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.


Blogger Sylvia K said...

So happy to see your post this evening! And it is wonderful, as all of yours are! I enjoyed reading more about your "previous life". Hope you are well. Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 27, 2008 9:05:00 PM  
Blogger Kay Dennison said...

How interesting your return was! The G.I. Bill was a godsend to so many of you!

I wish my Dad had taken advantage of it but then I wouldn't be here.

I can't wait to her your adventures in Washington.

Saturday, December 27, 2008 11:29:00 PM  
Blogger Darlene said...

It's really fun reading your posts about the time when we were both young. It brings back my own memories of that period that I thought long forgotten.

Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

Monday, December 29, 2008 9:30:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm going to send this post to my dad who 1) was born in 1925 2)joined the military when he was just turning 18 3) grew up near Yankee Stadium 4) served in Europe and was able to act as an interpreter b/c of his Yiddish. 5) from what I can gather had a pretty good romantic life both in Europe and the Bronx! 6) got his high school diploma upon his return, but never made it to college.
I also look forward to hearing more about your adventures in DC.

Monday, December 29, 2008 9:11:00 PM  
Anonymous medical alert said...

nice story

Thursday, August 13, 2009 9:59:00 PM  

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