“Let’s just say (pause, one beat) he remains unchanged”

At this point I don’t remember what I have written about my father, now a skeleton up in northern Westchester County, and it is likely I’ve mentioned his great bon mot about his brother, my uncle, but here is a new take on it.

In the years before cellphones, (these days I often walk while talking on the phone) I almost always drew during phone calls.   My father had stayed overnight with his brother and my aunt, who lived in Bethesda, Maryland, outside of Washington, DC, where my uncle worked for the government.  I don’t remember why my father was there, or why my mother wasn’t with him.   I spoke to him shortly after the visit and asked him how my uncle was doing.  He paused to reflect for a second.

“Let’s just say … he remains unchanged,” he said diplomatically as I transcribed the wonderful bit of understatement on my drawing for posterity.   He told me we could talk more about the visit when I was in Florida in a couple of weeks.   We never did, but the point was made.

My uncle was a slightly built, seemingly jovial man with a corny sense of humor and a distinctive scraping laugh he let loose regularly.   My mother was always unaccountably cool toward him, seemed to regard him as an annoying bantam rooster.   It turns out she’d seen flashes of his violent temper early on and was disgusted by the overbearing little tyrant.  

I’d had nothing but warm interactions with my uncle, until I was about 40, when I was suddenly confronted with his implacable temper and rigid, irrational demands.   I can see now that he was fucking nuts, but for much of my life I always felt he was much more approachable and understanding than my father.

“Ask his son which one of us was more approachable and understanding,” said the skeleton of my father.  

You’ll get no debate from me.  I have to give it to you on this one, though of course, it’s not a very high bar.  It’s certainly undeniable that the last night of your life you were very open to conversation, at least as far as setting forth your regrets, apologies and concerns.  

“Well, I didn’t want to leave without setting all that out as clearly as I could,” he said.

That you did.  One of your regrets was that you’d always seen the world in black and white, you sighed as you imagined how much richer your life, all of our lives, would have been had you been able to appreciate that beautiful array of gradations, all the colors and flavors of life.

“Well, you gild the lily there a bit, I wasn’t so florid in my description, but yeah, that’s essentially what I said.”

It hit me the other day when I thought of your great line about Uncle Paul, “let’s just say he remains unchanged”, that it was, at the same time, not only a characteristically personalized judgment on your brother but also an expression of your overall view of anyone’s ability to change.  You always held that people cannot change in any fundamental way.

 “I still hold that belief, pretty much,” said the skeleton.

Although you yourself have changed.

“Well, yeah, I’m a lot thinner than I used to be, if that’s what you mean,” said the skeleton, “and I’m not very active, though none of that was my doing.”

Come on.   You were changed when you were full of regrets and apologizing that last night of your life.  

“No, that’s not really a change of any kind.  It’s a common occurrence when a man contemplates his life helplessly from his deathbed, Death hovering nearby, looming over him, those kind of thoughts, you know, it happens a lot,” said the skeleton.

My mother denied she was dying of the cancer that devoured her until she went into a coma.

“Well, there you go, different strokes for different folks.   She had less to regret and apologize for than I did,” said the skeleton glibly.

Glibness is its own reward, pops.  

“Well, look, in our case, you and I had a lifelong battle and I couldn’t yield any points to you, ever. It’s just the way it was.  You may have changed, I suppose you did when you stood by my bed at the end of my life.  I would have expected at least a little anger from you, was relieved to feel none,” the skeleton turned his head, surveying the small cemetery with sightless eyes.  

Anger was pointless at that point, dad.  You know, to another way of  thinking, the anger between us is what your insane mother always referred to as Seenas Cheenam, senseless enmity.  

“Well, a case could be made that it was that,” he said.   Thoughts of my father’s long, terrible childhood ordeal flashed before both of us, under the turns of two turkey vultures, wings outstretched, lazily riding the thermals.

“Look, Elie, you recall that your mother told us both that she saw the change in you, how much better you became at reining in your anger.  I refused to see it.  You remember when you told me….”

That you yourself were living proof of our ability to change ourselves.  Yeah, and you certainly won that point, though it cost you pretty dearly.

