Monday, May 29, 2006

MEMOIR: What was I doing in Lucille Ball's hotel room?

Maybe I'm just an old grouch, but I think that one of the most distressing characteristics of contemporary American life is the public's obsessive interest in the personal lives of show-business personalities. This infatuation with celebrities has radiated out from the tabloids and the low-brow magazines displayed at supermarket checkout counters and has penetrated the mainstream media. As I see it, the celebrity obsession and the adoration of show-business stars is another demonstration of the dumbing-down of American culture.

Having gotten this off my chest, I can now confess how excited I was, as a 17-year old just out of high school, to be in the presence of movie star Lucille Ball during the spring of 1942. To be more precise, I was in her Manhattan hotel room, amiably chatting with her about her latest movie, "Seven Days Leave," which also starred Victor Mature.

I must stress, however, that I was not there as an adoring fan. I was just doing my job as an office boy in the publicity department of RKO-Radio Pictures, which had just released the film. I was in her hotel room to deliver a bottle of whisky. She was in New York to publicize the new movie.

Lucille Ball was then 31 and a glamorous red-headed beauty. She had been in the movies for nearly a decade, featured essentially as a conventional Hollywood sexpot. She did not gain fame as a comedienne until much later after the introduction of television.

I had been employed by RKO only a couple of months earlier. Before that job, I had worked since my high school graduation in January as a salesman for Goldsmith Brothers, then the nation's largest office supplies business. I had started with that company during the previous summer as a delivery boy.

When the summer ended, I returned to high school. My school was so big that two separate sessions were required to accommodate the 12,000-boy student body. As a senior, I was placed in the morning session. This enabled me to continue working for Goldsmith's as a shipping clerk. My work schedule was from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily and all day Saturday. When I graduated from high school I was promoted to a job as salesman. My speciality was loose-leaf binders.

Meantime, I had enrolled as a night-school student at New York University, majoring in journalism. It soon became apparent that peddling loose-leaf binders and other office supplies was doing nothing to advance my goal to become a journalist. I wanted to work in an environment in which there were professional writers around.

So I abandoned the commercial stationery business and got the job as office boy in RKO's publicity department. The encounter with Lucille Ball in her hotel room was the highlight of my very brief career with the movie company. But I eventually decided that my personal exposure to writers who were merely press agents did not contribute to the creation of journalistic credentials any more than peddling office supplies.

I figured that I needed to associate with more serious writers than mere flacks. I learned that there were jobs available in the Overseas Branch of the Office of War Information which had recently been established in Manhattan. With my most recent work experience as an office boy, I was well qualified for the more impressive title of "under-clerk," which turned out to be civil service jargon for office boy. The annual salary was $1,260, the lowest Federal Government pay scale.

That was considerably more than I had ever earned before. But the big attraction was that, even as a lowly office boy, I was now working in the intimate company of genuine professional writers, many of them very prestigious people. The most famous was Robert Sherwood, the eminent Broadway playwright and former speech-writer for President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Sherwood was chief of the OWI's Overseas Branch, and I became his personal office boy. I sharpened his pencils, pulled the news dispatches off the Associated Press ticker for him, got his morning coffee, and performed assorted office chores.

The office operated the U.S. wartime propaganda program, beaming radio broadcasts to German and Japanese occupied territories abroad. It was an exciting place to work. I never met any glamorous movie stars like Lucille Ball there, but I was satisfied that the atmosphere was contributing to my future career as a journalist.

I had to resign in March 1943 to prepare for my induction into the Army the next month. Sherwood, who was rarely seen without a pipe in his mouth, gave me a pipe as a going-away gift. This was not exactly essential equipment for a new Army recruit, and I had never smoked before. Nevertheless, I figured that a pipe would enhance my professional image when and if I ever became a full-fledged journalist.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

MEMOIR: How I met my wife Sybil

After I graduated from college in June 1948 I moved to Washington, D.C. to work. I was 23, unmarried, and eager to make up for what had been a cramped social life because of wartime and the need to work full time while in school. I had graduated from an all-boys high school at 17, working on a full-time job during my last semester. Over the next year, I worked while attending college at night. Then came three years in the army, isolating me from a normal social environment. After my military discharge, I crammed 3-1/2 years of academic study into only two calendar years.

This hectic lifestyle was a serious constraint for a young guy eager to date girls. One of the few I ever had time to date with any regularity was a classmate who worked with me on the college paper. Our dates were usually spent on Sunday afternoons putting out the paper at the print shop.

Washington, heavily populated by young single women, was paradise for a guy who had been socially deprived for so long. Until I met my wife, I did my best to make up for lost time on the dating scene. In the process, there were some strange episodes.

