Westport is having a war moment.
Actually, more than one.
Right now, the town — or at least part of it — is in the midst of WestportREADS. The annual event encourages everyone to read the same book, at the same time. A month of special programming — discussion groups, lectures, exhibits, films, musical performances and more — follows.
The books are well chosen; the events are thought-provoking and varied. It’s a shame there’s not more publicity, because WestportREADS is important. (It’s also a good way to get out of the house when the post-holiday blahs hit.)
This year’s book is “Regeneration.” Pat Barker’s historical fiction examines what happens when a British officer refuses to continue serving during the “senseless slaughter” of World War I. It’s a complex novel, exploring the effect of that awful war on identity, masculinity and social structure.
Some of the WestportREADS programs have already occurred. But there’s more ahead. And they’re worth going to, even if you (ahem) haven’t read “Regeneration.”
On Sunday, Jan. 28 (2 p.m., Saugatuck Congregational Church), the West Point Glee Club performs music from World War I. We all know “Over There.” I’m sure there’s much more familiar music I never knew came from that conflict, and other works I haven’t heard.
On Thursday, Feb. 1 (7 p.m., Westport Arts Center), winners of a poetry contest will read their works. The competition, which runs through Sunday, Jan. 21, is held in conjunction with the WAC’s current exhibit, “What Keeps Mankind Alive.” It features paintings that reveal how we all create narratives and stories to explain the world around us.
On Sunday, Feb. 4 (3 p.m., Westport Historical Society), a panel of veterans from World Wars I and II plus Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan come together for “On the Front: Veterans’ Reflections.” They’ll talk about how war affects people, communities — and the peacetime that follows.
And on Saturday, Feb. 10 (4 p.m., Westport Town Hall), the library partners with the Westport Cinema Initiative for a screening of “Letters From Baghdad.” The documentary tells the story of Gertrude Bell, a British spy and explorer who helped shape the modern Middle East after World War I in ways that reverberate today.
That’s the WestportREADS part of our broad look back at war. At the same time, we focus in on the experiences of one very special veteran. Ed Vebell is 96. He’s lived in Westport for decades, and he has a remarkable story to tell.
Vebell joined the Army Air Force in 1942. A talented artist-reporter, he was dropped behind enemy lines in Algiers, Italy and France. He’d sketch enemy equipment and positions, then be picked up three days later.
“I was a good target for snipers,” Vebell said. “The photographers just took their pictures and ducked down. I had to stand up and draw.” Of course, he said, “when you’re 20 you think you’re invincible.”
He had good reason to think that. He tumbled from the Swiss Alps in a Jeep (he landed in snow-covered trees). He was lost at sea for 11 days. A sword pierced his chest. He was hit by a locomotive.
But he survived. And, Vebell said, “it was all really something. I was a young kid from Chicago who had never even seen the ocean.”
When the war ended, Vebell stayed in France for nearly three years. He worked for a French newspaper, enjoyed the Folies Bergère, met Charles de Gaulle and Edith Piaf — and covered the Nuremberg trials.
Returning to America, he worked for Readers Digest, Time and Life. He illustrated books and advertisements. Specializing in military art, he drew uniforms from around the world for encyclopedias and paperback publishers. Vebell worked for MBI too, illustrating the history of America from Leif Erikson through the Pilgrims, the Founding Fathers, and every war up to Vietnam. Along the way he designed U.S. stamps — some with military themes, some not.
The Civil War holds a special place in Vebell’s heart. Years ago, he staged entire battle scenes in a Weston field. Models wore Yankee and rebel uniforms. He took photos, and worked from them.
Oh, yeah: Vebell also represented the U.S. as a fencer at Helskinki in 1952. (He made the semifinals.)
A book he wrote about his experiences, “An Artist at War,” came out last year. Now, finally, the Westport Historical Society is honoring this remarkable man.
“The Curious Case of Ed Vebell” opens on Sunday, Jan. 28 (a reception begins at 2 p.m.). Many of his military illustrations are on display. So are Revolutionary and Civil War uniforms, German helmets and Franco-Prussian gear.
You’ll also see the souvenirs he’s collected, in the service and after. There’s a spear from an African lion hunter tribe, and Buffalo Bill’s hat. If you want to know more, go to the exhibit.
After, of course, you finish reading “Regeneration.”
Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at email@example.com. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.