MARTIN M. LAIBOW was born in Camden in 1912, the youngest of six children born to immigrant parents, David and Mary Laibow. He lived in Camden until 1925 when his family moved to Atlantic City.
In April of 2008 Martin Laibow contacted this website, and made available his auto-biography, chronicling 95 years of his life and times, as well as observations and keen insight into the events in the community, country and world which shaped them. Written in a good-humored and entertaining manner, his story is well worth reading, both to his contemporaries and especially to those of the generations which have followed him. He has kindly given permission for his biography to be reprinted in its entirety on this website.
Martin Laibow's last years were spent as a resident of Florida. He passed away at home at the age of 97 in March of 2010.
At the age of 95 I think I have certain rights and obligations. One of those rights is to express my thoughts in any way I like consistent with decency and honesty, and one of the obligations is to try to give the generations which have followed mine some sense of the culture and mores of the twentieth century in the United States.
The changes that have taken place in the world since I first appeared in 1912 are the most amazing and mind-shattering since the beginning of written history. Not only in industrialization and technology, but in the mutations of cultures and thinking.
I have seen the vanishing of the horse in an agrarian society, replaced by the ubiquitous private automobile and the concept of personal independence. I have seen a society living on isolated farms and in small country towns, dependent on their own devices for diversion, dependent in the main on local (often weekly) newspapers become jaded with an hourly bombardment of world news and sophisticated with the greatest artists, comedians, actors and musicians appearing before them daily in the universal electronic media of radio and television. I have seen a world in which telegraphic and telephone communication was slow, difficult and expensive explode into a world of quick, cheap and easy personal contact by cell phone, personal radio and the Internet. In the world of my birth all calculations were slow, error-prone and mostly laboriously handwritten; today, the computer is universal and the whole world runs on silicone chips.
I have seen, too, in my lifetime, evil multiplied on a scale that even Satan himself must envy, and public morals decayed to a level Boss Tweed would have blushed at.
The role of women has been changed to make them the same as men in all but biology, and even there science has been able to make gender alterations. Hospitals in 1912 were places to go to die; today they are great sanctuaries of hope and life. Diseases, the very names of which are today curiosities, were rampant. Tuberculosis (consumption), rickets, malaria, diphtheria, smallpox and whooping cough were the scourge of young and old alike. Families had many children in the hope that at least a few of them would survive to adulthood to take care of their aging parents.
Social ills were commonplace. In 1900 a Category 5 hurricane devastated Galveston, Texas to the same extent that Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans in 2005, but the very idea of government aid was unthought of and probably unthinkable. The outpouring of aid was completely from the private sector, from the pocketbooks and hearts of charities, churches and individuals. Galveston rebuilt Galveston.
A man worked a full day for his dollar; the work week was six days and the work day most often was ten hours. The 8-hour-day was a dream in the eyes of mad anarchists and “Wobblies” — members of the International Workers of The World. Only a few unions existed, and they were mostly of highly skilled artisans, although a few visionaries like David Dubinsky had begun to organize immigrants in the garment trades in New York.
An old person, when I was an infant, was someone who might have reached the grand age of 50 and who was ready to die. Retirement was unheard of; pensions were only for the very rich who didn’t need them anyway.
A man worked for one employer for his entire working life and was involuntarily shown the door (sometimes with a gold watch, mostly with nothing) when he could safely be replaced with another pair of hands willing to work for less. Industrial accidents were very common and the injured were left to fend for themselves.
Charles Dickens’ A Tale Of Two Cities begins with the colossal statement “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” So it was with my century. It began still veiled in Victorian hypocrisy, dense with the fog of laissez-faire capitalism and the idealistic Marxian reactions of socialism and communism and ended with a vast network of government regulations over every phase of life in the West and the total collapse of the Russian communist empire in the East.
China at the time of my entrance into my century was a tethered giant held by a thousand threads by the Lilliputians of the commercially greedy European powers. India was completely subservient to the British Raj which was happily taking the products of her starving millions and devoting them to her own aggrandizement as the world’s greatest military, financial and economic empire.
My own United States was in the throes of its own dreams of worldwide empire under the banner of Manifest Destiny, but even with that the fierce idealism which forced the simple farmers, planters and businessmen of the Colonies to suffer the agonies of The Revolutionary War and which drove millions of European peasants to leave their homelands for a new land of freedom kept a level of balance which recognized that we had so much here that we didn’t need to take over the rest of the world. The century ended with a grudging recognition that we have a responsibility to be part of the but not to own it.
The Spanish-American War ended in 1898. The United States owned the Philippine Islands. William Howard Taft said “We owe a responsibility to our little brown brothers!” and a popular jingle of the day said He may be a brother of William H. Taft/ But he ain’t no brother of mine!
Racism, segregation, anti-Semitism and anti-foreign sentiment have always been endemic in the United States psyche, and in 1915 the most wildly popular motion picture was Cecil B. DeMille’s Birth Of A Nation, which ennobled and sanctified the Ku Klux Klan and made a virtue of denigration of an entire race of humanity. Today, while there are still pockets of racism and still resurgences of anti-Semitism, it is no longer government policy and is frowned upon in every meaningful context. To that extent we have developed.
My personal century is six years less than 100 years, and in retrospect (which is what this book is all about) if I had to put it in one phrase, I would say “It’s better than it was!”
Will the next century be better than this one? For the answer to that, I suggest you give me a call in 2112 and we’ll discuss it over a cup of Starbuck’s latest something.
Writing has been defined as the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. I would go farther and define the act of writing an autobiography as the art of applying honesty of intention to honesty of execution within the limits of yesterday’s fantasies.
As one starts the process of putting down one’s own life on an actual sheet of paper, the natural process of lying to oneself begins. We tend to exaggerate our best features and minimize our warts and freckles to ourselves and others in everyday life as it is, and we will keep on doing it in what we write — if we don’t hold ourselves in with the heavy controlling hand of absolute honesty.
It was easy for me now, at the ripe old age of 94, to recognize the stupid, foolish, ugly and dishonest things I did when I was younger (up to yesterday). It was hard at first for me to put those things down on paper (well, all right, type them into a computer) but as I faced the truth I discovered I hadn’t been all that stupid, foolish, ugly and dishonest after all. I had been a human being doing what human beings do so well — being imperfect on the road to perfection. Then it became increasingly easy to write about my mistakes.
I recommend the process of the two applications I mentioned above. You will find, as I did, that after the first discomfort of the seat of the chair wears off, so will the discomfort of facing your own honesty slip away and you will be not only accustomed to the chair, but to the fun of being honest again.
Telling the truth can be fun after you get used to it.
When I first started to write this autobiography I thought it would be interesting for my family and friends to experience with me the vast changes in our physical and mental conditions in the years of the 20th century.
Surely not since the days of Mu and Atlantis has the life of the ordinary man been so surrounded with material well being, medical and psychiatric knowledge and care, spiritual understanding and tolerance and such a wide diffusion of literacy, education and knowledge.
And surely, too, not since the dark days of Atlantis’ mad self-destruction has there been such hatred, religious intolerance and extremism, xenophobia carried to the depths of mindless “patriotism” and sheer criminal lust and negativism rampant in our material world.
I have tried to chronicle fairly, honestly and openly my personal life, the influences many have had on me as well as my personal influence on the many with whom I have come in contact on my journey through this phase of my existence. I cannot deny that this book is filled with my personal prejudices, views, phobias, emotions and feelings, but that’s what this life is all about, isn’t it?
I started writing this autobiography feeling sorry for the tough row I had to hoe in my sad life. The original title was My Life And Hard Times.
Then I discovered two things as I wrote: My life has been rich, rewarding, interesting, exciting and filled with the magic of Growth. It wasn’t really hard at all. So I changed the title to My Life And Not Very Hard Times.
It’s been a great life and I’m looking forward very eagerly to continuing it in the next Chapter, ¬ when I return, as Ben Franklin put it in his epitaph, “…Rewritten and rebound in new covers…”
Constantly I am struck by the amazing recollections which come to my mind of days, people, names, conditions and events of days past which I could have sworn had long since vanished from the remotest depths of my mind.
As I write pictures rise up — sharp, vivid, accurate, detailed photographs of scenes not thought of in almost a century. In what remote recess of my brain did the clear street scene of the night the shoe store burned down on Broadway in Camden when I was no more than 2 years old, or the bright vista of the statue of Christopher Columbus in Forest Hills Park, also in Camden.
What vast deeps of our mental oceans hold those sunken treasures of our years? Surely Bill Shakespeare was on to something when he had Hamlet say There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy!
I did not write this autobiography to give anyone pleasure or to even any old scores. I am far beyond that, now. I write it because I want myself, my younger friends and my progeny to know a little of what made me and how I and the times I lived in acted and reacted on each other.
1. Meshpuchah (perhaps from Hebrew) An extended family which in the middle eastern tradition includes not only blood relatives to almost any degree, but also friends and neighbors from the same original geographical location
2. Melamed (Hebrew, Learned man) Any adult in the Orthodox Jewish culture who could not otherwise make a living. Such a person taught children the rudiments of the elementary school.
Not to be confused with rabbi (originally a teacher, later a spiritual leader of a congregation)
3. Boychik (English, boy, Yiddish chik), An affectionate way of addressing any small male child.
The literal meaning would be “little boy” but the term was often applied to any male of any age when a strong point was to be made.
4. Cheder (Hebrew, a place of learning) The elementary grades of every Jewish community’s public school system. Male children began their study of the sacred texts at the age of 4 and continued cheder studies until the Bar Mitzvah (Son Of The Covenant) ceremony to enter into responsible manhood at the age of 13. Any further religious education (usually for the rabbinate) was at the Yeshiva.
5. Goyim (Hebrew. Plural of goy, a pagan, a non-Jew, a barbarian) A pejorative term applied especially to any Christian. Rarely used with a positive connotation.
6. Arbeiter Ring (Yiddish, Workman’s Circle) A Jewish immigrant’s organization, originally of laboring men. Later, membership was opened to small businessmen as well. This organization combined all the elements of a labor union, savings and loan, social club, fraternity and political club. While it still exists as an organization, it has lost most of its meaning to second and third generation American Jews.
7. Landsleit (German, people from the same land) All members of a group who came originally from the same geographic area or community in their land of origin. Retirees in Florida who belong to a Pennsylvania or Wisconsin Society are a good example of landsleit.
8. Pilpul (Hebrew, frazzled threads) Word-by-word and letter-by-letter interpretation and analysis of any text, commentary or phrase of the Books of the Old Testament and the Talmudic commentaries on them. Pilpul is the normal practice of theologians of every religion and of the Honorable Justices of The United States Supreme Court.
9. Sanhedrin (Hebrew, Court) Originally, in Jewish history,, a legal conclave which combined the functions of a religious and secular Supreme Court, rendering verdicts on accusations of infractions of theological and secular laws In medieval times, a Sanhedrin was an adjunct to the Talmudic Academies in Palestine, rendering final judgements and responsa to important religious questions from the scattered Jewish communities over the world To serve on a Sanhedrin was perhaps the ultimate accolade to anyone for a lifetime of devout and continuous Talmudic scholarship. It was a rare honor.
10. Ausgegrint (Yiddish, no longer green) To be “green ” was, to the immigrant world, to be raw, ignorant, uncouth and unlettered in the new ways of the new land. The terms “greenhorn” and “greenie” derive from this epithet.
11. Gvir (Hebrew) A rich man.
12. Shtetlach (German, plural of shtetl) small rural villages or hamlets with a relatively large proportion of Jews in their population mix.
13. Hasidic (Hebrew, descriptive adjective of Hasid, a wise man) Referring to a Jewish cult which originated as a rebellion of rural, ignorant, peasant-like Eastern European Jews against the very strict, fanatical insistence on observance of every letter of Jewish laws imposed on them by a caste of elite highly-educated priest-like figures.
The Hasidim (plural of Hasid) became in their turn an extremely fundamentalist in-group with an even stricter insistence on obedience to their interpretation of Jewish laws under their own royal, hereditary class of Rabbis who went so far as to have their own individual regal courts and nobility. The Hasidim are characterized by their slavish adherence to a particular Rabbi to the extent of great enmity between the followers of one Rabbi (who is always referred to as the Rebbe) and those of other, competing Rebbes.
14. Halachah (Hebrew, wisdom or literally, an opening-up) A 19th century movement which swept up many young Eastern European Jews as a kind of passport to the industrial and intellectual revolutions going on in Europe. For the first time in centuries young Jewish minds were able to relate to a world which was not bounded solely by Torah and Talmud.
15. Schver tze zein a Yid! (Yiddish): Literally, “Hard to be a Jew!”
16. Ha’am Sefir (Hebrew) The Jewish people, The People of the Book. The Book, of course was the Torah and the attendant commentaries, the Talmud.
17. Rabbonim (Heb., pl.) Rabbis. A Rabbi originally was not in any sense a religious or spiritual leader, but a teacher. The term later became a term applied to any man of outstanding learning and wisdom. Among the Chasidim the term was corrupted to Rebbe quickly having connotations of holiness and supernatural greatness attached to it.
18. Rebbe (corruption of Rabbi, which see).
19. Pogroms (Russian) A government policy of harassment and partial extermination of the Jewish population of specific areas. Pogroms were often used by a corrupt governmental hierarchy to shift the attention of the peasantry and the small middle class from the corruption and mismanagement of the Czar’s regime.
20. Mouzhik (Russian) a generic term for peasant but to the Eastern European Jew the moujzhk was the epitome of brutality, licentiousness, ignorance and general depravity.
21. Kashruth (From Hebrew Kosher, clean) A system of dietary and health laws from the strictures set forth in the Book of Deuteronomy in the Torah which govern every detail of the household’s operation for the observant Jew.
22. Tref (Hebrew, unclean) Any food, utensil or observance not in accordance with the particular tenets of Judaism required to be observed by an Orthodox Jew. The outstanding example of tref is the pig and everything connected with it.
23. Vie is geschriben in torah? (Yiddish) Where is it written in the Torah? The final, crushing riposte to any unsupported claim with which a disputant may differ.
The Hard Times
My parents, David Aaron and Manya (Ourin) Laibow, were part of the massive 1880-1914 wave of Eastern European Jews who fled the pogroms and other forms of virulent anti-Semitism which have scarred the Christian world for many centuries. They had lived, I heard, in the Ukraine in at least two places: Kiev and the province of Yekaterinslav Gubernya. In 1905, with four children, they somehow managed to get to Germany and take immigrant passage on the German liner Westernland, whose American port of call was Philadelphia. When they landed they spoke only Yiddish and Russian.
I have no information on how or when the individual members of the whole extended family — the meshpuchah1 came to this country, but when I was about 4 years old I knew that ours had in it my mother’s parents, Zayda (Grandfather) and Baba (Grandmother) Ourin, my mother’s younger sisters (my aunts) Rose, Elizabeth, Sophie (all Russian-born) and their American-born youngest sister Esther. These family members and their children, for reasons completely inscrutable to my young understanding, lived in Philadelphia.
On my father’s side there was only his older brother Vladya (whom I knew as Uncle Willy) who lived in some magic, faraway place called New Haven.
My grandfather Ourin was, I believe, either a rabbi or a melamed. I remember him as a kindly old man with a whitish-yellowish forked beard, always with pleasant words for his often-impish grandchildren. Grandmother Ourin, on the other hand, was a fearsome figure — rigid back, stern face, quick to criticism. I loved my zayda, but feared my baba. My aunts (except Aunt Esther, who never married) all had their own families.
Aunt Rose’s Russian-born husband, Hyman Rosen, was a kind man who was always in some kind of mercantile enterprise. From my childish vantage-point, they were pretty well off financially.
They lived in Philadelphia and had 4 children: Julius, who played the violin, Ida, a pretty girl, Albert, about my own age and Gilbert, a runny-nosed brat whom I disliked.
Aunt Elizabeth was married to Dr. David Sidlick, a dermatologist who had reached, I understand, quite a high level of his profession. I know he was on the staff of Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, which was (and is) a very prestigious place. I believe he was born in this country, or else was brought here at a very early age, because he spoke a very erudite, unaccented English. Of their two sons the eldest, Leonard, became a dentist and Willard, the younger, followed in his father’s medical footsteps and became an MD.. I liked both boys, although I was always very jealous of their elegant home, their toys and their father who spoke the English language without a “foreign” (read Jewish) accent. I did not, however, envy them their mother. Aunt Elizabeth had a stormy temper and she gave fresh meaning to words like virago, shrew and termagant.
Aunt Sophie, on the other hand, always seemed to her husband and me to be a gentle, retiring soul whose life seemed to be wrapped up in her home. Uncle Abe Krasnoff was a broker of some sort in what I vaguely remember as the raw wool trade. Their sons, Sidney and Howard, were several years younger than I. Uncle Abe, a short, fat, jolly kind of man who also spoke unaccented English, was one of my favorite relatives because he always had a kind word for me.
Uncle Dave’s father, whom I was always taught to address as Uncle Mitchell was a Merchant Tailor (always in capital letters, thank you!) with a shop in the small nearby town of Merchantville, NJ. There was some sort of familial relationship involved with Aunt Pearl, his first wife. I have no personal memory of her, since she died in the great flu epidemic of 1917, but I seem to remember something about her being related in some way (first cousin, maybe?) to the Ourin family, so when her son David Sidlick married my aunt Elizabeth Ourin, there was something for the family tongues to wag over! That didn’t keep those same tongues from wagging in a different direction when finally Uncle Mitchell Sidlick, after many years as a widower, decided to marry a lovely, (to me, anyhow) jolly, outgoing friendly lady by the name of Marta with two almost grown daughters Bella and Bluma.
The fury was great among the Ourin sisters and the venom flowed freely at the family Sunday and Passover get-togethers. So deep was the anger that I was forbidden ever to address the lady as Aunt, but always to refer to her as Mrs. Sidlick!
I loved to visit them in Merchantville, to look through his books of fabric samples and lady’s and gentleman’s styles. I also loved her grape arbor (the first I had ever seen or, indeed, ever heard of), in their back yard. I also made sure I called her Aunt Marta and I don’t recall ever getting caught.
Uncle Abe Krasnoff’s father also lived in Philadelphia. I always addressed him as Mr. Krasnoff. I liked him because he always had a smile for me and addressed me as boychik..
My father’s brother Vladya, the one who lived in faraway New Haven, had two daughters. I met one, Bessie, when I was about 14, and immediately fell in love with her. She was bright, happy, smart and above all, didn’t laugh at me and my dreams.
The meshpuchah included Martin Zubcov, a collateral member of the Ourin family who lived in our home as a boarder from the time of my earliest recollection until after World War II when he married and left to form his own family. He was known as Big Martin and I as Little Martin even after I grew to be 6 inches taller than he. I liked him immensely because he always treated me like a real person. He listened gravely to me, answered my questions and talked to me as one human to another.
There were also non-relatives like Mr. Sagan, who faithfully attended the family affairs and disputations. I don’t recall there ever being any distinction made between bloodline members and others in any way. The meshpuchah was the binding force that made a unit, more than blood relationships ever could.
That was the whole American meshpuchah, and believe me, that was quite enough for one 4-year-old to handle.
THE HOME AWAY FROM HOME
Opportunities in Europe were limited for everyone, even for the nobility. Imagine, then, how much more limited the opportunities were for that despised, rejected, poverty-stricken tattered group of Jews in the Czarist Russian Orthodox Empire!
My father was evidently a
carpenter and/or cabinetmaker in Russia, because when he came to America he was able to get a
job with the J.G. Brill Co. in southwest Philadelphia. This then-
He must have been an excellent carpenter because he rose from the position of rough carpenter, working on his knees laying the floors of trolley cars, to the exalted position of straw boss. Not only was he promoted (a greenhorn, and even worse, a Jew greenhorn at that!) but he was bringing home the amazing amount (in 1910) of $9 every week. But in my memory he was much more than a worker with wood. I don’t have any idea of the depth of his education, other than that, like every Jewish boy of his generation he was part of the Jewish tradition of Love Of Learning. He must have gone to cheder and perhaps beyond, because this man, at whose rough foreign Jewish accent I cringed, had a sharp, incisive mind that today I look on with amazement. He had a deep and abiding interest in the world around him, especially the world of politics.
I remember once, when I was about 11 years old, asking him (for my school homework) who the members of President Harding’s cabinet were. In his heavy accent he reeled them off — every one of their names, and positions — not missing one. I am literate, educated, smart, deeply involved in today’s political picture, but I cannot — and never could — tell you the names and positions of more than a very few of the members of any president’s cabinet beyond maybe the secretaries of State, Defense or Treasury. And I defy most Americans to do more than that. Yet this immigrant, this foreigner, this man of whom I was so ashamed, could rattle them off without even pausing to think about it!
My parents were of that generation of young Jews in Eastern Europe in the late 19th century who were disgusted with the evils and ills of the world around them. They despaired of any change in the flagrantly unfair culture. All the dice were loaded against them, and they could find no solace or solution in the traditional Judaism into which they had chosen to have been born. Their rebellion found its outlet in what was called Freethinking.
Its principles were never explained to me, but I gathered that it was a mixture of Marxist socialism (with a small “s” and never to be confused with communism, which they abhorred), atheism or agnosticism — depending, I suppose, on how one felt that day — and an extremely strong idealism of the innate goodness of Man. This was, of course, combined with a fear and hatred of all goyim, especially Catholics, of any sort.
One of the ways in which the Freethinkers brought themselves and their beliefs together in Russia was through an organization (oh, how we Jews love organizations!). The Arbeiter Ring became the philosophical home of all the estranged young Jews. In their new country it was the center of all their lives — meeting-place, social club, small-loan society, debating club and above all the forum for these idealists to voice their frustrations and ambitions to each other’s often deaf ears.
Like most organizations of newly arrived immigrants, the various chapters of the Arbeiter Ring were grouped around the former cities or villages in Europe. The one to which my parents belonged was no exception. Jews from the Ukraine predominated in it, and were automatically a part of our meshpuchah.
NO RELIGION, NO POLITICS
One of my most enduring memories is the Sunday afternoon gatherings of the meshpuchah at the home of one or another of its members. The stereotype of the rich, brilliant Jew certainly didn’t apply here. These were laborers, craftsmen, petty businessmen, peddlers, clerks and almost anything else they could do to support their families in this Goldener Medina — this Golden Country. They shared one thing, though. They were disputatious!
It made no difference at whose home the tribal grouping took place. Every Sunday before the gathering began my mother (just, I’m sure, as every other wife did with her husband) would say to my father: “Remember, Aaron (I never heard her call him by his given name of David) no religion and no politics!
As well say to the Delaware River “Remember, Del, no tides and no waves!” My father would meekly agree. I’m sure he meant it, too, but when the men sat down ostensibly to play cards around the table and the women had gone into another room, it didn’t take long for pinochle to vanish and the opinions on every conceivable subject in the known universe to start to fly in a dozen different directions.
No religion or politics? What else was there to talk about, for heaven’s sake! These men, who worked all kinds of hours at all kinds of jobs during the week for pittances had only this one precious hour to express their thoughts about everything. They brought their desires, their interests, their dissatisfactions, their triumphs and failures to the weekly congress and there debated the fate of God and the world up, down and sideways in both directions.
THE THIRD SYNAGOGUE
There is a Jewish folk story of two Jews shipwrecked on a desert island. After years of isolation a ship finally stops at the island and the captain is rowed ashore to rescue the castaways.
The two Jews ask the captain to look at what they have accomplished during their long years of abandonment. They take him to one end of the island and show him a synagogue that they tell him they have built together for one of the men.
Then they take him to the other end of the island and show him another synagogue that they have jointly built for the other man.
They then take the captain to the center of the island and proudly show him yet another synagogue.
“Wait a minute!” the confused seaman says. “There are only two of you here, yet you show me three synagogues. Who’s the third one for?”
“Oh,” the castaways answer, “That’s the one neither one of us would be caught dead in!”
My father’s landsleit had the same kind of ideology. Not only did they have at least two ideas on every subject, they always had a third side none of them would be caught dead with, but which they trotted out whenever it suited their debating purposes. What congressmen these men would have made!
Suffice it to say, I remember listening on the fringes of their often-heated discussions and hearing how every topic — no matter how innocuous — quickly became the springboard for disputes about either religion or politics, or usually, about both intertwined.
These theological/secular/philosophical arguments never involved all of the male meshpuchah members. Some of them, like Mr. Sagan, sat in open-mouthed awe at the scholars’ pilpul , from time to time uttering an astonished “Takeh? Azoi!” (Really? Is that a fact!). Others simply nodded or shook their heads but rarely ventured onto the grounds occupied by the real disputants — of whom my father was always one.
Nothing, of course, was ever resolved; the fun was in the release of frustrations in a type of howling at the moon. The next Sunday when the Sanhedrin again took up, the positions would most probably be completely reversed. So what? Sufficient unto the Sunday the argument thereof.
Camden — 1912 – 1925
CAMDEN, NEW JERSEY, in the early years of the 20th century was a vibrant, thriving center of manufacturing activity set at the western edge of the most thriving truck farming area in the nation. Located just across the Delaware River from the major port of Philadelphia, it had a very large inferiority complex about its huge neighbor cross-river and its own place in the industrial world.
So Camden found it necessary to be superior to Philadelphia in everything. Philadelphia drew its drinking water from the polluted Delaware and Schuylkill rivers; Camden had pure water from artesian wells. Philadelphia had William Penn’s grid of narrow streets; Camden had wide streets and boulevards, curving and intersecting at pleasing angles. Philadelphia had a stodgy, poor-quality public-school system; Camden had excellent , innovative public schools. Philadelphia had obsolete horse-drawn fire engines; Camden had the first completely motorized fire department in the country. Philadelphia had the Philadelphia Rapid Transit (PRT), a hodgepodge of trolley lines and a creaky subway-elevated system. PRT charged 7-1/2 cents for a single ride with a complicated system of free passes and 3-cent transfers that made rapid transit a joke for many of its riders; Camden had the Public Service Co. — an integrated transportation system whose 5¢ fares and excellent service were the envy of every Philadelphian who encountered it.
Camden was served by the two major railroad lines of the area: the Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia and Reading. It had an outstanding interurban trolley service, its own entertainment houses, an amazingly fine public library system, an honest city government, in contrast to the across-the-river giant once memorialized in McLure’s Magazine with the alliterative title of Corrupt and Contented..
Camden, the county seat of Camden County, was a great industrial center. Some of the great names of that period are still familiar, including Victor Talking Machine Company (RCA Victor) and Campbell’s Soup Company.
My parents moved to Camden about 1909 or 1910 so that my mother could drink the healthy Camden artesian-well water and regain her health. The move was successful; her health returned and best of all (for me, anyway), I came on the scene!
I was born at home November 23, 1912. In those years, especially in the minds of poorer people, hospitals were not only a waste of money but dangerous, too because they were the place where you went to die. Midwives attended childbirth. Doctors were called in only in extremis.
I was the youngest of six children, and the snickering joke about me by the older siblings for years was that I was “an accident” because there was a 6-year age gap between me and my next oldest sister.
My parents had five children before me. My eldest sister Rose was 15 when I was born. Following her was 13-year-old Louis, Ann, 11, Julius, 9 and Esther, 6. Of all six children, only Esther and I were born in this country.
My original Hebrew name was Michel Itzik (Michael Isaac). The Jewish superstition of never naming a child after a living person for fear of bringing down the Evil Eye makes me wonder who these forebears after whom I was named might have been. I never learned because I am told that my ausgegrint siblings felt that this was too foreign and would probably stigmatize me for the rest of my American life. Because of them my name was changed to Martin Mitchell. Maybe they were right, but when I think of the fame of Isaac Bashevitz Singer, I wonder. Edward Bernard Singer certainly doesn’t have quite the same ring, does it?
MOVIN’ ON UP!
Baring Street is a one-block street running near the busy commercial thoroughfares of Broadway and Kaighn Avenue, one-half block of Broadway. It runs north from Kaighn Avenue to Chestnut Street, in downtown Camden. There, in a narrow rowhouse next door to Kligman’s corner grocery, I entered the Laibow family.
My early memories of that house have two things that lead me to believe that my family had already climbed at least a little from poverty. In the tiny vestibule was a technical marvel of the time — a Columbia Grafonola (competitor of Victrola) and right next to it, those tokens of upward mobility: a rubber plant and a heavy glazed pottery umbrella stand.
The long block of tightly-packed row houses was racially mixed. I am sure of this because, I was always getting “lost” and winding up at the home of a lovely black lady who always gave me ginger-snaps and other delicious things I never got at home. I think of this nice lady with nostalgic recollections of the happy times I spent at her house.
I also remember the irresistible lure of the fire house where Baring Street dead-ended at Kaighn Avenue. I would hang around outside the big wooden doors looking in at the bright red, shiny brass and gleaming nickel plate of the big steam pumper, parked with its huge headlights glaring out at the street ready to roll when the big alarm gong clanged out its imperative message. I even learned something about applied physics one day when the apparatus was out responding to a call, I ventured inside and timidly touched the pipe jutting out of the floor at the pumper’s parking spot. I found out very quickly that steam to prime the pumper came up from the basement through a very hot pipe. I think my dislike for touching strange equipment must stem from that experience!
But Baring Street was only a brief introduction to the life I was to spend in a much more upscale part of Camden from 1916 to 1923. The Laibow family, enriched by the Herculean labors of my father at the New York Shipyards where the United States was busily building both warships and merchant shipping in preparation for World War I, was looking at a higher horizon. The lovely neighborhood of Parkside with its semidetached houses and green lawns, beckoned.
The house we moved to, 1226 Princess Avenue, was in a quiet block in an almost suburban area of relatively newly developed homes. Our block was probably the most desirable because it was very close to Haddon Avenue.
Haddon Avenue was a busy commercial street with many small businesses to satisfy one’s shopping needs, double trolley tracks for transportation to all other parts of Camden, including the Pennsylvania Railroad ferries to Philadelphia, the great industries like Campbell Soup, R. M. Hollingshead Waxes and Victor Talking Machine. They ran to that magic place “downtown, to Munger & Long, Camden’s own big department store and the new Lyric Vaudeville/movie Theater.
At its other end, Haddon Avenue continued out to suburbs like Haddon Heights, Collingswood and Haddonfield and places with exotic names like Marlton and Medford.
Kaighn Avenue, another double-trolley-tracked major business artery, intersected Haddon Avenue nearby. When it crossed Haddon Avenue it lost its commercial character entirely and became Baird Boulevard, lined with semi-detached gray stone residences where the “rich” (non-laboring class, in our lexicon) people lived.
Three streets —Haddon Avenue, Baird Boulevard and Park Boulevard, a looping treelined street with a grassy median running from Haddon Avenue around to Baird Boulevard, at the entrance to Forest Hills Park (which gave Parkside its bucolic name) formed an enclosure of the 4 streets where I lived, played and learned for the next five years. These streets — Princess, Kenwood, Langham and Empire — were my world from 1916 to 1923.
LIFE ON PRINCESS AVENUE
The 1200 block of Princess Avenue had two anchors. At the Wildwood Avenue corner to the west stood Parkside Elementary School. The Baird Boulevard corner, to the east, was graced with a gray stone church. To me, a 4-year-old coming from the confined streetscape of Baring Street, this was living in a whole new wide country.
I felt the school, with its vast playground was surely equal in size and majesty to all the rest of Camden County, while the church, set in acres of neatly-tended lawn, could certainly have lost the Cathedral at Chartres in its massive shadow. Since I had never heard of Chartres, I was happy to be in the presence of two such noble edifices on the same block where I now lived and felt somehow ennobled by their majestic presence..
My sense of awe at our new status became even greater when I discovered that our next door neighbor was a) an Attorney (surely some sort of nobility), b) Jewish and c) had a son about my own age with the totally American name of Roswell Natal! Imagine — Roswell!
Our new house had a front porch with a striped canvas awning, a lawn, a side yard, electric lights (not gas), a gas stove instead of Baring Street’s wood-burner, a parlor, a dining room as well as a kitchen and even a summer kitchen!
Behind the house was a real back yard with real grass and real bushes. Upstairs we had a real bathroom with a real white bathtub, and enough bedrooms for everybody in the family! I was awestruck at all this splendor. I quickly discovered, however, that even this Eden had its forbidden fruit.
Up the street, on the other side of Baird Boulevard, two very long blacks away was a high stone wall which seemed to stretch forever. Inside, we told each other in hushed, fear-filled tones, was a convent! [Convent of the Dominican Sisters of the Perpetual Roasary- PMC]!
What a convent might be, what dread mysteries might be hidden behind that high gray wall, what terrors lurked there for us Jewish children we did not know. We only knew that it was the home of evil which wanted only to thrust out, capture us and convert us. The words convent and convert were only meaningless sounds to our frightened ears, but they conveyed a sense of total terror of some horrible unknown fate. We dared each other to walk by the convent, but as I recall, the walk was more like a staggering run of pure panic.
In the main, though, my preschool life on Princess Avenue settled into a pleasant Norman Rockwell kind of time. Even though by now it was wartime, there was absolutely no effect on a 5-year-old except for two things which stand out in my memory of that time.
One was about my father and our house. He was working long hours at the New York Shipyards in suburban Gloucester, which meant he had to get up extremely early in the morning, catch a variety of trolleys, work a 12 or 14 or 15-hour day and then take the long trolley rides back home, to fall into bed and get up early the next morning to repeat the process.
For some reason which will remain forever unfathomable to me, he decided to put in a bow window in the dining room. He tore out the building wall and hung a tarpaulin over the opening. Summer went; winter came with snow and freezing temperatures. The house grew chilly and stayed that way. My overworked father couldn’t find either the time or the energy to finish what he had started. The house grew increasingly unlivable and became a cause of great friction between my parents. The bow window was eventually installed but my memory is only of the open wall and the arctic winds whooping in..
The other enduring memory I have of that time — and I know the exact day it happened — is of my running on the sidewalk across the street frenziedly waving a little American flag and shouting Armistice! over and over at the top of my lungs. What an armistice might have been I had absolutely no conception, but I know it happened on November 11, 1918. It would be nice to think that I was the one who brought peace between the enemies of The Great War, but somehow I have my doubts about it… But at least I announced it…
Then in September, 1918 I started my public-school career in Miss Kelly’s first-grade class in Parkside Elementary School.
THE GLORY DAYS OF SCHOOL BEGIN
Parkside School was then a one-story red brick structure with perhaps a dozen classrooms. It had a large school yard with a high wooden fence separating the Boys’ and Girls’ Playgrounds. The school yards were cinder-surfaced, and bounded on the street sides by high wrought-iron picket fences whose padlocked gates were opened only just before school started in the morning and when it let out in the afternoon. There was no such idea as using the schoolyard for playing after school hours. Schools were sacred Temples Of Learning, not to be secularized with such pagan, profane things as play when the services were over for the day.
Inside, the wood floors were polished to a gleaming brightness every day. The school had its own peculiar smell of floor polish, waxes and other cleaning materials and even a part of that smell today brings up the whole picture of my years at Parkside School.
They were happy years because of something outside of my knowledge or control. Many of my brothers and sisters had passed through the Camden school system before me, and they had created a mystique that anyone named Laibow was very smart. I inherited this charisma and it went before me like a lantern, lighting the way for my academic success. It was wonderful while it lasted, but it made for much trouble for me in another time, another place, another school.
The Parkside days were not all glory. In the first grade the class project for the year was making potholders for our mothers. I was not bad at cutting out the squares of checkered gingham and stuffing them with a thin layer of cotton batting. Difficulties arose when I had to take the thick, stubby needle, thread it with a slippery cable and sew the edges of the squares together.
All that year, it seems to my sad memory, I struggled with the missed threading and the failed sewing. First grade in Miss Kelly’s class was the scene of my first monumental failure. My poor mother never did get the potholder, but I somehow doubt if she missed it very much. I survived, but barely…
Otherwise, Parkside School was a succession of monumental triumphs. Without my knowing what it meant, it soon became commonplace for me to be told to gather up my things from the cloakroom and take them to another classroom because I was being “skipped”.
I skipped (I think) from first grade to third grade, from third grade to fifth grade (where I was introduced before my time to the magic of writing with ink) and finally from fifth grade I was skipped completely out of Parkside School to an entirely new kind of class which was being tried out for the first time in the educationally advanced Camden public school system.
But, in the meantime, as the screen dialog in the Saturday (silent) serials at the Parkside Movie Theater would tell us, in 1920 we sold the house at 1226 Princess Avenue (new bow window and all) and bought, of all things, a candy store down the street at the corner of Princess and Wildwood Avenues the corner diagonally across from Parkside School!
What impelled my parents, whose business sense was rudimentary and wholly archaic, to buy something like a candy store, with the plethora of hard work and small returns of that time, I cannot guess.
I think it was their innate entrepreneurial tradition that the only way to economic freedom was by being in business for one’s self, and that there was something demeaning to the soul by working for someone else for wages or even for a salary. My parents tried for the best of both worlds; the agreement probably was that my mother would run the store (and the house and family, of course!) and my father would operate his new building contracting business.
The store, at 1177 Princess Avenue, was long, narrow and dark. It had not only the glass showcases for penny candies, cigars and confectionery in elegant boxes, but also a wooden, zinc-lined cabinet for ice cream. This was the real hard work area, because ice cream at that time came in 10-gallon metal cans that sat in a chopped-ice-and-salt mixture to keep the ice cream concrete-hard.
One of the first things my father did when they bought the store was to put in a drainage line so that as the ice melted the water drained directly into the sewer. This labor saving device spared my mother (and the grown children) the ugly task of manually emptying the exaggerated icebox drip pan under the ice cream cabinet.
At the back of the store were three steps leading up to the living area; my mother had to run up and down these steps every time a customer came in. I guess this was considered par for the course, since everybody we knew in our meshpuchah who was in business lived behind or over the store. Living apart from your place of business was foolhardy, the cultural wisdom had it, until you became a gvir.
I don’t remember feeling any loss of status at the move from the house at 1226 to the store at 1177 Princess Avenue. I don’t think I had any status to lose anyhow.
My parents were very smart in how they brought up their children without any outside help. The thing that stays in my memory is how they taught me (without any admonitions or arm twisting) to leave the candy alone in the store. They just left me to discover for myself what living in Hog Heaven was like!
For three days I reveled in every child’s dream world, dipping without hindrance into every delicacy in the store. I surfeited myself on every penny candy delight in the world, stuffing my stomach with taffies, Tootsie Rolls, licorice sticks, fudges, caramels, pinwheels and every other sticky, gooey concoction dear to childhood’s gustatory gourmand dreams.
And then — after the third day — my overworked stomach rebelled. I had the Mother of All Stomach Aches. It took 50 years before I could begin to enjoy the taste of any candy. Maybe there is a spiritual lesson here, as well as a physical one…
THE SWEET SMELL OF PRINTER’S INK
The greatest printer-ink-positive effect of my childhood was, according to my present philosophic belief, that I had chosen to be born into a highly literate family. We were awash in books. As I learned to read I discovered a wealth of complete sets of the works of Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling and O. Henry in our family’s library (top shelves of bedroom closets). I devoured them with an eager hunger for the printed word that has lasted my entire life.
Everyone in my family was possessed by this addiction to print. There is a story (apocryphal, I hope) that my sister Ann at the age of 14 was walking down the street with her nose buried in a book when she kissed a horse! That’s how literate we were! In any case, I was no different from my siblings and, I would guess, my parents. The catchword in my family: “Martin reads every scrap of paper he can get his hands on!” followed me all the time I lived at home. I still have the urge to leave no scrap of paper unread. It’s amazing the amount of useless information you can fill your life with.
I must have been about 8 or 9 years old when I received a fantastic birthday gift. I imagine everybody who was working (my sister Rose, my father and my mother through the proceeds of the candy store) contributed. I was given a full brand-new 20-volume set of the Book Of Knowledge. For those of you who may be reading this now in the 21st century with all its electronic marvels of The Encyclopedia Britannica on a single CD and access to everything in the entire world on the Wide World Web with a single keystroke on a computer, this does not mean much.
But consider a world in which a skilled professional might make as much as $2500 a year and be in the middle class. A world in which most people were barely literate and most working people were manual laborers. A world of poverty where graduation from high school was a phenomenal achievement for one child in a family of many children and where the idea of working only 5 days a week and 8 hours a day was a chimera reserved only for the rich.
Consider a world where a penny for candy for a schoolchild was a once-a-week treat and a new article of clothing was something reserved for Easter or Passover and, maybe, Christmas or Hanukkah.
Now, into this meager kind of world, plug in a family that would (never mind could) pay something like $80 or $100 for books. I can only equate this in today’s world with a family chipping in to buy their youngest child a $10,000 Cray computer and all sorts of sophisticated technical software. Today, as I write this, I stand in awe of what this family group did for me. I had thought for years that I had never had birthday presents, but I had forgotten this. My family had given me the greatest gift of Jewish heritage and culture: Love Of Learning!
For this I shall be forever grateful.
I read all the volumes of the great authors over and over. I read and reread the 20 volumes of The Book Of Knowledge until their bindings were broken and their pages loose and tattered. But even this plethora of print was not enough for my sponge-like thirst for words on paper. Even if I had to kiss a horse I was going to read, read, READ!
About this time I discovered a place with more books than even I could handle — the Camden City Public Library! Here was an even greater Hog Heaven than the candy store had been, and the only indigestion I would get would be the mental kind.
The idea of a lot of branch libraries had not yet taken root; Camden had the main library building of gray limestone Classic Revival, complete with incomprehensible Roman numerals like MDCCCLXXXVII on its facade, names of great authors, poets and philosophers carved on its band course, and an impressive flight of stairs to its main entrance between massive columns, downtown in an old section of Camden at Broadway and Line Streets, not too far from where Walt Whitman, the Good Grey Poet, had lived.
Almost every Saturday morning, either alone or with one or two other seekers after learning, I would walk the few miles (only the rich or the crippled rode) to this new Temple Of Mental Delights. The way led around a large Christian cemetery [Old Camden Cemetery - PMC] , but we would dare each other with brave taunts to climb the stone wall and walk through this grisly space with its tombstones, angels and mausoleums all waiting to reach out with spectral claws for these impious Jews who dared to profane their resting-place. The delicious titillation which filled us as we courageously half-walked, half-galloped through this foreign abode of Death lasted us for the whole coming week. Incidentally, none of the spirits seemed sufficiently interested in us to snatch us and drag us down to their lairs.
If home is where the heart is, the Camden City Library became another home. Not only for the endless vistas of books lining its miles and miles of shelves, but because it was here that I first discovered all the information in the world was available through the long, serene rows of golden oak cabinets. All one had to do was think of a word, look in one of the narrow drawers filled with neatly-indexed file cards and like magic the names and shelf numbers of all the books about that subject were there!
Even if the angelic librarians didn’t wear wings or carry harps, surely their place was Heaven!
At some time (I don’t remember how or when) I received my very own library card and discovered the infinite blessing of taking books home. I had come home to the Elysian Fields.
Some (not all) Saturdays had another magic time, beside the Library. Only a block away from us, at the narrow triangle at the intersection of Haddon and Kaighn Avenues stood the Parkside Theater. Saturday matinees were expensive — admission was a hard-to-come-by dime and the management knew all about sneaking in the exit doors — but for 3 hours you were transported to a world of dazzle, magic and wonder.
The average Saturday bill was three or four one-reelers (Keystone Kops, Fatty Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin or Mack Sennett comedies, sometimes a very boring newsreel, a cliffhanging serial of an interminable number of chapters, of which somehow we never seemed to be able to see all) like The Perils Of Pauline and finally the feature Western film with our cowboy heroes Tom Mix or Hoot Gibson and a pure, unearthly beautiful heroine who spoke in the deathless prose of the subtitles. All this was accompanied by a continuous roar of comments, whistles, snorts, yells and screams of an audience so entranced by the wonders of the huge screen above them that they became part of the show themselves, Over it all spread the piano accompaniment which always seemed to know when to be a part of the movie itself. Oh, magic, thy name was the 10-cent Saturday Matinee!
Part of Saturday afternoon was (when I could con the extra nickel out of some gullible relative) walking down Haddon Avenue about 5 long blocks, past the big vacant lot where the Sells-Floto Circus (never the big one — Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey) would show for a full summer’s week, to the pretzel factory. Here, for a nickel, they would fill the market basket on my arm with a load of broken pretzels! With this manna I would happily endure the long hours at the Princess and share with my (temporary) friends and deny my (equally temporary) enemies. Ah, the euphoria of (some) Saturdays!
Many of our pleasures were simple but exciting to us. One that I remember with fondness was to sit on the curb of Haddon Avenue on a summer Saturday afternoon and watch the long, slow-moving procession of automobiles creeping eastward towards Atlantic City. These automobiles (all owned by the rich, because people like us didn’t even dream of owning an auto) were from Philadelphia and had come on the Pennsylvania Railroad ferries which plied the placid waters of the Delaware River. The cars lined up waiting to get out on the open highway of the new 3-lane White Horse Pike to Atlantic City or the old 2-lane Black Horse Pike to Ocean City or Wildwood.
What excited us was not the cars, but the game of seeing how many makes we could identify by their radiators, emblems and hubcaps. Part of acceptance in the group was the extent of your knowledge of the differences in automobiles that made each manufacturer’s product unique.
The stifling conformity of all the designers marching in lockstep was 50 years in the future. A Buick hubcap was never to be confused with a Stutz or a Winston.
Another pastime was to sit on the Haddon Avenue curbstones (I spent a lot of time on Haddon Avenue curbs) on August evenings and watch the long, long, slow-moving line of horse-drawn wagons from the South Jersey truck farms with their high-piled loads of baskets of ripe tomatoes destined for the Campbell Soup Co.’s huge cannery down on the Delaware River. As night fell the swinging lanterns on the wagons made festoons of light all up and down the long, straight street as the sickly-sweet smell of tomatoes filled the Camden night air..
The wagons would start lining up along Haddon Avenue about 4 o’clock in the afternoon and would still be lined up long after we had gone to bed. The overwhelming, delicious tomato smell lingered in the warm air well into the next morning.
THE BABY RABBI
At about this time in my life another influence came in. I have mentioned the free-thinking of my parents’ generation in Eastern Europe and their turning away from the religious part of their ethnic heritage.
Culturally, emotionally and ethnically they knew they were Jews, and their Jewish feelings and roots were deeply embedded in their psyches. My zayde and baba were deeply, traditionally religious in the unquestioningly observant part of their religious life and it must have been a heavy burden on them that none of their daughters in this new land gave any more than lip service to the core belief of their lives. However, I never heard any words of reproach or, indeed, of comment from my grandparents to my parents or to any of my aunts about their practice or non-practice of Jewish traditions. Looks, sighs, maybe, but not words.
We lived a strange mixture of Jewishness. I remember that Passover was a time of great excitement and celebration in our home; a frenzy of wine-making, cooking, cleaning, preparing for the cleaning out of all leavened bread, laying up of stores of plain and egg matzos, macaroons, and other holiday goodies, trips to buy the once-a-year new (stiff and scratchy) clothes, cramming the youngest child who would ask the Four Questions — a veritable turning upside down of our normal world for about a month in springtime.
None of the other Jewish Holidays like Purim, Hanukkah or even the High Holy Days of Yom Kippur (Day Of Atonement) and Rosh Hashonah (New Year — literally, the Head of the Year) meant very much if anything in our household. Even observance of the most sacred day of the entire Jewish calendar, the Sabbath, had long since gone by the board. The secular pressures of this most secular of all lands had given the final burial to religious observations killed by the Halachah — the Enlightenment — of my parents’ generation.
Into this twisted semi-Semitic environment I discovered my own burgeoning Jewishness.
The Jews of Parkside had in 1920 established Congregation Beth-El. Because so many of these upwardly-mobile Parkside Jews had been of my parents’ background, this Temple (definitely not an Orthodox shul) was part of the Conservative movement of American Judaism. It eschewed the ultra-assimilationist radical mores of the German-American-led Reform movement (no covered heads, organs in the services, services totally in English with only a smattering of Hebrew now and then like a few raisins in a cheap pie and other heretical abominations).
Congregation Beth-El’s small sanctuary, sat alone in an undeveloped field off to one side of Parkside. The services and liturgy were a blend of the traditional and modern; the greatest departure for the old observant generation being that men and women sat together in the nave. The oldsters’ problem was that the nearest Orthodox shul was far and away beyond walking distance. Since no truly believing Orthodox Jew would dream of profaning the Sabbath by riding even an inch, perforce those who lived with their Amerikanische children in Parkside could walk to Congregation Beth-El for minchah (morning), ma’arev (evening), Sabbath and holiday services.
The Rabbi, Solomon Grayzel, was a young man in his first rabbinate. He went on to distinguish himself as an outstanding scholar and rabbi, but to me he was simply the most wonderful man I had ever met.
I became an avid follower of Rabbi Grayzel. I think that if he had been a proponent of devil worship I would have become a devout Satanist. Every Friday night I walked across the fields to Beth-El. I participated in all the rituals, prayed all the prayers, sang all the hymns and responded mightily to the Responsive Readings waiting for the week’s highlight. After the week’s selection from the Torah had been read and the sacred scroll had made its procession around the congregation, Rabbi Grayzel would step forward and give his sermon.
Jesus’ Sermon On The Mount has gotten a better press, but in my 8-year-old eyes it wasn’t even in the same league as the least of Rabbi Grayzel’s Friday night sermons.
So enthralled was I with these magnificent orations that it became a regular event for me to come home after each Friday night service and declaim for the benefit of my parents (and any of my siblings whom I could entrap) everything I could remember of the sparkling discourse I had just been privileged to hear. I wonder now, some 85 years later, how they must have felt at these fulminations from the mouth of a precocious and pretentious kid. Boy, they must have loved me!
I am sure the nickname of The Baby Rabbi was not given as a compliment.
I attended Beth-El completely on my own. My parents had neither the time, interest nor money to become dues-paying members of any religious organization, let alone one frequented by “rich” Jews. Strangely, I do not recall feeling like an outsider. Probably this was because the only function of the Temple I attended was the Friday night Sabbath service.