“I’m not proud of that moment,” said the skeleton.  “But, again, I saw the war between us as a zero sum, black and white game, one of us had to win unconditionally and the other had to lose.   It was an asshole’s view of things, granted, but it was as far as I’d been able to come in 78 years.”

You remember that Yom Kippur about ten years earlier, when I’d told you I’d no longer tolerate hostility thinly disguised as paternal advice?

“Yeah, link to the fucking piece you wrote about it, spare us all here and now,” said the skeleton.

 Done.  So, during our last major argument over whether angry people can learn to be less angry, learn to breathe, to honestly discuss things instead of debating from obdurate positions, I pointed out that you had kept your word not to discharge hostility in the guise of fatherly advice.   Tell everybody what you said, dad, during that last real conversation between then and two or three years later, on your deathbed, when I pointed out how well you’d refrained from that behavior for the decade since.

“You’re still fighting me, Elie,” said the skeleton.

I am fighting the bullying impulse, wherever I encounter it, the insistence on forcing people to swallow their legitimate feelings, to submit to intolerable conditions, to stuff whatever reasonable grievances they might have.  

“Fair enough, when you put it like that, ” said the skeleton.

“I never really thought there was any possibility that I could change anything about my life and I extrapolated from that on to everyone else.   I was desperate when  I dismissed my own change in my superficial actions toward you.” 

My point at that moment was that changing the superficial actions had been a step toward improving our relationship, even if only a small first step.

“Had it really been a step toward improving our relationship, Elie?   Seriously?  In light of everything else?”  

No, not at all, not in light of what you said next, go ahead, say it.  

“I told you it was merely an act, hiding the hostility, like the insincere, transactional act I did with Roy, who I fucking despised, and that ‘if I ever told you how I really feel about you it would do such irreparable harm that we could never have any kind of relationship.'”

The People rest.

“Like I said, I’m not proud of it.  I was about to lose, Elie, that’s how I saw it, my back was to the wall, I had nothing but the nuclear option at that moment.   The only way not to lose was to blow the whole fucking thing up.  You want to say love wins, you merciless fuck, how about I tell you that I treat your love exactly the same way I treat the love of another bastard who I openly despise?”  

Nice.  

“Nice work, if you can get it,” said the skeleton dispassionately.

Checking in with the skeleton of my father

“Why are you still bothering yourself about this book, Elie?” asked the skeleton of my father from his grave outside of Peekskill.  “Isn’t it abundantly clear to you yet that you’ve been pursuing a mirage for the last few years?   An admirable mirage, I’d say, but a bodiless, speculative, profitless phantom nonetheless.   Why fret now?”

That’s a tough question, man.

“Might it not be time to face the facts, the sad facts and nothing but the brutal facts?  You have good ideas, you’re a bright guy, you can sometimes tell a story in a compelling way, but you don’t seem to understand that people who make their way in the world, roll up their sleeves, learn the ropes, do the hard work, undaunted, day after day no matter what, almost always also have the kind of help you will never have?”    

This is where I was afraid you were going.  

“Look, I’m not comparing your life, your desire to tell a story that’s important to you, to that heir of Maidenform Bras whose dynamic grandmother, with only the sackful of diamonds she was able to smuggle out of Europe as the Nazis closed in and her winning personality and hard work in her new country, provided a fabulous, privileged life for her author grandson, who was able to get a publisher to pay him to go back and visit the sorrows and lost treasures of the life they left behind in Vienna or wherever it was, to retrace his successful family’s journey from terror to prosperity.   You have nothing to go visit, no discoveries to make, no villa to walk through, picturing your grandparents’ knickknacks and heirlooms there.  Your family’s voyage, in almost every case, was from terror to anonymous mass death.

“Our people were poor, anonymous, the kind of Jews that other, wealthier, more cultured German Jews invented the word “kike” for.  We were the embarrassingly provincial Jews, smelling of garlic and body odor, who had no idea how to make their way in the larger world.   We come from wailing, superstitious, ignorant stock, Elie, and you should be honest about that. The fatalism of all those crazy victims is a factor in your fatal lack of real-world hubris.”

Jesus, dad, perhaps I should let you sleep today.

