Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Bronx County Courthouse vs. the Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal is generally regarded as one of the eight wonders of the world. It is located outside the sprawling city of Agra, India. Some Western historians have claimed that the its architectural beauty has never been surpassed. The Taj Mahal, which means "Crown Palace," was built over a period of 22 years during the 1600s by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his favorite wife who died in childbirth.

The Taj is essentially a mausoleum with a mosque, other palatial buildings, elaborate gardens, and reflecting pools in a vast complex bordering a narrow river. The Taj itself is built entirely of white marble with a central dome that rises to a height of 213 feet.

In 1857 a British nobleman, Lord Roberts, vising the Taj for the first time, wrote: "Neither words nor pencil could give to the most imaginative reader the slightest idea of the all-satisfying beauty and purity of this glorious conception. To those who have not already seen it, I would say, 'Go to India.' The Taj alone is worth the journey."

I have gone to India--not voluntarily, of course--and have visited the Taj many times. During World War II, the U.S. Army built an air base several miles away from the Taj to house the 3rd Air Depot Group. I was stationed there for about two months before being transferred to another unit in Bengal Province in eastern India.

During my brief stay at the Agra base, every weekend an American Red Cross lady would lead a group of about dozen GIs to visit the Taj. As I recall, the city of Agra itself was out of bounds to U.S. troops, and there was not very much else to keep off-duty GIs entertained. I believe that I went with the group about a half dozen times.

The woman was a knowledgeable guide, and lectured to us about the Taj Mahal's history. An extremely emotional person, she would discuss in ecstatic terms the Taj's beauty. On one of my night time visits with the group, I can still recall how she rapturously exclaimed: "There is nothing more beautiful in the world that the Taj by moonlight."

Responding to our guide's remark, I shouted: "The Bronx County Court House is more beautiful by moonlight." I was playing the role of a 19-year old wise guy from New York, tired of her repetitive claim about the Taj.

The Bronx County Court House, which is located within walking distance of my family's former apartment house on the Grand Concourse, is a conventional-looking, 12-story government building. Placing it in the same architectural league as the Taj Mahal was, of course, absurd. But I enjoyed the loud laughter that I had anticipated from the other men in my group.

The Red Cross lady, however, was infuriated by my rude behavior. As I recall, she was so upset by my impertinence that she halted her lecture and hastily called for a truck to return our group to the base.

Sixty-five years later, I am embarrassed when I recall my wisecrack. But, oh, to be a 19-year old "wise guy" again!

I doubt whether the American Red Cross maintains an enemies list. But if it does, I'm probably listed on it.

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

My ancestors in Jerusalem

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This is a photo of my maternal great-great-grandparents. The photo was taken in Jerusalem about 150 years ago when that city was ruled by the Ottoman Turks.

My maternal grandmother, with whom I lived during my childhood, brought this photo of her own maternal grandparents with her when she arrived in the U.S. in 1903. The family came from the Czarist Russian province of Minsk in what is now Belarus. The picture was obviously an extremely important possession of Grandma's, having survived that arduous journey with her husband, three small children and all their belongings.

I do not know whether these ancestors of mine were visiting Jerusalem on a religious pilgrimage or whether they had come from Russia to settle in the Holy Land. As a boy, I was aware of the photo's existence. But I do not recall that Grandma, beyond identifying the couple in the picture as her grandparents, ever explained their presence in Jerusalem.

The photo, which was restored, was originally on a postcard. The word "Jerusalem" was elaborately printed on its back, as was the photographer's Armenian name.

The couple's family name was Gurevich, which I believe is the Russian version of the name Horowitz. I do not know their first names. Nor have I ever known any relatives who bear their surname. I do take some satisfaction, however, in imagining that I may have been distantly related to the late, great Russian-born pianist, Vladimir Horowitz.

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Saturday, March 14, 2009

MEMOIR: Whooping cranes, trumpeter swans and a kid from the Bronx

I started my first postwar job in June 1948 in Washington, D.C. shortly after my college graduation. As I revealed in a previous Memoir posting, the job was as a press officer and editor for the U.S. Dept. of the Interior's Fish & Wildlife Service. I was hired as a result of a "situations wanted" ad that I had placed in Editor & Publisher, the newspaper industry's trade journal. This was a highly unconventional route to a Federal civil service position.

My objective was a job as a newspaper reporter. But only the Fish & Wildlife Service responded with a legitimate job opportunity. I also heard from a commercial printer in Moundsville, W. Va., who offered to make me editor of a new weekly newspaper if I would invest $5,000. I did not take the offer seriously.

The FWS mailed me a civil service employment application and soon invited me to Washington for a job interview. I was hired several weeks before my college graduation.

I had not even known that the Fish & Wildlife Service existed. Nor was I aware that the Federal government hired people to work as an "information & editorial specialist (press & publications)," which was the official job title. As I recall, the annual salary was about $3400.

As a boy raised in the Bronx, my only exposure to "wildlife" had been during visits to the Bronx Zoo and in several encounters with snakes in India, where I had served in the Army. The FWS was therefore an exotic working environment for me. My primary function was to report on the agency's varied operations, and to write press releases on what I considered newsworthy matters. In short, I was to be a press agent.

