Sunday, September 28, 2008

MEMOIR: Memories of the Great Depression

The current financial crisis, generating fears that the U.S. faces a serious depression, has triggered my memories of the Great Depression of the 1930s.

My earliest memory was seeing my young, unmarried aunt, who lived with my parents, coming home from work one evening sobbing hysterically. I can still recall that she carried a newspaper emblazoned with a huge headline printed in red, reading: "Stock market crashes!"

The paper was undoubtedly the now-defunct New York Journal-American, a Hearst newspaper that routinely published red-ink headlines in large type to stir up reader excitement.

But this was no routine story. It was 1929, and the Great Depression had begun. I was five years old, and I still vividly remember my aunt's behavior that night. She had invested her meager savings, earned as a secretary, in the stock market. Now the savings had been wiped out.

She and other relatives, all people of modest means, had been encouraged by a stock broker/cousin to buy stock. That I can still recall the incident about my aunt and the newspaper headline so many years later demonstrates how traumatic the experience was, even for a young, impressionable boy.

I have other painful recollections of that era. In the early 1930s, my father's business collapsed. My father, who had not invested in the stock market, had operated a small shop in New York, manufacturing men's clothing in partnership with an uncle and brother-in-law.

Over the next decade, he was often unemployed, frequently holding down only temporary jobs as a salesman, usually in the men's apparel or food industries.

I always wondered how we were able to maintain our two-bedroom apartment during those years. We lived very frugally, but I do not recall that we suffered the severe economic indignities that afflicted so many others during the Great Depression.

But I do remember depending on hand-me-down baseball gloves, sleds, bicycles, and roller skates from a more affluent cousin whose father's business survived the nation's economic meltdown.

Only in recent years have I figured out how my parents were probably able to maintain our home during the Great Depression. I have a cousin who has an inordinate interest in genealogy.In his research, he discovered that the New York Times published probate notices at one time in its classified advertising columns. He found one notice revealing that my maternal grandmother (his great-grandmother) had inherited $5,000 from a wealthy older brother.

My grandmother had lived with my parents since their marriage. The inheritance, which she received about two years before I was born, was an enormous sum of money in that era. I can only assume that the funds wholly or partially produced the rent for our apartment when my father was unemployed. By then, my aunt had married and moved out.

When I was a teenager, I played a vital role in my father's search for regular employment. He was brought to this country from Poland at the age of nine, but never had a secular American education. Until he was 18, he attended a religious Jewish seminary where such subjects as English grammar did not figure prominently in the curriculum.

So he turned to me to help write letters applying for work. I remember spending Sunday afternoons with him examining the "want ads" in the New York Times. When he found what seemed to be a suitable job opening, I would compose and type letters for him on my second-hand typewriter, spelling out his qualifications.

My letters produced several salesman's jobs. Among his employers that I can recall were Beech-Nut and Colgate-Palmolive. In each case, however, the jobs proved to be temporary, for he was laid off in the personnel cutbacks that were so commonplace during the Great Depression.

The Great Depression ended only when World War II broke out. The U.S. quickly began to expand its armed forces, defense spending soared, and my father was hired by the War Dept. as an inspector in factories manufacturing military uniforms. That was his first solid job since his own business had collapsed.

My father was always struck by the irony that it took a war to get him on his feet economically. Whatever satisfaction he derived from finally having a good job, however, was offset by his sorrow in seeing his only child going off to war as a soldier.

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Monday, September 22, 2008

A tutorial for Sarah Palin

I think that one of the most comical events of the Presidential campaign so far is the official announcement yesterday by a McCain campaign aide that McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, is about to meet with Henry Kissinger.

In short, the most unqualified vice-presidential candidate in American history is to get a "tutorial" on world affairs from a formidable expert on the subject. That the meeting with Kissinger rates a formal announcement (and a headline in the New York Times) shows how desperate the McCain campaign is to create "credentials" for Palin.

Not only will she get the Kissinger tutorial, but she will be introduced to a couple of heads of state and probably be accorded a first-class tour of the United Nations headquarters in New York.

No longer will critics be able to complain that Palin lacks foreign affairs expertise.

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Saturday, September 20, 2008

The "old" and the "old old"

Many years ago, The New Yorker magazine published a cartoon showing a man reading a page in a newspaper headlined “Obituaries.” Beneath the main headline were sub-heads reading “Same age as mine,” “Older than me,” and “Younger than me.” The man had a studious expression on his face as he obviously compared himself to the three categories in which the deceased fitted.

During my 60s and 70s, I also carefully read the N.Y. Times obits, making the same comparisons between myself and the deceased. I was saddened about those my age and younger--senior citizens the gerontologists regard as the "young old." I was comforted, however, to learn about those who had survived to more advanced years and had become "old old."

Now that I am about to turn 84 in November, I read the obits and feel fortunate that I have lived long enough to have qualified for "old old" status. And I recognize that my views and behavior are becoming markedly different from the "young old."

I'm not proud of it, but I’ve become less tolerant. I scorn much of the contemporary art scene—-music, the theater, films-—finding the works so inferior to what I enjoyed as a younger man.

I’ve become more indecisive about the most trivial matters. I often cannot make up my mind about what shirt to wear after I awaken each day. I struggle as I decide what to do first. Should I go shopping or stay home and read or take a walk? What's more important, to see a doctor about some new ache and pain or to take my car for maintenance at the service station? These are, for me, mind-boggling decisions that have to be made. But at least I'm spared from solving the national fiscal crisis.

I’ve lost my confidence in the medical profession, although I’ve had successful surgery to replace my aortic heart valve and my right hip. But I’m reluctant to call a doctor for every ache and pain. I’m dubious about the doctors’ ability to help some one my age and fear that I’ll be ordered to have an uncomfortable examination and procedure that really won't help me.

I now seem to regard physical comfort as the most important element in my life, a fact that really distresses me. I’ve always had an active social life, eager to go to concerts, the theater, art shows, and the like. Since having open-heart surgery about six years ago, however, I become more of a home-body because I frequently feel fatigued even though I've not engaged in any strenuous activity.

I have become less enthusiastic about going out and driving long distances, particularly at night—-much to the distress of my wife. But I have not become a social recluse. I still enjoy socializing with neighbors and friends (as long as they don't live too far away).

As an old old man, I am most disturbed that I find myself questioning whether I really had the talent to do what I did as a journalist for 40 years. I study the hundreds of clippings of articles that I wrote decades ago and can not believe that I actually produced the stuff. Was I faking it, I ask myself. I feel relieved that I am no longer called upon to handle the tough professional demands that I once faced.

I observe what some journalists are now being called to do-—covering the war, for example, in Iraq and Afghanistan under fire—and I wonder whether I would have been able to handle such assignments.

The issue is particularly relevant to me because I covered the Pentagon as a reporter in the 1950s and early 1960s during the non-shooting cold war years, and there was no call for me to become a war correspondent. (My wartime experiences were as an 18-21 year old soldier in India during World War II.)

For 23 years, I have lived in a community restricted to residents who are at least 55; younger spouses, however,are allowed. I was 61 and still working when I moved in. (I retired nearly three years later.) For years I played tennis, traveled with my wife, and took advantage of all the leisure activities available for the residents.

I am now too weary to do much of that. I enviously look upon the younger residents as they enjoy so many of those activities in which I no longer participate. And that's where the distinction between the just "old" people and the "old old" becomes dramatically evident.

I see a social schism developing between the two groups of elderly neighbors. The community has a clubhouse in which dances are held and professional entertainers perform. The cultural tastes differ markedly between the two generations living in what has been advertised as “an active adult” community. There’s a generational gap between the active “young old” and the far less active “old old.”

