Thursday, April 26, 2007

MEMOIR: How Israel destroyed a longtime friendship

One of my best friends at college was a fellow World War II veteran named Michael Ameer (a pseudonym). We were both journalism majors and were among the handful of our classmates who were lucky enough to land jobs and establish careers in the field.

Michael was an infantryman decorated for bravery during the Battle of the Bulge. He was born and raised in Brooklyn, the son of immigrants from Lebanon. I recall that he told me that his parents were Eastern Orthodox Christians who became Episcopalians in the U.S.

While in college, I do not remember ever discussing Middle East politics with Michael. But he was well aware of my ardent support of Israel. In a class on editorial writing, I regularly argued the Israeli cause. Indeed, my heated classroom debates with our professor, who opposed Zionism, underscored how passionate I was about the issue.

At that time (1947-48), Lebanon's Maronite Roman Catholic community supported the creation of Israel.Its leaders apparently believed that a Jewish state in the region would be an important ally against their traditional rival, Lebanon's huge Muslim population.

Soon after graduation, Michael settled in Rochester, N.Y., where he became a star reporter for the local daily paper, and where he still lives. He also worked for several years in Albany as a speech writer and publicist for New York state legislators.

My career took me to Washington, D.C. and later back to New York City. Over the years Michael and I kept in touch. We lunched together on his frequent visits to his family in New York. And when my older daughter enrolled in the Rochester Institute of Technology, Michael and his wife were exceedingly hospitable, easing my daughter's transition to college life.

Whenever we met during the four decades after our college graduation, we invariably talked mostly about our families and careers. I don't recall ever discussing the subject of Israel with Michael until one day at lunch a couple of years before my retirement in 1989.

I do not remember what triggered the discussion, but Michael suddenly launched into a tirade against Israel, employing the standard Israel-bashing arguments. He explained that he had become an active supporter of the Palestinian Arab cause.

Michael denounced the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, but disregarded the history of Arab invasions that caused the occupation. He complained about Israeli restrictions on Palestinian life, but avoided mention of the Arab terror attacks on Israeli civilians that were responsible for those measures.

As I recall, he even referred to PLO leader Yasser Arafat as a "heroic freedom fighter," disregarding Arafat's role in killing innocent Israeli women and children. And on he went, depicting Israel as an ogre victimizing the Palestinians, using all the Israel-bashing cliches that have become part of the vocabulary of Israel's opponents.

I made no effort to defend Israel against Michael's harangue. Instead, I said to him: "Michael, we've been friends for about 40 years. If we are to remain friends, I think it would be wise if we do not discuss the Israel-Palestine issue."

I do not remember how Michael responded. But I have not seen or heard from him since then.

Meanwhile, I have discovered that he has become a prolific, Palestinian propagandist on the Internet. I have read his articles published in such anti-Israel, on-line newsletters as the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs and on such loony left-wing web sites as Counterpunch, which continues to insist that the Israelis were somehow involved in the 9/11 attacks.

I regret that Michael and I are no longer friends. And I wonder whether Michael also regrets the loss of our friendship.

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Sunday, April 22, 2007

Tooting my own horn

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This clipping was recently published in the Palm Beach Post as part of a series about senior citizens "doing interesting things." Publishing a blog evidently qualifies as such an activity.

Unfortunately the reporter who interviewed me was apparently unfamiliar with Adlai Stevenson and mistakenly identified him as "Adelaide." A correction was published a few days later.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

MEMOIR: The child prodigy who lived across the street

Leon Fleisher is one of the great concert pianists of our time. Critics have compared him to the likes of Artur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz. Now 79, Fleisher made his public debut at eight in San Francisco, where he was born, and at 16 performed with the New York Philharmonic.

His illustrious career was interrupted at 36 when he lost the use of his right hand due to a debilitating ailment known as focal dystonia. But he continued performing in public, limiting his repertory to selections for the left hand. He also became a renowned orchestral conductor and teacher at the Peabody Conservatory of Music. Over the past decade, he has regained the use of his right hand and has resumed his regular concert and recording career.

My own personal impression of Fleisher goes far beyond his international eminence as a concert pianist. I remember him as the child prodigy who lived across the narrow street from my family's apartment in the Bronx when I was growing up. He lived on the fifth floor of 1325 Grand Concourse and I lived on the third floor of 1299 Grand Concourse.

Both our apartments had windows facing Clarke Place, which was a block north of 169th Street. Weather permitting, our windows were always open. Young Leon practiced constantly, and it may well be that the gorgeous sound of his piano helped foster my lifelong love of classical music.