From this experience I derived much. I absorbed many of the rituals, the hymns and prayers and a sense of the order of the services. I also began to discover in me a feeling of inquiry, of dissatisfaction with the formalization of the belief and lack of inquiry and question. Perhaps this was the major reason why, years later when I was 13, I never became a Bar Mitzvah — a Son of the Covenant and why at 16 I began to examine other belief systems.
THE DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES
My days at Parkside School were thoroughly enjoyable. I don’t remember any childhood traumas and no tragedies darkened my life. Two big things stand out in my memory from the Parkside years. When I was in (I would guess) the third grade, I was called to the principal’s office.
To our childhood mythology the Principal was a mystic deity dwelling in some far-off place called THE OFFICE — a fearsome place of arcane rites and punishments. I had never gone near this den before, and now I was being summoned. My secure little world crashed around my ears!
Then, to compound the dire event, as I walked into Miss [Josephine R.] Klages’ outer office, there sat my mother with a grim look on her face. Also seated there was a girl about my own age and a lady I took to be her mother.
As soon as I walked in, Miss Klages turned to the girl, put a book in her hands and asked her to read from it. The girl started to read a sentence with the word knife, which she pronounced knife.
The same book was thrust into my hands and I was told to read the same sentence. Of course I pronounced knife properly. I was, after all, a product of both the Laibow heritage and of the Camden Public School System! With no explanation I was then told to return to my classroom. Restored to life!
In later years I discovered that the girl’s family had moved to Camden from Philadelphia, where she had been in the 5th grade. She had been placed in the 4th grade in the Camden schools and her parents had appealed this. To prove the justice of the demotion and the superiority of the Camden system of public education, a comparison of a “typical” Camden third-grader and the product of Philadelphia’s poor educational establishment was set up. As I look back, the while deal smacks to me of a setup. My mother, I found out much later, was there only to approve my being — once again — skipped a grade.
The other memory does not have personal connotations, but illustrates the kind of culture in which I lived. My fifth-grade teacher was Mrs. Evans, a fleshy, motherly type with a very pleasant disposition. I was completely shocked and amazed to learn that one of my classmates, Dorothy Evans, was the daughter of our teacher. The very idea that teachers were not only human, but human enough to marry and have children was astounding and somewhat terrifying. It was like discovering that the Olympian gods were not immortal, but just regular people. Ah, the world of innocence of the 1920s!
The halcyon days of Parkside School were interrupted by an exciting event. Sometime in my 5th-grade life the progressive, innovative Camden Public School Board embraced the then brand new idea of the Sanford-Binet Intelligence Tests for Intelligence Quotients (IQs). Scores were supposed to be secret, but somehow it leaked that I and Stanley Wilkes, another boy in the system, had achieved IQ scores of 144. These were, they said, the highest scores ever recorded in Camden County, and were definitely at the Genius Level. This happened at the same time that a fervor for separating the high-achievers from the peasantry was sweeping the national educational establishment, so Camden was creating special classes for the Exceptional, of whom I was certainly a shining member.
An old school building which had seen much better days, in the older part of Camden (not too far from Baring Street) was chosen as the site for the experimental Exceptional Classes and I became a member of the 6X class. Now I rode to class on the Continental Coach Company’s big blue bus every morning (in the afternoon I saved the nickel fare and walked home). I took my lunch with me in a paper bag. I stayed at this school (where the work was just as easy as it had been at Parkside), advancing to the 7X classes, until 1922.
For some reason (perhaps they sold it at a profit?) my parents decided to sell the candy store and move to a rented house on Empire Avenue, still in Parkside.. There we lived for perhaps a year until they bought a grocery/delicatessen store in East Camden, where we moved in 1923.
Of the house on Empire Avenue I have only a few memories. Across the street were several empty lots where my friends and I played sandlot baseball, and where I committed the heinous crime of breaking a window with a batted baseball. My father reglazed the window, and I suffered for the $2 expense. The other memory is of my oldest sister Rose, who by now had married and moved to West Palm Beach in faraway Florida and who had come north to visit us that summer. Her 4-year-old daughter Pearl latched on to me, following me everywhere, calling me “Unca Martin” to the great amusement of my buddies and my overwhelming shame and embarrassment.
THE LAST DAYS IN CAMDEN
The move to East Camden was not a wise move, even for business illiterates like my parents. The neighborhood, on Federal Street was a busy commercial one, but the type of stores on the block were not of the sort which drew food shoppers. The residential areas nearby were of lower-income working people who spent their food dollars at the corner A&P and American Stores.
In addition I am convinced my parents had no idea of how to buy wholesale groceries and delicatessen items, or, even worse, how to compete with the chains. The store was dark and dingy, the lighting poor and the fixtures old and inadequate. Whatever they paid for it was certainly too much.
For me, at 11, none of this meant much. The store’s location was only a block from where Federal Street made a V- split to become two streets — Westfield Avenue and Federal Street. In the triangle of their separation was Mecca — the East Camden Branch of the Camden Public Library. Here was my other home, with good lighting and lots of books.
Camden’s Junior High Schools in those years comprised the 8th and 9th grades and I was assigned to the Cooper B. Hatch Junior High School. About all I remember about Cooper B. Hatch was that it was a big old building some two miles from our store, to and from which I walked four times a day, including lunch. Not only did I not feel imposed upon, but the common wisdom was that any student who came to school on wheels was a) rich, b) sick, c) spoiled or d) all of the above. Walking was so normal that we gave no thought to any other form of travel. I do not argue here better or worse. I just call it as it was.
And here I lived with my mother, father and some (I don’t remember how many) brothers and sisters until the early autumn of 1925 when my parents either sold the store or lost it by some other means. Whichever way, this marked the end of Camden for me and a move to Atlantic City, the World’s Playground.
No Snow On The Boardwalk
the name Atlantic City means
a gambling resort rivaling Las Vegas. The flashy
To those unfamiliar with the New Jersey coast, Atlantic City lies 60 miles east of Philadelphia and 90 miles south of New York as the seagull (sometimes) flies. Absecon Island is a barrier island 7 miles long and no more than 1-1/2 miles wide. On it are four seashore communities — Atlantic City, Ventnor, Margate and Longport. Of these Atlantic City is the largest both in area and population.
The mainland is 7 miles to the west. Several small towns and villages — Absecon, Pleasantville, Linwood and Northfield — are strung out along US 9/NJ 4, the main north-south highway for that area. We used an interesting anomaly in our description of those communities and their rural area: although Absecon Island lay offshore to the mainland, the local argot consistently referred to the communities along US 9 as “offshore”, as in “I went offshore to visit my friends in Linwood”. We never saw any discrepancy in that or in much of the other local inconsistencies.
The Shore Fast Line, our interurban trolley line, ran from its terminus in the heart of Atlantic City, at Virginia Avenue and The Boardwalk — right at Steel Pier — through the offshore communities and Somers Point all the way to Ocean City, some 10 miles to the south, linking these whole area with a “U” of tendon-like steel rails. Thus the pleasure domes of the seashore were tied to the working farms and businesses of the mainland. There was a mutual dislike and distrust, I was to discover, between the old Jersey “skeeters” and the new (to them) “furriners” of the seashore.
THE GRAND TOUR
The Atlantic City of the 1920s to which we had moved was called The Playground of the World, and with very good reason, . It was the Mecca for all those Americans from the landlocked states of the Middle West who had never seen salt water, bathed in the breakers of the Atlantic Ocean, sniffed the briny tang of the ocean air or lazed on the miles of sand of the world-famed Atlantic City beaches.
Along the beach ran the famous Boardwalk, a wooden promenade resting on reinforced concrete frames for five of Absecon Island’s seven mile length. For almost 4 miles, from Rhode Island Avenue (a half-block from our new home) to Albany Avenue, its100-foot width bore two widely separated rolling-chair runways and two wide, herring-bone-planked walkways.
From Rhode Island Avenue north and west to the Inlet and from Albany Avenue south to the vacant lots of Margate, The Boardwalk’s width narrowed to about 16 feet, with only a single rolling chair lane along the desolate wind-swept miles.
On the seaward side of the widest part, six world-famous piers projected out into the waves of the Atlantic. The smallest, at Rhode Island Avenue, was Heinz Pier, built by Pittsburgh’s H. J. Heinz Co. to advertise its line of 57 Varieties of condiments. Everybody — man, woman, child, resident, visitor, black, white or piebald — wore a tiny Heinz plastic pickle pin. The Heinz Pier was the pier of choice for every oldster because it was always open and always free.
Two blocks south, at New Jersey Avenue, was the Garden Pier, sadly only a stump of what must once have been an utterly magnificent structure. Some years before I first saw it in 1925, a fire had ravaged the pier, but enough had been salvaged and rebuilt to make a popular summer theater and bandstand. I remember seeing some of the male members of the chorus of Rudolf Friml’s The Student Prince snatching aquick smoke between acts, and hearing the music of Creatore’s Band wafting across the gently breaking waves to where I stood entranced on The Boardwalk I didn’t have the money to buy a ticket. Just hearing the magic of the band across the water was enough for me.
Three blocks farther south, at Virginia Avenue, was the behemoth of all the Atlantic City amusement piers. Built about 1910 and continually extended seaward, it was the pride of every local booster.
In 1925 it claimed to stretch “A Quarter- Mile At Sea!” and I think they were close to being honest about it. It was a mixture of commercial use (for almost 75 years General Motors maintained its exhibit at The Boardwalk end, where everything GM made was proudly displayed and its newest models always exhibited there first), and on the pier itself a hodgepodge of entertainment was displayed unlike anything anywhere else in the world!
It had a large theater where The Steel Pier Minstrels, Broadway shows and vaudeville acts regularly played daily and Sunday. Its Ballroom hosted the nation’s greatest bands, including John Philip Sousa and the most popular dance bands of the time. The great Hollywood stars were proud to appear there, and I remember Rudy Valee, Frank Sinatra and other famous luminaries of the entertainment world firmament bringing their talents to the Steel Pier.
Out at the end of the pier — way out — was a high wooden structure for what was certainly one of the most unusual acts of the era. On a rickety elevated platform which looked for all the world like a coal mine tipple, trained horses were hoisted to dive into the chilly Atlantic surf 125 feet below. I have since heard that the horses enjoyed it, but I doubt if anyone really took a survey to get their true feelings about leaping down into the waves five times a day.
At Tennessee Avenue, four blocks south of Steel Pier, stood Central Pier. This pier was openly honest about its reason for existence — it was totally commercial. On it were food stands, restaurants, clothing stores, souvenir stands and the like. It may well have been the most popular of all the piers because of its central location and certainly because it was free.
Almost on top of it, it seemed, another two blocks south at Kentucky Avenue, the Steeplechase Pier reared its huge clown mouth entrance. Originally built by the same George Tilyou who created Steeplechase Park on Coney Island in the 1880s, Atlantic City’s Steeplechase Pier was a tremendous attraction for everyone with children or who still had childhood in his heart.
It was filled with rides, slides, air jets that blew up the girls’ skirts, grotesque-mirror galleries and everything else dear to the innocence of those days. It was heaven for every child who ever visited or who lived in The World’s Playground.
Bringing up the Pier Parade along The Boardwalk was the granddaddy of them all. “Captain” John Young, a longtime circus and carnival entrepreneur, had erected the Million Dollar Pier sometime around 1908 when, to paraphrase the late Sen. Everett Dirksen, when you spoke of a million dollars, you were talking about real money. Whether the pier actually cost a million dollars or not is unimportant. In those years, the epitome of the extreme of human speed was sixty miles an hour and the extreme of human expenditure was a million dollars.
Captain Young had a brilliant idea: along with the usual circus acts performing in the auditorium (the only “permanent big top” in the world, he claimed). He created a large open area at the center of the pier where, twice a day, there was a net haul. Hundreds of fish of varied species were caught in the nets and brought up to the goggle-eyed amazement of the onlookers. Many of the visitors had never seen any saltwater fish in their landlocked lives, so the sight of squid, sea trout, deep sea eels and other exotic fauna from the depths was an exciting experience.
THE TOUR CONTINUED
The Boardwalk was not just a wonderful place to walk. Along its seaward side were a small number of what was called pavilions — open, roofed areas with wooden benches which were the favorite haunt of the retired. As I look back from my own retirement, I think how pleasant it must have been to be able to walk a few hundred feet and sit in the shade listening to the murmur of the surf, the shouts of the children and the gossip of the neighbors who would share the pavilion with me.
The landward side of The Boardwalk was an astounding mixture of honky-tonk joints, quality shops, food, chicanery and exhibitions of some of the greatest names in American business.
Cheek by jowl you would find Fralinger’s Salt-water Taffy, Duffy’s Bathhouse, United Cigars, “Professor” Seward’s Fortune-Telling Parlor, famous auction houses selling fine furniture, rugs and paintings and Frank’s Hot Dogs.
At New York Avenue was The Apollo Theatre which, depending on the season, showed Broadway productions or first-run movies. Until 1929 all the other movie houses were on Atlantic Avenue, the wide commercial thoroughfare which ran like a fish’s spine the entire length of Absecon Island from the ocean at Maine Avenue’s Royal Palace Beach to the very tip of Longport seven miles to the south.
The great hotels that made Atlantic City famous in the world of fashion and society for over half a century stood in their majestic splendor along the landward side of The Boardwalk, starting with The Breakers at New Jersey Avenue. Then in order to the south came the St. Charles, the Chalfonte-Haddon Hall, the Shelburne, The Ritz-Carlton, The Ambassador and finally, at Albany Avenue, like a gracious pendant on a magnificent necklace, the newest addition to the line of famous hostelries, The President Hotel. Now, alas, many of these have either been torn down or converted into gambling casinos.
In the time of which I write, though, these famous places were the destinations of the rich, the internationally famous, the Midwest well-to-do and just plain folks who wanted to bathe in the salt water of the Atlantic Ocean, loll in innocent ease on the wide rose/tan sands of the gently shelving beaches and walk on The Boardwalk or sit in sybaritic luxury in the famed wicker rolling chairs, gently propelled by obsequious pushers.
When one considers that the permanent (winter) population of Atlantic City was at most 65,000 and that the summer influx swelled the numbers to four million on a “good” July 4, there had to be some place to put them all (at least for overnight).
There were hundreds — perhaps thousands — of hostelries, inns and just plain rooming houses lining the sidestreets which ran at right angles to the spread of The Beach, two very long blocks back as far as Atlantic Avenue. It was my parents’ hope, I am sure, that they could benefit in some small way from this mighty surge of vacationers every summer.
In 1925, the year of our move to Atlantic City, a great old Atlantic City landmark, occupying the entire block between Mississippi and Missouri Avenues, The Boardwalk and Pacific Avenue, once Rendezvous Park was in the process of demolition and excavation.
Rendezvous Park had been an amusement park in the grand old tradition, with a huge roller coaster, many rides and its own unique feature — direct access to the beach and ocean bathing!
But this great amusement center had one fatal flaw. which doomed it. It was on the land which was just right for the erection of the world’s greatest Convention Center. From its acreage was to rise the massive Atlantic City Convention Hall, still one of the world’s largest unobstructed, clearspan auditoriums and, for that time, the home of the world’s largest pipe organ.
Everyone in the world with access to a TV set has seen the swelling arched roof and the majestic rectangular Doric columns before which all the contestants pose before Miss America is chosen and before which Bert Parks (and now his successors) have sung Here she is — Miss America!
But all these wonders paled before one attribute which some smart PR person in the teens of the 20th century had assigned to this American Riviera, warmed by the Gulf Stream in the cold northeastern winters.
Let even one presumptuous flake of snow dare to alight on the wondrous stretch of fir planking girding the resort’s strand, and an army of shovellers and broom-wielders backed with a phalanx of mechanical sweepers and trucks appeared like magic, rolling up the streetend ramps to deploy along the entire length of the wooden necklace and attack every crystal flake which dared sully the immaculate planks of the sacred Boardwalk.
No matter that the rest of the island might be strangled in ten feet of snowbanks making passage of any street or sidewalk impossible for days on end. No matter that the entire commerce of the island might be choked off by unplowed, unswept, untended drifts of snow and heaping piles of ice. All the not inconsiderable efforts of this community were expended in one direction, and one direction alone:
No snow on the Boardwalk…It’s just like May!
ROSE AND HYMAN ROSEN, MY MATERNAL AUNT AND uncle had preceded us in the move to Atlantic City. They lived in a 3-story, beach-block house at 215 Victoria Avenue, a 1-block-long street sandwiched between Rhode Island and Vermont Avenues in the “Inlet” section of town and running from Oriental Avenue to The Boardwalk. That it was a very long distance from the actual inlet at the far northeastern end of the island seemed not to have mattered to those who had given this section its name many years before.
The house my parents bought was at 222 Victoria Avenue, diagonally across the street from the Rosen’s. The idea was that by buying this house, close to the beach and The Boardwalk it would be a good business to subdivide the floors of the house each summer and rent out the spaces thus created to the summer vacationers from Philadelphia and maybe, even, New York.
The idea was good, sound and one on which fortunes had been made in the past. It was very unfortunate for my mother and father’s dream of finally getting out of the working class that events over which they could not possibly have had any control were beginning to loom on the (not-so-far) horizon.
For me at 12, the move was not particularly exciting. Atlantic City was not in my frame of reference, so I neither anticipated or dreaded the change. It was just another address and since I was ready to go into High School anyway, it fell neatly into place. I regretted, as I recall, only one thing. I knew I wasn’t going to see my Camden friends any more, but since the bonds had loosened since the move to East Camden, I felt no great sense of loss.
I had a great deal of self-confidence in myself as a scholar, so going to a new High School did not affect me any more than crossing the hall from one classroom to another in the same school where everyone stood in awe of my scholastic prowess. Oh, boy! Was I in for a bucketful of cold seawater in my smug face…
Like most of New Jersey, Atlantic City had an outstanding school system. But where most communities had to rely on homeowners’ property taxes to carry the school load, Atlantic City had the hotels — large and small — and a plethora of auxiliary commercial properties like restaurants, piers, stores and similar enterprises, none of which sent children to school, but paid school taxes anyway. An ideal situation, because the great majority of Atlantic City’s homeowners were people of modest means. Local rich people there were, but they were not prominently in the public eye. As a result, the local schools were well-funded in buildings, books, supplies, teachers, libraries, art and music classes and other educational amenities of which most other American school systems could only dream — if indeed they even knew such chimeras existed.
The crown jewel of the Atlantic City public educational system was the new Atlantic City High School building which occupied the entire block bounded by Atlantic, Albany, Ventnor and Trenton Avenues, right at the major monumental entrance to Atlantic City from the Black Horse Pike, just east of the circular Greek-temple Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial to the American dead in World War I — the Great War, as we called it then. This huge High School building, carrying a price tag of over two million dollars was Atlantic City’s great gift to Education in America.
This dizzying tour-de-force of school architecture had first opened its doors to an eager horde of Atlantic City students three years before in 1922. It had everything!
Imagine in 1925 walking into a school which had a huge swimming pool in its basement (never, in all the time I lived in Atlantic City, did it ever have water, because of a deep and pervasive racism), a 2-story gymnasium big enough for a college-size basketball court and bleachers, and with a balcony complete with a running-track, and with a full complement of boys’ and girls’ locker and shower rooms, team training classrooms and a plethora of other educational goodies.
Directly above this massive gym was a 2-story auditorium, with 2,000 fixed seats on the main floor and another 800 or so in the balcony. An almost-professional stage with curtains, fly gallery, dressing rooms and other appurtenances for dramatic presentations took up one end, and at the full orchestra pit stood the five-bank console for the second-largest (at that time) pipe organ in the world.
This organ was one of only three existing at the time with five-manual consoles, and Atlantic City, incidentally, was perhaps the only American city with a professional, full-time pipe-organist, Arthur Scott Brooks, on its payroll. For all the years I lived in Atlantic City he was the city’s organist not only for the High School organ, but also for the Convention Hall organ of which I have spoken. That Convention Hall Pipe Organ had a tremendous novelty- in the balcony was a portable console with a 3- or 4-bank manual — again, a unique thing in the world of pipe organs.
It will come as no particular surprise to anyone familiar with political backscratching that the state senator for Atlantic County in those years was one Emerson L. Richards who, by some arcane reckoning, was a majority stockholder in Midmer-Losh, a company which manufactured large pipe organs. By some strange coincidence, both huge pipe organs were designed, manufactured and installed by Midmer-Losh.
Senator Richards was hoist, one might say, by his own personal pipe-organ petard. He had an organ installed in his beachfront house. The pipe with the deepest tone — the Basso Profundo — in his own organ was so large and so sonorous (8 vibrations per second) that it extended down to his basement. Unfortunately for Senator Richards’ enjoyment of its deep bass tones the vibrations shook and cracked the foundations of the houses next door. His neighbors got a court injunction forbidding that pipe to be played and it had to be disconnected.
Ah, the woes of the rich and famous!
On the 3rd floor, directly above the auditorium and occupying the same core area was the cafeteria and its accessory food preparation and storage rooms and kitchens. This cafeteria served a great variety of foods to hundreds of hungry students at lunch periods. Any good restaurant would have been proud of the daily menus which included such delicacies as cream of bisque soup (5¢), salads (5¢), sandwiches (10¢), entrees like corn fritters, roasts, chicken and other proteins (15¢), beverages like milk and cocoa (5¢) and desserts like ice cream, pies or cake (10¢). For 25¢ a student could get a complete, wholesome nourishing meal. I thrived on it!
This new Atlantic City High School Building had a magnificent library with three (count ’em — three!) full-time librarians, of whom much more later. On the 3rd floor, across from the cafeteria, were a set of science labs — chemistry, physics and biology — which many a college might have envied, including a tiered lecture room like a medical school.
Everything about this new structure was absolutely first-class and it was obvious that no money had been spared in its design and execution. This small town had a world-class facility for the education of its children.
But there was a sound practical reason for the extravagance. Every year the National Education Association held its convention here in this convention mecca, and Atlantic City wanted to have something to show off to the thousands of teachers from all over the country who came to the October conclave. And boy! did we have something to show!
DANCING IN THE GYM
Think of American mores and morals in 1925. The movies were still silent, and existed in a straitjacket of Victorianism. No deep kisses, no double beds, no more than a hint of extramarital affairs; all girls were good unless otherwise specifically called out (and sent right to H--- before the end of the picture). Female body parts were hidden under voluminous layers of cloth and body-touch dancing was indulged in only by the licentious and depraved Rich who were, by definition, going to H--- anyhow.
The Charleston was a hellish invention right from the hellhole of the world — New York, and no nice girl would be caught dead by her stern parents doing this pernicious piece of the devil’s work. The same could (and was) said of any kind of dancing in any public school.
This is where my innate sneakiness and cynicism expressed itself. As soon as I found out about it I managed to get appointed to the Guest Guide Committee, whose job it was to guide groups of visiting teachers/delegates to the annual NEA conventions around our school.
It was a tradition at ACHS (the acronym for Atlantic City High School) to have pickup bands — usually trios of piano, trumpet or saxophone and drums — play in the gym for the lunchtime hours from 11 to 1 and for the students (boys and girls together) to dance. We — students and faculty — thought nothing of it, but the guides derived tremendous joy and satisfaction at the looks of shock and horrified amazement on the faces of the NEA visitors from the straitlaced small rural towns and cities that comprised most of the nation at that time.
This was to them a confirmation of what they had heard and read of the rampant sin and moral degradation of The World’s Playground. Yet I cannot help but feel that in some small way we at ACHS helped bring about a more sensible, saner feeling about boys’ and girls’ high school lives in an America still struggling against the hidebound “religious” idea that the human body was evil and that everyone was still condemned to hell because of the Original Sin of (dared we say it?) s…e…x…
I MAKE A FRIEND
I quickly entered into the life of an anonymous freshman at ACHS. The work was easy, because I had already had much of it in the advanced classes in Camden. Once again I was coasting with no strain and no pain. In this first ACHS year I discovered that I fitted into an easy niche without any difficulty, and even made a few friends like me. The teachers were on the whole good, the environment pleasant, the new building’s amenities were on a scale I had never dreamed of. There was no reason for me not to be happy — and I was.
I quickly learned about both the political and social sides of ACHS life. Politically, the student body mirrored the demographic makeup of the city. Almost even thirds of the population were Jewish, Italian and Black. (Exactly where in this spectrum the not inconsiderable white, Christian part of the population fit in I cannot now say).
There were fraternities and sororities of the various ethnic/religious groups which controlled elections for (to me) utterly unimportant matters like class offices, dance dates and the like. I lived quite happily in almost total obliviousness of such matters.
It was in this freshman year that I made one very lasting friendship and discovered a passion that was to last for many years to come. The friend was a fat, pale, freckled kid with reddish-blond hair who was just learning how to play the trumpet. His name was Arthur Charles Statter, child of a very non-observant Jewish mother and a Christian father. He and I very quickly became fast friends who swore undying friendship in (very bad) Freshman Latin.
The passion, which Statter (I rarely referred to him by his first name) and I shared together was for the brand-new genre of science fiction.
Prior to 1925 this field of writing had been exclusively occupied by a pulp magazine called Weird Tales, a monthly which published a hodgepodge of stories of the occult, mythology and magic and science fiction as it existed then. In 1925 Hugo Gernsback, a publisher of popular technical magazines about the new field of radio, for example, took the bold step of creating a totally new area of new and reprints of stories by both already published and new authors. He called this new venture Amazing Stories, and when it appeared on the newsstands Statter and I, already readers of Weird Tales, rushed to become its readers and aficionados.
Statter lived with his mother in an apartment in the 200 block of Atlantic Avenue. This was in the same “inlet” section of town in which I lived, and the walk to his house (I guess now it was about a mile) was so inconsiderable in that day of ubiquitous walking that I was a very frequent visitor to his place. I learned quickly that he had a lot more money at his disposal than I, (his father was a union typesetter at the Philadelphia Public Ledger) so I let him buy the sci-fi (a term we never heard of in those days) magazines and I would wait for him to finish practicing his trumpet while I waited for him in his apartment. To this day whenever I hear the high notes of a trumpet, the memory of science-fiction stories flashes into my mind.
1925 was good for us in another way, too. We were both only 12, and money and the outside world and its problems existed only in a dim, peripheral way. We could not, for instance, understand other high school students (kids was another word not in our vocabulary) reading the local morning daily Atlantic City Press on the jitney (fare 5¢ for local school student tickets). That they might just be reading only the sports pages was also beyond our ken. Statter’s music and my studies were to us the only real world.
This was the year, too, that we discovered one of the wonderful advantages of living on the New Jersey seashore. ACHS was, as I have said, at the 3600 block on Atlantic Avenue at Albany Avenue; I lived on Victoria Avenue, the 300 block and Statter in the 200 block of Atlantic Avenue. On fine fall days (and I remember saying even then “the air is like fine wine” although I had never tasted any wine other than the cloyingly sweet Passover wine in my life), we would walk the 3 miles home on The Boardwalk and enjoy every step of the way
We talked about everything our juvenile minds could conjure up, and we came up with wise solutions to every problem we encountered in our mental journeys. We never thought beyond the next day’s homework or band practice. We had firmly secured our futures (mine changed almost daily, but that was all right) and like Pippa, we felt that “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world!” As practicing atheists, we merely crossed God out of our quotation; we figured Browning just threw that in to make the rhythm come out right.
This same year I discovered the ACHS school library and its three librarians. All three have made lasting and wonderful impressions on me and my life.
The ACHS library was huge; it took up three classrooms’ space. Books in cased shelving ranged along the sidewalls and endwalls. There were classbooks, reference books, fiction, magazines and even newspapers! Seating at long tables for at least 200 students filled the cavernous interior. As I look back I realize now that practically no school board anywhere in these United States furnished its students with anything remotely approaching this facility. Add to the physical facility three full-time trained librarians with complete faculty status and you had an amazing educational plant for any town of 65,000 people anywhere in the world.
I fell in love with this place on my first day at my new school. All three Librarians — Mrs. Laura L. Faus, the Head Librarian, Miss Jean MacDonald, the First Assistant and Miss Florence Berry, the Second Assistant Librarian became my 3 Angels from the moment I entered the double doors across the corridor from the Auditorium Balcony on the 2nd floor. I immediately joined the Library Committee and for the next 5 years spent every minute I could steal from necessary school duties and classes in the Library. It is no exaggeration to say I became the fourth (unpaid) ACHS Librarian.
Mrs. Faus became a mother and Misses MacDonald and Berry were loving sisters to a wayward, undisciplined youngster with lots of smarts and not very much worldly know-how.
They represented to me what my undisciplined childhood reading of Victorian novels (mostly trash) held out as the ideal for middle-class Gentile life. I desperately wanted to be a part of that life, even though I had no idea what it really was. I was living in a dream world, of a driving desire to be what I considered American.
The ACHS library world was a home, a refuge, an escape from the harsh realities of a life which didn’t fit my fancies. In it I could be everything I couldn’t be on Victoria Avenue. I could learn things about great English writers besides Dickens and Kipling; there I could dip into the adult Book Of Knowledge — the Encyclopedia Britannica! Within its confines I could learn things like the Dewey Decimal System, how to shelf returned books, periodicals of which I never even heard, like The Saturday Review of Literature and The American Mercury.
Surrounded by books, held in sincere friendship by people I admired and respected and who respected me, I was wrapped in a secure cocoon that shut out the harsh light of the rest of ACHS life.
IF YOU’RE SO SMART…
I had come to ACHS like a conquering hero from my kingdom of the glory of the Laibow name and my own glorious IQ of a hitherto unheard of 144. Everything was handed to me by obsequious teachers in awe of my massive intellect and attainments. In Camden I really never studied or did homework in any meaningful sense of the terms. Guesswork and bluff stood me in very good stead from the time in 3rd grade when I discovered who I was. I had it made!
Unfortunately for Mr. Wonderful, the ACHS’ teaching staff had led a deprived life. They had never heard of me, and the transcripts of the Camden school years which followed me had very little meaning for them in terms of adoration or awe. I was, to them, just another transfer. I think the transition from ruler of Assyria to slave in Babylon would be a reasonable metaphor. How the mighty had fallen!
The freshman year at ACHS had not been unpleasant, since my advanced classes in Camden had already covered most of the work. The biggest problems of that year were boredom in classes and finding my way around the labyrinth of corridors, passages and stairways which pierced the floor plans of the new building so I could get from one class to another within the 5 minutes allotted between classes. Even these adventurous forays into terra incognita had quickly palled when the strange became the commonplace and the exciting became the obvious.
The sophomore year, however, brought a whole new academic world into sharp and, it seemed to me, a vicious focus. Now I was in new scholastic territory, faced with a frightening new prospect: I would actually have to work at my classwork and actually do (horrors!) homework! I, the noble Martin, was being treated like a common, an ordinary student! For the first time in my scholastic career I tasted the dust and ashes in my mouth of failures in class and in tests…
The ACHS academic course curriculum required English, Latin, Mathematics, Sciences and a foreign language elective for all of the last 3 years I anticipated no problems (and I had none) in English. I never had an English class I didn’t truly love. Past experience in Camden had given me great confidence (read “arrogance”) in my ability to conquer any mathematical subject and Latin, I was sure, would be just another breeze.
The root of my academic degradation was Cornelia P. Zeller. She was undoubtedly, from my perspective of today, a brilliant scholar as you will promptly see, who was capable of teaching two totally disparate subjects, and doing it well. The malign fates which were intent on destroying me had chosen her as my teacher for both Latin I and Geometry.
My trouble with Latin was a simple one. I didn’t do my homework — literally and figuratively. I thought that because of my great familiarity with English and its Latin roots, I could wing it in translations. Unfortunately, Julius Caesar (a fink if ever there was one) had neglected to take that into account when he wrote his Commentaries and his Latin had a lot of words and worse, expressions which over 2000 years had changed their meanings and linguistic relationships. I shall never forgive him.
Miss (what deluded male fool would take it upon himself to marry this virago?) Zeller not only insisted that I translate Caesar’s writings into good English — she even had the temerity to insist that I write down the daily-assigned Latin Grammar homework and similar obscenities. She quickly saw who and what she had to deal with. The result was for the first time in my life I got an F on a report card!
Latin I insult was quickly added to Geometry injury from the same source. It was not that I didn’t understand Pythagoras and his theorems, but that once again I didn’t do the required work. I had to learn that of all subjects, mathematics is the one which is least forgiving of bluff guesses and imagination. Like Sergeant Friday of Dragnet, math demands the facts, Ma’am, just the facts. Again my report cards sported F.
In the confusion which assailed me in those hectic months, I lost all confidence in my brains, my intelligence and my abilities as a student. I thought that for sure I had become the victim of some malevolent curse put upon me by evil Gypsies.
In this maelstrom of self-doubt and deep confusion, two bright lights shone — English and French. I had chosen French as my foreign language elective. I reasoned, I guess, that it was more elegant and cultured than Italian or Spanish. I discovered a marvelous French teacher and she and I instantly struck up a binding rapport.
Mme. Pinchon was a Paris-born and reared Frenchwoman who spoke absolutely impeccable, completely idiomatic English. She was so at home in both languages that she went back and forth seamlessly and taught us to do the same. Even now, after 75 years or more, on the rare occasions when a French-speaking person hears me speak my (now) fractured French, the comment is always on the purity of my accent. For that I thank Mme. Pinchon. She taught us by the now commonplace, but then unheard-of method of total immersion. In her class the only language heard was French. If one could not find the appropriate French term, it became part of the homework to find it and speak it in the next class, but always we spoke, thought and gestured in French. I was a star student in Mme Pinchon’s class.
In 1926, at the end of the sophomore year, I reaped the reward for my non-labors. Far from being the star who skipped grades, I found myself with failing grades in (what else) Latin and Geometry, compelled to repeat the year. This was a heavy blow to an already shaky ego and I crawled into a shell which would take many years to crack.
DIGGING FOR GOLD IS HARD WORK
Learning the lessons of self-discipline, study, homework and becoming a mere mortal instead of a scholastic superstar took up most of the summer. Like most Atlantic City adolescents (the term teenager was unheard of in those years) I got a job at one of the Boardwalk stands doing all sorts of menial work for very low pay, but there was still time for the beach, for visiting with friends and even some serious loafing.
The long days of summer slid by, Labor Day — the end of the season — came and now the repeat of the sophomore year began. I must have acquired new habits. I made a friend of Julius Caesar and took Geometry in stride. Even my attitude towards Miss Zeller (for our mutual sins we faced each other once more) changed somewhat, although the negative feelings of the first sophomore year still persisted to some extent.
My friends of the library stood behind me with kindness, understanding and patience during this ordeal, What they made of this thin, impatient, aggressive Jewish boy from a sphere totally different than their own I still cannot know, but they were as helpful and supportive to me as any family could ever be. I loved them then and I love them now.
The second sophomore year went by very uneventfully and I passed all my subjects, including French II with Mme Pinchon and Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. I was passed with little fanfare and no excitement to my junior year at ACHS.
Junior year added little to my memories except that Science in the form of Physics was now added to the curriculum. English class was remarkable only that we had what I must consider one of the least prepared, most pathetic teachers in my entire school years. Her name was Louisa M. Billyard, a middle-aged, confused poor soul totally incapable of handling a class of rowdies who, like sharks, went into a feeding frenzy the moment they smelled blood.
The blood was her sad lack of ability to discipline us. On the first day of class in every course it is as natural for the students to test the limits of the teacher as to breathe. Normally these attempts are met with quick, effective pedagogical countermeasures and the class settles in to its natural configuration. With Miss Billyard the opposite occurred. Her class was a shambles from the first day, and even those few who really wanted to profit from the subject joined in the carnage. The poor woman was completely unable to deal with the constant rioting, the unauthorized coming and going, the general chaos that took place. I can only guess at the reason why the school administration — otherwise so meticulous in its supervision of every facet of the teacher-pupil relationship — permitted this reign of terror to continue.
Perhaps she was on her last year before retirement, or perhaps she possessed some deep, dark secret of the head of the School Board, or maybe she was the daughter of the political boss of Atlantic County…
Whatever the reason, each day’s session in her English III classroom was a hectic adventure where we learned nothing except that even total freedom had its own limits and could quickly degenerate into utter boredom.
Latin II, Algebra I now without Miss Zeller and French III (still with Mme. Pinchon) were by now no problems. I had settled into a good scholar groove and my marks were consistently good enough so that I could start thinking about college and a future career.
Like Mark Twain’s youthful attempt at journal-keeping, the entries in which quickly turned into a series of “Got up, washed, went to bed.” My junior year remains in my memory as a time of “Got up, washed, went to school” punctuated only by my memories of poor Miss Billyard.
…BUT YOU WON’T!
My senior year stands out in my recollections because of two teachers. One was my Chemistry teacher, a young man called Cy Mellinger and my much older English IV teacher, Mr. Tanner. In that whole year I never found out whether he had any first name other than “Mister”. Both are memorable for entirely different reasons.
Mr. Tanner was in every respect the polar opposite of Miss Billyard. He exuded discipline and a demand for respect from the second we passed through his classroom door. He let it be known from the start that he tolerated only order, seriousness and respect for the English language in all its branches. He had a sly humor, but he never breached the line he had drawn between pupil and teacher. He was in charge and he let us know it, even as he let us know our job was to learn what he offered. I think that he was (and still is) the model on which I drew my own teaching career. I can still see him before the class a couple of months before graduation saying with great seriousness “When you get to college you will find that you have to study, to work and to apply yourselves…but you won’t!” He was so right!
Mr. Mellinger was another story entirely. He was young, excited about science in general and chemistry in particular, and he did his best to fill us with the same sense of scientific excitement that he had. He was not afraid to push the envelope of the textbooks to lead us into different experiments and scientific thoughts.
He got me so interested in chemistry that I became his lab assistant. This gave me the opportunity to take home discarded and surplus equipment like glass tubing, a Bunsen burner, test tubes and miscellaneous reagents (chemicals) and set up what I fondly thought of as my laboratory in the basement of 222 Victoria Avenue. My dreams now turned to becoming a great scientist (the field changed from daydream to reverie).
Paul deKrief was the best-known science popularizer of the day, and his Microbe Hunters sent me into great visions of becoming the world’s best (most famous) biologist, discovering cures for cancer and every other disease of man. This would last until another book about a science giant would come along and I would change careers. But always my dreams had me as doing great things for humanity and becoming rich and famous in he process. My mind was truly a kingdom, and in it I was always the emperor and the entire nobility.
Reality, however, was right in front of me as Graduation Day neared, and it was a grim and terrorizing reality.
GETTING A SUMMER JOB IN THE ATLANTIC CITY OF my youth was as normal for a high school student as breathing. We did it automatically, without thinking about it. We manned the stores, the stands and all the concessions and businesses up and down the beach. We did it because our families needed the money, because we had the work ethic which compelled us to do something with our time or because we knew we had to have the right answer when our peers asked us, back in ACHS after Labor Day, “What did you do?”
We knew the answer better not be “Nothin’”!
The summers of 1926 through 1929 were uneventful for me and my family. For my parents the subdivision of the two floors of the house into a series of little cubbyholed bedrooms for the summer renters and the corresponding move down to the basement for the family were normal, undistinguished parts of living. This, after all, was what my parents had come to 222 Victoria Avenue for in the first place, wasn’t it?
I moaned (mostly to myself because nobody else was interested anyway) about having to sleep on a cot next to the hot-water heater, but this too was normal and I survived. I worked, I spent some time on the beach, I spent time with Statter and a few other friends and the years passed.
In the spring of 1929, though, Warner Bros. opened their new flagship movie house on the Boardwalk at Arkansas Avenue, the Warner Theater. (A note: all America pronounced the state name as Ark’ -’in- saw. We in Atlantic City pronounced it Ar-kan’-sas.) This set us apart, to the great confusion of visitors from the rest of the country.
This was probably the last of the great movie houses that had set a new architectural standard throughout America. The Warner had the appearance and ambiance of an open-air square in a Spanish village, under a ceiling of a firmament of twinkling stars which were not only astronomically correct, but which moved with the hours just as the outdoor constellations did. It was quite startling in its reality, and it was hard to believe that one was not actually outdoors when the reality was the indoors lapped in the luxury provided courtesy of the Brothers Warner. In this great auditorium, with its stage designed for both live performances and the most up-to-date sound movies, I found work as a part-time usher, working weekend matinees and evenings.
This was the most thrilling and exciting job I had ever dreamed of. Every Thursday night, after the end of the last show (“after the house broke”, in our show biz argot) every employee was invited to see the preview of the next week’s show so we could pay attention to our duties and not be seduced into sneaking looks up at the screen when we should be working.
At work I wore a fancy tuxedo-type outfit, complete with shirt studs, wing collar, starched dicky, smartly cutaway red jacket and fancy dark blue trousers with a wide red strip. I held a small flashlight aimed behind me to the floor, to guide the patrons (never customers!) down the stygian aisles to their seats. And for this delightful, easy, clean pastime I was actually paid!
The greatest thrill of my foray into this entertainment world was the housecleaning between shows. (That’s when the show breaks and those who have seen the show leave and a new throng of patrons surges in.) The house lights go down and a spot focuses on the pit at the left-hand side of the stage. Swelling organ music fills the great auditorium and, after a spellbound moment, up from that pit emerges a man clad in white tie and tails! It is Hayes W atson, seated at the console of The Mighty Warner Theater Wurlitzer Organ. As he plays he turns his head and shoulders to the audience, smiling with confidence and pride while regaling them with music. And what music! Classical symphonies, operatic arias, favorite Broadway show tunes, familiar ballads, sweet love songs — all pour from the great speakers surrounding the gilded House Of Dreams. This is living! This is what the good life is all about! This is America in the Golden Years of the wonderful 1920s, never to end, always to get better and better!
I , who had been told I was tone-deaf and a hopeless musical moron, always envied Hayes Watson and the Wonderful Wurlitzer Organ rising slowly from the depths into the bright glare of the spotlight to the adulation and admiration of the crowds. This was my secret envy, and I think was what led me, a quarter of a century later, to buy my own Wurlitzer Organ. I’m still working on the elevator arrangement to bring me up to the audience but I’ve given up on the white tie and tails…
TIPTOE THROUGH THE TULIP MADNESS
Atlantic City had had an internal speculative collapse a few years before. A mad land boom in Florida, culminating in a rampant frenzy of speculation rivaling the Dutch Tulip Madness of three centuries before had swept through the nation. Florida, especially a raw stretch of sand called Miami Beach was the new Golden City Of Cibola.
Men like Newton P. Roney (originally from my home town of Camden) were the new El Dorados — the Men of Gold. Land values would continue to rise forever and a day, to heights unheard of and undreamed of even by the get-rich-quick dreamers and schemers.
In September of 1926, though, something strange happened. A hurricane of what today we would call a Force 4 or even 5 tore through Miami Beach and utterly devastated the place The loss of life was not as great as Galveston 26 years earlier, but the property destruction was total. Overnight the Florida land boom collapsed with the suddenness of a punctured tire tube. The entire island of Miami Beach could have been bought for 29 cents, as the saying went, but nobody wanted to waste the money.
Atlantic City, not to be outdone by the upstart rivalry of the swamps of Florida, had its own land boom. Here too, properties changed hands 10 times in the course of a day, with astronomical leaps in the “value”. Little or no money actually changed hands, but the presumptive wealth, like the presumptive wealth of inflated stock prices on the stock market was on a mad spiral with no real basis and no end in sight.
The same hurricane that drowned Miami Beach’s millionaires (we didn’t have hurricanes; we had nor‘easters) brought a quick and ugly end to the Atlantic City boom. The inflated unreal land prices disappeared, the values sank back to what they had been a few years before and many individuals and not a few of the new banks sustained very heavy losses of real money. But nobody really cared…
Prosperity was here to stay, Wall Street was the place to make easy money on margin, Cal Coolidge, our no-nonsense President, the one who wisely said The business of America is business! had just been succeeded by The Great Humanitarian, Herbert Clark Hoover and prosperity was ours by right because, by God, we had earned it!
God was in His Republican heaven and all was right with the world forever and ever amen! We were the New Jerusalem, the envy of the world, and we slept well and soundly in Fortress America
IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE
On October 29, 1929, the Titanic of our contentment and prosperity struck the iceberg of the economic distress of Europe. Its mass had been floating on the calm seas of our heedless prosperity but nobody at the wheel thought it posed any danger. Like the Titanic, we were proof against sinking….
The gash in our economic hull was quick and thorough. Every compartment of our economy was flooded by the chill waters of the market collapse and quickly sank our giddy society. The passengers and crew were left floating helplessly in leaky lifeboats. The placid seas suddenly turned to icy, stormy waters. There were no other vessels on our ocean to come to our rescue. We, who had thought ourselves so independent of the rest of the world and its unwashed unAmerican hordes quickly discovered that we were, after all, one with them.
We were all drowning in the same ocean of distress and there was no one to hear the pleas for assistance. Suddenly a new word was coined, supplanting the old familiar term panic. We were in a Depression! With typical insouciance, Variety, the newspaper of show biz, headlined on October 30, 1929 Wall Street Lays An Egg!
We in Atlantic City were not immediately engulfed by the disaster. It takes time for a dinosaur to die. The 1929 summer season was past. At the seashore we had a grim saying Three months hurry and nine months worry! The winter doldrums were always a time of layoffs and business contraction, so the gyrations of Wall Street really meant nothing to most of us. Those few retirees who were wealthy — and foolish enough — to have been involved in the Market deserved what they got.
Those of us to whom the very idea of stock market speculation was from a different universe were immersed in our own little worlds of just trying to get through the winter to the next spring and the beginning of a new season.
I continued with my job as an usher, my junior year at ACHS and my absorbing work in the library. Like most adolescents, I was totally concerned with myself and my own desires.
What happened in the world outside meant nothing to me since I was convinced that I meant nothing to the world.
It was in this year that I developed a deep agnosticism and an interest in other religions and philosophies than those in which I had been reared. For the first time in my life I began to question my religious and ethnic roots and to wonder if maybe…just maybe … there might not be something to some of the other thoughts floating around. I took my first steps out of the unquestioned cocoon of Judaism.
It was time, I felt, to question some of those things which I had accepted so blithely for so many years. It was time to ask “Where is it written?”
MY PARENTS WERE OF THE GENERATION OF EASTERN European Jewish youth that had been infected by an intellectual disease which struck like lightning on the shtetlach12 which had slumbered for centuries in the same unthinking, unquestioning orthodoxy.
There had been only two disturbances of the slumber before the middle of the 18th century. One, the Reform movement, in Germany, had been of practically no moment to Eastern European Jewry because it had been limited to the Yehudim — westernized German Jews who, to Eastern European Jews, weren’t really Jews at all, anyhow. The other, at the opposite pole of Jewish life, was the Hasidic13 rebellion against the rigidity of strict adherence to the laws and strictures of Orthodoxy as it had been practiced in Europe all through the centuries of the diaspora. Like most rebellions, it quickly fell victim to its own rigidities and orthodoxies, even to the extent of creating its own bands of heretics and saints.
The hurricane which swept through the shtetlach was called The Enlightenment — the Halachah.
Its basic postulate was that there was a world of intellect, of scientific inquiry, of a different way of looking at God’s universe. It allowed such things as questioning, as admitting that maybe the Goyim2 were something more than uncouth savages who lived only to kill (or even worse, convert) Jews, and that maybe it was time for Jews to turn their finely honed learning skills to the other things which God had created in the world around them.
Young Jews all over Eastern Europe’s unchanging orthodoxy gladly flocked to the Halachah. They wanted desperately to improve their lot and this seemed a wonderful (might they even say “God-given”?) way to burst out of their narrow world into the modern 19th century of mechanical marvels. In their eagerness to come out of the medieval shell of Torah and Talmudic strictures, they overcompensated. They threw out the baby with the bathwater.
In their rush to leap into modernity, they not only abandoned the tenets of their religion, but adopted strange new codicils to their traditional Social Contract. Karl Marx and Frederich Engels became the new Prophets, and Das Kapital their new Revealed Testament. They adopted, created, revised and refashioned their new-found messianic fervor into something they called socialism.
That they really had no idea of what they were talking about, that they had never experienced the horrors of the Industrial Revolution against which Marx and Engels leveled their polemics, that they did not live in an industrialized state under the kind of crushing Capitalism which Das Kapital stated was the only condition from which the Workers’ State could possibly grow and exist meant nothing to these idealistic zealots. They combined their strong humanistic ideals and Deuteronomic laws with the natural rebellion of repressed youth. The fiery combination drove them into what can only be described as idealistic agnosticism and socioeconomic stupidity.
This is where my mother and father’s generation found themselves when the maelstrom of Europe’s own version of the Crusades exploded with devastating force on the Jews of Eastern Europe. Armageddon had arrived and no one was fighting on the side of The Lord!
LOOK! LOOK! THEY’RE KILLING THE JEWS!
Eastern Europe — what we know today as Poland, Romania and Greater Russia — was firmly fixed with both booted feet planted firmly in the Feudal Age. Not only were the rivalries political and martial, they were also deeply religious. The Roman Catholic Church was still smarting from the schism of a thousand years before which had led to the creation of the (to it) heretical, schismatic rival centered in Constantinople (until its conquest by the Islamic Turkish Empire in 1453), and thereafter in uncivilized, unchristian places like Moscow.
These conflicts were only partly religious/ theological. They were primarily a power struggle to the death between two conflicting hegemons struggling for domination over millions of people and vast acreages of lands, over trade, over feudal loyalties and above all for dominion over all humanity in the name of their particular definition of Savior.
Standing in the way of unquestioning acceptance of either Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox supremacy on the Eurasian continent was a tiny undigested lump which seemed to the Hegemons to threaten the very essence of their power. This small choking crumb in the Christian throat was The Jew.
It was unbelievable to the theological thinking of both major Christian establishments that this Son Of God, Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the Savior of all mankind, who was born, lived and died a Jew in a Jewish land and taught Jewish doctrines to Jews should be rejected by his own people. Did this not show that this despicable remnant infecting decent Christian people and lands with their demonic defiance was truly not of the same race as Jesus at all, but a hellish substitution fathered by the Father Of Lies, the Antichrist himself — The Devil?
Was it not therefore the obligation and duty of every faithful follower of The Christ to rid the earth of these devils in human form? Of course, and so anti-Semitism became a kind of religion in itself which took as its divinely-inspired duty the extermination of the Jews. Haman was once more in power, but now there were no Mordecais and Esthers to bring them to justice and save the Jews.
