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Jewish World Review June 25, 2001 / 4 Tamuz 5761

Philip Terzian

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20th Century journey -- A guy named Joe -- THE INSTANT the automatic fire broke out, I knew that our company was in real danger. Searching wildly around the campsite for my weapon, I could sense that we were under massive assault. The fire was so heavy, and the chaos so intense, I saw I had no choice but to duck for cover. Clutching my service revolver, I ran across the clearing, past the ammunition dump, and dove head first into the latrine. At that moment, I realized I had been hit.

It was not a monumental wound, but the pain in my gut was intense, and it bled profusely. By this time mortar fire was falling all around us, and the choppers were several miles away. My life, I sensed, was slowly oozing out. It was one of those oppressively hot days in 'Nam, and the sweat on my fatigues was now mixing with blood. Here I was, I thought, dying in a dunghole 10,000 miles from home.

Just then I felt a strong hand clutch my ankle, and drag me out of the latrine. As I lapsed in and out of consciousness, I could feel myself being pulled across the length of the camp, gathered in arms, and pushed through a metal door while bullets whizzed by. As the helicopter slowly rose in the air, a medic started dressing my wound. The pain was unbearable, but its sharpness seemed to jog me back to consciousness.

"Who brought me here?" I gasped. "Who was that guy?"

"Lieutenant Ellis," said the medic, as he tore off a bandage. "Lt. Joseph Ellis of the 101st Airborne. He's a bleepin' one-man Red Cross."

By a curious irony, this was not the first time I had encountered Joseph J. Ellis, whose path would fortuitously cross my own.

My mind wandered back a half-dozen years to another warm, muggy afternoon. It was Aug. 28, 1963, and I was standing, more than a little self-consciously, behind the massive makeshift stage in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Hundreds of people were milling about, shouting and shoving, but in the middle of it all, an island of calm, sat Martin Luther King, Jr., drafting his address to the March on Washington. The word had gone out that Martin needed help, and that's why I was there.

While Dr. King had the style and substance in hand, he was looking for what he called a "hook" -- a catch phrase, or slogan, that would catapult his stump speech into history. Stand-up innovation was never my strong suit, but I was doing my best. I told Dr. King repetition was effective, but in searching for a phrase, my mind drew a blank.

"Listen, America," I suggested, but Dr. King shook his head.

"Too confrontational," he said.

"I have a vision," I said.

"What is it?" asked Dr. King.

"No, no," I replied. "That's the phrase -- 'I have a vision' -- followed by a series of demands."

Dr. King nodded: "You're on the right track, but we're not quite there."

Just then a young man, quietly standing by, walked up to Dr. King. "I've been listening to your conversation," he said, "and I think this might work: 'I have a dream.'"

Dr. King's eyes suddenly came alive, and his shy, furtive smile broke into a broad-faced grin. "I have a dream!" he declared, and clapped the anonymous young man on the shoulder.

I turned to Malcolm X, who was standing beside me. "Malcolm, who was that guy?" I asked.

"Joe Ellis," replied Malcolm. "He's a graduate student in history at Yale, and a bleepin' one-man eloquence machine."

Three decades later I was serving on the Pulitzer board, pondering the winner of the history prize. Katherine Graham, owner of The Washington Post, and filmmaker Ken Burns, sat on either side of me. The final decision had come down to the three of us, and we were stumped. Ken and Katherine, characteristically, were sticking with their favorites, but had asked me (as an old friend) to help them break the deadlock. My choice, as they knew, was Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation , by Joseph J. Ellis.

"Frankly," I said, "there's no contest. I've known Professor Ellis for nearly 40 years. We both worked in the civil rights movement, he saved my life in Vietnam, and then we marched together against the war. Apart from Anna Quindlen, I can't think of anyone who's been on Charlie Rose more often, and according to the buzz, he's a lock to succeed David McCullough on The American Experience. Just last week he was down in Washington again, lunching with Mary McGrory, talking to Jim Lehrer, and speaking to Congress about putting up a memorial on the Mall to John Adams. We'd be crazy to give the prize to anybody else. Joe Ellis is a bleepin' one-man publicity machine."

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, The Providence Journal