National Story Project
The Final Chapter
The National Story Project ran for two years in 2000 and 2001.
Listen to Saturday's installment.
Listen as Paul Auster, Jacki Lyden and contributor Bill Helmantoler talk about working on the National Story Project.
Jacki Lyden and Paul Auster sort through the submissions sent by listeners (1999).
Dec. 1, 2001 -- The National Story Project was conceived in late 1999, when novelist Paul Auster was a guest on Weekend All Things Considered. Auster was asked to come on the show regularly to tell stories. He agreed -- and asked listeners to send in their own stories about small, turning-point moments. The National Story Project was born.
The stories poured in and covered a range of topics as multi-faceted as the human spirit: AIDS, alcoholism, the Great Depression and World War II, a Christmas tree in Brooklyn and a mother's missing wedding ring. You sent big stories and small ones, and each left its impression. Many were collected into a book, I Thought My Father Was God. None will be forgotten.
Join Paul Auster, Jacki Lyden and contributor Bill Helmantoler on Weekend All Things Considered, Saturday, Dec. 1 for the last installment of the National Story Project. Two stories will be read: Helmantoler's "The Last Hand," and Willa Parks Ward's, "One Autumn Afternoon".
(left to right) John Helmantoler, NPR's Jacki Lyden, Bill and Mary Helmantoler.
Photo: Maggy Sterner © NPR
The Last Hand
The damndest poker game I ever played in was held in my office on an island near the equator in the western Pacific during World War II. Japanese bombers interrupted play twice during the first hour of the game. Each time, we had to run outside in the rain to crude bomb shelters, where we sat in the dripping darkness and waited for the all clear.
As bad as the conditions were, the most frustrating thing was that nobody was getting a decent hand. There hadn't been a ten-dollar pot in the half-dozen hands we had played. Each participant was playing on money he had won during the month, so there were several thousand dollars available for betting.
Finally, as host and dealer, I suggested we play one last hand in which each player would ante five dollars. That way, somebody would win a few bucks, and then we could lie down on our wet cots for a nervous night's sleep.
But that wasn't the way it happened. The player to my immediate left opened for the amount in the pot - thirty-five dollars. The next man raised seventy dollars. Each player in turn either called or raised. Nobody folded. By the time the betting got around to Lieutenant Smith, who was sitting on my right, he made the bet an even thousand. Smitty was a good friend and a very good poker player; I knew he had won a lot of money in the last few weeks.
I "sweated" my cards again: three, four, five, six of diamonds and a nine of clubs - possible straight, possible flush, and possible straight flush. I had to stay and draw a card even though it would cost at least a thousand bucks. I called, and so did two other players. I calculated that there were five thousand dollars in the pot. I was having a hard time breathing as I dealt the players their draw cards.
The man who had opened stayed pat, as did Smitty. I took one card. I "sweated" my cards again, trying to muster the courage to look at the hand. As I peeked at the new card and saw that it was a two of diamonds, I thought I was going to die. A straight flush! I had never held a natural one in my life. I hoped that the other players couldn't see my "poker face."
The first two bettors checked to Smitty, the raiser, and Smitty looked me up and down. "Cap'n," he said with a wry smile, "you look like you just swallowed a canary. I'm going to let you name your poison. But I don't want anybody to look at my hand for nothing, so I bet two hundred dollars."
I counted my money on the table - seven hundred dollars. Most of it represented previous winnings, but about two hundred of it was my hard-earned dough. With a deep sigh I pushed it all into the pot and squeezed out the words, "I raise five hundred dollars." This was like the movies - I was sweating through my pants.
Only Smitty called. I laid down my cards and announced triumphantly, "Straight flush!"
Smitty gulped and said, "How high?" My heart fell. I knew he had won. My two to six was about as low as you can get. He beat me with a seven-high club straight flush.
He scooped up the armload of money into his shirt and thanked us for our contributions.
Half an hour later, a lone Japanese bomber dropped his load on Smitty's lighted tent. We picked up more than eight thousand dollars strewn around the area and sent it back home to his widow. At his funeral the next afternoon, we got word that Smitty was on the promotion list and was about to be made captain. We changed the rank on the white burial marker. It was truly the last hand.
One Autumn Afternoon
My brother was a member of the Eighty-second Airborne Division, which had trained near Columbus, Georgia. We knew that he had been in North Africa, but when we received the news of his death, we were told that he had been killed in France on August 21, 1944. He was nineteen years old. This is how I remember that afternoon when I learned of the terrible thing that had happened.
I could never say that I had any intuition or foreboding about how that day would turn out. I walked into our house after the school bus had let me off at the end of our road, and I had no idea what was waiting for me. I remember that it was the best time of the year, one of those golden days, summer almost gone, fall coming on fast. The leaves on the trees were just beginning to turn color, getting ready for their vivid swan song before we moved on to the somber season ahead.
It was 1944, and I was just beginning my sophomore year in high school. My mother and I were alone most of the time out in the country in the old house that had been left to our family by my father's parents. Our few acres were in the midst of dairy farms in upstate New York. My father worked on the Barge Canal and could get home only on weekends, partly because of the distance involved but also because of the strict gas rationing that was in effect. My brother, who had signed up to become a paratrooper immediately after graduating from high school, had been shipped overseas in March of that year. His letters to us were from North Africa, but they hinted that he would be moving on soon.
As I walked into the house through the kitchen, there were signs of activity that had been interrupted. Wisps of steam rose from a big kettle on the cook stove, and a dish towel laid out on the table held empty canning jars lined up and waiting to be filled. Other tools of the trade, knives and ladles and funnels, were strewn about the kitchen. A box that held the red rubber rings used to seal the jars had been opened. Some of the rings had spilled out onto the table. It was as if all action in the room had been halted just an instant before. Why was everything so quiet? Where was my mother? She always met me in the kitchen when I came home. As I started through the house to look for her, I remember noticing a shaft of brilliant afternoon sun striking a basket of tomatoes. They glowed red.
Our dining room was on the north side of the house and was always dark. In the gloom I saw a creased yellow paper lying on the table, and in one terrible moment everything became clear to me. Written on the paper were the most dreaded words of those wartime years. "We regret to inform you . . ."
Willa Parks Ward
The National Story Project was produced by Davar Ardalan and Rebecca Davis.