I met a girl from Alabama at a party, took her home, and made a date for the following weekend. Greeting me when I picked her up, I was stunned when she said to me: "I didn't know your mother was born in Russia!" But then I hadn't known that she was an FBI clerk. She had checked me out in the bureau's files and probably feared that I was a security risk who might jeopardize her career. I never saw her again.

Washington's then-current anti-Communist hysteria figured in my relationship with another young woman. She was a lovely girl from an upscale New York suburb. As a mere plebeian from the Bronx, I was much impressed by her privileged, WASP-establishment credentials. After a couple of dates, she casually informed me that she was also "seeing" Senator Joe McCarthy, who was then a bachelor. I quickly crossed her out of my little black book.

My plebeian background was also a factor in my relationship with an attactive girl I met at a party in suburban Maryland. She had been driven to the party by a friend. I volunteered to drive her home. She lived on a side street off Washington's Wisconsin Ave. It was foggy out and the street was poorly lit. As we drove down the street I saw a large, multi-story building in front of us which I assumed was an apartment house.

When we approached it, I asked the girl what floor she lived on. She looked at me as if I was joking. The building turned out to be her family's palatial, single-family home. As a boy raised in a Bronx working-class neighborhood where everyone lived in tenements, I had never known anyone who lived in a house.

After nearly four years of dating a wide variety of Washington's young ladies, and failing to meet the "right girl," Sybil, a native of Boston, appeared in my life just before Thanksgiving Day in 1952. I never dated another girl again.

My friends and I used to exchange girls' phone numbers the way we exchanged baseball cards as kids. Sybil was the product of such an exchange. Several of my friends shared a large house. Sybil had been invited to dinner there by one of the residents, all of whom had been charmed by her. But she apparently declined invitations to date any of them, and her phone number was passed on to me, along with the information that she was a Phi Beta Kappa. I had never known a girl with such imposing intellectual credentials. I eagerly called her for a date.

"Three guys recommended you," I told her when I phoned. (In telling the story of how we met, Sybil now insists that I cited "six guys.) She had apparently never encountered that line from a guy before. We conversed amiably for several minutes, and she agreed to go out with me on a blind date. Sybil lived in a rooming house with about a dozen other young women. When I came to pick her up, her room mate first came down the stairs to scout me. I evidently passed the physical examination, for Sybil appeared shortly after.

I don't recall details of our first date, but Sybil claims I took her to a free documentary film showing. I do, however, vividly remember our second date. We went to a National Symphony Orchestra concert. The program featured my favorite piece of classical music, Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony. We held hands, and I was so emotionally turned on by the music, that I began to perspire. I think Sybil assumed the sweating was produced by romantic fervor.

Genuine romantic passion, however, did develop rapidly, and we have always considered Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony as "our song." In addition to her academic credentials, Sybil was very pretty and had a delightful sense of humor. I thought she looked like Claudette Colbert, a popular movie star of that era. Sybil was also a bit of a clown, and would break me up imitating Charley Chaplin's walk. We married seven months after our blind date.

Her family background was similar to mine on both the religious/ethnic and socio-economic scales. Her father was a postal clerk and her mother a clerk for the U.S. Immigration & Naturalization Service. Her father served in the Army during World War I and was wounded and gassed in France. She was able to attend an elite private college, Colby College in Maine, largely because of a scholarship for the children of wounded war veterans.

When we met in Washington, Sybil was employed as a service representative for the local telephone company. She became a high school Latin and English teacher after we later settled in New Jersey.

Her father was born and raised in Ireland, the son of Jewish immigrants from Latvia. I will always remember when he met my maternal grandmother, who spoke no English. My new father-in-law proceeded to talk to Grandma in fluent Yiddish but with an Irish brogue that obviously floored her.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

The Soviet colonel and me

Shortly after the end of World War II, a Soviet Russian air force colonel named Leon Volkov defected to the U.S. Although he was an engineering officer and not a regular pilot, he took off secretly from an air base in the Soviet zone in occupied Germany and flew to a base in the American zone. He surrended and asked for political asylum.

The CIA quickly took Volkov under its wing, and he became an important intelligence source. He subsequently settled in the U.S. and briefly became a celebrity, largely because of a lengthy article about him in the now-defunct Saturday Evening Post, which was then a widely popular magazine.

Volkov was also enthusiastically embraced by the Tolstoy Foundation, an influential organization of anti-Communist Russian emigres. Through the organization, he met his wife, Galina Talva, an American-born ballet dancer and daughter of a Russian emigre. When they married, she was performing as the ingenue lead in Irving Berlin's "Call Me Madam," a Broadway musical comedy that opened in 1950.