I am saddened as I see a steady stream of friends and acquaintances pass away. I am gratified, however, that I am still around to enjoy the company of my wife and children and that I still have a passionate interest in what’s going on in the world around me.


Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Guns, God, gays and abortion

I've been trying to think of something profound and original to say about the tendency of many low- and middle-income voters to embrace such issues as guns, God, gays and abortion, and to vote against their own best personal interests.

Having failed to come up with new thoughts of my own, I will take the liberty of quoting two extremely insightful letters-to-the-editor in the Sept. 8 issue of the New York Times.

The first one, written by Kathy Roberson of Middlesex, N.J., has this to say:

"One thing President Bush has done well has been to get so many people, often at an unconscious level, feeling that smart or educated or intellectual equals un-American.

"The result has been that the less educated you sound, the more of a patriotic American you are perceived to be.

"In this way, Mr. Bush and other wealthy elites have been able to install policies that hurt poor working- and middle-class Americans, while casting as snobbish elites those who think in nuanced ways about how to solve the real problems of ordinary Americans.

"We live in a world of staggering complexity. As the last eight years have shown, we ignore that at our own peril."

This is the other letter, which was written by David Rawson of New York City:

"The Republicans are blowing the usual smoke to get working-class people to vote against their economic interest.

"Can you imagine Americans voting for John McCain to strike a blow against the wine-drinking, brie-eating coastal elites and denying themselves a decent health care system, a better economy and competent leadership? Believe it. It could happen."

End of quotes.

Of course, what Mr. Rawson describes did happen eight years ago when George W. Bush was elected.

I fear that it is now more likely to happen again because of Sarah Palin's selection as the Republican nominee for the Vice-Presidency and the enthusiasm it has evidently stirred up in the Republicans' "conservative base."

From what we can glean about the Alaska governor, who is being sheltered from public scrutiny until she is well primed, her political and social opinions can best be described as primitive.

Once again, as in the past two Presidential elections, this election is likely to degenerate into a Republican campaign on "family values" and those old election standbys--guns, God, gays, and abortion. The Democrats will have to struggle to put the focus on the far more vital issues of the economy, health care and the war on terrorism.

The Democrats must also stress the threat that the cold war with Russia will be revived because of the Bush Administration's hard-edged foreign policies. Like Bush, McCain is provoking Russia with the campaign to gain admission of former Soviet bloc countries into NATO. (I have always felt that the Soviet Union's collapse made NATO redundant.)

But not to worry. McCain is acquiring expertise on Russian affairs from his new running mate, Alaska's Governor Palin. After all, as McCain's wife Cindy has pointed out, Palin is very knowledgeable about Russia because Alaska is so geographically close to that country, separated only by the narrow Bering Strait.

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Thursday, September 04, 2008

A glimpse of the past

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I've been retired for nearly 19 years, and it's sometimes difficult to remember what it was like to hold down a regular job. My memories of what I did as a magazine writer and editor were revived by this clipping from the March 11, 1972 issue of Business Week, where I was employed for 31 years before retiring. The clipping was retrieved by a friend while cleaning out his files.

The clipping is a Publisher's memo that describes how a colleague and I reported and wrote a cover story about the late Michel Fribourg. He was a secretive, Belgian-born American who was CEO of Continental Grain Co., a giant, family-owned, multinational corporation now known as ContiGroup. A competitor described him as "the premier figure in the world trade in food during the 20th Century."

It took a considerable amount of journalistic detective work to prepare the article. Fribourg had carefully avoided publicity about himself and his 200-year old company until we prevailed upon him to allow us to tell his fascinating story of business adventures.

The article was published at a time when federal regulations and the dictates of public relations were inducing many traditionally publicity-shy companies to reveal details of their corporate operations to show that "our company has nothing to hide."

I was the project's editor. The Publisher's memo, which was written by the magazine's managing editor, was overly imaginative about my knowledge of Middle Eastern languages.

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