A life well traveled and with many miles to go. John Ludwig (Captain, USMC, Retired) is an Orange County treasure.His path to becoming a filmmaker is one of the most unusual you are to ever hear about.
Having grown up in Rahway, New Jersey, John eventually attended Western Kentucky University, graduating with a B.A. in Psychology and Sociology, having put himself through school with a mixture of hard physical labor during the summers and bartending gigs.
During his teens he often went to a small grass airfield to take flying lessons in a J-3 Piper Cub, paid for with money earned working nights at the Clark Tastee Freeze. Despite having virtually no technical or math background, he was able to score high enough on his flight exam to be accepted into Marine Corps Officer Candidate School (OCS) with an Aviation Contract. While waiting for his OCS class to begin in the summer of 68, he worked in Harlem as a caseworker for the Department of Social Services (as he described the experience, like Tom Wolfe’s Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers).
OCS in Quantico and Flight School in Pensacola, FL presented his first significant structural and academic challenge. After a year and a half of OCS and flight training he qualified in both fixed wing and rotary aircraft. After tours in Southeast Asia and Europe and seeing the world from the decks of aircraft carriers, John finished his active duty commitment in Quantico, VA with the sister squadron to the presidential squadron. To this day he is still close with his Marine Squadron pals.
After active duty with the Marines, he took a flying job with a foreign company that had various flight contracts throughout the world. He lived abroad for almost three years in Africa and the Middle East; flew the police helicopter in Johannesburg, South Africa during their time of strife over apartheid and did a stint culling and tagging White Rhino from the air in Umfolosi, a small game preserve in the heart of Zulu Land, just south of Mozambique with the closest village 50 miles away. In the evenings he could see the eyes of various wild animals just beyond the clearing of his small hut. Nothing but the sound of the wild prevailed except for a generator that was turned off each night at 9:00 pm.
Over a year was spent in Nigeria living in the tiny village of Eket (in the so-called “Bite” of Biafra), just north of Cameroon, flying the bush and supporting oil exploration off the coast. An interesting aside, he was there shortly after the war in Biafra where the revolting tribes during the civil war were cut off from all exports off food and provisions.
In the mid-seventies, he moved from Africa to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, two of the Arab Emirates located on the Persian Gulf. It was an interesting time. Old traditions of the Bedouin culture clashed with the new emerging oil rich societies of the nouveau rich.
Old Souks (think Indiana Jones, narrow alleys with tents filled with wares) were slowly being replaced with modern shopping centers. John flew for local sheiks in support of their new oil industry, sometimes landing in the desert to fill his helicopter up with gas from Jerry Cans pausing long enough to join in for a cup coffee in one of the many nomadic Bedouin campsites sprinkled through the Sahara.
The Middle East was his last location before returning to the States after a few years of being abroad where he thought he was ready for more stability and moved to Dallas to join the girl he left behind some years before. He had several business ventures, opening up a new Dallas nightclub among others, but eventually put his energy into helping a new aircraft brokerage company get off the ground. Entrepreneurial businesses require total dedication with regards to time and money, a lesson that has stayed with him to this day and made him appreciate what it takes to be successful in a start-up business.
While continuing to feed his new business ventures, he joined a Marine Reserve Squadron in Dallas. He lived 15 minutes from the airfield so he was able to earn money flying test flights during the week in addition to his one-weekend/mo. reserve commitment. It was the best of both worlds; being a civilian and flying part time as a reserve pilot. Unfortunately, on his last two-week reserve commitment and during a joint military exercise, he had a catastrophic crash that broke his back and rendered him a paraplegic. A 50-cent safety wire that was not installed caused a $30 million helicopter to go down. He never had to ask why, especially in light of his past flying experiences. He’s content that his number came up and that’s all. Typical Ludwig, not crying over spilt milk. He just started figuring out how to deal with this abrupt change of lifestyle.
He spent seven months in rehab at the V.A. hospital in Long Beach, Ca. and moved to the beach as an outpatient. He decided to enter graduate school during this time and upon receiving his degree, spent two years interning in a counseling center, after which he became a State Licensed Family Therapist. Ever the entrepreneur, he opened up counseling clinic with a partner and served concurrently as part of the clinical staff of a research center under the world renowned bio-engineer, Dr. Jerold Petrofsky. The clinic specialized in different treatment modalities for central nervous system disorders. In addition, he taught for the Graduate School of Psychology, Pepperdine University as an Adjunct Professor.
