Showing posts with label Uncle Phil. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Uncle Phil. Show all posts

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Letters to Home and a 100th Birthday

After starting to scan my father’s letters he sent home during WW II – and before sending them to the National WW II Museum along with his War Memorabilia -- I suddenly realized that tomorrow would have been his 100th birthday. He died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 68.

He refers to me in those letters as “my little guy.”  Could he have imagined a future point in time when I would be organizing his unique WW II scrapbook, his photographs and the few letters of his I have, all sent to his brother, my Uncle Phil, for museum preservation?  He sent many more letters to my mother and sadly they are all gone. 

Or what would he have thought of the technology which has rendered most silver halide photography obsolete? That was his business. Somewhere I read that there are more digital photographs taken throughout the world today in two minutes than all the photographs taken in the 19th century. Give an infinite number of monkeys an infinite number of cameras and you could do away with professional photography.  Before digital, one had to think through the “what and when and how” to photograph; it required thought and skill and artistry.  You couldn't afford to snap away.  Photographic materials were just too expensive.  Now the accidental confluence of someone with an iPhone at the right moment results in photographs that the best photographers would envy.  All by accident!  Not skill, not love of photography.  He would be appalled.

The very first letter I came across in the collection (they were not chronologically organized) is dated May 20, 1944, full of anticipation about maybe being able to return home for a few days as Germany had just surrendered and he thought he was about to be shipped to the Pacific theater. I don’t think I am going to publish others but this first one was particularly meaningful.  He was a Signal Corps photographer and this letter to his brother tells a lot about his state of mind at the time and has interesting information about what he was going through.  “Penny” was the nickname for my mother and “Pop” is my grandfather who was running the photography business back home.

This transcription is not exact, but as close as I can make it without doing in depth editing.  I mostly dictated the contents to my iPhone as an email and then pasted it into Word and then did some light editing to make sense of run on sentences, misnaming of things from the transcription from voice to type (e.g. amusingly “Berchtesgaden” was captured as “Birch is God”), and just general but not precise clean up.

It was written on “Der Reichsminister und Chef der Reichskanzlei" stationary (The Reich Minister and Chief of the Chancellery) and presumably this was left behind in the SS facilities the GIs were then occupying

May 20, 1945 from Berchtesgaden

Dear Phil,

Well, Phil, finally the struggle lasting more than five years for the European people has ended and with great relief to us all. Now I'm confronted with the Pacific war and my utmost wish and desire is to come home or at least return for a brief stay before going into the Japanese warfare.  I don't see why that's such a tremendous problem that the Army is making us believe. Money running into billions and time running into years has been already been spent so what's the difference if it costs more and takes more time to finish that phase of the warfare.  Especially so if it is the choice of most of the prospective GIs bound for the South Pacific wishing to return home to their love ones.  I for one haven’t enough points for a discharge but neither does the majority of troops and I like many others feel so fortunate to come through this struggle without bearing any marks. Fighting in the Pacific might last more than a year and who knows if my good fortune will hold out. I do feel though that I have a pretty good chance in obtaining the route through the states before going to the Pacific. If I do I certainly will be thankful and overjoyed. I have my fingers crossed even my toes.

From my heading in the first page of this letter you can see that censorship much has been lifted. No more officers who I knew fairly well will be prying into my mail. Just the base censors as certain restrictions still exist.

I am now living in Berchtesgaden and in fairly comfortable barracks formerly occupied by SS troops. These barracks are very near to Goering’s summer home giving him the protection he very well needed. We have two rooms. One we fixed up into a writing, sitting, and chat room with a sofa and five chairs, a desk and a radio that works when it wants to. The other room we have divided in half, one half are our cots and the other we fixed up into a dark room. We acquired an enlarger, some chemicals, a hand cutter, even a deckled edge cutter, some trays, and a dryer. Here we can process our personal work along with some brown nosing material (brown nose means work which puts us in good with ranking personnel of the division). Between this work and our photography for the Army which hasn't let up we are pretty busy and have very little time for personal needs. Our mess hall has two large dining rooms and we eat from clean tablecloths and plates.  KP's are volunteer German girls who serve the chow and clean up the mess afterwards. The food is really good but our rations aren't up to par as yet but soon they will be.

With all the sudden change in living conditions I had first felt pointless doing it but in a short time I was back in the game so to speak. Everything has changed to regular Garrison life, the way it was back in the States in the Army Corps. But I think it is slightly more chicken to eat.