“Plenty of time for that, Elie, all I do here is sleep.   Look, I don’t want to make this sound like a moral failing on your part.  Your mother and I didn’t know how to help you, how to advise you about anything.   It was clear from an early age that you were a bright and a talented boy.   We had no clue how to guide you.  You were a challenge to us, always ready to fight us.  Granted, we started some of it, maybe most of it, but, as you know at this point, we were doing the best we knew how within the limits of our own demon-filled lives.”

I am thinking of the flight of the turkey vultures I saw earlier, far off in the grey sky over Northern Westchester.  Riding the thermals with their long, comical wings.  A life of searching for carrion, swooping in to chase off other scavengers and have a death-seasoned meal.  Not bad, I suppose.

 “Jesus, stop feeling sorry for yourself!   Nobody ever had an easy time getting a book published, unless you’re famous or something like that.   Jackie Onassis calls Carly Simon, croons in her ear that there is a fabulous memoir of her life to be written, encourages her, sends her a large advance.  People want to know about the beautiful, vulnerable, talented Carly Simon, so there’s a ready market for her book.  You know how it is if you want to get paid, it’s all about marketing, Elie.  

“Take off your fucking author’s hat and put on your marketing hat, figure out all that SEO shit, how to create multiple thirsty funnels to drive a flood of visitors (potential followers and subscribers, one and all) to your content-perfected, preferably monetized affiliate website where you can prove to a literary agent that you are a good bet, you and the 150,000 people already actively reading your work every day, that you are precisely the kind of ambitious and talented unknown writer to earn them a nice 15% for their hard work.

“On second thought, feel sorry for yourself, Elie.”   The skeleton of my father gave me a thoughtful look.

Yeah, I know, Proverbs 26:13.   The sluggard says “there is a lion in the way, yea, a lion is in the street!”

“Yay, indeed.  A lion, no doubt.  A lion in the street and then you die.  That’s life, Elie.   And into every life some lions must wander.   You should keep reading those guides about how to find a literary agent.   Yes, we know about the internet platform you have no idea how to build, the rambling, spaghetti-like path you have always taken in this world, but maybe you will stumble on something, somewhere, that will give you hope for a helping hand.  And remember, you are writing a quirky kind of creative non-fiction, this book about me, an unknown man who spoke so little about himself, except through temper tantrums and humor.   I was fucking funny, Elie, you have to admit that.”

Yes, pater, in more ways than one.

“Ha ha,” said the skeleton of the pater, deadpan.  

Well, this ain’t helping either one of us today, pops, so I’m out.

“Go in good health,” said the skeleton, somehow not making it sound like the famous Yiddish curse it also is.

Why You Should care about Irv

The baby who grew up to become my father, after many a quirk of fate, was born into a nightmare.  It’s hard to see my father’s childhood as anything but a terrifying bad dream.   It is only by seeing this nightmare clearly, something my poor father feared more than anything in the world, that it becomes possible to understand the immensity of his triumphs and his monstrous inability to do the simplest things.

Around the time of World War One his mother fell in love with a man her stern older brother and strong-willed sister-in-law soon drove off.   After all, they would have lost their indentured servant if she had married the local post man– a red haired Jew, like she was.   She was paying off the cost of her voyage from the hellhole they came from, paid by her brother, plus room and board in America.

Years later they arranged a miserable marriage for her, with a silent man many regarded as brain damaged.  This unhappily married couple were my paternal grandparents, though neither of them would live long enough to see me born.

The couple moved to the teeming, crime ridden mecca of American immigrants, the Lower East Side of Manhattan.   Their first child, a girl, was stillborn, or possibly lived for a few days before she died.  The next child, a gigantic boy, caused his tiny mother great agonies as he was born.   She would never forgive him.  

Meanwhile the baby’s father was about to lose his job driving a herring delivery wagon.    He would daydream behind the horse until the horse stopped at the next stop. He’d wrestle a barrel of herring off the wagon and bring it into the store, collect the money.   It went fine, until the horse died and the new horse, as luck would have it, had absolutely no idea of the route.  Neither did my grandfather.   A written list was no help, he couldn’t read.   There were a hundred immigrants waiting for his job and one of them snatched it immediately.

My great-uncle Aren’s little sister Chava was in serious trouble.  A newborn baby, with a second on the way, and Harry out of work, basically unemployable, as he’d remain for the rest of his relatively short life.   Chava began taking it out on her big, stupid baby.  

