Thursday, December 27, 2007

ABOUT ME: A mini bio

I am the first generation of my family born in the U.S. If my Yiddish-speaking grandparents had not been wise enough--or lucky enough--to have brought their children here from the former Czarist Russian Empire shortly after the start of the 20th Century, I could have been among the 6-million Jews slaughtered by Germany and its Ukrainian, Slovak, Lithuanian, Latvian, Russian, Polish, and Romanian supporters during the late 1930s and early 1940s. But because of the immigration of my grandparents, I was privileged to become an American and to escape the religious and ethnic persecution my ancestors suffered for so many centuries in Europe.

I was born in 1924 at 17 East 107th Street, an apartment house located between Fifth and Madison Avenues in Manhattan's East Harlem neighborhood. I didn't live there long enough to have any distinct memories of the place. But our apartment must have been a very crowded home. It housed not only my parents but my maternal grandmother, my mother's two unmarried sisters and, I believe, a rent-paying boarder. Arriving in the U.S. during World War I, my grandmother's widowed father also lived in the apartment, where he died shortly before my birth.

I was delivered by a midwife in my parents' bedroom. The world-famous Mt. Sinai Hospital was--and still is--located only a few blocks away. But my family apparently had more confidence in the birthing skills of a midwife, who was my grandmother's sister-in-law.

To the uninitiated, the idea of living off New York's Fifth Ave. might sound exalted. But our apartment was on the wrong end of that fabled thoroughfare. Fifth Ave.'s opulent, more desirable blocks are nearly a mile south of 107th Street. Our modest and heavily crowded neighborhood was inhabited largely by working-class Jews only a decade or two removed from the ghettos of Central and Eastern Europe.

Several blocks to the east of us was a neighborhood that was predominantly Italian. During my childhood, New York City neighborhoods were primarily defined by ethnic group, religion, or race. With the rise in immigration since World War II, this neighborhood cultural pattern has been reinforced.

When I was born, East Harlem was represented in Congress by Fiorello H. LaGuardia, who was later to become the city's world-famed mayor. With a Jewish mother and an Italian father, he was exceptionally qualified to be the neighborhood's Congressman. Although it probably had no political influence, LaGuardia was also an Episcopalian. His Catholic-born father was a band master in the U.S. Army, and presumably converted in order to foster his military career.

My mother claimed that movie star Lauren Bacall was born on our street a few months before me, and that she pushed baby carriages in nearby Central Park with Lauren's mother. I can't confirm my mother's claim because no where in the actress' own autobiography is there any mention of me.

Still another celebrity reportedly born on East 107th Street--many years before me--was the late Moss Hart, the renowned playwright. A couple of blocks away is the birthplace of another great playwright, Arthur Miller. Sad to say, my life has never been influenced by all this enormous theatrical talent.

By the end of the 1920s, many of the neighborhood's Jewish inhabitants had become sufficiently prosperous to move to more attractive surroundings--to the Bronx in my family's case and to Brooklyn in Lauren Bacall's and Arthur Miller's. As the Jews departed from the area they were replaced by Puerto Ricans, transforming the neighborhood into what became known as "Spanish Harlem."

What had essentially been a Jewish "ghetto" had become a Hispanic "barrio." Curiously, the same kind of ethnic transformation was to occur many years later in the Bronx neighborhood to which my family moved when I was about three years old.

(To be continued)

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

MEMOIR: Reflections on Panagarh

Ever since the U.S. Army deposited me in Bombay as a teenage soldier during World War II, I've been enthralled by India. During two years service there, my senses were overwhelmed, excited and confused.

As the famed British journalist Geoffrey Moorhouse once wrote, a visitor to India "may have inklings of what to expect, but he can never have more than that, for everything that is about to happen to him is on such a scale and of such magnitude as to defy and almost dissolve all his careful anticipation."

During the spring of 1944, after a couple of months shuttling between two other bases as the Army tried to figure out what to do with me, I was assigned to the 903rd Signal Co. Depot (Avn.). The outfit was stationed outside a village named Panagarh in the province of Bihar, an impoverished region about 100 miles northwest of Calcutta. (I understand that the village is now a city and is part of West Bengal province.)

I remember that a leper colony run by Catholic missionaries was located a couple of miles down the road from our base, which was still under construction when my outfit arrived there.

The Air Corps base commander was short of construction personnel. He therefore assigned about half the men in my signal company--radio operators, code clerks, electronics specialists, etc.--for about a month to what we called "the steel gang" to help build aircraft hangars. (I was exempted when the company commander discovered that I knew how to type.)