There is no fraternization for the troops and it is hard for most of the boys. As for myself I don't care about the feminine problem but I would like it better if conversations could be had with the civilians -- that's where it is much better being in France, Belgium, Holland, or England. USO shows are being promised and next week I heard there will be a show. The G.I. movies are being shown twice nightly. So far I haven't been to a movie, not for a long time.  The pictures playing are old ones like Eddie Cantor’s “Show Business” or “Meet me in St. Louis” and numerous others. Other forms of entertainment and classes in subjects of learning are being planned. Berchtesgaden is a beautiful summer resort situated close to the Austrian border and high up the mountains, snow capped at that. I was surprised to learn it's a very ancient town dating back to the 11th century.  Hitler’s former home, I say former for was almost completely destroyed, is standing halfway up one of the highest mountains. When the French Armored division reached here they shelled and set fire to it for what purpose just to get even --there wasn't any resistance at his home. After knocking it to pieces they looted most everything in sight, looting they are very famous for. But I have a book that once was on his bookshelf and I’ll parcel post some of my additional souvenirs home.  In more detail I have explained to Penny what his house looks like so I know you have heard all about it.

Way up the top of the same mountain Hitler had another place called Eagles Nest -- a spacious dwelling of stone where he went to meditate his fanatical ideas and also threw wild parties.  What an awe inspiring sight this place is. You can see for miles and miles around and the scenery of the Bavarian Alps is very picturesque. Again the articles that could be acquired by GIs for souvenirs are now diminished. I have two saucer plates of unique design though.  The living room of this house is a tremendous semicircular affair with heavy beamed ceiling, stonewalls and a huge marble fireplace, a large circular table in the center of the room with 10 chairs around. Scattered around the rest of the room are some other chairs and chaise lounges. There are fine large heavy windows that rolled down in the living area and abundant light which afford a view of the beautiful scenery.  There is a large sunny sun porch off to the left and a dining room of oak panel walls and a large table seating about 30 people.  There are two other rooms, one for drinking, and a toilet in another one.  An elevator that goes down to the furthest point in the roadway can go up to this place but is not working at present -- the main reason is that it is fairly well trafficked.  I had to use the footpath up to it about a half an hour’s climb.  We are making -- Mack and me-- a travel log of what the GIs are sightseeing around here. Someday you might see it in the newsreels or in a special short.  I hope so.  Anyway it is a big job and is taking many days to finish.  We laugh when we think about it.  It reminds me of one of those Fitzpatrick travelogues you remember with those closing sunsets and the line “and now we take leave of Berchtesgaden.”

A few weeks prior to the close of the war I was with the 101st division cleaning out numerous pockets of resistance all around these Bavarian mountains -- a tough job it was. When one of the regiments got their orders to take – rather than half take -- Berchtesgaden from another route I went with them walking a number of miles, for more than five bridges were all blown up recently. But still there were SS troops. This job was exciting but very tiring for the tension was hard for a few days and we couldn't get anything much to eat. When the surrender was finally declared many many SS troops had to be rounded up. This was another job I enjoyed and from Penny’s letters you already know the situation.
Uncle Phil and the "Little Guy"

I received your very lengthy and interesting letter of April 23 along with many from Penny a few days ago and Phil I sure enjoyed its contents. Both you and Penny fear that your letters are boring --  they are anything but.  I sometimes feel that way with my own especially to you and family for most everything I write to you I have already sent to Penny.

You ask if I took any shots of airborne troops leaving for Germany.  I presume you mean the airborne mission over the Rhine.  I certainly did on that mission, more than 5000 feet of film.  I'm sure some of it was used in the newsreels.  I also made a lot of footage of those troops moving up to their frontline positions into the heart of Bavaria --maybe it was what you saw.  I never received those shots you made of Penny and Robert at the zoo.  I only hope that they aren't lost in my anxiousness to get them.  Do you think Pop could make a portrait of Penny and my little guy, Phil?  I'd love to have a recent one, say 5 x 7 of my love ones.

Your description of the ballet “Undertow” sounds very interesting and intriguing.  I surely want to see ballets when I'm home once again.  I've missed real art all these past years.  The Harold Lloyd picture must have been very amusing.  I wish this damned Army would show some pictures like that as I'm sure it would be very entertaining and meet with favor with the troops.

