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Wounded vet pranked a Hollywood leading man

January 4, 2013 12:10 am


Alvin Shell's sense of humor is intact after war injuries including burns over more than one-third of his body.

SOMETIMES in stories, there are so many serious angles to cover, there's no room for the lighter side.

Yet, the funny stuff tends to stick with you longer, and that's why I want to tell you more about Alvin Shell, a retired Army captain in Spotsylvania County.

Shell was on the front page of our newspaper before Christmas. A portrait by Marie Sicola showed some of the devastating scars he carries from a horrific incident in 2004 in Iraq.

His convoy was attacked by an explosive device, and Shell got covered in diesel fuel as he tried to move a damaged tanker so the rest of the trucks could get out of harm's way.

When a rocket exploded over his shoulder--and caught his buddy on fire--Shell ran through flames to save him and "lit up like a Christmas tree."

I tried to convey some of Shell's incredible personality in the story, including his sense of humor. But there's not always room for jokes when you're talking about someone who was burned over more than one-third of his body and suffered irreparable damage to nerves and joints.

Make no mistake. Shell still manages to laugh despite everything that's happened.

For example, you know how you get a message at the bottom of emails that says it was sent from one intelligent device or another?

Shell's reads: "Sent from a phone that is smarter than its user."

Then there's his story about Denzel Washington, an episode I've already repeated more times than I've seen "The Preacher's Wife," a Christmas movie with him and Whitney Houston.

I'm a big fan of Washington--he has nice teeth--and was even more impressed when Shell said the actor visited him in recovery.

Shell had to spend about a year in a Texas military hospital as he suffered through the difficult and painful process of healing--and having good skin stripped away and stapled onto damaged areas.

He was on morphine most of the time and says he didn't force himself to smile nearly as much as he does now.

Washington came to the unit with his kids because he wanted them to see that war isn't like what you see in the movies. Devastating injuries last a lifetime, long after the director yells "Cut" on the movie set.

Anyway, Shell's wife, Danielle, was enjoying the visit with the famous actor--about two feet away from him.

As Shell watched from the sidelines, because he and his morphine were in no mood for company, he hatched a wicked plan. He called over his sons, who were 9 and 6 at the time, and asked if they knew who Washington was.

When they said no, he whispered something in each boy's ear.

The first one went over to Washington and said he knew exactly who he was--the star of the movie, "Blade."

Washington gave his trademark smile and said, "No, son, that was Wesley Snipes."

The other brother trotted over and gave the same spiel, except he said Washington was the star of "Driving Miss Daisy."

Again, the actor smiled and said, "No, that was Morgan Freeman."

And so it went, as Shell's boys proceeded to name movies that featured every African-American actor under the stars, except the one standing in front of them.

The charade continued until Shell's wife caught on and told her husband to stop embarrassing her in front of Washington.

I'm betting Washington caught on, too, and went along with it, even if the whole act did make him seethe, just a little, behind that beautiful Hollywood smile of his.

Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425

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