But we both had some far less worldly neighbors who did not share my love of Leon's music and who failed to recognize that we had a child prodigy in our midst. They regarded Leon's playing as an annoyance, and I can still remember them often calling the police to complain about the "noise" from Leon's apartment.

I recall that the Fleisher family moved to our block when he was about 10. I also recall that Leon's father had been a taxi cab driver in San Francisco. According to neighborhood lore, a wealthy patroness of the arts in that city recognized that young Leon was an exceptionally gifted child.

She arranged for the family to move to New York City so that Leon could study with the legendary pianist, Artur Schnabel, and have private tutors for his general education. I do not recall that Leon had any playmates or that he ever played outside on our street which was always packed with hordes of boys and girls at play. When he was seen outside, he was always dressed in an extremely formal style that was probably the fashion of boy prodigies.

Leon had an older brother, Ray, who was close to me in age. (I am three years older than Leon Fleisher.) Ray was a popular member of our "social and athletic" club, initially known as the Mohawks and later as the Eagles. I don't know whether he had any musical talent, but he was one of the best stick-ball and touch-football players in our gang.

I was inducted into the Army in 1943 and never saw Leon Fleisher again until about 15 years ago when I attended a concert in Trenton, N.J., where he was appearing as a soloist with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. Over the years, of course, I had closely followed his career, deriving vicarious satisfaction over his reputation as one of the world's most prominent pianists.

When the concert ended, my wife and I succeeded in being allowed back stage, where I introduced myself to Fleisher as having grown up on Clarke Place, where I had been his brother Ray's friend.

Fleisher was extremely gracious as we tried to recall our early lives on "the block." (I don't know whether he was aware that he was not the only musical celebrity produced in our neighborhood; opera soprano Roberta Peters and pop singer Edie Gorme were our contemporaries.)

Fleisher told me that his brother Ray lived in California and had been a chemical engineer before his retirement. The only name that he could recall from his brother's gang of friends was a boy he called "Sluggo." I had to correct him that the nick-name had been just plain "Slug," and that the boy's real name was Seymour.

Neither of us could figure out why, after so many decades, that Slug was the only name he could recall from Clarke Place. Perhaps it was because it was an exotic one for a Jewish kid of that era.

I did not tell Fleisher that after my discharge from the Army in 1946 my mother urged me to take out her friend's daughter Beverly on a date, and that Beverly informed me that she was also dating Leon Fleisher. I recall being glad to learn that the boy prodigy, who had had such a seemingly restrictive boyhood, had successfully entered into the social whirl as a young adult.

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Sunday, April 08, 2007

MEMOIR: Snakes, rats and me in India

Until I was inducted into the Army and shipped to India during World War II, the closest I had ever come to snakes was during visits to the reptiles at the Bronx Zoo, which was located close to my boyhood home.

On my first full day in India, at a Royal Air Force base outside Bombay, I was quickly introduced to snakes, particularly the ubiquitous cobra, the country's most dangerous species. The introduction came in a lecture by an RAF sergeant on what to do when awakening in the morning.

It was February, when it becomes so chilly at night in that area that cobras seek warm shelter. The sergeant told us that the snakes often enter a house or barracks and wiggle into empty shoes. He warned us that, before putting on our shoes, we should turn them upside down and shake them to make sure that a snake had not found shelter. I do not recall ever finding one in my shoes.

We slept on "sharpoys," wood-framed, rope-laced beds into which mosquito nets were tucked into the bedding. One night I heard the man on a nearby bed shriek hysterically, and I was shocked to see him fling himself through his bed's mosquito netting. A cobra, who apparently favored beds over shoes for shelter, was curled up on his pillow.

I ran to the man's bed, and with the help of a few other guys turned it over, hurling the snake to the floor. One man ran outside and came back with a huge boulder. He lifted the boulder over his head and smashed it on the cobra's head, killing the snake instantly.

We carefully approached the snake to confirm that it was dead. One man took the snake's tail and dragged it outside.I don't remember how we eventually disposed of the dead cobra. But I assume that vultures, which maintained a regular presence in the area, took care of that. Few of the men in my barracks were able to sleep soundly during the rest of the night.

During my two years in India, there were regular sightings of cobras and other snakes wherever I was stationed. Fortunately there was always a safe distance between them and me.

My next personal exposure to snakes involved a species I had not seen before. I was stationed at an air base in eastern Bengal. (The area is now probably part of Bangladesh.) We were rarely favored with fresh meat in the mess hall. When we did get fresh meat, it was invariably water buffalo, which did not make for quality steaks.