Marlene Dietrich visiting the 101st Airborne
I'm glad the business is keeping up fairly well now that the war is over -- over here -- your shortage in paper and film should be lifted somewhat I hope anyway.  By the way remember me to everyone in the shop.  In a separate envelope Phil I'm enclosing a Photostat on Berchtesgaden written in English for the purpose of tourist trade.  Some of their descriptions will give you a laugh. Also with this you find some pictures of myself and a snapshot of Marlene Dietrich at a reunion of the 101st.  I thought you might like a snap shot like this -- she doesn't look any too well but that's the way she looked that day; the day before that she had a collapse.  She witnessed a terrible accident where two C47s with paratroopers crashed killing more than 20.

So Phil I say so long for a while, take care of yourself and my love to Jerry and everyone I love.

Love Robert

The letter is such a contrast to one he wrote on October 4 from Wiesbaden, some five months later.  He was still stuck in Germany very upset he hadn’t been shipped back as Japan had already surrendered. He was finally shipped home in the middle of December, just in time for Christmas and the New Year, but he tried to keep his mind off the delay by writing this long letter about his ideas for expanding the family photography business to film for TV, promotional use in architecture and real estate, even children’s’ programming to be used by department store child care centers while their mothers shopped (he suggested Macy’s as such a store).  Nothing came of these ideas.  Nonetheless, he speaks to me across the ages, dreaming big as a 29 year old.  It showed me a side of him I didn’t really see as a teenager when I worked with him. 

In another letter from “somewhere in France” on March 18, 1945 he confided to my Uncle (he didn’t want my mother to know yet because of the danger of the mission) that he was reassigned to 101st Airborne, the “Screaming Eagles” (the same division he mentions in the past tense in the letter transcribed above). He was being trained to photograph from gliders setting down behind enemy lines (not quite put that way because of censorship of GIs letters), so he expected a lot of action.  He expressed his fears but his admiration of the men he was serving with -- D Day paratroopers and “The Bastards of Bastogne.”  He also managed to film General Eisenhower when he visited the 101st, those shots apparently making it into newsreels back home.

So I salute him on his 100th birthday, one of the millions of “accidental warriors” who did their jobs.  May they never be forgotten.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Joe The Barber

My sister called to tell me she had some family news: Joe the Barber died.

This takes some explaining. Although I don’t remember it, family history is that Joe gave me my very first haircut. Not only that, he was the barber for my grandfather and father and gave my older son his very first haircut as well. That’s four generations of us.

His shop was almost directly across the street from PS 90 where I spent my grammar school years from kindergarten to 8th grade, the Jamaica Avenue elevator line rumbling overhead nearby. My Uncle Phil lived in the same house where my father grew up, directly across from the school and a leisurely stroll to Joe’s shop. Joe cut Uncle Phil's hair as well.

When I was old enough to take my Schwin to school, I’d park the bike in Uncle Phil’s garage. Every few weeks or so I’d show up at Joe’s for my regular haircut, a buzz cut by the time I was biking to school.

Joe had a couple of chairs in his shop, but he was the only barber and there would usually be a wait, so I was able to get my hands on a few adult magazines while I waited and he chatted with the customer in the chair.

I looked forward to my turn as he always treated me like a kindly uncle would, knowing everyone in our family, asking me about family news, how things were in school, talking about my Dad which gave me perspective on him I would not otherwise have seen. He’d also talk about my grandfather, who by then was deceased, so Joe the Barber was an endless source of family history and gossip and advice.

Joe was Italian and proud of it. He was also a handsome man, always smiling while working, frequently humming a song, often joking that he could become the next Perry Como!

When I was in high school, preparing to go off to college, his own son was going through a rebellious stage, racing his Impala around, getting into a little trouble and naturally Joe was concerned. Unknown to Joe, I was doing the same kind of adolescent stuff and it was my turn to comfort him, telling him not to worry.

Once I went off to college and got married, I had to find my own barber in Brooklyn, although when I visited my parents in the home where I grew up, I still managed to stop in for a quick haircut with Joe the Barber in the same shop he had been in for decades.

As usual, he talked about my family and in particular about my Aunt Lillian, who would later leave her husband, Uncle Lou. After Joe’s wife died, Joe the Barber married Aunt Lillian, but even my Aunt did not refer to him as our “Uncle” Joe, signing Xmas cards, “Aunt Lillian and Joe.” But, to me, the man who just died, nearing the age of 99, was my dear Uncle Joe, who was part of the family all my life.