After his association with the CIA ended, Volkov was hired as a writer by Newsweek. He became the magazine's resident expert on Soviet affairs stationed in Washington. I became acquainted with him in the mid-1950s when we were both in a group of journalists invited by the Defense Dept. to visit U.S. military installations in Europe.

Volkov was a short, stocky man with a stern manner and typical Slavic features.With his heavy Russian accent and a fondness for vodka, he seemed like someone out of Hollywood casting for a Russian military officer. As I got to know him better during the trip, it became apparent to me that Volkov's "stern manner" was a facade concealing a delightful sense of humor that increasingly displayed, at least to me, a peculiarly Jewish quality.

Arguing one evening with another reporter in our group, I overheard him say: "With friends like you, who needs enemies?" The remark is now in common usage. But when Volkov said it so many years ago, with an almost Yiddish intonation, I had never heard anyone say it before. I became convinced that Volkov was Jewish. I began to speculate that his defection from the Soviet Union was probably provoked by an anti-Semitic experience.

One morning at breakfast, I decided to greet him in Yiddish. "Vos macht a Yid?" I said to him. Roughly translated, this is how one Jewish man might ask another how he feels. Volkov looked suspiciously at me for a moment, then responded in Yiddish at great length and with greater fluency in the language than mine.

Learning that my mother was also a Russian-born Jew, he began to feel more comfortable talking to me about his Jewish background, and we became close friends. He was born in 1914 to a Yiddish-speaking family in a small Ukrainian shtetl. Under the official Soviet ban on organized religion, Volkov's family no longer observed Jewish traditional practices, and he never had a religious education.

Volkov had an older brother who was a government official in Moscow. When Volkov was a boy, his brother took him away from the family's Jewish ghetto village and enrolled him in an elite Moscow school. Volkov was eventually admitted to a military academy. During World War II, he advanced to the rank of colonel. By now, he had dropped his original Jewish family name and assumed his brother's Russianized surname of Volkov.

During our tour of U.S. military bases in Europe, we spent a day close to the West German-Czechoslovak border. We were invited to fly in an Army helicopter to get a close view of territory in which the cold war could possibly become a shooting war. Volkov declined the invitation, fearing that the helicopter might accidentally be forced to land--as some had done in the past--in Communist territory.

When we returned to Washington, Volkov and I kept in touch socially. I recall his excitement when Israel invaded Egypt in 1956 in retaliation for terrorist incursions across their border. He began to display an emotional interest not only about Israel but in general Jewish matters.

Our European tour of U.S. military bases had brought us to Turkey for a couple of days. I recalled that Volkov had noticed an El Al Airlines office across the street from our hotel. Our group was scheduled to go on to Italy from Turkey. Volkov had asked me to join him in breaking away from the group for a few days to visit Israel, where he had never been before.

I decided it was unwise for us to leave our group, and Volkov reluctantly agreed. Several years later, he told me that intelligence officers at the Israeli Embassy in Washington had become a primary source for him about events in the Soviet Union.

Volkov confided to me his disappointment that his two sons had not been circumcised and had been baptised in his wife's Russian Orthodox faith. He began questioning me about important Jewish holidays as they came up, complaining about his ignorance of the Jewish religion. He began studying about Judaism on his own and finally asked me to recommend a synagogue to attend.

My wife and I moved from the Washington area in 1965. I never saw Volkov again, but we did keep in touch briefly. I was shocked only a few years later to learn that his wife had died. And in 1974, I read his own obituary in the New York Times. He died at the age of 60.

There is a "Register of the Leon Volkov Papers, 1948-1974" in the Hoover Institution Archives at Stanford University. They are formally described as "diaries, correspondence, speeches and writings, reports, clippings, press excerpts...relating to social and political conditions in the Soviet Union, Soviet foreign policy, international politics, and Russian refugee life."

A study of these documents would perhaps reveal how a former Soviet air force colonel, who probably tried to conceal his Jewish origins while living in an atheist, anti-Semitic society, was inspired to search for his Jewish roots when he found a sanctuary in America.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

How to fix Social Security and Medicare

For many years, during both Republican and Democratic administrations, the Federal government has regularly tapped the Social Security trust fund to pay for government operations far removed from the purpose for which the fund was created.

Now the official word is out again about a crisis in both Social Security and Medicare. The trustees for the Federal retirement and health programs are now projecting that Social Security will be unable to fully pay benefits starting in 2040. That's a year earlier than the projection made in 2005. Payroll taxes would cover only 74% of anticipated costs at that time, according to new estimates.

Benefits from Medicare's hospital insurance trust fund will be unable to be fully paid by 2018, two years earlier than previously predicted. In that year, taxes are expected to cover only 80% of projected costs.

And so the Social Security/Medicare mavens are returning to the drawing board to come up with "reforms" that Congress might buy. The first proposals that will come to mind, of course, are increased payroll taxes, reduced benefits, and an older eligibility age.

Perhaps I suffer from geriatric naivete, but how about reversing the trust-tapping routine? Why not start tapping the Federal budget directly for retirement and health entitlements uncovered by the trust funds?

It makes you want to cry when you examine how Federal expenditures are abused. Imagine how the wasted money could have been allocated for social benefits. Unfortunately, the quaint Reaganesque philosophy that "the government is the problem and not the solution," to which the Bush Administration adheres, deters serious consideration of such progressive measures.

From the billion-dollar boondoggles like the ballistic missile defense program to the Taj Mahal-like U.S. embassy being built in Baghdad's "protected" zone, and from the Congressional pork-barrel budget "earmarks" to corporate and agricultural subsidies, enough cash has been squandered in recent years to finance Social Security and Medicare far beyond the latest target years.

That's all in the past, of course. However, considering Washington's traditional mindset, regardless of the political party in command, it's hard to believe that this kind of financial squandering will be easily halted. Our only hope is the appearance of a dramatically different kind of leader in the White House and a more responsible and responsive Congress to shake things up. Unfortunately, a potential political savior is not in sight. But I haven't given up hope.

Monday, May 01, 2006

My broken memory bank

Memory plays strange tricks, especially when you're as old as I am. I go to a movie and can't remember the plot the next day. But I can remember the makeup of the Detroit Tigers' 1934 infield. In case you're interested, Hank Greenberg was on first base, Charley Gehringer was on second, Marv Owen was on third base, and Billy Rogell was the shortstop. I can even go further and name Mickey Cochrane, the catcher, and the team's star pitchers, Elden Auker, Tommy Bridges and Schoolboy Rowe. I admit, however, that I am uncertain about who played the outfield.

I have trouble remembering the name of my neighbor across the street. But I remember that 62 years ago my first sergeant in the 903rd Signal Co. was named Rabitin and that he came from Barberton, Ohio. I'm introduced to some one at a party and almost immediately forget his or her name. I can, however, recall that my first-grade teacher was Miss Bayer and my third-grade teacher was Miss Nachenson.

I do a series of exercises each morning prescribed by physical therapists. I devote a couple of minutes to individual exercises aimed specifically for my shoulders, back, neck, knees, and legs. I start off with the shoulder exercise and by the time I get to my legs, I often forget whether I have already worked out on my shoulders. But I do recall that my Hebrew school teacher, who prepared me for my bar-mitzvah, was an unemployed accountant named Mr. Halpern.

I spend the year meticulously recording my medical expenses, contributions and other tax-deductible items so that I can do my income-tax return. I then forget where I filed the records. Nevertheless, I can vividly recall an incident involving my Aunt Lilly when I was five years old. She was then young, unmarried and living with my parents. One evening she came home from work, sobbing hysterically and pointing to the huge red headline in the now-defunct New York Journal-American. The headline reported the historic stock market crash. My unhappy aunt had invested her limited savings and had evidently lost all her money.

We have a dinner date in the evening, and my wife informs me in the morning the time of our restaurant reservation. By late afternoon, I've probably asked her a couple of times what time we have to leave. I do remember as a child, however, being in a car driven by my Uncle Bill and listening to my Aunt Esther, his wife, bawling him out for trying to light his pipe while driving the car.

I can be talking to an old friend, when suddenly I can't remember his name during the conversation. But I remember the middle initial of an old Army buddy, Owen L. Crenshaw, who I haven't seen or had contact with since the end of World War II.

I often can't remember what my wife and I had for dinner the night before. Yet I can recall that another Army buddy, Wally Swanson, who was as Swedish-looking as his Scandinavian name, once told me that his mother was Italian.

I set out to drive to my bank, and it dawns on me while I'm already on the road that I'm not sure I'm going the right way. Nevertheless, I can remember our apartment-house neighbors who were in show-business when I was a child. The family lived in a one-bedroom apartment, and I still wonder where the husband and their adult son, both nightclub musicians, and their adult daughter, a dancer, could have stored all the fancy clothes they wore when they went to work early each evening.

When walking into my bedroom during the day to find something, I frequently forget what I am looking for. Still, I remember that, when I was a boy, our next-door neighbor, a Mrs. Tuchman, had a nephew named Alfred Swidler, with whom I occasionally walked to school.

If I could only repair my memory bank by shifting some of my long-term capabilities to the short-term region, life would be much easier and less embarrassing.

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