Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Lovers


The weather in North Carolina at this time of year is unpredictable, at best. It can be 29 degrees in the morning, with frost covering the lawns, and by noon it’s 60, and spring like. Often, by 5 PM, it can get as high as 80! With these fluctuations come unpredictable things, such as sudden late afternoon rainstorms. Just like the one we had the other day. And after the rain has ended there is usually a chill in the air.

That’s how I believe she got there, racing ahead of the storm and looking for a safe place for herself and her lover.

Then she spied it- the flapping doorway to warmth and shelter. It was on the side of a house, located in an ordinary sub-division, in an ordinary town. She made a bee line for it, just as the first peals of thunder were making themselves known, with the wind beginning to gust, almost in verification of her fears.

He followed her inside the flapping doorway, a bit afraid to go too far, but also afraid of letting her go in alone. And then again, there was the storm to consider. Best to get inside and stay warm and dry.

He lost sight of her almost immediately, as she charged in ahead of him and into the darkness, further than he would have dared. He stopped following, waiting to hear her call to him, but no sound came. He waited until sunup the following day, when he could see a bit more inside.

His heart was racing as he trod the path she had taken only hours before. Where could she have gone? Surely she would not have left him. They had been together for quite a while, and the thought of her sudden disappearance was unthinkable to him. Still, he ventured further inside the darkness which belied the full daylight he was leaving behind.

That’s when he found her, lying on her side, at the bottom of the shaft, cold and dead to the touch. Still, he called to her, as if his song could awaken her from this slumber.

And that’s when I first heard the commotion, dismissing it as some slight annoyance, which, given time, would go away. But the mysterious sounds continued , until, no longer able to concentrate, I was obliged to go and investigate the matter.

The sounds were coming from the area of the laundry room, within the walls it seemed, at first. But soon I realized that the commotion was coming from inside of the dryer vent tube, that long cylindrical coil that lets the heat escape from the appliance. I had to take the door off of its hinges and move the dryer out to get to it.

Using a screwdriver to loosen the coil, I had Sue standing by with a pillowcase. Unhooking the coil and removing it I was struck by two things; the first was the beautiful blue bird with brown chest feathers, obviously dead; and the second thing, her lover, now silent as he watched me through the opening. He was almost relieved to have someone there, to share in his grief.

We took the cold and silent bird outside for burial in the garden flowerbed, which has not yet begun to bloom. When we went back into the house, her partner was flitting from room to room, searching for a way out. Opening the sliding doors to the rear of the house, I gently followed him, herding him towards the outdoors. After he was safely out of the house we interred his lost lover in the flower bed. This was sad enough, but the worst was yet to come.

Several hours later, while writing this story, I went outside to photograph the place where we had buried the beautiful blue bird. And there, on the branch of a nearby tree, sat her lover, gazing at the spot where we had buried his heart.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

"I'm Wearing My Dog Tags Again"


I’m wearing my dog tags again these days,
and some folks are asking me why.
Though I’m not sure why I would want to respond,
I’ll write a few words just to try.

I’m wearing my dog tags to give me some strength,
Just like when I was still young.
I won’t expound on my reasons at length,
let’s just say they make me feel strong.

It’s like wearing a piece of who I once was,
and a taste of all that I've seen.
I have a feeling, that in days to come,
those days will all become dreams.

I've been wearing my dog tags to show that I've not,
always been the wreck you might see.
And when my time comes, I hope that you've got,
the sense to see which one was me.

June 6th, 2013

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Old Black Guy

Periodically I re-post this short, true story from my time in Norfolk. Today; with nothing better to post; is one of those times.

I entered the Steak and Eggs for a bite on a slow summer night. It was one of those sultry, sticky, Southern nights - like an old movie loaded with intrigue and suspense.

The restaurant was empty with the exception of the one guy working the counter and mopping the floor. There was also an elderly black man pacing up and down the aisle between the counter and the row of tables by the window.

I was working on the USNS Sirius during the day and driving the cab at night to ward off the boredom of Norfolk. Late at night I would go to the Steak and Eggs place located off Granby Street at the Greyhound Terminal for a bite to eat. The following events took place there one night in July.

I ordered my steak and eggs and noticed that the elderly black guy was really agitated, pacing up and down while opening and closing his fists. He was also talking to himself. He was dressed in the typical fashion for older black men of that time. Suit trousers pulled up high, almost to his chest and a white dress shirt with no jacket. On his wrist was one of those hospital bracelets that indicated he had just come from an emergency room or been released from the hospital after a stay.

His ranting was repetitive and consisted of one or two points- mainly that “Lord, Lord, I cain’t go home- no suh! They watching me- I tol’ dem I weren’t saying nuthin’- but Lord, Lord, they don’t believe me….” He was sweating profusely as he continued his pacing. The cook and I were beginning to get nervous.

Slipping from behind the counter the cook sidled over to the pay phone on the wall and I heard him call the police. The old man was too busy to notice this and kept on pacing and talking.

Within 3 minutes an unmarked car pulled up and 2 white men got out. They were dressed in suits- minus the jackets. They had what appeared to be some kind of walkie-talkie with them.

Walking up to the old man and with a nod to the cook and myself they addressed him, “Okay old man- time to go.” They put their hands on his shoulder and started to guide him to the door and their vehicle. The old man protested loudly, “I ain’t gonna say nutthin’- no sir- I swear!” The reply, delivered gently, in retrospect was chilling. “We know that old man, just come with us.” They steered him out into the parking lot and the waiting car.

It all seemed so natural- 2 detectives picking up this old man in response to a call from the cook…

As they loaded him into the car a marked Police cruiser pulled in and 2 uniformed cops entered the restaurant. “What’s the trouble?” they asked.

The cook and I exchanged horrified glances and began to yell, “Stop that car! Stop that car!” The 2 cops ran outside just as the unmarked car had pulled out of the parking lot and were stopping for the red light.

One cop ran toward the vehicle while the other got in the squad car. The driver of the unmarked vehicle took off through the red light with the cop car now in pursuit- lights and siren splitting the heavy air. The unmarked car headed straight for the tunnel to Portsmouth with the Norfolk Police car close behind. When they emerged from the tunnel in Portsmouth the unmarked car had vanished.

The police returned to the Steak and Eggs where they interviewed the cook and I. It was impossible for me to finish eating so I left and hit the streets for a couple of hours before returning the cab and heading back to ship.

The following evening I was watching the local news in the ships lounge when a story came on that chilled me to the bone.

“An elderly African-American man was found in Portsmouth this morning. He was pronounced dead at the scene. The body was located at the edge of the river near the entrance to the Portsmouth tunnel. No clues and no suspects have been located. Anyone with information on the identity of this man please contact the Portsmouth Police Department.”

Monday, December 28, 2015

Fourth of July - The Flag Story

This is my daughter Sarah and I relaxing near Fell’s Point and the Harborplace in Baltimore on July 4th, 1995; give or take a year or so.  The 4th is my wedding anniversary; Sue and I decided to take our vows on a holiday so that the whole world would celebrate with us each year. This particular year has a story which goes with it. It’s an unusual story in that it shows me in two lights. One is good and the other not so much. But it is a true story so I’ll tell it anyway.

At the time we lived behind an American Legion Post; Post 200 to be exact; which was located in Hampstead, Md. They had Saturday night bands with lots of drinking which spilled over into my yard and also involved people screwing in the patch of pine trees along my Property line. With 3 kids at home I had enough to do without picking up the empty beer cans and used condoms they left behind.

Things between us eventually came to a head over the music; which ran past the 2 AM curfew imposed by the local zoning laws; every Saturday night. With many of the Legionnaires being members of the local town Police, State Troopers; and even County Commissioners; it was hard to get the noise ordinance enforced. We went to every County Council Meeting and lost every battle. But, just as with the Continental Army in our own Revolution, we eventually won the war.