Here we are with my Aunt Ruth, Uncle Joe, and Aunt Lillian more than twenty years ago.

Sunday, May 3, 2009


One of the admirable qualities about local theatre in South Florida, aside from the usual touring revivals of classic musicals and plays, is that some will take chances on innovative new productions. I’m referring in particular to original productions offered by The Florida Stage in Manalapan and Dramaworks in West Palm Beach over the years. Yesterday we saw such a work -- CAGNEY! -- a world premiere at Florida Stage.

I was wondering how the life story of the famed Jimmy Cagney could be carried off as a musical and the answer is the passion and commitment of one man, Robert Creighton, the lead actor, who conceived the work, and wrote the music and lyrics along with Christopher McGovern. Creighton is also a dead ringer for Cagney and Ann and I were taken in by the play and his inspired performance. In fact we felt as if Creighton was channeling Cagney himself.

It is the rare creative genius who can bring it all together – the vision, the ability to write music and lyrics, and then to act, sing, and dance as well. Creighton is one of a handful of unique actors able to create such a work as CAGNEY! He joins Hershey Felder who was brilliant in bringing GEORGE GERSHWIN ALONE to life, which we were fortunate to see at The Cuillo Centre for the Arts in West Palm Beach several years ago. It ultimately made its way to Broadway, and Felder was actor, pianist, playwright and arranger. (Believe me, as an amateur pianist I have a special appreciation for Gershwin and the skill needed to do justice to his music which embodies elements of jazz, ragtime, and classical.) No one could have accomplished that better than Felder, as no one could have created such a successful, moving musical on Cagney other than Creighton.

My Uncle Phil had a summer home in Stanfordville, New York where I used to spend time as a kid and Cagney bought a farm there in the mid 1950’s, one that we frequently drove by, usually trying to catch a glimpse of the great actor, but Cagney kept to himself and was rarely seen in the area. CAGNEY! reminded me of those days and roused my interest in learning more about his life. Wikipedia has a good detailed write up and after reading the entry, I am astonished by the musical’s level of detail and accuracy.

But most impressive is CAGNEY! as a musical itself. This is not a little revue with some nice song and dance numbers. On a smaller stage it follows the principles of the great musicals of our times. The story line, songs and the chorography are woven together with one element advancing the other. We never felt that we were being “performed to” but, instead, brought into the action and moved every step along the way. The entire cast was outstanding, obviously being inspired by Creighton as well.

It also follows the traditions of excellence from the Great American Songbook with witty lyrics sometimes reminiscent of Cole Porter or Ira Gershwin, seamlessly woven into the music, appropriate for the era and the major themes of work. They brought out the tensions between Cagney and Jack Warner, Cagney’s bulldog convictions, his devotion to his mother and his wife, and the accusation of his being a Communist sympathizer, an irony not lost by Creighton’s depiction of Cagney as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy.

I hope that, as with Felder’s work, CAGNEY! will find its way to a larger audience perhaps on Broadway. But my concern, after my generation dies away, is that there will be succeeding generations who care enough to preserve the memory of people such as James Cagney and, equally important, dedicated to carrying on the traditions of the Great American Songbook. Creighton’s musical, not to mention his performance, accomplishes just that and I can think of no greater compliment.


Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Living on a Boat

That is what my wife, Ann, and I do during the summers. Live on a boat. Hence, my entries will be few as computer time on board is sporadic. I’ll be writing this entry episodically and probably post it in stages, but I might as well start at the beginning, as life on the water is something that has significantly defined who we are.

My introduction to boating began in Sag Harbor near the end of Long Island where my family rented a cottage each year in a little section of cottages called Pine Neck, a block from the Noyac Bay, between the twin forks. As a kid, I thought this was the most exotic place in the entire world and to some degree, now nearly sixty years later, I still sometimes feel that is where I would like to live.

Sag Harbor itself was (and still is) a quaint, seaside New England town, an old whaling village, although now, it is also part of the upscale Hamptons, but the great attraction for us in the early to mid 1950’s was the Bay itself, going to the little beach on Long Beach Road each day. There was a food shack there where we could get greasy fries and a hot dog, listening to Teresa Brewer belt out I Don't Want a Ricochet Romance on the juke box, the refrains of “I can't live on ricochet romance, no, no not me; If you're gonna ricochet, baby, I'm gonna set you free” lingering in my mind long after the song ended.