One of my new colleagues was the late Rachel Carson. She was yet to become a national celebrity as a pioneer environmental reformer through her best-selling books, "The Silent Spring" and "The Sea Around Us." Carson was trained to be a marine biologist. Her job at the FWS was to write the popular pamphlets about wildlife that were published by the Government Printing Office.

In my first week on the job, I handled a story that was a press agent's dream: the birth of a two-headed terrapin in a government fisheries laboratory. I arranged for Life Magazine to publish the terrapin's photo on its cover.

From then on, there was rarely a week in which I did not find a story worthy of publicity. One of the strangest involved reports from farmers across the country complaining that growing hordes of raccoons were ruining their crops. They demanded that the government do something about it.

I don't remember what if anything the Fish & Wildlife Service did about the problem. But the situation inspired me to write a press release linking the raccoon epidemic to the vagaries of women's fashion that had reduced the demand for raccoon fur coats. The result, of course, was that commercial trappers were no longer killing raccoons and were now concentrating on other varmints.

Many of my press releases dealt with the FWS's program to protect whooping cranes and trumpeter swans, two species of waterfowl facing extinction. Another regular story was the agency's widespread effort to expand the nation's duck population.

As some one to whom duck-hunting was an alien sport, that effort seemed contradictory. After all, the Fish & Wildlife Service was the agency responsible for issuing Federal licenses to hunt ducks. However, my ideological indifference about ducks, never intruded into my work.

Census-taking was a major undertaking at the Fish & Wildlife Service. When I wasn't reporting on the populations of whooping cranes, trumpeter swans, and other migratory waterfowl, there were fish to count. I spent one week at sea aboard a fisheries research vessel, observing scientists conducting a census of herring on the Georges Bank fishing grounds off the coast of Newfoundland.

Still another regular census involved the Alaska fur seals who annually come ashore on the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea to deliver a new crop of seal pups and to breed. The islands are part of Alaska, but the FWS was the territory's official administrator.

Based on the annual count, the agency determined how many seals could be slaughtered for their pelts. As I remember, the victims were only two-year old males. The actual killing was done by Aleuts hired by a private contractor, the Fouke Fur Co. of St. Louis.

My press release disclosed the number of young seals that could be legally clubbed to death. I believe that these annual reports eventually helped animal-rights advocates to win their campaign to halt the commercial slaughter of the fur seals on the Pribilof Islands. But the native Aleuts are still allowed to kill a very limited number of animals for food and clothing.

One of my most widely-publicized stories disclosed the mystery about the rubber rings found around the necks of many of the fur seals. After years of speculation about the origin of the rubber rings, the agency determined that they were the remnants of parachutes that the Japanese had dropped to supply their troops occupying the Aleutian Islands during World War II.

Aside from writing press releases, I had other assignments. One was to write a speech for the then Secretary of the Interior, Julius Krug, about the virtues of wildlife conservation. It was an awesome task for a young guy just out of college, dealing with a subject about which I knew nothing.

I was also assigned to deliver a speech. My audience was a rod and gun club in Elizabeth City, a town near the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Its members were infuriated by the sudden death of flocks of waterfowl that they had hoped to hunt. Many of the club members were conspiracy theorists. They were convinced that Washington bureaucrats were deliberately killing the birds to punish the local hunters.

I had never delivered a public speech before. My task was to explain that FWS scientists had discovered that the birds were dying because of an epidemic of fowl cholera. Serious efforts were under way, I assured the members, to combat the disease. I never found out whether my speech convinced the conspiracy theorists.

Still another interesting assignment was to write a booklet promoting the leasing of industrial facilities at the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge, near Herrin, Ill., to private manufacturers. During World War II, the plants had been built on the refuge for production of munitions.

When the war ended, the plants were closed. The result was a surge in local unemployment. The Interior Dept. decided to attract manufacturers to lease the idle industrial facilities to produce civilian products and to hire local jobless workers.

I never had a chance to learn whether my promotional effort succeeded. My career with the Fish & Wildlife Service abruptly ended in June 1949, one year after I had been hired.

Shortly after my pamphlet was published, I resigned to take a temporary summer job with a weekly labor union newspaper published in Washington. I had been informed that I was about to be "displaced" from my job with the Fish & Wildlife Service.

My replacement was a "disabled" veteran who had job preference over me. He had been in the Army for six months and had a medical discharge because of stomach ulcers. I had been in the Army three years, had served overseas for 26 months, but had not suffered a "disability" in the service. Such were the civil service rules.

The U.S. Civil Service Commission had not conducted a formal exam for the information specialist position since the start of World War II. Those subsequently hired for these jobs thus did not obtain formal tenure--or what was known as "permanent status."

The situation enabled military veterans with a formal "disability" to have employment preference over non-disabled veterans. Assuming that the applicant had the required professional qualifications, the disabled vet could simply submit a civil service application form and thus displace a worker who was not favored with job "preference."

I had no regrets about leaving the Fish & Wildlife Service because I was still eager for a career as a journalist in the mainstream media. But it was to take me three more years before I was able to realize my ambition.

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