Wanderlust started to grab hold of him by the mid-80s and he felt it was once again time for adventure. However, starting a solo trip from the confines of a wheelchair was a new experience. The urge was strong enough that after arranging for his partner to cover their practice, he packed his car and took off down the Baja peninsula, eventually crossing over to mainland Mexico. Going a day at a time with no itinerary, after nearly a month on the road, he arrived at what became his spiritual home away from home, a small village, Ajijic, in the foothills of the Sierra Madras on Lake Chapala. Ajijic and Chapala during this time had a Hemmingwayesque atmosphere where slices of humanity made for great conversation at lakeside gathering places. Drug dealers, writers, ex-cons and artists all converged to make life there interesting. He eventually built a home on the side of the mountain overlooking the lake and village. It became his spiritual home and he spent time there whenever he could get away from work.
From that point forward he realized that solo trips to faraway places, with no itinerary and maybe just a plane ticket in hand, despite his physical condition, had become even more of an obsession. There is something seemingly romantic and exciting about being alone, raw, and having to trust the universe, that all will be OK. This is especially true in third world countries.
These existential journeys have continued over the years. John was in Albania, just before the Kosovo uprising and Sarajevo after its collapse. On his way to Bosnia-Herzegovina he was detained by Serbian police and spent time in a Serb relocation camp before they realized he was too dumb to know where he had traveled. He eventually was able to get out of Croatia, not wanting to declare himself a political liability.
John traveled through Israel during the time of the Palestinian uprising. A Palestinian got him into the west bank when Hebron and Bethlehem were off limits and were ghost towns. The Church of Nativity was overtaken three days later and made international news.
He traveled throughout Salvador after the war. He trekked across Thailand and Cambodia for over a month. He joined a friend who lived in Quito, Ecuador, four-wheeled it down the mountain through triple canopies and waterfalls and after three days arrived at a tributary that joined the Amazon where they canoed.
John then traveled Peru during the uprising of the Shining Star, as part of a humanitarian group that brought supplies to a small village atop the Andes where no roads or electricity existed and where at night, as John described it, the Milky Way was almost a solid ribbon.
These are just a few of his travels, all having special moments that made him realize the paradox of life as we know it: feeling so infinitesimally small yet at the same time feeling completely symbiotic with the whole of the universe.
Now to the Orange County treasure part. A few years ago, at the tender age of 60, he took up one of his life-long passions--to write, direct and produce film--and thought that some of his experiences would lay a foundation for his writings, grist for the mill – you think? He enrolled in film school for a short time, gaining just enough knowledge to pursue his passion. He spent a year writing, casting and directing a short film titled The Unbroken Circle, a tri-lingual film that portrays the conflict and sad conditions that continue to envelope the Middle-East. He was fortunate to gather a few national and international awards on the festival circuit for this piece. John continues to write and hopes to have enough energy to write, direct and produce a feature film. An adaptation of his original screenplay Remembrance is scheduled to hit the festival circuit later this year. A trailer can be seen at http://www.youtube.com/ocshowbiz
Editor’s Note: I’ve known John for a half dozen years or so. I immediately felt connected to him, having spent several years in a wheelchair myself as a kid and eventually serving in the Marine Corps (as a sergeant), eventually in an aviation unit. When I formed a filmmaking group, Day Job Productions, an all volunteer team who had aspirations of making movies when they were younger but, life interrupted and caused them to take day jobs, you know to pay the mortgage, braces for their kids teeth, etc. Armed with John’s terrific script, Remembrance, this group, eventually numbering 75, built sets, found landing craft, genuine WWII weapons and uniforms, and made this movie, almost entirely in Orange County. You can see some making-of, behind the scenes images at http://www.ocshowbiz.com/productions-remembrance/64-remembrance-behind-the-scenes give it a little time to load as there are some 150 images. Perhaps a future project for me will be to tell John’s life as a feature-length film.