At night we would go into the town of Sag Harbor itself to the one movie house (here Ann and Jonathan stand in front of the theatre when we visited Sag, some thirty years after I last saw a movie there) and maybe get some ice cream. What could be more heavenly for a kid? For me, it was to have a boat, one with an engine that I could use to explore the Bay. Shelter Island was not far away but I knew that if I could inveigle my father into renting a boat that destination would probably be off limits.

Postponing the rental of my childhood dream yacht (a row boat with a small outboard engine) was the appearance of Hurricane Carol that made landfall on Long Island on August 30, 1954 as it was nearing peak intensity, and close to high tide. Although our cottage was slightly elevated and a few hundred yards from the Bay, the first floor was deluged with water. As a kid it seemed exciting but it foreshadowed other hurricanes, Gloria in 1985, and others that would more seriously impact us Floridians later in our lives, Francis and Jean in 2005, and Wilma in 2006. Between those and some notable Nor’easters we’ve endured, I sometimes wonder why we still persist in living on the water itself.

Sag Harbor was my first introduction to boating on my own, my father finally allowing me to rent that little wooden rowboat with a tired Johnson outboard engine which seemed to break down as often as it ran. The boat reeked of fish, gasoline and oil. Many years later in our boating lives Ann and I revisited Sag, and found that same marina, and the same food shack.

With my father along to show me the ropes, it soon became apparent that an outboard engine was as foreign to him as it was to me. Once we got it started after repeated pulls of the cord, with the exhaust hanging around us in the heavy air, the thought also went through his mind that we might adventure over to Shelter Island, clearly visible in the bay but, in the slight chop, oh so far away that we had to finally turn back. After a few warnings about staying close to shore, I was allowed to take the boat out by myself, the thrill of which probably lay dormant, awaiting my adult life when it kicked in with a vengeance.

But Sag Harbor wasn’t my only initiation to boating. My father’s younger cousin, Bill, had, what at the time was considered the Cadillac of small boats, a 28 foot Chris Craft. The boat was berthed in New Rochelle and he and his wife invited our family out several times. This was high adventure to me, leaving the New Rochelle harbor and anchoring off of Sands Point, which is just across the Long Island Sound. We would swim off the boat and sometimes train our binoculars on Perry Como’s house at the point, hoping to see the crooner. There are some ironies to the experiences with Bill’s boat. He bought his boat at Rex Marine which is a short walk from the marina where we now dock our floating summer-home and where I am presently writing this entry. We coincidentally now own a Chris Craft ourselves, a 1987 Commander with a hull built by Uniflite (the firm that built the hull for WW II PT boats). Even our home in Florida is not far from Perry Como’s in Jupiter before he died a few years ago.

Because of Cousin Bill’s boat, my father thought that he, too, could become a sea captain and quite uncharacteristically, he impulsively bought an old 35’ Owens, not fully realizing the work it would demand and of course the expertise that is required to handle such a boat. His temperament was not well suited to boating and even worse, my mother hated the work. A Captain without a cooperative, even enthusiastic mate, is doomed to boat alone or very little.

Many years later at Block Island I found a sister ship, pictured here in the background.

Nonetheless, we had that boat for about two years, and my parents named it after my sister and myself, ‘BobaLynne’ which I thought was kind of clever. Here I can be seen pulling on a stern line when we were anchored off a beach. In the foreground, but very blurred, is my mother’s hand holding her cigarette. Both my parents smoked, incessantly. No wonder I took up smoking when I was 16, eventually quitting when I was 33.

The high/low point of the BobaLynne was an ambitious cruise up the Hudson River to Poughkeepsie. My Uncle Phil had a summer home nearby so the idea was for my father and me to bring the boat there while my mother and sister drove up the car. We would stay at my Uncle’s home and explore the Hudson. Dad and I made it down the Sound through Hell’s Gate and stayed overnight at a marina at the base of the Tappan Zee bridge, that was still under construction. After leaving the marina, one of the old Ford truck engines in the Owens broke down and we struggled on one engine to Poughkeepsie. The boat was out of commission for the rest of our vacation and I no longer remember how we got it home. Suffice it to say, the boat was soon sold after that extremely frustrating experience.

