, I spent a lot of time watching people come and go.

One of the regulars in and out at all times of the day and night was a man who just had that "something" about him that screamed out to me that he had a story to tell. I had no idea what it was. He was not remarkable in any way, really. He was not very tall, he was heavy-set, and he had a face that made it look like he had been through some things. Since he wore a big wooden cross around his neck and was usually carrying what looked to be a Bible, I figured he was the chaplain.

I never talked to him, just watched him come and go. And after my dad passed (for context, this was in 1977), of course, there was never any reason to go to the hospital again, and I forgot about the chaplain and the feeling that there was something interesting about him or his life. Completely forgot.

Then, months later, I was reading a magazine (I want to say it was People magazine, but I can't recall now), thumbing through and seeing if there was anything interesting in that issue (What? I was 20), I noticed a photo that went along with one article. It was in a hospital room, and instead of having a TV mounted on the wall, there was a small TV on an extending arm mounted right on the bed. I noticed this because the only place I had ever seen a set-up like that was at the hospital where my father died. So, I read the article...and noticed that the guy in the picture looked an awful lot like the chaplain at that hospital.

And it was, I discovered as I read the article. And, boy did he have a story.

It turned out that the chaplain was Ferdinand Waldo Demara. If you don't know the name, maybe you know the movie "The Great Impostor", which starred Tony Curtis. The film, which was made in 1961, starred Tony Curtis playing a character that was based on Demara's life. I had seen the movie on television once when I was younger, and it's not a bad movie. But I certainly hadn't connected the movie with the chaplain as I watched him walk in and out of the hospital lobby.

As it turned out, Demara's deceptions (he impersonated, among other things, a monk, a psychology professor in one college, a teacher at another college and, perhaps most famously, a trauma surgeon on a Royal Canadian Navy destroyer during the Korean War) caught up with him and after he played a small role in the film about his life, he worked as a counselor at a rescue mission in Los Angeles, went to a Bible College in Oregon, and then became a chaplain.

Which is how he turned up working at Good Samaritan Hospital in Anaheim, California. The story goes that he nearly got fired from his position there in the late 1970s, when they found out who he was (he was not, I assume, using his real name). However, one of the doctors there spoke up for him and he was allowed to stay on.

Demara died in 1982, but his story - the one I knew he had, even though I didn't know what it was at the time - lives on in two books and, in fictionalized form, in "The Great Impostor".

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