At one point the attorney for the Legion actually showed up on a Saturday night with the object of baiting me into an argument with the members who had assembled along my property line drinking.
Armed with a stick up my sleeve; and a pistol in my pocket; I went forth to challenge the interlopers. Sue called the cops; which is something I was not comfortable with but did come in handy, as the attorney was trying to maneuver me into crossing the line onto the Legion’s property. I assume I was to be beaten if I did.

I’m not much of a dancer, but I do know how to maneuver as well as the next guy when it comes to playing chess on a property line with a bunch of drunks.Carefully moving in an arc; so that the attorney would not notice through the haze of the alcohol; I slowly swung him around until he was finally on; and then over; the property line. And once he was I quickly slid the stick down into my hand and yelled, “Now you’re on my property motherfucker!”

The group surged forward and got a nice surprise when the stick in my hand started swinging in an arc as I let out the extension cord to which it was tied, creating a buffer zone which would have to be crossed in order for anyone to get to me. Meantime I had the attorney on my property and was not going to let him leave.

Now nobody wants to be the first to get hit; so I kept the situation static for a few moments as the drunks tried to figure out just what the hell had happened. At the same time the local town Police Chief showed up and charged into the darkness of my yard yelling my name, “Mr. Williams, Mr. Williams, step back so I can see you!” He was trying to distinguish me from the group of would be assailants. He quickly herded everyone back into the Legion; though he wrote no summonses for the open alcohol and refused to arrest the attorney for trespassing.

But there is more way in which to skin a cat and I eventually won the war by finding out about some financial improprieties which would have forced the Legion to close; as well as place them in the hands of the IRS. Through my own sources at their bank I learned of the existence of a private account which was comprised of some skimmed profits from the sale of beer at the Legion post.

This violated their nonprofit status and could have even resulted in jail time for someone. They were planning on building a private catering facility with the money on the land adjacent to the post. This would have been hell for the people who lived on our street. But my knowledge of this information put an immediate stop to all of the problems which we had been having for the past 5 or 6 years. And to this day there is no catering facility located there.

Okay, that’s me in the good light. Here’s the darker side of the story and its connection to the 4th of July and hence my wedding anniversary.

At the time of these events Sue and I would celebrate our anniversary by going to see the fireworks at the Harborplace, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post. The night before the 4th the Legion had decorated their entire property; which was several acres; with a border of small American flags. They had ruined so many holidays for me that I was just seething with a desire for revenge.

Now, before I go on, you must realize that this particular Legion post had about 300 members, of which maybe 3 were veterans. The other 297 were their friends and came there to drink cheaply. All of the flags in the world really meant nothing to these guys; it was all about the beer. This is not an excuse for what I did; so let's just say that there were mitigating factors involved.

Early on the morning of the 4th; after the Legion had closed for the night; I quietly went around the perimeter of the entire property and removed all the flags. I hid them in the trees where the Legion members used to like to have sex with other member’s wives and then went to bed. 

The next day brought a couple of phone calls and one visitor to my door asking about the flags. I just told them to get off my property and not to call me. Technically speaking the flags were still on the Legion's property, not mine. and there they remained all day long while they had their picnic, so I had no worries on that score. I was saving them for the evening, because by now I had a plan.

That evening, while waiting for the fireworks to start, Sarah and I walked through the crowds at Fell’s Point selling American flags. I charged a buck a piece or 3 for $2. Hell, I was working with little overhead and could even afford to give a few away. 

The funniest part was the guy who insisted that I was trying to cheat him with the 3 for $2 deal and insisted on paying me a dollar each for 4 flags. He was very proud of himself at having not been cheated. Sarah was only about 8 years old at the time and even she knew better. Hey, I might have stolen the flags, but I would never cheat anybody!

So that is the story of how; just as in our own American Revolution; I lost all the major battles but won the war. And I even managed to collect a few bucks for damages in the process. As I said earlier, this story shows me in 2 different lights. And to be honest with you, I like both of me.

I sent Sarah some flags for the 4th this year, just in case she needs a couple of bucks.

And Happy Anniversary Sue; you certainly have to admit it’s been interesting…..

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Benny

This photo was supplied by Mike Guarriello on Facebook. I have been looking for a photo of Benny for years! Thanks, Mike! Here's the story.

Ice cream trucks are part of life growing up everywhere; even in Brooklyn. But we didn't have an ice cream truck on Kings Highway; there was too much traffic. But we did have Benny; and his pushcart. 

Usually; in subdivisions such as the one I live in now; there is an ice cream truck that makes the round on weekends, and during the evenings after dinner. You know the type of truck I’m talking about; obnoxious musical chimes heralding the arrival of an old beat up truck which bears absolutely no resemblance to the ice cream trucks of my youth. Those were sturdy, insulated, thick walled vehicles with freezer doors on the sides. And within those doors were delights which I haven’t seen in years.  I'm thinking about the Toasted Almond Crunch bar. And the bench mark of all ice cream trucks was Good Humor. If it wasn't Good Humor, we threw clods of earth at the truck, signaling to the driver that this was marked territory.

That truck was magical to me when I was 3 and 4; but by the time I was 7 years old, I was allowed to walk all the way up to Kings Highway by myself, and that’s when I first met Benny, as well as saw my first ice cream pushcart.  It was hard to get it rolling, but once it was in motion it was equally hard to stop! It wasn't refrigerated like the big trucks. It was cooled with “dry” ice, which was a whole other level of fascination, and mischief, for a 7 year old. But let me tell you a bit about Benny.
Benny was the ice cream man in my neighborhood. His route extended from the corner of Kings Highway and East 14th Street, to Ocean Avenue and then down to Avenue T, where he rented a small garage in back of a single family home. Actually, he just rented a part of the garage; a small corner large enough to store the magical “dry” ice; and a freezer which was replenished as necessary by a big truck. When I was 8 years old I became Benny’s “helper”.

Benny was Jewish, from the Lower East Side; and as such, he really had a lot in common with my Uncle Irving, who had also been raised there. They were about the same age. But that’s where the similarities ended. While Benny used to “hook” school, Uncle Irving actually finished high school. So, while Benny went on to become the neighborhood “Good Humor Man”, my Uncle Irving went on to a career in the Garment District as a furrier. Both men fascinated me, if only for their different lifestyles. Both were bachelors, but economically they were worlds apart. Benny lived in a rented room somewhere, while Uncle Irving lived in the larger hotels in Manhattan.

But, anyway, the story I am trying to tell is about Benny. It was, after all, his pushcart that I’m writing about, and the closest it ever came to fur was the time I hung some raccoon tales from the handlebars. The tails came from Uncle Irving, who used to keep us well supplied with them each year. Wait; he is part of this story.

Benny had two habits in which he liked to indulge. Both interfered with his selling enough ice cream to afford spending his winters in Miami; which is where he always went for the cold season. He liked to bet at the Off Track Betting parlor on East 16th Street, just up from Dubrow’s cafeteria. He also liked to have his hair cut once a week. That’s how I got the job.

I had been buying ice cream from Benny for about 2 years when he first asked me to “cover” for him while he went for a haircut. Being left; as an 8 year old boy; with an unlimited supply of ice cream, plus a pocketful of coins and bills was one of the thrills of my summer days. Benny’s haircuts were legendary for the length of time they took. He could be gone for hours; or merely minutes; depending on how the ponies were running, or ruining, his day. He combined the two errands into one, to “save time”, he used to say. That was fine with me. I would hold forth on Kings Highway and East 14th Street, across the street from Miles Shoes, and only 2 doors down from Byhoff’s Sporting Goods, which also sold records.  They had a speaker outside, so, I even had music while I worked.

