I walked up to the familiar front door of my wife’s grandfather’s house, lugging a camera bag and a tripod, and I said to myself, “Don’t screw this up.”
I’ve done countless interviews with movie stars, filmmakers, government officials and people from all walks of life. So I usually don’t get nervous at the prospect of asking questions and getting people to open up about their lives.
But this interview wasn’t for a news story. It was for my family. And it would be on videotape.
My wife – a direct descendant of Utah pioneers and our family’s de facto historian – asked me to record her grandfather’s stories, so that our children could hear them when great-grandpa (who is 83) is no longer around to tell them in person. Grandpa has lived an eventful life, including a childhood in southern Utah during the Depression, service in the U.S. Navy during World War II, and surviving a horrific motorcycle accident in downtown Salt Lake City in the ’50s.
I went in as prepared as possible. And I got some help from Ken Burns.
The famed documentarian now is unspooling his seven-part film on World War II, “The War,” on PBS stations, including KUED, Ch. 7. (Part 5, titled “FUBAR,” airs tonight at 8.) In connection with the movie, which began when Burns realized that a thousand World War II veterans were dying every day, Burns’ production company teamed with the Library of Congress to encourage submissions to its Veterans History Project.
The Veterans History Project, begun in 2000, aims to collect audio and video interviews with veterans from the last century of war – World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq – along with memoirs, letters, photos, maps and documents.
On PBS’ website for “The War” (www.pbs.org/thewar), Burns and his colleagues have written a “Field Guide” for interviewing World War II veterans. It tells you how to find a veteran to interview, instructions on how to set up your camera, provides sample questions to spark a conversation, and tips for making your interview subject comfortable. In short, Burns has distilled decades of filmmaking experience into a few downloadable pages.
So, armed with plenty of advice, I set up the tripod in front of Grandpa’s recliner and pushed the “record” button.
Turned out I didn’t have to prepare a lot of questions. Grandpa was happy to talk, and only needed the opportunity.
Grandpa started saying I should know “how I met my sweetheart” – my wife’s grandmother, with whom he was married for 60 years, until her death two years ago this October.
This story began with Grandpa being drafted into the Navy in 1942, and covered his entire service during World War II – on board the USS Markab, a destroyer tender that repaired shot-up ships in the Pacific theater from the Aleutians to the Philippines.
He talked about the mortar shell that whizzed over his head (the closest he ever got to being shot), the beautiful cascades of water cannons from ships on V-J Day, and how he turned down a chance to sail into Tokyo Bay for the surrender ceremony so he could get home to his sweetie that much sooner.
I didn’t have to say a word, other than the occasional nod of the head, for at least half an hour – and only then because we were interrupted by phone calls from Grandpa’s daughters. We finally stopped two hours after we started, though we both could have kept going for hours more.
Leaving Grandpa’s house after our session, I thought of what Burns said when he was in Salt Lake City last month, explaining why he stopped resisting the urge to make a movie about World War II: “I realized that, hey, I’m in the memory business, and every time one of these veterans died, it was like a library burning down.”
I felt honored that I could play amateur documentarian for a day, and preserve Grandpa’s library of stories so my kids could pass them on.

* SEAN P. MEANS writes the daily blog, “The Movie Cricket,” at http://blogs.sltrib.com/movies. Send questions or comments to Sean P. Means, movie critic, The Salt Lake Tribune, 90 S. 400 West, Suite 700, Salt Lake City, UT 84101, or e-mail at movies@sltrib.com.