One evening we were served a dish for dinner that we could not identify. It tasted like fishy chicken. But it was more appetizing than water buffalo, so no one complained.

After we had eaten, the mess sergeant got up to speak. "I'm sure you all want to know what you ate tonight," he said. "It was python meat." There was shocked silence in the mess hall as we began to think about what live pythons look like. They are huge, muscular reptiles that grow as long as 33 ft. and can weigh up to 300 lbs. They are not venomous like cobras, but kill their prey by squeezing or constricting the victim until it suffocates.

The mess sergeant explained that he and his assistant were driving down a nearby jungle road in a weapons carrier, which is a small truck. Suddenly, he felt that he had driven over something. When he got out to check, he saw that he had crushed a python to death.

He and his assistant dumped the dead python in the back of their vehicle and returned to our base. Apparently seeking a culinary challenge, the mess sergeant decided to cook what remained of the snake and to determine whether it was edible. After sampling the product of his experiment, he concluded that the python was tasty enough to eat and served it for dinner. There was more than enough meat to feed all the men in our outfit.

Aside from the snakes, my memories of India always focus on the prevalence of rats. I remember seeing rats scurrying everywhere--indoors and in the open--no matter what region of India I was in. They were so commonplace that the locals seemed to accept rodents as a creature with whom a shared life was normal. I do not recall any official effort to control and kill the rats.

India's primitive sanitation facilities, the absence of toilets and running water in much of the country, and the hordes of people living in very close quarters provided an environment in which rats thrived.

For a few months, I was assigned to a base in which we lived in tents next to a huge swamp. Our tent was constantly invaded by water rats who chewed up our barracks bags and blankets and damaged whatever personal possessions they could find.

It was futile to chase them with shovels and brooms. If we had had immediate access to our regular assigned weapons, we might have been more efficient rat-killers. But because we were not close to Japanese-occupied territory, our weapons were stored and guarded in a tent serving as the company's armory.

One of my tent mates was an electrician. I recall that his name was Rausch and that he came from Wisconsin. He devised a scheme to kill the rats who were tormenting us. The tent had a two-socket electric outlet in the ceiling. Rausch found a large metal plate, wrapped it in electric wire, and hooked it up to one of the sockets. The other socket contained a light bulb.

Rausch placed the wired metal plate on the floor in the center of the tent. He confidently assured me and the tent's two other occupants that the rats would be electrocuted when they ran over plate.

Unfortunately, there wasn't enough electric power in the wired plate to kill the rats. There was enough electric juice, however, to activate the light bulb in the tent's ceiling. That became evident as the light came on whenever a rat scurried across the wired metal plate.

Sadly, Rausch abandoned his rat-killing scheme. We decided that it was preferable to get a good night's sleep without being disturbed by a bulb lighting up, even though we were aware that we were being invaded by the water rats.

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Sunday, April 01, 2007

Time see doctors

I haven't posted on this blog lately, so I have not done my usual pontificating on the major issues of the day, nor have I been dredging up personal memories of the past to publish here. My wife and I have been too busy visiting doctors. During the past week and in the upcoming week, one of us has seen or is scheduled to see a cardiologist, orthopedic surgeon, plastic surgeon, dermatologist, an ENT specialist, an eye doctor, gastroentrologist, and an internist.

Fortunately, we are receiving our medical care at a minimal cost. Medicare and the secondary medical insurance provided as part of my generous retirement package from the McGraw-Hill Companies, publishers of Business Week, will take care of the bulk of our expenses.

Most of the world's industrial powers provide such medical care to all its citizens, not only retirees. But in the U.S., the richest of the industrial powers, universal medical care is unavailable. One reason is opposition to what the opponents call "socialized" medicine. That's the same kind of nonsense used decades ago to argue against the enactment of Medicare itself.

But the major argument seems to be that the nation cannot afford to pay for medical care for all its citizens. It can afford, however, to waste up to a trillion dollars fighting an unnecessary war in Iraq, billions to rebuild that country's infrastructure, and hundreds of billions more to build and maintain an anti-ICBM weapon system that does not work and is designed to protect us from a non-existent enemy. And who knows about the countless other costly boondoggles in which the Bush Administration is engaged?

Meanwhile, the Administration can afford to reduce taxes for the wealthy even while we fight a war and to continue paying huge subsidies to major corporations and giant farming enterprises.

The bottom line is that there is no reason why all Americans should not have access to the same benefits of medical care that my wife and I enjoy.

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