In those early days of electricity the cords that connected an appliance to the outlet were removable from the appliance.   This was in the years before plastic, they were insulated with layers of fabric wrapped around the wires.   The cords were thick, and sturdy, and the outer layer was a kind of rough burlap, or canvas.  I saw a couple of these frayed, primitive looking  cords as a child, and thought nothing of them.

My father, on the other hand, must have learned to swallow a twitch of revulsion every time he saw one.   His angry, terrified mother used to sit at the head of the table, behind her was a drawer. In that drawer she kept the cord to her iron. When she got angry, which was frequently, she’d yank the drawer open, pull out the inflexible, abrasive cord and whip the infant in the face.

“In the face?!” I said, when my father’s older first cousin Eli eventually told me the story, by way of explaining my father’s nightmarish childhood. “In the face?!”  Eli nodded, with infinite sorrow.  

“How old was he when she started whipping him in the face?” I asked.

“However old you are when you can first stand on your own two legs,” said Eli.

Eli described how he and his father, Uncle Aren, had taken the truck down to the city from Peekskill and collected the miserable little family and their few belongings and brought them back up the Hudson River to Peekskill.   This was probably in 1926.

Attempts to put Harry to work at various jobs were largely unsuccessful, though he had a period several years later, during FDR’s Public Works Administration, of chopping down trees, which he apparently did quite well.   Harry swept and mopped the synagogue, and did other odd jobs there, and was paid just enough, along with his brother-in-law’s charity,  to keep his family from starving.

When little Irv (who was then still called by his Yiddish name Azraelkeh) entered kindergarten, in the fall of 1929 he was the biggest kid in his class in that Peekskill elementary school.   He was also the only one who couldn’t speak English. This marked him, among his little classmates, as a big fucking dummy.   He would never fully recover from the trauma of his first contact with his future classmates.   To make matters worse, he was also legally blind, his vision was 20-400.   Not only could he not speak the language of the country he was born in, he couldn’t see more than a few inches in front of his big dumb face.

It gets worse, though, and more impersonal.   The stock market collapsed right after he began kindergarten, giving him the distinction of being a big squinting dummy from the poorest family in an impoverished little town in the midst of a worldwide economic collapse.  

The only thing that saved him, years later, was a maniac named Hitler, who declared war on the United States a few months after my father graduated high school.   Soon drafted into that war, a war that would see Death Squads traveling behind Hitler’s eastward advancing army, ethnically cleansing the area of all Jews, he was one of 16,000,000 Americans in the armed forced. As luck would have it, his unit remained in the U.S. until the end of the war in Europe, when he was stationed in occupied Germany.  

By that time the German advance through Belarus, then part of Poland, had left no trace of Truvovich, the ill-fated little hamlet in the marshes south of Pinsk that his mother and his Uncle were from.  Wiped off the face of the earth, off every map, ripped from human history, along with the couple of dozen blood relations who had not made it to America.

“What the fuck, Elie?” said the skeleton of my father, sitting upright in his gave, finally having heard enough.

When this skeleton was a living man, he was, for a long time, a bright eyed idealist, a thesis short of his PhD in American history.   He went on to a distinguished middle class life, raising two ungrateful, spoiled, merciless middle class pricks. Two entitled little kids who, but for the relentless puzzling and research of the older child, would never have a had a clue about the perilous inner life of their difficult father.

“Kind of makes you glad to be an American,” said the skeleton, with characteristic irony, before sinking heavily back into his eternal nap.

 

The tome of the unknown soldier

Thinking about the fate of this impossibly long manuscript I’ve written about my father’s life during the last couple of years, I realize I can’t put it into final form until I really focus on what the book is about. It’s not a book about a man being a monster, it’s a book about the way his little soul was destroyed, yet how a spark remained, which burned brightly at the very end.   It’s not about history, and disappointed idealism, and powerlessness, or about the damage done by abuse, it’s about gaining perspective and learning from our worst mistakes.   It’s about the roots of rage and, in the end, forgiveness, once the heartfelt apology can finally be made.