The winters in Miami were a source of irritation to my Uncle Irving, who worked ALL year, but could not afford to take the winters off. They were both Jews from the Lower East Side, and my Uncle had gone to the trouble of getting an education and carving out a career for himself, while Benny hung around pool rooms and gambled on horses. The fact that Benny could afford to winter in Miami really rankled him. And that’s why I never told my Uncle the whole story.

You see, while Benny actually did spend his winters in Miami, he was working. Somewhere today, down in Miami, there is someone my age with the same memories as I have of working for the Good Humor Man; because that’s what he did when he went there, he sold ice cream; just like he did during the summer in Brooklyn. I hope, after all these years, that this will make my Uncle feel better about the whole thing.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Police Gazette

When I was in elementary school I was not much on paying attention in class. I had all sorts of distractions at my disposal. The window by my desk offered a full view of Wm. Kelly Park in Brooklyn, and though it was empty during the school day, the subway tracks ran alongside of the park, with trains passing every few minutes. I used to watch those trains and daydream about the people on them, and where they were headed.

But, by far, my favorite distraction were the many books and magazines I smuggled into the classroom. My two favored literary choices in 5th grade were the latest Mickey Spillane novels my Dad used to read, as well as the Police Gazette.

While the former had all the suspense of a good murder mystery, along with a voluptuous secretary named Velda, the Police Gazette had all the lurid details of whatever horrifying crimes were making the current rounds. In addition to this attraction were the many "true" crime stories from New York City's past. I always preferred the ones from the turn of the Century. Being removed from the events by several decades made them seem less horrid, and more like entertainment.

So, I would fold the Gazette up, as best as I could within my loose-leaf book, and be transported to places far from the boredom of the classroom. It was a good system, at least for a while.

I had already been admonished by my teachers, and parents, about Mickey Spillane being inappropriate for a 5th grader, but the Gazette, well that was news, or at least current events in my opinion, and so it was fair game to read that in lieu of paying attention during "Social Studies". To me they were about the same. But not everyone agreed with my 11 year old thoughts on the matter.

The whole thing came to a head one day after recess. I had carefully folded my Gazette into my book and placed it in my desk, a two person affair with a space beneath the writing surface for storing books and pencils. Then I went to recess, with little idea of the betrayal which awaited my return.

As I re-entered the classroom that morning, something didn't feel quite right. Mrs. Denslow was looking at me with that sly, slightly amused look she always had when dealing with recalcitrant little boys such as I. But wait! As I passed by her I spied a copy of the Police Gazette on her desk! Could it be true? Mrs. Denslow, she of the halo braided hairdo, read the Gazette just as I did? I had always thought of the Gazette as a "man's" magazine, indeed I had first taken up reading it in the barbershop, where it lay alongside of Playboy and Esquire.

I gave Mrs. Denslow a knowing look, as if we shared some great secret between us. Summoning me to her desk she asked if I knew what the Gazette was. I happily replied that I did indeed, and I had the very same issue in my desk. I also added that I was very happy that we shared the same taste in reading material. That's when it hit me! Someone, most likely my desk mate, a refined young lady, had turned me in while I was at recess.

Mrs. Denslow explained to me that I was in class to learn, not in a tonsorial parlor, and as such, the Gazette was not really proper for me to be reading. She would have to call my father about this. We had already been through the Mickey Spillane episode, and I guess that she thought the issue of appropriate reading material had been duly addressed. My father was summoned to school for a meeting with Mrs. Denslow .

The next morning, about a half an hour before school began, my father and I met with Mrs. Denslow in my deserted 5th grade classroom. There is nothing more threatening to an 11 year old than being in the classroom alone with your father and your teacher. No good can possibly come of it.

Mrs. Denslow got right down to the issue, informing my Dad of my transgression, and reminding him of our previous encounter concerning Mickey Spillane. She was of the opinion that I should not be reading either those books, or the Gazette. My father agreed that these were not appropriate for class, but drew the line at her "suggestion" that I not read the Gazette in the barbershop. In his considered view, "What went on in the barbershop" was sacrosanct, and that included the Gazette.

I'm thinking about this episode now because I am just finishing the last Chapter of a book which recalls every lurid article I ever read in the Police Gazette. Like those stories, this one takes place in New York City, at about the turn of the century. Now, Mrs. Denslow was my favorite teacher in elementary school, and she may have been right about the choices I made concerning reading Mickey Spillane at such a young age. But, after all these years, I still have to disagree on the Gazette. Through its pages I developed a love of New York City and its criminal history. And that fascination has remained with me to this very day.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Reading a Book and Doing the Math

I don’t post regular reviews anymore; I’m taking the time to really enjoy what I’m reading. But that takes a little extra time for me. For instance, I am reading a book which says that 600 acres are equal to One square mile. I am always curious as to the veracity of any numbers thrown at me, and almost always check them out- longhand.

In spite of failing mathematics throughout my school years I have spent my entire life working at jobs which all dealt with numbers. From navigating a ship by star to estimating earthwork (try it sometime by emptying a pot of dirt and then seeing if you can get it all back in; or digging a hole and then throwing the dirt back in without having some left over) I have in love with the little digits and their perfection. They simply do not lie. Statistics do; but not mathematics. So, you see I just had to check the figure out and determine for myself how many acres are in a square mile.

To begin with I know that a mile is 5,280 LF long so you multiply that by itself and come to the sum of 27,878,400 square feet to a square mile.
   
Now we need to take the acreage. There are 43,560 sq ft in an acre. The assertion is that there are 600 of these acres in a square mile. So you multiply the 600 acres by the 43,560 square feet per acre and come to 26,136,000 square feet in 600 acres. We have a problem. The acrerage stated in the book is short.

Taking 43, 560 square feet and multiplying it by x for the unknown acreage and making it equal to the square footage we know to be a square mile (27,878,400 square feet) you get 43,560x = 27,878,400, as in square feet. Then you isolate the x.

The equation looks like this; (cross multiplication)

43,560X = 27,878,400 sq ft  = 640
43,560         43,560

And the proof is self-evident. You simply multiply 640 acres by 43,560 square feet to each one and come up with the same number of square feet then divide that back by 43,560 square feet for a total of 640 acres; 40 acres more than stated in the book. It's no big deal; just something I do. 

As usual with any post dealing with mathematics I dedicate this to my father, William Llewellyn Williams, who was so good at numbers that he couldn’t teach me to count;, believing that his failure was my shortcoming. 

Thursday, December 24, 2015

"Jenkin's Grave" - and Mrs. Denslow


The poem above was written in 1965. I still remember writing it- though not as clumsily as it reads 46 years later. My teacher in 5th grade was Mrs. Christine H. Denslow, a saintly woman if there ever was one. She wore her grey hair in a braid coiled on the top of her head, and took an interest in everyone of her students.

When my Mom was ill, and I was having problems in class, Mrs. Denslow took the extra time to visit my home, talk with my parents, and generally made me feel that my future actually mattered to her.

At times, her husband, who was a naturalist of some kind, would bring reptiles and snakes to class. Mrs. Denslow made sure that we all touched and felt them, dispelling the myths that all reptiles are slimy and dirty. The life's lesson was clear to me then, as it still is today. You don't fear the things which you know nothing about. You take the time to learn about them, removing the fear of the unknown.

There weren't many teachers like her then, and I suppose the same is true now. So, 46 years later I have reworked this poem into a short, and botanically correct version of the original. I wish Mrs. Denslow were still around. I'd send her a copy.

Jenkin's Grave - 2011

Jenkin's grave is a cursed one, indeed.
For only one single flower has grown from the seeds,
scattered there by mourners
who all came out to grieve.
Jenkin's grave is a cursed one, indeed!

He wasn't just a sad man,
but a bad man, I believe.
And it was so surprising
to see anybody grieve.

