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ANN JILLIAN Shares her memory of an unforgettable tour with Bob Hope
Bob Hope and Ann Jillian in a chopper in the war zone somewhere off Beirut, Christmas 1983
INTO THE WAR ZONE WITH BOB HOPE
By Ann Jillian, Special to TheColumnists.com
He sits, hands folded, chin tucked into his collar, eyelids peacefully closed to the scene outside, even though he's such a central part of it.
Here's Bob Hope, for decades our "Mr. America," our goodwill ambassador, resting peacefully on a crate of ammunition in a "Foxfire" boat, not far from the machine guns mounted at either end of this mini war vessel. Two Navy Seals man these ominous looking weapons, but he's blissfully calm enough to pay no attention.
I am enthralled with this picture of "opposites" -- an old man in his 80's, seemingly unconcerned with the volatile setting where mostly the young and strong survive. Meanwhile, the young and strong among us are shivering.
We're told we're past "curfew." That means no lights are allowed. That also means we couldn't fly back to the aircraft carrier that's been serving as our U.S.O. "hotel." Instead, we're slipping back to the carrier in a "Foxfire" gunboat... without lights. We're only a mile off shore and the enemy tends to fire at anything that moves on the water. Should the boat capsize, we're instructed not to "cry out." Don't worry, they say; they'll find us. (Yeah, but in what condition?) I swallow. Hard. My heart pounds. Even the exciting prospect of being rescued at sea by these virile young men doesn't help. Panic strikes my heart when I think of the "nasty" things swimming around in these waters, nipping at my appendages and various other body parts. I search the face of my husband, Andy, and I can see he's worried, too.
We look at each other and then all eyes turn to the tranquil "Old Man of the Sea." Framed by the wake stirred up by the boat, doused by an eerie red glow, he naps the revitalizing naps he's famous for taking anywhere, anytime. Clearly, he's done this all before -- and that has a comforting effect on all of us. He has a mission: to bring laughs to men and women in combat who've come upon "laughless" times...to bring the warmth of home to these sons and daughters so far away from their families and friends.
Suddenly, a massive, brightly-lit wall of metal rises out of the sea and an iron monolith towers over us. It's our destination, our "hotel on the sea," the U.S.S. Guam.
There's a tiny, unsteady dock for us to "hop" onto. If we time the rhythm of our "hops" wrong, we'll be smashed like squid being pounded by peasant fishermen. And it just keeps getting better: I spy a chain ladder hanging down the side of this monstrous ship. Was that lowered to receive us? How many stories do we have to go up?
But our "father figure" isn't napping now. He stands confidently, with his ever-present masseuse at his side, and hops the bouncing boat to the dock without missing a beat. The chain ladder? He did that, too!
O.K., now it's our turn. We followed him, like children marching behind the Pied Piper.
We were his troupe of performers for the Christmas of 1983, chosen by Bob Hope to entertain our peacekeeping troops off the shores of Beirut, Lebanon. It was the world's "hot-spot."
Today, so many years later, the memory plays back in my mind as vividly as if I were standing there again, breathing in the salt air blowing off the coast of Lebanon. It's just one of many amazing memories I've had the privilege of sharing with Bob Hope and his lovely wife, Dolores.
Though I'd been a performer since childhood, it was my humble opinion that you just weren't officially in "show business" until you'd been asked to perform with Bob Hope and the U.S.O. for our troops. So when my phone rang, and I got the invitation, I was as thrilled as a person has a right to be!
"Look Ma, I made it!, Top of the world!" I wanted to shout, just like Jimmy Cagney did in the fiery climax of "White Heat."
Of course, time soon taught me the true "treasures" of the trip. They're the same treasures that Bob discovered long ago. They are revealed in his eyes when he looks at all of them, the men and women laughing at his skits or "stand-up," whistling and "grunting" in good-humored appreciation of the performers he's brought with him, or, in almost reverential silence when a poignant ballad is sung, heads are bowed and eyes are wiped dry.
I spied such a moment when we performed that night. Bob's eyes filled with tears, glistening in the reflection of the television lights as he watched them take the show in with such joy. Slightly startled at my intrusion, he quietly nodded, "They're my guys and gals." Then gave me a humble smile. There was a "treasure" to hold onto. I'll never forget it.
Nor will I ever forget the encouragement he gave so freely.
"You sure put that over, Ann," he told me. "You got a lot of vaudeville in ya. They loved it !"
And another time, just before we left for Riyadh during the last weeks of Operation Desert Shield: "Hey, Ann," he asked, "How 'bout singing that song you sang last time in Beirut? 'Wind Beneath My Wings?' That was a big hit!"
I might add, with great pride, that I introduced that song on television in the Beirut Special. Composer Larry Henley very graciously told me so in a letter of thanks.
Bob Hope's enthusiastic support of all my efforts will be gratefully held forever in my heart.
In April of 1985, after the news of my fight with breast cancer had broken, I found myself inundated with a sea of flowers and well wishes from so many friends, in and out of my profession. But I still remember the arrival of the "granddaddy" of all floral arrangements at my hospital room: An ENORMOUS profusion of white roses and flowers with a card urging me to, "...hurry up and get out of there; they're playing our cue!" Signed, Bob Hope. The whole floor was abuzz.
To speak of Bob Hope and not to recall memorable moments with Dolores would be highly remiss. Dolores Hope and I spent hours playing "song" games on the way to Saudi Arabia. We kept at it, I'll admit, until the eyes of all the guys, even my husband's, were crossed. We had a wonderful time! Listening to her beautiful voice was a delight. We shared oodles of "girl-talk because Dolores and I and their daughter, Linda, who was the producer of the show, were the only females of our entourage allowed to enter Riyadh. We have shopped together in military bases around the world, giggled and reminisced, and I hold those times as very dear.
Even my little son, Andy, has been touched by their thoughtfulness. He, too, will have his own set of special memories.
This is the Bob Hope that I know, the heart that I saw, the enthusiasm and compassion that I witnessed up close. It's my special view of the "Mr. America" thousands eagerly awaited to view.
I am thankful to you, Bob. Thank you for the chance to be "officially" a part of "show biz." Thank you for the chance to work with you in front of the camera and on "the road," to share in the awesome thrill of being with you in this nation's ticker tape parade for our forces returning home from Desert Storm.
As so many have said before, Bob, "Thanks for the memories."
...... Ann Jillian