The heat was so intense that outdoor work began at sunrise and halted shortly after noon. Despite the heat, a handful of New Yorkers, some of whom had been been bricklayers and carpenters in civilian life, decided to build a handball court. (Because it requires little space, one-wall handball is an exceptionally popular sport in New York City and its environs.)

I don't recall how they acquired the building supplies. However, I can now safely confess six decades later that it was probably through some means that violated regulations. During the torrid afternoon, while most of the men in the company napped or played cards, the New Yorkers--myself included--whacked away at the small black handballs. I do not remember how we acquired the special gloves required to play the game. The other men regarded our playing as evidence that New Yorkers were indeed a peculiar breed.

The primary outfit then assigned to Panagarh was the 1st Air Commandos. Its main mission was to fly gliders carrying Special Force units who were dropped behind Japanese lines in neighboring Burma. One of the glider pilots was Jackie Coogan, the onetime Hollywood child actor. I can still recall seeing a drunken Coogan running around the base one day, boasting of having had sex with movie star Betty Grable, World War II's most popular pin-up girl, who was then his wife.

A more important figure at Panagarh was Britain's famed Brigadier Orde Wingate, commander of the Chindits, a mixed Indian and British force that specialized in guerrilla warfare. During the late 1930s, Wingate had been stationed in Palestine, where he trained Jewish farmers (a youthful Moshe Dayan was one) to be "Special Night Guards" to defend themselves against Arab attacks.

Before coming to Panagarh, Wingate had been transferred from Palestine to Ethiopia because of his pro-Zionist sympathies. In Ethiopia he organized native guerrilla units to fight the Italians. He was killed in late 1944, when his glider crashed in the Burmese jungles on a mission that, I believe, took off from Panagarh.

One of my most fascinating experiences in Panagarh was to attend the wedding of a 16-year old boy named Durga Pasa in the spring of 1944. I was one of a group of GIs who were invited as "honored guests." Durga was a "bearer" ( a euphemism for servant) who cleaned our barracks, shined our shoes, made our beds, and cut the weeds growing outside.

I wrote an account of our experience that was published in the CBI Roundup, a weekly Army newspaper that was the China-Burma-India Theater's counterpart to the more well known Stars & Stripes. At that time I was a 19-year old aspiring journalist. The article was the first journalistic endeavor of mine ever to be published.

I lost a copy of the piece shortly after I was discharged from the Army. For many years I was frustrated that I didn't have a copy of my first published work. Several years ago, however, a man who had served with me in the 903rd Signal Co., Wally Swanson of Iron Mountain, Mich., who also attended Durga's wedding, sent me a copy of the newspaper clipping with the note that said: "Remember this?"

Wally and I had exchanged letters after he saw my name in print some where. During the war he had mailed a copy of my account of Durga's wedding to his local newspaper. The paper published the article, pointing out that Wally was one of the GIs who attended the wedding.

This is the article:

Digging down deep into their barracks bags, 14 "sahibs," serving with the American Air Forces in India, donned their crispest suits and attended, as guests of honor, an Indian wedding ceremony held in a neighboring town. The 16-year old Hindu bridegroom works as a barracks bearer for the American troops.

The GIs attended the wedding as guests after they had collected money to promote the wedding of their bearer. One hundred and fifty rupees were needed to pay off the bride's father and this was quickly subscribed. [A rupee was then worth 30 cents.]

In return, the youthful bridegroom, an Indian named Durga Pasa, extended an invitation to his "sahibs" to be guests of honor at his wedding, and the invitation was warmly received.

Durga, although only 16, had long been eager to marry, and one day confided his troubles to the men in his barracks. Two obstacles blocked his path to happiness: the lack of money and the absence of a bride.

The men in the barracks decided to take steps to remedy the situation, and while the father of Durga bargained for a bride, the airmen [sic] raised the 150-rupee fund for the father of the lucky girl.

The wedding took place one early evening beneath a huge canopy especially constructed for the event in the center of the town's main street. The canopy covered several small tables, each bedecked with bowls of fruit, cakes and hot coffee.

Finally the sun set, and the wedding ceremony began. Accustomed to seeing Durga work each day in their barracks clad in ragged shorts and shirt, the Americans were amazed to see their young bearer wearing a majestic orange turban, strongly matched with a red and yellow dhoti wrapped around him. He walked with difficulty in a hefty pair of brand-new wooden sandals.

The bridegroom's mother paraded the young boy out of their house with the bride on to several rugs in the center of the canopy. Rupee notes were handed to the child bride, who wore a brilliantly colored sari. The couple salaamed all around and then retired to the house.

Durga was given three days off after the wedding for his honeymoon. Then, again clad in his tattered shorts, he went back to work in the barracks.

The article failed to note that we were given permission by our company commander to leave the air base and to attend the wedding only after promising not to eat any food at the ceremony.

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