Jenkin's grave is a cursed one, indeed.
For only one single flower has grown from the seeds,
scattered there by mourners
who all came out to grieve.
Jenkin's grave is a cursed one, indeed!

Now, I’m not superstitious,
But I think that you’ll agree.
Jenkin’s grave is a cursed one, indeed!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

"Fall in My Backyard"


Fall in My Backyard

The elephant ears were 7 foot tall;
they stood to defy the arrival of fall.
But now they don’t seem so tall at all
as they await the coming of winter.

The magnolia tree with its blossoms white;
is fading away with summer’s light.
She’ll be back next year; to my delight;
after the cold days of winter.

The little flowers that fill the bed;
the chill in the air is something they dread.
There’ll be something else comes spring in their stead,
after the passing of winter.

We are young, the cycle’s old;
this wandering from heat to cold;
around a sun of shining gold,
into the grips of winter.

What is this loss I seem to feel;
when the sun begins to peel
the veneer of warmth which felt so real,
Laying us bare to winter?

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Kilroy Was Here - Merry Christmas!

I have posted this piece of “Americana” for several years, and always to great response. It’s the true story behind “Kilroy Was Here”, as well as a story about the Christmas spirit. I hope you enjoy it…

“Kilroy Was Here” has been a part of the American vocabulary ever since World War Two. And the story behind it is not often told. In a way, it involves Christmas, so I figured this was a good time to tell the story as I understand it.

During the Second World War, when the United States was turning out ships and planes at a rapid rate, "checkers" were required to make the rounds of the shipyards and factories, inspecting the work. When they were done they placed a mark, with chalk, on the item to show that it had passed inspection. The appropriate riveter/welder would then get credit for the work, and hence, paid accordingly.

Soldiers began to see these marks, along with the words "Kilroy Was Here", wherever they went during the war. Wherever they went, they assumed they were the first, only to be greeted by the words that had become a slogan. There were now several Kilroy’s from coast to coast. But only one was the original.

There is even a story about the Potsdam Conference in 1945 which concerns “Kilroy.” A modern outhouse had been built for the exclusive use of Truman, Stalin, and Churchill. The first person to use it was Stalin. When he finished and came out he asked his aide, "Who is this Kilroy?"

At any rate, fast forward a bit to the end of 1946. The Second World War was over and the shipyards were shuttered. James Kilroy was facing a bleak Christmas, with no toys for the kids. That's when he first heard of the search for the real Kilroy!

The photo above, from the Boston American, dated December 23, 1946 shows the Kilroy family with a trolley car in their front yard. They had won the trolley in a radio contest put forth by The Transit Company of America, offering the trolley as a prize to the individual who could prove that they were the "real" Kilroy. Of the forty odd men who made that claim, only James Kilroy was able to produce officials from the shipyard, and even some of his fellow riveters, to prove his claim. Having won the prize, he now had to get it home! And there was a blizzard coming! So, the real story involves how it almost didn't make it on time.

But, with the help of the Transit Company of America, and a local railroad spur, along with a truck and a crane, the trolley was delivered on time, where it served many years as a playhouse for James Kilroy's children. It was a Christmas they would never forget. And that, as Paul Harvey would say, is the rest of the story.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Fourth of July - Every Picture Tells a Story

Okay- It's the Fourth of July- Independence Day. I'm not going to lecture you on the Patriotic stuff. Not going to wave the flag at you. I'm going to tell you the story of this photo. And maybe even what it means to me.

The photo itself was taken by Michael held, a friend since departed, in 1974 at Penn Station in NYC. These guys didn't know it at the time, and probably aren't aware of it to this very day- but they are one of many reasons I joined the Service a year or so later.

One of the men shown is a "Lifer". That is someone who enlists and stays in for 35 years or so versus someone who does his 4 years and gets out. You can tell by the "hash" marks sewn on the bottom of his sleeve. He is the one smiling and shaking my hand. Vietnam had ceased the year before and these guys were returning home from overseas due to the winding down of the military at the time. Mike and I were in Manhattan that day to get concert tickets, get stoned and just generally play around.

Now in all of Penn Station you would have been hard pressed to find two more divergent looking groups of people. Naturally they were staring at us and vice versa.This led to some good natured bantering along the lines of "Why don't you get a haircut?" to "What have you been doing while we fought for your freedom?"  Our replies were along the lines of- "We just had one" to "Dating your wives."

Now the point of all this is that this photo, to me, represents the America I love and one that has become increasingly rare. One in which we don't have to agree on everything to get along. We just have to get along. The Powers That Be would love to keep us polarized- but it's up to each one of us, as individuals, to back off a bit- tone it down a notch and learn to tolerate one another again. Just like the photo.

We're all different, but really one and the same. E Pluribus Unum. Happy Fourth everyone! Happy Birthday America! And hell, here's that flag...

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Working on a Deadline

For those too young to remember the technology, I’ll have to start by explaining that, once upon a time, there were no cell phones. Not even pagers. Seriously, dudes, there were only phone booths. Those were little nooks and crannies in which the Phone Company; yes, there used to be this one big company called the “Phone Company”; would place “pay phones”. Pay phones required you to have the necessary 10 cents to make a call. The phone did not have a dial tone until the dime went down the slot, which set off a bell, which in turn, activated the phone. This was the world in which the following story takes place.

I was working on a deadline, computing the costs of competitive bids for county road jobs in the 1980’s. I was the Estimator of Earthworks at the time for an outfit named Anthem in Cockeysville, Maryland. The main idea of “bid day”; when the Proposals would be submitted; was to find a phone and wait for the final price to come in from the office. The Estimator would then write that number in the proposal and seal the bid before delivering it to the Public Offering. There the bids would be opened and read aloud so as to avoid any overt corruption.

Once the sealed bids were opened, the names of the firms responding and the price of their proposals were read aloud, with all the estimators, like me, writing down the final numbers of their competitors. The goal was, of course, to get the job, but at the same time make a profit. This was easier said than done.

For instance, if the “Engineer’s Estimate”; which was the price the municipality was relying upon as the price to perform the work; was $300,000 you knew it was worth more, but needed to come at least close if you hoped to get the contract, since the counties have the right to reject a bid for being “over budget.” The joke at the time was that the Engineer’s Estimate reflected the cost of construction in Heaven.

On the other hand, if the job was really worth about $400,000 you needed to get as close to your competitors without giving away all of the profits, which was known as “leaving too much on the table.” So the goal for any Estimator hoping to retain his job was to place 2nd. That meant you didn’t get the job, but providing that your number was close to the winning bid, you could look the boss in the eye and say, “We almost got it!” with pride. The boss, for his part, didn’t want to leave anything at all “on the table”, and so his reaction would always be, “There’s no way they can make money at that price!” It was Aesop who said that “any fool can despise what he cannot get.”

Working on deadlines can be nerve wracking, or thrilling, depending on how you manage your time and resources. I was always several bids ahead of schedule; with each bid clasped to the appropriate set of plans and laid in chronological order as to the date of the actual bid. In that way I could remain ahead of schedule while allowing enough time to add, or change, whatever was necessary to “hone” my number to a fine point while still allowing a decent profit.

Still, in spite of all precautions, it was always a relief to come in at a close second, where you could look intelligent to the boss while risking nothing in return.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

My Mona Lisa- NYC circa 1845

I found this little treasure back in 1980 in the basement of Jackie Onassis' apartment building on 5th Avenue across from Central Park. I was doing some work for my Dad at the time. We installed anti pollution controls on incinerators.

Rich people throw away some pretty cool things. This pencil drawing from about 1845 is a good example of some of the things I found.

Just look at this picture. She stares with beauty in her eyes and just a hint of a smile plays across her mouth. I snatched her up in her black wood shaved matting with a matching black frame. She has been with me for the past 30 years.

Was this a portrait done for a loved one? Or perhaps just a sketch by an amateur artist?

I find her mysterious, yet so real. There is something flirtatious about her that captivated me long ago. She hangs on the wall beside my bed. She is the only woman that my wife doesn't object to my seeing on a regular basis.

The pencil strokes, when the sketch is held at an angle to the light, are vivid and exact. They give life to the portrait. I must admit to being in love with this woman - our age difference notwithstanding.

Friday, December 18, 2015

A Story From the USNS Jupiter

Bosun Browning and I were anything but friends. As a matter of fact, we had come to blows once, well, nearly to blows, one might say. I couch the episode in that light due to the fact that I had the presence of mind, and the swift footedness of youth to quickly repair myself to the Captain’s cabin for refuge.

The whole thing started innocently enough, with the Bosun, who is the man tasked with everything on deck aboard ship, and I, engaging in some trash talking of one another’s backgrounds. I was that bane in the side of all true Southerners, a Yankee, while he occupied in my young mind that special space reserved for the mouth breathing, knuckle dragging denizen of the Deep South. This “trash talk” had gotten somewhat out of hand, considering the fact that he weighed about 250 pounds and stood 6’4” in opposition to my 145 pounds and slender 6’ frame.

At the time, and remember I was in my mid 20’s when this story takes place, I knew little fear, and each evening after going ashore and running through the jungles of Diego Garcia, which are not very dense, the island itself being but 34 miles long and only ¼ of a mile wide at it’s widesest point, I would return to the ship and weigh myself, calling out to the Bosun that when I attained the unimaginable mass of 150 pounds, I was determined, actually hell bent upon, kicking his Cajun ass. This resulted in Bosun Browning awaiting the return of my boat each evening. He would then follow me to the scale and watching over my shoulder he would check my weight with me. This was a fight that was going to happen and he was planning on losing no time in getting the thing started.

The disappointment on his face each night as I hovered about 147 and 148 pounds was almost heartbreaking, even to myself, though I knew that should the battle ever occur, I was sure to come out on the short end. The Bosun, impatient for his chance at hastening my demise, always shook his head in disgust as I failed to attain the 150 pound mark. To this end he had begun handing me a candy bar, or a piece of cake, after each failed weigh in. As I said earlier, he was in earnest for the battle to begin.

As the months wore on and I continued to hold at 148 pounds, which is the most I have ever weighed, we developed a mutual respect for one another, but he was still looking forward to the impending battle with relish. Sometimes things don’t go quite as planned and there is often a valuable lesson to be learned, if you keep your eyes open and your wits about you. This was one of those cases.

One night, sometime around midnight, I slammed my hand in a hatch and the nail was throbbing and aching something fierce. I was roaming the deck, unable to sleep, when I chanced upon the Bosun, who inquired as to the nature of my trouble. Showing him my finger he looked pained and told me to follow him to his cabin. I was in such a state that I did just that, not knowing what to expect from my nemesis.

Arriving at his cabin he rummaged through some tools, and pulling out a drill bit proposed that he would drill through my finger nail, thus relieving the pressure of the blood beneath it and my pain. Such was my pain that, with a trusting and uncharacteristic willingness on my part, I agreed to this experiment.

With a surgeons gentle touch this large Cajun shrimp boater proceeded to drill through my finger nail, and did exactly as he said he would, with a gentleness belying our continued state of war.

This is the night in which I learned a most valuable lesson; that the person most likely to help you in times of distress, is often not your friend, but rather your enemy. I retired to my cabin to ruminate upon this philosophical discovery and what it really meant in practical terms, particularly aboard ship. What I came up with, in conclusion, startled me then, and I have often thought back to this event when faced with confusion by the actions of others over the next several decades.

Take, as an example, three people standing on deck in a storm at sea. Two are friends and the third hates the other two. One of the two is swept overboard. The friend stands there transfixed, unable to assist due to two reasons, the first being that he is so upset at the loss of his friend, he is effectively immobilized; the second being that he is conscious of the risk he would undertake should he choose to take some action.

The enemy, on the other hand, is not weighed down with all this. He only knows that should he not take some decisive action, he will be judged by a very different standard. The friend of the victim will be consoled for his loss, while the enemy will be reviled for doing nothing. His inactions will be dismissed as his having availed himself of the unexpected pleasure in seeing his enemy hurt. Due to this he will leap overboard in a maelstrom in an effort to avoid this perception. I have seen this type of behavior several times in my years at sea, as well as my many years ashore. I stored this lesson away and gradually, over the course of the next few months, the Bosun and I were able to mute our "cold war" until the whole argument had become pointless.

In November, after the monsoons had ended, we were both scheduled to fly home on a 21 hour flight from Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, to Newark Airport in New Jersey. We had a pleasant flight, during which I learned his entire life’s story, as I am sure he learned some of mine. I found, much to my surprise, that I was actually beginning to like this guy.

We landed at Butler Aviation Terminal, which is located at the far end of Newark Airport and proceeded through Customs and then outside to the line of cabs waiting at the curb. The Bosun asked me to watch his bags while he went to the rest room and I assented.

As soon as he was out of sight I took his baggage, and tossing them in the back of the next available cab, handed the driver a $50 bill and told him, “Here’s $50, I don’t care where you take the bags.” I grabbed the next cab and hightailed it out of there in a flash.

There are probably many lessons to be learned from this story, but I will not assign myself to the task of pointing them out. My actions, at the airport that morning, would seem to call any judgments I might make on the matter, into question.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Kites - A Family Tradition

This is me on November 11th, 1957 taking my first solo kite flight at Riis Park in Queens, New York. My Dad had the day off, back then it was a holiday that really meant something. The whole family went down to the beach, and though it was freezing, it is one of the warmest and earliest memories of my life. As you get older you want to pass on some of these memories, sometimes without success. But with kite flying it's just about a sure thing that you are going to capture the heart and mind of the one you're with.

Here I am, over 3 decades later, with my own daughter, an experienced kite flier by age 10, setting up on Myrtle Beach in 1998. The winds there are fantastic in the evenings. It was one of the most gratifying feelings to pass on my love of kiting to my daughter. She still kites, periodically, today. She still feels that connection to the earth as it whirls around and the wind as it whistles eerily through the string.

This is me yesterday, with my grandaughter Aliyah, showing her the ropes on a nylon rip stop box kite that hauls 80 MPH winds. We were only bucking gusts of 15 MPH or so. The look on her face changed from concern to joy as the kite took off and stayed aloft. This is the way the world feels when it turns, The kite helps you feel that connection. The drag on the line is surely caused by the spinning of the earth. I know this to be true because my Dad told me so, as his dad had told him.

So here she is, my grandaughter Aliyah, flying solo. Another tradition passed on. Hopefully she will remember the moment and pass it on to her children some day. Then her children will feel the turning of the earth through the pull of the wind on the kite and hear the sound of the wind whistling through the string. And maybe, just maybe, she will tell them of the moment we first flew together. I'd really like that.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

1310 Avenue R. - My First Rooftop

I would be remiss if I were to let this month pass without mentioning 1310 Avenue R. in Brooklyn. I lived there from 1961 until 1972 when I left home for the last time. There are so many memories tangled up with that building, and all 70 families that lived there, that I wouldn't even know where to begin.

There were John and Katy Bucholtz, he was an ex-Nazi who served as the superintendent of the building; then across the hall from us were the Gold’s, two elderly German Jews who had escaped Nazi Germany and were the kindest of neighbors. They were friends with John and Katy, all vestiges of the war behind them. There were also the Ross family, who were Orthodox Jews; and the Roth’s, Mr. Roth was a detective Sergeant; and there was also the Cuban family who arrived in the fall of 1962 from Miami, where they had fled to from Castro. The father was a banker, which may have something to do with the family’s success in getting out. They had 2 kids, John and Robert. Later they moved to the 6th floor. These are just 4 of the 11 families who lived on our floor.

The rest of the building was composed of mainly Jewish families; some large, some small. There was also a single "efficiency" apartment on each floor. Mr. Ginsburg, a curmudgeonly older man, occupied the apartment next door to my family. He was a typewriter repairman with ear problems. He was also a pain in the ass, calling the police with a noise complaint at every possible excuse. I swear he once called the cops because he heard no noise coming from our apartment and thought it was "odd".

The building also boasted 2 apartments on the ground floor which had their own private entrances. These were located at the 2 front corners of the building. I never knew the family who occupied the East 13th Street side, but the East 14th Street "garden apartment"; as they were called; was occupied by a dentist named Marvin Cohen.

The building also had a doorman and a janitor; though the various doormen only lasted for the first 7 years. There was a string of them, my favorite being the last one, Larry. He was about 100 if he was a day, and the residents were always worried about him. He would sit on the lobby sofa and struggle to get up and open the door. Most of the time, the residents would motion through the glass for Larry to sit down, as no one wanted to be responsible for his sudden, though overdue, demise.

Each year around the holidays the lobby would be decorated with a Christmas tree and lights. There was also a Happy Chanukah banner displayed across the wall to wall mirror which faced the doors from the street. The garden area outside was also decorated with colored lights and there were candles in the window of the rock garden inside the lobby. I used to water those plants for 25 cents a day. I also used to round up the newspapers from the garbage room on each floor. You were not supposed to put them down the incinerator chute because they made black smoke and the building’s owner could be fined. The papers I gathered were set aside and sold by the janitor to the "paper pulp" guy and I would get a "share" of the money.

There was an underground parking garage with a "secure" locking system. If you waited long enough each night you could hear the cars screeching up the ramp and out into the street when they were being stolen. Nothing is more attractive to a car thief than a safe well lit environment in which to work. This was especially true on rainy or cold nights.

But, the crowning glory to this building; at least to the 7 year old who lived there; was the roof. From the very first days we lived there i was drawn to it. It began innocently enough, with my taking the stairs to the top. I just wanted to see where they went. Up and up I climbed; my 7 year old legs pumping hard and fast as I rounded the turn between each floor; nearer to the top with each step.

When I got there I was rewarded with the greatest gift of all; a sign which said "Do Not Enter." Now, I don't know who the genius was that came up with the idea of a sign to keep a 7 year old off of the roof, but I wasn't buying it. Not for one moment. There was a whole world to be discovered beyond that door, and no sign was going to keep me out. Besides, I reasoned that if caught up there, I could always say I couldn't read.

At any rate the roof became my secret place to go. I would head up there with my 6 transistor radio, trying to get stations from as far away as possible. It turned out that I had better luck at night downstairs in my bed. During the day the sun's rays heated up the ionosphere and made it harder to pick up those stations. But on a cold clear night I could get Canada, and even West Virginia. I had a whole collection of postcards from those stations acknowledging the letters I used to send to each one, letting them know how far their signal had traveled.

Summertime was a time of daily visits to the "roof". I used to go up there just for the view. You could see Manhattan to the north, including the Twin Towers. To the south and slightly west was Coney Island, including the Parachute Jump. Directly south it was hard to see much because there were so many other buildings in the line of sight. But this became my haven for many years, a place I could go to when I had no place to go.

As I got older the roof became even more important to me. It was a place to go with friends, outside of the sphere of my parents influence. Hell, they never went up there! And even later, after my Mom had passed away and I was grown, I still went up there. I even grew some pot plants on top of the elevator shaft, one story closer to the sun, and the superintendent’s wife; in all her innocence; watered them for me.

I suppose you are wondering why I am writing about this building, and the roof. Well, I file my daily blogs by year, month and date. So, all this month; every day this month; I have filed my blogs under 13-10-and the day of the month. For example, today will be filed under 13-10-30. And, each day this month I have thought about writing of the roof at 1310 Avenue R. Today, with only one day left to go before it becomes another unrealized thought, I have.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Uncle Irving Meets Bob Dylan

It’s Friday, the day which always brought Uncle Irving; Uncle “I” to me and my brother; to our house. Although I think of him every day, there is still something special about Fridays. This story takes place on one of those days and one of his weekly visits, which are still among my most cherished of memories. I truly loved that man.

The intersection of Uncle Irving and Bob Dylan occurred while I was doing my homework at the round kitchen table and listening to WMCA 560 AM. They played a “double header”, or whatever they called it when they played 2 songs in a row without a commercial break. The 2 songs in this story were both on the charts at about the same time in 1965 and, together, they showcase the diversity in popular music as it was being created at the time, as well as the cultural divide which existed between the younger and older generations.

I was working some multiplication and Uncle “I” was thumbing through the evening’s New York Post; he would lick his finger for traction before turning the page. The radio was doing its job, wailing out Bob Dylan’s nasal rendition of his hit single “Positively 4th Street”, with its deep and meaningful lyrics. For example;

“No, I do not feel that good when I see the heartbreaks you embrace
 If I was a master thief perhaps I'd rob them
 And now I know you're dissatisfied with your position and your place
 Don't you understand, it's not my problem.”

So, that song ends and the deejay piggybacks that song with the Turtles doing “Happy Together”, which go something like this;

“Me and you and you and me
 No matter how they toss the dice, it has to be
 The only one for me is you, and you for me
 So happy together.

 Ba-ba-ba-ba ba-ba-ba-ba ba-ba-ba ba-ba-ba-ba
 Ba-ba-ba-ba ba-ba-ba-ba ba-ba-ba ba-ba-ba-ba.”

Well, the first song ends and the Turtles are midway through their song when Uncle “I” looks up from the paper and says, “So, they still write a few good songs nowadays!” I swear, there was triumph in his voice and tears of mirth in my eyes. No doubt about it, I really loved that man.

Note: The photo above was taken by my Mom in 1941. She was 12 years old at the time. Irving was already 46 years of age. By the time I was born he was old enough to be retired- but he worked until the day he died when he was about 81 years old.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Old Slides #1 - The Tricycle


Over the holidays our daughter was on a trip to Israel, and our son-in-law came to stay with us for a night. While he was here he took all 300 of my Dad’s old Kodachrome slides from the late 1950’s and early ‘60’s and scanned them into our computer; something I have wanted to do for several years but never gotten around to. He did it in just under 3 hours!

So now I have a boatload of photos which I had been looking at by squinting while holding them in front of a lamp for about 30 years. Occasionally I would have one made up at the camera store, but for the most part these photos were lost to me. Along with those photos, many memories were also a bit sketchy, and so they are a real “treasure” to mine for pieces of my past.

Here I am riding my first tricycle on Kings Highway and Bedford Avenue in 1957. We lived on the corner in apartment 4-A of 3619 Bedford Avenue, which is one of those pre-war buildings with huge rooms separated by long hallways. It was a rear apartment, facing the alleyway between our building and the Kingsway Hospital next door. I’m not sure what it was called back then. I do remember being awakened at night by the scary sound of the ambulance sirens as they brought in patients. These were frightening sounds to me mainly because I didn't know what had happened; only that someone was dying. I never parsed out the difference between an ambulance siren and death. For years they represented the same thing to me.

By day the building was a fascinating place to play. There was a series of ramps to get to the basement. They were for moving furniture in and out more easily. At one time; in the 1930’s when my mother first moved in there; the building had a concierge and all deliveries went through the basement.

The basement also contained 4 tremendous boilers, not unlike the ones found on the ships I would later serve aboard, and these boiler rooms; while “off limits” by paternal edict; drew me like a magnet. They had fires going all the time to heat the mammoth amounts of water required for the two separate halves of the building, which contained over 100 apartments.

On the corner of Kings Highway and Bedford Avenue the building had a separate apartment which was accessible only by the private entrance which stood about a half story above street level. This put that apartment on the same plane as the first floor, which was reached by going up several short steps from the lobby. I don’t recall ever having met the people who lived there; maybe they worked days; but they must have been home on weekends when we played on their “stoop.” They never said a word, though we must have been loud, and I assume they either liked kids, or they had the patience of Job.

The lobby opened up to two wings; left and right; with each side serviced by a separate elevator. Both sides had long rows of mailboxes, flush with the walls, and I looked forward every day to watching the mailman place the letters so deftly into each box. He was quite a marksman, never faltering or missing a single one. I always felt as if I were watching a magician at work; his sleight of hand seemed just as quick to my little eyes.

The roof was another magical place for me. Although I was too young to go up there alone, on Tuesday nights in the late 1950's we used to go up there with our parents to watch the fireworks from Coney Island, about a mile and a half away to the south west. I also remember going up there and "helping" my father install our first TV antenna, dropping the cable from the roof down to our window and then pointing the antenna towards the Empire State Building with its huge antenna in Manhattan; about 12 miles away to the north.

The stairs were the main mode of transportation for my brother and me whenever we went “out” to play. We lived on the 4th floor, in apartment 4-A and so it was always a mad race down the stairs to the lobby, which seemed to take forever to get out of. If I remember correctly there was a suit of armor in the lobby that went with the Tudor looking beams which were the motif of the whole building. The exterior was still the same when I passed by in 2011, but I didn't go inside. I think I was afraid of spoiling the memories I have by seeing the place now that I’m older.

One time; this is back in the 1970’s; I went to look at the building before I left Brooklyn for the Navy. I remember thinking how small that front courtyard was compared to my memory of it. How much smaller it has gotten since that day, when I left to see the world, I cannot say, though I imagine it has shrunk even more.

Well, this is just a ramble prompted by an old photograph not seen clearly in decades. And just think; there are; potentially; 299 more to write about. Who said “you only get to live once?”

Sunday, December 13, 2015

My "Lucky" Coin

This is my "good luck" coin. I carry it with me everywhere I go, even when I'm unlucky. That's the trick to the whole "luck" thing. You gotta have faith. Without my belief that this coin brings me luck, it is nothing but an old penny.

That's the way with most things. You can take them at face value, or assign something more meaningful to it. Everyone needs something to believe in. I don't assign any magical powers to this coin, it is merely a constant, something which I can count upon to always be there. It's reassuring.

Sometimes we find comfort in the most inane of objects. Vice Admiral Stockdale, Professor Emeritus at Stanford University, used to tell the story about his tin cup, which he had for the entire time of his imprisonment within the walls of the "Hanoi Hilton" during the Vietnam War. It seems that the guards stripped the prisoners of all their possessions, watches and jewelry being the most sought after items. But when it came to something utilitarian, like a tin cup, which most people in the service at the time used to carry attached to their belt loops, the Vietnamese let them keep the cup. This was one less item that they had to provide for the prisoner. But what they never realized was that an item as simple as a tin cup could serve as a link to the past and the "real world." That cup came to mean everything to Vice Admiral Stockdale. It represented his past, and future, in a tangible way, providing him with the connection he needed to endure his hardships.

I don't have a special cup anymore, although I did carry one while in the Navy. Since then I have used various coins, over the years, as talismen, small items to comfort me when I need it. This 1854 large cent has been with me for about 10 years now, and we seem to be doing okay. Looking at it gives me a great deal of enjoyment as I spin out stories in my head of where the coin has been, and wondering what was bought with it over the years before it wound up in my pocket.

I'm told that the constant rubbing of the coin against the change in my pocket has lessened it's value by adding wear and scratches to it. But I don't mind. The coin is more valuable to me as an item of continuity, it's always there. And I enjoy taking it out to show off to cashiers, waiters, neighborhood kids, basically anyone who will stop long enough to admire it. Has it brought me any luck? I don't know. But the more important question is this - has it brought me joy? The answer to that is an unequivocal yes.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Hatchet v. Saw - A Local Story

The other day was a windy and delightful day, one befitting of the end of February, and lending proof that March, does indeed, come in like a lion, though it is also said it goes out like a lamb. Time will tell on the latter. At any rate, being a windy and delightful day, as it was, I decided to give my kites a test, only to discover that they both had broken spars which I had not replaced since I last flew them with my grandaughters, Aliyah and Trinity. So off to Lowes I went, in search of some 5/16" dowel rods, preferably 48" long and made of oak.

Having secured the necessary timbers, I headed back out to the car, the trunk of which plays host to my kites, an inflatable 4 man raft, some ropes, cables, tools, machetes, survey equipment, and a varied assortment of other things. Opening the trunk I took the kites out and began to measure the spans necessary to make the required repairs.

After carefully determining the amount of wood to be eliminated by using my thumb as a ruler (this is, after all, an exact science) I was about to make the necessary adjustments by simply "snapping" the dowels between my foot and the pavement. I was squatting behind my car at the time, trunk open, all of the aforementioned bric a brac plainly in sight, when I heard a voice with a distinctly southern drawl saying, "If you wasn't a Yankee, you'd have a saw with you!"

I looked up at the slack jawed one, our eyes locking, and without hesitation reached into the trunk as I replied, "Well, up North we use hatchets", and lopped off the required amount of dowel, burying the hatchet in the asphalt for emphasis. And then, as I pulled the hatchet free, I said, "Yep, that's how we do it in Brooklyn." But it was too late for the slack jawed one to hear me - he'd already gone.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Memorial Day - William Shone Williams

Like millions of others all over the world, the First World War  would have a lasting impact on the Williams family. This picture is of my paternal Grandfather, William Shone Williams, in North Carolina, just prior to shipping out for France. Growing up in the 1950's and 1960's, my family never talked much about my Grandfather's experience in the War. As a matter of fact, I never even met the man. He passed away about 8 years before I made my entrance into the world. So, naturally, I have been fascinated by him my entire life.

Two years ago I began looking into his wartime service to see where he went when he joined the Army and the 27th Division in the spring of 1917. The story is still missing several pieces but this is a brief account of what I have discovered so far by using photos provided to me by my favorite Aunt Gloria.


He was in the 27th Division of the NY 107th US Infantry, under the command of Major General John F. O'Ryan. This was their insignia, composed of the letters NY in an arched fashion to closely resemble the constellation Orion, a play on the major's last name. It is also the brightest constellation and contains the brightest star in the sky, Orion. They became known as the "Orion Division."

The 27th trained at Camp Wadsworth in South Carolina through the winter of 1917-18. While there they published a weekly paper called "The Gas Attack" and later this name was changed to "The Gas Attack of the NY Division". The first issue was published in November of 1917 and the last was on May 4th, 1918 as they were about to transfer to Norfolk. Another issue was put out in France at Christmastime 1918, after the war was over. Another was issued right before the Division came home to a huge parade in NY in March 1919.

In Spartanburg there were two colleges and the one most favored for dances etc was the Converse College for Girls. There are quite a few photos on line of soldiers on leave in Spartanburg during that time. I keep looking for my Grandfather.

This is a photo of Major General John F. O'Ryan. He is shown standing on a snow bank at Camp Wadsworth. My Grandfather must have recognized him and took the photo. They were at Spartanburg from Nov 1917 through May 4th 1918 when they shifted to Norfolk for deployment to England.

Interesting side note; Spartanburg was the only place in South Carolina that did not welcome the Northern Divisions. (See the NY Times Article dated August 31st, 1917.) It concerns the Mayor of Spartanburg and his venomous attack upon the presence of "Yankee" troops. Apparently, there was also an African-American Division there at the same time. Captain N.B. Marshall, an African American of the NY Bar Association was called a "dirty nigger" and thrown from a street car in one instance. When Frank De Broit, an African-American private, attempted to buy a newspaper in a hotel lobby, with the permission of his Lt., a man named Europe, he was knocked to the ground by the hotel clerk. About fifty members of the NY 27th Division jumped in, hell bent on murdering the hotel clerk when they heard the command, ""Attention!" called out by Lt. Europe, who then ordered the men to cease their action and file out peacefully two by two.(He was, apparently, an early version of Martin Luther King.)

Major O'Ryan wrote a book about the whole experience, from Spartanburg to France and then coming home again in 1919. It's called "The Story of the 27th Division" and can be found online and read for free. You can even download it as a PDF file. http://www.archive.org/details/storyof27thdivis02oryauoft

Once in England they trained jointly with the British troops and appear to have crossed the Channel at Dover to France and marched down South towards Paris. On the way he would have taken the photo of the "Ponts de la Soissons" which is the Bridge at Soissons. From there they would likely have gone on South to Paris to group up before starting the final offensive of the war, referred to as the Muese-Argonne campaign and included the Second Battle of Verdun. Verdun is on the west bank of the Muese River. This is where he allegedly stole the keys to the city and a mandolin, which my step-mother, Alice, still has in her kitchen. The campaign lasted from September 1, 1918 through November 11th when the Armistice was called.

On Sept 29, 1918 the 27th Division, under command of Maj. General O'Ryan, along with the 30th Division, and the British units (under command of General Haig) jointly "cracked" the St. Quentin Tunnel Complex which ran parallel to the Hindenburg Line for a distance of about 4 miles North to South, and was used for resupply of the German forces there.

Forming a "pincher" and advancing eastward, the combined forces broke through the Hindenburg Line, which the combined French and British forces had been unable to do for 3 years. The 27th crossed through Guillemont and Quennemont Farms just West of the line. There were 227 officers and men of the 27th killed that day and another 688 wounded.

This means that they likely did not go to Paris upon arrival "in country", but rather, that after they cross trained with the British they headed to St. Quentin, which is North of both Paris and Verdun.

After the action at St. Quentin they continued on with the British 4th Army under the command of Major Rawlinson through most of October on their way to the Selle River south of the fighting at LeCateau.From there they would have moved on to the Second Battle of Verdun. He was wounded by artillery sometime during all of this, as a result of which he had a metal plate in his head for the rest of his life. He was also gassed. I am still, at this writing, trying to find out where and when he was wounded. It would appear, by the mere existence of the photographs, that he was wounded late in the war, most likely right before the Armistice in November. After Verdun, the 27th "hunkered down" through March of 1919, when they were sent home.

This is a photo of the entire 27th Division taken in March of 1919, composed of all 10,000 officers and enlisted men just prior to leaving France. My Grandfather is most likely in this photo, but it's kind of like "Where's Waldo." And war is like that, millions of men, whose names often go unrecorded in the greater annals of history, do the heavy fighting, and pay the heavy price, while the select few garner the recognition of their sacrifices.

When he returned from the "Great War", as it was referred to at the time, he went on to become a Police Officer in New York City. When he died, at the all too young age of 43 years old, leaving a wife and 5 children behind, he became a belated casualty of that war.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

"The Great Give Away" by Ruth Marcus Williams

The following story was written by my mother and published in The Jewish Daily Forward on January 18th, 1981. I have posted this here before, on January 18, 2012.  I have always suspected that, if my Mom were alive today, she would have a blog of her own. 

I rarely look through the batch of papers I happened upon that night, and so I can't help but wonder about the timely coincidence of finding it on the eve of the date on which it was first published. The Old Clothes Men are long gone now. We still had them in the 1950's when I was growing up, and that's a part of my own story. But this one is my Mom's;

When I was growing up in Brooklyn in the forties, old clothes men were a common sight, standing under windows and in alleys, shouting “I cash clothes,” in a wailing voice I can still hear. To my Grandfather, haggling with the old clothes man was a sport he mastered and indulged in with a passion resembling an opera.

I was 12 years old when my Grandfather, the old clothes man and I became emeshed in a drama I refer to as “The Great Give Away”, and like many dramas, this one began on a note of hysteria. Mine.

One day I entered my mother’s room and asked her in desperation where my coat was.
“It’s in the closet, where it belongs,” my mother said.

“No, it isn’t,” I said. “Why is it that things are always disappearing around here? Especially mine?”

“Stop being a Sarah Bernhardt. Nothing’s disappearing around here except the things you misplace. If you look hard enough you’ll find it.”

“I’ve already looked hard,” I whined, “but it’s not here.”

I adored the coat in question because it reversed from a wool herringbone tweed on one side to a beige poplin raincoat on the other. I never expected to own another one as beautiful, or as unusual.

“You’re so careless that you probably left it at a friend’s house,” my mother said. “If not, then it’s here. Just keep looking for it. I’m sure you’ll find it by the time I get back.”

I was annoyed with my mother for thinking me careless. Nonetheless, I took her advice, and as soon as she left I resumed my quest. While doing so, my grandfather arrived with an old man. The two of them, conducting a heated conversation half in Yiddish and half in English, barely glanced at me.

Some minutes later (after I had once again searched the closets in vain), it dawned on me that the one closet I hadn’t searched was my brother’s. And so, with high hopes, I entered his room. There, my grandfather was showing the old man my brother’s windbreaker.
“So, how do you like this?” my Grandfather asked the old man.
“It’s dreck,” the old man said, waving his hand in dismissal.

“Dreck!” my grandfather said in a fury. “The jacket’s almost brand new!”

“Humph, your eyes are getting worse every time I see you. The jacket’s old.”

“Phooey,” my Grandfather spat out. “It’s your eyes that can’t see. A garment like this is worth at least four dollars.”

“Look at the seams,” the old man said, tugging at them, “they’re splitting. The jacket’s not worth more than a dollar fifty.”

“You don’t know shmatas, you don’t know a treasure when you see one,” my Grandfather said indignantly.

The old man ignored him. “I shouldn’t give you more than a dollar fifty. I just noticed that the elbows are worn. But, I’m in a good mood today, so I’ll give you a dollar seventy -five.”

“I’ll throw it in the gutter first,” replied my Grandfather.

“Two dollars,” the old man said.

“Two fifty,” my Grandfather continued.

“Two twenty-five. Not one penny more,” the old man said.

“I’ll take it,” my Grandfather said. “But you’re a thief!”

As the old started giving my Grandfather the money I said, "Grandpa, you can't sell Walter's jacket! He Needs it!"

“No he doesn’t. It’s old,” was his reply.

“Grandpa, you know that’s not true.” Then, realizing something else, I said, “You sold my coat, didn’t you?”

“I don’t know anything about your coat. And why aren’t you outside playing? A beautiful day like today you shouldn’t be in the house.”

Tuning him out, I said, “Mister, did you buy a girls coat from my grandfather?” The old man became agitated and replied in a torrent of Yiddish I scarcely understood. In counterpoint to his outburst, my Grandfather kept telling me that he hadn’t sold my coat.

Meanwhile, in the midst of the commotion, the old man opened a sack that had been strapped to his back and began adding the jacket to it.

“Mister, would you please give me back the jacket?” I said.

“Thief,” my grandfather shouted, “you didn’t give me my money!”

“Grandpa, I told you, you can’t sell the jacket.” Then, turning to the old man I said, “Mister, the jacket’s not for sale. I want it back.”

“Here,” he said, tossing it to me. “And as for you,” he said to my Grandfather,“ I don’t want any more business from you!”

"Don’t worry,” my grandfather said. “I don’t give my business to thieves!”

A few weeks later, contradicting themselves, they were once again dickering. But I never found my coat. Until this day, whenever I see pictures of myself wearing it, I sigh with longing. And although my grandfather always denied selling it, I know better.

For another story about my mother, based on the story she told me but never wrote down, see the following;