One problem I have to ignore, I am writing the story of an unknown man, and I am an unknown man writing this story.    This is something I have to put out of my head, because it makes the entire project feel insane to me.   If my father had kept children chained up in the basement, and had been prosecuted in a famous trial– well, there would be a good chance a publisher might be interested.   If he’d taken bold risks to make a shit ton of money, again, an American fable you might find on the big book table at Costco.   If I’d been a celebrity, the story of my father would have a certain interest to my fans.   Etcetera.   I have to ignore this, entirely.   Otherwise it will sink this little paper boat I am attempting to steer across the cold sea.

Reading Hannah Arendt’s masterpiece Eichmann in Jerusalem, as I occasionally do, I’m reminded again that prominent Jews often had a much different fate than the masses of anonymous Jews, who also tended to be fairly poor, when it came to the final destination of their train rides.   It’s no surprise, of course, to learn that the Nazi regime treated rich and poor Jews differently, or even that Jewish criminals sent to the death camps often survived their terms while tailors, shoemakers, teachers, small merchants, small town rabbis rarely did.    Hitler had 324 Jews on his  “do not touch” list, which is really no odder than many other things about the twentieth century’s most popular psychopath.   Nobody on my family was ever close to being on such a list.

If you are prominent, of course, you will always have advantages that those who are not prominent will never have.   That is simply how it is and how it has always been.  This is something else I need to ignore, constantly.

I am thinking of this in terms of my father’s life, of the tome I have written a long, endless draft of.  The tome of the unknown soldier.    The man was one of 16,000,000 Americans who served in the armed forces in the desperate days between December 7, 1941 and August 1945.   Sixteen million!   My father, Irv, was one of that vast army of young Americans who fought monsters in Europe and Asia.

Did my father fight gloriously, killing die-hard Nazis and regular Germans drafted into the Wermacht and ordered to fight for commander-in-chief Hitler?   Irv was not in combat.   He was an aircraft mechanic, in spite of his lack of mechanical aptitude.  He explained that he’d been the only guy in his outfit who could read the manuals to the men who did the actual repairs, tell them which parts they needed.   Young Irv was not stationed in Europe until the very end of the war, after Hitler had killed his wife, his dog and himself.   What was it like for a twenty-one year old Jew who had lost most of his family to the madness enflamed by the murderous Mr. Hitler?   He never gave a clue, really.

“So, wait, wait.  You are writing a long, tortuous book about the life of a man who was not famous, not prominent, not a hero, who said nothing about possibly the most interesting time of his life?    You wrote in his eulogy that he had traveled, with an escort of NYC policemen, to address hostile crowds about the necessity to integrate New York City schools, and you added that he never mentioned this to you, that you found it out from your mother, his wife of 54 years, who told you about it as you were writing the eulogy.   I don’t understand who you think the audience might be for this book about such a distinguished nobody.”

If I would sell this manuscript I have to make it clear why you will care about the life of this man.   It has thus far been almost impossible to describe why you should give a rat’s ass about the lessons I may or may not have learned from this anonymous fellow.   You should have met him, the whole project would make more sense to you.   Now, if my work succeeds, you will have to depend on me as your reliable narrator, no matter how unreliable I may also be.    As my father might have said “ain’t dassum shit?”

Note for Phil Trombino

“Write it, print it and send it to Phil, motherfucker,” said the skeleton of my father from his grave off that quiet road north of Peekskill.   This struck me as a good indication of his impatience, I don’t ever recall him referring to me as ‘motherfucker’.

Dear Phil:

Eliot Widaen here, son of your former colleague at the Human Relations Unit Irv Widaen.   That is, if you are indeed the Phil Trombino who had that magical 1967 season at Iona College when you hit like Ted Williams, torching the league at a .441 clip.   I’m hoping you are, and that you’d be willing to talk to me about what you recall of the workings of the Human Relations Unit and any good stories you might have about Irv (I’m writing a memoir of his life).   You can reach me at this address, or by email (here), or by phone or text (here).   I hope you are well and I look forward to hearing from you.

“Was that so fucking hard? What did that take you, ninety seconds?” said the skeleton.  

I wasn’t counting, dad, but it was probably around ninety.  

“Shut up, print it and mail it, damn you,” he said, slouching back into his eternal bed.

