Tuesday, February 26, 2008

MEMOIR: Ballistic missiles,Circassian concubines and Lt. Rabinowitz of the Turkish army

For a decade during the 1950s and early 1960s I was the military affairs correspondent in Washington for Business Week magazine and other McGraw-Hill publications. This was a period in which the Korean war was winding down and the Vietnam war was beginning. So I never covered a shooting war overseas.

But there was the Cold War with the Soviet Union, which periodically threatened to turn into a full-scale shooting war. To publicize the nation's military readiness, the Defense Dept. frequently conducted press junkets for Pentagon reporters to visit U.S. troops based abroad.

One of those trips took me to Turkey, where there was a U.S. air base at Eskisehir in the northwestern part of the country. There were also secret U.S. sites scattered elsewhere in Turkey, housing nuclear-tipped Jupiter intermediate-range ballistic missiles aimed at strategic Soviet targets.

In 1962, the Cuban missile crisis came close to producing a catastrophic exchange of nuclear missiles. War was averted by a diplomatic deal, never officially confirmed in detail, in which the Soviets agreed to remove their ballistic missiles from Cuba and the Kennedy Administration, newly installed in Washington, agreed to withdraw the Jupiter missiles from Turkey.

About a dozen Pentagon reporters were in my group visiting Turkey, where we spent more than a week inspecting military bases and interviewing both U.S. and Turkish defense officials. We did, however, have a few free days in Istanbul to play tourists.

We stayed at the magnificent Istanbul Hilton Hotel overlooking the Bosphorus. The Turkish government tourism agency assigned a guide to show us around the city. She was a gorgeous young woman, fluent in English, who inadvertently gave us an interesting bit of Turkish history.

I don' t remember how the subject came up, but she told us that she was a Circassian, one of Turkey's ethnic minorities. They are a Muslim people who originated in the Caucasus region. Most of them had fled over the centuries to Turkey to escape Russian invasions.

But at the same time, the Turks had made their own incursions into Circassian territory. The aim was to kidnap local girls for the royal Ottoman harems. Voltaire, Lord Byron and other European literary figures had written about the erotic charm of Circassian women, commenting on their legendary beauty, spirit and elegance, qualities that made them desirable as concubines.

Our guide, whose name I do not recall, possessed all those charming attributes. That's obviously why she shows up in many of the photos I took of the Haghia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Topkapi Palace, and other famed Istanbul landmarks.

She advised us about restaurants and night clubs to visit during our free evenings--on our own, of course, without her company. A friend of mine and I decided to dine at one of the establishments she recommended. The food was wonderful, but the restaurant's bizarre floor show was not conducive to a hearty appetite.

During our stay in Turkey, the country was having one of its periodic conflicts with neighboring Greece. The floor show featured a stand-up "comedian" whose routine produced raucous laughter from the audience. It consisted of improvisations on the theme of Turks "cutting off the balls of the Greeks and stuffing them in their mouths." We received an English translation from a man at an adjoining table who observed that we were failing to understand and to appreciate the "humor."

The restaurant was within walking distance of the Hilton. But when we left the restaurant, it was no longer light outside, and we were unfamiliar with the way back to the hotel. The streets were poorly lit, and we were unable to find a taxi. We began to look for an English-speaking person who might give us directions.

We finally found a young man who spoke excellent English. He volunteered to walk with us back to the hotel. It was only about a 10 minute walk, and along the way he told us that he had been a lieutenant in the Turkish army. He had been stationed in Korea as part of the Turkish/United Nations force allied with the U.S. army. He said that he had polished his English through his regular contact with the American troops.

When we reached out hotel, we invited him to join us for a drink and asked him his name. I was stunned when he said that his name was "Rabinowitz." That is my mother's maiden name and a very common Russian Jewish family surname.

I asked how the ex-lieutenant's family wound up in Turkey. He explained that his grandparents had left Odessa, a Russian Black Sea port, planning to go to the U.S. or another Western country to escape Russian persecution. As they sailed into the Bosphorus, his pregnant grandmother went into labor.

The family was allowed ashore, where she gave birth to a child. Instead of continuing their voyage, the family decided to remain in Turkey. In subsequent years, the family prospered in the textile machinery business, and they assimilated comfortably into the local society.

For centuries, Turkey has had a small community of Sephardic Jews, descendants of Jews expelled from Spain in the 15th Century, who had found a tolerant refuge in the Ottoman Turkish Empire. They still bear Spanish names and speak Ladino, a language with medieval Spanish roots. With a name like Rabinowitz, my new friend was obviously not Sephardic. Jews from Russia and other central and eastern European countries are known as Ashkenazim and speak Yiddish or German.

