Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Still another sad note to my 61-year old Army photo

On April 14 I posted a piece here entitled "Reflections on a 61-year old photo." The photograph, taken in 1944, showed me and eight other members of the 903rd Signal Co. lined up at a U.S. Army air base in Panagarh, India. I identified each man, revealing personal details that I still could surprisingly recall about them. A reader of this blog, living in Oregon, spotted the reference to Panagarh and e-mailed a message to me. He had been a pilot stationed there, and we began a stimulating correspondence via the Internet.
Gordon Tombleson, one of the GIs in the photo, was an Oregonian with whom I had become a close friend. I was curious to know what had become of him. I asked my new geriatric "pen pal" living in Oregon whether he could find anyone named Tombleson in local phone directories. He located nine people. One of them was Gordon's brother. I called him and learned, to my horror, that Gordon, the happy-go-lucky Army buddy who I knew as a 19-year old, did not find much happiness in later years. He became an alcoholic and committed suicide by shooting himself many years ago.
Another GI in the old photo is Nick Palazzo. In an extraordinary coincidence, after not having seen him in many decades, he moved into my New Jersey community about three years ago and became my neighbor. The community, which is restricted to senior citizens and has more than 3,000 residents, boasts an in-house TV network that produces its own programs. I appear on it occasionally, reading material that I have written. The TV producers thought that my blog posting, "Reflections on a 61-year old photo," would be an interesting piece to telecast.
When I learned when the program was scheduled to be on the air, I quickly phoned Nick to tell him. A woman, who obviously was not Nick's wife or his daughter, answered. She had a Hispanic accent and was apparently a nursing aide for Mrs. Palazzo, who is an invalid. "I'd like to speak to Nick," I said, eager to inform him about his upcoming appearance on our TV program. I was stunned by the woman's response. "He passed away two weeks ago," she said casually. Seeking details about his death, I asked to speak to his wife. She was too weak to say very much except that he had died in their Florida condo.
And so it goes in "Octogenarian" territory.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Bush's senseless Iraq war (continued)

Aside from the celebrated issues of "guns, God and gays," George W. Bush was reelected because voters regarded him as being stronger on defense issues and more aggressive in fighting terrorism than John Kerry, who was allegedly "soft" on such matters. The dreadful irony is that, because of the Iraq invasion, U.S. military capabilities are now weaker than they were a decade ago, while the fight against Islamist terrorism has spread to new territory.
American armed forces are now deployed so widely that our military strength has been sapped and the top brass have warned about their ability to cope with new national security crises. And while Bush and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld have serenely boasted until now about "progress" in fighting the Iraqi insurgents, the generals reveal that there are insufficient U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq to fight what has become a serious guerrilla war. Belatedly Rumsfeld now concedes that "the insurgency could deepen and last as long as 12 years."
Meantime, largely because of the shift of military resources to Iraq from Afghanistan, the Taliban Muslim fundamentalists, who had been soundly defeated, are making a comeback. But the most serious result of the Iraq invasion is that Iraq itself has become a dangerous breeding ground for terrorists recruited from other Islamic countries.
And all this is happening because of an unnecessary invasion of Iraq. There was no link between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. There was no imminent threat to the U.S. from weapons of mass destruction in Saddam's hands. And as evil as Saddam's regime was, it was not a terrorist training ground as were Afghanistan and our so-called "ally" Saudi Arabia.
Seeking a new justification for his decision to invade Iraq, Bush now stresses his goal to introduce democracy to that chaotic country. But the more likely outlook is the emergence of a pro-Iranian Shiite theocracy and a subsequent civil war with the Kurds and Sunni Arabs.
While the fighting in Iraq intensifies, the nation's professional, all-volunteer armed forces are suffering a severe decline in recruiting and reenlistments. If indeed the U.S. intends to "stay the course" in Iraq, as Bush has blithely stated, the introduction of a military draft would be required.
Having vented my spleen over Bush's senseless war, I cannot claim to have any ideas of how the U.S. can now gracefully withdraw from the mess that we have created in Iraq. Nor can I conceive of any scheme to counter the worldwide, anti-American hostility that the Iraq invasion has created. I can only hope that we have a Democratic Congress in place before Mr. Bush's term expires so that he could be impeached for getting us into a quagmire that increasingly resembles the Vietnam war.