While no new Moses arose to free the Eastern European Jews from their piteous bondage, there still arose the cry: Let my people go!
Across the ocean from the old, tired, bloodsoaked mud of Europe was a land founded upon a strange new doctrine. It was a land which had no concern with bloodlines; it actively opposed forcing its people to pay taxes for any state-sponsored religious establishment. It was a land which required no police passes, had no Pale of Settlement for Jews or anyone else.
This new land placed no limits on any legal action of any man and above all declared that all men had certain inalienable rights, among which were Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. Even the sages of the Talmud had never set forth these prescriptions as either inalienable or as rights!
This unbelievable land even had a statue lifting a Torch of Freedom and holding a Book inscribed with a poem which asked the world to Send me your tired, your poor, /Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free!
Truly here, not in Theodore Herzl’s impossible futuristic dream state of Zion, was the Jewish Promised Land! The thoughts, the prayers (even those of the young agnostics), the hopes, dreams and desires of every young Eastern European Jew turned from the pogroms and tortures of the moujiks4 to this bright new land whose marvels became more magical and marvelous with every telling and retelling.
My mother and father were caught up in this Enlightenment. They grew up seeing around them the daily evidence of the brutishness and unchristian hatreds of their Christian neighbors and rulers, and they made up their minds that they would leave this land of blood and hatred for the Goldene Medine5. So in 1905 they did just that by going (by devious means, I am sure) from Russia to Philadelphia, as I have written in Chapter One.
It was in this environment of rejection of traditional religious performances that I was born. I ought to explain the strange dichotomy in which I and many of my fellow first generation immigrant children lived.
Our parents had been brought up in the strict orthodox observances of hundreds of generations of diaspora Jews. It was part of the air they breathed and the food they ate. Rebels against the social and economic structures of their world they might be, but they were deeply imbued with the laws and customs that distinguished them as Jews from the gentiles. Scoff as they might at the dietary laws of kashruth6 they still had deep feelings of guilt every time they ate tref7 or mixed meat and dairy foods at the same table.
This ambivalence colored every moment of their lives as Jews in the new land and their children’s lives too were colored by the same problem. I recall the tacit disapproval of my Grandmother and Grandfather Ourin with my mother for keeping a non-kosher household and the difficulty I had as a small child trying to figure out why some things which were perfectly normal at home (butter on the table with meat dishes, for example) were completely forbidden when I ate at my grandparents’ table.
There was no consistency in the application of other things, too. There was a deep and lively pride and awareness in being Jews, yet there was a total avoidance of attendance at synagogue services. There was a shunning of the strictures of Orthodox Judaism, yet the little we heard of Conservative and (shudder!) Reform Judaism was greeted with aversion and ridicule. But who said people had to be logical or consistent?
So my generation lived in a strange never-never-land of a deep awareness of ourselves as Jews and a strong yearning not to be Jews. We aped our Christian (read American) neighbors in dress, language, mannerisms and attitudes, all the while knowing we were (and were going forever to remain) different. It gave even those of us who couldn’t speak or understand a single word of Yiddish an innate appreciation of the accuracy of the expression Schver tzu zein a Yid.
But hard as we thought it was, we had something that almost no other immigrant group had. We had Love Of Learning built into our collective character so deeply that even the symbols of that learning — any book and by extension its printed pages — were sacred.
Combined with that love of learning was an awe and respect for what was written to such an extent that whenever any difference of opinion arose between Jews of any level of sophistication or education, the first thing asked in the disputation was “Where is it written?” and its concomitant sarcastic comment on anything at issue whether secular or religious: Vie is geschriben im Torah?. This always served to put the other party on the defensive.
Now it was time for me to join in the disputation. Of my own choice, as I approached the traditional coming-of-age time of my 13th birthday, I had steadfastly refused even to consider going through the necessary study and memorization for the Bar Mitzvah ceremony. I gave my parents a hundred different reasons for my refusal to undergo this ritual, but here for (the first time) is the real reason for my reluctance:
When we moved to Atlantic City in 1925 there was a snuffy little synagogue at the corner of Maryland and Pacific Avenues. I think it may have been Conservative, but more likely it didn’t know what it was. I know it wasn’t Orthodox, and for sure it wasn’t Reform, so I think it belonged to that distinctly American sect of Judaism which I will call Confused.
Every day I would go from the bright, modern classrooms and advanced pedagogy of Atlantic City High School to a smelly, dimly-lit basement room of the Community Synagogue.
Here we Bar Mitzvah candidates would sit in rows at long tables and recite in rote the meaningless words and chants which would be the basis for our ritualistic acceptance into the tribal culture as responsible adults. The majority culture was telling us we were irresponsible children and here we were being told we were mature men!
That might have been bearable, since we had spent our lives to that point juggling the two cultures, but our teacher was a typical melamed who didn’t teach in the way we had been conditioned to believe a teacher should, but dominated us with a long ruler with a brass ferrule, with which he smacked(!) us when we didn’t sing-song the incomprehensible words and chants to suit him — which was most of the time.
Rebellion was useless. My parents were paying a hard-earned dollar a week for this privilege, so I did the only thing I could do. I dropped out and never had a Bar Mitzvah. I don’t know if my saving my parents the weekly dollar expenditure was appreciated, and I guess I really didn’t care.
My inevitable reaction against the melamed and all the medieval mumbo-jumbo he represented to me was typical for me. I started to look outwards, away from my native religion and culture, to find out what else there was to which I could devote my life and my beliefs. I began to investigate what I later was to dignify as a study of Comparative Religions. Actually I was looking for acceptance as an American.
It has taken me a lifetime to discover that the only place where what is actually written is inscribed in ourselves by what we learn in each lifetime and how we apply what we learn.
MY FUTURE CAREER CHOICES HAD VARIED ALMOST daily over my high school days. Some times I was going to be a world-famous biologist, curing the world’s diseases; some times I would be a great writer, fawned over and sought after by the greatest literati; I toyed with the idea of being a famous, great, world-recognized this or that other glamorous professional, but all these career bubbles burst in the chill wind of one reality: to be any of these exalted careers required a college education, and my family did not have even a tiny fraction of the money needed for me to attend any college.
In the early months of my senior high school year — the time for applications to colleges of one’s choice came. I didn’t even think of the Ivy League colleges — not even the University of Pennsylvania only 60 miles away in Philadelphia. I was practical enough to know that they were not only out of my financial reach, but also that the quota system for Jews was still very much alive and well. With my 5-year high school record, there was no chance for a scholarship.
I was doing very well in senior year science — Chemistry, with Mr. Mellinger. I did so well, in fact, that I began to think of myself as a great chemist. The only chemical company I knew of, though, was the great E. I. duPont deNemours Company of Wilmington, and their anti-semitic bias was very well known. Obviously my chances of employment as a chemist by duPont to achieve my greatness were not very good, so I looked for a more practical way to reach my goal. I hit upon a great idea!
In my voracious reading I had come across the term Chemical Engineer. What a Chemical Engineer did or how one became one I neither knew or cared. This was the way out for me.
The magic word Engineer conjured up visions of great bridges, buildings and the Panama Canal. An Engineer I would become — even a Chemical Engineer!
As I began my search through the various college and university catalogs which every senior was studying with far more attention than the classwork, I began to descend a little into reality. Chemical Engineering was still a rather arcane branch of that profession, and not too many engineering schools had courses in this discipline as yet. Of the few that did, some, like MIT or Renssalear Polytechnic Institute, were entirely too far out of my orbit for consideration or, like Penn State, too expensive and far away for a poor New Jersey boy.
Finally I ran across the catalog of a school that seemed to fit all my needs: Drexel Institute of Arts, Science and Industry (now Drexel University) in Philadelphia offered just the course I wanted; the tuition was low and I could save dormitory costs (which I could never have afforded) by staying at the home of my Aunt Elizabeth and Uncle Dave Sidlick on Spruce Street in midtown Philadelphia. With that solved, the next question was, how to be accepted with a record of a failed sophomore year? 5-year high school graduates were not regarded too well by even the lower-grade colleges.
Now my Librarian friends unexpectedly came to my rescue. When I told them of my dilemma, Mrs. Faus quietly pulled some strings, and “in consideration of the splendid service I had rendered for four years to the High School Library Committee” I found to my amazement that when the list of Honor Graduates was published, I was there with two stars!
This was evidently enough to impress the Admissions Officer of Drexel, because I was notified, just before graduation day, that I had been accepted as a freshman in its Chemical Engineering department for the 1930-31 academic year.
When the ACHS Senior Year Book came out, my picture, like those of all the other graduates, featured an “Ambition”. Mine was “To drive a chemical locomotive”. I am sure that of the 400-some graduates of that year, I was probably the only one who understood this very bad private pun.
Graduation Day came and went, I worked at whatever summer jobs were available, saving every penny I could for my college career, and finally the great day in September came. I took my packed bags and suitcase, boarded the train and was off to the Big City to start my bright college years — just like my hero, Frank Merriwell.
When I unpacked at the third-floor room at my Aunt Elizabeth’s house, I discovered she was also a landlady to other impecunious college students. In adjoining rooms were two young musicians, students at the Curtis Institute of Music, one of the most prestigious musical schools in the world, from which have come many famous instrumentalists, vocalists and conductors.
My fellow lodgers at Aunt Elizabeth’s house were Sidney Bernard Divinsky, an oboist from Cleveland and Emil Opawa, a flautist from Buffalo. Sidney and I became bosom buddies immediately, uniting in a joint dislike of Emil (fomented solely by Sidney, for some reason still completely obscure to me).
At 19, Sidney was far more sophisticated than I, and I sat at his feet in awe as he instructed me about music, how to soften, cut and scrape oboe reeds and about Life in general. He was the first to teach me of a kind of life I had never even dreamed existed. I thought he was the greatest figure in the world and he became my guru in all things. Sidney Bernard Divinsky was my hero, opening vistas for me which I still see and use today.
One of the things which Sidney taught me was how to smoke. Up to this time I had never so much as touched a cigarette. I remember the disgust and amazement which I felt when Ray Snyder, a classmate of mine at ACHS, nonchalantly took out a cigarette the day before graduation and lit up as quite the sophisticated man-of-the-world. He offered me one from the pack. I refused with horror and loathing, yet only a few months later, here I was puffing away like Ray. That was the start of the nicotine addiction which stayed with me over years and was the direct cause of a massive coronary infarction in 1966 and a weakened cardiovascular system for the rest of my life. Of that, much more later.
I started my classes in the Engineering Curriculum of Drexel Institute in October, 1930. I had good study habits and a sincere desire and the ability to be a top student, but two things laid me low. Looking back, I recognize now that neither of these were due to any flaw in me, but as the months crept by I sank lower and lower into a pit of my own despair and self-loathing.
In any type of Engineering, mastery of mathematics is crucial. The first semester of freshman mathematics included. as I recall, Advanced Algebra and Trigonometry; in the second semester we studied Analytical Geometry and Polar Coordinates. No problem here for me. I worked hard and made pretty fair grades. It was the third semester that broke my wagon and ended my college career and completely depleted what self-esteem I had.
The material for the 3rd semester math course was The Calculus, both Integral and Differential. Why this mathematical discipline is always called “The Calculus” I don’t know, but that’s what it’s always referred to in academic circles. Suffice it to say, the subject was The Calculus.
The instructor was a graduate student who knew the subject forwards, backwards and upside down, inside and out. Unfortunately for us, he was also a relatively recent immigrant from another country (probably India) and his command of English was quite fragmentary.
Combined with that was an accent so thick and broken as to make his exposition of the material almost completely incomprehensible. He would come into the classroom and fill the blackboards with an abstruse string of formulae, symbols and equations, ranging them from the upper left to the extreme right-hand bottom of each chalkboard, where he neatly arrived at his elegant solution of the particular problem.
This was great, except that what he was doing was total gibberish to the class and particularly to me. As he sped along in his execrable dialect I was completely lost after the first minute or so, and if I tried to ask a question, he was equally lost in his attempts to understand what I wanted and how to explain what was quickly becoming inexplicable to both of us.
Needless to say I failed the course and from 1931 to 1942 I was convinced that I was a total mathematical idiot.
But that was not my only tragedy that year.
The main reason why I chose Chemical Engineering as my future profession was my outstanding proficiency in my ACHS senior year chemistry course. I viewed myself as the greatest chemist since Pasteur, and felt that I was destined to remake the science of Chemistry in a new (Martin-oriented) image. So Chemistry 101 at Drexel was to be a total tour de force for me.
The first two semesters were pretty much that way; I probably was not the most outstanding member of the class, but I was fairly high in the grading. Then came that fatal third semester. The subject which would occupy the entire 10 weeks was Analysis Of An Unknown Substance for which every member of the class was handed a small sealed bottle.
Mine contained a transparent, brownish solution. I entered Chem Lab with confidence, took my usual place at the bench, opened my Handbook Of Physics and Chemistry at the Analysis Procedures section and set to work. But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum of chemical fame and fortune.
As I went carefully through each individual step, doing exactly what the Handbook said, none of the results seemed to occur in the right way. Things didn’t change color, settle out, precipitate, flocculate, fume, or do any of the things the book said they would when certain operations were performed.
In the beginning I was not discouraged, but as the weeks went on and the results were uniformly discouraging and increasingly ineffective, and the amount of my Unknown Solution dwindled, I became increasingly panic-stricken. I began to try changes in the procedures, to make shortcuts, to do anything that would identify something in this cursed solution!
No results. Only increasing frustration, fear, rage and a sickening despair. At the end of the semester I turned in a list of what I thought might be in that evil bottle, knowing full well that I had reached the end of a very rough road. I was not surprised to learn that I had failed the course.
The mighty hero, the intellectual giant, the King of Chemistry had been felled in his first tournament and lay helpless in his tarnished armor, slain by the twin demons of Math and Chem. My mouth was filled with the bitterness of failure and the ashes of dreams.
Back in my cheerless room at Aunt Elizabeth’s, there was only one way out. Suicide.
There were two small obstacles to achieve this desired condition. I had no gun or any access to any such weapon. (The idea of using a sharp instrument like a knife or razor didn’t even enter my mind, as I recall.) The image of my bedroom carpet covered in blood in Aunt Elizabeth’s house was quite frightening, considering her famous tantrums. So suicide (regretfully) was set aside as a solution to my failure.
I must retreat back to Atlantic City, to my family’s taunts and sneers with my figurative tail between my legs and my actual head bowed in shame and disgrace. The return of this native was to be a sad and lonely thing.
Sadly I packed my bags and books and said good-bye to Sidney Divinsky. We swore everlasting fealty to each other and promised to write to each other every single week without fail. Added to the crushing blows to my ego of my academic failure, now I had to leave my friend who to me was what I had been searching all my life.
I crawled back to my seaside den to lick my wounds. While I do not remember anything about my reception, I’m sure there must have been at least some “I told you so!” from some of my siblings — especially my next oldest sister Esther, whose life, I felt, was dedicated to stripping me of any little bit of credit for anything I might do well and to hypocritically rejoicing at anything at which I failed.
I had lost all of my self-esteem and my self-bestowed title of Mr. Genius. It was time to come down to earth and look for a job — any job doing anything, no matter how menial. After all, I had had my big chance and had blown it, so I had to be just where I had started from. A nobody from no place with nothing.
The glittering promised fame and success I had fooled myself in believing was ahead for me lay strewn in broken math formulas and spilled chemical compounds at my feet. All was lost. I had no future — only a shattered past.
Since the early 1920s Atlantic City and Florida had both been leaping madly into the same speculation madness which was shooting the stock market to dizzying heights. In Florida the entire state was being snapped up by speculators and deluded investors. In Atlantic City every piece of real estate not in the hands of the owners of the great hotels was changing hands 10 times a day at ever-increasing unreal figures which bore no relation to reality, In both places the get-rich-fever was endemic, reaching epidemic proportions.
Prior to the start of the real-estate inflation, there had been only four or five banks in Atlantic County — all of them conservative, prudent institutions. Now speculators were madly playing games with each other in a make-believe world filled with frenzied mob hysteria.
Paper fortunes were being made several times each day, and the euphoria mounted hourly to higher levels of madness. Everyone — and I mean everyone — was busy buying, selling, trading, dreaming, scheming and living in Never-Never Land, happily eating pie in the sky!
Then Nature took a hand in the game and called in the bets.
In September of 1926 a hurricane of what we might today classify as Category 4 or 5 (run for the hills, boys, she’s a killer!) devastated South Florida and particularly Miami Beach. With its screaming winds it tore the Florida Boom apart and carried its shredded pieces to oblivion.
The howling hurricane totally destroyed the Florida boom and its collapse caused the immediate implosion of the equally false and meretricious Atlantic City boom. For both Atlantic City, and South Florida, the Depression set in a full three years before the Black Thursday stock market collapse of October 29, 1929. In 1931 both Florida and Atlantic City were far ahead of most of the rest of the country in their precipitous descent into the maelstrom of the Depression.
Normally the winter months in Atlantic City were best expressed by the ironic saying Three months hurry and nine months worry. We made our year’s living in the hectic 13-week season from Memorial Day to Labor Day and tried to make the money last from Labor Day to Memorial Day.
Mostly it worked, but in the autumn of 1931, five years after Nature had dealt her wild card, and two years after Wall Street had laid its egg and the world had descended into the Fimbulwinter of financial and social disaster, the available money in our resort town vanished.
There was no winter walk-around money to live on and worst of all, there wasn’t going to be any available money to start up the businesses to prepare for the 1932 summer season.
1931 was truly the winter of our discontent. I don’t remember if my parents were caught up in the land boom bubble (I suspect they were), but I do remember that we had, quite literally, nothing. The house on Victoria Avenue was gone in the universal collapse. We moved to temporary quarters in a house on Pacific Avenue near Massachusetts Avenue that probably we also couldn’t really afford.
So it was decided that we would go to Florida for the winter.
This was not quite what it sounded like. In the early 1920s my oldest sister Rose had married Abe Gold, a genius of a designer with fabrics and equally an idiot with finances.
They had moved to West Palm Beach where Abe had set up his own custom design store and a continuing contentious relationship with Burdines Department Store. Between these two enterprises they eked out a something of a living. Some years later (1924, perhaps?) my next eldest sister Ann had married Phil Blicher, whose family had a dry-cleaning business in Palm Beach catering to the affluent residents and visitors of that fabulous place for the Rich and Famous.
The family decision, then, was to go to West Palm Beach where we (my father, mother and I) would live with Ann in the fairly large house she and Phil rented and where we would all try somehow to make it through the winter.
We drove down in somebody’s automobile. I have no recollection of the trip or its conditions except that we took US 1 and, at Weldon, N.C. (25 mph or visit our jail) switched to US 301. The Interstate system was many years in the future, and the trip probably took a week or more. We didn’t travel quite like the Joads in The Grapes Of Wrath but we certainly had no money to waste.
When we finally made it to West Palm Beach, we were greeted with good news. Ann and Phil had a friend named Irving Kessler who owned The Irving Company, a thriving Palm Beach purveying business which furnished fine viands to the wealthy winterers in the American Riviera.
Royal Palm Way was at that time the only automobile causeway crossing the Indian River between West Palm Beach (where the peasants lived) and Palm Beach. After more than 80 years it remains a beautiful highway flanked by magnificent Royal Palm trees and with a beautifully landscaped verges.
On the Palm Beach end it ended at County Road, then the main north-south street of Palm Beach. At that intersection The Irving Company had its store which featured among other amenities, a large soda fountain and a few tables.
Ann’s good news for us was that she had gotten me a job as the Night Manager with The Irving Company. My salary was a stunning $15 a week! What she didn’t tell me was that I got the job because for years Irving’s other “managers” had been stealing him blind, and Ann had assured him that I was honest (read innocent and stupid) enough to protect his money and that I was a hard worker. She was right in that I was honest.
I was now sufficiently chastened to realize that hard, menial work was the only thing left for me in this life. So I reported for my first night’s work at The Irving Company with very mixed feelings. I was utterly delighted to have a job and utterly downcast at working in a (gulp!) grocery store.
I quickly discovered that I had lucked into a sinecure.
As night manager, nobody supervised me, and my operating instructions were so meager that I couldn’t make a mistake. Mostly what I had to do was run the cash register, send out whatever orders came in over the phone from the customers, add up the receipts at the midnight closing and deposit them in the bank night deposit slot. No problem. It became a job I enjoyed tremendously.
The Irving Company was a seasonal business open in Palm Beach from November to March and in Southampton, Long Island from May to September, following the routine of many of its customers. Most of The Irving Company employees also moved from Florida to Long Island year after year.
I had a good relationship with the other young fellows who worked the night shift and I learned a lot about the rich and their habits from them. This was a window into a whole new world! It was no problem for me to fall into their easy, stressless living style where the money was easy, the work light and the days filled with pleasure.
One of the rich young loafers who hung around the Irving Co. to waste their time was Fred Gundlach. Fred was from Belleville, Illinois where his wealthy family owned an industry of some sort. Fred spent each winter with his grandmother in Palm Beach — perhaps because his parents couldn’t stand him — and his biggest problem was filling his days. For some reason which I do not know Fred became very friendly with me and I with him, and I soon found myself spending my days with him.
Fred had a motorcycle, and it was a real thrill for me to ride behind him as he scorched up and down County Road dodging around and between the big 16-cylinder Cadillacs, the stodgy Rolls-Royces and the snazzy (nobody dared use that word sexy) Ferraris which were common on the streets of Palm Beach. The memory of the street rushing under my feet and the roar of the exhaust in my ears is still very vivid.
Freddie also had a girl friend who lived with her parents in one of the houses (villa was the usual name for any residence in Palm Beach) on a side street and it quickly became clear why Fred was so happy to have me along on his motorcycle jaunts.
We would carefully reconnoiter to be sure his parents’ car was not parked at their house; then Fred would leave me on the driver’s seat of the motorbike while he went up to his girl’s bedroom. All usually went well with these clandestine rendezvouses, until one day when, to my shocked horror, his parents pulled up suddenly and unexpectedly to their house.
Freddie and I had long since had a stratagem for this contingency. I blew two blasts on the horn, quietly pushed the bike through the neighboring yard to the alley behind the house and sure enough, here came Fred out of the bedroom window clutching his pants in his hands as he slid over the rear porch roof and down to the ground. He swiftly slid into his trousers and calmly walked over to me and the bike and away we went! The girl? I never did find out anything more about her except that the trysts continued all winter.
When the winter was over, Irving Kessler (whom I think I saw perhaps twice all winter) asked me if I would consider working for him at his store in Southampton, Long Island at a very sizable increase in pay and perks. I was flattered and tremendously pleased because my shattered ego was being revived and my self-esteem was being restored. Filled once more with self-confidence and bombast, I brought the great news to my sister Ann. Her answer was an uncompromising “No!”
“Why not? I asked through gritted teeth.
“Because” she explained “you’ll wind up being just another seasonal bum, shuttling between Southampton in the summer and Palm Beach in the winter, doing nothing good, learning bad habits and winding up nowhere. The place is full of these tramps and I don’t want my brother to be another one!”
She was my big sister, my mother and father were on her side (so were justice and logic but I couldn’t see it} and I had to go along with her.
So, as another of my dreams of fame and fortune groveled in the dust we returned to the Playground Of The World for another summer.
The spring of 1932 was just what I had expected it to be in Atlantic City. Optimism was a commodity hard to come by in any year, at any season and in this year it was in perilously short supply.
All resorts exist only on surplus money, and Atlantic City was no exception. Whether the surplus was a hard-earned dollar for the Sunday railroad excursion from Philadelphia or an easy one for George Babbit from Zenith, Indiana, it still had to be surplus.
In 1932 with unemployment rocketing out of control, fear and panic endemic in America and confusion rampant — especially among the poor — the idea of spending any money at all on anything other than the barest survival needs was not popular. A trip to Atlantic City did not qualify as a survival need, and the outlook for the coming summer season was bleak indeed.
Many businessmen did not plan to open for this new season, so renovations, repainting, cleaning up and business rentals didn’t take place. Construction tradesmen, like my father, had no work; gloom and dismay hung over the city like a thick fog. Desperation lay on The Boardwalk thicker than any snow ever possibly could.
To this scene the Three Laibows returned from their winter in Palm Beach!
A new word had come into the vocabulary of America. In past centuries the growing pains of the industrial revolution, the overindulgences of unhindered laissez-faire capitalism and the financial shenanigans of a few speculators had resulted in short, sharp halts in the continuing onward march of American prosperity and growth.
Past generations had called these temporary bumps in the road panics. The unceasing flood of immigrants to the wide-open opportunities and never-ending frontiers of this great country had very quickly ended each of the panics and the nation had immediately resumed its innate optimism and sense of destiny. Since God himself had ordained our continued prosperity, no momentary pebble in the shoe of progress was going to stop our triumphant march. Toss it out and March On! Now, in 1932 a different feeling was corroding America’s soul.
In 1920 the tired, frightened ruling classes, fearful of losing their wealth and their place in the world to unwashed, bearded foreign fanatics carrying bombs while waving fiery torches of communism, socialism, Marxism, anarchy, atheism and who knows what other un-American horrors, clamped down on any more unrestricted immigration from the evil areas of eastern Europe, Russia, China — everywhere except the safe, civilized, unthreatening western European countries of the British Isles, France and Scandinavia. Even immigrants from Italy (read Sicily) were banned.
Fortress America hunkered down behind an impenetrable wall of isolationism, was retreating from the world and its problems. Unwilling to believe that the very existence of capitalism made the entire world one small neighborhood, the Isolationists, led by a small cabal of New York financiers and Midwest Republican politicians fiercely determined to keep America pure and free of all the damnable influences of the communists (anyone who is different in any way from us) inaugurated a series of financial, social and political maneuvers to keep those dangerous radicals away from our shores.
From the 1920 election of Warren Gamaliel Harding on a platform of “Back To Normalcy!”, through the chill Puritanism of Calvin Coolidge (They borrowed the money, didn’t they?) to the blundering economic confusion of Herbert Clark Hoover’s administration the Republican party had followed the path of unrestricted, unfettered, uncontrolled capitalist freedom characteristic of the early days of an Industrial Revolution emerging from the smoke and flames of a self-destructive feudal system. The fewer laws there were to leash their greed the better it was for the country, and anyone who interfered was destroyed with all the fury they could pour down.
What they could not recognize was that the essence of capitalism is that as soon as one of the wolves in the pack has made a kill, all the other wolves want a piece of it. The other wolves of the newly capitalistic world wanted the same kind of prosperity and unlimited profits so they too passed anti-immigration laws, tariffs, duties and subsidies for their own countries. The natural result followed.
All international trade slowed. Jobs disappeared all over the world. Famine, inflation, riots, governmental disintegration and strange, new, dangerous political systems sprang up.
Communism’s ugly brother Fascism appeared and began to l look good to the frightened manipulators of wealth and control in this country.
All these factors came together in 1932 with the creation of an old word with a new meaning:
DEPRESSION. It was, for millions of Americans, a glimpse into the bowels of hell.
Back in the familiar surroundings of Atlantic City I was faced with a dilemma common to every young person in that time and place: should I stay home, with my family, doing whatever I could wherever I could find it to do, or leave this seat of my failure for some other place and try to make a new life for myself? Natural inertia and fear combined to keep me at home.
A strange by-product of the Depression came to my assistance at this critical point. With the disappearance of Atlantic City’s normal tourist trade went the chances for jobs for the city’s young people. Disheartened, they left for other areas of the country where there might still be a hope for work. Thus, when I went job-hunting I found more openings than I could have imagined.
One of the jobs advertised in The Atlantic City Press was for a soda-fountain clerk at Matrick’s Pharmacy, at the corner of Pennsylvania and Pacific Avenues. Having filled in at The Irving Company’s soda fountain from time to time, I felt that I was qualified for at least this kind of job. To my surprise, I was hired at the astounding (for Atlantic City in this dreadful time) weekly wage of $15.
My duties were few, simple and direct. As Chief (and only) Soda Jerk I came in about 10 a.m., swept up the drug store, cleaned and polished the fountain, stocked the milk and crackers, mixed the various flavors for the sodas and in general got everything ready for the lunch trade of malted milks, sodas and crackers. After lunch I wiped off the glass tabletops, swept up again and made everything at the fountain ready for the afternoon business, including the students returning from ACHS after school.
That was the hardest thing for me to bear. After having left Atlantic City High School only two years before ready to conquer the academic world for a brilliant future, here I was in the lowest of menial jobs, in a dinky white jacket and a cocked white cap, behind the taps of a soda fountain. How much lower could I fall?
My shame may have been great, but it wasn’t as great as my ignorance and vainglory. The students drinking their nickel cokes and 15-cent malted milk shakes and excitedly chattering away about their personally important events didn’t even know I existed, and what’s more, didn’t care in the least who I was or who I had been. My humiliation and degradation existed only in my own twisted thoughts.
Matrick’s Pharmacy was owned by Myer Matrick, a fat little man who was satisfied to run a quiet little drug store and who didn’t seem to me to be very much affected by the end of the world happening all around us. He was assisted by his brother Leon, also a pharmacist, who was also a short person, but thinner and extremely nervous.
Much more than his brother, Leon cared about how the store was run, what was ordered, what was thrown out and everything else an efficient small business person cares about. Whether Myer had delegated these worries to Leon or whether he just took them on his own I never knew, but I know that the brother became a daily pain in the neck to me.
I never had a real fight with Leon but whenever it was his time to be on duty, I felt on edge. I felt that he was constantly looking for things to criticize and that in his eyes I could do nothing right. As a result, every day my nervousness increased and what could have been a quiet, humdrum life became tense and nerved-wracking for me, to the point where in spite of the Depression, I started to do the unthinkable. I began to look for another job.
As in so many other “crises” in my life, another door, opening to another direction in my journey, swung open.
LIVING WITH THE GENERAL
My next eldest sister Esther and I were separated by a 6-year gap in age, but it might just as well as have been 600 years for all the closeness between us. I didn’t like her and she made no attempt to conceal her dislike for me.
Whether it was jealousy on her part or a strong objection on mine to being patronized and constantly criticized (as I saw it) by someone for whom I had developed little respect, I do not know. I do know our relationship was not good.
We mostly lived our own lives under the same roof, each going his own path. The youngest of my parents’ three girls, she was closest to them, living at home with them on Victoria Avenue. The older children had by this time all married and were living in their own homes — Rose and Ann in Florida, Lou and Jules in Philadelphia.
If memory serves, Esther had married about 1930. Her husband, Boris Zisman, was, frankly, not my favorite person. There was, to my fastidious eyes, a crudeness and lack of nicety which led me to have as little to do with him (and them, after their marriage) as I could.
Esther, though, adored him, and certainly now I must say he was a completely good husband, an honorable man and devoted to his wife and family. That I was repelled by his lack of manners, his gaucheries, his general difference from my ideal of an elegant gentleman is a reflection on me, on him. But I couldn’t recognize that and I thought myself several cuts above him and, of course, of his wife.
Boris’s family was a hardworking one, whose father was a tailor. Socially, to my snobbish gaze, they were below us, since they lived on Arctic Avenue — the Atlantic City equivalent of the wrong side of the tracks. Boris’s younger brother Simon (he preferred “Cy”) was a shrewd young man who later became very wealthy.
Boris had no real trade, but he had worked for Charley Shusterman, owner of Maine Paper Company. Charley, a foulmouthed, good-hearted man, had built up the largest paper bag and wrapping-paper business in Atlantic County, and was quite a rich man for that place and time. With that background, a (very) few dollars, a tremendous amount of courage which today I greatly admire and a beat-up old Chevrolet sedan, he ventured into the world of business as a small-lot wholesaler (jobber) to small side-street merchants.
Since he sold a line of general merchandise, which included everything from paper bags to plastic combs to neighborhood small groceries, candy stores and fruit stands, he naturally called his little business the GENERAL MERCHANDISE COMPANY. He had, at the time of which I write, built up enough of a business that he had a warehouse in a small rented storefront/candy store on Arctic Avenue which Esther ran while he took care of his outside customers.
We (my parents, Esther and Boris) all lived together in an apartment on Virginia Avenue, sharing expenses, although I am sure Esther and Boris carried the lion’s share of the burden. I am equally sure that my parents by this time had no income worth mentioning. At dinner one night I was expressing my unhappiness with Leon Matrick when either Boris or Esther (probably Esther) suggested that I come to work for them as a salesman.
Whether they offered me a draw against commissions or a straight commission basis I do not remember, but the opportunity to get away from Leon Matrick and his carping seemed very good to me. I will not say I leaped at the offer, but it seemed to be a step upward from a very deep abyss. I accepted the offer and the next day quit my job as a soda jerk and entered the world of commerce.
ON THE STREET
Zisman suffered from the disease of every other small merchant since the start
of trade between humans — lack of working capital. As a result his clientele
was limited to the
smallest of storekeepers in the poorest neighborhoods of Atlantic City. He had
no employees at that time, so his time was spent in a constant frenzy of being
the entire sales force, delivering the orders in his rickety little Chevvy,
taking care of his little inventory in his candy store/
My appearance on the scene was a blessing for both sides, although my sister tried to make it seem as though I was the one receiving all the benefits. Boris gave me a list of his customers for my “route” to get me started. It took several years for me to realize that he kept the few who paid their bills promptly and bought the largest weekly amounts. What I got were the deadbeats, the poverty-stricken, the dregs of the bottom of the barrel.
I had no car to get around in, but in those years everybody like me walked anyway, so I didn’t realize that I was deprived. I walked the entire North Side (the poor, black-and-white social bottom area) four days of the week.
On Mondays I rode with Boris as we made deliveries for the orders we had taken during the previous week Saturdays we got up at 6 in the morning for the ride to Philadelphia to wholesalers like Harry Toub and Sons and returned in the late evening with the back and trunk of the car jammed to capacity with what we needed for the coming week’s business and what Boris’s very limited cash could afford for stock and inventory.
I can’t truthfully say whether I was a good salesman or not. I do know I developed a cheerful, optimistic surface, always with a smile for my customers, always willing to discuss their problems . I do know I was a terrible bill collector, letting many of them run up their debts to our cash-starved enterprise until they became so mired that they stopped buying from me.
I did not do the little business-people (many of whom had absolutely no knowledge of how to run a business), Boris or myself any favor by my fiscal queasiness, but I didn’t have the experience or sense to realize that my lenience was harmful to everyone. I thought I was helping make the world a better place.
Little by little, though, Boris, Esther and I plugged away and slowly the business grew. One day, two or three years after my debut as a salesman, the candy store was sold and a former automobile showroom on Arctic Avenue — with a tiled floor in the front and a real warehouse in the back and even a railed space for an office! — was rented.
Then a part-time delivery man was hired and, finally, some years later, Boris entered the ranks of real business by buying a new Ford truck chassis and having a custom van body built on it. The part-time driver was now full-time, the deliveries were being made to customers every day of the week, and even the competition began referring to us as The General even as they ran down our service, quality and prices. The General Merchandise Company was now a legitimate, respected member of the Atlantic City mercantile community. We had everything except working capital.
THE SECOND AMERICAN REBELLION
Atlantic County (of which Atlantic City was the economic engine) was a microcosm of the America of its time. Its economy was dominated by small businesses but the public appearance was of the large corporations of the great beachfront hotels. Segregation of the races was the norm and political corruption was the accepted way of life.
A Republican politician, Enoch “Nucky” L. Johnson was the undisputed political boss. Through his hands flowed every bit of graft from the gambling industry, city and county jobseekers, businessmen seeking contracts, developers looking for building and zoning permits and from any one else ready to pay money for favors.
Nucky Johnson’s grip on Atlantic County was equaled in New Jersey only by the equally pernicious stranglehold Democratic Boss Hague had on the much larger, much richer industrial heartland of North Jersey’s Hudson County. Both ruled their fiefdoms with iron hands, and no interloper had a chance of touching their controlled territories.
Small, family-owned farms and tiny farm-oriented villages and towns took up most of the county’s land mass. Travel was slow and difficult with only a few hard-paved roads. Most jobs were tied to agriculture, small business or what today we call the “hospitality industry”. Wages were low, unions almost nonexistent and, except for a few of the social and commercial elite, hope for a better future didn’t exist.
Into this desperate mixture came the Depression. The flow of vacationers from the Middle West and the dollar-excursion “shoobies” from Philadelphia which gave us not only our 13-week summer season, but our 39-week off-season support and livelihood as well, had dried up, vanished and gone with the bitter winds of unemployment and despair sweeping the nation. We felt it more severely even than the industrial centers because we lived on the extra money of working people and now there was no more extra money.
I had a job, but the fires of anger and rebellion burnt strongly in me. I felt that the world had treated me very badly and somehow I was owed restitution. My immaturity was expressing itself as a “victim”.
There were thousands — millions — like me in the world, and hundreds in Atlantic City., and the peddlers of the ideologies of victimhood were busy spreading their nefarious poisons to the gullible. I was one of the gullibles, looking for something — anything — to ease my personal pain, punish the them who had done this terrible thing to us and make a world where it couldn’t happen again.
Followers of the Fascist line like Gerald L. K. Smith and Father Coughlin were spewing their anti-Semitic, antidemocratic filth to an audience quite ready to believe their lies and calumnies were fact. The nascent Nazi party in Germany was sending its money and propaganda to subvert the large German segment of the American people, and ugliness was beginning to appear on the streets and in some areas of public discourse.
The other side of the same totalitarian coin was also appearing on the American scene, and Atlantic City was not neglected. The Communists were quick to take advantage of what to them was proof of the rottenness of the Capitalist system and its imminent decay. They were smart enough to oppose anti-Semitism and racism and to incorporate their outward hatred of fascism and all its works into their program for open-mouthed rebels like me.
I didn’t examine their manifestos and declarations in any detail. I didn’t know enough about politics, economics, history, Marxism or anything else to have known what I was looking at, but I had one experience in the summer of 1932 which I shall always cherish because for once I had the good sense to make the right decision.
The local Communist Party held a rally at the Waltz Dream Arena on North Ohio Avenue. I attended and listened to their harangues against “The System” and how the Marxist-Leninist solutions had worked so well in the Workers’ Paradise of The Soviet Union so that all unfairness, racism, poverty, discrimination and every other social evil was finally and forever gone from (Soviet) mankind and all we had to do here was get rid of the evil, bloodsucking, stupid Capitalists, put the kind, gentle, intelligent and loving Communists in charge and we would live Happily Ever After! I was enthralled. This was exactly what I had been searching for! I was all set to become a member of the Atlantic County Communist Party.
After the rally I was on the sidewalk outside the Arena talking to one of their membership solicitors. The conversation went something like this:
Me I want to be a writer. Can that help the new world?
Him What kind of writer do you want to be?
Me I guess an advertising man until I’m good at writing.
Him Great! We can use a good advertising man to write our propaganda for the masses.
Me What kind of propaganda?
Him He’ll tell you what to write and how to write it.
Me Who’s he?
Him Our AgitProp in Philadelphia.
Me You mean I’d have to write whatever he tells me to?
Him All good Communists must follow orders and do what they’re told.
That was the end of my career as a Communist.
The American people, like me, were both angry and frightened. All the safe secure things like continuity of food on the table, a market for your farm produce, a good job, a roof over your head — pouf! With a flick of a tape ticker in some mysterious way in a mysterious, faraway place like Wall Street they had vanished overnight.
Herbert Clark Hoover, a benign, kind, decent Quaker from Iowa, had made a great name for himself and the American Quaker Relief after World War I by his unceasing efforts to bring humanitarian aid to the war-ravaged people of Europe. He had been elected the 31st President in 1928 on the Republican ticket, defeating Alfred E. Smith, the Democratic governor of New York State. Everyone — even his political opponents — referred to him as The Great Humanitarian.
Mr. Hoover’s decency was useless in the face of the vast debacle overwhelming the world.
Although his advisors included such luminaries as Andrew J. Mellon of the Pittsburgh steelmaking family, the ruler of Wall Street investment banking John Pierpont Morgan and others of that exalted caliber, they were all helpless to stave off what seemed to be the inevitable Armageddon of the capitalist system and the rebellion of the American people against those who were the symbols and perpetuators of that system.
The best that Herbert Hoover could do was to appear before the press and make soothing noises. In several speeches intended to calm the increasing unease he sounded the mantra of the panicked ruling classes: “The country is basically sound!”
That it wasn’t sound basically or any other way was quickly apparent in a rapidly unfolding series of events. 1932 was a year in which Nature and Man both seemed to conspire to overthrow the greatest attempt to create an improved condition for mankind ever seen on this planet for the last 25,000 years.
A years-long drought of unparalleled severity had desiccated the Breadbasket of America. The Great Plains were literally dried up and blowing away, creating what we came to know as The Dust Bowl.
Whole populations of fine, hardworking decent Americans whose only crime was that they were farmers found themselves punished by being forced from their land, hammered into abject poverty worse than anything feudal serfs had ever known and dispersed to strange places to labor in strange vineyards for harsh strangers. Mr. Hoover and his advisors, deeply opposed to the idea of government being anything more than a tax-collecting, war-making, immigrant-rejecting body of as small a size as possible, had no theory, principle or mechanism to help its citizens caught in a catastrophe which they had no part in making. They sat paralyzed.
At the same time another drama was playing itself out. After Wall Street laid its egg in 1929, the mood of the country’s business people changed overnight from an exuberant optimism of Bigger is Better and Things Will Always be Good to such deep pessimism that the country’s mills, factories and all the industries and businesses dependent on the wages from these enterprises sank into a psychosis of closing and laying off their employees even when they didn’t need to do so. Unreasoning panic overcame good sense and by late 1932 it was estimated that fully 25% of the nation’s labor force was unemployed.
The most Mr. Hoover’s Republicans could do was to call on the country’s charities and churches to help the starving millions. As noble as this endeavor may have been, the size of the calamity was so overwhelming that the efforts of private philanthropy to fill the need was, as one cynic of the time put it, like trying to drain the Atlantic Ocean with a fork.
Overcome by the enormity of the destitution facing themselves and their families, groups of World War I veterans grasped at the hope of a few dollars in their time of need. They asked that the government speed up the payment of the bonus they had been promised in 1918 for their wartime service. The Republican-dominated Congress, fearful of raising taxes or increasing the national debt, refused to pass the necessary legislation.
The veterans converged on Washington, setting up a shantytown of cardboard-and-tarpaper shacks on a piece of desolate wasteland known as Anacostia Flats. What ensued ensured the death of the Republican Party and what it thought it stood for for a generation.
Herbert Hoover could not conceive of such an idea as veterans — men who had offered up their lives for The United States Of America — defying an order from their Commander-in-Chief. He ordered them to go home and that at some time in the near future he would ask Congress to help them. He could not know the desperation of men who were seeing their lives crumble into dust and their families literally starving to death before their very eyes when he denied them their promised pittance.
When they refused to go, he did what his panic and paralysis perhaps convinced him was the only feasible, logical, sensible, sound and prudent action to take. That it was also a human and political blunder of colossal proportions may not have entered into his calculations, or if it did, the thought of an increased national debt and higher taxes overrode it. He ordered General Douglas A. MacArthur to get rid of them.
Douglas MacArthur loved the limelight, and this was a wonderful way for the world to see the resolution and bravery of this splendid example of the Roman Centurion against a rabble of unwashed barbarians. In the full light of the news motion-picture cameras and the still cameras of the print press, he headed a cavalry and infantry charge upon the dispirited veterans and their ragged shanties.
The veterans were quickly and expeditiously cleared from Anacostia, but the entire world gasped at the savagery, the barbarity and the callousness of a government which could turn such naked force against an unarmed group of its own patriotic citizens exercising their constitutional right of redressing their grievances! The veterans and their cardboard shanties were gone from Washington, but so was America’s trust and confidence in the men of wealth and power who had guided it since Abe Lincoln saved the Union.
A shocked and angered nation was ready for anything which would get rid of those who had descended to these depths and besmirched America’s standards and values. Millions of Americans to whom voting for a Democratic candidate was like proposing a rapist for sainthood began looking for a party and a person to use to express their abhorrence of the callous besmirchers of The American Dream.
Now was the time for the Second American Revolution and the second Father of his country!
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the perfect example of America’s yearnings. This scion of Dutch patroons, from a family which had already produced one president despised by the very rich, enormously wealthy in his own right, of impeccable social credentials and dedicated to a life of public service appeared on the political horizon almost in a blaze of glory to answer the cries for help of a beleaguered peasantry.
The Democratic Party convention of 1932, stung by the voters’ rejection of the Roman Catholic Irishman, Alfred E. Smith, and smelling victory over a dispirited, discredited and disunited Republican party, determined this time to guarantee itself victory at the polls with a candidate who had everything the opposition did not.
There was not, in 1932, any fear, hatred or rejection of New York in the nation as a whole, nor was there any such thing in anyone’s mind as an “Eastern Liberal Establishment” as was to arise in the Eisenhower years 20 years later. Franklin Roosevelt, known immediately by the acronym FDR, former Assistant Secretary of the Navy in the Wilson administration and twice governor of New York State was handsome, photogenic, outgoing, breezy and could out-Hollywood Hollywood with his toothy smile and general air of bonhommie. He exuded just what a frightened, bitter, desperate electorate was looking for. His air of optimism, comfort, and security eased the fears of a nation and changed America and its social and economic systems forever.
Atlantic City was as solidly Republican an enclave as you would find anywhere in the US, but one of the political virtues that had kept Nucky Johnson in power in Atlantic County for more years than anyone wanted to remember was his instinct for survival.
He passed the word (probably in a deal with Boss Hague of Hudson County) that the Democratic ticket would win this time, and FDR was elected in November 1932 with a tremendous mandate to do something — anything — to save the country.
Even as millions of Americans changed their total economic, political and social thinking in what seemed like a political cataclysm for the Republican party and its fatcats, one statistic stands out which explains a great deal of the next 70 years:
Over 28 million votes were cast in the 1932 election for Herbert Hoover.
Nobody, I think, knew for sure what FDR was going to do to ease the death throes of a dying system, but everyone wanted him to do something. The panaceas that were put forth ranged from The Townsend Plan (A guaranteed weekly income for everyone) through Upton Sinclair’s EPIC (End Poverty In California) to all the varieties of socialism, fascism and crackpot-ism the fertile mind of man could devise.
With a stroke of political genius rarely seen before or after, FDR assembled a coalition of hard, practical politicians, starry-eyed academics, shrewd manipulators and hardboiled economists and cobbled together a series of plans, ideas, concepts, dreams and theories such as had never been seen in one place before. Even the world-changers around the Sunday dinner tables of my parents’ meshpuchah had never assembled such a bunch of wild ideas in one package.
But what would quickly become known as the New Deal (from Roosevelt’s campaign speeches) and develop into the famous Alphabet Soup programs were just crazy enough to do what they were supposed to — make jobs, revive the economy, bring back optimism and refresh the beleaguered American Spirit.
Never mind that in a spirit of exuberance Harold Ickes, the first Secretary of the Interior and a dedicated “Brain Truster” would exclaim “We’ll spend and spend, tax and tax and elect and elect!”
It was enough that instead of trying to sell apples on street corners, men were going back to work, factory chimneys were smoking again and faces were showing smiles again.
THE WORST YEAR
FDR was inaugurated in March of 1933. The bands played Happy Days Are Here Again as the chill winds blew across Washington and the crowds cheered for a New Deal for America. “We have nothing to fear except fear itself!” the new President told a country straining to grasp for the promised new life of security and a square meal every day.
We in Atlantic City were just as ecstatic and filled with excitement for a better tomorrow as the rest of the nation, bur our lives were based on a much more insecure platform than elsewhere.
I mentioned earlier that we lived on the extra money of the “shoobies”(so-called because the snobbish Atlantic City merchant lore had it that the dollar-excursionists on the railroads from Philadelphia brought their meals for their Sunday trips packed in shoeboxes, avoided the bath houses by changing into and out of their bathing suits under the Boardwalk. They bathed for free in our ocean and went home without having spent one nickel with us.
That this was a base lie didn’t bother us. We “knew” that this myth was true just as all believers in a myth “know” its truth. It was enough for us to hanker after the free-spending vacationers and money-flinging New Yorkers and Mid-Westerners who now, alas, had vanished so that all we were left with to nourish our empty pockets for the coming season and winter were the much-despised Shoobies.
Many stores on the Boardwalk were empty that year, and many of the hotels and rooming houses that lined the streets from Maine to Chelsea Avenues remained boarded up and vacant.The carpenters and other building tradespeople, real-estate agents and everyone else usually involved in the spring sprucing up and preparations for a season were unemployed and hungry.
The city itself was in bad straits. No one was paying taxes, city and county workers and school teachers were being paid in Scrip which traded on the street for less than half its face value, and gloom sat heavy on our town. There was no snow on the Boardwalk, but misery coated it a foot thick.
Into this cauldron of despair came a natural calamity, which convinced most of us that we did indeed live in both Sodom and Gomorrah, and God was visiting a particularly vicious punishment for our sins on us.
No matter how reluctantly, we had determined that we had to have the shoobies this year to make our seasonal money to carry us through the winter of 1933-34. We grimly set our sights on welcoming them and their shoeboxes, hoping that the few nickels they would spend for Cokes and hot dogs would ease our pain for the coming winter.
Just as the New Deal was beginning to be set up for the industrial and agricultural parts of our nation with the Works Progress Administration (WPA), Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Public Works Administration (PWA) and other wondrously named attempts to get the economy working again, Atlantic City, with no industry and no agriculture found itself at the bottom of the Slough Of Despond with only the hope of the shoobies on their dollar excursions on the Pennsylvania and Reading Railroads for the magic 13 summer Sundays from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
In 1933 the year of the nadir of The Depression, the year when our very survival depended on The Season, the heavens opened and it rained on every one of the 13 Summer Sundays
The Book of Job says that Job cursed God. So did we.
Until 1932 the pattern of capitalism in America had been strictly of the laissez-faire type of the early Industrial Revolution — government had no place in the lives of its subjects. Charity was the exclusive province of religion and wealthy individuals. Now the New Deal, with its eclectic mix of formulas, was responding to the needs of the American People with a Marxist solution which was exactly what was required for the dire situation in which they found themselves.