The differences between the two Jewish cultural groups seriously affected the ex-lieutenant's social life. He was a single man and was eager to marry a Jewish girl. To his sorrow, the local Sephardic community was exceedingly clannish and frowned on marriages with their fellow Jews, the Ashkenazim.

In his search for a Jewish mate, the ex-lieutenant flew almost every weekend to Tel Aviv, which is relatively close to Istanbul. Indeed, there was an El Al office across the street from the Hilton Hotel. My new friend was enjoying an active social life during his visits to Israel, he told us, but he had yet to meet the "right woman."

I assumed that our lovely Circassian tourist guide was unmarried, but it never entered my mind to try to fix him up with her.

Labels: , , , ,

Monday, February 18, 2008

Octogenarian's third anniversary

As I begin my fourth year producing this blog, the masthead statement, introducing myself as a man who has "recently turned 80," is out of date. But I do not intend to make a annual public ritual to update my advanced age.

I believe my blog is unique because it is a mishmash of autobiography and political opinion. This may have turned off some readers seeking some consistency in subject matter. But it has probably produced a wider range of visitors whom I might not have otherwise attracted.

I have always been curious about how visitors discover my blog's existence. When I began publishing it, my big fear was that the blog would be lost and unread in the vast and mysterious blogosphere. I am pleased that my blog has attracted much more traffic than I ever anticipated. Only recently, however, did I begin to appreciate that a primary source of viewers is Google and other Internet search engines into which the reader taps in an inquiry.

The search engines have referred an extraordinary variety of people to my blog. Many have responded with interesting and often provocative comments that make blogging such a fascinating endeavor.

Among these readers: a second cousin I do not know; a New York Times editor who is writing a history of the Grand Concourse in the Bronx; the children of a former Soviet air force colonel, now deceased, who had defected to the U.S. and become my friend; former professional colleagues; fans of Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable; the grandson of one of my college professors; World War II veterans who, like me, served in India; Indian residents familiar with places I knew in their country; a former Slovak partisan who had fought the Germans; admirers and critics of Rachel Carson, a pioneer in the environmental movement; onetime college classmates; an American living in Scotland; a retired English teacher in Paris; and a Dutch farmer who grows eggplants .

I have even received a comment in Polish, a language I do not know. Surprisingly, the writer bore my surname. So I am eager to have his message translated. I do not know of any relatives in Poland, my father's birthplace. The few I was aware of perished in the Holocaust.

A program called SiteMeter is installed on this blog. It measures the number of visits to the blog and identifies the general location of the visitors and the blog pages that they viewed. (Names and addresses are not shown.) Last year the monthly average was about 1,500 visits to the blog and more than 2,000 pages viewed.

Two years ago I posted a piece entitled "My Sex Life in the Army." I estimate that at least 20% of my blog's visitors still go to that page. Virtually all of them are from foreign countries. I assume that most of them seek an erotic charge from a pornographic account of army sex life.

I probably disappoint them because I treat the subject not as a sexual participant but as an observer, functioning in the dispassionate manner in which journalists are obliged to operate.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Republican nonsense about national security

The Republicans are repeating the nonsense that twice helped propel George W. Bush into the White House: that the Democrats are ill-suited to protect the nation militarily and are prepared "to surrender to terrorism." Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican candidate for the Presidency, is already playing the tune about the Democrats' "weakness on defense."

There is an extraordinary irony in the Republican effort to exploit the fear of terrorism by denigrating the Democrats' stance on military preparedness. During Bush's two terms in office, U.S. military capabilities have been so weakened that top-ranking military brass have warned that we may be incapable of responding effectively against any new military threat.

The reason, of course, is Iraq. The 2003 invasion was made despite the skepticism of many generals who did not regard Saddam Hussein's regime as an imminent threat to national security. They regarded the Iraq invasion as a serious distraction from the far more important war against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. As the skeptics feared, the prolonged Iraq war demands have strained U.S. military readiness.

Meantime, what had been a triumph in Afghanistan has escalated into such bitter warfare that the U.S. has found it necessary to call upon its NATO allies to send troops for support. The Taliban regime has regained its strength and much of its authority in the country, enabling Al-Qaeda to become a bigger terrorist threat.

