Saturday, December 27, 2008

MEMOIR: Back home from the war

As noted in a previous post, I was discharged from the Army in mid-March 1946 after three years of wartime service. I was only 21 years old, but I felt considerably older because of my experience as a soldier.

There was a culture shock in making the transition from exotic India, where I had been stationed for nearly 26 months, to the familiar but mundane world of the Bronx, where I had been raised and to which I returned to live with my parents.

As a new civilian, I felt that I had a lot of catching up to do, both in my education and in what I euphemistically called my "love life."

Before my Army induction, I had attended evening classes at New York University's School of Commerce for about 15 months. But I hadn't earned enough credits to have advanced beyond the freshman class.

Most night school students require at least six years to earn a degree while working full time during the day. I am not sure I could have endured that challenge. But the GI Bill of Rights, which granted World War II veterans a tuition-free college education, enabled me to return to college as a regular student.

In my urgent desire to obtain a degree and begin a professional career, however, I embarked on what I now consider a foolish schedule. By taking evening and summer classes in addition to the standard day time courses, I crammed 3-1/2 years of academic study into two calendar years. I graduated in June 1948, but it was not the conventional route to a college degree.

It was not as simple to catch up on my so-called love life. Not that I had an active one before entering the Army. Since the age of 16 I had had a full-time job. This put a severe strain on teen-age social activities. I never had the opportunity to acquire a long-term girl friend before I went into the Army.

I did become attracted to Ruth, a classmate in my evening college journalism class. But since she lived in Brooklyn, she was "geographically undesirable"--or "GU" as the condition was popularly known--because I lived in the Bronx. The arduous subway ride discouraged me from dating her very often.

Our relationship primarily grew as both of us worked together on Sunday afternoons in the print shop producing the weekly college newspaper. We had both quickly become editors as the older staff members left school for military service.

After my military discharge in mid-March, I had to wait until June for my classes to begin. I therefore signed up with what was was known as the "52-20 Club," another benefit program for ex-GIs. It paid jobless veterans $20 a week for a year.

I now had the resources to replenish my skimpy civilian wardrobe and to go out on dates. My father, who was a men's clothing salesman, helped me buy new clothes, enabling me to finally take off my Army uniform.

I recall that he was disturbed when I returned home from one date and noticed grass stains on the knees of the most expensive of my new suits. It was produced during a walk in Central Park with my date after we had attended a Carnegie Hall concert. It was also evidence that my postwar love life was progressing.

After my return to civilian life, I also began to date Ruth again. She had by now graduated from college and was working as a newspaper reporter. We had corresponded while I was in the Army, although I cannot recall any vivid romantic flavor to our letters. For reasons that I can't recall, our relationship withered. Perhaps it was that "GU' factor in play again.

Another factor may have been the availability of many other girls for me to date for the first time. While I was in the Army, the weekly newspaper of a union to which I had briefly belonged urged its readers to "write to our boys in the service." I received more than a dozen letters from young New York City women who were obviously frustrated by the shortage of men at home.

I corresponded with the most interesting-sounding of the writers. Now that I was back at home, I began to sample the girls with whom I had corresponded. Most of them failed to live up to my expectations. I probably failed to live up to theirs.

Shortly after my classes began, I joined a college fraternity, Phi Alpha, which was later merged with a larger national organization. I figured that it would foster an active campus social life to break up my heavy academic load, which it did.

Like virtually every other NYU student at that time, all the fraternity's members commuted from home. The fraternity "house" was simply the basement of a three-story brownstone building on West 4th Street in Greenwich Village, a few blocks from the NYU campus. The building basement had formerly been a nightclub; its major feature was a dance floor.

Many decades earlier, the building had been a rooming house that became known in Greenwich Village lore as "the House of Genius" because such celebrated authors as Theodore Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson lived there. NYU's School of Law now occupies the site.

