All of my career, I’ve made an effort to look behind the media mirror that reflects celebrity and power to find compelling tales about the rest of us. A lot of people standing in the shadows have such stories.
For example: The other day I was in a Wal-Mart and overheard this exchange between two older men. One was a customer, the other a greeter offering him assistance: “Can I help you?”
“Sorry, I don’t hear so well,” the customer replied.
“I don’t hear well either,” the greeter said. “I was in the Army Air Corps.”
“I was, too,” said the customer.
“Served during World War II.”
“Me, too, in the Philippines.”
“So did I. I had eight brothers in the military during the war — ”
Eight. That’s when I stepped closer and introduced myself.
Eight came back
The greeter’s name is Carl Grossman, and he was a medic in the Pacific. He fought in 19 battles, saved hundreds of lives.
- Justin Timberlake Visits Pregnant Jessica Biel on Set (PHOTO)
- Watch: Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson Drop in on Dakota Johnson's SNL Monologue
- See the Best Celeb Food Photos of the Week from Hugh Jackman, Kylie Jenner & More
- Dakota Johnson Joins ISIS for Controversial SNL Spoof Ad (VIDEO)
- Bill Rancic: My Son Duke Is the 'Happiest Kid I've Ever Met'
“I crash-landed two planes evacuating the wounded,” Carl recounts. “I had a tooth knocked out. One tooth, that’s all.” He bumped it on a box of hand grenades. “Man, I got off that plane, I kissed that ground!”
President Roosevelt sent his parents a letter, because Carl wasn’t the only fighting Grossman. Six of his eight brothers in uniform saw combat.
Carl’s kid brother, Mickey, built the ship on which he later served. He helped shoot down the Japanese suicide planes that tried to blow it out of the water.
Brother Hy was a bomber pilot. Hy’s roommate? “Clark Gable,” Carl reveals.
Another brother, Shimy, liberated an American POW camp in Germany, where he found a friend who lived down the street in their Pittsburgh neighborhood.
A German hand grenade almost blew off the right arm of yet another brother, Eyo. “They were gonna cut his arm off,” Carl recounts. “He said, ‘I played piano. I loved to play piano. If you take that arm away from me, I might as well die.’ ” Eyo came home, his arm partially paralyzed, but performed until his death at 86.
All eight Grossman brothers, in fact, made it back alive.Carl shrugs. “We were blessed. Blessed.”
Video: Grief unites fallen soldiers' mothers “What advice did your mom give you boys?” I ask Carl.
“ ‘Somebody’s gotta come back,’ she said. ‘It might as well be you.’ ”
Even the brothers who were too old to go to war served their country. One was a cop. And one worked on a top-secret project. “He said it looked a lot like a large metal light bulb,” Carl explains.
Actually, it was the first atomic bomb.
Carl thought that all his wartime experience as a medic would get him into medical school, but without a college degree, it didn’t. So instead he followed his brother Saul into the car business.
He sold Chevys in Detroit for 51 years, but then, like the auto industry itself, Carl fell on hard times. “I don’t have the money,” he says, “but I’m still blessed with a wife of 58 years.”
Most days Freda makes Carl’s lunch, to save money. He commutes 35 miles a day.
Carl’s customer and I listen to all this with our jaws hanging open. And yet we still have one more surprise coming.
The customer shakes Carl’s hand and starts to leave, then turns back. “I’ll be 83 soon,” he says.
Carl grins. “Oh, you’re a teenager. I’ll be 90.”
Ninety. All his brothers are gone. Carl is the last of the Fighting Grossmans. And he’s still fighting, grappling with the American Dream.
“Did you ever think you’d be punching a time clock at 90?” I ask.
“Never! Never!” Carl grins. “But it doesn’t bother me. I’m glad to work. It’s good for my mind.”
“What happened to the golden years?”
Carl grins again. “They got tarnished.”
Video: A final farewell But Carl’s polishing them with his smile. “You bought out the store!” he calls to a woman carrying a bulging basket. “Close the doors!” he laughs.
A tune-in tip
I look for the Carl Grossmans of the world — people who are practically invisible, the ones who quietly change our lives but don’t send out press releases. After all, America was built not just by great heroes or powerful politicians, but by ordinary people with wonderful ideas — by thousands whose names we don’t know, but should. They may not run for president or star on reality shows, but without their contributions, the kind of country we know would not exist.
Join me this Christmas Eve at 8 p.m. ET for an hour-long American Story special on MSNBC. Meet some of those people who give us hope in this season of hope.
And keep those ideas coming! Know someone who would make a great American Story with Bob Dotson? Drop a note in my mailbox by clicking here .
To contact Carl Grossman, send him postal mail care of:
1345 Ave. of Americas, 30th floor
New York, NY 10105
Or e-mail him at:
Or call Jim Grossman at 212-843-8085.
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints