Friday, December 23, 2005

MEMOIR: When "Miss America" made my day

The society page of my local newspaper recently reported that Bess Myerson, who was named "Miss America" in September 1945, was the featured speaker at a fund-raising luncheon for a local charity. The report brought back to mind the memory of how her selection as "Miss America" that year affected my personal life.

While Bess was becoming a national celebrity in Atlantic City, N.J. as the first Jewish "Miss America," I was in the Army stationed in India. I shared a barracks with about 20 other soldiers. Virtually all of them came from small towns, and few of them had ever known a Jew before meeting me.

There was one other Jewish guy in our outfit, but I was the only one in my barracks. During our service together over the previous year and a half, I had been fully accepted socially. Although I felt comfortable as "one of the boys," however, I also felt that I was regarded as a somewhat exotic personality because I was unchurched and came from some place called the Bronx.

About all my barracks-mates seemed to know about the Bronx was that it was the home of both a famous zoo and the New York Yankees baseball team. Their knowledge was expanded when it was revealed to the world that the new "Miss America" also hailed from the Bronx. The news accounts played up the fact that Ms. Myerson was the daughter of an immigrant Jewish house painter and his wife.

Shortly after Bess Myerson's selection, my mother mailed me a photograph of the new "Miss America," clipped from PM, a now-defunct, daily New York City tabloid newspaper. The photo ran over two full pages in the paper and pictured the statuesque Ms. Myerson with a gorgeous smile on her face and a bathing suit on her magnificent figure.

I immediatgely hung the photo on the wall behind my bed. Most of my barracks-mates had pictures of Hollywood movie stars hanging behind their bunks. A handful posted photographs of girl friends back home. But none of them projected the sexy aura of the new "Miss America."

My bunk--and especially the photo hanging on the wall behind it--quickly became the focal point in the barracks where my buddies gathered to gaze with rapture at the Jewish girl from the Bronx who had become "Miss America."

As guys who came from small towns in which everyone seemed to know everyone else, I had the feeling that they assumed that I knew Bess Myerson personally. Of course, I had never made that claim. The Bronx, after all, had many hundreds of thousands of residents, although I wasn't sure that my buddies knew that. Nevertheless, I maintained a nonchalant air when questioned about the quality and nature of Jewish girls from the Bronx.

The fact that both Bess Myerson, the stunning new "Miss America," and I were both Jews from the Bronx seemed to have earned me almost as much respect as if I had been awarded a medal for bravery in combat.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

"The March of Folly" in Iraq

About 25 years ago, the eminent historian Barbara W. Tuchman wrote a best-selling book entitled "The March of Folly--from Troy to Vietnam." Tuchman, who died in 1989, noted that one of the great paradoxes of history is that governments often mindlessly pursue policies that actually clash with their own national interests.

She cited, for example, how Britain's King George III repeatedly alienated his American colonies with excessive taxation, made rebels where there had been none, disregarded rising discontent, and forfeited control of the North American continent.

Similarly, Tuchman explored our nation's 35-year involvement in Vietnam, beginning with President Roosevelt's endorsement of French colonial rule. She argued that the Cold War-inspired domino theory raised the stakes, and described President Lyndon Johnson's insistence on military victory as "benighted." The result, she wrote, was a "final uneasy escape" and the loss of essential trust in government.

If Tuchman were alive today, she could have added the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 as the latest episode of governmental folly. The justification for the war has changed so many times that it's hard to keep up. There were no weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein did not pose an imminent threat to the U.S. Nor did the invasion bolster the essential war on terrorism or make the U.S. more secure.

Instead, it has turned Iraq into a breeding ground and training center for Islamic terrorism, accentuated international hatred of the U.S., and inspired a new generation of jihadis eager and willing to fight us. And yet the war's advocates dare charge that those who objected to the Iraq invasion are opposing the war on terrorism.

Proponents of the war now excitedly claim that democracy is being introduced into Iraq, as demonstrated by the big turnout of voters in the recent parliamentary election. The problem is that you don't export democracy. You export machine tools and airplanes and soy beans and corn.

It is premature to boast about the democratization of Iraq. The sectarian and ethnic barriers are formidable, and the odds are not favorable for genuine success. Moreover, to contend that the U.S. would necessarily benefit by the spread of democracy in Iraq to the rest of the Middle East is ludicrous. If there were free and open elections in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, two autocratic countries friendly to the U.S., the victors in both would undoubtedly be radical Islamists violently opposed to our presence in the Middle East.

The post-World War II democratic successes in Germany and Japan are not analagous to the situation in Iraq, as the Bush Administration likes to argue. Germany and Japan had homogeneous populations, were more advanced industrially, and had formally surrended after harsh military defeats.

But the basic issue is this: In the unlikely event that our objectives are realized in Iraq and that the country is turned into a stable working democracy, was it worth the many thousands of American troops killed and maimed and the expenditure of an estimated trillion dollars or more?

I think not.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Out for lunch

I’ve been retired 16 years and very rarely eat lunch away from home. Lunch is really no longer a big deal, as it often was when I was still working as a journalist. In those days, I was frequently invited to lunch by PR people pitching a story idea, or I would often take out a news source to pick his or her brains. And when there were no time pressures forcing me to eat in the building cafeteria, there were enjoyable one- or two-martini lunches with office colleagues.

In retirement, however, a slice of cantaloupe or grapefruit, a sandwich (cheese, corned beef, or whatever else I can find in the refrigerator), a cup of tea, and that’s it. An afternoon nap usually follows.

But last week I had a different luncheon agenda. I was invited to three formal luncheons, one in a prestigious golf club dining room and two in first-class restaurants. Each was under the auspices of an organization denoting an important phase of my life.

The first one was the annual luncheon of the South Florida Grads of DeWitt Clinton High School. In our day, Clinton, which is in the Bronx, was an all-boys school; in recent years it has gone co-ed. At least 100 men attended. Most were accompanied by wives or spouse equivalents. At my table was a boyhood friend who is now a fellow Florida snowbird, a neighbor who was in my 1942 graduating class, and a onetime New Jersey tennis partner who I encountered entering the dining room. I had been unaware that he was a fellow Clinton alumnus. I knew no one else there.

The school song was sung (aside from the national anthem, it is the only song whose lyrics I still know), the master of ceremonies made some dull, off-color jokes, and the food was mediocre. Still, I enjoyed myself reminiscing about four years at a high school that exposed me to a cultural and intellectual world I had not known before.

Two days later I attended the monthly luncheon of the China-Burma-India Veterans Association's Gold Coast Basha. A "basha" was a tropical bamboo, grass-thatched hut that passed for army barracks in India and Burma. That's what the CBIVA calls its local units, disdaining the more parochial, military-oriented "posts" of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars.

I rarely attend these luncheons because I'm away from Florida half the year, and most of the meetings are conducted too far from my home. Our unit's membership covers a large territory--from Miami north to Palm Beach. Last week's luncheon was conveniently held in Boca Raton, not too far from my winter home in Boynton Beach.

It is unlikely that any of our members are younger than 80. There was a sad note to the meeting because the national organization's constitution calls for the CBIVA to disband this year. Florida's bashas, however, have stubbornly decided to continue functioning, as long as there are still enough members around willing and able to attend monthly luncheons.

The organization has long been plagued by frustration that the CBI was World War II's "forgotten theater of war" while the nation focused on Europe and the South Pacific. As we see it, the fact that U.S. troops were based in China, Burma and India in the war against Japan seems to have faded in history.

Reminiscing was the main order of business at the CBIVA luncheon, as it was at my high school alumni's function. After all, that's what old geezers like to do. I knew only one man there, a neighbor with whom I have become friendly after learning that he too served in the CBI during World War II. For guys like us, there is a unique sense of comradeship produced by wartime experiences we shared when we were young.

My third luncheon of the week contained none of the elements of comradeship that go with shared wartime or high school experiences. This was the annual December luncheon of the McGraw-Hill Companies' 25-year Club. These meetings are held annually at company headquarters in New York City and on the west and east coasts of Florida, where many retirees live.

I worked for McGraw-Hill, publishers of Business Week, for 31 years, starting in 1952 in Washington, D.C. I quit twice and was rehired twice by the magazine, a practice few major corporations tolerate. In most cases, an employee who quits is regarded as disloyal and unworthy of being rehired. But McGraw-Hill is a progressive company that recognizes that a rehired employee can bring with him new skills.

I retired in 1989 in New York City.I didn't know anyone at the luncheon. McGraw-Hill is a highly diversified company, and there was no one there who had worked at Business Week. Not all the luncheon guests were retirees. Many still work for the company in its Miami office. In a sense, I attended simply "to show the flag" for an employer for whom I continue to have great respect.

Now it's back to sandwiches at home for lunch, probably until next year.

Blog Flux Suggest - Find and Search Blogs
Web Traffic Statistics Coupon