Like other fraternities, Phi Alpha was heavily involved in school politics. This influenced my appointment as editor-in-chief of the college yearbook, whose staff I joined when I had returned to school.

In March 1948, three months before my college graduation, I placed a situations-wanted ad in Editor & Publisher, the trade journal for the newspaper industry. My search for a job in New York had not been successful. I did have one job offer from Time Magazine to be a copy boy. The pay was $35 weekly. As a former Army staff sergeant with a college degree, however, I considered myself over-qualified.

And so my ad in the trade journal. It read: "Available in June, 23-year old New Yorker, B.S. journalism, Kappa Tau Alpha [journalism school academic honorary society], seeks job as reporter, copy reader, rewriteman or editorial writer. Ex-GI (3 years), single and sober. Willing to travel anywhere. Well-versed in domestic and foreign politics, the arts, social sciences, and sports. Experience: New York University newspaper and yearbook editor, U.S. Office of War Information copy boy. Box 9328."

I received two responses. One was from a commercial printer in West Virginia, asking me to invest $5,000 to start up a small town, weekly newspaper of which I would become the editor. The other was from the chief of the Division of Information of the U.S. Dept. of the Interior's Fish & Wildlife Service in Washington, D.C., seeking my application to become an information & editorial specialist (press & publications).

I did not answer the West Virginia printer's letter. And I had never heard of the Fish & Wildlife Service. Nor did I realize that the Federal government hired writers. The government letter included a formal application form.

Shortly after I submitted it, I was invited to Washington for an interview. The job was at the GS-7 civil service level and paid close to $4,000 annually. About a month after the interview, I was notified that I was hired.

Within days of my graduation, I was headed to Washington, accompanied by a foot locker carrying all my worldly possessions. A new chapter in my life was about to begin.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Caroline Kennedy's husband and me

First, an explanation of why nothing has been published in this blog during the past two weeks. I have had to assume some care-taking chores for my wife Sybil, who has been ill. This activity has obviously taken priority over blogging. She is now feeling better, and so this first posting since Dec. 8.

I have now been prompted to return to the blogosphere by the news about Caroline Kennedy's sudden interest in becoming a Senator from New York. Specifically, my curiosity has been aroused by the strange absence of any mention of her husband, Edwin Schlossberg, in all the publicity over Ms. Kennedy's political campaign.

I am a political news junkie and have read reams of material about her request to New York's Governor David Paterson that she be considered for appointment to Hillary Clinton's seat in the U.S. Senate. But as I write this, nowhere has her husband's name cropped up.

The news has been filled with personal detail about her being the daughter of the late President John F. Kennedy, the niece of two U.S. Senators, and other political history of her famed family.

Caroline Kennedy has always been exceedingly shy of publicity and has carefully shielded her three children from public exposure. Her husband, Edwin Schlossberg, has been even more publicity-shy.

As New York Post gossip columnist Cindy Adams wrote last year: "Besides marrying Caroline Kennedy, what else has he done? I mean...[does} anyone actually know what [Ed Schlossberg} does?"

What he does is own a Manhattan-based company called ESI Design, whose web site describes itself as "one of the world's foremost experiential design firms...we create physical and virtual spaces to interact, exchange ideas and learn from each other." In short, he designs museums and such structures as the American Family Immigration History Center at Ellis Island.

I have a special interest in Ed Schlossberg, and thus my personal curiosity about his role in his wife's unexpected entry into the political arena.

His surname, which in German means "castle mountain," is an uncommon family name. My late mother had first cousins in Cleveland who bore the name. As I recall, one of them was a house painting contractor. I do not remember ever meeting any of them. But if Ed Schlossberg ever had family members in Cleveland, it is likely that he and I have a distant family relationship.

Like me, Caroline Kennedy's husband is the grandson of Jewish immigrants from Czarist Russia. Perhaps that is what stimulated his interest in the immigration history project at Ellis Island.

It is not unusual for Russian Jews to bear German-sounding surnames. Their Yiddish language is heavily based on medieval German, demonstrating that their ancestors lived in Western European, German-speaking territories many centuries ago before migrating to Eastern and Central Europe.

If Governor Paterson does select Caroline Kennedy to be a U.S. Senator from New York, Mr. Schlossberg's anonymity is certainly going to be shattered.


Monday, December 08, 2008

The Obama-bashers don't give up easily

Having lost the election, the Obama-bashers haven't given up trying to prevent Barack Obama from becoming the President.

I have received an e-mail message, entitled "Update on Obama birth certificate law suits," from Human Events magazine, informing me that an organization known as the United States Justice Foundation is engaged in a legal battle "to compel Obama to produce a valid birth certificate that he is constitutionally eligible to be President of the United States."

The foundation, which was founded in 1979, describes itself as a "non-profit public interest, legal action organization that instructs, informs and educates the public on, and litigates significant legal issues confronting America."

The organization evidently doesn't believe that Obama was born in Hawaii. It argues that because Obama's father was born in Kenya when it was a British colony, somehow there is a question about the President-elect's legitimacy as a native-born American. The group has filed suit in California to push the issue and is helping to fund similar suits in Mississippi and other states.

In its e-mail message to me, Human Events notes that the U.S. Justice Foundation's campaign "does not necessarily reflect the editorial position" of the magazine. (Ideologically, the magazine can best be described as standing to the right of both the Bill Buckley-founded National Review and the Bill Kristol-edited Weekly Standard.)

So why does the magazine, which boasts such arch-conservative luminaries as Pat Buchanan and Ann Coulter as columnists, go to the trouble of sending me information about the foundation's absurd campaign?

"From time to time," the magazine's message explained, "we receive opportunities we believe you as a valued customer may want to know about." The "opportunity" is for me to contribute money to the U.S. Justice Foundation so that it can finance the effort to keep Obama out of the White House.

I am not a paid subscriber to the magazine, so I can not be accurately described as a "valued customer." I am uncertain how I wound up on its e-mail mailing list. But I'm not complaining. It is always interesting to keep up to date about the right-wing loonies' current crusades.

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Bombay/Mumbai Remembered

Last week's murderous terrorist attacks in Mumbai revived memories of my month's stay in that fascinating Indian city as an American soldier during the late winter of 1944. (I still find it hard to accept that the city was renamed from Bombay in 1996 in order to shed colonial Portugese and British influences and to restore the city's Hindu origins.)

I arrived there in mid-February aboard the HMS Empress of Scotland, a British passenger ship that had been converted into a troopship. The vessel carried about 5,000 U.S. troops, virtually all of whom would eventually wind up in eastern India, Burma or China, closer to where the battle against Japan was being waged.

I landed shortly after Japan's army had captured much of Manipur, a state in northeastern India. The Japanese were pushed back into Burma only about a week after our arrival. I cannot claim, of course, that my shipmates and I had an impact on the Japanese retreat.

We were greeted in the Bombay harbor by a U.S. Army tugboat blaring Artie Shaw's popular recording of "Begin the Beguine." As we neared the dock, scores of fishermen on flimsy boats surrounded our ship, shouting "baksheesh" at the soldiers lined up on the vessel's deck. This phrase is the universal plea of beggars and bribe-seekers in the Middle East and Near East for a tip or gift--a term, I believe, derived from the Persian phrase for "give me."

We interpreted the expression as a request for "boxes." Quickly, empty fruit crates from the ship's mess hall were retrieved and thrown overboard. The Bombay harbor was soon littered with gifts that were undoubtedly not what the locals had expected.

As we struggled off the troopship's gangplank, loaded down with barracks bags over our shoulders, a pack of peddlers awaited us. They were selling photographs of naked Oriental young women with their legs spread apart. The photos were airbrushed to show that the women's vaginas were horizontally shaped.

