hbo-pacific-malak.jpgOne thing I regret about not having cable TV is that I don’t get to see programs like HBO’s “The Pacific,” which debuts on Sunday. It’s a World War II Marine Corps series based in part on E.B. Sledge’s classic memoir, “With the Old Breed.” I noticed this excerpt from the Washington Post’s favorable review today:

Another standout performance comes late in the game as well, from Rami Malek, who plays Sledge’s resiliently loyal trench mate, Pvt. Merriell “Snafu” Shelton. A drawling and creepy angel-of-death figure, Snafu feels like he’s been reassigned from a ‘Nam flick — a necessary antihero among fallen heroes.

In a Detroit News interview, Malek (shown during filming, above, on the left) says:

Malek’s Shelton is a man turned inside out, one capable of committing unconscionable acts to both the living and the dead. And yet, at times, he becomes the conscience of his fellow marines. In his Big Easy accent, he warns those he sees heading down his own dark, well-worn path.
“He was dead inside by all he had seen, but if there was a spark of innocence in him, if he couldn’t go back to that, he tried to save the innocence of others,” Malek said.
When asked if the real-life Shelton really did the things unflinchingly captured in the miniseries, Malek explained, “Shelton is mentioned in the book ‘With the Old Breed,’ written by Eugene Sledge (who’s played by Joe Mazzello in the series). The things that happen in the movie, we aren’t 100 percent sure he did them.”

Well, Snafu Shelton is more than mentioned in Sledge’s (terrific, brutal) book; he’s woven throughout it. When I read “With the Old Breed” a few years back, it was difficult to wrap my mind around the idea that the Marine who committed and endured the savagery of the Pacific campaign was our neighbor, Mr. Merriell. But he was. He lived with his sweet wife, Miss Gladys, and his two sons in a little brick house on Highway 61, a mile or so away. He was an air conditioner repairman and installer; you can see a scar on the ceiling of my mom and dad’s living room ceiling where Snafu accidentally put his foot through the sheetrock when he was putting in the ducts in our place. His younger son and I played baseball together in the summer leagues. We’d see Snafu at the games, but he kept to himself. He was short and stocky, and had a hard, hard face. He smoked filterless cigarettes, I remember that, and that he loved to gamble. But mostly, he was this distant, mysterious man.

I remember my Dad telling me once that Mr. Merriell had seen some hellacious fighting in the Second World War, but I don’t think any of us really knew what that meant until Sledge’s book came out. My uncle took a role in bringing Sledge and Snafu together for a reunion, which took place around his table.
It was a revelation to me to read in Sledge’s book what, exactly, the quiet, hard man who lived in the little brick house down the road had done early in his life. He was a ruthless killer, which is only to say that he was a brave, effective soldier in a terrible war that he didn’t choose. Reading the Sledge memoir, I wondered how in the world a man can come through that kind of hell, and have anything like a normal life. I guess Snafu did, but I really don’t know. He was our neighbor, but a loner. You never know about people, do you?
He died a long time ago, as did Miss Gladys, and his older son Floyd, a talented teenage ballplayer who’d gotten mixed up in drugs. His younger son Allen — my old playmate — survives, I think, but I don’t know where he moved off to. In a dark and bizarre coda to the tale, Snafu’s old house on Highway 61 was later inhabited by the infamous Derrick Todd Lee, who was living there while he was carrying out his serial murders. (We’re pretty certain that he stalked my sister, his former classmate, for a time — that story is here.)
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