It was called Relief because that was what it was. It gave relief from the death-grip on our souls of the ghastly fears of starvation, penury and potter’s field burial. All the people together were accepting the responsibility of caring for all the people who were in need of care. It was that simple and that earth shaking.
When the Atlantic City Pageant was over and Miss America had been selected, our new Miss Atlantic City — Miss Starvation — appeared on the Boardwalk in front of our new Convention Hall and curtsied to us. Nobody applauded.
Briefly and succinctly put, Relief saved Atlantic City from bloody riots and a revolution that winter.
I was not very much affected personally by this dire time. My expectations were extremely low, my needs and wants very small, I had my meals and a place to sleep and something to keep me occupied during the day and my attempts to become a writer to occupy me during the evenings. I do not remember being particularly involved emotionally in anything during this period.
I called on my customers and did whatever I had to do with The General Merchandise Company. I had little ambition beyond a faint hope that I might, perhaps, through some miracle, become a great poet like my idol John Keats.
I had two close friends at this time. One, Bobby Busky, was the son of a local sign-painter; the other, Leon Singer, was the nephew of the owner of a large wholesale grocery company for whom he was a salesman and whom Leon hated with a passion.
Bobby was my own age and Leon was two or three years older. The three of us were quite inseparable, spending as much time together in our spare time as we could. We had very little money, but that was no problem, since most of what we did involved walking, talking (Oh, how we talked!) or loading up Leon or Bobby’s old junker of a car and going fishing. We were filled with anger and disgust at the world and anxious to get even with it. Our thoughts were angry and vengeful, but even as we recognized the stupidity and futility of what we were doing and saying, we kept right on doing it.
1933 is notable in my mind for another connection with Boris Zisman and The General Merchandise Co. In his own small way Boris was a shrewd and intelligent merchant. As winter came on Boris conceived the idea of setting up shop on the streets of Atlantic City during the Christmas season and selling 10-cent packages of aluminum foil strips as Christmas Tree Tinsel along with small boxes of artificial snow.
We set up shop on the sidewalk in front of the largest Woolworth on Atlantic Avenue in the heart of the business district. We stood on flat pieces of corrugated cartons on the icy, wet concrete and hawked our wares with impunity.
Since many other people were also trying desperately to make an extra dollar from the lucky few who still had jobs or who had a few cents from their new Relief checks to make a little holiday cheer, I think either that the management of all the dime stores didn’t have the courage to anger an already bitter customer base or that the city fathers of Atlantic City were too smart to stir up any hornet’s nest by demanding vendors’ licenses or invoking any ordinances against street vending.
With Christmas and New Year’s over and Memorial Day a long, long six months away, a deep, dark, impenetrable gloom settled on The World’s Playground as the long, dreary winter nights of 1934 set in.
A FAINT DAWN BREAKS
The 17th century poet Alexander Pope wrote in his Essay On Man: “Hope springs eternal in the human breast/Man never is, but always to be blest”. So it was with me in the early days of the New Deal. For the first time since the collapse of the land boom in 1926, many of the ordinary people of this seaside resort had a few dollars to enable them to buy their meager supplies of food, toilet paper, aspirin and other necessities from the small sidestreet merchants who were the customers of The General. Their few additional dollars increased business enough for me to feel a little easier about my financial status and the pervasive woes of the rest of the world did not weigh as heavily on me as on everyone else.
Things at home were not as good. My father’s health was not good and living with my sister Esther was a constant strain for me. I don’t know if it is only my memory or the reality, but it seems to me today that her every contact with me was filled with criticism. Nothing I did seemed to be right or acceptable in her eyes.
Finally, I felt that things had come to such a pass that I could no longer work for her all day and then come home to her constant carping and critical comments in the evening. I took my courage, my few pieces of clothing and my very thin wallet and moved out of the house I shared with my family.
ON MY OWN
Rooms for rent were very plentiful, and I had no trouble finding one on Trenton Avenue, just behind my alma mater, Atlantic City High School.
My landlady was a Jewish woman who immediately took a motherly interest in me. She clucked over my messy room and my unhealthy eating habits to the extent that I felt as though I were still living at home. I could not stand being treated as though I were still a child, but the truth is I was still acting as though I were one. I may have been 22 years old physically, but mentally I was still a child — and a spoiled one at that.
My real problem was that I was lonely. I knew very few people except Bobby Busky and Leon Singer, and even they were beginning to wear on me. My job was boring and my entire existence was beginning to fill me with emotions of anger, frustration and envy. I wanted something different.
What different, I could not say, and there was very little chance for another type of work for me not only because of the sad economic climate, but because I had absolutely no training for anything. In desperation I looked for any means to improve my lot by some sort of training.
The New Deal had come to Atlantic City in, among other forms, a WPA project for keeping skills fresh for typists and stenographers just in case they were able somehow to get jobs.
It seemed perfectly logical for me to learn how to type because I wanted to be a (famous, rich, successful) writer and I already had a Smith-Corona portable typewriter. Because they were evening courses and because they were free, I signed up for both typing and shorthand.
The courses were given in the old Junior High School building at Ohio and Pacific Avenues, near the Library at Ilinois Avenue. This made it convenient for me to grab a bite of supper and make a dash by jitney to be at class by 7 p.m.
I was a good student, anxious to learn these new skills which could fit me for a new and better life, but I quickly found myself back in my familiar old Slough of Despond.
I didn’t mind in the least that the class was made up entirely of females of varying ages, with me as the only male. What was particularly galling to me was that I was the only one who was a raw beginner. All the girls and women were already proficient at typing and shorthand, and so the typing class was filled with the sound of speedy clacking of typewriter keys while I sat at my machine laboriously pecking out one letter at a time in the touchtyping system so totally new to my fingers.
I am afraid that my male ego was working overtime again, but I persevered. I discovered that I am, under the right circumstances, a very stubborn person.
Little by tiresome little my speed on the typewriter keyboard improved and the mysterious pothooks of the Gregg Shorthand System began to make some sort of sense. I could even read back some of what I wrote down and my speed in both skills began to improve, but the swift clacking of my proficient classmates still filled me with repressed jealousy and frustration.
I am glad today that I took those courses, because while the shorthand has gone by the board, the typing skill I acquired in those long-gone days is still with me and has helped me immeasurably in all the years since then. Truly, no skill is ever lost.
Persevering as I did, key by key and finger by finger I slowly improved in speed and accuracy. As I write this I am pretty good at touch typing, although I must admit that I have not lost the old habit of looking down at the keyboard as I type.
My relationship with the family slowly improved. On December 31, 1934 Boris, Esther and a group of their friends went out to a night club to celebrate New Year’s Eve and invited me along. I do not remember whether or not I had a girl friend, but the chances are that I went stag. Girls were still not any part of my life.
FDR’s New Deal had not yet had the time to repeal the 18th Amendment, so the liquor we had was bootleg. I drank it like it was colored water, and suddenly found myself in the Men’s Room sick to my stomach and throwing up.
Determined to be part of the crowd, I remember grimacing through my queasiness and grunting “But I had a good time!” as I was poured into my bed in the wee hours of the morning. I was lonely and alone, and still unhappy.
My unhappiness continued like a low-grade fever until I made a move that ultimately changed my entire life forever.
The New Deal was booming along in a suddenly revitalized America. The alphabet soup programs were transforming the landscapes of the American people — their economy, social structure, culture and most important of all, their mental state. The miasma, which had overlain the entire nation like a falling darkness, had lifted.
Let no one imagine that all was sweetness and light. At the beginning of this chapter I noted that 28 million people had voted for a continuation of the policies of Herbert Hoover and the Republican philosophy that the business of government was business — not its people. The passage of revolutionary legislation like the Wagner Labor Relations Act, which for the first time in American history gave labor the right to organize, the crafting of laws creating a minimum wage floor, overtime pay, tax revenues to be used to keep people from starvation, government intervention for farmers driven from their land by natural disasters and regulation of stock markets was anathema to many decent people whose lives had not been devastated by the worldwide catastrophe of the Depression.
Their world was filled with fears of un-American, communistic and unchristian demonics inflicted by a band of fanatics whose only intention was to destroy the noble capitalistic system by their tax-and-spend and elect-and-elect class warfare, led by the arch-traitor to his class Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Eleanor, his evil, scheming feminine-fiend wife.
Troublemakers from abroad, too, were happily leaping into the domestic contest. In Germany Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists had come to power; Benito Mussolini was posturing and strutting in Italy while he filled the bellies of his opponents with castor oil; in Spain a mean, half-intelligent military tyrant with the alliterative name of Francisco Franco had engineered a Fascist revolt against a democratically-elected Socialist government and the Spanish Civil War was drowning a nation in its own blood.
Here at home our own homegrown fascists, catering to the ethnicity of the large, mainly totally patriotic but politically naive German-American population and fueled by money both from abroad and from those wealthy Americans who feared and hated any transfer of political, economic or social power to any groups other than themselves were busily fomenting rebellion and social, religious and ethnic hatreds hoping to bring power back to those to whom, they felt, it rightly belonged.
One part of America was beginning to see light at the other end of a long, dark, cold tunnel, while another part was busy closing both ends of the tunnel to shut out any kind of light and warmth.
From a distance of three generations, I am one of the few remaining Americans able to look back clearly and see how close we came to the total destruction of what the brave men of the first American Revolution thought they were achieving.
We were saved from the shattering of the American Dream by the most unlikely source one can imagine.
In 1941 the Japanese and Germans saved us from fascism, Nazism and tyranny. Later I shall go into this in much detail, but for now it is enough to say that I made a change on my own.
Chapters 11, 12, & 13
Things had settled down into a thoughtless, mindless routine for me. Every day I did the same things in the same way on the same streets. Some things had indeed changed — I had bought a car, I had extended my territory to take in not only the offshore towns of Absecon, Pleasantville, Northfield, Linwood and Somers Point as well as Ocean City, but it seemed to me that it was only more of the same over and over again.
Actually, one thing had changed which would have important bearings on my future. I had become intrigued with one phase of the business in which I was involved, and I was learning as much as I could about what is technically known as coarse paper.
Paper, I had discovered, was divided into two classifications. Uses such as writing, printing, art and similar things were defined as “fine”, while all other sorts of paper for more mundane uses were lumped together under the heading of “coarse” papers.
The paper that The General Merchandise Co. sold was in mostly grocers’ bags and various kinds of wrapping papers, so my interest was focused on the coarse paper classification.
I began to study all I could find about that subject, and discovered that it was a truly amazing part of the world’s technology. I started to develop a respect and liking for this branch of what I had hitherto regarded as simply a somewhat boring part of my life.
About this time, through my desire to raise the level both of the class of customers and my income I persuaded Boris to become the local distributor for a new kind of paper towel.
I had seen the advertisements of the Bay West Paper Co. in the trade journal of the coarse paper industry for its revolutionary new MOSINEE TURNTOWL and I felt this was just what I needed.
I quickly discovered that while the item was everything it’s manufacturer claimed, the local hotels, restaurants and other users of washroom paper towels were totally uninterested in changing their present supplies and suppliers. They were satisfied with the type of paper towel service they were providing their customers and completely uninterested in paying the higher price this superior towel demanded.
I was in the unfortunate position of having a better mousetrap, yet no one was beating a path to my door. Frustration combined with continuing ennui to cause me to peek out of my shell for something in the outside world.
THE TRAVELING SALESMAN
Milton Adler had been one of my classmates at Atlantic City High School. We had not been particularly close, but we knew each other fairly well.
Milton had told me that he and his widowed father were in the Florist Supply business. His father was the outside salesman and Milton worked at their home filling and shipping the orders his father mailed in.
I ran across Milton one day and he told me his father was ailing and staying at home. They were looking for someone to take his father’s place on the road. Intrigued, I began asking questions.
Milton suggested I come to their home, see what their operation was and talk to his father. I did and the result changed my life.
Milton Adler Senior was the stereotypical traveling salesman. His customers — small florists scattered up and down the eastern half of the country — were his personal friends, who looked forward to his semiannual visits and trusted his honesty and judgment.
The larger ceramic items in the Adler inventory, like vases, urns and flowerpots, were purchased from the potteries or large wholesalers and reshipped to the customers; small things like pearl-headed corsage pins were made in the Adler home factory by my friend Milton, Junior. Between the two of them they made a living.
Now that Adler Senior was not able to travel any more, they both agreed that maybe a young fellow with a desire to see the country and without too high expectations might just be what they needed, so they agreed to try me out. I accepted the idea with zest as my ticket to the larger world and maybe a chance to make something of myself for a change.
We agreed upon a commission arrangement. The Adlers would furnish the car and pay the traveling expenses of gas, oil, maintenance, repairs and insurance. I would pay for my own lodging on the road (YMCAs at a dollar a night were Mr. Adler’s preference) and for my own meals. I would follow the Adler itinerary and schedule of calls on his old customers and I would be encouraged to find as many new customers as I could from the list of FTD members torn from the pages of the latest Florists’ Telegraph Delivery magazine.
Delighted with the opportunity to be freed from my sister’s nagging, my brother-in-law’s small-minded thinking and thrilled at the opportunity to expand my world and make my way in it, I happily accepted the offer and quit my job as the sales force of The General Merchandise Company. Finally, I was ready to see America!
The Ford sedan the Adlers furnished for me was as close to new as I had ever had. I felt quite a nabob as I took the wheel and set out on my first business trip that winter’s day in 1935.
With the open road before me I was as happy as I had ever been in my life before.
My territory covered the major cities of lower New York State, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Illinois, with way stations in Indiana and Wisconsin. I would be on the road for a month at a time, return for a week or so back home and be off again to another part of the territory.
The first trip out taught me a startling lesson in the facts of reality. Milton Adler Senior had been the exact duplicate of Arthur Miller’s protagonist, Willy Loman. in Death Of A Salesman, living for years on his friendship with his old customers, a smile and a shoeshine.
They bought their merchandise from him, paying a higher price than the competition because he was their friend.
Now that connection was broken and I found that what I was selling was not new, particularly desirable or even in line with what burgeoning competitions were selling. Large chains were replacing the mom-and-pop florists, the new supermarkets were adding flower departments, and the entire flower world was changing almost day by day. I was just lucky enough to have signed on to a commercial version of the Titanic.
There were still enough small florists who remembered Milton Adler to give me enough orders for me to make my expenses and a small commission, but I quickly became tired of bleak, drab, sterile YMCA rooms, of quick-and-dirty downtown diners and worst of all, of the utter, terrible loneliness of places where I knew no one and nobody knew me.
Even though I was traveling and seeing new cities and much more of the American countryside, I became sadder, lonelier and more depressed. I was back in my own personal Depression, only this time it was without even the slight comfort of people whom I knew.
The nation, too, was undergoing its own trauma in its internal struggle between those who were fighting for a better life and those who were determined to hold on to whatever they had. The 1936 presidential election had put the contest squarely in terms that would pit the frightened defenders of the status quo against the upward-reaching strivers for the next three generations.
The remnants of the Republican party, still reeling from the monumental defeat of the FDR landslide four years before, had nominated an ineffectual governor of Kansas, Alf M. Landon, as their standard-bearer. They hoped that somehow the massive sit-in strikes and labor strife of organized labor’s attempts to get a slice of the American pie would so alienate middle America that their particular blend of me-too-ism and benign neglect would attract enough votes that they could eliminate the New Deal do-gooders.
Mixed in were the fascists and religious fanatics of Gerald L.K. Smith and Father Coughlin on the right and the communists and fellow-travelers of the left who each had their own agendas for fomenting trouble. The slow pace of recovery was itself creating problems as unrealistic hopes went unrealized.
But even the most die-hard opponents of Roosevelt could not deny that things were better than they had been under Hoover. The apple-sellers were gone from the corners; men (and some women) were actually working at jobs that paid genuine wages; big-ticket items like cars and locomotives were slowly beginning to be sold again and finally the long-neglected infrastructure was beginning to be repaired and replaced.
There was an air of expectation, of excitement, of belief that maybe there was a future for America after all, and the American people turned out in force again in the 1936 election and buried Alf Landon and his Kansas sunflower deep among other rejects of The Depression.
Except for me.
I was back home in the dumps with no expectation of anything ever again except more failures.
All the excitement and anticipation were gone from my life. It was just another job, only this time punctuated with lonely YMCA rooms, dismal diners, different cities that somehow were beginning to all look alike and a diminishing clientele. I felt trapped with absolutely no way out.
But, as with all things in my life, when there seemed no way out of a dilemma, new doors opened.
On a routine return in April, 1937 to my Atlantic City base to restore my samples, visit my family and prepare for another trip, I ran across Lee Hardman, an old friend of mine. He told me he had a girlfriend in Philadelphia whom he wanted to visit on the coming Sunday, and maybe I would like to go with him. He told me how beautiful and interesting his girlfriend was, and how much I would enjoy meeting her. I was less than intrigued with the idea of being thrilled by someone else’s girl when I didn’t have any of my own, and I was reluctant to go along.
I did ask him the usual obligatory question “Does she have a sister?” and he answered “Yes, but you won’t like her!”
Reluctantly, mostly because I was bored with nothing to do at home, I agreed to accompany him to Philadelphia to visit his girl on the next Sunday.
That April Sunday was bright, clear and crisp. Lee and I left Atlantic City for the hour ride in time to get to his girlfriend’s home in West Philadelphia about 1 o’clock that afternoon. As we rode he told me she was about 21, her name was Annie Heller, she lived with her family at their fruit store on 60th Street and that she was “one hot piece of goods!” but today she wasn’t feeling very well and that was why he was going to see her.
Yes, she did have a sister, he assured me, but I wouldn’t like her. She was a bookworm, had “funny” ideas about making out, and wasn’t at all what a really live fellow would want. The sister’s name was Miriam, and he quickly changed the subject back to Annie and her hotness.
I wasn’t very interested in Annie, her reclusive sister or hotness in general, so I simply settled down in my seat and let boredom resume its sway.
When we got to West Philadelphia I found the fruit store to be small, narrow and dark. The living quarters, like most small retail businesses, were in back of the store. To enter one had to thread his way through the bins and shelves of the fruit store and walk into a small very dark vestibule.
Lee walked in ahead of me, and said, “This is Annie’s sister, Miriam.”
My eyes still unfocused from the bright sunshine, I felt a heavy weight bearing down on my shoulders , a furry presence in my face and heard a heavy panting over my head. The only thought that went through me was “My God! She really is a dog!”
When my eyes adjusted to the dim light in the vestibule, I discovered that my greeting was from the family’s Great Dane, a huge, gentle beast with such floppy ears that Mr. Heller, the father of the girls, had named him Clark Gable for the movie star and his (reputed) big ears. The young lady to whom Lee had been referring stood to one side. She was assuredly not a dog, nor did she deserve any of the negative comments Lee had been so free in showering on her.
I have been married now to this wonderful person for 68 years and, as the reader will discover through the rest of this narrative, she is as truly the creator of my life as a person and a human being as if she had molded me from the dust. And in a very real sense she has.
She has scolded, me, molded me, nagged at me, ragged at me, mothered me, bothered me and held me, but always in our sometimes tempestuous marriage she has never once wavered in her faith in me, her uncompromising willingness to stand behind me, her candor and honesty and her unyielding desire for me to do what I felt was necessary for me to find my own way and develop my skills at whatever temporary cost to our family. When I am called to render my account and am asked “What is the best thing you found in this life?” I shall say without hesitation “Miriam!”
Her faith in me has moved the mountains of anger, disappointment, bitterness and negativity that were my self-imposed burden until I met her.
Franz Lizst wrote about his composition Les Preludes…“What is life but a series of preludes?”
My life from 1912 to 1937 was but a series of preludes to my real life, which began on Philadelphia’s West 60th Street in a small fruit-and-vegetable shop on that April Sunday.
Lee went on upstairs to Annie’s bedroom to sit by her bedside and commiserate with her illness while I was left in the downstairs living room with Miriam and Clark Gable. I quickly discovered that this bright, witty, clever and very attractive girl was a match for me. I didn’t know how to handle anyone like this except by showing off, so I did that. I made jokes (stolen from the radio comedians), postured like the King Kong gorilla in the recently released movie, quoted (or more likely, made up quotations) from all the smart writers and cynics of the day and in general made a howling idiot of myself to cover up my shyness and uneasiness at the discovery of a genuinely decent person who actually lived in the same world that I did.
Miriam Heller, was the third child of Bernard and Rebecca Heller. She had an older sister, Diane and Isadore, her oldest brother, who wanted so desperately to fit in with his world that he insisted that he be addressed always as Eddie.
Miriam’s mother had died of a heart failure while bathing in the surf in Atlantic City some 6 years before, and ever since then Miriam had, by default, become the surrogate mother of the family. She cleaned, cooked, shopped and, I guessed, even gossiped for the family.
Annie, who was less than a year younger than Miriam, was her special charge and the one for whom her whole life was dedicated. More and more, I found out later, Miriam had devoted all her energies since her mother’s death to protecting her young sister against a hostile family and world.
That Annie had in herself a native toughness and inherent capacity for self-protection was not important to Miriam; it was enough that her sister was younger, outwardly softer and in need of mothering.
But of this I knew nothing at that time. While Lee was visiting Annie upstairs Miriam was preparing a meal for us. I, just back from six weeks on the road with greasy-spoon meals heavy on my stomach, was about to sit down to a homemade Jewish meal of vegetable soup, roast chicken, boiled potatoes, vegetables and other culinary delights I had almost forgotten. Combine this with the sight of a wholesome, smiling, good-looking girl and there was no contest — even if I had wanted one. The way to this man’s heart was through his stomach, and she paved it thoroughly with the best kinds of delights.
Finally Lee and Annie (miraculously recovered) came downstairs to join us at the dining table. There was much to be said for Annie. She was quick, jolly, lively and always ready with a laugh. She and Lee were obviously much taken with each other, so the four of us had a very happy time at the table and for a couple of hours afterward.
Finally it was time for Lee and me to leave for the night ride back to Atlantic City. We said our good-byes (Lee kissed his) and we left, but not before I asked Miriam if I could see her again on another Sunday in a couple of weeks.
I remember saying to Lee, as we swung down Market Street toward the Delaware River Bridge, “That Miriam’s a real sweetheart; I think I’ll marry her!”
Lee must have had an exciting and unsatisfying session alone with Annie, because when we came to Atlantic City he said “Let’s stop at Poppy’s Place.” Poppy’s was one on the less expensive but cleaner houses of prostitution in our city , which was filled with such places.
I was not at all anxious to exercise my libido that night, but it was Lee’s car and he was driving so we stopped. I surprised myself ( I didn’t think I had that much self-control) by sitting in the little waiting room for him until he had completed whatever he had come there for and we could go home. I did a lot of thinking about this girl, about the life I was leading and for the first time in a long time where my life was going to go.
I spent the next week getting ready for another trip on the road, but with very little enthusiasm.
The original excitement of traveling, seeing new places, new people, doing new things in new cities and towns had long since evaporated in the harsh reality of long hours of driving, of inhospitable YMCA rooms and drab lobbies, of less-that-eager greetings from florists increasingly more reluctant to pay the prices the Adlers were forced to charge and fewer and fewer new customers willing to buy from me. To coin a florist joke, the bloom was indeed off the rose for me.
I began to try to figure out how to be in Philadelphia and how, once there, to make a living so that maybe I could marry this fetching creature who suddenly began to mean so much to me.
I had no real training for any trade or profession, and only a smattering of knowledge about one thing — paper. Maybe I could turn this to some advantage to reach my new immediate goal.
In my files I found the name of the Philadelphia distributor of Bay West Mosinee paper towels. Because I had such a high opinion of this product, and because selling paper products was the closest I qualified to any sort of profession or technical knowledge, I felt that if I could get a job selling paper with this firm, I could be near to Miriam Heller and make a living at the same time so I could reach my goal of marrying this exquisite creature who was the first one I had ever found who made me feel good about myself.
I planned out the whole thing very carefully. My oldest brother Lou, a shoe salesman, lived with his wife Yetta and his daughter Bertha in a row house on Lehigh Avenue in Philadelphia. I made arrangements to stay with them until I would find my own place.
I would work for Globe Paper Co., make a lot of money and marry Miriam. Beyond that I did not think, nor was I interested in the world beyond that. It was enough to be free from the stultifying confines of Atlantic City, my family, Esther and Boris and any outside control of my life.
I resigned my job with the Adlers (I think they were not sorry to see me go), took my rickety little car (a 1929 Chevrolet roadster with a wood frame body and a ripped canvas roof held together with stove bolts and baling wire, that I had bought for $25) and was off to the big city to make my fortune.
Globe Paper Company was a partnership of three ambitious, capable young men who specialized in selling industrial paper products to mills and factories in and around Philadelphia. They did a very good job and felt they could profit from having a bright, ambitious, knowledgeable fellow like me expand their business.
They offered me a salary of $15 weekly plus commissions — an offer I was very happy to take. I started to work for them in May or June of 1937, confident that my problems were behind me.
Alas for the bright dreams of youth! I quickly found that the industrial paper business in the Philadelphia area was filled with sharks and wolves who indiscriminately cut prices, stole customers, lied about their competition and did their best to preserve what little business there was for themselves. I was no match for their predatory tactics and soon sank into a slump from which it would take years to recover.
In the meantime, though, I was forgetting my daytime despairs in the pleasure of seeing Miriam every night.
Travel by Philadelphia Rapid Transit’s complex system of trolleys, elevated-subway lines and buses was a complicated and expensive matter from Lehigh Avenue to 60th Street. Although both were in West Philadelphia, they were many miles apart.
Rather than take the short method that involved paying two 7-1/2 cent fares plus 3¢ transfers, I figured out a method that involved a ridiculous circuitous method. I took the Lehigh Ave. trolley all the way down to the Elevated station at Frankford Ave., riding the El/Subway to 60th St. and transferring to the 60th Street trolley to the Heller store at 60th & Catherine Streets.
The idiocy of taking an hour and a half for a trip (the return trip at 1 o’clock in the morning was even longer) which could have been about a half hour, just to save a dime evidently was lost on my brilliant brain.
I was very proud that I had figured out a way to beat the system. A quick glimpse will indicate that clear thinking was not one of my better attributes at that time of my life.
My thinking was very clear when it came to Miriam, I spent every minute with her trying to overcome her very reasonable objections to our getting married. Other than the few facts that might have stood in the way, like my only making $15 a week, no discernible future and absolutely nothing upon which to build a viable married life, I could see no reason for postponing my desire.
Miriam was levelheaded, but eventually she was swept away by my importunities. She agreed and we set the day for January 16, 1938. With no money, no future, no training and not even a feather pillow, we were all ready for what promised to be the dumbest marriage of the century. Except that Annie beat us to the punch.
Miriam and I had many long discussions about when and how to accomplish our actual marriage; always we ran across the hard rock of money. My princely weekly stipend of $15 wasn’t going to carry our ship of matrimony very far. Her father was dead set against her marrying a man who had nothing which he deemed necessary for the proper tools to support his daughter and the little my own family knew about this business was to be opposed to it for a number of different reasons.
Annie was pressing hard for Miriam and me to elope. On the surface it seemed like the perfect solution, except that neither of us had any liking for a sneaky and dishonest way out of a set of difficulties.
Then, out of the blue Lee and Annie solved their own dilemma and brought ours to a head. They eloped themselves!
Like the loss of one’s virginity, all following actions were not so terrible. With Annie’s decision paving the way, we quickly came to the firm decision: things were not going to get any better and everyone might as well face the facts. If Annie and Lee could get married with nothing, then so could we. So we set the date for January 16 of 1938.
Many of the decisions, which plague more affluent couples, simply did not exist for us.
With no money things like trousseaus, bridesmaids’ matching gowns, wedding lists and other such things dear to young brides’ hearts in our culture simply didn’t exist in our world.
Miriam’s older sister gave her the wedding gown, the place for the ceremony and reception was to be her older (rich) brother’s apartment around the corner on Catherine Street and we rented a two-room “apartment” on the third floor of a house in the Strawberry Mansion section of West Philadelphia for $16 a month.
There was no dispute over the place for a honeymoon. We didn’t have the money for one, so we spent our wedding night at the bride’s bedroom in her home.
My mother had already gone to spend the winter with my sisters in West Palm Beach as she did every winter to avoid the northern chill. She was opposed to the marriage anyway. The idea of her penniless son being snatched up by some designing female was not very popular with her.
I do not remember if any of the members of my side of the family attended the wedding.
I do remember that I made the potato salad. It was so good everybody ate it (and nobody died!). We had a wonderful wedding.
My bosses at the Globe Paper Company were good enough to recognize my marriage with a raise in my pay from $15 to $20 a week. With this I was ready to face the world and for the first time to conquer it with the perfect helpmeet at my side.
Now, I felt, my life had really begun!
That first year of marriage seemed to me to be the culmination of everything I had been looking for all my life. I had a beautiful and adoring wife, a place I could call mine, home-cooked food prepared with love and even a job. Nothing more was necessary for me for the first few months of this idyllic condition.
When, in a couple of months Miriam shyly told me she was pregnant, my cup was full. Now both my faith in my ability to attract a girl had been vindicated, and my manhood too had been affirmed. What more was there for me?
Well, there was the little matter of money to support the new family, Miriam’s father, who had always viewed the marriage with a jaundiced eye, was somewhat less than pleased with what he felt his daughter had gotten herself into. In his life experience the only safety for anyone — and particularly for Jews — lay in having money. Lots of money.
One of the ways he expressed his concern about my ability to support my new family was certainly well-meant, but it thrust a knife into my newly-established self-respect. Several times a month he and my new brother-in-law Eddie would show up unannounced with several boxes of fruits, vegetables, groceries and other things for us.
This is a good time to talk about the Heller family and its effect on me for much of our future married life. This family in fact became much closer to me than my own blood family had ever been, and I have always looked on it as not only my family-by-marriage but as my own true family. There were four children in the Heller family — Eddie, the oldest, Diane, Miriam and Annie, the youngest.
Let me start with the son, Isadore who became Eddie. He was a strong, virile, handsome young man. He and his wife Ethel had been married about a year when I first met the family.
He had had a tempestuous childhood after his mother died in 1932. He didn’t take too well to school, preferring to run around with the neighborhood Irish and Italian roughnecks.
My father-in-law (“Pop” from now on) was very concerned for this motherless boy and tried to be his friend as well as his father. This was a very unusual thing for any father in that time, and especially unusual for a Jewish father-son relationship where the old-fashioned patriarchal system was very pronounced. The two went to movies together and spent as much time together as the little fruit store would allow.
Eddie left school as soon as he legally could and became the delivery man and general helper in the store, while running around with “the boys” on the street. Pop, always a man of infinite resource and shrewdness, was at his wits en trying to figure out a decent way for his wayward son to become someone with a respectable life.
Pop noticed that he had to pay every week to have the garbage picked up from his little business by a private garbage collector. He figured that this would be a good business for Eddie. It would keep him out in the open air, it was physical and not demanding on the intellect and it seemed to be lucrative. With these advantages in mind, Pop began looking for a garbage collection route he could buy for Eddie.
When the idea was first broached, Eddie was violently opposed. He bucked and fought, but Pop borrowed the $9,000 the owner wanted for the route and the single open truck. He told Eddie he was in business — or else!
Eddie actually worked on the truck picking up the garbage, for the first week. After that he hired people and spent his time doing what he became an expert at. He was a superb salesman, schmoozer and conniver. These qualities, together with a complete unawareness of morality, soon enabled him to parlay his one-truck business into one of Philadelphia’s largest refuse-removal businesses. Miriam always felt proud that she had been the one to give the business its name — CityWide Services.
He and Ethel lived around the corner from the fruit store on Catherine Street in the second-floor apartment where Miriam and I were married, as I mentioned before.
Whatever else one might say about Edward Heller in future years, I must say now there was an inner goodness and decency which shone through all his surface grossness. I grew to love this man like a real brother.
All of which didn’t stop me from hating him and Pop whenever they showed up to our third-floor two room “apartment” laden with boxes and baskets of insults to my manhood.
Diane, the oldest sister, was the polar opposite of Eddie and, indeed, of all the other Heller children. She was blonde, slim and in the eyes of Miriam and Annie the beautiful favorite of their father.
As I grew to know her over the years, she was also cold, selfish, pretentious, deeply mercenary and a poseur. She was a social climber, always trying to hide her original roots, of which she was deeply ashamed. She no longer lived at the Heller home when I met Miriam; she was married to Eugene L. Pollack, a man exactly like herself in every negative way.
Eugene (Gene) Pollock was a man who had no mental or spiritual life of his own, but sucked sustenance from the abilities of others.
With a minimal or no college education he pretended to a vast knowledge of mostly trivial items. There was a driving compulsion in him his entire life to impress others with the depth of his wisdom, and he was constantly spouting completely unconnected and usually meaningless data in every conversation. He was the worst kind of bore — the kind who thinks he is being fascinating.
As I learned from Miriam in later years, Diane’s greatest crime in their eyes was that as the oldest sister at the time of their mother’s death she had simply turned her back on the rest of the family.
The care of the household, the nurturing, all the mothering needs were left to the inexperienced and fumbling hands of the two younger girls while she led her own life of as much separation from the peasantry of a fruit store and its small-merchant neighbors in a Jewish neighborhood as she could manage.
She was, however, careful to maintain a cozy, loving (no matter how spurious) relationship with Pop and whatever assets he might have for the future, even after she had married and moved away.
In 1938 Diane and Gene were living in New York, where Gene had garnered some information about stamp collecting and was writing a column for one of the newspapers on that subject.
Diane had only contempt for me because (a) I had no real profession or business and (b) I had no money. It was not until many years later when I had achieved (c) not one, but two learned professions and (d) a reasonable financial stature that she considered me worthy of showing off to her intimate circle of climbers and strivers.
In the meantime, in the first year of my life married to her sister we heard nothing from Diane and Gene.
Of Miriam’s youngest sister Annie there was little to tell at that time. She was now married to my friend Lee Hardman and living with him in California. She was busy with her own life and, we were beginning to discover, not doing too well at it..
As I have earlier said, Annie was a cheerful, outgoing and attractive girl with her whole attention fixed on boys, fashion, fun and her looks. She had an infectious laugh, lit up a room just by walking in and didn’t seem to have a single brain under her carefully styled brown hair. She was small in stature and always resented it. I think she was very jealous of Diane’s height and cold blondness, so different from her own.
Her appearance as a dumb good-time girl was deceptive. Under it was a steely determination and an inflexible will when she really wanted to achieve something or protect Miriam.
She knew what she wanted and was willing to expend time and energy to get it.
She had barely graduated from High School, but after looking over what was available to her had decided to become a Beauty Operator. The course was difficult and expensive. It involved memorization and concentration on strange subjects and concepts, but she bored in and mastered this difficult profession so that she was able to qualify for the State Licence as a Professional Beautician and Hairdresser. This was no mean achievement for a girl who had been denigrated as midget and dummy all her life.
Annie was to play an important role in the rest of my life. I loved her, hated her, despised her, admired her and actually she became the real sister I felt I had never had.
Bernard Heller, Miriam’s father, was as strange a mixture as one could find among the young Jews of the Diaspora who emigrated to this country in the early days of the 20th century from Eastern Europe.
He had been raised in one of the innumerable shtetlach in the Pale of Settlement of western Russia, educated as so many boys were as a Talmudic scholar, His expectation was to be a scholar, perhaps a teacher, a rebbe or even eventually to reach the height of an advanced scholar, a rabbi.
The Czar’s army had a policy of impressing young Jewish men for a 25-year term of totally demeaning servitude among brutal and licentious peasant soldiery. Faced with this horrible fate, young Bernard made the fateful decision to flee to the land whose streets were paved with gold and where, rumor had it, Jews could live just like people!
Married as he was to a kind, sweet, gentle, loving woman (just like her daughter Miriam) it must have been wrenching for him to leave her arms, but the alternative was too terrible to contemplate. Promising to send for her as soon as he could, he joined the swelling stream of young Jews fleeing from Russia and reached the American shore in 1908.
He stepped off the boat with nothing. He had no skills, no profession, no trade. He carried no tools, no money, no future except a burning hunger for a life and a fiery need to survive. With this fire within him he turned his back on his Talmudic days and jumped into the American struggle for a slice of bread.
With the help of the earlier German-Jewish arrivals and their charity towards the unwelcome hordes, he was able to become a “customer-peddler”. He sold fruits and vegetables and whatever else he could lay his hands on from a pushcart to whomever would buy and in a couple of years was able to fulfill his promise to Rebecca and send her the money to come to Philadelphia.
Suddenly tragedy struck. Bad food, crushingly hard work, long hours and crowded living conditions had weakened his constitution so that he became a victim of “immigrant’s illness” — tuberculosis. He had to drop his little means of making a living and go off to a farm outside of Philadelphia to recover. He must have been a tough fellow, because he not only recovered, but was able quite soon to scrape together the passage money for Rebecca’s sister Luba to come to America.
Pretty soon he had somehow accumulated enough savings to rent the sidewalk space outside another small merchant’s store in South Philadelphia.
From the portable stand he sold some fruits and vegetables, enhancing his meager earnings with boiled hot corn from a copper washpot on a charcoal stove. Eventually he accumulated enough money to open a small fruit-and-vegetable store of his own and start a family.
Over the years he moved from one rented location in South Philadelphia to another until he finally was able to relocate to the more upscale neighborhood of 60th Street in West Philadelphia, a mixed neighborhood of small businesses and middle-upper-class Jewish families.
There he achieved his dream of not only owning his own business, but of owning the property in which he conducted it.
Always a man of ingenuity and calculation, Bernard figured out a way to make the money for taxes for his property during the slow summer season when his normal winter customers were on vacation at the seashore or the mountains. He closed the store in Philadelphia and rented a small store in Atlantic City for the summer season. He took his family with him and they all worked in the store with him.
It was there that his wife Rebecca, Miriam’s mother, died in 1932. She went down to the beach for a swim after the day’s work in the store and taking care of her family’s needs and had a heart attack.
More than ever, now, Bernard Heller withdrew into himself and became a bitter man. I don’t think, in all the years I knew him, that I ever heard him make a joke or give a heartfelt laugh. His whole life now seemed concentrated on his little business and money was the entire focus of his life.
Eddie’s garbage collection business had begun to grow into one of Philadelphia’s biggest;
Diane and her husband Eugene, in New York, had expanded his stamp-collection expertise into a mail-order business of selling stamps to collectors and they were doing well financially.
This left only the two younger children, Miriam and Annie, for his concern.
Annie seemed to be well taken care of with Lee in California, so Miriam (and her ne’erdo-well husband) were the ones he was most worried about. I am sure he spent many hours trying to figure out ways to bring me into the community of well-off young men.
Things at Globe Paper Co. were not going well for me. My initial flush of energy and ambition had been eroded over the past few months.
The Depression was still very much with us, and the relentless competition, fed by the need of my potential customers for the reduction of their overhead to the minimum was intense. I had nothing to offer to them that my competitors could not.
As the new boy on the block there was no room for me, and very reluctantly the owners of Globe and I agreed to part ways.
A wonderful thing happened to my life at that point that has been with me all through good times and bad. Miriam looked me in the eye at that terrible moment and said “Whatever happens, I’m behind you. We will manage!” And for the next 68 years we have indeed managed.
Talking about managing was all very well, but with a $16 per month rental habit and a pregnant wife to support, more than just management was required. I needed a job that would bring in some money. At that point Pop made a suggestion which sounded good to me.
He must have figured that if Eddie, a real bum, could have been rescued from the jaws of crime and quite possibly prison by becoming the owner of a business , then I, equally a bum in his eyes, could also be rescued from the grip of poverty and the crime of dependency by sharing in the same business. Pop offered me the chance to go into the garbage collection business too. He would help me buy an existing route and truck and, under the tutelage (and protection) of Eddie I would make a good living for his daughter and his forthcoming grandson.
I thought it was a wonderful idea and was all for it. Miriam, however, saw a great deal more in me than I had ever felt existed. Still filled with dreams and ambitions for me, she turned the thought of me in the garbage collection business down cold and insisted that I continue to find my own way. Once again, I saw fortune (maybe not fame, but certainly fortune) pulled away from my grasp. Reluctantly I went back to the want ads.
I wanted no more of the predacious paper business, but I still had no trade or profession on which to build a career. All I could call myself was “salesman” so I looked under that heading.
In those years there were still home deliveries of such needed commodities as milk and bread. Door-to-door sales of insurance and other things were common and it was the heyday of the most famous door-to-door salesman in American lore — the Fuller Brush Man and his Free Samples!
The local Fuller Brush office was advertising for Men. Not just any men, but Men who could seize an opportunity be their own bosses, dictate their own hours, make hundreds of dollars a month and have an infinity of leisure time and the good life! No money was required, and the fine people at The Fuller Brush office downtown would be glad to set up an appointment for you to start living the good life right now!
I knew that this was too good to be true, but desperation mixes its own sauces. I called the number, set up an appointment and joined the ranks of the Fuller Brush Men.
What I learned there was so important to my future life that I think a brief history of that amazing company and its astounding sales genius is worth telling here as I remember it some 75 years later.
THE FULLER BRUSH COMPANY STORY
Around the end of the 19th century Alfred Fuller, a Yankee brushmaker, conceived the idea of putting brush-bristles into twisted wires by machine instead of laboriously drilling holes into wooden or ivory handles and inserting the bristles by hand.
By definition a genius is one who does a common thing in an uncommon manner and Alfred Fuller certainly was a genius. It was not just the twisted wire and the machine- manufacture that were uncommon, but somewhere along the line he became connected and involved with another genius from the world of advertising.
Between them they revolutionized the way in which household products would be sold forever after. Every television commercial you see, for instance, owes its very existence to a Madison Avenue advertising man, Fine And Dandy Al Teetsel.
Al Teetsel took Alfred Fuller’s revolutionary bristle-in-a-wire and with it revolutionized the world. Because of him, ordinary household brushes were no longer just devices with which to clean, sweep or push through hair. They became tools for the 20th century household engineer/beauty queen to manage her home and herself and in the process make her life easier and more gracious. All this for a few pennies a day!
Teetsel’s advertising genius was by no means limited only to Fuller’s products. He created a dynamic new means of using the millennia-old peddler-at-the-back-door selling method.
He created a corps of polite, well-dressed, courteous, reliable, responsible and respectable men (and occasionally women) who came to the family door in every neighborhood — rich, poor, slum or palace — showing the prospective customer actual items they were selling, writing the orders and delivering the merchandise directly to the customer.
No trips to a store, no lugging things home, no aching feet, no rude sales clerks. And then came the final expression of Al Teetsel’s extraordinary genius.
In order to overcome the evil demon haunting all door-to-door salesmen since the dawn of antiquity — the fear of the housewife against letting any strange man in to violate the sanctity of her privacy, Teetsel invented The Free Sample, invoking the magic of the most potent four-letter word in the world: FREE.
Teetsel gave the Fuller Brush Man almost unrestricted entree to every house in the United States. He had the Fuller Brush Company create and manufacture miniature brushes by the millions (we called them “handies”) for which the salesmen paid 3¢ each. We were under very strict injunction always to give them away, never to sell them. These brushes were, as I recall, a wooden-handled vegetable- scrubber, a wire-handled pastry brush and a third type that I forget. The salesman at the door made himself invited inside with the magic mantra:
“Hello! (not Hi or Howdy) I’m your Fuller Brush Man. Which Free Sample Would You Like?’
The most important thing I learned from my term as a Fuller Man has stayed with me all my life. It has stood me in good stead all through all my lives as architect, professional artist, university professor, and watercolor painting teacher, writer and lecturer.
It is the outstanding example of Al Teetsel’s magnificent genius: the good salesman always avoids letting his prospect use the words Yes or No.
The sign of an expert at the craft of selling, he taught, was getting the order by letting the customer make the decision instead of the salesman. This is done by giving the prospect a choice instead of a demand.
Asking which Free Sample freed the housewife from the burden and fear of a Yes or No and created an instant bond between Fuller Man and housewife. He was now her friend.
Because she had made her choice while the Fuller Man was still outside on the doorstep it was no problem for her to allow him inside after he had said, always with a nice smile, “Fine and
Dandy! I’ll just step inside and hand it to you!”
So she could invite him into her house because he was giving her the Free thing she had chosen and he was now her friend. What could be simpler, and what a wonderful way to get past the awful barrier of the shut front door and the suspicious housewife!
Once in, Fine and Dandy Al taught us to give her the handie while still in the vestibule or entry. Then, he told us, look around, pause and sincerely compliment the lady on the neatness and the impeccable decor of her home.
He instructed us always to find one thing on which to comment pleasantly without overdoing it. Just a word or two of your enjoyment of her taste in this nice home, enough to put her at ease. Now she will ask you to sit down, and you will refuse.
Sure, Al said. You have just reinforced her confidence in you and reduced her fear. People buy from friends and reject their enemies. You are now a friend.
Now you should ask her permission for you to show her your samples. You open your case (which you have put on the floor (not on any piece of furniture) and neatly show your merchandise one piece at a time.
You will learn, Teetsel said, whether you have a customer or not in the first two minutes of your presentation. If she’s not, thank her politely, pack up quickly and get out.
If she is a customer, write the order, make sure she is through buying, thank her politely, pack up quickly and get out.
Fine and Dandy Al Teetsel knew the curse of the salesman is like the curse of the boring dinner guest who doesn’t know when to go home. Stay one second too long and you lose the sale.
At every sales meeting, held every week in downtown Philadelphia at the Fuller sales office we chanted in unison Get In, Get The Order, Get Out!
At these weekly sales meetings we were bombarded with figures from the outstanding salesmen of the week, who usually seemed to be the same people. One whom I remember vividly was a young man who looked like a well-fed Clark Gable and whose sales, week after week, were either the very top or close to the top earners. I was consumed with jealousy and fired with ambition to learn how he did it.
He made no attempt to hide his method. He had the downtown office territory; his clientele were the young clerical workers who had the money and the impulse to buy the Famous Fuller Bristlecombs, toothbrushes, cosmetic aids and other items as necessities which my housewife prospects had to view as luxuries they couldn’t afford — to the detriment of my sales and profits.
A word about “Fine And Dandy!” We were told by our sales manager that in 1922 there had been a Broadway musical called Fine And Dandy. Al Teetsel, who by now was the National Sales Manager for The Fuller Brush Company, had seen it and had been so impressed with the optimism of the slogan that he had immediately adopted it as the motto of the company and all its salespeople.
We were supposed to use it as an automatic response to anything anyone might say to us — positive or negative. “
“How’s the weather?” Fine And Dandy!
“I don’t want any.” Fine And Dandy!
“I’ll take three dozen.” Fine And Dandy!
“The world just came to an end.” Fine And Dandy!
With all this information about how to be the world’s finest salesman (and I am serious in this) I was ready to bring home the bacon for my family. I had to pay a few dollars as a deposit for a box of 100 handies, the fiber suitcase with its full line of samples (on a board covered with a jazzy blue velvet display cloth) but a loan from Pop (or Eddie) took care of that.
Assigned to a specific North Philadelphia neighborhood and to Sam Obedin, a young man about my age who was to be my trainer, I started out determined to make good this time. I felt that I had everything going for me, and I could really make the grade of Pop’s approval.
I did everything right. I dressed neatly with a clean shave, rang the doorbell, stepped back the obligatory two steps to inspire confidence, smiled, offered the handies with the choice and got into the house with no trouble. Once in, I failed the test and didn’t get the sale because I talked too much. When my prospect clearly showed (in the first 2 minutes, as the sales manual insisted) she could not or would not buy what I offered, I pressed, I cajoled. My desperation showed and the prey retreated into its den while I was left outside with nothing.
I didn’t have brains enough to realize that the genius of Al Teetsel was never more brilliantly shown in Get in, get the order, get out!
I had no trouble getting in. My trouble was when I didn’t get the order I didn’t get out and go on to the possibly more profitable house next door.
Even when in desperation the sales office assigned another salesman to show me how to do it I didn’t learn. This young fellow did everything wrong as far as the book was concerned, except sell brushes.
He had a cigarette dangling from his lip when the lady answered the door; his approach was “Wanna free sample, lady?” with no smile; once in the house he dropped his (beatup) sample case on the nearest piece of furniture and dumped his samples on the floor. He slouched, kept his hat on and did everything wrong. And he got a sale at almost every house.
The difference? When the prospect gave the unmistakable No Sale signals he threw his samples at random back into the case and got out.
He sold more in a morning in my “no-good” territory than I sold in a week because he knew when to get out. I never learned.
Sadly I turned in my (by now battered) sample case, my blue-velvet-covered brush display board and what was left of my current boxes of handies and gave up direct selling. It was necessary for me to go back to selling paper. I turned sadly to the classified ads to see who wanted a wholesale paper salesman who hated selling wholesale paper.
Frank and Harry Dubin were two Jewish brothers who could be the poster boys for successful competitors in a gentile-dominated field. From a start with the early 20th century equivalent of a pushcart, they built up one of Philadelphia’s largest wholesale coarse paper businesses. They counted not only the large supermarkets like Penn Fruit and Food Fair as their customers but Dubin Paper Co. also included hundreds of the small mom-and-pop retail stores throughout the Philadelphia metropolitan area. They were one of the giants in their field, and it was with this firm that I found a job and went to work.
Once again I started the new job filled with enthusiasm, a burning desire to make good, anxious to supply my little family with the best of everything and, I’m sure, a sneaking desire to show my in-laws that I was not quite the no-goodnik I was convinced they felt had married their Miriam.
As a sidelight, I wound up in a cell in Moyamensing Prison, Philadelphia’s 19th century version of The Bastille.
For my new job I needed a car. With (probably 100%) assistance from the Heller family, I bought a sad little, very used, vehicle. It would take several days for the license tags to come from Harrisburg, and I was to start the job today, What to do?
Magnanimous as ever, Eddie came to the rescue. In those days Pennsylvania required tags at both front and rear. Eddie took off a front tag from his Cadillac and I put it on the rear of my little car. Problem solved!
Well, not quite. An eagle-eyed state trooper, cruising in the neighborhood noticed my one-tag car. He stopped me, arrested me, and ran a check on the tag. Promptly Eddie was likewise arrested and we two hardened criminals were quickly brought before a magistrate, fined $67.50 (I shall always remember that figure from my checkered past) and thrown into Moyamensing Prison until some kind Samaritan would pay our fine and release us from durance vile.