 

The Conventions at Hampton Bays

I have reached the stage in trying to write a complete life of my father when I need the insights of other people who knew and loved him.   It’s time to put on my journalist hat and reach out to them for corroborating details and information I don’t have any other way of getting.    There is Phil Trombino, a younger colleague of my father’s from the Human Relations Unit (I don’t know how close they actually were, or how long they worked together, though I know my father liked him very much), there is his close friend of many years Benjy and a fellow in the East Bay named Rom who knew and very much dug my father’s routines when Irv was the director of Nassau-Suffolk Young Judaea and this guy was a teenaged member of the youth movement.  I will attempt now to write a door for this man to walk through, into my telling of the story of Irv Widaen’s life, by way of introducing this narrative to him.

“You’ll send it to him, presumably, and then call, meaning many more weeks will probably pass before you actually get your head out of your ass and contact him,” said the skeleton of my father from his grave in Westchester County.  

Yes, quite possibly.

“You still haven’t sent that postcard to that Trombino you found, about an hour from your apartment, to see if he is indeed the Phil Trombino who hit around .400 that year in college baseball at Iona, to find out, if he is, if he’d be willing to talk about his time at the long defunct Human Relations Unit.”

No.

“Needless to say, you haven’t reached out to Benjy since the night before mom died,” he added, needlessly.

Needless to say.   Now back to this portal I am trying to construct today for Rom, who you knew as Bruce and later Peanuts, a guy I was always much closer to (I never recall even meeting Phil) that I also need to contact.

Nassau-Suffolk Young Judaea, like all the other Young Judaea regions around the country, held periodic conventions.  A convention of as many kids as they could convene would be held at a camp or hotel and would take place over a weekend.   Buses and cars would bring members of the youth movement together from clubs all over the region and an executive committee (the exec) would make a schedule of lectures, discussions, speakers, films, proposals, entertainments for the weekend.   When my sister and I were little we attended a couple of these conventions at a hotel in a place called Hampton Bays.   It was at one of these conventions that I first encountered the guy I am talking about, a young teenager called Bruce at that time.

Here is what I recall, from November 22, 1963, which must have been a Friday.   We were driving out to Hampton Bays for the “convention”.   My little sister and I had no idea what a convention was, we were about to see.   My mother was in the passenger seat, most likely with the brilliant mutt Patches on her lap, and my sister and I were in the back.   I was seven years old, though it’s hard for me to believe I could have been that young at the time.   We stopped at a diner for lunch and the kid at the counter, who looked uncannily like a skinny version of JFK, thrust his face forward, a weird, pained smile on his face, and asked if we had heard.   I guess everyone else in the place was in shock and we didn’t seem to be.   The president had just been shot!  The soda jerk was crying, as were many others in the diner.

My memory of that convention was mostly of sitting by the hotel office in the cavernous front hall, staring at a black and white television at the end of a long extension cord.   I could not stop watching.   I believe I was watching the live broadcast from Dallas on Sunday when they brought Lee Harvey Oswald out and a bull-backed Jack Ruby lunged forward and pumped a couple of pistol shots into Oswald’s abdomen, a moment captured in a famous still photo of Oswald’s sudden mortal agony.  One of the cops holding Oswald’s arm recoils too, with an arresting expression of shock on his face too.

Ten years later I would be on a new kibbutz in the Aravah desert in Israel, volunteering to help pick their first bumper crop of tomatoes.   It was common for kibbutz volunteers at that time to be assigned a family, a kibbutz mother and father to visit and hang out with.   The kibbutz was brand new, and the members, most formerly American Young Judaeans, were only five or six years older than me.  The kibbutz parents I was assigned were Ruthie, a kibbutznik on loan from another kibbutz, originally from Brazil, and a guy from Maryland, Howie Katz, a bright shining soul of infinite good cheer.   Howie spent much of his time on the kibbutz naked, streaking from place to place, sometimes slipping on a pair of shorts.  

The teenager I knew as Bruce, then Peanuts, now Rom, had served in the army with Howie, survived the explosion of their tank in Sinai, was also a member of the kibbutz.  Rom was still on active duty somewhere, I think, I don’t recall seeing him on the kibbutz when I lived there.