The picture depicted a myth, popular with some GIs, that the genitalia of Oriental females were shaped differently from Western women. Some of my shipmates obviously believed the myth. They rushed to buy copies of the altered photo to satisfy their naive belief about Oriental ladies.

After we landed, my outfit was sent by truck to a Royal Air Force base in Worli, a part of southern Mumbai. Our group was made up of men like myself who had been shipped overseas unassigned to any regular Army unit. In military jargon, we were designated as "casuals."

I remained at the RAF's Worli base until mid-March while awaiting an assignment. I was eventually shipped to an Army base outside the city of Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal, hundreds of miles to the northeast of Mumbai.

Worli was originally one of seven islands that were consolidated in past centuries through a series of reclamation projects to create the modern city of Mumbai. It contains the Towers of Silence, a structure on which the Parsis, one of India's many ethnic/religious minority groups, deposit their dead to be consumed by vultures. Worli also is the site of a popular race track where, much to my surprise, the horses run clockwise.

Every few days I was allowed to go into the heart of the city by train, where I had the unusual privilege of being a soldier-tourist. Mumbai offers extraordinary contrasts--far more extreme than any city I have ever known. Tall skyscrapers, speedy commuter railroad trains, theaters, night clubs, luxurious hotels, palatial suburban homes, and other features of a prosperous metropolis were matched by the starkest signs of poverty I have ever seen.

A teeming sea of humanity filled the streets. Diseased, malnourished beggars clad in rags were everywhere. Hordes of people made their homes on the sidewalks with no access to fresh water and toilets. Cows, sacred to the Hindus, wandered undisturbed
through the streets. Corpses were a frequent sight along the street curbs, vultures hovering above the dead.

I was to see similar scenes in Calcutta, in Bengal province, where I was primarily stationed during my two years of military service in India.

Sixty-four years have passed since I was in Mumbai. From what I've read, the contrasts have been magnified as India has become a more modernized industrial and commercial power, and Mumbai has become the site of a hugely successful movie industry.

During last week's three-day terrorist siege, a sense of the city's rousing and bustling atmosphere was vividly captured on TV as reporters described the horrific attack.

I don't know what the city's population was in 1944, but it now is close to 19 million people, making Mumbai one of the world's largest metropolitan areas.

It is noteworthy that Mumbai's population is bigger than the world's Jewish population--a fact that comes to mind because of the terrorists' selection of the Chabad-Lubovitch Jewish community center as a special target in last week's terrorist assault.

There are probably only about 5,000 Jews who live in Mumbai, most of them members of the Bene Israel or the Baghdadi Jewish communities. The former are descendants of Jews who settled in India during the Biblical era. The Baghdadis arrived in India several centuries ago from Arab countries.

During my 1944 stay in Mumbai, there were also a handful of Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria living in the city. I particularly remember a store owned by one of them that featured Viennese pastries and chocolates. I am confident that it was the only store of its kind in all of India.

As it was for all troops stationed overseas during wartime, our outgoing mail was heavily censored. For about a year, we were not even allowed to reveal to our families back home that we were in India.

I was accidentally able to violate the restriction because of a visit I made to a local synagogue. While there, a British Jewish army sergeant invited me to play Ping Pong with him in the synagogue's community center. He was stationed in Mumbai after having been severely wounded in the British retreat from Burma two years before.

When he recovered, he was assigned as a drill instructor for Indian troops at a local military installation. We became friends and usually met when I had a pass to leave the Worli RAF base.

I complained to him about my inability to inform my parents where I was. He told me that his outgoing mail was not censored, and he volunteered to write to my family back in the States disclosing my presence in India. My parents quickly developed an intense interest in that huge exotic land about which they knew very little.

More than a half-century later, I also have that same intense interest in India and particularly in the city of Mumbai, where I had such memorable experiences as a soldier-tourist and which sadly became the focus of last week's news about the brutal terrorist attack by Islamist extremists.

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