I often wonder about the wisdom of our foreign-affairs policy-makers. The Taliban, which has provided a harbor for Al-Qaeda for so many years, is partially an American creation. It is an outgrowth of the Afghan forces which received substantial U.S. support in their battle against the Soviet Russian invaders. In our preoccupation with ending the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan, we failed to anticipate that the Taliban would become a radical Islamic regime allied with anti-American terrorists.

To counter the Republican nonsense about the alleged Democratic weakness on defense issues, the Democrats would very wise to select as a running mate for Sen. Hillary Clinton or Sen. Barack Obama a vice-presidential candidate who has impressive military credentials and who has been an outspoken Iraq war critic. Two obvious candidates: Gen. Wesley Clark, the former NATO commander, who has political aspirations, and Sen. James Webb, Virginia's Democratic senator who was once a Republican Secretary of the Navy and is a former Marine officer.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

ABOUT ME: A mini bio (continued)

(I have published many posts on this blog under the title "Memoirs," in which I related various experiences in my life. I will try to avoid repeating myself in this chronological series of autobiographical sketches. Like others of my vintage, I have a tendency to repeat myself. It is an unfortunate habit that goes with geriatric territory.)
During the late 1920s, when I was about three years old, my family moved from East Harlem in Manhattan to a five-story apartment house in the Bronx, where my parents continued to live for the next four decades. The building, which was at least 20 years old, was located on the corner of the Grand Concourse and Clarke Place, a block north of 169th Street.

The new apartment had two bedrooms, a living room/dining room, one bathroom, and a tiny kitchen. My maternal grandmother and my young, unmarried aunt shared one bedroom. I was an only child and slept in my parents' bedroom. After my aunt married, I moved into Grandma's bedroom. When I was about 10, I asked to move out of it so that I could enjoy "more privacy."

At that point, what had been a dining room was transformed into a living room containing a convertible couch, which served as my bed. Actually, it was Grandma who now had more privacy. But it had seemed improper to me that a growing boy should be sleeping in the same bedroom as his grandmother. I continued to use the window sill in my parents' bedroom as my "desk" where I did my homework.

Virtually all our neighbors in the building, which had about 90 apartments, lived in similarly crammed conditions. Many of the apartments had only a single bedroom, and some families had as many as four or more children of varying ages and genders.

I recall that there was one family in the building who were show business people. The father was a pianist in a dance band, a son and a daughter, both young adults, performed in night clubs, and the mother had been a chorus girl. Almost every day late in the afternoon, they would all go to work dressed in tuxedos and fancy evening gowns. The gossips in the apartment house--of which there were very many--always wondered where this family stored its extensive wardrobe in their one-bedroom apartment.

Our apartment's kitchen was so small that only two people could sit comfortably at the kitchen table. So we often ate in shifts. I rarely ate dinner with my father, largely because he usually came home late after work, assuming that he had a job. (He was unemployed during much of the Depression era or held temporary jobs.)

For the first few years, we had an "ice box" rather than a refrigerator in the kitchen. This meant that we had to depend on the regular delivery of ice. When we finally could afford to buy a refrigerator, it was so small that we installed a metal box outside the kitchen window in which my mother stored less perishable food.

In addition to a small table and a regular sink, our kitchen contained a tub in which my mother and grandmother did the laundry. They would dry the wet clothing by hanging it on a contraption that hung down from the ceiling. We often dined with wet laundry dripping down on our heads.

I entered kindergarten in P.S. 64, which I attended through the 8th grade. I skipped one semester in the 3rd grade because of what the school evidently considered academic excellence. As a result, I've always been handicapped because I never learned how to work with fractions. Actually, I was a very average student. Mathematics was always my weakest subject; my favorites were history and geography.

It took at least 15 minutes to walk to elementary school through very heavy traffic. For the first couple of years, my grandmother usually walked with me to school until I insisted on walking alone or with my friends. As an only child, I had the misfortune of being subjected to an abnormal level of protective cover.

We had to pass a Roman Catholic church located on the corner of Marcy Place and the Concourse on the way to school. A huge statue of Jesus or the Virgin Mary--I don't remember which one--stood in front of the church. I will always remember the look of fear on Grandma's face and her obvious discomfort as we passed the church. Often, she would quietly mutter "getchkeh" (the Yiddish word for "idol") as she glared at the statue.

Even after three blissful decades in this country, for my grandmother, the church symbolized the pogroms and repression, usually instigated by the church, that she and her ancestors had suffered in Belarus, where they had lived for centuries.

(To be continued)

Blog Flux Suggest - Find and Search Blogs
Web Traffic Statistics
Nokia.com Coupon