Moyamensing Prison (“Moko” as we public enemies fondly called it) had been built about 1840 with stone walls thick enough to hold off any mob of revolutionaries intent on destroying the nation. In this ancient collection of dungeons we were consigned to a dank cell overflowing with about 8 or 10 other dedicated criminals. They welcomed us into their midst, made room for us on the bunks and began to instruct us in prison lore. We were having a marvelous time with these other felons when, just as we were lining up in the corridor outside the cell for the march to the dining hall for supper, a guard (“screw” in our jailbird argot) plucked us from the line and told us we were free men again. Miriam and Pop sat in the bailiff’s office, white and trembling with shame and fear. Pop had scraped together the money for our fine and we were now sprung as we hard cases say. We walked out into the evening air as free men, but Eddie and I felt cheated. While we were no longer felons in the eyes of the law, we had been deprived of our meal. Thus ended my first (and to date only) brush with the dread forces of law and order.
I did no better with Dubin Paper Company than with Globe Paper. The same force that had kept me from succeeding at Globe was at work in my attempts to sell with Dubin.
The small stores which were my natural customer base were already buying from my competitors and although no one could beat Dubin’s prices or give better service, I had no incentive to persuade them to switch from their current suppliers who were, in many cases, personal friends. My personality did get me some new customers, but in general I was again on the fringes of the trade. I made my draw, but it was increasingly less than necessary for my family’s needs.
The package-laden visits from Pop and Eddie were increasing in frequency and the bile was building up inside me with more pressure. I was becoming more and more desperate and feeling like a trapped rat in a sinking ship.
I was rescued by a strange combination of events which forever changed not only me and my family, but my nation and the entire world and the times in which I had chosen to live.
On Sunday, December 7, 1941, the Emperor Hirohito and General Tojo sent the Japanese air armada to bomb Pearl Harbor and Hickam Air Corps Base at in the United States Territory of Hawaii.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt defined it as “A day which will live in infamy!” For me it was the day which changed me from a childish loser to a well-adjusted adult able to face life and be the master of his soul and in the process learn who I am.
Chapters 14, 15, & 16
That Sunday morning I, like 120 million other Americans, was filled with a burning fire to avenge the sneak attack on the security, majesty and impregnability of my native country which I hold so dear.
The first thing Monday morning I rushed to my local draft board to register. I was rated 1A, but told to wait to be called. At the age of 29, married, with one child, I was far down the list behind the single young men with no dependents who would be at the top of the list.
The Philadelphia Ordnance District (POD) was a major branch of the War Department. It had taken over the old Union League Club building at Broad and Chestnut Streets and I thought they might need at least my clerical abilities. As it turned out they thought my background better qualified me to be a civilian Ordnance Inspector.
They offered me an interim job with the clear understanding that under no circumstances would it affect my 1A standing with my Draft Board. The proffered job required me to take a 13 week training course at the University of Pennsylvania in Metallurgical Engineering, and the stipulation that I would be washed out at any time in the course that I failed to come up to their standards was made very clear to me. Also made clear was the $2,000 annual salary during training which would automatically be increased to $2,400 upon completion of the training and assignment to the field.
The combination of wonderful things at one time seemed too good to be true. The epitome of one’s dreams in those years was to get a government job with its built-in security and good pay and here I was stepping into it. I couldn’t wait to rush home and tell Miriam of this windfall into our lives.
My next step was to tell Frank and Harry Dubin that I was going to be involved in war work. They understood and I left with mutual good feelings. Now I was on the threshold of being a part of the War Effort!
We had moved by this time to a store front near 42nd and Girard Avenues which we had converted to a home with several bedrooms, a big living room and many more amenities than we had ever had before, at an affordable rent. I blacked out part of the show windows,
Miriam made curtains and we had a perfect nest at a price I could afford. Only Pop was not satisfied, but I learned that there would never be a time when he would be satisfied, so I lived with his dissatisfaction. He and Eddie continued to bring us goodies and I continued to resent the humiliation.
The classes at Penn quickly became a pleasure and a joy in themselves. I discovered that my previous failure at Drexel and my self-loathing as a mathematical idiot and failure were not my fault at all, but a totally incompetent teacher with no grasp of the English language with which to impart his undoubted knowledge of the subject. He knew his subject too well and couldn’t realize that we knew less.
Emeritus Professor Wanner, retired head of the Penn Mathematics Department was our teacher, He knew the subject and he knew how to teach it. My eager mind leaped at the subject, devoured it and I quickly became the star student. Far from being a mathematical moron, I shone in the subject. In learning, the teacher is the catalyst to transform a dolt into an intellect in any subject.
Because of the great benefit to my self-esteem in discovering that my previous academic failure had not been my sin, I stood at or near the head of the training class in every subject.
I had always assumed that I had no capability with my hands from my tragic experiences in 5th grade Woodworking Shop class (an entire term and not even one completed test-tube holder), but in this training session I excelled in Metalworking Shop, operating lathes, milling machines, shapers, drill presses and other shop equipment with insouciance if not great skill.
Metallurgical Engineering itself was another course in which I was outstanding. I braved the intricacies of the Liquidus and Solidus ratios of steel with impunity and overcame their arcane formulations with ease.
There was left only a handful of those who had started the course 13 weeks before and I had survived every cut. Now the time had come to take what we had learned and apply it to winning the war.
Scuttlebutt in the class had it that if you really wanted to get ahead in POD it was smart to try for an assignment to one of the smaller Regional Offices rather than get lost in the bureaucratic labyrinth of Broad Street. Since POD covered the entire eastern seaboard from Maine to Florida common sense told me my best chances for a bright future lay in the Richmond (Virginia) Regional Office, which had jurisdiction over all the southern states from Virginia to Florida.
At graduation we were each given a form on which to note our preferences for service locations. I boldly marked Richmond Regional Office as my only choice, leaving the second and third choice spaces blank. I gambled and won what I had wanted.
Miriam was just as thrilled as I was with my new assignment. We agreed that I would get settled and send for her and David just as quickly as possible. I had made the financial arrangements with POD to have part of my pay sent to her every pay period, so life was going to be great!
I went to POD offices downtown, had my travel orders cut and got my first-class Pullman tickets for the overnight train trip to Richmond and winning the War by myself!
When next morning I got off the Pullman (what an experience!) I had never before been on a Pullman even by day, and to sleep in a lower berth with an obsequious porter at my beck and call was luxury I had never imagined. I took a cab to the Richmond Regional Office in the Alcoa office building in downtown Richmond.
I was introduced to the Officer-In-Charge, Captain Dan Pletta, his Executive Officer, 1st Lieutenant Wellbourne and to my immediate boss, Chief Inspector Allen C. Woolridge. I was overwhelmed by such glory and delighted that I had chosen such a fine place to do my patriotic duty for my country.
I was further overwhelmed when Mr. Woolridge took me into his office, sat me down before him and asked me, very seriously, “Laibow, do you want to get ahead in this outfit?”
“Oh, Yes, sir!”
“Well, then ” he told me “There are three rules to follow: Shoot the bull, Pass the buck and make three extra copies of everything!”
He was absolutely right. I have always adhered to those rules and the results have been just as he predicted.
I was introduced all around to the office staff and then given my first assignment. I was to take the night train (again First Class Pullman) to Winston-Salem, North Carolina to be Inspector at a contractor (we called them “facilities”) where I would be resident until they were ready for my “real” assignment later in the year.
The next morning I reported to the Bahnson Company — my first job in the field. I quickly realized that I had never known anything of the immense difference between the North where I had spent all my life and the South where the War Between The States was just as real as though the cannons were still firing. Class distinctions long obsolete in New Jersey still flourished in North Carolina and wages of the working class were abysmally low compared to my home area. Racial segregation was alive and well here and the mental attitudes of slavery times were all around me.
I stepped off the train into this medieval atmosphere and found myself welcomed at the Bahnson plant as a white representative of the ruling aristocracy. A drawback was that I also represented the Gummint, but they were willing to hold judgement in abeyance depending on how well I fit into the stereotype of the Master. They didn’t know I was Jewish and I didn’t see any necessity to tell them. It was Don’t ask, don’t tell long before William Jefferson Clinton.
The Bahnson Company was a small, family-owned company which manufactured a humidifying system for textile plants. In those days before air-conditioning it was important in cotton mills to control the humidity so that the cotton fibers floating around would clump together and fall to the floor where they could be collected and used, instead of clogging the machinery.
As a side effect they also were kept out of the mill-workers’ throats and noses, but this was not an important issue at that time in that culture. OSHA had not yet had any impact on the Southern gentry still caught up in the laissez-faire phase of capitalism.
I don’t remember what specifically Bahnson was making for POD, but it was important enough to have its own resident inspector — me.
That first day I had my first lesson in how the gentry and the peasantry lived in the Southland. At lunchtime the whistle blew and I was invited to join the other executives in the restaurant across the (unpaved) road from the plant entrance gates.
The tables were covered with white tablecloths, each place was set with the obligatory iced tea and black servers in starched white jackets stood alert to serve us. The menu was the same for every one: a hearty soup, a crisp salad and three huge pork chops big enough to be assault weapons. Three vegetables were served with the chops in copious helpings, including the omnipresent beans.
The coup de grace was dessert. Each diner was presented with a massive slab of pie decked with a vast mantle of vanilla ice cream. All during the meal there was a constant flow of coffee with thick cream from never-empty pitchers. Seconds for those with the stamina were readily available. Breads, butter, jams, jellies and honey were available on the table throughout the meal.
Stuffed like the proverbial Thanksgiving turkey I struggled to my feet and feebly asked how much this Lucullan feast might cost me. I thought perhaps a week’s pay might be enough and that I would have to avoid this place like the plague after today. I was shocked to hear that the check for this Oktoberfest was 35¢. Thirty-five cents!
My wonder was compounded when I discovered that only the rich executives patronized this exclusive restaurant. Ordinary workers brought their own lunches from home because they couldn’t afford this fancy place and its exorbitant prices.
There was more education to come. As a newcomer to town, I was recommended to the best (read most elite) boarding house. There I was greeted with open arms, shown the Best Bedroom, closest to the bathroom, with its purple velvet drapes, mahogany double bed and other Victorian furnishings and told I was entitled to breakfast and dinner every day with a weekly change of linens — all for $5.00 per week.
To me this was the biggest bargain in the known universe, but a week or so later another (jealous?) boarder whispered to me that the landlady had never ever been able to get more than $3 for that room and she was taking shameful advantage of me because I was a rich Yankee!
The meals were something I had never imagined. Breakfast was fresh-squeezed orange juice, oatmeal, several eggs fried floating on top of a couple inches of grease from the bacon and sausages which accompanied the eggs. There were potatoes, fried in the same bath of grease as well as the ubiquitous beans and gallons of coffee, milk or iced tea. It was incomprehensible to me that these people, most of whom worked in offices or stores, could even walk after these gargantuan morning repasts, let alone perform whatever tasks they did to earn their pay.
Supper, served at 6 o’clock in the afternoon (evening to us damyankees) was even more gargantuan. Fruit juice, a large bowl of a hearty soup with lots of chicken in it, a massive salad of garden greens of which I had never heard, and an entree of deep-fried breaded chicken, pot roast or very often, meat stew, always served with mounds of mashed potatoes, okra, string beans and pots and pots of other beans. All the food was served family style, which meant there was a continual traffic around the table of huge serving food platters and bowls.
Beans, I was to discover, were the universal food of the South. The hundreds of sorts of legumes all had a home in the farms, gardens and hearts of the Southerners and their infinite variety graced every meal. I, coming from a state noted for its variety of farm produce and familiar, I thought, with every kind of vegetable known to man, was being introduced to a new kind of sustenance jointly relished by man and beast.
Beans, not the Stars & Bars, should have been the insigne of the Confederacy. Had Father Abraham truly wanted to wipe out the Rebellion he would have devised a means to eradicate the bean. Every Rebel would instantly have starved to death and the Union would have persevered without bloodshed.
Winston-Salem, the Bahnson Company and the boarding house were a pleasant introduction to life in the South. The work was easy and enjoyable; my life as the Star Boarder put me at the top of a hierarchy for the first time in my life and the weather was wonderful. I missed my little family, but I knew we would soon be together.
The boarding house had a number of young women from the Blue Ridge Mountain communities who had come to work in the war plants and textile mills of the coastal plain. In the evening we would sit on the broad verandah and talk to each other. Their mountain accents, though, were so broad that I had no idea of what they might be saying, and my northern Yankee twang likewise was incomprehensible to them. This didn’t stop us from having a wonderful time chattering away to each other. The war was as far away as rationing of meat in the big cities.
I had been in Winston-Salem only a few months, and was ready to send for my family when I received orders to report back to Richmond for reassignment.
THE MARINE LANDING GUN MOUNT
Some years before the attack on Pearl Harbor the Marine Corps, looking ahead to the possibility of a different kind of warfare, had asked the Ordnance Department of the War Department to design and develop a mount for an attack weapon which could be easily demountable into parts weighing no more than 50 pounds each, able to be quickly reassembled under combat conditions and capable of quick and easy movement over rough terrain.
A camel has been defined as a horse designed by a committee. The Marine Landing Gun Mount M2 was as close to a military camel as one could imagine. The attack weapon mount was a 50-caliber machine-gun mount modified for an Oerlikon 20-millimeter antiaircraft gun; the struts and supports were ordinary pipes ; the firing seat was straight from a Sears Roebuck tractor and the two wheels were bicycle wheels with inflatable tires.
The assembled monstrosity was so repugnant to the Marine Corps that they not only rejected it, they refused to have anything further to do with it. The Ordnance Department looked around for other places to deposit this orphan in a last-ditch attempt to salvage the design money and the reputations of the camel-designers.
This is where I came into the picture.
When I reported at 9 a.m. to the Richmond Regional Office I was cordially greeted by Captain Pletta and Lieutenant Wellbourne, who complimented me on my fine work at Winston-Salem.
They walked me down the corridor to a door. Flinging it open, they showed me a small room with no furniture, but with stacks and stacks of file storage cartons piled in wild disarray around the walls to dizzying heights held up only by each other. Other stacks were scattered over the remaining floor space.
“This is your new assignment — American Viscose in Roanoke” Lt. Wellbourne said. “All you have to do, ” he continued ”is get everything sorted out by subject, date and project sequence. As soon as you’re finished we’ll cut your travel orders.”
“By the way,” Capt. Pletta added cheerfully, “ until you’re ready to go you’re here on temporary duty so you’ll be getting per diem allowance for your lodging and food.”
With that and a wave of their hands they left me to my new assignment. I learned later through my own sources that this was the work of Lt. Wellbourne who felt sure that I would be so smothered in the mountain of jumbled papers that I would cry for mercy and he would be able to do with me as he saw fit.
What the good Lieutenant didn’t know was that my years in the Atlantic City High School Library had developed the systematic, orderly file cabinet part of my mind so that I was the perfect candidate for this project.
A word about First Lieutenant Wellbourne. I found out he was a West Point graduate of the class of 1932. 10 years in the army, and in wartime, he was still only a 1st Lieutenant and worse yet, serving as Executive Officer to an Army Reserve Captain!
He must have been consumed with jealousy, anger and a desire for vengeance and I’m personally sure there was more than a little good old anti-Semitism in the mix. Captain Dan liked me, so I had to be put in my place. This mishmash was ideal for that purpose, he felt.
Let me say here that because I had to wade through the heterogeneous pile of memos, contracts, letters, specifications, drawings, telegrams and miscellaneous data pertaining to my new post I think I became the nation’s outstanding expert on what bore the official title of Landing Gun Mount, Marine, M2E1.
I started my job without any qualms or anger. I emptied the first carton on the one small open piece of floor and began to organize it.
Slowly, but accurately, I made sense and order out of the senseless mess in my little cavern.
Gradually the little patch of open space grew larger; slowly the disarray of the pile of cartons diminished. Finally, one day, less than 3 months after the office door had been flung open for me, the job was done.
Every single piece of paper had been categorized, sorted, arranged by subject, sub-subject, date and classification. The file storage cartons were neatly stacked and labeled along the walls and the empty space in the center of the room looked big enough to start a dance studio.
I proudly announced to Capt. Dan and Lt. Wellbourne that the files were ready for shipment to Roanoke and I was ready to assume my duties as Interim Inspector-In Charge. This was indeed rapid advancement even for wartime — only six months out of training and already Inspector-In-Charge!
My superiors wouldn’t accept this until they had made spot checks of the thousands of documents and their order. Finally satisfied that I had indeed properly and accurately cleaned out the Augean stables and that I stood like Hercules ready for my new task, Captain Dan ordered Lt. Wellbourne to have my travel orders cut and to arrange for Army transport to pick up and deliver the cartons to my new duty station at the American Viscose Plant in Roanoke, Virginia.
When the midnight train left Richmond’s Union Station that night I was in my lower berth on a Pullman, a success at last.
Roanoke lies in a cup of the Blue Ridge mountains in the southwestern corner of Virginia, . The countryside is breathtakingly beautiful and the people were kind, open, generous and representative of the best in the genuine Southern culture.
In 1943 the agrarian economy had slowly been giving way to industries, most of which were refugees from the unionized north attempting to capitalize on the simple, God-fearing, responsible work ethic of the indigenous population — mainly of Scorch-Irish descent. One of these refugees was a chemical company with as predacious a reputation as one could imagine.
American Viscose Corporation was a part of an international consortium of the type which a half-century later was to make globalization a dirty word and global corporations despised worldwide. They had leaped into the artificial filament world of rayon and other acetates right on the heels of duPont’s introduction of artificial silk (rayon) to the world.
They had established a rayon mill in South Roanoke because the raw materials were available nearby, there was plenty of water and a cheap, willing, nonunion work force which had not yet learned to ask embarrassing questions. Through some corporate/political chicanery which I never penetrated, American Viscose had generated a contract for itself for the production of the Marine Landing Gun Mount M2E1.
That this production required the acquisition of machine tools and other equipment in perilously short supply in the early war years for Viscose to build from scratch an entirely new machine shop production facility did not seem to bother anyone except me, and I was in no position to do anything about it.
Being an old hand at field assignments now, I had no trouble being directed to Mrs. Rowland’s place — the best boarding house in town, right on Campbell Avenue in downtown Roanoke. Once settled, I was able to find out how to get to the plant by trolley and I was right on time the next morning.
My weeks of labor in the stuffy little room in Richmond had not been wasted. One of the documents which I had read so thoroughly had been the contract between POD and Viscose. I knew not only to what the Government was entitled, but exactly where in the contract documents it was spelled out. My first experience with Viscose management involved exactly that sort of thing.
When I entered the plant and found my way to the new machine production facility for the Gun Mount, I found that Viscose had no intention of furnishing me with any office furniture or equipment at all. As far as they were concerned, that was up to the Government to supply.
It was a delight for me to start my tenure here with a conference with the plant manager.
Contract in hand, turned to the exact page and paragraph which spelled out what the contractor was obligated to furnish, I quickly established my precedence in the pecking order of our little monarchy.
From that day forward I was The Monarch and the production line was my domain.
Viscose quickly wheeled in the desks, chairs, typewriters, mimeograph machines, lamps and all other items their contract required them to furnish while I requisitioned all the office supplies from Richmond which my new office demanded. In the shop they created a fenced-in, locked Inspection Area for the use of my staff. To paraphrase the words of the song from Damyankees What Laibow Wants, Laibow Gets!
Viscose top management never did get over the shock of having a government functionary who was not impressed with their corporate power or political clout. From that morning on I was always treated with the proverbial kid gloves . While relations were always good on the surface, there was underneath a deep suspicion that somehow I was going to do them in.
In the main, however, they turned out materials for the gun mount which were acceptable and assembled them in the proper manner.
In the meantime I had become sufficiently acclimated in Mrs. Rowland’s boarding house to send for Miriam and David, and our family was reunited in December 1943.
On New Year’s Eve Miriam and I celebrated our new life, reunited and for the first time in our married life free from the pressures of family and finances alike. To bring in the New Year we went out on the town.
There wasn’t much town to go out on. The only restaurant open on New Year’s Eve was
a Chinese one at the crossroads of downtown Roanoke — the corner of Jefferson & Campbell Avenues. We walked there from the boarding house, had the big Chinese dinner and surprise!
To celebrate, the Chinese proprietor gave every patron a bottle of wine. Since we were the only patrons in the entire restaurant, we got the bottle for ourselves.
We drank the whole thing, walked back to our room at the Rowland’s boarding house and brought in the New Year by conceiving our daughter. War may have been hell for millions over the world, but for us it was sheer delight.
Living in a boarding house was a new experience for Miriam, and we both agreed we wanted our own place. We looked in the local papers, asked around and discovered that Roanoke, small as it seemed to our metropolitan eyes, was big enough to have a suburb. It was there we found our new home.
Vinton was a tiny town only a few miles from Roanoke’s core. There we found a half of a two-family house with all the space we could use, furnished in an acceptable way and sitting on a large piece of ground. The rent was very much within our rich damyankee means and transportation to my post at Viscose in South Roanoke was relatively quick and easy.
The house fronted on the (unpaved) main street a half block from the corner where I would catch the bus every morning for the first leg of my commute to downtown Roanoke.
That brought me, within a few days of our move to Vinton, to a discovery that made life in Southwest Virginia a dream come true.
The Vinton bus brought me to downtown Roanoke where I would take the trolley to the Viscose facility. The drop-off point was just in front of a building marked City Market.
While waiting for the homeward-bound bus the first few evenings after our move to Vinton I wondered about this market. I finally crossed the street and found myself in Hog Heaven!
World War II had introduced rationing to a country that had always been overflowing with food. Meat and meat products in particular were often impossible to get even on the black market and Miriam and I had long since resigned ourselves to meatless meals and a diet of protein substitutes. Even Eddie with his connections could not get meat in the quantities to which we had all been accustomed in peacetime.
But here in this little nothing town in the hills of nowhere I found a municipal market with its counters overflowing with chops, cutlets, steaks, ribs and all the other delicious products of cattle, swine and sheep. There were stalls purveying fowl of all sorts, cakes, pastries and every other comestible the hearts and stomachs of the Roanoke gentry could desire and ingest. All these were at prices so low as to be unbelievable to this sojourner from Philadelphia.
I say gentry because the counters piled high with all these goodies were priced far above what the ordinary Southern working man could possibly afford.
The prices were so low (to me) that I loaded up with all the steaks I could carry and from then on I really lived high on the hog!
When I walked in to the house with my treasure trove and laid each item tenderly on the kitchen table before Miriam’s wondering eyes, we both rejoiced that after the seven lean years we had indeed come to the time of the seven fat years. We had neither of us ever so much as heard the word (let alone spell it) cholesterol.
Our next-door neighbor, however, was not so sure. When Miriam told her of my discovery and our entrance to the Promised Land of Gourmandry, she made a dour face and told Miriam that she was making a grave mistake. “Too much meat” she assured my wife “makes a man raunchy!”
An observation: since the diet of the average southern poor white was extremely deficient in meat in the century before World War II, what caused the raunchiness that led to the large families typical of the region? The obvious answer, of course, is the utter lack of television.
Raunchy or not, I became a regular customer of the Roanoke City Market.
In the meantime Miriam, pregnant with our new child, was learning how the other (Southern) half lived.
All of our neighbors were, of course, Christian to one degree or another. Our next door neighbors, Pete and Lillian Alameda Simpson Fautz, were born-again Southern Baptists.
Pete had been a hard drinker, smoker, reveler, luster after women and a general all-around good-ol’-boy sinner. He had accepted Christ as his personal savior and from that moment had changed completely. No drinking, no smoking, no lusting and, according to Lillian’s rueful accounting, no fun, either. “As a matter of fact” she confided to Miriam “ I liked him better before he found Christ!”
All of our neighbors had their own food gardens long before the advent of Victory Gardens. Most of them had chickens and some, like Mr. Moore a few doors down had penned pigs. Propelled by patriotism to preserve food for our troops, Miriam and I decided to raise a few chickens ourselves.
We bought two part-grown chicks from Mr. Moore and tied them to a clothesline in our large back yard. Miriam fed them and they grew to know her. When they had grown to full chickenhood it was time to kill them for our table. Then the fun began.
Clutching a knife to perform the unritual killing I stalked one of the hens. Still tethered to the clothesline she fluttered away from me, squawking her anger at my perfidy and brutality. The closer I got the more she fled and even though she was tied I couldn’t get near her.
This went on for about fifteen minutes.
Finally Miriam appeared and said she had changed her mind and that she could never eat that poor bird anyway. Furious I demanded to know why I had invested so much food, time and care in the birds only to be deprived of the sustenance they should have provided.
I was informed that the chickens were too personal to be killed (murdered, as I recall) so the upshot was that both chickens were reprieved and allowed to live out their bird-life uneaten.
It was small consolation to me that at some time both fowl escaped their clothesline tethers and vanished into the neighborhood wilds. Whether human hands were involved I never discovered, but that effectively ended my effort at animal husbandry.
I was a little (but not much) more successful at my own version of a Victory Garden. Our house had a fairly large plot of land and I carefully planned (on paper) what I thought would be a proper size. I neatly assigned rows and plots for all the vegetables.
Armed with tape measure, string and stakes I laid out my own 20x40 foot farm, carefully and accurately delineating the rows for radishes, carrots, cabbages, lettuce, tomatoes, string beans and, not to be forgotten, watermelons. I borrowed a wheeled hand-plow, rake and hoe from neighbors and became Farmer Martin, The Planter and Gatherer.
Alas for the hopes of the Supplier of Bounty! The small plot I had laid out quickly grew to the size of the state of Virginia as soon as I started plowing. The good earth, so ready for my sod-busting prowess, proved to be made of some concrete-hard material defiant of my plow’s edge. The clods that I finally turned up snarled the rake’s teeth while the rows refused to arrange themselves for my hoe. My first and immediate crop was as fine a collection of hand-blisters as had been seen in the Blue Ridge Mountains for centuries.
But I persevered and finally triumphed. The good earth was conquered. Plowed, raked and hoed to the proper consistency, fertilized, watered and carefully marked with strings, stakes and labels, it was ready to receive the seeds.
I started with radishes. Inside the packet was a dusting of what I considered to be the seeds for a few tasty red pieces of garnish for salads. I had no idea that there were enough seeds in that packet for enough radishes for the entire population of China and a few provinces of India. I dusted them liberally into the small row I had laid out for them.
Similar ignorance guided the rest of my planting. Not for me was there any thought of reading the fine print on the seed packets for guidance. How difficult could it be, I thought.
In a few days the first green fuzz of the radish sprouts showed above the ground. Thrilled at this proof of my agricultural handiwork I plucked a few and admired the little red buds hanging at the end of the root system. I waited another few days and then revisited my plantation. I began to realize that I had created a Radish Takeover of the world!
I do not know how many million radishes I had planted, but I did realize that I had to do something. I began to thin out the seedlings, and discovered that I had planted about 10 times more than the land could handle. I thinned and thinned for the next few weeks until finally I had a reasonable crop of small radishes.
I didn’t do much better with some of my other crops, either. As the summer wore on my lettuce refused to head up, my beans were limp and too stringy and aliens from Outer Yards were attacking my tomatoes.
Mr. Moore’s lot was twice as large as ours, and on it he grew a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, pigs and chickens. Especially chickens.
His lot was fenced in, but the fence was in very poor repair so that his chickens were, whether he intended them to be or not, free-ranging. They particularly enjoyed ranging over my pathetic little garden plot and its struggling crop of tomatoes.
My tomatoes were properly selected, planted, staked, and the vines were tied to the stakes as they were intended to be. This was just right for Mr. Moore’s chickens.
The Moore chickens made their daily pilgrimages to worship at my garden shrine. They pecked each tomato as it began to turn red and yellow, leaving none for me. I spoke to Mr. Moore kindly, roughly, loudly, softly, in English, Yiddish, Burmese and French. Mr. Moore agreed that his chickens were lawless, predacious and criminal and that he would fix the fence and keep them firmly penned up in the future.
Mr. Moore meant well but his chickens were evidently not as amenable to reason as he was and the daily raids on my tomatoes continued. The day that David, now four, wandered into Mr. Moore’s yard and fell into his pig pen somehow didn’t help our relations too much, either.
David did his best to enhance my standing in the Vinton community, too. It was not glamorous enough for him that his father worked for The Government. Neither he nor his playmates had any understanding of what that vague, amorphous thing might be, so he modified it to what they all knew Government really meant.
I had noticed that when I got on the bus in the morning the other men all seemed to try to keep as far away from me as possible, and their responses to my “Good Morning” was hurried and short. I had thought they were simply shy and ill-at-ease with a stranger, until I discovered David had told his little friends that his Daddy worked for the FBI. Guilty consciences must have been in good supply among the good burghers of Vinton, and it was no wonder they didn’t want to be close to me. I’m sure they were as relieved as I was when they learned (from me) that I worked for another branch of the Gummint.
I felt now I was on sufficiently solid financial ground to hire someone to help Miriam around the house and to be with her after our new child would be born, so I advertised for a household helper and Leola answered.
Leola was the perfect stereotype of the West Virginia farm girl from the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Six feet tall, raw-boned, shy and completely unaware of anything off the farm, she was unaware of daily bathing, grooming or any requirements of city life. Vinton was the big city to her, and she had to be taught everything about running the everyday appliances of housekeeping.
Even the electric stove was totally beyond her, but she was willing and her wages — $3 per week and room and board — were very affordable to us. I quickly discovered an extra bonus. Leola had made friends with a local sheriff’s deputy and we had 24-hour police protection at our house.
Miriam’s pregnancy ended on September 30, 1943 when she gave birth to our daughter, Rima at Lewis-Gale Hospital in downtown Roanoke.
In those days ambulance service was provided only by undertakers. They maintained fleets of well-equipped ambulances as a form of advertising, and their service was excellent. I had made arrangements well in advance, so when Miriam’s contractions started, I called.
An ambulance quickly arrived and transported us to the maternity ward. There the doctors and nurses viewed me as a total superfluity and told me to go home and wait until they sent for me.
The ambulance, which had waited for me, took me back to Vinton. The total charge was One Dollar. The driver was overwhelmed when I tipped him five dollars.
I brought Miriam back home to the care of Leola. Rima (we took the name from W. H. Hudson’s Green Mansions) was not a healthy infant; she cried night and day with colic and it was a difficult period. Eventually she got over the colic and grew as a normal, healthy child.
David was puzzled, but happy over another child in the family. Our little family was settled into a pleasant, uneventful life.
The war was still being fought in Africa and in the Pacific, and the country’s needs for men in the armed forces was just as great as ever. As I have said, POD at the time of my original hiring, had told me specifically that there would never be any request for deferment on their part when any of us might be called up by our draft boards for active military duty.
This had been reiterated in memos from the Richmond Regional Office, so I knew what to expect when I received the expected postcard from my Philadelphia Draft Board requiring me to report for my physical examination preparatory to being drafted.
I was obligated to inform my Regional Office of any change in draft status, so I notified them of the change, together with my request to the Draft Board that I be permitted to take the physical in Roanoke. I began to prepare to send Miriam and the two children back to Philadelphia where Pop and Eddie had assured me they would be taken care of while I was in uniform.
To my great surprise I received another card from my Draft Board changing my classification from 1A to 2B — Deferred Indefinitely For Importance to The War Effort!
The mystery was solved when I inadvertently got, in my official mail from Richmond, a copy of a letter someone in POD had written to my Draft Board. It claimed that I was of such importance in the war effort that without me the entire battle against the Axis powers would collapse and the Nazis and Japanese would take over our country. It further praised my industry, integrity and intelligence in such glowing terms that I immediately put in a request for a raise. Evidently deferment was allowable, but not an increase in pay. It was refused.
There was another brush with wearing a uniform which is worth mentioning. Someone in high quarters in the War Department had come up with the idea of creating a Corps of Specialists in all sorts of fields vital to the fighting forces. These specialists would be assigned to duty with various troop units where their specific skills would be of immediate value. I thought then and think now that this is not a bad idea.
About a year before there had been a press uproar over the appointment of President Roosevelt’s son James to a captaincy in the army for which he appeared to be totally unqualified. The objections were so strong that a song, I Want to Be A Captain, had hit the streets just in time for the 1942 Congressional campaign.
When I was asked by Richmond whether I would accept a commission in such a Specialists’ Corps I immediately agreed. However, the official offer was for a First Lieutenancy.
I had two reasons for rejecting this out of hand. One was that I figured that if I were only a 1st Lieutenant, Lt. Wellbourne (remember him?) beck in Richmond would outrank me and who knows what devilish schemes he could concoct for me. The other was sheer vanity. If Jimmy Roosevelt could get in as a Captain, surely Mr. Wonderful should be no less.
I wrote back and said nothing less than a captaincy would do. They replied that my training and background entitled me to no more that what they had offered me. With that I told them to forget it and that was the end of my flirtation with the Corps of Specialists.
My rejection of the commission was guided, I am convinced, by those whom I later would come to recognize as my personal Guardians. Hunter Self, one of the other Inspectors, had accepted a commission with the Corps, been assigned to an infantry company and within 6 months would be killed in Africa.
I remained in Roanoke turning out 20-mm. Landing Gun Mounts and shipping quantities of them every month to the Russians, who by this time were the only allied forces who could be convinced to take these misbegotten creations, even for free.
It was interesting to me that every month when I shipped the obligatory two units to Aberdeen Proving Ground for test-firing, they were uniformly rejected. It never seemed to occur to anyone at POD that if these items could not survive test firing under controlled conditions that it might very well be a waste of time, money and scarce war materials to continue making these maldesigned abortions, and to eliminate the program.
In any case I had settled into a quiet groove, well-fed, well-housed and rich by my standards of the time.
My tenure at Viscose had been clearly spelled out for me when I was first assigned there back in 1942. I was to be Interim Inspector-In-Charge until a permanent one was found.
In March of 1944 Glenn L. Keim, a lanky Pennsylvania Dutchman from Lancaster with a long and decent background in metallurgical engineering and metals inspection, was assigned to the Viscose facility as Inspector-In-Charge and I received orders to report back to Richmond.
What I did not know at the time was that this was a clever little ploy on Lt. Wellbourne’s part to put a spoke in Captain Pletta’s wheel and put me in what Wellbourne considered my proper place.
I walked into the Richmond Regional Office and was greeted with a smile and a hearty welcome from Lt. Wellbourne. Immediately I smelled a rat, and sure enough, I was right.
In Capt. Pletta’s office Lt. Wellbourne unveiled his nefarious plan: I was being promoted to Permanent Inspector-In-Charge with a (small) raise in grade and pay and being assigned to several facilities at once in Newport News, Virginia.
Newport News at that time was probably the most crowded place in the United States.
The mighty shipyards were turning out battle and supply vessels at a torrid clip, there were hundreds of shops turning out all the myriad munitions and supplies for all the ships under construction and repair, many businesses were making materiel for our forces and the city was jammed with thousands of sailors on temporary leave while their ships were in dry dock or being resupplied, and housing was in such short supply that the standard quip was that one had to stand in line to sleep in the gutter.
I am still proud of my aplomb when I told Lt. Wellbourne that there was no way I was going to subject myself, let alone my family, to this horrendous maelstrom and that I would not go without a huge increase in pay and some sort of assurance of a decent place to live.
Wellbourne had his own riposte for this. “Well,” he told me, sitting back in his chair, “we’ll just have to draft you. Then we’ll put you in uniform and send you there anyway!”
“Fine!” I shot back “You’ll have to furnish me quarters, food, transportation and an allotment for my family.”
Wellbourne looked at Captain Pletta who was trying to conceal a grin of satisfaction.
“Step outside for a minute.” Wellbourne grunted. “We’ll let you know what we decide.”
As I left the room I heard Wellbourne say to Pletta “Well, the son-of-a-bitch outsmarted us again!” Pletta said, “I told you not to monkey with him!”
I was to remain in Richmond for the next 3 months as Inspector-In-Charge (IC) at a facility which taught me a lot about callousness and greed in a time of sacrifice and denial.
All my training with POD had been with metals and metal measurements. Tolerances (the allowable variations the designers set from desired dimensions) were in the thousands or tens of thousands of inches, and precision was the prime requisite.
I was very familiar with all the machine tools of modern ordnance production and I was at home with the operation of lathes, milling machines, shapers, drill presses and all the other equipment needed to work metal .
Now my new assignment was to introduce me to a world of design, manufacture and inspection with which I had never had any experience and in the process teach me a lesson I would always remember.
My new assignment was to a Richmond textile plant which had contracted to supply POD with flak vests. I will describe both that item, its importance to me and to the airmen who would wear them and the facility itself after I narrate the move which Miriam made to Richmond.
Housing in Richmond in 1943 was in desperately short supply. Somehow, whether by grapevine in the office or by some other means I heard about a house for rent at 829 Roseneath Road. This fully furnished 2-story house was across from a public park in a very nice residential area at a price I could afford. I rushed out, signed the lease and immediately called Miriam and told her of our great good fortune. Once again she was left (as so many other times in our marriage) to do everything connected with closing an old residence and taking up a new one. She was not only a good sport about it, but she became adept at being a mover.
In an amazingly short time she arrived in Richmond with our two children and our personal belongings and we set up house in the onetime capitol of the Confederacy.
The textile plant to which I was assigned was owned and operated by a Mr. Cone. If he was Jewish he was one of a breed I had never before met. His entire bearing, speech, thoughts and actions were those of an antebellum slaveholder and he looked on me as a representative of the hated Yankees forced upon his unwilling soul by the exigencies of a war. He was not too proud, however, to attempt to squeeze every penny of profit, legitimate or otherwise, out of his contract with the damyankee Gummint.
A flak vest was a garment formed by multiple layers of nylon to a mat about an inch thick. On the surface of this mat was applied a nylon sheet on which rows of pockets had been sewn. Metal pieces about 2 inches square were placed in those pockets and the whole thing was worn by the crews of our airplanes engaged in fighting and bombing the enemy in the European, African and Pacific war theaters. Their purpose was to form a protective shield against the shrapnel (flak) of the antiaircraft bursts of enemy fire. They saved the lives and bodies of many of our airmen in the lethal skies.
The drawings for this production item were in themselves strange to me, with their very loosely defined tolerances. I had a staff of four women as inspectors who knew very well what to look for, what was acceptable and what was not.
The rules for Quality Control Inspection were clear and definite when, as was the case here, production was in large enough quantities for lots of 1000 or more to have samples tested rather than every individual item, as I had experienced with the Landing Gun Mount in Roanoke.
My relations with Mr. Cone were proper, but cold. One day, after about 3 months on the job, one of my shop inspectors showed me a control group of vests which failed to meet our standards. As required under our Quality Control procedures I ordered another batch of vests from that lot to be inspected.
They also failed to such an extent that the metal plates were sliding out of the inadequately sewn pockets. I had no choice but to reject the entire lot and to institute more rigid testing procedures, all as required by the directives under which I was operating. Also as required, I notified Mr. Cone of the lot rejection and the necessity to have each vest in the lot reexamined by his people before resubmission to my inspectors.
Mr. Cone was furious. I proved to him how bad the workmanship was, explained our inspection procedures and requirements again to him (he was already familiar with them) and insisted firmly that the rejection stood. Mr. Cone would have none of this, and taking advantage of his political connections had me removed from my post at his plant, and also removed from the Richmond Regional Office altogether.
Suddenly, after about six very pleasant months in Richmond, I was assigned to the Philadelphia Regional Office (PRO).
I can’t say I was heartbroken to leave Mr. Cone and his cold-blooded pursuit of profits over the lives and bodies of the soldiers who were defending him and his money from the Japanese and Nazis. Maybe, though, he would have gotten along very well with them. I leave Mr. Cone to his own karma.
In any case I had to go ahead, find a place for us to live and work in yet another environment to help win the war.
Once again Miriam was left behind to take care of the moving details, with two small children, and once again she performed nobly.
My new assignment was on a windswept plain along the Delaware River in South Philadelphia.
This huge acreage had been empty swampland until POD had created a massive facility for boxing, crating and packing all sorts of large materiel to our troops. There they had created a desert of cinder fill pocked with small buildings and various packaging lines.
This Packaging Depot waterproofed and packaged Jeeps, tanks, APCs (Armored Personnel Carriers) and other things too bulky for ordinary packaging and shipment. There were individual lines for each type of item and I never knew from one day to the next to which type of line I would be assigned. It didn’t seem to matter to my superiors (whom I rarely if ever saw) that I didn’t know what was good or bad packaging, or that I had no idea what to inspect, accept or reject.
All that was required was a warm body, although that was difficult to maintain out in the cold winds sweeping off the Delaware River that winter.
One of the interesting things about that experience was my discovery of the DUK, an amphibious motorized craft with the hull of a flat-bottomed dory, propellers and an automobile transmission and wheels. This strange creation was designed to run on land like an automobile and slip down any ramp or bank into a waterway and cruise like a boat.
The remarkable fact was not that it waddled on land like a duck (hence its popular name of Duck) or that it meandered on the water at a pace slower than a good swimmer, but that it moved at all in either environment. It did its job so well that here in Naples in Florida in 2004 there was a company offering rides on land and sea in World War II Ducks — 60 years later!
I had been told when I had reported to the Philadelphia Regional Office that this was a temporary assignment, a sort of marking time until my new and very important one was ready for me. Miriam and I were again very lucky in a time of great housing shortage, to have found a small apartment in West Philadelphia. Miriam was happy to be back in her own home town with her family, and Pop and Eddie resumed their gift-giving, although now I didn’t feel so bad about taking their offerings. After all, I had by now proved that I could take care of my family myself.
The winter wore on, and I managed very well in my packaging assignment. I did what I figured was my job every day and waited patiently for the new place to open up. In the meantime, I was home with my wife and children, Miriam was close to her family and there was no longer even a lingering threat of my being drafted. All was well.
Finally, in the summer of 1944 the long-awaited word came. I was being sent to the duPont Shops in Wilmington, Delaware as Interim Inspector-In-Charge to set up the POD Inspection Office for a new contract for tank turrets.
E. I. duPont de Nemours & Co. was an unusual company by any standards. Founded in the 18th century by a French refugee from that country’s revolution, it had expanded its original little gunpowder mill on the Brandywine River in Delaware to a massive chemical conglomerate whose obsessive mantra Better Things For Better Living With Chemistry heralded a whole new era of postwar American good life.
Their conception of business, profits and employee relations was almost unique on the American scene. As a privately owned company, it was free from the constant competition of stock market speculators. It could go its own way in developing materials and products and it did.
For example, during the depths of the Depression, duPont didn’t lay off its engineers; it cut their workweek back to one day a week, had them do all sorts of maintenance and housekeeping chores, like washing windows and painting buildings but it kept them on the payroll with at least a minimal income.
The duPont Shops on the main street of Wilmington was probably as well-equipped a machine shop as any in the nation. It was well-designed, well-lighted and ventilated, and staffed by a dedicated and knowledgeable group of machinists and support personnel as one could desire.
The facilities were so superlative that when nylon had been invented by duPont’s researchers in the late 1920s the Shops had been chosen to design and construct the original production machinery for the new nylon factory at Seaford, Delaware.
In contrast to my greeting at Viscose, on my first morning at the duPont Shops I was cordially welcomed and ushered to my new fully-furnished office and extended all the courtesies and facilities of the plant for me and my staff. The atmosphere was cheerful and completely conducive to good work in a good cause.
Many of the original machinists at the shops, I was told, had been drafted, so the company had recruited and trained girls and women as machinists for the equipment. I became familiar with them in the course of my work there, and I admire not only the depth and quality of the training which duPont had given them, but their spirit and dedication to the work. My rapport with those women was great, even after I learned what they would slyly say to me as I passed by their work stations each day.
Most of these good ladies were of Slavic background, and they enjoyed whistling at me and saying Dy mye boorshke, bebskye! (Give me a kiss, baby) and other things not quite so innocuous. It was all in fun and they were wonderful workers.
My relations with duPont were perfect and it was a great place to be. It was there I spent the rest of the war years. In the meantime, we continued to live in West Philadelphia. The country was on Double Daylight Saving Time which meant that in order for me to be at work in Wilmington at 8 in the morning, I had to get up at 5 a.m., catch a trolley down to Suburban Station at 15th and Market, take the train to Wilmington and then take a trolley or walk to the duPont Shops.
This meant I had a family, but never saw them. Something had to be done. That something led to another string of life-changing events and conditions. I am more than ever convinced that my Guardians were influencing me in my choices here.
The War Housing Administration (WHA) was building a housing project for war workers in the Wilmington area called Shipside. It was a series of barracks-type/ wood-frame/ shiplap-siding structures on what had been a desolate mud flat along the Delaware River. I was eligible because of my war-work status; it was within easy commuting distance of my workplace and it was very affordable. All these had a strong influence on our decision to make the move there. What we did not realize was that Shipside was so new that the entire place was a sea of mud, the kitchen stove was a cast-iron wood-burner and all our neighbors in the barracks would be hillbillies from West Virginia.
Eventually the mud dried and was sodded; the neighbors showed Miriam how to cook and bake with the wood stove and the hillbillies turned out to be the nicest people you can imagine. Again I learned how misleading stereotypes can be.
We lived in Shipside for about 6 months when an opportunity to live in a real house came up and again Miriam became the prime mover in our lives.
Some enterprising developer had come up with an idea for a subdivision of homes just north of Wilmington in the tiny town of Edgemoor whose sole industry was Edgemoor Iron Works, a boiler-manufacturing plant. There he had built a few rows of two-story brick houses within walking distance of the local railroad station and watched them sit there empty because of the Depression.
I heard about this little development at work, and looked into it with Miriam. We were enthralled with everything about it, and immediately rented one of the houses. Miriam the Mover went to work again and now we were ensconced in what would be our home for the next three years.
Once settled in Edgemoor we began to enjoy our lives. I had no stress at work, the neighbors were pleasant, the proximity of the railroad station meant that Miriam could visit her family in Philadelphia as often as she wished.
We settled into a smug, easy, carefree life, made even better by the constantly improving war news of our increasing successes in Europe and the Pacific. The collapse and surrender of the Nazi regime on VE Day filled us with pleasure and confidence in the future.
Then, in August, 1945 our new president Harry S. Truman approved the dropping of the new atomic bombs on Japan. A few days later the Japanese signed the documents of unconditional surrender on the deck of the battleship Missouri and suddenly the war was over.
Like millions of other Americans who had found new purpose and new meanings in the emotions and uplifts of war I was suddenly at loose ends and without a focus again. But now I had a family to consider, and what was I going to do now?
Chapters 17, 18, & 19
Part Two: The Not Very Hard Times
While the news of the Japanese surrender and the end of the war caused great celebrations, prayers of thanks, blessings on all those who had sacrificed so much and lost so much to the forces of evil and darkness, every survivor, whether returning veteran or war-working civilian, male or female alike over the world began to struggle with the terrible question of what the brave new world would be and his place in it.
Both idealistic dreams and apocalyptic scenarios abounded, but for ordinary people the immediate concern was “What do I do now?”
I was under no illusions. I had been told very firmly when I had been hired in 1942 that mine was a wartime temporary job. Any thought of converting it into a permanent government position was completely untenable.
Now the time had come to face an unpleasant reality. The need and value for the training and capabilities I had developed had vanished with the strokes of the pens on the deck of a battleship in Tokyo Harbor.
Yet an amazing thing was rising from the ashes of my short-lived career as an important executive.
E. I duPont de Nemours & Company had a reputation in the Jewish community as a bastion of anti-Semitism and racism. I had noticed (and ignored) that in my tenure at the Wilmington Shops that there were no black or Jewish faces among the duPont employees.
The slighting remarks about Jews and blacks which were current there were also current everywhere else in this great country of freedom and tolerance, so I paid it no mind in the duPont environment.
Now a miracle happened.
About a month after VJ (Victory over Japan) Day President Truman declared the end of the war measures, including the end of employment of all temporary employees like myself. Since I had been anticipating this would happen, I was not surprised, but I was surprised at the first result of that action which affected me personally.
Ralph Goldrick, duPont’s Chief Inspector and I had worked closely together during my time as Ordnance Inspector-In-Charge and had established cordial personal and professional relationships. To my amazement, because I had not even considered the possibility of such an event, Ralph approached me on behalf of his company and asked if I would be interested in employment with duPont as Assistant Chief Inspector — second only to himself in the important executive hierarchy of this industrial empire!
I asked for a few days to consider this offer. The vista it opened was fantastic. Not only would I be the pioneering Jew to open the doors of opportunity in this closed society of America’s industrial mandarins, I would guarantee myself and my family a lifetime of financial security that would satisfy even Pop’s ambitions for his no-goodnik son-in-law. I would be somebody and there would be a future unbelievable and unattainable only the day before. What reason could I possibly have to reject such a fantastic offer?
Well, when I went home to tell Miriam this fabulous stroke which had befallen us, I discovered that there was indeed a reason.
My wife is a person with a clear view of the world ahead and the probable results of any important action. She has the wonderful facility to overlook immediate benefits and gratifications for the ultimate good and a highly developed moral sense which keeps her moral compass steadily pointing to the true North of the greatest good for all concerned. I must admit that sometimes it has been uncomfortable living with this unwavering rectitude, but it has never failed me when I most needed its guidance.
Miriam was as thrilled as I at this unexpected and magnificent opportunity for a future with this great corporation. After the initial euphoria and self-congratulations had eased, though, the serious discussions began.
“What would I be?” she asked. “A puppet bound by decisions in which I had no part, no matter how distasteful to me they might be. I would have security ”she pointed out, but if I disagreed I would find myself tied by the cords of security and never again free to make my own life. “Was this” she argued, “the kind of life I really wanted to live?”
Very reluctantly I had to agree with her thinking, and so the next day I turned down the enticing offer.
I think today the courage it took me to agree with Miriam’s clear vision had much to do with molding my future life as an honest man.
But now the question was before us again, of what to do now? The war was over.
The thought of going back to Philadelphia or, worse, to Atlantic City to walk the streets trying to convince reluctant prospects that what I was trying to sell was better, cheaper or more valuable than what they already were buying from sharp-fanged competitors filled me with an actual physical revulsion, yet there seemed no alternative.
Then lightning struck!
Down the road from our house in Edgemoor, and over a bridge across the Pennsylvania Railroad’s tracks was the Edgemoor Iron Works.
In 1945 this boiler factory had been in business for almost a century. It had developed and manufactured boilers and built boiler houses for many of this nation’s greatest industries, with a heavy concentration on the specialized power and steam-curing boilers for the tobacco industry.
Somehow I heard that this self-contained plant, with its internal design and drafting division, needed draftsmen and I decided to apply for a drafting job.
Beyond a few days in the training classes at the University of Pennsylvania back in 1942 I had never so much as held a drafting pencil or tool in my hand, so on what basis I could possibly think I was qualified for such a highly technical job I don’t know. But, maybe, I figured my Metallurgical Engineering and Inspection background was good enough.
I walked the two miles to the gates of the plant, found the employment office and filled out the application. I was so filled with an arrogant sense of my own worth that I was not surprised at the immediate interview and my provisional employment as an apprentice draftsman in their boiler drafting room. They must have been very desperate for warm bodies at their drafting tables or I have an uncanny hypnotic ability.
As soon as my separation from the Federal service was final I went to work at my new job and found I had an amazing ability and dexterity at my new profession. My ability to read blueprints was invaluable, and I instinctively knew how to use the scales, triangles and other tools of the trade with ease and facility. Investigations of later years convince me that experiences in former lives had prepared me for my abilities in this one.
Once again I was comfortable in work at which I was making a decent living. In a short time I had become acclimated to the demands of the work and was in a stress-free atmosphere with congenial fellow-workers and no competition to put me on edge.
I began to grow professionally at Edgemoor. I was able to walk across the driveway into the shop where inch-thick sheets of boilerplate steel were heated, rolled, welded, punched, drilled and formed into the huge vessels which formed the boiler drums for the systems I was engaged in drawing and so to link theory with reality.
Then I learned another lesson. One day I was sent up to the loft to physically lay out, at full scale, the intricate curves and shapes of the boiler pipes on heavy kraft paper as templates for the workmen in the shop to bend and shape the myriad of individual pipes for the boilers for our customers. This work was demanding in its need for accuracy and I quickly discovered that there was no room for error. Perfection was normal and anything less was not even considered. My future career as an Architect owes much to what I did crawling around on the polished wood plank floor of the loft at Edgemoor Iron Works.
Another thing I learned in the drafting room at Edgemoor was the importance of checking.
The hierarchy in Edgemoor’s Engineering Department, of which the drafting room was a vital part, included not only the design staff, all of whom were Mechanical Engineers of long experience in boiler design and manufacture, but our own Chief Draftsman, an old Scotsman whose encyclopedic knowledge of Edgemoor boiler installations of the last 100 years enabled us to speed up the work to a great degree and his staff of Checkers, particularly Harlan Barrett, a kindly gray-haired man who could fill a blueprint with red correction marks and never make one feel ignorant or unworthy. My time at Edgemoor was better than a university education in many ways, particularly in the relation between design and execution of any project that the mind of man can conceive.
I stayed at Edgemoor for two years. Like many of my fellows in the drafting room I could have stayed for life except for two events.
The first was that Edgemoor, owned by the same family since its founding, was being bought by its biggest competitor, which meant, according to office gossip, that the drafting room staff would be cut in half. The other was an unfortunate itch in myself not to let well enough alone, but to look constantly to justify myself in my own (actually in others’) eyes and be more than I really was.
I had an unconscious need in myself to prove that all the unfortunate things which had happened to me in the prewar years were not my fault, I had to show that I was a good salesman, that I knew how to run a business and I was able to be a success on my own.
All I did was to go back to the old habits of failure, depression and despair. Yet I also laid the foundations of success.
Now that I had made the decision to leave Edgemoor before it left me, the question of what I would do became the focus of our lives. 1946 was not a particularly good time to try to get another job or try to establish a new life.
The end of World War II had, like the end of every other war in our history, wrought massive strains and changes on the fabric of our economy, culture and society. Millions of returning veterans of the armed forces, war workers, women released from the confining walls of kitchens and bedrooms, a burgeoning new generation of restless children — all were clamoring for the great new life they had been told about .
Technology was the new secular god, and it was about to give everybody a wonderful new life. The four years of rationing and material deprivation as the entire nation’s food, fiber and factory production facilities had been focussed on the single goal of winning the war had built up a demand which was threatening to burst out in an overwhelming flood of consumption and desire, but — there’s always a but — the transition from war production, with cost a far-off factor to a peacetime economy, with individual wages and costs everpresent in the minds of every business plan held up the flow of every consumer item from houses to vacuum cleaners and filled Americans anxious to forget the grinding years of the Depression and begin living The Good Life with an ill-repressed anger and fury.
Automobiles were just one example of the pent-up desire for a shot at the promised prosperity.
The production of all civilian motor vehicles, both cars and trucks, had screeched to a halt in 1942 when all metals, rubber, plastics and most paper and wood products had been devoted to war production.
The steel which would normally have gone into automobiles, trucks, freight cars and skyscrapers had gone into the freighters which broke the back of the Nazi’s blockade of England, the aircraft carriers which destroyed the might of the Japanese navy in the Pacific and into the massive bombs and ordnance for the invasion of Europe and the recovery of Asia.
The aluminum for pots and pans had been converted into the armadas of the tens of thousands of fighter planes, trainers, bombers and all the other panoply of our superiority in the air.
We had prevailed because of our will, our resources, our ingenuity and our ability, but now the war was done, victory was ours, and the bill was being presented. The American people didn’t mind paying the bill, but now we wanted something for ourselves.
There was something else in the air, too. In World War I there had a been a very prescient song How You Gonna Keep ’Em/ Down On The Farm/After They’ve Seen Paree?. Well, all the American people had figuratively seen Paree and they didn’t want to stay back on the farm.
They had been to England, France, Germany, China, The Philippines, Burma and a thousand other places whose names we couldn’t even spell, let alone pronounce or find on an atlas.
We had sacrificed, spent our treasure, given freely to the rest of the world, been uprooted, had our culture and religious beliefs changed, challenged and transformed, and by golly! we wanted to finally get something for ourselves out of it.
This demand and fury created a black market, which made that unpatriotic one which had flourished during the war, seem like a game played by not-very-bright children. Respectable, honest and honorable businessmen leaped into the dishonesty of supplying what people wanted at whatever price they could command. Things long thought to no longer exist suddenly surfaced out of hidden warehouses and caverns for an eager crowd of competitive customers.
Into this world of professional vultures and sharks I thought I could find my way to be a success.
The secret to real success in any field is the ability and courage to think outside the box. My box was pitifully small and I was prisoned within its tiny parameters of thought. I thought that I could become an entrepreneur exactly like Boris and The General Merchandise Company. Buy small lots, sell small quantities to small storekeepers on the brink of financial extinction and financial success and glory were sure to be my reward. My ignorance and business stupidity were hard at work to keep me in Disasterville.
My first step was to leave Edgemoor Iron Works, take some of our savings and buy a dilapidated prewar brown Oldsmobile sedan. Since I was living in Delaware, the First State to sign the Constitution, I proudly called my fledgling little enterprise First State Supply Company. I drove up to Philadelphia to some of the same jobbers from whom Boris had bought, spent some of my very limited capital for a stock of merchandise and went looking for customers.
I found a few on the back roads around Wilmington and Chester, across the Pennsylvania line a few miles north. Small stores, struggling to survive, unable to pay their bills — just like me. No wonder First State Supply lasted a few months and inevitably I slid down the same slope as before the war.
With the foredoomed collapse of this foray into the world of business, I became desperate.
One of the jobbers with whom I did business on South Street in Philadelphia was Harry Toub & Sons. Harry Toub had died a few years before, but his sons had continued with the business. To them I turned and they, for whatever reasons of their own, offered me a job as an outside salesman on a commission basis.
With their strong financial backing, large and varied stock and good reputation around Philadelphia it seemed an ideal solution to the perilous situation into which I was sliding deeper every day. I went to work for them, but to my chagrin, anger and continuing despair the situation didn’t get one bit better.
The reason, I’m sure now, is that my heart was never in that sort of enterprise. I would start each day with a buoyant determination that today would be successful. Then, as the day wore on, and I found myself receiving the usual string of no’s and rejections, which are the natural lot of any salesman, my energy, diminished, my elan disappeared, my vision dissolved into darkness.
I not only could not think outside the box, I continually shrank the box and confined myself further into it. Something had to give!
What gave was something that still puzzles me.
When I was about 13 years old I was on the porch of our house in Atlantic City and someone asked me what I was going to be when I grew up. I recall that without even drawing a breath I answered “An Architect!” I had no idea what an architect did, or what the word meant, and the thought got submerged as I went on with my fantasy about becoming first a great biologist, then a great chemical engineer and always in the dim recesses of my ambition a great doctor. Note, always a great something.
I had never consciously brought that word into the forefront of my mind from then until the day I told the Toub Brothers that I was leaving them and “going back to my first love, Architecture”. I had no job, no connections to the profession, nor even any awareness of how to go about looking for such a job.
The definition of the Yiddish term chutzpah is best expressed by the Talmudic tale of a man who killed his mother and his father. Brought before the magistrate and charged with this heinous crime, he threw himself on the mercy of the court with the plea that he was an orphan.
This is the kind of chutzpah I had. With a family to support, no money, no knowledge of the field which I had defined as my “first love” and total ignorance of the word or its associations, I was going to face a whole world. Obviously, failure was too good for such an idiot, and I’m sure that Pop and Eddie were more convinced than ever that Miriam had gotten herself into a real mess with a genuine stinker.
Yet I know now that I knew that I was indeed an Architect, as well as an artist, a writer, a speaker and a businessman because in past lives I had been those things and many others. I had succeeded in some, failed in others, been mediocre in many.
As an example of this architectural business, I have been told that I was one of the architects (there was no single one) of the great Cathedral of Chartre, in France.
Was I one of those earlier ones whose ignorance of the laws of mechanics in building with stone caused catastrophic collapses of the half-done structure, or was I the one who later figured out that (out-of-the-box) flying buttresses were the engineering solution to containing and controlling the thrust of loads of this massive stone structure? It isn’t important.
What is important is that I had brought the inherent knowledge as an architect and of architecture into this life and now unconsciously I was going to use it. Without exaggeration, Architecture was indeed my first love and I was going to meet her!
So now with nothing except a broken-down jalopy and an overwhelming faith in myself that no one in the entire world could possibly share, I set out on a totally new career for which I was completely unprepared.
Only Miriam, with her absolutely wonderful attitude of backing me in whatever I chose to do with all her great heart, was with me. Eddie and Pop were by now convinced that Miriam had married a congenital idiot and worthless beggar. Her sister Annie (now divorced from Lee and back from California) and Diane shared the opinion.
The practice of architecture in the mid-twentieth century had not greatly changed from its British roots of three hundred years before when its practitioners were “gentlemen architects” who dealt in this design process as a hobby to pass time. A few, like Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, might make their living from such an endeavor, but most were of the class of Thomas Jefferson, in this country — wealthy aristocratic landowners who felt this aspect of a gentleman’s abilities was proof of his cultural standing.
Part of this legacy to American architecture was Canon Number Eight of the American Institute of Architects’ Canons of Ethics: An Architect may not engage in the construction of buildings.
A gentleman did not soil his hands or his mind with such mundane affairs as actual bricks and mortar or even know too much about how such materials worked with each other and the structures in which they might appear. Structural Engineering was a wholly different and much lesser subject for buildings, and the new collegiate subject of Architectural Engineering was looked upon as an abomination for peasants without qualifications of gentility required for true Architects.
The models of classical design, with their splendid columns, porticos, architraves and guttae dominated American public building design and the monstrosities of attempts to translate the idiom of baroque European modifications of Classicism into Victorian showcases of new money filled the streets of America’s cities, towns and villages.
Still, even with the flood of money and prosperity demanding ever more structures to be built across the country, all pretentious and important design in the main was being done by the followers of the British Gentleman Architect tradition.
With the emergence of rolled structural steel shapes and the development of the skeleton frame, building design of the mid-19th century began to abandon the ages-old tradition of the exterior walls carrying the superimposed floor and roof loads with materials limited to the clay and stone the earth could furnish. A new school of architectural thought sprang from the fertile Midwest and suddenly the Chicago School of Architecture was the new Classical Model for this nation’s brightest design minds.
In Chicago itself the struggle between the old and the new is best exemplified by the Monadnock Building. The great architectural firm of Holabird, Root & Burgee set out to prove that traditional design and construction could compete with this newfangled curtainwall method of high-rise structures.
They designed a 16-story office building in downtown Chicago made completely of masonry. The foundation walls had to be 12 feet thick to carry the masonry loads from above, and the cost was so overwhelming that it was the first and last of its kind ever to be designed and built anywhere. It was the last gasp of not only the traditional materials for pretentious commercial edifices, it tolled the death knell for the traditional practice of architecture in the United States.
From the 1880s onward, the likes of the rebellious design thinking of the great Louis Sullivan and his angry disciple, Frank Lloyd Wright, dominated the landscape of Architecture. It culminated in the peculiarly American creation of the skyscraper design, which came to define and identify the American cityscape.
In the early days of the 20th century, with the widespread rebellion from the traditional in the other arts of literature, painting and sculpture, architecture exploded into a frenzy of searches for things which would “express” the practitioners’ inner souls. Strange structures sprouted in our cities and over our countrysides. Foreign designers with impossible names like Le Corbusier (The Crow) brought forth the stern design criterion that Form follows Function., although often the function was vague and inconsistent and the ensuing form incoherent.
But we had eliminated columns, classicism and obsolete shapes based on the carrying capacity of stone beams. Structural Engineering had become an integral part of the architectural design thinking, influencing the shape, location, type and configuration of spaces to perform the various functions for which the Owner wanted the building in the first place.
Even money (you should excuse the expression) was becoming important to the Architect and the word budget was becoming a part of the design process.
The development of this aristocratic hobby, practiced by gentlemen for the edification of a select few highly-placed patrons with money a distant echo of their thought, had unobtrusively changed a profession into a business and in the process created a place for me.
After the successful end of World War II the unbuilt factories, warehouses, offices, stores, schools, churches, homes and every other physical structure needed to accommodate a booming, war-prosperous and growing people flush with victory and filled with optimism for a wonderful future free of a vicious enemy created a shortage not only in building materials but in the design professionals necessary to create the plans for these new buildings and the places to put them.
This made another undreamed-of change in the now tattered fabric of traditional architectural practice. A breed of short-time design agents arose who had no permanent existence, no tradition of gentlemen, no code of chivalrous ethics descended from the Magna Carta.
Groups of business entrepreneurs combined with a few engineers and architects to take contracts from large corporations for a desired facility, finance it, find the land, design it from scratch, build it and equip it. This one-stop operation had the component of most importance to me — the job shop. To this I owe my relatively easy entrance into the world of Architecture.
The firm of H. L. Yoh was the job shop I knew best. Who or what H. L. Yoh may have been (if in fact there even was such a person) I never discovered, nor did I ever care. H. L. Yoh came into Philadelphia in 1946 with a contract to design and build a new coke oven facility for Bethlehem Steel at one of their mills. Their operation was simple and intelligent.
They rented a large space at 16th and Chestnut Streets, in the heart of the architectural district, bought all the drafting tables and other equipment needed for a large force and advertised for warm bodies. H. L. Yoh didn’t care too much about the technical ability of those they hired, since their contract with their client paid the Yoh job shop by each sheet that had been started each week. If you knew which end of a drafting pencil made a mark you were in.
At Edgemoor Iron Works I had had to work not only on the boilers, but on the buildings themselves into which the boilers would be installed. Since many of Edgemoor’s customers had boiler-houses 75 and 100 years old, I had become adept at reading old architectural and structural engineering drawings. Suddenly my apprenticeship in Edgemoor’s drafting room was of great value.
I knew how to read the manuals published by the coke-oven manufacturer and I knew without hesitation what their jargon about structural steel shapes and elements meant. I had my first experience at being a valued member of a team of technicians where I really knew what I was talking about. It meant more to me than the money, although that was very nice, too.
After the disastrous demise of First State Supply Co. and my shift to working for Harry Toub & Sons, Edgemoor had been too far away from work physically and financially, so Miriam, the children and I had looked for a place within our now-strapped means in Philadelphia. The wartime housing shortage was still very much alive, and we reluctantly settled on a second-floor apartment over a small, dirty candy-store at the corner of Second and Pine Streets in really, really downtown Philadelphia. It was not a good neighborhood, but it was not the haunt of daily crime and physical fear that it became not too many years later.
I had acquired a few drafting tools in my time at Edgemoor and I walked into the Yoh drafting room with confidence and assurance. I quickly settled into the pleasant, stress-free atmosphere where I did very well.
I knew that this was a temporary job, since the very existence of the job shop itself was contingent upon one big client and one project. When that was over the local shop was dissolved, its equipment sold and that shop and its jobs were a memory. In compensation, though, the wages were much higher than in any other drafting room in the area and the working conditions were not the kind of stress-filled look-over-your-shoulder type I was to become familiar with in later years.
The coke-oven job (which involved a considerable amount of architectural drafting work) went on for almost a year. When it was over, at the end of the summer in 1947, I was out on the street, but this was no tragedy this time.
Sansom Street is a narrow (even by downtown Philadelphia standards) street between Chestnut and Walnut Streets. The area between 15th and 18th Streets was known as “Architects’ Row” where many of the city’s largest architectural firms were located in mostly old converted residences.
For the many draftsmen employed in these architectural offices this stretch served as the Rialto and unofficial hiring hall. It was there, in the two or three cafeterias where the trade gathered for lunch, that gossip about projects signed or projects lost was shared, scandal about practices and employment opportunities arising or vanishing were the common fodder with the huge 15-cent sandwiches and the nickel cups of coffee. In this noon-hour hubbub I heard that there might be an opening at the office of Aaron Kolish.
In those days there were very few permanent drafting jobs in the architectural profession.
A particularly busy or well-off firm might keep its chief draftsman and one or two key people on payroll through bad times, but mostly the drafting rooms were areas empty of people between projects. When an architect got a job, he would put out the word and hire what he needed from the pool on Architects’ Row.
Nobody felt misused or victimized. This was just the way it was, and we all adapted to it.
The great body of drafting talent just drifted from job to job, meeting and losing track of each other with equal sang-froid. Our individual ideal was to have some architect be so continually busy that he would keep us permanently on his staff, but this was a dream. It wasn’t going to happen.
In this fluctuating environment Aaron Kolish, an architect who had found that Holy Grail of all postwar architects, a continuing client, hired me for one job. Kolish’s was Toll Brothers, developers of high-rise apartment projects in Philadelphia’s suburbs. In his drafting room I began my true career as an architect by learning through doing.
I freely admit today what I could not bring myself to face for many years. The biggest thing I brought to my drafting table was an inherent sense of what to do and a sly ability to innocently ask questions of those around me. With this, I was able to pretend to a far greater knowledge and ability than I really possessed until I actually had the knowledge I pretended to.
I worked for Aaron until the project ended and I was on the street again. No problem, since most architects were busy with the long-deferred building projects of a nation recovering from the denials of war.
There were more Jewish architects than one might suppose, even though the quota system of the Ivy League universities denied admittance to any more than 5% of Jewish applicants.
I heard that Louis Magaziner, another Jewish architect, was looking for men for a new project. I trotted up there and was hired, this time as a journeyman draftsman at a corresponding hourly rate of, as I recall, $1.50 per hour, which for those days was about the top figure.
Louis Magaziner was typical of the old-style Jewish architect. His clientele was limited to Jewish businessmen who needed additions and/or alterations to their old small factory or office buildings and occasionally to their homes. Design of new buildings was rare; current trends of styles and fads in the great architectural circles of the world were completely irrelevant.
Old School in every way, including his clothes, was the perfect description for Louis Magaziner.
Of his three sons, the two eldest escaped his insistence that they carry on his name and profession. Only the youngest (and weakest) son Henry, unable to withstand his father’s relentless pressure, succumbed and became an architect. Henry wanted above all to be an actor, a writer, a poet — anything except an architect — and as a result when I came into the office, with my energy, my drive and above all my steely determination this time to make good, I suddenly found myself unofficially running the office.
The project I had been hired for was one far beyond the Magaziner firm’s normal work and abilities. A group of (mostly) Jewish osteopathic doctors had for some years owned a small South Philadelphia hospital with the grandiloquent name of Metropolitan Hospital.
Somehow they had scraped together the financing and had bought the abandoned 8-story Bayuk Cigar factory on South 5th Street with the intention of converting it into their new state-of-the-art osteopathic hospital. Louis Magaziner was, of course, their choice as the Architect for this project. That it was far over his head was of little importance to this group of medics, since like all doctors they were convinced they knew everything about everything anyhow.
I came on the scene when we (the drafting room crew) were sent out for the preliminary job of taking “as-is” measurements of the existing building. This is where my first run-in with the Magaziner office’s chief draftsman came about.
My background at Edgemoor with the sometimes vast differences between what was shown on the original working drawings and what was actually existing led me to insist that everything be measured on-site, since reliance on the original drawings could lead to trouble when we tried to reconcile the new hospital design with an existing old high-rise cigar factory.
The Magaziner Chief Draftsman’s background was like my mother’s method of giving a recipe. “A splash of water and a dash of flour” — great for her, but frustration for any other cook who might try to replicate her delicacies. He was used to slapdash design on guesswork information, with the actual design being done on the job with ad hoc decisions by Louis Magaziner to the same contractor who had been doing his work for many years.
This contractor, a Mr. Swerdlov, had known my father when they were both small contractors in Camden many years before, and he felt a special affinity for me. One day, in frustration at something on one of the jobs he worked for Magaziner, he stormed into the drafting room to my drafting table and in his heavy Jewish accent demanded “You know vot is good for an arkhiteck, boychik?”
No, Pop.” I replied.
“An arkhitek,” he told me in angry tones, “Is good for to make pakhtitions und ”slapping his palm on my table with each syllable “dat’s ull!”
This was the design world Magaziner’s people had grown up in. Adequate for their other jobs, but a sure recipe for disaster on this one. I took over without anyone — including myself —knowing it. Suddenly I was running the job as well as the entire drafting room.
The only problem was that while neither Louis nor Henry Magaziner seemed to care, the chief draftsman cared very much and let me know by interfering in every decision I made.
In all fairness I cannot blame him. He had been running this drafting room and its mostly small alteration jobs for years. Now, with the biggest and most important job that had ever come into the office, an interloper was taking over his authority and prerogatives and the boss was sitting by and letting it happen. Something had to give, and I felt it was time for me to go.
As soon as the job had reached a stage where I felt easy in letting go I told Henry Magaziner that I was leaving. He was unhappy, but what could he do?
It was back to the Draftsmen’s Clearing House on Sansom Street where I found Fridy, Gauker, Truscott & Fridy.
Thank God It’s Fridy
Every army prepares for its next war by repeating everything it learned in the last one, say the military cynics. In 1947 the new Defense Department, sheltering under one umbrella Army, Navy, Marines and the new Air Force was engaged in a massive alteration and upgrading of its far-flung network of bases. The Army Corps Of Engineers, those do-it-alls of the nation, was in charge of this multibillion dollar revamping of the military’s facilities.
Relatively few American architects were interested in specializing in this type of work. With so much undone civilian work available it seemed foolish to put up with the government’s red tape, chains of command, unceasing design changes and the general frustration endemic in dealings with bureaucrats. But some, with entrepreneurial blood coursing through their veins, saw an opportunity for a relationship with a patron new to the Gentleman’s Profession, one who was overflowing with other people’s money and not too careful about spending it. Nobody said “Bonanza!” but certainly it was in the minds of a certain type of thinkers.
The traditional Gentleman Architect scorned the engineering professions, looking on them as a kind of subordinate stable hand to the glamorous designer of stately domes. The Architect rode in the carriage the horses drew, but he left it to the engineers to clean out the stalls.
Now, postwar, this was changing. For almost the first time in the history of American architectural practice groups of architects and engineers in the various disciplines involved in the design of buildings such as civil, electrical, mechanical and structural were joining together in a hybrid called Architectural-Engineering firms where architects and engineers were equals and worked together as a seamless unit under the same roof so that the final set of construction documents coordinated and were free of the conflicts which for generations had weakened buildings, impoverished clients and enriched contractors.
This sort of combination was ideal for the design of military structures where constant reviews of the documents by engineers, not architects, was the norm and engineering thought was in the forefront of the Corps of Engineers mental processes throughout the project.
Together with the consortium of architects and engineers went the political brains, connections and savvy of a “business manager” to get the project contracts, shepherd them through the bureaucratic labyrinth of the Defense Department (DOD) and mollify the obdurate client representatives who stood firmly in the way of any change from the processes and procedures of construction and materials since the Civil War. Such a consortium was the Architectural -Engineering firm of Fridy, Gauker, Truscott & Fridy by whom I was now employed.
The four principals of this company were an interesting example of the trend the once-and-no-more profession of architecture was taking towards being completely a business.
Architect John Duhring Fridy was a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious School Of Architecture. The scion of a very wealthy Philadelphia Main Line family, he was the perfect prototype of the Gentleman Architect of American and British tradition. I doubt if he had ever soiled his hands with anything more plebeian than a polo mallet and his knowledge of anything architectural was even poorer than Henry Magaziner’s, who knew nothing about the profession at all. But he looked every bit the elegant aristocrat, with his aquiline nose and curly gray hair. His name was the first Fridy on the letterhead.
William Gauker was just the opposite. A large, beefy man who had become a proficient Professional Electrical Engineer the hard way, he had a rough, loud appearance yet knew his field so much that even the effete desk officers of the Corps of Engineers were impressed by him and deferred to his knowledge of the field. Nobody monkeyed with Bill Gauker.
Joe Truscott was one of the nicest men one would want to have as a boss. He was a Civil Engineer with a good background in his specialty, and his expertise on structural matters was of great help in the design work the firm did. He was, I found, especially valuable in he design of airplane landing fields and runways for the Air Force projects we had. Joe was a pleasure to be with.
Charles Duhring Fridy, John’s younger brother, was a Mechanical Engineer. The closest of the four principals to me in age, he was the most pleasant and most charismatic of the group. Alone of the four his only source of income was his salary and share of the profits of the business. The reason for this poor brother/rich brother scenario is worth repeating.
The story current in our office was that when John Fridy had been a young man he wanted to marry. His mother (a stern, domineering matron similar to Queen Victoria) called him before her and told him that he had a choice. He could either break off his engagement and forget ever getting married at all or she (his mother) would commit suicide. John gave up the girl.
Some years later his younger brother, Charles also wanted to marry; the matriarch (whose maiden name had been Duhring) gave young Charles the same ultimatum. Charles, to his everlasting credit as a man, refused to give up his fiancée and married her.
Mrs. Fridy didn’t commit suicide, of course, but when she died, after surviving her husband by many years, she left all the family wealth to John and cut Charles off without a penny. Nice lady.
This group of four professionals had worked together for one of Philadelphia’s late great engineers, and on his death had decided to go into business with each other. They make the very sensible decision to include Harry Byrne, neither an architect or an engineer, but a man with contacts and connections among the Washington political and military elite who brought millions of dollars in Government work in to the fledgling firm.
When I came to work in their drafting room as a draftsman they had contracts from the Corps of Engineers for runways, hangars, barracks, warehouses and other military structures and projects all over the United States.
The office was in one of Philadelphia’s most modern downtown office buildings and on the surface seemed to epitomize everything one could want in an architectural/engineering office. But under all the order and neatness was chaos.
The well-laid-out drafting room had rows of drafting tables, was well-lighted and all the equipment and reference material and files one could desire, but I quickly discovered that there was no one with the ability or courage to answer any of the design questions that come up constantly in the course of any architectural project, no matter how small.
John Fridy was the Architectural Partner and it was his duty and obligation to oversee each project and answer the innumerable questions and run the coordination with the engineering disciplines which affect the architectural decisions. He was rarely in the office and usually when he was he was “unavailable”.
By default, I began to look into the jobs I was involved in and inevitably to make design decisions for the other men. Soon I was the unofficial squad leader and one day it became official.
After less than a year I was advanced in status, pay and professional knowledge to the function (though not the title) of chief draftsman and was no longer at the board. Suddenly I was attending design meetings, talking to Corps personnel on the phone, dealing with our engineering people and in general running the architectural end of the office. I had come a long way.
My personal life was doing well, too. For the first time since our marriage I was secure in myself, making more money than I had ever had before, achieving respect in a professional arena and being considered worthy of listening to at family gatherings.
The housing shortage had somewhat eased with the opening up of housing on the thousands of acres of farmland in Philadelphia’s Northeast, and we had moved from the increasingly noisy, dirty, crime-ridden area of Second & Pine Streets to the (for us) quasi-suburban elegance of a second-floor two-bedroom apartment on Oakland Avenue where we had a green lawn and pleasant suburban-type neighbors on both sides. The children were growing up well and healthy, attending school and we were beginning to be part of the American Dream.
Pop and Eddie, joined now by Annie who had moved back to Philadelphia and was going with a flashy young man whom she would later marry, still made pilgrimages to our place laden with boxes of fruits, vegetables and other goodies which I now accepted with more grace but still with hidden resentment. I couldn’t accept the fact that they wanted only the best for Miriam and her family and that their gifts were from love, not pity.
The only fly in the ointment was Pop’s constant complaint that I wasn’t making enough money to suit him. Every time I would proudly tell him of my new pay raise or higher salary, he would say “Oh, if you only made $25 a week more!”
To the end of his life years later, he was always $25 a week ahead of me.
It was here that we bought our first television set, a black-and-white Raytheon with a (for then) huge 16” screen. I think it cost about $200 which will give you an idea of how far we had come in the new world.
Fridy, Gauker, Truscott & Fridy (somehow I always seem to refer to them by their full, rounded name) was unique for that time in that there was enough money and confidence in their business plan that they never laid off any drafting room personnel between jobs.
I, as an extremely valued part of their project production process, could have been employed there for the rest of my life, but again something intervened which I can only attribute to the urging of my Guardians.
In 1949 the firm saw fit to hire Garrison King, a brash young Texan, as Chief Draftsman. I not only did not resent him, I welcomed him because my relations with John Fridy were becoming quite contentious and I looked for a buffer between myself and John’s escalating refusal to be drawn into the necessary exchange of information required to properly produce the work.
Garry and I became quite close, and when after about 6 months he announced he was leaving, he thought enough of me and my professional capabilities to ask me to join him in his new venture.
American Smelting & Refining Company (ASARCO), one of the huge metals corporations which dominated the world’s commodities production, had discovered a mountain of copper ore at an elevation of 9000 feet in the Peruvian Andes.
They wanted to extract and ship the ore to their plants and customers elsewhere in the world. To do this, Toquepala, a completely new city around the mine at the mountain-top had to be designed and built from scratch, a railroad to carry the ore to and supplies from the seacoast had to be created. The port city of Ilo, a small fishing village on the Pacific coast, required a complete remodeling into a modern, efficient shipping port city.
A complete design shop had been set up in New York. Garry King was to be the Chief Architect, and he asked me to be his Chief Draftsman at a very sizable increase in wages.
How could I possibly resist such an offer?
This meant that I would have to live in New York and commute home to my family on weekends, but in this postwar time when family ties were being stretched as never before in our history, it seemed quite normal. Opportunity beckoned, I responded, Miriam agreed and I was off.
I found a place in Brooklyn, learned (with some suffering) to use the subway system and started in my new job in a massive skyscraper in downtown Manhattan ready to conquer the new design world.
Alas, it didn’t work out that way. I quickly learned that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did about running a big drafting room, and that the cold, fishy-eyed New York draftsmen did not take kindly to some yokel from the hinterlands of Philadelphia coming in to tell them how to run their big-city business.
Things got so bad for me that within two months I quit and retreated back to Philadelphia.
With the job at Fridy, Gauker, Truscott & Fridy gone, it was back to Sansom Street and the gossip department for me to find a new job.
Chapter Twenty Two
Commuting And Learning
The Korean War had stressed America’s peacetime production to its limits again. Automobiles were being produced but the demand was so great and the supply so limited that new cars were almost impossible to buy. I learned a lesson in financing from this condition which has stood me in good stead all through my life since 1952.
Thanks to the New York job, by 1952 Miriam and I had, for the first time since our marriage been able to save some money. We had about $3500 in a savings account in a small neighborhood credit union and I got the itch to buy a new car. Not just a car. A new car. The dream of every red-blooded American boy. New upholstery, new windshield wipers, new tires and best of all, that delicious new-car smell. It was time to move into the mainstream and away from poverty.
I called the treasurer of the credit union, telling him I was withdrawing our savings to buy a new car. Then he opened my eyes to a fact of fiscal life few people to this day ever learn. The lesson is simple. It is called Using OPM.
OPM is Other People’s Money. Used sensibly it gives ease, comfort and many benefits to living in an industrial economy. Foolish use, as in maxing out credit cards for instant gratification is a recipe for disaster. He taught me the sensible use by this simple device:
“If you withdraw your money to buy the car,” he advised me, “you will have the car, but no money. If you borrow the money from the credit union ” he continued “you will pay interest on the loan, but you will get interest on your own money so the interest you pay will be greatly reduced and” here was the clincher “you’ll have your car and your money will still be drawing interest! You’ll have both the cake and the penny.”
Such logic was irrefutable. I left the money in the account, borrowed the money, paid the interest and have always used this thinking for every big-ticket item I have bought since.
New cars were in such short supply that I could only locate what I wanted in Newark, New Jersey, over 100 miles from my home. I went by train, paid $3,500 cash for the car and proudly and carefully drove my new 1952 Forest Green Pontiac Waterfall design sedan home.
I mention all this because this made the next phase of my life and my eventual professional move into the ranks of Registered Architects possible.
Moorestown, New Jersey was a small, quiet town — not much larger than a village, actually — which had been founded about 200 years before by members of William Penn’s Society Of Friends looking for more land than they could have obtained in Philadelphia some 30 miles to the west across the Delaware River. In 1952 it was still heavily inhabited by Quakers and was tranquil, literate and wealthy.
In this bucolic retreat a local Architect by the very American name of Henry Ward Petty (Henry Ward from the same Rev. Henry Ward Beecher who was the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the uncle of Julia Ward Howe, of The Battle Hymn Of The Republic fame), had a practice with another local practitioner, Walter Croft under the name of Petty & Croft. Their peaceful little country practice had been mostly residential and the few commercial projects which the local merchants might need.
Now suddenly the great postwar movement to the suburbs had sent its floodwaters surging into the peaceful South Jersey farmlands, and all of the little market towns like Marlton, Medford and Moorestown were being inundated with new residential developments and the newer phenomenon of malls and supermarkets.
With all the new homes came the natural result of an influx of children that quickly overwhelmed the somnolent school districts which had built few school buildings in a generation.
Two conflicting themes were battling each other in the same territory.
The need for new school buildings to house the great tide of mostly grade-school children from the new homes rising from the tomato fields ran smack into the reluctance of the older longtime residents to mortgage their future with higher taxes to accommodate the progeny of the newcomers. It might be inevitable, but it wasn’t going to be accepted gracefully.
Into this struggle stepped Henry Ward Petty with a clever adaptation of architecture to the needs of his community. He had the good sense to adopt the austerity of the doodad-free International Style of straight lines and minimal decorations to taxpayers’ desire for the most school for the least buck. His designs were simple in the extreme, and with his local political connections he suddenly became the big factor in the new architectural boom of school design.
Henry was the 20th century equivalent of the traditional 18th century British Gentleman Architect. His wife was rich, so he didn’t have to survive on the profits of his practice. He played the squire on the local social scene and naturally whenever there was architectural work to be done, it was done by Henry Ward Petty.
For a number of years before setting up his own practice Henry had worked for a Trenton (NJ) firm of architects who were as political as one could imagine. Micklewright & Mountford had for years carefully cultivated the state’s political powers and whenever any state-funded projects were up for grabs, Albert Micklewright was always there to get a piece. Henry was very much afraid of Al Micklewright and kowtowed to him in a disgusting way, as you will read later in this memoir.
The partnership of Petty & Croft was a strange one. Walter Croft was as nice, simple, honest and decent a person as one could ever hope to meet in this world. He had been a draftsman for Henry and, upon becoming a Registered Architect some years before had been made a (very) junior partner with his name on the door and a small share of the profits. This didn’t bother Walter, whose only interest was in designing individual single-family residences.
Nominally Walter was in charge of the drafting room, but all he wanted to do was sit at his own board and design his own little projects. This is why Henry needed somebody like me.
I came in to the office as a draftsman, but from the first day I was functioning as Chief Draftsman, Chief Designer and Office Manager. On my first day I was sent out to rescue a small commercial project which had gone sour through Henry’s lack of attention to its details. I pulled it out of the trouble and felt that I had at last found my niche. I was happy to have the unquestioned run of the shop with full responsibility and no oversight.
The job was possible for me because of the Pontiac I had bought, and I was able to commute from North Philadelphia to Moorestown. But then in 1953 Miriam and I were also swept up in the frenzied rush to the suburbs for our own green space and our own mortgage payments.
Prewar Long Island had been noted for two things: potato fields and the summer retreats of the really rich in places with names like Southampton, Easthampton and Fire Island. There were of course several million ordinary people who lived there too, and home builders who built for their needs.
Jake Levitt was one such a small home builder who would buy a few lots, build a few houses “on spec” (no buyer at first), take the profits, buy a few more lots and repeat the process. His oldest son, William J. (“Bill”) worked with him and got the idea of hustling some big money to buy a larger number of lots, build more houses at one time and make a lot more money through volume buying of material and permanent subcontractors.
It worked so well that by 1941 the Levitt organization had built enough thousands of houses in Hicksville, L. I. for it to call their (unplanned) community Levittown.
1948 Bill Levitt, now in charge of William J. Levitt & Son and with
old Jake in semi-
He went south of the trendy (and expensive) places like New Hope and Doylestown in central Bucks County to the unspoiled, cheaper acreage of the lower part lying between Philadelphia and Trenton. There he slowly, patiently and quietly accumulated, over 5 years, about 3,000 acres of prime Pennsylvania farmland on which he laid out Levittown, Pennsylvania.
Say what one will of Bill Levitt (and he has to this day many detractors) he never made the same mistake twice.
Levittown, Long Island was unplanned. Levittown Pennsylvania was planned down to the last rosebush on the last house.
Levittown, Long Island had no Levitt-owned commercial space and others reaped the commercial rewards. Levittown, Pennsylvania had Levittown Shopping Center, completely owned and managed by Levitt & Son.
Levittown, Long Island had ugly overhead utility lines. Levittown, Pennsylvania had all utility lines underground.
Levittown, Long Island lay completely within the one governmental entity of Hicksville.
Levittown, Pennsylvania was in parts of three townships and one borough. Political control was split.
Levittown, Long Island had only one basic type of house and one price. Levittown, Pennsylvania had three types and three expense levels of housing ranging from the Cape Cod at $9,000, the $10,000 Levittowner to the Country Clubber at $17,500.
Levittown, Long Island’s churches had to buy land for their religious edifices. Levittown, Pennsylvania had plots of land set aside from the beginning to be given to religious organizations for their worship.
Levitt also didn’t wait, in Levittown, Pennsylvania, for the local school districts to find the money to build schools for the thousands of new children his community would bring. Levitt got the state’s approval to build the necessary new school buildings to be ready for the influx of little scholars.
In other words. Levittown, Pennsylvania was as perfect as the minds of his fine architects — Oliver Marron, Sidney Levitt and others — could conceive and his financial and construction skills could create. By build-out in 1959 he had built 17,311 houses, a community of over 50,000 people. Had Levittown been incorporated it would have been Pennsylvania’s 11th largest city!
We moved to this burgeoning, still mostly unbuilt community in April, 1953. We borrowed the money for the $1,000 closing costs and down payment from Pop and/or Eddie for a 1000-square-foot Levittowner on a 6,000 square foot pure mud lot at 8 Burning Bush Lane in the Falls Township ssection of Levittown.
We finally were in our own home! So what if we had to waddle over duckboards on the mud to get in and out of the house? It was ours!
For the first time in our married life we had put permanent roots down in a place where our children could go to the school we chose. We would be part of a neighborhood with permanent neighbors and finally we would be part of The American Dream!
Until the end of World War II America had been tied together as an economic and social unit by networks of railroads and two-lane (sometimes) paved highways. The automobile had made the flight to the suburbs possible and forever changed the landscape of this country.
Cities changed their character and the countryside began to be paved over as millions of young families tried to satisfy the primal urge for green space and a better place to bring up the kids than the narrow, congested streets and alleys of cities.
In our case it was the 1952 Pontiac which made our move possible. The hour-long commute from lower Bucks County ran along U.S. 13, across the Burlington-Bristol bridge over the Delaware River to what was then “bloody” 213 and finally to the Petty & Croft offices at 37 West Main St. in Moorestown, New Jersey. Even before the war it would have been necessary to have taken the train at Tullytown Borough to Trenton and there change to a (very) local train for the long trip to Moorestown.
Now an hour’s drive through a pleasant countryside every morning and the reverse evening trip in my own car at my own rate of speed brought me to a job which had everything I wanted or needed — learning and using my new profession, learning executive skills, dealing with clients and learning people skills in running the office.
As an example, Petty had hired Fred Schindel, a former European Displaced Person architect.
Fred was a Polish Jew who was grateful for his job in America, and was a good man to work with. Then Petty hired a German refugee, Hans Dietrich, a veteran of the German army.
Fred quite appropriately was emotionally torn at the thought of having to work right next to one of the same Nazis who had torn apart his people, his family and his life with the most brutal murders and repressions and I had a small war on my hands. Petty suddenly disappeared and Walt Croft huddled down behind his desk. It was my job to still the riot and I found depths in myself as an arbiter, a diplomat and a disciplinarian I never knew existed.
Among my solutions was the idea of creating a new environment by having Petty rent an additional room across the hall and setting up drafting boards there for Hans and me so Fred did not have to work in the same room with Hans. It worked and I had created a loyal team where only anger and hatred had before existed. This experience was to be helpful in future years.
Things were going along very well in the office; I was running it almost as if it were my own, Walt Croft and I were together on all things, and Henry Petty was busy being Mr. Big Shot Architect in his local Kiwanis Club/Country Club environment (and keeping out of my hair) when suddenly he proudly announced that Petty & Croft had been awarded (meaning he had pulled every political string he could reach) the contract to design the new $5,000,000 Burlington County Office Building. I was elated at the prospect of having such a prime design project under my own personal wing, until Henry messed the message. Afraid of his own architectural incapabilities, and with no real confidence in me, he had run back to his former master, idol and guru, Al Micklewright and formed a joint venture with Micklewright & Mountford.
As the deal finally worked out, the actual design work would be done at Micklewright & Mountford’s offices in Trenton where I would be assigned. I was to be in full charge of the project but M&M were to be considered as partners and their expertise to be used and closely listened to. I would have a staff of at least 3 to match M&M’s three. Petty decided (and I concurred) that Fred, Hans and Walter were needed in the Moorestown office for our ongoing school and commercial projects, so I would have new people in Trenton whom I would control without long-distance interference from Henry.
I thought that meant I could hire my own people but that involved too much loss of control by Henry, so I settled for working with whomever he hired from Moorestown. He was, after all, still the boss.
The shift to Trenton had an excellent benefit for me. Levittown was just across the Delaware River from Trenton, so instead of the two-hour daily commute to and from Moorestown I had a 15-minute run up US 13 and over the bridge to the M&M offices in downtown Trenton. The M&M drafting room was crowded and busy, but I was used to that kind of atmosphere. I quickly made friends with my opposite number on the M&M staff and we began work on the Preliminary design of the new Office Building.
True to his word, Petty hired from Moorestown, but instead of the three people I needed, he cut corners and saved money by hiring only one. This man deserves a little description of his own.
Harold G. Steigers was the perfect combination of formal education and personal idiocy.
Physically he was tall, well over 6 feet, thin, spectacled and with an air of great earnestness. Mentally he was bigoted, narrow, stubborn and very self-righteous. Spiritually he was small, negative and very bitter. At the same time he had a Ph.D. (in what I never discovered), was an ordained minister in one of the evangelical branches of Christianity and was a Registered Architect in New Jersey.
He was also extremely jealous of me, especially when he found out that not only was I not registered, but that I was a Jew who was going to be telling him what to do. I hope he was not as incompetent a scholar and a minister as he was an architect because then he would have been a total disaster.
This, then, was the man whom Petty had hired to assist me in the largest design contract his office had ever had. The result was that by default much of the control of the design of the project was now in Al Micklewright’s despotic hands. He tried hard to reduce my role to one of his subservient draftspersons and was furious when I would have none of it. I was the only person in his offices who had ever had the temerity to disagree with him on anything, and he didn’t care too much for it — or for me, for that matter.
Henry Petty, a devout coward if ever there was one, could not think of backing me against his father figure, Mighty Al Micklewright, so I stood and fought alone against the domination of this powerful figure. In a number of battles I won my point because I knew what I was doing and poor Al, accustomed to slavish acquiescence from his cowed employees, was mired in yesterday’s technology and sluggish thinking. I became an almost mythical figure in the M&M drafting room.
Steigers came up with a clever (diabolical?) idea to convert me to his whatever branch of what he considered Christianity, a mishmash based on the lunatic ravings of a madman on the Isle of Patmos in the 2nd century of the Christian Era. Jesus was, in his theology, the pale and distant figure involved only in shouldering Original Sin and forgiving us for it. That Jesus too had been a Jew was to Steigers only an ugly and unfortunate part of a history best forgotten.
His brilliant idea was based on geography. I lived in Levittown in Bucks County; he lived in south Jersey. On his way to work he would pass through my area, pick me up in his car and on the ride to work proselytize me and I would join him in The Rapture as the Final Days occurred and Jesus returned to gather all those who had accepted Him as their Lord and Savior to live with Him as He reigned in Heaven for a thousand years.
What poor Harold G. didn’t know (and wasn’t able to accept when he found it out) was that in me he had an opponent worthy of his tarnished steel. I had read The Book Of Revelations more than once, and both The New and The Old Testaments enough to be able to quote whole chunks both in and out of context. I feel now that I had been a Talmudic student in enough past lives to have mastered the fine art of pilpul enough to swamp any stuttering amateur with a Bible in his sweating hand. This poor fool thought he was going to checkmate a Worldmaster!
So every morning he picked me up and became more and more frustrated and more and more irritated as I kindly, sweetly, logically and rationally asked him questions he couldn’t answer and offered him ideas he couldn’t deal with. His fury finally exploded the day he turned on me and snarled that I was indeed the Antichrist and had the number 666 written on my forehead. His anger knew no bounds when I calmly refused to rise to his bait.
That got to be an enjoyable ride, especially when he tried to bribe me by bringing along coffee and glazed donuts on the morning commute. I took the proffered coffee and donuts and the harangues that went with them, but continued my inquisition into the intellectual and theological bases of his evangelistic fervor. I am afraid he liked me little as I liked him.
All that, though, was fun and games compared to the final blowup between us, which caused me to face Henry Petty with an ultimatum: Either you fire Steiger or I quit and you can finish this job yourself!
As part of the contract documents of any architectural project, several cross-sections are usually necessary. These are accurate graphic representations of the actual conditions within the structure as though seen with a kind of X-ray eye. The contractor and his workers can see at a glance what the architect wants and provides a specific picture of precisely what is required. It also usually links together disparate sections of the design so that they may be viewed as a coherent whole.
Since the Burlington County Office Building was to be a structure over 300 feet long; the Longitudinal Section which would show the inside of the building was too long to be shown on one sheet of paper, The view had to be split in half along a convenient match line and each half shown on a separate sheet. I had given this job to Steigers.
With the deadline for the completion of the job fast approaching, I was swamped with other details, including fighting every day with Al Micklewright about things in which I felt he had no business interfering. It was not until almost the day the job was to be printed and sent out for bids that I had a chance to look at Steiger’s work.
Something didn’t look right. I looked at the 5-story section filling the large sheet and suddenly it dawned on me — the entire central Elevator Lobby was missing!
My Ph.D. /ordained minister /Registered Architect and proponent of the Savior Of Mankind had conveniently neglected to include it — either through sheer negligence, technical malfeasance, general stupidity or the lethal combination of all three. I ordered him away from the board and out of the office, called Petty in Moorestown, gave my ultimatum and rolled up my sleeves and got to work making a complete new set of Longitudinal Sections to meet the looming deadline.
This was one time Henry Petty made a decision, and so Mr. Steigers departed for other fields of proselytization and architectural devastation.
The job got out on time and I began my long-delayed vacation. What happened on that vacation is deeply involved with what affected the rest of my life very seriously. For that I must go back in time a year, to 1954, and the best way I can do it is to quote from the Introduction of my bookA Guide For The Search:
My real search began in 1954. I was married, had 2 small children and, like millions of other Americans after World War II, had moved to the suburbs. My wife and I were nominal members of the local Reform Temple “for the sake of the children” but I remained a devout agnostic. “If you can’t show me God where I can see (touch/feel/hear) Him, I won’t believe He exists” was my whole religion and philosophy.
“I was working then for Petty & Croft in the quiet Quaker town of Moorestown. This small city had a magnificent public library where I spent most of my lunch hours and where the friendly librarians went out of their way to save new books for me. One day one of them said, “I think you’ll be interested in this one” and handed me a book. I thanked her, took it home and things have never been the same since.
“At home that night I started to read the new book. After about 20 pages I threw the book at the far wall across the room — something I had never done before or since. This was totally out of character for me because I am the product of a culture that idolizes the printed word every form — especially bound books. Books are sacred regardless of their content. To mistreat them in any way is a sin — and this book infuriated me so that I sinned! Furious at the nonsense in the book, I threw it against the wall!
“The next day I took that book back to the library and told the librarians never ever to give me such absolute trash again.
“Just imagine! A man lies on his back in a trance and tells people a world away what illnesses they suffer from and how they can be cured! Fraud, chicanery, gullibility and sheer stupidity were the first and mildest terms that came to me. I was filled with sneering contempt at the deluded fools who could actually believe such obviously unscientific nonsense:
“The book was about some madman/charlatan/cheat with the unlikely name of Edgar Cayce. It had the meaningless title of There Is A River and was written by another madman and likely dupe named Thomas Sugrue. No way was I going to be sucked in by any such unscientific madness! I knew better.
“At that time I was not interested in any search for anything, but I was bothered to discover that I was being pursued. Everywhere I turned, it seemed, something about this weird Cayce character was popping up.
“I would go to the drug store and a book about this Cayce would leap at me from the 35- cent paperback rack. I would pick up the newspaper and in it would be a story about some big pharmaceutical house looking into the validity of Cayce’s silly ‘cures’ just as though there were some truth to them. It began to be really annoying — as I feel today it was intended to be.
“That book really upset my smug little apple cart. It left me mentally gasping and unconsciously looking for something — of which I had no inkling. I was resentful of being pushed into an arena I had long since abandoned in disgust because it wasn’t ‘scientific’.
Then the most frightening and perplexing questions of my life seized me and demanded some kind of answer. No religion or philosophy that I had ever examined (and, in my youthful dissatisfaction with my own religion, I had looked into many other systems of belief) had I found any answer or even any concept to satisfy my sense of Divine Justice and behavior.
Those frightening and perplexing questions were about the Holocaust and I demanded a specific solution that would answer all these questions:
“Why was it that not everybody who was forced into the infamous concentration camps or into forced labor died of disease, starvation or forcible death?
“How was it that, of those who were finally rescued at the end of the war, some died of diseases while others were able to come to safe havens like the United State?
“How was it that some were able to go to safe and secure shelters like Israel while others just disappeared from sight?
“Why did some survive and prosper while most of the others died ignominious deaths?
“Who threw the awful dice?
“I was filled with anger and disgust that so many of the perpetrators of these horrors and their collaborators were either living in ease and comfort in Germany and in other countries to which they had fled. I was greatly incensed that so many of these criminals, except for a highly publicized few like Hess and Goering, were never punished or even brought before a court for their inhuman crimes. “Why? How? For what insane reasons?”
“I raised my voice to an unhearing Logic and Science. I thoughtI’ve known it all along.
There is no God; there is no justice; the whole thing is a lie put together for suckers like me to contribute their pennies. Well, this one’s not fooled any more. I’m through with the whole mess!”
“But that didn’t still the anguish of the questions fermenting in my soul. Something was missing and I had to find it. A Moral Imperative had me firmly in its grip.
“Don Quixote only tilted at windmills; I was going to challenge the whole bloodsucking, stupid, lying establishment. The fuel that powered my personal search was anger at an unfair universe. I was an idealist who didn’t believe in ideals!
“Thus began a search that has lasted almost fifty years and still continues.”
Something happened in that same time frame which left a deep and lasting impression on both my life and Miriam’s. We met the closest approach to a Master whom we might be able to approach in this life experience.
Among the friends and acquaintances we made in Levittown were Lou Pakula and his wife Florence. He was a fine, decent, highly intelligent man who made his living as a Safety Engineer and had much curiosity about the many other worlds of our existence. Through him we became members of the Theosophical Society of Trenton and began to attend their meetings.
I was not very happy with these meetings and I quickly began to lose interest both in the organization and its members. I felt that there was nothing more to their philosophy (if indeed they had one) than platitudinal maunderings based on some “revelations” of a Mme. Blavatsky and set forth in a number of difficult volumes of fine print. Their speakers did not impress me as thinkers and their outstanding characteristic seemed to be a pervasive universal dullness.
On a June Saturday in 1955 Miriam and I were invited to a cookout and picnic at the home of one of the members of this group in New Jersey. I was not at all anxious to take any of my precious free time for this bunch of boring nuts, but Lou felt strongly that I ought to go, so I did.
At the cookout I wandered over to the outdoor grill, loaded up with a hot dog, potato chips and a paper cup of coffee and down at one of the picnic tables across from an elderly woman. We began to talk and, to my amazement and delight, she gave me back quip for quip and wisecrack for wisecrack!
Right then and there, at that picnic table in New Jersey, I fell in love with the greatest Human Intelligence whom I ever met in my entire life.
My vacation, that year of 1955, did a lot more than change the scenery for a couple of weeks.
Wilmer Alice Adams
Wilmer Alice Adams was in herself an inspirational volume for all man-kind. For me in particular she was a bright beacon illuminating everything I had yearned for and indeed I believe the reason I had incarnated into this experience.
She had been born into a Philadelphia Main Line family rich not only in tradition and social position but also in material wealth. Educated at schools like Bryn Mawr and Vassar she was assured of a life of ease and status until, at the age of 18, she committed the unpardonable sin for girls of her social level in America. She married an actor!
That he had an unbroken lineage from John Adams himself and his own Boston family’s social position was in every way the equal of hers was meaningless in the face of the great social crime of the stage.
The couple was immediately cut off in every way her family could devise. Penniless, they were thrown on their own few devices. Then, to compound her tragedy, Wilmer’s husband died and she was left a young widow with three children. This great woman faced life (and in the early days of the 20th century it was a grim one indeed) and put her talents to use. No groaning, no complaining. Just work. She found work grading papers for an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
Her work was so outstanding and her spirit so cheerful that she soon found herself teaching classes and tutoring students. For years she made her livelihood putting her brains to work.
She also devoted herself to helping others. All others. She was the only truly Christian person I ever knew. She knew nothing of bias, of prejudice, of discrimination. To her every human was a manifestation of the Living God and she treated him as though she saw Him there. As I believe she did.
She was a collector of churches. She loved the appearance, the ritual, the verysmell of sanctity. It did not matter to this wonderful human whether the church was large or small, rich or poor, city or country, black or white, Catholic or Protestant, Christian or Jewish, Muslim or Infidel, Buddhist or Taoist. It was enough that people come together to praise God, to pray, to express their spiritual life with their heightened vibrations. This for Wilmer was the essence of her joy, the food for her spirit.
Wilmer’s delight in the pleasures of the mind was so great that she had to share it. She founded more clubs and societies than I can possibly enumerate, each with the purpose of bringing people of all sorts together for any number of reasons wrapped up in the overarching one of growth of the individual’s spirit. No preaching, no single point of view. Just a universal look at what we have and how to enjoy being alive.
Some of her clubs were made up of poor black women; some, like the Illuminati, of rich white women. Some were about books, some about current events, some about children. All were about living and enjoying life.
Wilmer was deeply a Sensitive, but one would never know it from her demeanor or her conversation. She simply accepted her sensitivity to the vibrations surrounding her and those in her company as she accepted the common air of their breaths.
Wilmer had three grown children when I met her. Her unmarried son, Clayton, lived with her in her 4-storey row home on Pine Street near 22nd Street in downtown Philadelphia. I mention this because it involves a (true) story which illustrates the kind of person she was.
Wilmer was not in good health, but one would never know it from her continual cheeriness and optimistic attitude. She was in and out of the hospital, and no matter how severe her own physical pain and distress might be, she was a constant beacon of hope and positive vibrations to everyone with whom she might come in contact in the corridors of grief. She was a sun of serenity and comfort to everyone who came within her orbit.
Part of my deep philosophic belief is that there is a number of Human Intelligences who, by their own deliberate efforts in making many more positive than negative choices have increased their own personal vibratory levels so they no longer have any need to incarnate on this plane. These advanced Intelligence’s we know as Masters or Elder Brothers.
It is my belief that Wilmer was so advanced that this was her final incarnation on this plane. Her various illnesses were the final elements of her individual Karma before taking up her duties as a Master on the next Plane of existence.
Miriam and I sat at her feet and drank from her inexhaustible fountain of knowledge. We were delighted to learn that she not only knew of Edgar Cayce but that Albert Turner, her onetime swain, had married Cayce’s longtime secretary Gladys Davis. With this close link we began a series of journeys to the ARE in Virginia Beach where we were able to learn more about some of the universal forces with which we are surrounded and of which we are a part.
We joined with Wilmer in her membership of The Theosophical Society and made a number of trips with her to New Brunswick, NJ. There we met Molly Kay, a kindred soul to Wilmer and through whom we also expanded our awareness of the Universe. I must admit, however, that I always remained skeptical of the doctrines (what I could understand of them) of the Theosophical belief. Mme. Blavatsky remains a little too esoteric for me, even today.
Now is a good time to tell a few of the incidents that surrounded the life of this great soul.
The first is the one that opened the recognition to me that we are truly not alone in our travel through this life:
At the intersection of 22nd & Pine Streets in Philadelphia is one of William Penn’s little parks which do so much to give downtown Philadelphia its character. Imagine, if you will, a bitterly cold December night with a chill wind and a sleety drizzle falling. It is after midnight, and Wilmer, returning from a meeting of one of her clubs, has just alighted from a night owl trolley car at her home and discovers she had left her keys inside the house. Undaunted, she rings the front-door bell, but her son , Clayton, is asleep in his bedroom in the rear of the fourth floor and doesn’t hear the doorbell. Throwing stones at the windows doesn’t do anything at all. The sleet is falling and the chill is deepening. There is total silence and complete absenceof any life at this deserted spot in these wee hours of the morning. Wilmer feels the cold penetrating her and her strength deserting her.
Suddenly the welcome figure of a police officer, walking his beat, appears. “What’s the matter, Mother?” he greets her cheerily.
“I’m locked out!”
“Not to worry,” he assures her confidently, mounting the stoop and pulling out a ring of keys . Selecting one he inserts it into the lock, opens the door and sees her in. He bids her a hearty “Good night!”
Being Wilmer, she thanks the officer before she closes the door, but she notes the officer’s badge number and jots it down before she goes to bed.
The next morning she called the Philadelphia Police Department to thank them for their helpful act the night before. When she told them of the policeman’s having a key on his ring to fit her door, the official at the other end told her that no such thing was possible — no police officer had such a key and if he had would never be permitted to use it.
“What is the badge number of the officer?” asked the official. When Wilmer gave him the number she had carefully written down the night before, the official paused for a long moment before he told her that not only was there was no such number for the police force, but there never had been.
At another time, Wilmer was a passenger in an automobile driven by one of her friends. They were on a country road when another driver forced their vehicle off the road. As the car crashed into a roadside ditch, Wilmer found herself standing uninjured at the side of the road beside the overturned car. Her friend was trapped inside the car until rescue teams arrived.
I leave it to you, the reader, to interpret these events however you wish. My own view is that she was protected in the moments of urgency by her Guardians.
Wilmer had no conception of superiority or inferiority of any human being because of race or birth. Her only criterion was the quality of the mind and soul and even that was tempered by her deep awareness that every individual was in a procession of learning experiences, of which this particular life was only one. To her, any individual’s outer characteristics were only an indication of the location of that person on his personal scale of advancement. She was as close as I have ever seen anyone walk in Jesus’ footsteps.
Wilmer, Miriam and I became very close. Not only did we join her in various meetings, but we visited her as often as we could in her home in Philadelphia. We took her with us to
Virginia Beach, as I have mentioned, to the ARE. We had long talks with her, about genuine morality, about our characters and about the philosophy of Life. Through her we gained insight into much that had only been vague thoughts or silly dreams.
Wilmer was particularly interested in me. She felt that I had incarnated for a specific purpose beyond the normal needs to learn lessons and meet the Karma I had created in past lives. At one time she leaned over and said, in an almost confidential tone, ‘You are an Adept!”
To say that I was stunned is a mild way of putting it. I was overwhelmed. I hope she was right, but I still think it was an exaggeration. I have the feeling that if I could talk to this great soul today and ask her if she still thought I was an Adept, she might answer “Maybe you are and maybe you’re not!”
This great lady went through the process of transition at the age of 83 and I hope to meet her and continue the conversations. This time I won’t be bashful about telling her how much I love her.
The Search Begins
The Burlington County Office Building job had been a very tiring one for me, what with the daily battles with Al Micklewright, Henry Petty’s lackluster “leadership” and Harold G. Steigers. This vacation had been long-deferred until the Burlington County job had been finished and put out for bid. Now that it was over, my family and I were ready to go.
My cousins in New York City, Mike and Rose Freistadt, had been avid campers for years. They had traveled over the entire 48 lower states and much of Mexico and Canada, living in tents and staying at campgrounds. They had extolled this way of life to us for years, and now I thought it would be a great idea to take them up on it.
Since they had offered many times to lend us camping gear, this time I accepted their offer. I drove to The Bronx, loaded my car with tents, stove, air mattresses and other paraphernalia and got rudimentary instructions on how to use the equipment.
All set for the Great Outdoors I returned to Levittown, put Miriam and Rima in the car (David was going to stay with friends for the two weeks) and we headed for the Skyline Drive in the Great Smoky Mountains of Virginia.
The experience was exhilarating. The vistas from the overlooks on Skyline Drive were like nothing we had ever seen before. We found a campsite at Lake Sherando, 4000 feet high in the mountains on the Blue Ridge Parkway and became pioneers of Westward, Ho!
City people, we had never been in genuine open spaces before and we relished building a campfire and cooking over an open flame. We rested, swam in the lake and did nothing more because there was nothing more to do. Rima hated it.
I could feel the tension draining out of me as I relaxed for the first time in months. No news, no Steiger, no Petty, no Micklewright — just good old American loafing. We lived the truly relaxed life for all of Monday and Tuesday. Wednesday morning I got up at 6 am and, with no forethought, announced “We’re breaking camp!”
“Well,” I said with my usual smugness, “since we’re here in Virginia, we might as well go visit that Cayce place in Virginia Beach so I can find out what kind of fraud they’re running and blow them out of the water.”
Even a casual glance at a map will show that the Blue Ridge Mountains are about 400 miles to the west of Virginia Beach’s seacoast location, with not too many good roads between.
In 1955 the paucity of good highways was even more pronounced, but to somebody as ignorant and bullheaded as I that made no difference. I broke camp, over the vociferous objections of Miriam and Rima and we took off.
Of course the inevitable happened. We made it to the eastern lowlands with no difficulty, and then I got lost. The sun was setting in the west as we headed east in a lost land of flat, endless farmland stretching into infinity with no houses, no towns, no roads — only clouds, plants and tiny us. Finally by dint of Divine Guidance and an occasional native to direct us we finally found Virginia Beach, Atlantic Avenue (the main street) and 88th Street where Edgar Cayce’s Atlantic University and Hospital building sat on a hill about 500 yards from the beach. A small motel sat on the corner of Atlantic and 88th and there the weary Laibow family rested after a full day on the bumpy roads of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia.
Edgar Cayce’s dream had recently been through a very difficult period. Some bad investments of those who were backing his University and hospital had caused the Association of Research and Enlightenment (ARE) to lose the building and grounds in the 1930s; then the military had taken them over for training purposes in World War II.
Edgar Cayce himself had died on January 3, 1945 and the small band of believers had just recently been able to stagger back to its financial feet and, under the leadership of his sons Hugh Lynn and Edgar Evans Cayce, had reconstituted the ARE, bought back the property and was in the process of attempting to carry on the work of the Sleeping Prophet.
Everything was very informal and everything and everyone still connected with Cayce’s work was available. Lectures, seminars and sessions were underway that summer and we were welcomed with open arms and total access. There was none of the mumbo-jumbo or chicanery I was looking for, and I had the most sobering experience of my life to that time.
Because the recovery of the building was so new, every transcript of every Reading — Physical and Life alike — was in the second-floor library open to any person’s investigation together with all the correspondence pertaining to that reading. Gladys Davis, Edgar Cayce’s longtime amanuensis, was living there, too, available for any questions or interview. Surviving members of The Norfolk Study Group with whom Cayce had worked for many years were also available for discussions and personal talks. I had not expected this openness.
Nothing was hidden, nothing was covered up. I was not happy with this.
Miriam also was not happy with the Cayce situation, but for a different reason. She felt that this was going to change me in some major way. She accepted the validity of the philosophy behind the Cayce readings much more than I did at that time, but she had fears that some more negative forces would act on me. She had a very real perception of the dangers inherent in the field of the paranormal.
We spent the rest of our vacation at the ARE in Virginia Beach and began what I consider my real education and a search that still has not ended.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, as the pulp thrillers say, I had been preparing myself for the next step up the professional ladder. Strangely, money did not enter into my calculations at this time, It was just personal gratification and ego that I add the title Registered Architect to my name.
I needed the kudos, the respect, the adulation that that professional title would bring me, and I felt very strongly that I was just as good an architect as anyone who bore that respected designation.
For the past two years I had been attending, the “brush-up” courses given by the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in preparation for the written examination for architectural registration.
The law at that time permitted anyone who had served an apprenticeship in the offices of Registered Architects for a given number of years to take the written examination on an equal level with a graduate of an approved school of Architecture. I wanted to be able to put the magic letters R.A. after my name so badly I could taste it.
The fee for taking the exam was $25, which entitled the applicant to two tries at passing.
I figured that it was a small tuition fee to take the exams twice, find out what it was all about, bone up on what I was deficient in and then take it for real. The exams were given at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Architecture in Philadelphia twice a year, in December and June.
I had taken the time in 1954 to take the December examination and, to my absolute amazement, passed 9 out of the 10 subjects the first time around! I took the failed subject (Design) again in June and in October of 1955 was awarded the coveted title of Registered Architect
No. EX-3119, signifying I had passed the written examination. Now in my own eyes, at least, I was somebody!
I was also somebody in Henry Petty’s eyes. He now asked me to add supervision of construction projects to my work, suggesting that on my way in to the office in the morning I stop off at the various sites, check the progress of the work and in general take this burden off him. I was delighted to do this, and became a very serious and dedicated field supervisor. The experience was to prove of great value in later years, but caused the final and irrevocable break with Henry Ward Petty and the architectural firm of Petty & Croft.
Little by little, cracks began to appear in my relationship with Henry. The cracks began to develop into chasms with Henry’s invention which he thought would revolutionize the practice of architecture in America.
A word of technical information here. The old cinder block — a solid chunk of concrete 8” wide by 8” high by 16” long, using coal cinders as the aggregate (heavy binder) — had been superseded by lightweight concrete masonry units (CMU) with holes (cores) to make them lighter and more manageable for the masons and to increase their insulating value.
CMU were a quick, inexpensive building material with few flaws or problems — or so it seemed. Then a major problem appeared.
The lightweight aggregate of the blocks had a high coefficient of expansion. That means that for every degree change in temperature the blocks would expand or contract a relatively large distance. Every so many feet apart cracks would appear in the CMU walls which would allow moisture to penetrate, cold or heat to enter the structure and the design strength of the wall to suffer. Various means and methods of overcoming this tendency of the material to crack were introduced, but all had some deficiencies.
Henry gave a lot of thought to this problem and his solution was a complicated arrangement of aluminum T’s, bars and springs which would be inserted between blocks at predetermined points in a wall and at all door and window jambs to interrupt the length of the run of block so that expansion cracks would be eliminated by creating design cracks.
Henry had this jigsaw arrangement patented and insisted that I include it in every project on the boards of our office. He tried to have it included as mandatory by the local building departments in their codes. He also tried unsuccessfully to have Al Micklewright put it into the jobs from his offices. This was a classic method, to me, of throwing out the bathwater, the baby and the parents together.
By that time research by the American Concrete Institute (ACI) had found that the real cause of the crack creation was not really in the blocks themselves, but in the binding by the mortar between the CMU which prevented the blocks from moving until they relieved their internal stress by cracking. The ACI research found that until a way to eliminate that binding by the mortar could be discovered, there was no way cracking in CMU construction could ever be successfully eliminated.
I tried to point this out to Henry, but I was attacking his dream and he would have none of it. I went along with it because I had to, but I was very disgruntled. I knew I was curry- combing a very dead horse.
We did not have a good relationship, but he needed me to run his office and I needed the money and the prestige. Finally, though, in 1958 things came to a head
Every morning I would stop off at each of the jobs we had under construction. Most were school jobs, and I had very little trouble with most contractors who generally were local people who knew what they were doing, were mostly honest in their workmanship and anxious to do a good job. The drawings and specifications, done under my direction, were clear and unambiguous so there was little room for cheating or manipulation.
However, one morning I watched a masonry subcontractor laying the foundation walls for a new school building. As I watched, his masons laid one block on another without mortar.
I called over the General Contractor’s superintendent, pointed out the condition and told him to have the masonry sub tear out the work and do it in accordance with the specifications and good practice as required. He laughed in my face and told me “You’re only an errand boy for your boss. He comes around after you’re gone and says for me not to listen to you!”
Suddenly a lot of things became clear. I kept my temper and went back to the office and confronted Henry Petty.
“Is what I heard this morning true?” I asked between clenched teeth.
Henry was honest enough to say “Yes.”
“If I’m going to have the responsibility, ” I told him, “I’ve got to have the authority.”
“That,” Henry calmly said “I’ll never give you!”
“I have to tell you ” I rejoined “as of this moment I’m looking for another job!”
That was the end of my field supervision for Petty & Croft and on May 29, 1958 I left that firm and founded my own architectural practice.
No Uncles In The Business
Everyone has it in himself, I think, to want to be his own boss. The dreams of making one’s own decisions, of answering to no one, of being the biggest frog, no matter how small the puddle, lie deep within each of us and are the reason we have become the great nation we are.
On June 1, 1958 I woke up with that great dream burning in my spirit. I had enough money in the bank for one month; I had a drafting table at home (which I would set up in my bedroom) and I felt that I knew everything about running an architectural practice from start to finish.
I also had a hard streak of practical reality in that I had no contacts and knew no one who wanted to build anything or needed anything designed. I thought, “I’ll fulfill my dream of being in my own practice for a month and then I’ll go back to work for somebody else. But at least I’ll have been in practice for myself as an Architect!”
When I had told Miriam what I had discovered about Petty and what I had done about it, that wonderful woman looked calmly at me and said “Whatever you think is right, I am right behind you. I have faith in you!” If I had had a million dollars in the bank and signed contracts in my hand to design a new Empire State Building I could have not been happier — or cockier.
That Monday morning I went down to the bank to draw out some money. Standing in line I fell in to conversation with Hal Levitt, a local grocer whom I knew (no relation to William J.). I gave him one of my new cards and told him that I was starting a local architectural practice and if he ever needed any design work done I was his man.
“Gee,” he said regretfully, “that’s too bad. Willy Naidan (a small contractor friend of his) and I just hired an engineer for the new restaurant we’re going to build. Well, maybe next time…”
This was terrible! My first morning in practice, a chance at my first job, and an engineer — an engineer! — was stealing it from me.
I launched into an impassioned harangue right there in the bank lobby as to why an engineer was a bad choice for the design of any building, but especially for a restaurant. It was a lost cause, but I had to express my pain at this loss.
I went home in absolute desolation. As I entered, Miriam said “There’s a phone call for you to call Tom Reap.”
Tom Reap was a local small-time lawyer. I knew the name, but had never had any contact with him. What under the Levittown sun could he want with me? Well, only one way to find out. I picked up the phone and called his number.
Tom was very pleasant and asked if I could please (please?) come to his office at 1 that afternoon. There would be someone who wanted to meet me.
Thoroughly puzzled I waited anxiously until one o’clock and drove to his office.
When I walked into his private office, there, to my utter amazement, sat Tom Reap, Hal Levitt and Willy Naidan in a haze of cigar smoke, all waiting for me.
It seemed my fervent sales pitch that morning had had an effect on Hal, who was a major investor in the new venture, and he had taken his fears to his attorney, Tom Reap, about the dangers of having an engineer design what was actually an architectural project. Tom had agreed, and together they had convinced Willy that it was best to hire me — if I worked cheap enough.
Hall Levitt and Willy were my first clients in what ultimately became a successful architectural practice. It turned out that I was in the right place at the right time.
William J. Levitt & Son had sparked a tremendous boom in the undeveloped hinterlands of the lower end of Bucks County. With Philadelphia and its burgeoning Northeast to the south and Trenton and its explosive growth to the north, it was the ideal place for developers to exploit.
When, in addition to the vast community of Levittown itself, U .S. Steel announced its plans to build a major steel mill on the Delaware River and that this new Fairless Works would employ thousands of workers, the local real estate agents went mad.
It added to their euphoria to hear that another major new community to house steel mill workers — Fairless Hills — would be built on farm fields just north of Levittown itself by U.S. Homes, a U.S. Steel subsidiary.
Now the entire region was in a ferment of growth and excitement for new single homes, apartment complexes, stores, shopping centers, strip malls, movie theaters and all the other things that new suburbanites needed to make their new homes just like the cities they were leaving, except that now they had tracts of crabgrass to battle.
Pennsylvania counties had home rule with small governmental entities. Unincorporated areas were called townships; incorporated places were designated as boroughs, villages or towns.
In lower Bucks County, Falls, Bristol and Middletown Townships had been rural with a couple of thousand solid Republican farmers in each. Tullytown Borough had been the home of a small Italian-American community of masons, artisans and small businessmen who usually voted Democratic. A little farther north and east, along the Delaware, the small towns of Yardley and Langhorne were the traditional communities of commuters from Trenton across the river.
Now with the influx of tens of thousands of refugees from Philadelphia and Trenton (and a surprising number from New York City) the entire political character, as well as the physical scene, changed. Political control passed to a new breed of hungry, mostly Democratic, politicians as lawyers proliferated and a frenzied search for the new Promised Land began.
Here my determined perfectionism found its proper place. Each township, borough and town now discovered it needed its own building and zoning department, complete with its own codes and inspectors. I made myself known to every jurisdiction in the area and they welcomed me with open arms. In a short time I was the unofficial consultant to all the local building and zoning officials and my reputation as the man to consult for all zoning problems grew in proportion.
Almost all the land in lower Bucks County was zoned agricultural or single-family residential, so whenever anyone wanted to build anything except a farm building or a 1-family house a new or modified zoning application had to be made and approved. Word soon spread that I was the man to come to for such zoning approvals.
My practice had become concentrated in commercial, apartment and industrial projects. I knew the local zoning codes in intimate detail. I developed a method of always providing more than the codes required and never asking for approval of anything not completely sustainable by the codes. As a result when I appeared before the local Zoning Boards of Adjustment or Township Commissioners I was always granted the approval. I never used corrupt measures. I never needed to resort to such means.
I knew what was permissible and what was not. I never accepted a commission for a project that needed to skirt or violate the zoning acts. My projects were honest from start to finish and even the developer thieves from North Jersey and South Philadelphia came to me (reluctantly) because they knew that I could get their projects approved without bribery and without local lawsuits.
Yet with all this kudos and recognition I was not happy. I had a hand, it seemed, in every business building project in the area, but I was never considered for any school projects — even in my own Pennsbury School District. It seemed that Harold Haag, a Doylestown architect whose firm bore the strange name of Haag & d’Entremont had all the county school districts sewed up, and I couldn’t even get a look at the doorway.
Then I thought I found a way to get into another part of the local architectural scene from which I had so far been excluded.
Every Christian denomination one could imagine had communicants in the Levittown and Fairless Hills areas, and Levitt was giving land free to every one which could prove it had any sort of legitimate congregation.
I had not been involved in any design for a variety of reasons, most of which centered on my not being a Christian. With my church design background, I felt that I was the logical one to do all their work. To break in to this lucrative field I needed an uncle in the business and suddenly, unbidden and unthought of, one arrived.
The reader will remember my job at Fridy, Gauker, Truscott & Fridy some 10 years before. While there, I had had trouble with Dick Vogel, a brash young draftsman with an exaggerated idea of his own value and a big, fat mouth — just like me.
This Richard W. Vogel had given me so much lip in front of the other draftsmen that it finally came to a head one day and I fired him. We left on very bad terms.
Imagine my surprise when one day in 1958, in my office (the back bedroom in the Levitt & Son’s sample home I shared with Charley Barrows, a Civil Engineer, this same Dick Vogel walked in with a proposition. He had become a Registered Architect as I had, by written examination, had opened a practice in Levittown with his first project and it (and he) was in big trouble.
He was a devout Roman Catholic of German descent, a member of the new St. Joseph The Worker Parish in Levittown. The church building had been built by the Philadelphia Diocese with their own diocesan architectural staff, but now that the parish had established its own parochial school, Dick had been awarded the commission to design and supervise the construction of the residence for the order of teaching nuns who would be resident in the parish.
Dick was not a good architect. He was convivial, cheerful, nice to have around, but technically and artistically there was nobody home. He had bitten off considerably more than he could chew, and Sister Denise, the Mother Superior of the nuns who were to staff the new school, had his number down pat.
The pastor was caught in the middle of the pitched battle between the two, and construction had stopped overnight. The Diocese was threatening to take over the job and that would have been the end of Dick in his own parish.
Hearing that I was in practice locally, Dick came to me to see if I could be of help in this dilemma. His suggestion was simple. He and I would become equal partners and between us would have a grip on all the local work. With his connections to the Christian community and the local political elite and my technical proficiency and business acumen (as he saw it) we would have all the local business sewed up and both become rich and even famous. He would bring in the convent job as his first contribution to the new firm.
It was a tempting picture for me. My own greed reached out to his and I agreed.
The new firm of Laibow & Vogel, Architects, was formed, new stationery was ordered, a discreet professional advertisement placed in The Bucks County Courier.
We brought Dick’s drafting table in to the drafting room, bought a new file cabinet and were primed to become Bucks County’s newest and busiest architectural powerhouse.
There were problems right from the beginning of the partnership. Neither of us had any money, but we were used to that. More important in the strains that began to irk me were Dick’s working and drinking habits.
The original agreement was that Dick would be the Outside Man At The Skunk Works and I would be the Inside Man (From Al Capp’s Li’l Abner comic strip). He would be the outside contact, schmoozing and drinking with prospective clients and I would design the jobs he brought in, do the working drawings, write the specifications and supervise the construction work. In the architectural world bringing in the work is every bit as important as turning it out, so there was no complaint there.
We had also agreed that Dick would do a fair share of the actual drafting so we would save the wages we would have had to pay a draftsman.
I have always been very much a workaholic perfectionist, and I was as appalled at the sloppy quality of his production as I had been 10 years before at Fridy, Gauker, Truscott & Fridy. Even worse in my eyes was his (to me) terrible habit of coming to work with a couple of quart bottles of beer, which he drank at his board as he worked.
I kept my mouth shut, figuring that a partnership is like a marriage — both parties must be tolerant and understanding of the other’s foibles if the union is to endure. I found depths of tolerance in myself I never dreamed I had.
Dick loved to play golf and to spend time in convivial bars where he could rub shoulders with the local power structure. This was fine with me, but it became increasingly irritating that we were spending money we didn’t have on golf fees, bar tabs and other expenses and no jobs were showing up. All that we had in the office was what I was bringing in.
Finally one day Dick came in with a job. We were the architects, he proudly announced, of the largest new bowling alley in the county!
George Ashworth, Headley Warner (local entrepreneurs) and Stan Worthington, the area’s largest building contractor, were the clients and we were made! He was quick to point out that he had made the deal for full service, including complete control of and supervision of the building of the 24-lane structure as a direct result of the time and efforts he had made on the links and at the bar with these men.
The streak of suspicion in my soul surfaced. I knew that Dick Vogel’s strong points did not include business awareness or ability. “What fee did you agree on?” I asked.
“$2,500.” he replied, obviously proud of his business acumen at achieving what he considered a high fee.
I staggered back in shock. A 24-lane bowling alley, I knew, would run at least $100,000 and a fair fee would have been 6%, or $6,000. Instead this innocent had committed us to a large project involving among other things a great deal of research at a fee which would be considerably less than 2-1/2 percent. This was not a benefit. This was a financial tragedy.
Dick couldn’t understand my horror. In his ignorance he thought he had made a real financial coup, and quickly became offended. In an attempt to calm my ruffled feathers, he offered to do the work himself. Even he quickly realized the stupidity of his offer and retreated into a sullen silence.
Well, we were stuck. We went ahead with the signing of the documents and I started the preliminary design and research. My only hope was that this might somehow be the opening to larger and more profitable projects, but on this one I knew we were going to lose our shirts.
Oddly enough, we didn’t. Because Stan Worthington was at the same time one of the owners and the General Contractor for the project, I was able to have the structural, mechanical, electrical and Heating & Ventilating engineering done by his subcontractors at no cost to us.
I did all the design, research and drafting work, as well as the specification writing, administrative work and supervision myself. By working 29 hours a day 10 days a week, squeezing in our other jobs and generally forgetting I had a family, while we didn’t make any money, we didn’t come out as badly in the red as I had feared.
But the honeymoon was definitely over between us. I began to spend my waking hours working out impossible scenarios of how to break up the partnership, but nothing came of any of them.
In the meantime work was proceeding slowly and with trouble on the convent for the teaching nuns of St. Joseph the Worker parish, and Dick’s personality clashes with Sister Denise were becoming more frequent and of greater violence. I knew nothing of this, except for Dick’s increasingly glum demeanor as he returned from his visits to the construction site.
Then one day things erupted. Our secretary said to me that Sister Denise was on the phone and wanted to talk to me. “You’re mistaken.” I told her. “Give that call to Mr. Vogel.”
“She doesn’t want to talk to Mr. Vogel” she insisted “She wants to talk to you!”
Sister Denise was very forthright. “I don’t ever want anything to do with him again.” she said. “Maybe you’ve got some sense in your head. Can you come over and straighten out this mess?”
I drove over and discovered that Dick, with his usual ineptitude, had managed to antagonize the General Contractor for the convent, his masonry and carpentry subcontractors and two suppliers. At the same time he had issued orders to them all which conflicted with the drawings and specifications. Sister Denise was furious at Dick and not anxious to keep it to herself.
I was able to straighten out the situation with such aplomb and diplomacy that from that moment Sister Denise and I were firm friends. The building project started to move and I found I was now the official supervisor of this project in addition to my other work.
My relationship with Sister Denise became so good that it became an inside joke between us when I referred to her as “Mother Shapiro.
The crowning blow to Dick Vogel’s ego came some months later. Sister Denise had asked me to advise her about the selection of new Stations of the Cross for the almost-finished chapel of the new convent.
We were sitting in the chapel examining the various choices when suddenly Dick walked in. He took one look at the two of us making religious decisions without him, turned on his heel and left without a word.
Not too long after that, on a Saturday morning, he said to me “How are we going to split this thing up between us?”
The lesson from this for me is that even the most difficult decisions will themselves point the way for their resolution if you give them enough time, tolerance and intelligence.
It took about a month, but then Laibow & Vogel was no more. I was again Martin M. Laibow, Registered Architect, in my own practice. That is, until I died.
Living Two Lives
When I began my architectural practice my thoughts and energies were fiercely concentrated on creating a business which would satisfy my long ing to be finally a respected, wealthy member of Miriam’s family, someone whose achievements were recognized and able to hold my head up in the face of the material achievements of the other members of the Heller family.
Any interest I might have had in otherworldly things like God, souls, reasons for existence or other nonsense simply did not exist in my busy cosmos. I had enough on my plate, I felt, just trying to carve out a place for myself in this physical world without looking for trouble in any silly spiritual one.
I worked hard every day at my office and at night and some weekends I worked equally hard at trying to be a good father for my family of two adolescent, constantly battling teenagers and to keep my love in sight for my patient and always understanding life partner.
But my Guardians had a different vantage point and a different focus on my life’s meaning. Patiently and gently their influences began to bring in other kinds of interests beside the practice of architecture in a growing community.
The first such strange influence was the entrance into our lives of a young man totally different from any we had ever encountered before. His name was Carl Williams, the first genuine Sensitive I had ever met.
Everyone has heard ofpsychics, people with strange, eerie skills and pretensions to knowledge the rest of us don’t have. They are called fortune-tellers, seers, oracles, prophets and, less flatteringly, witches or devils. They have been viewed with awe and fear and always persecuted for their odd and unsettling abilities to look into the future and predict (often unpleasant) happenings. They have also been (sometimes correctly) derided as frauds, phonies and fakes whose only true talents have been the ability to fool and fleece the gullible.
In the 1960s an increasing interest in the relatively new field ofparapsychology or the supernormal had fueled a spate of scientific and pseudoscientific organizations, journals, books and academic research institutions. New terms like ESP (Extra Sensory Perception) were spawned, and it suddenly became old-fashioned to speak of “psychics”. They were now to be called Sensitives, a much more accurate term but still to be regarded with suspicion and outright hostility.
Carl Williams seems, to my recollection, to have appeared for us out of nowhere. but he quickly became an integral part of oour l ives. He was about 26 years old, homosexual, with very limited education and abilities. He worked on and off as an orderly at the Bristol Community Hospital, Carl was an intriguing combination of knowledge, sophistication and utter ignorance.
His prized possession was a deck of playing cards the like of which I have never seen before or since, which he used as a focal point for the journeys into the realm of the occult into which we traveled together.
Carl had absolutely no knowledge of what he was doing, from where his abilities arose or what to do with them. He had equal facility with a Ouija Board, his deck of cards or just sitting at our kitchen table using nothing. His predictions were amazingly accurate and he was as amazed as anyone else at what he said and did. He was a perfect representation of anidiot savante in the paranormal. We (Miriam and I) were entranced by this weird young man and in effect made him a welcome member of our family. David and Rima were not so entranced, although they were willing to be part of the sessions until they became bored.
We learned a lot from Carl, even though he had no idea that he was teaching us anything. He liked the attention, but he didn’t like being different from other people.
It was through Carl that we met the most amazing doctor of our lives, and it was through Carl I had an experience that still seems unbelievable and a figment of a wild imagination. First, the doctor.
Carl had shown us photographs of his obese mother and told us of her other illnesses. He mentioned casually that she had been healed of the obesity and was doing well with the other failings. He ascribed her recovery to a Doctor Samuel Getlen in Trenton, and strongly suggested that Miriam could benefit from his attention.
I was very disdainful of the idea for two reasons. I was a follower of the school of thought which held that only licensed medical doctors following scientific and approved methods were of any value and that anyone who believed in the nonsense of vitamin and mineral therapy and nutritional values was a nut.
However, Miriam said she wanted to try this doctor, so I grudgingly agreed. I hit the roof when I was told that the scheduled appointment was fortwo in the morning!
I flatly refused to have anything to do with such a crazy idea, and finally the appointment was changed to 6 a.m. I was still filled with disgust at anyone who would go to any madman who had medical examinations at such weird hours.
When the appointed date came and I drove Miriam to Trenton I was even more determined that this was a bad deal. The office was in an old, dingy, building in a rundown part of Trenton. Once in, I was appalled.
The office had a motley collection of a dozen disparate chairs, refugees from a derelict Thrift Store. The few magazines on the rickety old tables were almost from my birth year. The whole place was musty and looked like a set for a cheap horror movie.
We sat (I on the edge of my chair) for a few minutes, and then a door opened and a sprightly little old cherub popped out and called our names. That is how we met Samuel Getlen, a most amazing man of medicine.
On the walls of Dr. Getlen’s examination/office space were his diplomas. The original and oldest one was dated 1912 — the year I was born! The furnishing were like nothing I had ever experienced in a doctor’s office. In the center of one wall was a white-enameled glass-fronted cabinet filled with various drugs to which he gestured and called it his “Chamber Of Horrors.”
The opposite wall of this narrow cell had a long bench with a vinyl-covered skimpy pad, which was carefully patched with duct tape. On the cross-wall was a device I have never seen anywhere before or since. In a golden oak case was a dial about 30-inches in diameter with a removable paper disc like a target. The other cross-wall had an ancient roll-top desk filled to overflowing with papers, letters, files and, for all I could tell, last month’s sandwiches.
Stunned, I shuddered and looked for a fast way to get out of this den of insanity.
This tennis-shod pixie masquerading as a doctor thrust a clipboard with a sheet of paper on it into my hands, said, “Because you’re a fine young fellow, draw lines down the middle, and across the top and write the words ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ on either side of the middle line.”
“Now,” he went on “ Under ‘Yes ‘ write :” he reeled off a long list of vitamins and minerals ; “Under ‘No’ put down:” naming everything I liked to eat and drink.
He spent a full hour with me and a full hour with Miriam, giving us what I learned later was probably the most intelligent and thorough physical examination we had ever had. At the time I was convinced that he was the worst travesty of a witch doctor one could find. When we were finished and he told me his fee was $36 — $18 for each — I was astonished, since even then a cursory 10-minute visit to a doctor was at least $50.
We left this comedy scene for a final breakfast with salt, bacon, eggs and everything else normal people ate because this fraud had told Miriam that all these were “No” things for me. I was furious at him and at Miriam for getting me into the clutches of this imitation medicine man. I vowed never to go near him again.
That quite literally he saved my life later on is another story.
The other event was even stranger, if possible, to me. One day Carl mentioned casually that he had been called on to speak to someone who was haunting a house in Princeton. If I wanted to go with him I would be welcome.
The idea of going to a “haunted” house — something I definitely did not believe in — was intriguing. By this time I had enough confidence in Carl’s paranormality to know that he was too stupid and innocent to pretend to something that did not actually exist, so it would be a wonderful opportunity for me to show him what reality actually was. So several evenings later we — Miriam, David, Carl and I — were off to Princeton to meet the ha’nt.
The house was large, Victorian and comfortable, with nothing eerie or spooky about it. We sat in kind of well-lighted drawing room and Carl began to carry on a one-sided conversation with someone we couldn’t see or hear. This could be an act, so nobody was particularly concerned.
Then Carl turned to me and said “She won’t talk to me. She wants to talk to you.”
“How do I talk to her? What do I say?”
“Just close your eyes while you talk to her like you talk to me.” he said.
So I closed my eyes and ventured a weak little “Hello…”
A vision (?) of an inverted megaphone appeared very clearly before my closed eyes, with the big end towards my lips and the small end like a black circle about a foot away. Golden letters rimmed with flames began to march across the little circle forming words of a conversation with no one.
Not knowing what to say, I started by asking whom I was talking to. The flaming letters said “she” was (not “had been”) the murdered wife of the doctor who lived in this house.
She was upset because the house was not where it belonged and there were a lot of people who didn’t belong there. I asked her if she meant us. She replied that she didn’t mind us because we were only passing through, and she liked me. I doubt that I felt particularly flattered at that moment.
Carl told me later that neither he, Miriam nor David could hear me talking. He knew something was going on, but he was effectively shut out of it.
It was not a seance. The lights were on brightly, the room was warm, everything was normal.
I do not know where I got the information, but I remember telling her that she was dead and that she had no more business here with this house and its people. It was time for her to go on, I said and the letters stopped gliding across the small end of the megaphone. The person was gone and so was the megaphone.
I opened my eyes. Everything was just as it had been. Carl, Miriam and David started pressing me for what had been said and what had happened. I told them (verbatim, I think) what we had said and, strangely enough, I didn’t have the slightest feeling that anything unusual had transpired. Even Carl was surprised at my calm acceptance of a conversation with a nonphysical being.
As an afternote, I investigated the history of the house. It had been the scene of a doctor’s murder of his wife around 1904. The house had been moved in 1912 about four blocks from its original location where the killing had occurred and after my conversation the house ceased to be haunted. At least there were no further noises in the attic or other outré events.
It has just occurred to me that I should add “Ghostbuster” to my other magnificent accomplishments.
My Architectural practice, in the meantime, was do-ing very well. After the dissolution of the Laibow & Vogel partnership in 1960 I had built a solid practice of apartment, commercial and industrial projects to the extent that I was responsible for about half of the apartments built in Bucks County between 1960 and 1965.
My accountant kept telling me I was making money, but what with overhead and always much of my fee money out on the street, I always felt I was on the edge of poverty. Actually, I lived pretty well.
I became a part of the Lower Bucks County power structure. I was on speaking terms with every elected official and every appointed official of any importance in zoning and building. My office became a sort of listening post for all the local politicos because they knew I took no sides and nothing that what was said in my office ever left its walls. Strangely enough, this was one thing which never led me to an inflated sense of my own value. I did that in other fields, but never in my own profession or in politics. Eventually this paid off in an interesting way.
As I have said before, I felt left out because I never got any school board work, but finally something better came my way.
In 1965 the Bristol Township Board of Commissioners decided that the township’s explosive growth as the largest component of Levitttown required a new municipal building. There was probably no competition when The Board selected my firm as the architects for the new building. This would be both the finest public building and the last one I would ever design in my own practice.
The scheme for the Bristol Township Municipal Building was designed on a nap kin in a diner on US 13 and the final structure, some four years later, never varied from the original idea. It is one of the few buildings in my architectural career of which I was then and am still now proud for its honesty, originality and quality of materials .
The cost, however, was something else. When I submitted the original Preliminary Design sketches to the Board my budget was in the neighborhood of $250,000.
When, a year later, bids came in on the final contract documents, they were more than a million dollars.
I was shocked, disheartened and dismayed, facing a total redesign at my own cost and a meltdown of my carefully erected reputation and career. To my amazement and delight the commissioners concluded that, since they didn’t have the bonding capacity themselves for the new building, they would turn it over to the Bristol Township Sewer Authority, which could bond it, and have the building go ahead.
That decision revivified me and my dream building began to rise out of the ground, and some other things began to come together in an interesting way.
Carl Williams’ work as a hospital orderly was, as I have previously indicated, as bad a career choice as he could possibly have made. A Sensitive such as he, delicately attuned to the pains and stresses of every other human being around him in the pain-filled environment of a hospital, would be the literal death of him, and he had to quit. With no vocational training, he was helpless. I felt that I could use him in my office as a “gofer” or man-of-all-work so I hired him.
Since his house was not too far from mine, each morning I would pick him up and take him to the office with me and reverse the trip in the evening. By this time the Bristol Township building was well under way and I was making a daily supervisory stop at its site every morning on my way in to my office.
On one such morning as I pulled onto the site and parked Carl quietly remarked
“Mr. Laibow, somebody on this job is cheating you!”
I immediately pressed for details, but Carl knew nothing whatsoever of architecture, building or anything connected with it. He could only repeat that I was being cheated by some sort of pipes going into walls “down below.”
We were at that time (1966) deeply involved in Viet Nam and all building materials were once again expensive and hard to get. Copper pipe in particular was on the list of war-sensitive materials, and I had specified it for all the utility piping in the building as part of the “no maintenance” design I had promised my client.
I went in to the basement of the structure and examined the 6-inch copper drain line running into the concrete masonry unit foundation walls of the auditorium above. With considerable trepidation I ordered one of the walls torn open where the pipe went in, knowing that if there was nothing wrong I would have to personally pay for all the work and materials involved in my order.
When the hole had been made and the inside empty space exposed, Carl was vindicated. Where the copper line entered the space, it changed from scarce and expensive copper to much cheaper black iron; where it left the void space on the other side it changed back to copper again.
From that moment all cheating stopped on that job. I was looked on with awe and reverence as a man who could see through solid walls, and was not to be trifled with. I was one of the very few architects in history from that moment forward whose projects were built with complete honesty of materials and methods. But Carl had more to do for me.
Later that summer, when the building had been roofed in and the finish roofing was being applied, I pulled up and parked on my regular morning visit. It was a beautiful, cloudless day. Carl remarked quite artlessly “There’s a dark-brown cloud on the roof of that building. Has anything happened there today?”
I knew better than to argue now with Carl. I checked with the General Contractor’s superintendent. Nothing out of the way had happened in the last 24 hours. I told him to call me if anything did happen, and we went on the office.
About 10 o’clock that morning a phone call came in that an accident had happened at the project and I had better get over there right away.
At the building site I found out that a roofer had been walking across the roof carrying a 4’ x 8’ sheet of plywood. A sudden gust of wind caught the plywood like a sail and flipped him over the low parapet wall of the roof. Fortunately the plywood broke his fall somewhat, and he was not too badly injured. Carl was right again!
In the office, Carl told Miriam one day that when I was in the office, it was filled with people singing, but when I wasn’t there the place was empty. Curious, Miriam asked him what kind of singing he heard.
Carl, totally unfamiliar with anything Jewish or Hebrew in his entire background, began to hum a tune which Miriam recognized as part of the Orthodox Hebrew prayer chants. Carl told her that the singing was being done by a group of nine old, gray-bearded men who stood in a group around me.
It is my belief now that these men are my Guardians. I shall have more to speak about them and their influence on my life.
I continued to see my practice grow and I and my family becoming part of the American Dream.
David was now in Temple University in Philadelphia, Rima attending a small college in the middle west in preparation for her medical career and Miriam and I were members of the Reform Temple and active in our local neighborhood affairs.
Life was good and seemed to be getting better.
My ego, which didn’t need any outside help by now, received a big boost about this time when I got a request from Henry Petty, my former boss at Petty & Croft, to meet him for lunch. Puzzled, I agreed and was flattered out of my skin to have Henry offer to become my partner in a joint Architectural practice with offices in Moorestown and Bucks County.
This was vindication indeed, and I took real pleasure in rejecting the offer. Now I knew I was a man among men and a factor to be reckoned with in my little world.
Then came June 16, 1966 and the end of that world.
Restored To Life
Dr. Getlen had changed my entire ways of living and thinking. I was now taking the full complement of vitamins and mineral supplements he pre-scribed and my food had changed from my traditional meat-and-potatoes regimen to one with green salads, fruits and vegetables. I no longer used salt, having learned to use honey as a substitute until the craving subsided.
I was a much healthier person, but years of injudicious and ignorant eating had taken their toll. Every life insurance company the local agents could find had rejected me because of high blood pressure and my work habits were, to say the least, the kind that made me the king of the Type A Personalities.
To work a straight 24 hours, living only on coffee and cigarettes was not unusual for me. On top of that I would often then drive to Harrisburg to personally submit the drawings for the project on which my office was working to the Department of Labor & Industry (which had jurisdiction) for code compliance approval.
I was the Iron Man who was going to live forever.
Then something broke.
In June of 1966 I began to feel as though a big hand was squeezing my chest. When I went to Dr. Getlen he examined me and prescribed heavy doses of Vitamin E. This didn’t seem to help, and in the early morning hours of June 16 Miriam had to call the ambulance and I was taken to Lower Bucks County Hospital with a severe heart attack — a myocardial infarction they called it.
Miriam tells me I lay between life and death for ten days while she and a few friends prayed for my life. I was completely unconscious, of course, but while I have no memory at all of what happened then, I feel certain that I underwent some kind of spiritual experience which prepared me for the rest of my life. I know that the man who came out of the hospital was not the same as the one who went in.