Howie and I both returned to the US a few months later and we remained good friends for the rest of his life.   Howie’s best friend, it turned out, was Rom, this fellow I am carving the portal for.

Rom corrected me, shortly after Howie’s sudden death in 2010, about Howie being my father though he was only three years older than me.   He was actually five years older than me.   Rom knew this because they were the same age and because his first image of me, Irv’s son, was at a convention in Hampton Bays when he was a in high school and I was a little kid, maybe in second or third grade.   I am assuming that convention must have been in 1964, when I would have been eight and Rom, then still Bruce, would have been thirteen, probably the youngest Young Judaean at the convention.

Which would help explain why I noticed him by himself several times during that convention, outside the dining room, with his cane (hockey injury), imitating Eddie Giocamin as he narrated his game winning slap shot over and over, using the cane as a hockey stick.   “Giacomin, slap shot, score!!!” he said as my sister and I laughed.  (I discover now that Giacomin was a goalie, thus it is unlikely that my memory is correct, though I do remember him saying “slap shot, score!” and “Giocamin!!” several times as he slapped the imaginary puck toward the goal.  Giacomin must have been saving all those attempted goals.  I’ve never been a hockey fan.)

By 1964 the Beatles had landed in America and I was a big fan, especially of the irreverent John Lennon.   This guy looked a bit like John, had the longish hair (as did I, in a child’s Beatle haircut), the wire frame glasses, the longish nose, the wry expression.  He was also funny.  Standing up shakily, using the cane as much as a prop as for support, he slurred “sure didn’t taste like tomato juice”, a reference to an ad for V-8 then common on TV about someone slipping the actor a spiked tomato juice.   Well, you will say, that’s not what the ad was suggesting, it was about the superior taste of V-8, made with eight delicious vegetables.  Still, I recall the line, recited in a drunken manner, and it made my sister and me laugh, as he took a couple of exaggeratedly drunken steps, glancing at us from the corner of his eye.   Each time we passed him he would put on a little show for us.  Whenever my father passed he’d say “get your ass back in the dining room, Bruce,” in passing, in that sly, breezily hassling way of his, not really seeming to care whether Bruce actually did it or not.

Years later I ran into him again as Howie’s best friend, in San Francisco.  He’d been entrusted with filling Howie’s new waterbed, in the second floor walk up, and seeing how slowly it was filling, he took a stroll.   When he came back he did his best to deal with the waterfall he’d accidentally caused.  Howie laughed telling me the story.  Rom is a great musician, keyboard and harmonica player extraordinaire, and I would get a chance to play a bit with him over the years.   His dry sense of humor was intact, along with his humanism and sense of fair play.  A very decent and likable fellow.  

I called him when Howie died, to warn him that I’d inadvertently informed (through his mother) a former friend of Howie’s death.   This guy was a famously difficult fellow who had angrily (and unfairly) written Howie off as a pussy-whipped wimp and was now headed to the funeral, and that I was so sorry.   Rom reassured me that it would be fine and also recounted picking up Howie’s daughter at the airport, knowing he had to be the adult for her, and be strong, and then sobbing all the way back to Howie’s widow’s place by the Old Highway and the waves of the Pacific Ocean.   

We had talked briefly after my father died, five years earlier.  He told me my father was a great guy.  I started to describe another side to the old man, the tremendous obstacles he labored long and hard to construct in the paths of his children, in this world of stumbling blocks, but Rom gently brushed it aside.   He had nothing but fond memories of Irv, who was a great guy, and funny as hell.   I was a great guy, too, for that matter, he pointed out.    And that was the end of our discussion of Irv.

It would be interesting, and perhaps illuminating, to hear details from Rom, about his memories of the great guy who was my old man.   How Irv looked from the point of view of a thirteen and fourteen year old kid who was not his own son.   Their paths crossed a few years later at the camp my father directed, where Bruce, now Peanuts, was seriously injured in another accident.     I can see that clearly too, how Irv must have looked to someone he simply affectionately shot the shit with, but details from Rom could add flavor to this telling.

“Good enough, motherfucker, now send it off to him,” said the skeleton of my father, encouraged to see things moved forward 1/4 of an inch in the endless telling of his tale, before it’s too late.