Friday, June 17, 2005

MEMOIR: My father's bizarre street-corner debates

The current revival of old-style Jew-bashing in Europe--often camouflaged as criticism of Israel--has revived for me an unusual memory as a boy growing up in the Bronx during the 1930s. It involves my father and the strange street-corner debates in which he and his friends would engage during the evenings after dinner with their families.
My father and virtually all his friends were immigrants from various regions of the former Czarist Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires--most of them now independent countries. As Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany moved into the neighborhood, some joined my father's social circle.
I cannot recall the existence of any bars or saloons--common evening social gathering places for adult men elsewhere--in our neighborhood. Instead, we had the southwest corner of 170th Street and the Grand Concourse playing that role, at least in good weather.
The rise of Nazi Germany and the much publicized anti-Semitic tirades of Father Charles Coughlin, a Detroit-based priest, and other domestic Jew-haters provoked the strange arguments that now dominated the evening social gatherings of my father and his friends.
The increase in Jew-bashing in the U.S. and abroad reminded them of anti-Semitic experiences in their native lands.
That induced them to argue over whose native country had been the most hostile to Jews. Their arguments took on a peculiarly boastful tone, as if there were some kind of honor attached to those who had suffered the most as Jews.
My father, who was born near Warsaw, argued that no country treated Jews as badly as Poland. Not so, claimed a man from Bessarabia (now Moldava), pointing to the notorious Kishinev pogrom some 35 years earlier. Nonsense, argued another man, Ukraine was even worse for Jews than Poland and Bessarabia. "You think you had it bad," countered still another participant in this bizarre debate, "you should have lived in Lithuania!"
And so it went. Natives of Latvia, Hungary, Rumania, and Slovakia put in their horrid claims. If my mother, who was born in the province of Minsk (now in Belarus), had been there, she would have contributed Russia to the debate.
Listening to the competing claims, one of the handful of Sephardic men in the group submitted his own tragic tale. A native of Salonica, he said that the Jews had been tolerated by the ruling Ottoman Turks, but that life had become horrendous when the Greeks drove the Turks out and gained their independence. Interestingly, there were no reports of anti-Semitic experiences in the Scandinavian countries. But then, of course, Jews had not even been allowed to live in those lands until the mid-1800s.
If I had no school homework, my father occasionally allowed me to go out with him after dinner. To me the debates my father and his friends conducted were somewhat freakish. Their arguments sounded almost like a contest in suffering.
They were a powerful commentary on the plight of European Jews, however, and a dramatic display of the factors that had lured these Jewish men and their families to America's hospitable shores. Their new homeland provided a life allowing them and their descendents a tranquil existence and opportunities that were unknown to them in their native lands.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

When Alan Greenspan and I studied economics together

I first took notice of Alan Greenspan, the longtime chairman of the Federal Reserve System, in the fall of 1946. We were both undergraduate students at New York University's School of Commerce, Accounts & Finance. (The school is now known simply as the Stern School of Business, thanks to the beneficence of Leonard N. Stern, a billionaire alumnus who made his fortune in the Hertz pet supply and real estate businesses.)
Greenspan and I were both enrolled in the same economics class taught by Dr. Jules Backman, who was then a nationally renowned economist. When Backman was not in the classroom, he was a consultant to major corporations and trade associations and was often testifying on their behalf before Congressional committees in Washington. Among his clients were the Association of American Railroads and the Iron & Steel Institute.
The major economic issue of the day was whether to retain or remove price controls. The controls had been clamped on all businesses during World War II, largely to prevent war profiteering. Although the war had ended two years earlier, the Truman Administration had retained them as a means of smoothing the nation's transition to a peacetime economy. Backman argued that price controls were hampering postwar economic growth and should be removed immediately.
Backman was a very talented lecturer. I remember him as the only college economics professor who could animate what was to me a dreary academic discipline. He enjoyed provoking student debate in his classroom, and a favorite issue was price controls. Most of the students in the class were World War II veterans. We favored the retention of price controls. Having been absent from the work force, we worried that we would be unable to afford what would inevitably be spiraling prices for most goods and services.
Virtually all the other students in the class had been too young to be drafted for military service and had enrolled in college after high school graduation. Greenspan was one of the non-veterans in Backman's class. But before entering NYU as an economics major, he had spent more than a year studying at the Juilliard School of Music and touring with one of the popular big dance bands as a clarinet and saxophone player.
In the classroom debate over price controls, Greenspan was the only student who spoke up to support the professor's argument that controls be dropped. I can still recall that he made his argument with exceptional passion. To me the economics course was simply an academic requirement. But it was already obvious that economics had replaced music as Greenspan's primary passion. Within a few years after we both had graduated in the class of June 1948, he had established himself as a prominent economic consultant on Wall Street. He later became chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers during Richard Nixon's second term and in 1987 was named head of the Federal Reserve.
I never developed a passion for economics, and perhaps that's why I never saw Alan Greenspan again.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