It occurs to me as I write this that the same thing may have happened to me as happened to Edgar Cayce when he tried to force his life into a path different from that for which he had incarnated. He had wanted, he thought, to be a professional photographer. Four times he fled from giving Readings, opening photography studios in various towns. Four times he was burned out. Finally he got smart and settled down to being a sleeping prophet.
I thought I wanted to be a rich, famous architect. I had incarnated for another reason and if it took drastic measures, those who were looking out for me were perfectly willing to use them. I had free will, of course, but I also had those who did their best to influence me in the way I chose my actions. Grudgingly I learned this lesson over the next 38 years. As the Pennsylvania Dutch adage says so well Ve grow too soon old and too late schmart!
In any case, I came out of the hospital and unwillingly settled down for a long, boring convalescence. In those years, after a heart attach like mine, one spent three months in the hospital and a slow three-month convalescence on blood-thinning drugs, The only therapy I remember was a daily walk.
I was in the grip of a fierce addiction, which has left its mark on me to this day with congenital heart failure and emphysema as well as a generally weakened system.
Only an amazingly strong genetic inheritance has preserved me this long. The addiction wrought havoc on my body every day until I was able eventually to throw it off, but its effects were to be with me for the remainder of my life.
During my enforced convalescence I was so enslaved to cigarette smoking that I couldn’t wait for Miriam to leave the house to do the necessary shopping or to go to the office (which was still functioning). As soon as she left I would sneak into the bathroom, open the window and light up one of my hidden cache of cigarettes. I was filled with shame and self-hatred at my weakness.
I did not recognize that I was as addicted to a fatal drug as any crackhead and more helpless in my addiction because society approved, rather than condemned, this drug. But I survived.
Finally the day came when I could go back to my office (on a half-day basis) and I found my people and Miriam had done wonders while I had been laid up. The office had functioned very well without me, and now I felt I would return to my world-beating ways and once again be the Lower Bucks County architectural kingpin.
I sat down at my desk and the phone started ringing. I felt an allover weakness and broke out in a cold sweat. The iron man was rusting away.
That was when I realized I could no longer continue, and had to leave my years of dedicated labor and find some other way to make a living. That meant going back to work for some other architect.
By now I was registered in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey, was an officer and a Director of the Bucks County Chapter of The American Institute Of Architects (AIA) and was well-known and respected in the local real estate and building industries with a well-deserved reputation among both clients and contractors as “tough but fair”. I felt that I would now be able to have my pick of jobs, and let it be known that I would soon be available.
Then another of my Guardian “coincidences” happened.
As a member of AIA I was automatically a member of The Pennsylvania Society Of Architects (PSA) and received their monthly publication The Charette. At breakfast in October I opened the latest issue and found a full-page ad for something that happened about once in a century.
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania had for many years spent millions of dollars on various projects for the building and alterations of various state facilities. The process had become so politically corruption-ridden that even the politicians couldn’t stomach it. They established an organization — the General State Authority (GSA) — to supervise the design and building process to keep the process honest. Very cleverly, though, they so designed it as to make it completely political from its appointed head to its appointed janitors. Naturally the corruption went right on, this time with an official organization to shield it from the public gaze.
The GSA had become such a stench that even the Legislature couldn’t take it, so they turned to the Executive Branch to rescue it. They authorized the Department Of Property & Supplies, through its Bureau of Engineering & Construction, to establish a Review Division of Registered Architects and Geological, Structural, Mechanical and Electrical Professional Engineers. The full complement was to be twelve highly capable and devoted professionals who would carefully and accurately review all the design work of all the architects and engineers retained by GSA to catch and reject the shoddy work being routinely approved by the political GSA hacks.
The ad in The Charette was for Registered Architects who would work in Harrisburg as full-time state Civil Service employees. When I saw the ad I said “That’s for me!”, and called the number given. I was asked to come to Harrisburg for an interview with the Director of the Bureau of Engineering & Construction, Leonard A. Domlesky.
Miriam and I took off for the interview with absolutely no question in the minds of either of us that I would not be given the job. We spent the night in a good hotel in Camp Hill, across the Susquehanna River from Harrisburg itself and the next morning found the offices of the Bureau in the Commonwealth Garage Building at 22nd & Walnut Streets in Harrisburg. I had a long meeting with Mr. Domlesky who probed my qualifications very carefully. This was a man, incidentally, for whom I grew to have immense respect as an executive, a political maneuverer and a thoroughly honest man. I cannot be too high in my praise for Leonard Domlesky. P.E.
One of the things which impressed me about the interview was Leonard’s questions: ”You have had your own practice for eight years. You are used to making all the decisions yourself. Do you think you can take orders as a subordinate? Do you think you can get along in an office with three other architects? Can you cooperate with engineers?”
My answers must have impressed him because he indicated that if everything else checked out in the state’s normal background investigation, I would be one of those considered for the position. The salary was fine — just what I had figured we needed for a decent living standard and the benefits as he outlined them were phenomenal. He had his secretary give me the employment application forms that I had to fill out and I left, sure the job was mine.
Back home in Levittown I filled the papers out and mailed them back. In a few days I got a call from one Bud Loy, the Division Chief of the new Review Division, telling me my application had been accepted and the job was mine. When, he asked, could I report to work?
The answer was difficult. I had the supervision of the Bristol Township Municipal Building construction to complete and several other projects to finish on the boards. Closing up the practice promised to be a slow, painful process.
“I don’t think I can be there before the middle of February or the first of March.” told him.
“Gee”, he said, “That’s too bad. You see, everybody on the payroll at the end of the year will automatically get a 5% pay raise!”
Always Mr. Big shot, I said “Too bad. I’ll just have to do without the raise.”
Miriam, who had heard my half of the conversation, snatched the phone out of my hand. “We’ll be there on December 31!” she told him firmly and hung up. Then she turned to me and said “We’ll close up here and be in Harrisburg on December 31 and start the New Year right!”
And we were and we did.
The hardest job in my life, it seemed, was to throw away what had taken me all my adult life to create. Closing my practice meant abandoning my success in an honored profession and acceptance in my community for an unknown, menial, subservient role in the restricted confines of a governmental unit.
The physical part was hard enough. Disposing of all the original drawings of all my projects and the associated hundreds of files, the reference books and catalogs, the chairs, drafting boards and tables and the supplies tore me apart, but much worse was the mental disposal of what they stood for.
However, with my staunch helpmate at my side we managed and the offices of Martin M. Laibow, RA, AIA stood empty and deserted. I did keep one drafting table — the same one I had put up in my bedroom on that Monday morning of June 1, 1958 when I started my practice. It went with me wherever I went for the next 25 years.
The day after Christmas, 1966, Miriam and I left the house in Levittown for the last time and moved our personal belongings in two suitcases to find a new life in South Central Pennsylvania and the Susquehanna River valley.
I was not exactly a stranger to the Harrisburg area. I had been personally taking submissions to the Building Inspection Division of the Department of Labor & Industry for approval of compliance with the state’s Building Code and, in the process, had become as familiar with that code and its interpretation as anyone in the state. With my familiarity with the local roads, I found a mobile home park where we rented a singlewide unit until we could find permanent quarters.
On the morning of December 31, 1966 I drove to the office of the Personnel Section of the Dept. of Property & Supplies in the Capitol Building (as I had been directed to do), filled in the multiplicity of forms and was given directions to my new place of work, the Commonwealth Garage Building.
As I was leaving, a very pleasant woman who had been filling out forms next to me asked if I could take her to the same building. It turned out she was the secretary for the new division, and she and I established a very fine rapport which lasted for all the years I worked for the Commonwealth.
We walked together into the building which housed the Bureau of Engineering and Construction and into the windowless cavern which was the office of the Review Division. Bud Loy, Chief of the Division, sprang up from his desk and greeted us. He introduced us to the five engineers who at that moment comprised the Review Division, showed the secretary and me our desks and began to tell me about the new Division and its purposes.
The new life had begun.
The original legislation and budget for this division had projected a total personnel of 12 technical people — four Architects, a Geological Engineer, two Electrical Engineers, three Structural Engineers and two Mechanical Engineer (we termed ourselves The Dirty Dozen).
Since nothing in any bureaucracy, public or private, ever works out as planned, we never achieved the magic 12, but seemed to standardize at about 7. But we were without doubt the most effective organization of watchdogs of the public monies that any government could have devised.
This group had been activated only a short time before, so when I joined we were beginning to coalesce into a team. We (and most of those who joined us in the coming months) became close personal friends as well as professional colleagues.
We bonded into a team such as I have never seen among architects and engineers who are usually as natural enemies as cats and dogs.
Into this close-knit little community of equals I fit like a hand into a glove. We were all high achievers, highly skilled in our professions and imbued with a strong sense of protecting the hard-earned tax money of the taxpayers of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. We shared a mutual bond of suspicion of all politicians and a dislike of the fat and lazy feeders at the public trough of the GSA whose policymakers and reviewers we viewed with loathing and suspicion. They in their turn feared us, saw us as a threat to their little political empire and tried their best to undermine us and eventually to have us disbanded.
The warfare was undisclosed and undeclared. It reached from their top Director to our chief, the Director of the Bureau of Engineering & Construction. It was particularly galling to the GSA people that they were mere political appointees, subject to firing at any change of administration, without Civil Service protection or benefits and whose organization was not a part of state government, but merely an ancillary creation of the legislature.
We, on the other hand, were protected from the vagaries of politics by virtue of our Civil Service status and benefits and as part of a constitutional branch of government, not subject to the whims of any legislature.
The tension between the reviewers of the two organizations was particularly tight at every review when we, who had carefully and accurately done our jobs, and the GSA people who had barely looked at the drawings and specifications, sat down with the retained architects and engineers of any particular (state-funded) project with our long laundry list of deficiencies and requirements for correction.
We had two wonderful men to thank for our ability to do our jobs honestly and without fear of reprisal. Leonard A. Domlesky, the Director of our bureau, was a Professional Engineer and a political infighter of long experience. He was an extremely honest (and honorable) man who made one requirement of us: Be sure you’re right in what you do! When we were, he backed us right up to the governor himself, if necessary. The other was our first Division Chief, Bud Loy.
Bud was also a Professional Engineer, cut from the same cloth as Leonard Domlesky. Honest, decent, dedicated and thoroughly capable both as an engineer and an administrator, he was a pleasure to work for.
I grew very quickly to enjoy everything about my job and the people with whom I shared the close quarters and professional relations and the next 13 years were, as I examine them now, the finest of my entire life up to that time.
I had indeed died in the heart attack of 1966, had been reborn in Harrisburg in 1967 and would live not one but four new lives at the same time for the rest of my life to come!
The Stelle Group
Back in 1954, while I had been working for Petty & Croft in Moorestown, New Jersey, I had come across the book There Is A River by Thomas Sugrue about Edgar Cayce. That book had set up a firestorm in my mind which would lead to a lifetime of investigation and searching into the root causes of the human condition. In Harrisburg, in 1967, that search took on a new impetus and urgency through a series of events that seemed haphazard and unconnected. As my whole life has shown, nothing happens by accident.
As part of the integration into our new life in Pennsylvania’s capitol city, we had become involved with a group of eclectic searchers called Spiritual Frontiers Fellowship which met at the Market Street Methodist Church. Its membership embraced a wide variety of people, most of whom had no idea what they were searching for, but who knew intuitively that their birth religions had only part of the answers.
Among the active members were the assistant minister of the church, Malcolm Carnahan, and his wife Joanna.
One of the members of the group lent me a paperback book which impressed me very much. It wasThe Ultimate Frontier whose author had the improbable name of Eklal Keshana. It purported to be the life story of a man who had been visited by Dr. White, an other-worldly figure who had given Keshana the mission of creating a new group based on the old legend of the continent of Mu and its Lemurian civilization.
Keshana was to build a new, temporary city of Stelle until a series of cataclysms would overcome the earth in 2004 and a new island would emerge from the Pacific Ocean off the by-then submerged coast of California. The inhabitants and their city of Stelle, together with its structures, would be airlifted to the new island and there they would take up the culture, civilization and life-style of the predecessor Lemuria in a kind of latter-day Utopia.
There was just enough similarity to the predictions of Edgar Cayce of a vast world apocalypse in 2004, when “…the greater part of Japan would be destroyed by earthquakes and much of California would slide into the sea…” to give it verisimilitude in my eyes.
I mentioned this book to Malcom Carnahan one day and, to my amazement, he told me that not only did he know the author, but that he (Malcolm) was going to Chicago the following week to a meeting of The Stelle Group, of which he was a member.
Immediately I asked if I could go along. I offered to drive Malcolm, Joanna and his children in my Cadillac to save him the travel fares. He accepted, I made arrangements for leave at the office and that weekend we took off for one of the most interesting periods in my life.
Sunday afternoon we arrived in Chicago in time for the weekly meeting of he Stelle Group in a rented storefront, and Malcolm introduced me to the very personable leader of the group, Eklal Keshana himself, whose actual name was
Richard Keininger. Miriam and I were enthralled and listened eagerly as Richard (he preferred to be called only by his first name) laid out for his disciples his vision of what Stelle would be and the way they must live to achieve it.
Many of his followers, mostly eager young Idealists anxious for a brave new world, lived with Richard, his lovely young wife and infant daughter, in a rambling old house on Chicago’s North side. We spent Sunday night there and Monday joined The Stelle Group as active (and the oldest) participants. I offered my services as an architect and quickly became a mainspring in the affairs of the organization.
Soon I found myself commuting from Harrisburg to Chicago almost every weekend by TWA. I decided to stop this nonsense and get a job in Chicago so I could devote more time to active participation in the Group. I had no doubt about my ability to be hired by any one of Chicago’s many architectural firms, but I found, to my amazement and anger, that there was not to be any move to Chicago. Malcolm had by this time given up his pastorate in Harrisburg, found work in Chicago and moved his family to an apartment (which I had found for him) and yet I, with a profession and a reputation, could not find work.
Now I know that there were good reasons behind my failure to find work in Chicago, not the least of which was the future exposure of Richard as a failed member of the Lemurian Mystery School and the collapse of his leadership of The Stelle Group. In the meantime, I started work on the designs for the City of Stelle and its first factory.
Richard had predicted that when the cataclysms arrived in 2004 that vast earthquakes would shake the entire world, including central Illinois, but he said that the geology of the area was such that it would enable properly designed structures to ride out the seismic shocks and still be in shape to be airlifted to the new island off the former California coast. He had acquired acreage (from what source the money came I never knew) in Ford County, about 25 miles south of Kankakee, for the site of the City of Stelle.
This was my first assignment — to design an earthquake-resistant structure which could also be sufficiently portable to be disassembled and transported by helicopter 1800 miles to a newly-risen island in the Pacific Ocean. It was a project even more daunting than that which faced Frank Lloyd Wright in the design of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. After all, nobody was going to relocate the Imperial Hotel to a new island off the coast of Indonesia!
Fortunately another member of The Stelle Group was a Swiss civil engineer who had a deep knowledge of seismic structural design, so he and I formed a working team which created a structure which I believe met the requirements for resistance to earthquake forces,. My ingenuity met the challenge of designing a building to withstand the punishing rigors of the Midwest climate, contain within itself its industrial noises and maintain portability as Richard’s criteria had demanded. At the same time as I was struggling with this demanding design I was designing the entire City of Stelle and its individual specialty structures to Richard’s ever-changing demands.
Construction now began, and my worries began to escalate. Richard had decided that the young and eager members of the group were to move to the site , live in the old abandoned farmhouse and perform the actual construction.
I was horrified, since the laying out of the foundations, setting up the forms and mixing and pouring the concrete were not jobs for amateurs who scarcely knew one end of a shovel from the other. But I was to be surprised and astonished at how well and how quickly the work went.
I think now that Richard quickly grew to resent me and my refusal simply to look on him as the all-knowing Guru of everything. One Saturday morning it came to a head.
I met alone with him after a particularly frustrating meeting with what purported to be the Building Committee, but which was in reality a rubberstamp of Richard’s desires. I remember telling him “In everything about The Stelle Group and Dr. White, you are Eklal Kashana, and I will listen to you and agree with you, but when it comes to architecture and design, You are Richard Keininger, and that’s my business and I want you to keep out of it!”
That was the point at which my relationship with The Stelle Group ended. I stopped commuting to Chicago, gave up all thoughts of Chicago employment and turned my back on every thing connected with anything but the here, the now and the physical. No more Spiritual Frontiers Fellowship, no more Edgar Cayce, no more nothin’!
That was when I saw the ad in theHarrisburg Patriot-News about classes in painting.
The Good Years
For the first three months of our new life we lived in the tiny trailer accommodating ourselves to a new place, new people and above all a new way of living. Gone were the 24-hour, 7-day weeks; gone were the relentless deadline pressures of clients insistent on only their own priorities. Gone too was the constant competition within myself to be bigger, better, richer. Quite literally, my heart was no longer in it.
The pace in government was different and so were the pressures. Each day began at 8:45 and ended at 4:45. Lunchtime was an unimpeded 45-minute break.
Nobody rushed, yet the work got done.
My first day at the office was illustrative. About 11 in the morning I was taken aside by Jack Brogan, one of our Structural Engineers and asked, “Why do you rush up and down the office? Who’s chasing you?”
I suddenly realized this was my normal pace. I immediately started noticing things like that and right then and there began to slow down to the pace of a normal human being. It was hard for a compulsive competitor like me to do, but my damaged heart muscle helped considerably.
Miriam and I found a one-bedroom apartment in a new complex being built at 40th & Market Streets, just east of downtown Harrisburg. The house in Levittown we thought we had left empty and to be sold turned out to have a different value.
Our son, David, had by now graduated from Temple University in Philadelphia and was looking to find a field in which he could be happy and make a decent living.
He tried several things, then decided to free-lance in advertising.
The house was a perfect solution to his needs just then, and he moved in. Even though he was living rent-free and I was still paying the mortgage, utilities and taxes it was a benefit for me to have the house occupied just in case this new job didn’t work out. I was, after all, a probationary employee for the first 6 months and even I didn’t know how I would adapt to this new job.
The supervision of construction of the new Bristol Township Building also fell into place. I would drive from Harrisburg to Levittown every Saturday, and I made arrangements with the General Contractor for him to meet me then. If the weather was good, we (Miriam always went with me) returned to Harrisburg the same day; if not, we had a place to stay in our old house.
Quickly I became used to the quiet pace of this south-central Pennsylvania area.
It is famous as the home of the Pennsylvania Dutch whose best-known representatives are the Old Amish, who drive horse-drawn buggies, farm without mechanized equipment, have no buttons on their clothing and live their 18th century lives quietly and successfully in the hectic 20th and 21st centuries. This peaceful area was to be our homes and the focus of our spiritual lives as well for the next twenty years.
Miriam adjusted wonderfully well. Her amazing facility to make friends with everyone everywhere we went was nowhere better shown than here in Harrisburg.
Left alone all day long, without transportation (I took the car to work every day) she decided to turn her skills in typing and filing to advantage and took on part-time work as a Kelly Girl and a White Gloves Lady. And thereon hangs a funny story.
She worked at this off and on for several years and had her own bank account in which she deposited her paychecks. Our old black-and-white television (yes, the same one we had bought in 1950) finally died. Miriam offered to pay for the replacement out of her own money, since I had paid for everything ever since we had married. So off we went to Bowman’s, a local department store, to buy her offering.
We (I) picked out the set, another black-and-white, which was the size we wanted and stood at the counter ready to pay. I turned to Miriam and said, “Well, give the lady the money!”
She reached in her purse, took out her checkbook, stood there as though hypnotized and finally, choked up and through tears, said “I can’t do it. I can’t spend my money!”
So I wound up paying for the new television set after all. That’s what being a professional husband is all about.
Old habits die hard. As soon as I settled into the routine of the new position and applied my mental abilities to its requirements, I began to look for more to keep me occupied. Another door opened because of this trait.
Jack Brogan, the young Structural Engineer of whom I have spoken, mentioned one day in my first year on the job that he was teaching at Penn State University’s local Middletown campus in their Continuing Education (evening) course.
I felt that if Brogan could teach, so could I. I took myself over to the University’s office and found that they welcomed me as an Adjunct Professor of Architecture. So I, who had failed miserably the one year of college I had attempted 36 years before, found myself in academe as a college professor.
As a side note, I was renewed every year for the next ten years until 1977, when the University’s (then) inflexible rule of retirement at age 65 forced them to end my tenure.
In any case, I was beginning to fit into my new career with great enjoyment and ease. Our Division’s staff had increased in early 1967 with the addition of two more architects, and for the first time in my life I was in a close professional association with men whose abilities I respected and whom I liked personally. I think that was the start of a whole different feeling in my internal workings.
We were as happy as we had ever been. The pressures of trying to prove myself to myself were eased; the work load was no longer brutally savage and both the competitive and financial pressures had vanished. We were even beginning to save a little each month!
My supervisors were fine, decent men who asked only that I be correct in my evaluations of the work I was reviewing. Life was good
I must go back a little in time now to bring something into focus. Back in 1954, when I was working for Petty & Croft in Micklewright & Mountford’s Trenton office on the Burlington County Office Building job, I had the idea of buying a piano. I thought that perhaps I could learn to play and maybe even the children would be
interested in learning, too. So Miriam and I went over to a lady’s house who was an agent for pianos in Levittown, to see what she could do for us.
As it turned out, she was also a representative for Wurlitzer electronic organs. I was intrigued by the simple fact that when you took your finger off a piano key the sound diminished and vanished, but the sound from the organ continued as long as you held your finger on the key.
Images of Hayes Watson and the Mighty Wurlitzer Organ at the Warner Theater in Atlantic City of my high school days filled my head, and I bought a spinet organ for $1,600 — an unthinkable amount of money for us in those days.
I really worked hard at it, but Lorna Jack (the teacher/piano/organ salesperson) was a very poor teacher who had a mad idea that she could transform me into a concert organist. As a result, the organ sat unused for a number of years until the move to Harrisburg.
Now I determined to learn to play this instrument really well. With plenty of leisure time and mental ease, I began to look for a local teacher.
Dave Cooper, a young man who was a phenomenal organist had become the local Wurlitzer organ dealer and was advertising classes. I signed up and began years of struggling with what I came to learn as the good artist-bad teacher syndrome.
Dave was far too advanced for my poor skills, so he had other people serve as my teachers.
Week after week I struggled with them and week after week I became more and more convinced that I had absolutely no musical ability or sense of rhythm and that I was a fool to continue to throw away money and energy on this stupid pursuit. But I had the investment in the organ and I had my stubborn pride.
Thinking that perhaps the Wurlitzer spinet was inadequate for what I was doing, I traded it for a Gulbransen with a semicircular console (just like the big movie ones) but even that didn’t help, so once again an expensive electronic toy sat unused in our living room.
Every weekend we took the Pennsylvania Turnpike to Levittown to supervise the final construction of the Bristol Township Municipal Building, until its completion and dedication in June of 1967. After that, life fell into an easy and comfortable rut and my restless spirit became bored again.
One evening in September of 1967, when I was 54 years old, I saw an ad in The Harrisburg Patriot-News announcing painting classes at The Art Association Of Harrisburg.
My boredom suggested to me that maybe this would be something exciting and that I could do. After all, my older brother Jules had attended the Fleisher School of Art in Philadelphia many years before and had become something of an artist, so if he could do it, maybe I could too. I told Miriam about it and she enthusiastically agreed. Then she told me of a secret yearning of hers.
In all the years we had lived in and around Philadelphia, every time Podger’s, the big downtown art supply store, had had a sale, Miriam would stop in an buy a few things. She had no idea what she was buying, but she bought brushes, palettes, pigments, medium, canvases — everything on sale. Now, like a blushing bride displaying
her trousseau, she brought out her hidden trove of painting supplies and laid it before me
Proudly I took her booty and enrolled in the oil-painting class with absolutely no idea of what was involved or, certainly, where it would take me on my life’s journey.
It opened doors to realms of which I had never even dreamed and in which I would live for much of the rest of my life.
The oil-painting classes did little for me except to excite a curiosity in me about this new interest. However, the teacher, like so many others I was to encounter, was totally inadequate in giving me any idea of what this was all about.
I quickly became disenchanted, and was about to give up the whole idea when someone suggested I try the watercolor classes being taught by Nick Ruggieri, a famous local artist who was the Art Director of the Harrisburg Patriot-News, the local news media.
And that changed everything.
The Art Association of Harrisburg had been founded by a group of local artists (including Nick Ruggieri) in an alley in downtown Harrisburg in 1926. By 1967 it had become the focus of social life for both the old and new money of south-central Pennsylvania.
The founding artists found themselves on the outskirts of the organization with socialites making up most of the Board of Directors and officers. Its running had been taken over by a very dynamic and active lady whose husband was an important local banker.
Under the powerful regime of Mary McEnroy Sheffer the Association flourished as never before. Exhibitions, demonstrations by nationally-known artists, fundraisers, concerts and a wide array of art classes in all the media made the Art Association a vital part of the Harrisburg cultural scene. The classes in Watercolor Painting in particular were known all over the area, and those few lucky enough to study under Nick Ruggieri himself were the elite of the art students. Many of his students had become well-known watercolorists themselves.
It was in this class, without any knowledge either of the medium or of Ruggieri that I enrolled in the spring of 1968.
The class was held each Monday night in the basement of The Art Association Building on Front Street in downtown Harrisburg. The Association’s building had been the home of one of Pennsylvania’s earlier governors and had nothing except local snobbishness and location to recommend it. The basement was very narrow, quite long and very poorly lighted.
Forty folding chairs were jammed into tight rows; the students juggled their pencils, pads, palettes, paints, water and brushes on their laps and on the floor at their feet while the teacher (Nick) showed the evening’s subject by slide projector on a screen in the darkened room.
A worse environment in which to learn how to be an artist I cannot imagine, yet this is the way it had been for many years, and from this had come a number of highly competent watercolor artists.
I sat down on one of the chairs, armed only with a pad of watercolor paper and a pencil. Glancing to the lady at my right I saw her start to sketch the old pump shown on the slide on the screen. Her pencil zipped across her paper faster than I could follow and I was filled with the old competitive spirit from my days of typing classes back in the Depression. If this female can do it, by golly, I can do it too — and better!
I neither knew nor cared that this female was Sadie Shaffer, one of the bright stars of the local art scene who had been studying with Nick for years . All I knew was that whatever she was doing, I had to do too. So out of sheer frustration and male chauvinism I began to devote myself to the single-minded purpose to becoming a Watercolor Painter.
I threw myself not only into the pursuit of painting, but into the affairs of the Art Association and suddenly, quite innocently, found myself in the middle of a ferocious battle for control of the organization.
By the winter of 1968 Nick Ruggieri found his classes had become so large that he had to have a larger space that the Art Association could furnish. He leased a church basement, moved his students there and took on Ann Fitzpatrick as an assistant teacher. He also decided to challenge the control of the Association by Mary Sheffer and her socialites and return it to the artists.
I had, by this time, by virtue of my big mouth, become known on a first-name basis to Nick, and he enlisted me in his effort. I knew absolutely nothing of the underlying tensions, rivalries or personalities in the struggle for control, and allowed myself to become an unwitting catspaw in the contest. I was convinced that Mary Sheffer was an evil woman with despotic tendencies who wanted the Association only to further her own demonic ambitions.
The contest came to a head at the Annual Membership Meeting in May of 1969.
By a very close vote the Sheffer slate won and Nick and several members of his class resigned. I did not, and I am glad I didn’t because it gave me some excellent opportunities to further my careers as an artist and even as a diplomat.
But more was happening in Harrisburg in those quiet years, too, which redirected a whole other facet of my life.
No Strain, No Pain
Looking at the thirteen years of my employment with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and our life in beautiful south-central Pennsylvania it seems that those were the happiest, least stressful days of my life.
The pressures that had seemed a normal part of my life, the need to succeed, to outstrip everyone, to prove myself as equal to and, indeed, superior to everyone in my family and my professional life no longer existed. There was nothing to be gained by working extra hours and by reaching artificial deadlines. I was accepted by my peers, valued by my superiors and had an established place in my chosen arena of work.
Our Review Division of the Bureau of Engineering and Construction was quickly recognized, even by those who resented us the most, as an honest and incorruptible branch of the state government. We found that our competency was beginning to be used in ways much beyond the imagination of those who had been active in our founding.
The original conception of our Division had been purely that of a group of nonpolitical professionals in the various branches of architecture and engineering vital to the design and construction of building projects connected with state-owned and state-related institutions. Our combined expertise would be used to review the work of outside architectural and engineering firms retained to design those structures.
The selection of these design professionals was completely a political process, and many of them considered their state work only a means of making money.
Some had neither the ability nor the desire to do an honest, capable job and their submissions in particular were the ones we policed with the greatest care. In the process, we saved the taxpayers of the Commonwealth untold amounts of money and vastly improved the quality of the building projects.
Our final permanent division consisted of eleven people. We had six engineers — one geological, two structural, two electrical and one mechanical — three architects, the Division Chief and a secretary. We functioned like a well-oiled machine, with no friction, no disagreements and no professional jealousy.
We coordinated our work so well that when we went into the plan reviews with the retained designers and the GSA reviewers, any attempts by the others to attack or discredit any of our architectural comments by quoting alleged discrepancies with our engineers’ comments always failed. Before too long the retained designers and their GSA political allies began to respect — and fear — our division and its watchdog attitude.
One example stands out in my mind. We had at that time as secretary of Property & Supplies (our big boss) one Perrin C. Hamilton, a political hack (weren’t they all?) who was upset that I had rejected outright a major building design submission by one of his pet political architectural firms.
I was forthwith haled before his august majesty in the Capitol building downtown, accompanied by my Bureau Chief, Leonard Domlesky. Leonard didn’t question my decision, except to ask me if I had the facts to back up my rejection. Upon my assuring him I had, he accepted it and said no more when we sat down in the office of the panjandrum.
Mr. Hamilton glared at me and in his best inquisitorial manner barked at me
“Why did you reject this fine design?” Completely unfazed, I replied “Because it would have collapsed, that’s why. It had no visible means of support!”
Mr. Hamilton, paled, gulped once or twice and said in a barely audible voice “You can go now. I’ll look into this later.”
The design was revised as I, and our structural engineer had required and resubmitted.
This time, I am pleased to say, it was accepted and built.
Actually, after our first year of operation we had very little overt difficulty from any of the three normal sources of subterranean opposition — the political designers, the politicians in the Legislature and the architectural and engineering political hacks in the General State Authority. We were good at our jobs, did them efficiently and upheld the finest traditions of our professions to the extent that we began to hear comments from other departments how much they wished they too had something like our division in their own shops. We were proud of that.
We began to find that other departments of state government were requesting our services to inspect existing facilities and report on pending projects in various areas of the state. Even members of the Legislature were requesting our expertise in areas we had never thought to be involved.
As an example, a large six-story department store in downtown Erie had closed its doors in the city and relocated to a mall outside of town. The state senator from that area had requested that our department investigate the utility of the facility for a future State Office Building, and a team — I, as Architect, structural engineer Jack Brogan, and electrical engineer Lefty Schafer, — drove from Harrisburg to Erie to examine the structure for its fitness as a state office facility.
We carefully examined the entire building from basement to roof. We looked at its physical parameters, its lighting and electric facilities, its mechanical, air-conditioning and heating equipment and spent several hours debating its utility for use for offices for state government departments . When we left the building in the late afternoon we were met by the state senator himself flanked by reporters and cameramen for the local print and TV media.
I, as the Architect, was the leader and spokesman of our team so I was the one to dodge the questions and play dumb. I did a fast verbal dance while smiling into the cameras, leaving the situation to be resolved by the politicos in Harrisburg. I didn’t indicate in the slightest that we had already made up our report and that the building was completely wrong for subdivision into office spaces. The ceiling heights were too great, the heating and air-conditioning modification too expensive and the floor layouts needed too much demolition and reconstruction to comply with the Life Safety Code requirements for an office building.
While our division was gaining respect from other departments for our expertise, we were being attacked from another direction. The architects, engineers and contractors, together with their political cronies who had traditionally fed from the common trough of political corruption connected with building design and construction were angered at the temerity of the reformers who were depriving them of their ability to do poor work for high profits, so we found ourselves in a strange position.
While the Commonwealth was continuing with its programs of design and building, very little of this work was being referred to us for review. There was even talk of merging us with the inept and dysfunctional GSA or of disbanding our group. A period of nothing to do set in during which we reported for work every day, got our paychecks twice a month and had very little to occupy our minds.
This period I put to good use. Even though my experience with the Stelle Group and Richard Keininger had turned me away from considerations of anything beyond the purely physical, I still had a deep underlying curiosity about the real purpose of Life.
With no real basis for it, I began to write — by hand on yellow legal pads — what quickly seemed to become a book to which I gave the presumptuous title of A Guide For The Search. Our secretary, also going mad with nothing to do every day, was very happy to transcribe my handwritten manuscript into impeccable typescript in triplicate, no less. Thirty-seven years later, that book, after undergoing countless rewritings and revisions, is still not completed. The Search goes on.
Meanwhile my life outside the office was going on in a way that it never had before. We had been in the apartment at 40th and Market Streets for about two years when we began to look for something different. Financially we were becoming better off than we had ever been, so we decided we wanted someplace better to live.
When we had first moved to the Harrisburg area and had started driving around the countryside, we noticed that almost every signpost had “Hummelstown” as a destination. Curious to see what this Hummelstown might be, we found it to be a charming small community tucked into the hills of Dauphin County, about 8 miles east of Harrisburg, but with good roads that would make commuting to my office easy.
The business district was two blocks long, with a small diner, a book store, a drug store, a small food store and a jeweler interspersed between old houses with barns and storage buildings in their copious back yards — a genuine small town of a bygone America. We fell under its spell at once.
Midway up a road on a steep hill we found a row of houses under construction whose monthly rental was well within our means, so we rented one on Peggy Drive and settled in to a life of calmness and tranquility.
Our neighbors were an eclectic mix of retired farmers, state workers and small business people, all of whom were decent and honest and had (to us) the outstanding virtue of minding their own business.
From this place I continued to expand my life. I became very involved in The Art Association of Harrisburg, Nick Ruggieri’s watercolor classes every Monday evening and the friends we made both through my associates at work and through the art classes.
My associates at the GSA Review Division were an interesting group in their own right and as professional colleagues. They and I became as close as any family.
I was the first architect hired, and two weeks later S. Harrison Gardner, a Philadelphia architect, joined the group. A week or so later our architectural complement was completed with Russell Long, who had had his own architectural practice in Tamaqua, a small community in the coal regions of northeast Pennsylvania.
Harry, Russ and I were of a similar age but with widely varying backgrounds. We meshed in a marvelous way, with absolutely no professional jealousy in a way I would have considered impossible and unbelievable. I would imagine that it may have been because we had reached a point in our professional careers where we didn’t need to prove anything to ourselves or to anyone else, and we could be comfortable in our skins and with our peers.
The three of us worked in a large, well lighted outside room across the hall from the cavern originally selected as the office space for the Division in 1966. This space, large and well-lighted though it was, was without any natural light and it could be claustrophobic for someone like myself. Our engineers had their desks there.
Leonard Domlesky and Bud Loy had done their selecting well. The engineers in their various disciplines — Phil Butler, geology, Lefty Shafer, electrical, Jack Brogan and Don Tachenbaugh, structural, C.B. Connor, mechanical — were not only thoroughly capable, but had the same high standards about our work and the same contempt for the sleazy reviews of our opposite numbers at the GSA as we architects.
We were a team without any friction, jealousy or resentments. For a layman who has never worked in an architectural/engineering environment, this may seem to be a strange statement, but the backbiting, lack of coordination and attempts to sabotage the work of the other disciplines that goes on must be experienced to be believed. We had none of that.
We were so well integrated that we were not only professional colleagues and coworkers but close personal friends as well. We lunched together, celebrated birthdays and holidays together and even socialized our families together. Not only did we work together, we liked and respected each other. As George Gobel used to say in his comedy routine “You don’t hardly git that no more!”
At Nick Ruggieri’s watercolor classes I was no longer an uncomfortable stranger.
I was one of the group, doing as well as many, better than most but trying hard to learn everything I could about this frustrating, yet oddly satisfying adventure into a completely new world.
I felt that Nick was a marvelous artist and even the few seconds he would spend with each of us (there were always at least 40 members in his Monday night classes) were to be cherished and the lessons remembered. I was too new at the entire art scene to be aware that Nick was typical of most artists who became teachers — the better the artist, it seemed, the worse the teacher.
It was not until I had become a teacher of painting myself a few years later that I found out why. The individual artist has spent much of his life learning how to be a painter, and in some cases, how to be an artist, but very, very few of them had spent even one second learning how to teach — to transmit their wealth of information to their students.
I also was very active in the affairs of the Art Association of Harrisburg, filling the positions in various years of Chairman of the Exhibition Committee and of the Demonstration Committee. I quickly became known not only to our local artists but also to the nationally-known artists whom we invited to give demonstration of their techniques to our members and, in some cases, to give workshops.
It was not long before I was invited by Mary Sheffer to be a member of the Art Association’s Board of Directors, and in that position I was on an equal footing with some of the oldest and most social names in the Harrisburg social hierarchy of old money. It was here that I overheard a colloquy that illustrated to me the sort of stratosphere in which I found myself accepted:
A maiden lady of one of the old families, a Miss Walzer, was at one of our exhibitions when a relative newcomer to the social scene said to her, rather plaintively,
“I’ve lived here in Harrisburg for 25 years and we’re still not completely accepted in Harrisburg society. How long do I have to live here for that, anyway?”
Miss Walzer, with perfect sang-froid, said “Longer than you’ve lived here, Dearie!”
Miriam and I were accepted because we were not interested in being accepted or being part of the social scene. We were courteous, pleasant and, after any Association affair, went our own way, Since we posed no threat to the establishment, we slid into place as though we were in fact old Harrisburg society money.
But ambition was burning inside me and my life took a new and unexpected twist.
Growth And Progress
Now that we were active participants in the artistic (and to the degree that we wanted) in the rarified social life of Pennsylvania’s historic capitol city, one would have thought that I would be satisfied, but not Martin! It seems that all my life no sooner had I reached one goal but that I reached for another.
Surely Robert Browning had me in mind when he wrote in Rabbi Ben Ezra: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for!”
My paintings were beginning to sell (a little bit) and even to attract some attention from a few collectors. Filled with vainglory I began to enter my work in the Juried Exhibitions of the Art Association, and was infuriated at their uniform rejection.
It didn’t help that I accused the judges of bias or artistic ignorance. I knew that they were right and my work was not good enough to be accepted. Fortunately, this only spurred me to work harder at becoming a better painter. With the help of Ann Fitzpatrick, Nick’s assistant (and not a bad) teacher with whom I established a very close personal relationship, I slowly began to become an artist, as well as just a painter.
In 1972, after 5 years of apprenticeship and much destruction of paints and watercolor paper, I was accepted in my first Juried Show.
This recognition by experts did not slake my ambition. It only redirected it a little. Now, instead of wanting to have my work accepted I began to consider myself cheated when I didn’t get awards.
I began to study in earnest what the judges were looking for when they gave awards, and I discovered that without exception they were looking for paintings which communicated what the painter was feeling to what he wanted the viewer to feel.
This was the beginning of my development from painter/technician to Artist. My whole artistic philosophy and career as a successful artist and teacher of watercolor painting derived from this discovery — one which most amateur painters (and many professionals) never make.
At this time I began what I think has been the most rewarding thing in my life.
With no real reason other than an innate desire to pass on what I found to be so refreshing and exciting to me, I started to teach Watercolor Painting to anyone who would listen to me.
My first student was Edie Cefilli, a young married woman who lived next door to us on Peggy Drive in Hummelstown. Edie had been born in Germany and had no real skills, but she had become a waitress with such a shining personality that she easily made (and this was in 1970!) $600 on a weekend in tips at a local country club.
Edie, bored by her dull life in this (to her) backwater leaped at the idea of learning watercolor painting, and soon was spending all day absorbing and practicing what I was able to teach her.
I remember vividly the evening I came home from work and Edie, who had been waiting anxiously for my arrival, rushed into our house as I walked in and cried “Martin, you’ve got to show me how to make water!”
That became a standard story for me to tell my students for many years to come.
Edie persisted and, while she never became a professional or sold her paintings, she satisfied her personal feeling of growth . I was proud of what I had in effect created. It is the greatest reward any teacher in any subject can have.
I started to teach a few friends, some of whom remain dear friends to this day, particularly Colleen McCann, Ed Cannard and Ruth Albert, both of whom studied with me for the many years I remained in the Harrisburg area. Even after my retirement from the State government in 1980 and our travels for the next seven years, they were my faithful students in the spring and fall between our peregrinations to Cape May, NJ in the summer and Sarasota and Naples, Florida in our motor home each winter.
My involvement in the affairs of The Art Association of Harrisburg became deeper and soon I was elected to the Board of Directors where I served for a number of years. I became more and more an important factor in the organization, and in some ways served as a bridge over the deep gap between the old guard of original artist founders of the group and the socialites, headed by Mary Sheffer who, in the eyes of the artists, had usurped their legitimate place and taken over the artists’ organization. Since I, an outsider and newcomer, was not held by any links to either side, I could pass between the two factions without being identified with either.
My status as an artist was improving, too, and with it my fame as a teacher was growing. All in all, I was achieving what I had never before had. I was being respected — not only by others, but also for the first time in my life, by myself too,
Hurricane Agnes settled upon Pennsylvania in June. 1972 and dumped more rain in three days than in any comparable time before. The entire state was flooded with damages in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
All normal work was suspended in our division and we were divided into teams of architects and engineers to cover the state and investigate reports of flood-created damage to property owned by the state, counties and any municipalities affected.
In the process of traveling over the state there were a couple of interesting stories, which remain in my memory:
We received a report of flood damage to the Municipal Building of Irwin, a suburb of Pittsburgh. When we arrived at the 5-story building we could detect no signs of flooding in the ground-floor police department nor anywhere else in the building.
Meeting with the mayor, he told us the Council Meeting Room on the fifth floor had been gutted by the flood. Curious to see this phenomenon, we went with him to the top floor, and sure enough the meeting room was a shambles, with a soggy carpet, buckled floor, soaked chairs and a collapsed ceiling and roof.
I, as the spokesman, asked “How could you have a flood up here when your lower floors didn’t have a drop of water from this ’flood’?”
Without blinking an eye he replied, “Well, the rain flooded the roof. That’s what made the roof fall in, so this is flood damage!”
He was very incensed when I told him it didn’t qualify and he would not be getting any state money.
Contrasted with this was the attitude of the municipal officials in a little town in Washington County, in the extreme southwest corner of the state abutting West Virginia.
The report we had was that the furnace, which sat in a pit under their town hall, had been flooded and the motor needed replacement. When we asked to see the furnace, the mayor (?) told us they had replaced the motor themselves the week before and “we don’t want no damn’ gov’mint money!’ The contrast with the greed of Irwin’s mayor was heartening.
That same flood brought me back into a part of my life which I thought I was no longer involved, but in which for the remainder of my time with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was to occupy almost all of my time and professional life.
The Mansion of the Governor of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was a perfect example of the ineptitude and corruption that had led to the establishment of our Division.
Located on a piece of swampland on Front Street in uptown Harrisburg, it was subject to flooding every time someone spit in the Susquehanna River which flowed by its back door.
Designed by a political architect, built by a political contractor and with its construction overseen by the completely political GSA, it was a classic example of bad design, poor construction, unrecorded change orders and inadequate supervision. Even its supposedly elegant outer design was a hodgepodge of architectural styles.
This structure had been devastated by the flood, and suddenly one day in 1973 I was called into Leonard Domlesky’s office and told that I was to be in charge of the renovation. A roll of prints on his desk was handed to me and I was IT.
The job was to be one of the most arduous architectural projects in my professional career for two reasons, for neither one of which anything in my past experience had prepared me.
I had had much contact with politicians and their thinking in my years in practice in Bucks County, but I had never been closely connected in a personal way with real professional corruption. I was beginning my education with a past master who had a doctorate in the subject.
The lessons began on the first day of construction. The parquet flooring of the Grand Ballroom of the mansion was the first item scheduled to be replaced. The workers pried up the warped boards and we discovered that the plywood subfloor was only one-half inch thick instead of the one-inch thickness specified. The General Contractor immediately informed me that he would file for an Extra Payment under his contract to pay for the extra labor involved in the removal, and for replacement of the heavier material.
No record of any Change Order existed in the files which had been turned over to me by GSA as the final as-built documents, so I asked my Bureau Director to ask GSA for all the Change Orders which had been issued on the original job. They flatly declined.
Nobody at GSA, obviously, was willing to expose to public scrutiny what had gone on with that project.
From that moment I discovered what it was to walk in a minefield with an obsolete map with changes made by an enemy spy. The General Contractor took pains to inform me (confidentially, of course) that he was very close to an influential state senator and that I had best be like the GSA architectural supervisors on his other contracts — conspicuous for their friendship and acquiescence to his much greater knowledge and ability in deciding what was best for the project.
When I told him (not in confidence) that I was under Civil Service and therefore subject to disciplines and penalties only after a full trial on written charges and not subject to any political pressures, the relationship — which had never been cordial— immediately cooled to a glacial level. Every day became a struggle to get what the Commonwealth was paying for without incurring vast Extra Charges for things that were commonplace on past GSA contracts.
In this ongoing battle I found an unexpected ally and (temporary) friend. Milton Shapp was a maverick Democrat who had incurred the anger of The Establishment of his party by his demands for reform and transparency in state government. After several attempts he was finally elected Governor. His wife, Muriel Shapp, was keenly interested in the progress of the renovation of The Mansion and had taken it on herself to be involved in the redecoration portions of the project.
She quickly became convinced that I was the only person who had any knowledge of what should be selected for the decor of the renovated structure. We made daily appointments at the building, for which she would arrive with her entourage of secretaries, assistants and decorators and immediately turn to me for all answers for colors, materials and furnishings. The Interior Decorator who was in her group was, understandably, less than entranced with this — or with me.
Mrs. Shapp was very intuitive and saw what was going on. I found that she applied sufficient pressure to the secretary of Property & Supplies that the word went out to the Contractor that on this job he was to do whatever I said and to give me no argument. That was great for me, the project and the Commonwealth until the truth of the maxim “No good deed goes unpunished” was once again revealed.
There were two kitchens in The Mansion. One was the large one for state dinners, and was a completely commercial one similar to any good restaurant. There was no problem replacing equipment here. The other, much smaller, was the Family Kitchen for use by the Governor for small, intimate meals either with friends or just with his family. It had wooden base and overhead cabinets and the normal sinks, stoves and dishwashers of any normal family’s kitchen.
The existing base cabinets had been destroyed by the floodwaters. In my judgement it was more economical to replace both the base and wall cabinets than to try to match the existing wall cabinets with the new base cabinets, so that is what I had specified. A zealous cabinetry subcontractor, anxious to be able to say that he had furnished the new cabinetwork for The Governor’s Mansion, had presented me with a proposal to have all the exposed woodwork made of a special ash wood from Finland — the last that would ever be available, since the Soviets had banned its export — at an even lower price than what I had originally estimated! I gladly accepted and told him to go ahead
I proudly told Mrs. Shapp what I had done and gave her photographs of the beautiful glowing golden cabinetry. That was a mistake. She showed them to some of her friends who went into a frenzy of jealousy. The first I knew that I was in trouble was when my Bureau Director called me in to his office and said “Muriel Shapp just called and she doesn’t want you connected with that job for another minute! What the hell did you do?”
Stunned I tried to call Mrs. Shapp, but she refused to talk to me. Finally I discovered what had happened, After she had shown the pictures of the renovated Family Kitchen to her friends, one of them (described to me later as a “vicious hellcat” by one of my socialite friends from the Art Association) had said the cabinetry had no grain, and was just like something from a cheap lumberyard. Muriel Shapp wanted me to have the “plain boards” replaced. I flatly refused. After repeating what I had previously told her about the irreplaceable Finnish ash I then said what she couldn’t bear to hear.
“Mrs. Shapp, ” I said “this building does not belong to you. This is the property of the eleven million taxpayers of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and I will not change this material for a whim.”
She wouldn’t give me the time of day after that. My boss, Leonard Domlesky, had the courage to defy her demand to have me taken off the job, but I think part of that may have been her desire not to live in The Mansion even after it was renovated because she was much happier in her temporary (state-paid) rented quarters across the river in Camp Hill and not in a rundown black neighborhood in Harrisburg.
Poor Milton, now in his second term, was by this time in real political trouble because of corruption in his administration, didn’t really care where he lived. In any case, his term ended shortly thereafter, so that was the end of my involvement with high-placed figures.
My performance as a no-nonsense, effective architect must have impressed my superiors because I found myself less and less involved in the sort of review work for which I had been originally hired.
I was called on to give informational talks at semiannual gatherings of our Bureau’s field inspectors, to conduct field surveys at various state institutions and to do actual design work for several projects far out of what I considered the normal scope of my duties.
One of these was so strange I marvel at how well it came out. A judge had issued a ruling that certain types of juvenile criminals had to be furnished specific education classes by the state Department of Education (DOE) in an environment separate from the prison system.
In desperation DOE called on our department for help. They had no budget for this mandated operation’s building and no place to put it if they had a budget. In a rare show of interdepartmental cooperation, the Department of Environmental Resources (DER) which had jurisdiction over state parks, DOE and our department, a state park was offered for DOE’s use. The only remaining question was a building for this project.
Somehow DOE scraped together $75,000 for a building — a sum grossly inadequate by any standard — and the project was turned over to the Miracle Man — me. After I made all my (useless) objections I started looking for solutions to this impossibility.
The first problem was that the proposed location was in a mountainous area of a remote state park which would have required a contractor to spend the whole budget just getting the job together at the site. The next was getting building materials up the mountain at all. The next was — well, you get the idea.
The owner of a manufactured housing company came into my office at this time to plug the idea of using manufactured housing techniques for state buildings. I grabbed at the idea for this impossible project. His enthusiasm was fired up and we worked together so that I could design a building satisfactory for the purpose, within the budget and able to be shipped and assembled at the inaccessible site. DOE was stunned at this tour-de-force and more than ever I was weaned from my review labors.
After this success I was assigned to the final project of my time at the state, until my retirement on December 31, 1979 — thirteen years to the day since I had started.
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