"It's an absolutely amazing story," says KNUS radio host Steffan Tubbs about the subject of 25 Steps, his latest documentary film, which debuts on June 6. "And I had to tell it."
To put it mildly, Tubbs has had a tumultuous year. He was fired from his job as host of KOA's Colorado Morning News last August following his arrest on suspicion of domestic violence, disturbance by phone. Although the charge was subsequently dismissed, KOA chose not to rehire him. But despite the controversy, KNUS brought him aboard to helm the afternoon drive shift in February.
Throughout this period, Tubbs, a longtime advocate for veterans, was hard at work on 25 Steps, his fourth documentary — which connected directly to his third, titled Acronym: The Cross-Generational Battle With PTSD.
"One of the World War II vets in Acronym was Bob McAdam, who's 97 years old and sharp as a tack," Tubbs says. "I kept in touch with him after the film, and in late 2016 or early 2017, he gave me a call and said, 'You'll never believe who I just met. ... I just met someone who was at Stalag Luft I,'" the prison camp in Barth, Germany where he was held captive in 1944 and 1945.
The location of this meeting was the Highlands Ranch senior center where McAdam lives. That's where he discovered that Sherwin "Butch" Desens lived only about 25 steps from his door — a distance that gives the film its title.
Even more surprisingly, Desens, a mere whippersnapper at age 95, was imprisoned at Stalag Luft I during the same period as McAdam. And they were nearly as close in proximity as young men as they are today. According to Tubbs, "They estimate that at any given time, they could have been fifty feet from each other at Stalag Luft I, but they never talked or crossed paths."
They didn't bump into each other sooner at the senior center for a sad reason. "They were both taking care of their dying wives," Tubbs notes. "Their wives passed within ten months of each other. And when they finally met in the hallway, they found out they had even more in common. They're both graduates from the University of Illinois, and after World War II, they both came back and married their high school sweethearts — and they both served in Korea, too. It was like they were living parallel lives."
Not that everything about their war experiences was identical. Tubbs reveals that "Bob was shot down on July 7, 1944, on his first mission as navigator on a B-17. They were three hours into the flight when they were shot down, and he was taken prisoner in Austria. In the meantime, Butch was a squadron commander at just 22, and when he was shot down, he was flying a P-51 Mustang, and it was his seventieth mission."
At Stalag Luft I, the men were housed in a unit with other fliers from across the Allied ranks, Tubbs notes. "They had people from the Royal Air Force, from the U.S. Air Force, from the Australian air force. There were so many prisoners that they never ran across each other — until 73 years later."
Here's the trailer for the film:
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
In addition to McAdam and Desens, 25 Steps includes contributions from a more familiar figure: actor Peter Coyote, who narrates the tale.
"I've never had a narrator on any of my films before," Tubbs says, "and through God's blessing, I was able to get Peter, who is a legendary voice actor — Ken Burns's go-to guy for all of his documentary work. To have Peter bring the gravitas he brings was incredible."
After this week's premiere, which McAdam and Desens are scheduled to attend, Tubbs plans to take 25 Steps on the film-festival circuit with an eye toward "shining light on what's becoming a forgotten part of our history," he explains. "This is absolutely a film that should be on a Netflix or a Hulu or shown nationwide. But the biggest thing for me was to complete it and have these two World War II heroes in the audience so they can see it for themselves and receive the accolades they deserve."
The debut presentation of 25 Steps is scheduled to get under way at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, June 6, at the Regal Cinemas SouthGlenn 14, 6901 South Vine Street in Centennial. General admission seats are sold out, but VIP tickets are still available. Click for more information.