- The Washington Times - Friday, May 30, 2003

Bob Hope is one of the last troupers alive with service ribbons from vaudeville, movies, radio and television. He had a quip for every occasion. Everybody remembers the laughs if not the jokes.

“I’m so old,” he said yesterday, celebrating his 100th birthday, “they’ve canceled my blood type.”

But it’s his long tradition of spending Christmas with young Americans on far-flung battle stations that the old trouper will be most fondly remembered.

Stars and Stripes, the daily newspaper that has followed American soldiers to a dozen wars and police actions, invited veterans to post their remembrances of Bob Hope on its Internet site (www.estripes.com), and reading them is an evocative stroll through the history of the most violent years of a violent century.

The vets remember remarkably few of the actual jokes, but they recall in detail the beautiful girls, often including the reigning Miss America (“I brought ‘em along to show you what you’re fighting for,” as he always introduced them), the music and laughter, the selfless good humor of the man, and above all the touches from home that if only for a couple of hours lifted the men out of the backwater islands of the South Pacific, the broken cities of Europe, the squalid Korean villages, the dusty desert base camps, flight decks, and a hundred hospital wards.

“In Vietnam in 1968,” recalls Pat Eastes, who identifies himself only as a one-time gunship pilot of the 25th Infantry Division, “I was assigned to fly gun cover during his show at Cu Chi. … We received fire off the end of the runway and reported to the tower that Charlie was taking potshots in the area. Mr. Hope’s aircraft landed without incident, and while we flew circles around base camp, the show went on as planned. On takeoff, the tower advised the pilots of Mr. Hope’s plane that the gunships had received small-arms fire, and so the takeoff was one of those ‘max climb,’ all-out jobs that C-123s could do so well. We were entertained and surprised when seeing the headlines the next day or so in Stars and Stripes that Bob Hope had been shot at taking off from Cu Chi. I guess it was a good headline, but it was a bit enhanced.”

Getting shot at was merely grist. As it happened, I spent that particular Christmas Eve with Hope, Billy Graham and the late Cardinal Francis Spellman, hopscotching across ‘Nam to take Christmas to the troops. “Billy Graham and Cardinal Spellman,” Hope quipped. “Now those are the two bookends you want.” When the rumble of artillery suddenly threatened to drown the banter on stage, the master of perfect timing seemed to have been listening to a metronome: “That’s all right,” he said when the rumble subsided. “We’ve been getting 21-gun salutes all day. Three or four of the guns are usually ours.”

He was also the master of the casual pose, decked out in bright yellow trousers and waving the ubiquitous golf club. But the pose was only that: nothing had been left to coincidence or circumstance. His writers always preceded him, by a day or so, taking names to go with the mess-hall gossip. Hope worked it all into the patter. The troops loved it.

The seating was carefully arranged: the wounded GIs in the front rows, then the enlisted men, the officers at the rear. He made a point to chow down with the troops, but he visited with their officers as well, often at the Officers Club. His small-d democrat’s instincts were not a pose.

“I was a combat medic,” recalls Paul L. Pleticha of the 25th Infantry Division, “and sat in front with the wounded from our hospital. After a great two hours of laughter and singing, he came to our hospital wards and spent two more hours just talking with the wounded. He always kept a smile and a joke going to keep the spirits of the men up.”

Like so many typical Americans, Leslie Townes Hope was an American by choice, coming with his family to Cleveland when he was 4 (“I left England as soon as I found out I wasn’t eligible to become king.”) He joined a vaudeville troupe as a teenager, once working “third billing to Siamese twins” and sometimes as warm-up for Fatty Arbuckle. He even worked for a while as a newspaper reporter before going to Hollywood just as the movies were entering their golden era. He and his pal Bing Crosby (who coined the mock insult “ol’ Ski-nose”) invented the road movie. Critics panned their slapstick humor decorated with gorgeous babes like Dorothy Lamour and Jane Russell, but the movies earned millions. “I would have won the Academy Award if not for one thing: my pictures” he once said. “Academy Award night at my house was called Passover.”

Presidents were eager to play a round of golf with him because they knew his jokes would assuage the disappointment of hooks and slices. He last played a presidential foursome in 1995, with Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. “Clinton had the best score,” he said afterward, “Ford the most errors and Bush the most hits. Me, I cheated better than ever.”

Sure he did. But who’s complaining?

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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