The following year, as I remember, we returned to Sag Harbor, for the last time. Again, I was allowed to rent a boat during those last two weeks of August. My sister attended a camp nearby and here we are standing in front of her “Nisimaha” cabin, me with my crew cut.

To replace our Sag Harbor rental, we returned over the next few years to Uncle Phil’s summer home in Stanfordville, New York, an out of the way country place not far from Millbrook. I loved it there too, mainly because, I had my Remington slide action 22 caliber rifle which I was allowed to use to shoot targets in the valley below, until one of the bullets ricocheted off a rock and landed in someone’s living room a mile away. To this day I can’t understand how the bullet travelled so far, but that was the end of my shooting days.

Other activities there included a nearby lake (alas, no boating allowed), the pool in Millbrook, a walk to the general store in the broiling heat, a drive by Jimmy Cagney’s home, and the local movie theatre. I remember seeing The King and I there. Sometime in the late 70s or early 80s I was on the Washington Eastern Airlines shuttle and found myself seated next to Yul Brunner, the one and only King, no matter how many times the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical might be revived. He was reading Playboy but we struck up a conversation, mostly about the film version I had seen as a kid.

However, until my adult life, I was out of boating and I haven’t even begun the story of living on the boat which I’ll continue later.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Ikey Lubin's and Letters from the Past

I finished Russo's Bridge of Sighs and like many of the characters in the book, I am drawn into Sara’s drawings of Ikey Lubin’s, the family grocery store that survives three generations of Lynches and their extended family. At first Bobby enters their lives, then Kayla, but, and this is Russo’s genius, it is you, the reader that is swept into the store as well and into the novel.

For me, it raises my consciousness of my family and the family business, which is no longer. It reminded me that somewhere in my home I had a few letters that my father wrote during WW II to his brother, my Uncle Phil. After finishing Russo’s novel, those letters called out to me, demanding that I locate them, which I did.

Reading them puts some of what I’ve already written in earlier posts in perspective. They actually exaggerate a sadness I feel concerning my immediate family, with my parents living out their lives in discord and unhappiness, sharing their pain with my sister and myself.

Now that I’ve located those letters and have read most, I will occasionally transcribe parts of them. The one that follows was written on August 12, 1945 when my dad was younger than my youngest son is now. It is particularly momentous as it was written only days after the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6 and the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki three days after. Until that time, his letters expressed the foreboding that he will be shipped off to Japan with his unit, the 3264 Signal Service that had recently become attached to the famous “Screaming Eagles” 101st Airborne Division.

The contents are also bittersweet as he laments about possibly being held in Germany as part of the occupational force and his desire to return home to his wife (“Penny”). Little did he know that upon his return my mother would “joke” that she had hoped his transport ship would sink.

In my last blog entry I made the connection between literature and family. For me, Russo offers a glimpse of family, although troubled at times, that holds together in spite of declining mill towns and changing ways of life. Hence, we are taken into Ikey Lubin’s, coming together “in the present to recall the past and share a vision of the future.”

Here are my father’s hopes and thoughts on Aug. 12, 1945, in a letter to his brother, Phil, from Wiesbaden, Germany:

“As you no doubt already know, I informed my sweetheart some very discouraging news – that is being stuck here as [part of the] occupational [force]. On the heals of that letter came the wonderful news that Japan is asking for surrender. As this wasn’t definite as yet, I can’t say that finally war is ended, but I’m sure it’s only a matter of a day or two.

The Atomic bombings, and Russia’s entry into the conflict just overwhelmed the Japanese, especially the Atom smasher, a deadly and destructive thing, which has great future development for the betterment of mankind, but what I fear is some nation to use it for a complete destruction of civilization. I hope that this fear never will materialize.

What I began to say concerning the news [staying here as part of the occupational force], which I hated to tell Penny, is this – the sudden ending of all hostilities can possibly bring me and hundreds of other guys back to homes sooner than is predicted. I’m sure that those who are the law makers at home aren’t going to leave us in these foreign lands against our will – especially as there are millions of other Joes who have never left the good old USA and faced a future of sudden death.

I fought for freedom, freedom for all peoples. Now that we have won victory over the oppressors, haven’t I the right to enjoy that freedom? The Army is composed of civilians. Is it not the democratic way that we all share the fruits of victory, especially those who fought for it and were fortunate enough to be sparred a hideous death?

I don’t want you to feel, Phil, that I’m preaching or insinuating directly at you – only my desire is so strong, the urge so great to be able to come home again – this is now it is with most of the soldiers. I feel if we all write our families, congressmen and such something will be done. How about it, Phil, will you write a note to our congressman expressing your views

Now here’s some big favor you can do for me, Phil – I’m going to miss Penny’s and mine anniversary – we will be married seven years this September 4th. God, how those years flew and how I love my sweetheart. Will you buy a big bouquet of flowers, spend what you think will fill an order of a large one, but beautiful and then in the evening take her to dinner at that Swedish restaurant and musical show afterwards? I know this is a tall request and maybe puts you in a sort of embarrassing position, but I hope not. I want it to be all a surprise for Penny and I’d leave that to you as how to do it.

Have the flowers delivered in the morning of that day with an enclose card which simply says [unfortunately, and ironically, this portion of the letter was destroyed when it was sliced open]. The amount of money this involves I know won’t be cheap – and I can’t at present send anything to cover it, but I will repay you fully Phil, not only in money, but with my sincerest appreciation and many thanks. Do you think you can do this for me and for Penny? The main thing Phil – keep it a surprise somehow. Let me know your answer and details.

So, Phil, this is all for now. I hope everyone is well and of course yourself and that the business is beginning an upward surge. Give my regards to everyone.

Love, Robert”

Friday, November 23, 2007

Literature and Family

I am reading Richard Russo’s new novel, Bridge of Sighs. I generally stretch out reading a book by one of my favorite authors, savoring certain passages, making it a point of putting the book down to enjoy the next day so I do not finish the book in a few ravenous readings. Russo is in one of the group of contemporary writers of which I have read nearly everything they’ve written and eagerly look forward to their next work and their next: Philip Roth, John Updike, Anne Tyler, John Irving, Russell Banks, Richard Ford, Richard Russo. To this list I could add recently deceased contemporaries such as Joseph Heller, John Cheever and Richard Yates (whose first novel, Revolutionary Road, I reprinted in the early 1970’s when it was already out of print. -- it will soon be released as a major motion picture -- it has taken the world that long to recognize him).

What draws me to these writers is families, or more specifically, dysfunctional families. Strong mothers or weak fathers or weak mothers and strong fathers with borderline “crazy” behavior, dark humor and the unpredictable maturation of children from those families. Of course if art mirrors life, it may be that “dysfunctional” is merely normalcy in today’s world. I am from one of those families, with parents who were quasi alcoholics. My mother thought she married into a “family” who would give her the love and the things she thought she was denied as a child. But when my father returned from WW II, with no other aspirations than running a family photography business that was established at the end of the Civil War in NYC, the realization that she will never move from her middle class roots in Richmond Hill, N.Y. became just one of the many rages that consumed her from within. Add to that mix extramarital affairs she hinted at, and my father’s inability to “make” her “happy,” and one has the ingredients of a novel, if I could only write it.

No wonder I am attracted to this literature and theatre such as The Subject Was Roses, which my wife and I recently saw at Dramaworks in West Palm Beach. This Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Frank Gilroy from the mid 60’s chronicles a few nights and days in the life of the Cleary family, whose son has just returned from WW II, changed, but not changed enough not to fall into the fold of the old conflict between his controlling, driven, alcoholic father and his abused, emotionally depleted and disillusioned mother. The son is forced to take sides with one parent or the other – to “make nice” – entering into the dynamic trying to ameliorate his parents problems. His attempts, as were mine, are fruitless. Here is a review from the Palm Beach Post.

But I digress, so back to Richard Russo. I think his work has elements of the best of all the writers I most admire, the sardonic humor of some of Philip Roth (Russo’s Straight Man is one of the funniest, laugh-aloud books I’ve ever read), the fragile characters of some of Anne Tyler’s works, the great story-telling ability of John Irving, and the family / husband-wife relationships that resonate in Cheever and Updike.

One of the major issues in Russo is place, upstate NY mill towns that are in long-term decline, the characters caught in the maelstrom of such change, some trying to leave, but emotionally attached forever. Russell Banks touches some of the same bases. Richard Ford makes the New Jersey shore his place while Philip Roth has his Newark environs. Russo brings a gentle humanity to this change, documenting its subtleness and it’s impact on his characters, people who are not larger than life, but are ones we all know and grew up with.