Current Events

It just occurred to me that during elementary school we were regularly assigned something called Current Events as part of our homework.  The assignment was to read a newspaper or magazine article, stand in front of the small class of mostly well-to-do children (my small, boutique public school was at the time the top rated elementary school in New York City, according to my mother) and give an oral report on “current events”.

My father always took an interest in these current events assignments, often clipping out candidates from the New York Times, which he read front to back every day.  He taught me the importance of attaching the date to every artifact of “current events”.    He impressed on me that newspaper reports are the first draft of history, among the first sources historians study to get the full story many years later.   The date of an article is significant as more information becomes known and it’s sometimes fascinating to follow how a story changes over time.  

For instance, a few days ago Trump’s pick for acting Attorney General, Matthew Whitaker, was not commonly known as the former CEO, (and apparently sole employee) of the Koch-funded (the rest of the donor list is “dark money”) Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust (“FACT”), earning about $1,000,000 [1] donated by secret conservative donors in the three years preceding his appointment as AG Jeff Session’s chief of staff.   Whitaker just amended his financial disclosure form to include this income, according to recent reports. [2]   So an article written two weeks ago about possible conflicts of interest would not have included this interesting bit of conflict of interest for America’s current top law enforcement officer.

As I tapped in “current events ” in my previous post about Trump and the Muslim Brotherhood (the president is a lifelong secret member, people are saying) I flashed on myself at eight and nine years old, standing in front of the class, a thin scroll of newspaper clipping hanging from my hand, as I reported on current events.   My next thought was about the oral book reports we occasionally were called on to deliver.  

I was infatuated with baseball starting in third grade, the baseball bug bit me hard.  I studied the Hall of Fame, learned the history, memorized stats, followed the box scores in the paper every day, read many baseball biographies.  One day, in third grade,  I stood in front of my small class to deliver my report on a great biography of baseball immortal Jackie Robinson I had just read.  I was saving a big laugh line for the end, as the format called for talking about one dramatic moment in the book.   The moment I chose was when young Jackie Robinson was chased off an angry white guy’s lawn with words to the effect of “get off my property you little nigger.”  

Never having heard the word, it struck me as hilarious, easily as funny as Commie, another word I’d never been exposed to, until a friend of my mother’s described in horror one of the hate letters she got (they were proponents of school integration) that had a big red COMMIE written on the envelope (yeah, people were jerks in 1964).   For years afterwards my mother gave me shit for laughing uncontrollably every time my friend Rob or I called somebody a commie.

“Get off my property you little nigger” did not turn out to be the hilarious punchline I’d imagined it would be.  Nobody laughed, though I thought I’d delivered the line pretty well.   My teacher, Miss Mary Richert, regarded me with undisguised horror.   The little school had just been integrated that year, we had four black kids in our class, Bryan, Felice, Rani and Gayle.   Bryan was, in fact, my closest friend in third grade.   I don’t recall their reactions, odd to say.  Bryan certainly didn’t seem to hold it against me.   A week or two later our permanent record cards were being angrily amended by Miss Richert, in view of the whole class, furious that we had stayed behind in the gym to continue playing after the rest of the class marched back upstairs for math.

The notations Miss Richert wrote on our permanent record cards, Miss Richert, a teacher who clearly loved both me and Bryan, have haunted us both to this day, casting a very dark shadow over both of our lives, and I know I speak for Bryan too when I say this.

[1] New York Times and Washington Post reported the earnings at $1.2 million,   CNN put the figure at $900,000.   Either way, a comfortable three year salary for a man charged with actively opposing Hillary Clinton and the Democrats.

[2] CNN reported, nine days ago:

During his tenure, Whitaker was one of only two people on the payroll, and he made a total of $717,000 from 2014 to 2016. Funding for that salary and all of FACT’s work has come from mostly untraceable donors. Over a three-year period, FACT received $2.45 million in contributions, and all but about $450 of that came from a fund called DonorsTrust, according to IRS filings. Contributors to DonorsTrust are mostly anonymous, except for well-known conservative financier Charles Koch.

“In other words,” wrote the Center for Responsive Politics, “an organization ‘dedicated to promoting accountability, ethics, and transparency’ gets 100 percent of its funds from a group that exists mainly as a vehicle for donors to elude transparency.”   source

yesterday’s update from CNN