At Central Library, One Man
Records War Stories, Preserving Them for Generations to
Amid the weekend stillness of a
Central Library meeting room, Stanley Levenson told the
story of his service during and after World War II. A
microphone clipped to his collar captured every word
onto a CD bound for the Veterans History Project at the
Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
Stanley Levenson tells his World War II story to
David Meyer O'Shea in the Central Library.
O'Shea has spent many weekends in Downtown
preserving the tales of servicemen. Photo by
Levenson's daughter Arleen Karno,
owner of the Groundwork cafe in the Arts District, sat
listening nearby, legs curled beneath her.
But when Levenson spoke, he spoke to David Meyer O'Shea.
"I haven't paid attention to these things in years,"
said Levenson, 79. "I think it's important that the
government pay attention. My children all know about
But many children, O'Shea included, don't know much
about their fathers' time in the war. The onetime New
York cabbie, storytelling actor and, for the next few
months, harried tax accountant has devoted much of his
free time over the last two years to recording their
stories for posterity.
Every other weekend since the beginning of 2006, the
Larchmont Village resident has been trekking to the
Central Library in Downtown Los Angeles to sit with
veterans and record them. Sometimes no one shows up to
the walk-in sessions, and he spends his time editing
Some stories are long and
flowing, others choppy with painful memories. Many are
hilarious, some grave. To O'Shea's ear, all are
Unlike Levenson, who joined up late and at a young age
to ultimately work the ground crew of an Army Air Corps
special project developing remote-controlled planes,
many older veterans saw the war at its peak of
intensity, then tried to forget what they saw after it
"People go out there with the experience of seeing
something unspeakable," O'Shea said. "They can't put it
into words, and so they can only talk about it with
other people who had the same experience."
When he replays the recordings, O'Shea relives their
enthusiasm, humor and pain. His blue eyes recall the
looks on the faces of the men who are passing away at
the rate of 1,400 a day.
"When I hear some people, there
is a feeling that something is exquisite. There is a
rare moment," O'Shea said. "It's people talking about
what they felt or what they saw. It's all so vivid."
O'Shea father, Earl D. Meyer (O'Shea changed his
professional name in the 1990s to stand out from another
actor named David Meyer) served as an artillery radioman
with the 95th Infantry Battalion, and saw the 1944
Battle of Metz up close. The bloody, three-month
standoff in the French snow has been called the "Unknown
Battle" because the story of the terrible Allied losses
has largely escaped history books.
In 2003, Meyer began to open up about the battle and his
part in it. O'Shea was just then getting into recording
oral histories - a subject that had captivated him since
his taxi-driving days in the late 1970s and early '80s -
and he made a single recording of his father talking
about the war.
Meyer attended a 95th Infantry Division reunion on a
sweltering August weekend in that year. He returned home
on a Sunday. On Wednesday, his doctor discovered
advanced colon cancer. Three weeks later, he passed
The following year, after tax season but before the
95th's reunion, O'Shea was engrossed in acting classes
taught by Jeffrey Tambor of "The Larry Sanders Show" and
"Arrested Development" fame. One of his assignments was
to write, in stream of consciousness, three pages first
thing in the morning.
"I end up writing, 'Go to Baton Rouge where the reunion
is. Bring the CD recorder and offer to record these
veterans. And give it back to them so they or their
children have copies of their fathers telling them
stories,'" O'Shea said. "I stopped and I thought, well
that's a good idea. Do it as a tribute to your father."
He followed through, made recordings and three months
later followed the 95th on the unit's 60th anniversary
pilgrimage to the site of the battle. In Metz, France.
Like all who contribute to the Veterans History Project,
O'Shea records and submits for free (finagling frequent
flyer miles and crashing in French guest rooms don't
count). The project relies on volunteers to fill its
searchable database of narratives and memorabilia, but
few submit more than once, let alone 30 or 40 times, as
O'Shea has done.
"Most [stories] are from a one-time donation," said
Vicki Govro, a project spokeswoman who has worked with
O'Shea. "The fact that he's on his own and isn't part of
an organization is unusual."
O'Shea is definitely an unusual man. After the Hamilton,
Ohio, native's turn as a cabbie, he moved to California
in the early 1990s, getting some small work on TV shows.
"I'm cast as a buffoon, usually," he said, chuckling.
Recently he's been performing his one-man show Taxi
Stories at Theater 150 in Ojai.
Levenson's story - culminating in him sending the
world's first remote controlled plane-carried letter, a
copy of which will accompany his recording to Washington
- will be O'Shea's last recording for a while. He plans
to start up again in the quiet side room of the Central
Library after tax season dies down in June.
He will take all comers, veterans who served in or
between the Big One and its sequels: Korea, Vietnam, the
Gulf, even Afghanistan and Iraq. The stories will vary
widely. Securing unedited, firsthand accounts of war is
the important thing, now more than ever, O'Shea says.
"It's not like Vietnam, when you get the feed of the
bodies. Everything's sanitized by the time we see it,"
he said. "The United States we live in now is based on
the silence of 80-year-old men. Hollywood told their
story. They couldn't tell their story."
O'Shea is ensuring that they get their chance.
For the Veterans History Project at the Los Angeles
Central Library, contact David O'Shea at (213) 469-9774