My blog uncovers a tragic tale

Last month I posted a piece entitled "Reflections on a 61-year old photo" on this blog. It featured a picture of nine young GIs, myself included, happily posing in front of a volley ball net, some of us merrily holding beer bottles in our hands. The photograph was taken in the early spring of 1944 at a U.S. air base near the village of Panagarh in eastern India. We were far removed from a battle zone, and maybe that's why we all looked happy.
An 82-year old man now living in a small town in Oregon, who enjoys surfing the Internet, spotted my reference to Panagarh. He had been an Air Force pilot stationed there and had probably not seen or heard the name Panagarh in decades. He e-mailed me a message recounting his own military experiences in India and China, and we have since had a fascinating exchange of e-mails about religion, politics, medicine, family and other personal matters. In short, we have become geriatric pen pals.
In recent months I have sent copies of the photo, which I had just discovered in my files, to two of the nine men pictured in it whose addresses I have. (By an extraordinary coincidence, one of them, Nick Palazzo, moved into my community several years ago and is now my neighbor.)
One of the GIs in the old photo is named Gordon Tombleson, who I remember fondly as a warm-hearted, happy-go-lucky guy who was one of the most popular men in our outfit. I also recalled that he came from Oregon. Having just become acquainted with a man living in Oregon, I asked him whether there was a statewide telephone directory and if he could check for Gordon's name.
He was kind enough to cooperate with my search. He quickly wrote that he found eight people named Tombleson in a 1994 set of CDs called PhoneDisc USA. (I was unaware that there is such a directory.) He phoned four of the parties listed, asking whether there was anyone named Gordon in their families. None had ever heard of him. My new pen pal was unable to reach the four other Tomblesons. Probably weary of the effort, he passed on their names and phone numbers to me.
The first one to respond to my call was a Clayton E. Tombleson in the town of Rainier. Mr. Tombleson turned out to be Gordon's brother. Gordon, he said, had been a lumberjack and was killed in a work accident many years ago. We conversed for several minutes about Gordon, and I recalled how the two of us, both 19 when we met in the Army in India, had become very close friends. As we spoke I detected a sad change in Mr. Tombleson's tone of voice. He was apparently becoming more comfortable talking to me, a stranger poking into an intimate family matter. No, he said, Gordon had not been killed in a work accident. The truth was that he had been an alcoholic for many years and had committed suicide by shooting himself.
The "happy-go-lucky" Army buddy I knew in 1944 and 1945 had not found much happiness in his later years.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

MEMOIR: Grandma called me "Mutton"

My maternal grandmother, with whom I lived as a boy, traveled halfway around the world from the province of Minsk in what is now Belarus to the U.S. in 1903, settling first in East Harlem and then the Bronx. Until her death nearly 60 years later, she never ventured outside the two boroughs except for periodic trips to Brooklyn to visit the cemetery in which her husband and a young daughter are buried.

The exact year of her birth was unknown to her family. There was always an odd reluctance for the older members of my family to disclose their age to the younger generation. I do not know whether this was a matter of superstition or a form of family etiquette. Even if Grandma had been willing to reveal her birthdate, however, the fact would have been obscured by a recording phenomenon that has always tended to jumble chronology.

To my grandmother, family events were invariably linked to history. They occurred, for example, on "the second night of Passover the year in which Czar Alexander II was assassinated" or on "Yom Kippur eve the year in which the [Russian] war with Turkey began." Such disclosures required difficult translations from both the Russian Gregorian and the Hebrew lunar calendars, but these invariably failed to produce satisfactory historical fact.

Grandma was a short, sturdily built woman with fair features and only a smattering of gray in her brown hair. A stranger might have imagined that the hair was dyed. Grandma, of course, was not even aware that there were establishments known as beauty parlors. Her wide face, high cheekbones, blue eyes, upturned nose, and the babushka that frequently covered her head gave her a distinctly Slavic cast.

It was obvious that sometime in the past there had been an unwelcome Slavic genetic incursion into Grandma's bloodlines. The raping of Jewish girls by Cossack soldiers garrisoned near the ghetto villages of western Russia was not uncommon.

But when I once foolishly raised the possibility that one of her female ancestors had suffered such a dreadful fate, Grandma reacted angrily and slapped my face. She was devoutly religious and took her Jewishness very seriously. The thought that anything but the pure blood lines of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob flowed through her veins was unthinkable.

I shared a bedroom with Grandma until I was about 12. She tolerated the pictures of my athletic heroes on the wall. In return, I obediently recited my morning and evening prayers with her every day. Grandma never learned to speak English. I stopped speaking to her in Yiddish only after it became apparent that she at least understood English.

My mother worked during much of my childhood. So Grandma was frequently entrusted with my care. When I was not in school, I was invariably outside playing stickball, touch football and the other street games that New York kids played during the Depression years. Our kitchen window faced the street on which we played, enabling Grandma to monitor my activities, calling out to me when she saw that vehicular traffic was too heavy or announcing that it was time to eat.

I was named after her beloved father, Moshe Aharon Tsivin. In bestowing English names on me at birth, my parents transformed Moshe Aharon into Morton Arthur. Grandma took no notice of my English name and called me "Moishareleh," combining my two Hebrew names and using the more affectionate diminutive form. And that's what she would bellow out the window when she wanted my attention. I was always embarrassed to hear her Yiddish-accented voice calling me, particularly when my friends would mimic her.

I tried to discourage her from using my Jewish name. But she was reluctant to use the few words of English that she knew. Finally, however, she decided to please me by using my English name to communicate. Unhappily, the best she could do handling the name Morton was to come up with "Mutton."

To my friends, "Mutton" was even more hilarious than "Moishareleh," and the taunting became more troubling. In desperation I urged Grandma to return to her former usage. The Jewish name was now more tolerable than "Mutton."

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