Yes, many of his novels tend to repeat some of the same themes and settings, and one could easily see the similarities between Nobody’s Fool, Empire Falls, and, now, Bridge of Sighs. But while you know you are reading a Richard Russo novel, the stories and characters are somehow different – like movements of a symphony are different, although they are the same work. So, I continue take pleasure in the Bridge of Sighs, reading fewer pages as I reach the end. Like life, if it could only go on.

In an interview ( Russo said “I think the place you grow up in is a lot like ‘The Hotel California’: you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” And so it is with my roots as well as my parents. We are Richard Russo’s people, with “everyman’s” fragile dreams anchored in “anyplace, USA.” People such as my father who returned from WW II with expectations of a family life depicted in the “Father Knows Best” TV series of the 50’s only to be constantly disappointed. He found his “life” in his work as a commercial photographer where he had respect. Not long after he died at the age of 68 of pancreatic cancer in 1984 I wrote an essay about him, which I append below.

Snapshot of an Ordinary Man – Harry R. Hagelstein
Up Park Avenue we would speed to beat the lights from lower Manhattan in the small Ford station wagon with “Hagelstein Bros., Commercial Photographers since 1866” imprinted on its panels. The Queens Midtown Tunnel awaited us.

It is some summer in the late 1950s and, once again, I’m working for my father after another high school year. In the back of the wagon I share a small space with props, flood lamps, and background curtains. The hot, midtown air, washed by exhaust fumes and the smoke from my father’s perpetual burning cigarette, surround me.

My father’s brother and partner, my Uncle Phil, occupies the passenger’s seat. They have made this round trip, day-in and day-out since my father returned from WWII. Their discussions no longer center on the business, but they speak of the city, its problems, the Russians, and politics. I think of where my friends and I will cruise that evening in one of their cars, a 57’ Merc., probably Queens Blvd., winding up at Jahn’s next to the RKO on Leffert’s Boulevard.

Over the years, as a summer employee, my father believed I was being groomed for the business, the fourth generation to carry it on. My Uncle was a bachelor and I was the only one with the name to follow the tradition. There were cousins, but none at the time had any interest in photography, so the obligation fell to me.

This was such an understood, implicit obligation for my future maturation, that nothing of a formal nature was needed to foster this direction. Simply, it was my job to learn the business from the bottom up, working first as a messenger on the NY City streets, delivering glossies to clients for salesmen’s samples and for the furniture show (the primary commercial product photographed by my father). Then I graduated to photographer’s assistant, adjusting lamp shades under the hot flood lamps so the seams would not show, and, then, finally to an assistant in the color lab, making prints, dodging shadows to hold overexposures of glass tables. Osmosis was to be my mentor.

At work I see my father, as the camera would reveal contrasts with different filters. These were normally invisible to me. At home he was a more contemplative, private person, crushed into submission by a troubled marriage. But I see him strolling down the halls of his business, smiling, extending his hand to a customer, kidding in his usual way, “How’s Biz?” he would say. His office overlooks the reception area and there he, my Uncle, and his two cousins would preside over lunch, a burger and coffee from the nearby luncheonette.

In spite of my obligation to learn the profession from the inside, I inveigled his support to go to college – with the understanding I would study business. By then I think I knew that this would be the first step to take me away from HIS business, a step, once taken, would not be taken back. The question was how to reveal this to him.

But as silently as I was expected to take over the business, my retreat was equally stealth. We both avoided the topic as I went to college and I continued to work there during the summers. Once I switched majors from business to the humanities, we both knew, but still, no discussion. This was territory neither he nor I wanted to visit at the time.

My reasons were clear to me. In the hallways of the studio he was larger than life but he was also provincial in his business thinking. He, his brother, and his cousins had developed an inbred view of the future of photography. Like Willie Loman, they had bet the future of their business on producing prints for salesmen, unconscious to the developing mass media and its impact on door-to-door sales. Entering the business would mean conflict with beliefs that were sacrosanct, a battle I would surely lose. So, I kept my silence and progressively moved away.

Why he never brought up the subject I will, now, never know. Ultimately, I married, and began a career in publishing, with an office, ironically, only three blocks from his studio. I still joined him for lunch occasionally, with his greeting me when I arrived, “So, How’s Biz?”

“Hagelstein Bros., Commercial Photographers since 1866” went into a steady decline over the next two decades, finally vanishing in 1985, soon after my father’s death. That it lasted as long as it did was a testimony to his life and skill as a photographer