Thursday, January 26, 2012

How I Was Allergic to the Draft

The Anti-War Protest at Columbia University

In early 1970, the Vietnam War was still raging, and my college student draft deferment was ending. I had a low enough lottery number to be pretty certain that I would be called up once I graduated from Columbia University that spring. Lik3e many of us on the left, I was vehemently opposed to the War. I’d been arrested during the 1968 SDS Strike, and at an anti-ROTC demonstration the following year, and had been certain that I’d have to choose jail or Canada that summer. That is, until I discovered that I was "allergic to the Army!" Here's the full story:

In truth, my allergy was a psychosomatic response to the stress of my second arrest, overnight jailing in New York’s infamous Tombs holding pens, and my trial for allegedly conspiring to disrupt the ROTC event by hurling homemade stink bombs at the recruiters. The truth was, I had conspired, but not to throw any bombs.

I was part of as a small group of SDS-types who were involved in what was called "guerilla theater." We liked staging public protest events. When we heard that the military was going to hold recruitment interviews on campus, we knew that we had to do something in protest. We got together in my slum apartment on 108th Street, and came up with the idea of holding a “die-in” (complete with soundtrack of guns and helicopters and clouds of harmless stage smoke) on the front steps of Casa Italiana, where the recruiters would be housed.

I was a critical part of the team. As an engineer at the student radio station WKCR, I had a key to the steam tunnels – as we had cables running to most campus buildings. It was my job to to hide the smoke pots and tape player and speaker in the basement that night, and sneak into the building in the morning to set them off at the designated time.

Of course, the building was locked up tight, front and back doors – and so was the steam tunnel. The administration was wiser than we thought! We had to give up on our grand theatrical event, and agreed to just show up and chant slogans along with everyone else. The next day, I joined the hundred or so students protesters on a cold winter morning. Then, from behind where I was standing, two bricks came sailing over my head and crashed on the front steps of the building. Soon, a horrible stench began to drift towards the crowd. Taped to the bricks were tubes of butyric acid, which when released, stunk of some horrible mix of rotten eggs and vomit. I watched the cops rush in to the coughing protesters, and was surprised to realize that three of them, in a flying wedge formation, were heading straight for me!

MKy Arrest and Trial

Grabbed by the collar, I was hauled off to a police car, and driven downtown to the basement of the Criminal Courts Building. When I got there, I discovered that I was being charged as the mastermind of the stink bomb attack: possession of noxious chemicals, reckless endangerment, obstruction of governmental operations, resisting arrest, and conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor (a felony charge with a 3 to 5-year sentence). Had they just rushed in the direction of the brick-tosser? Or, had the NYPD “red squad” a picture (or a least a description) of me beforehand? It wasn't too big a stretch to suspect that someone in our little activist band was a police informer who was setting us up for arrest.

I was released without bail, as I was in my last year of college, and was not likely to flee before graduating. At my arraignment was a volunteer law student from the New York Lawyers Guild, a left-leaning collective that had stepped up to defend anti-war protesters. The DA wanted to "plea bargain" the charges down to disorderly conduct and resisting, with me agreeing to a significant fine and two year's probation. I refused. I knew I was innocent of all the charges, and if we had "conspired," it was to put on a performance, something that we could defend as "free speech." Of course, if I was found guilty, I'd have a good chance of a serious jail term and a felony on my record. I was pretty scared, but I really wanted them to prove the conspiracy charge, and expose their informant in the process.

Three months later, my trial began. It was before a three-judge panel, a classic Hollywood movie mix of New York ethnicities: a reserved Protestant, a florid Irish Catholic and wise-cracking Jew. My defense was handled by a young lawyer who was taking on his first case. He was supervised by Mary Kaufman, a former Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal prosecutor, and well-known defender of radicals, from suspected Communists called before the House Un-American Activites Committee in the 1950s, to civil rights and anti-war protesters in the 1960s and 70s.

Our whole defense was based on proving that I was too small and too weak to have tossed any brick from the back of the crowd that would have even come near the front of the building. We had blown-up photos showing me in the crowd, wearing a very distinctive striped jacket, with the blur of the flying brick clearly above my head. Proving that I didn’t throw anything would clear me of all the possession and obstruction charges, leaving the DA to put their spy on the stand – and thus revealing his identity. This was a great plan except for the fact that my lawyer couldn't introduce evidence with the proper legal language. He kept angering the judges, who warned Mary that they were "not running a training school," and that her client (me) risked having his evidence thrown out if she didn't take her student in hand. We eventually got this figured out, and the young man went on to become a well-know defense attorney in his own right -- but that's another story.

We had my professors testify that I was not an advocate of violent protest. We also had my gym coach testify that while he hated my politics, there was no way "a short non-athlete" like myself could have jumped up the three feet needed to toss the brick over the heads of the crowd. My lawyer, trying to get the judges' sympathy, said something like "the defendant looks just like a little leprechaun in his orange and green jacket." This line of argument did not go over well with the Irish judge! He responded angrily with a long diatribe about “how leprechauns always obeyed the laws.”

My Hives. Meditation, and the Draft

In the end, most of the charges were thrown out, and all I faced was what the DA had originally offered: resisting arrest and disturbing the peace. Two of the three judges -- not the offended Irishman -- voted for acquittal, and I was a free man. Free, except for the fact that by the end of the trial, I had turned into a nervous wreck, and was beset with frightening bouts big red hives.

Whenever I saw authority figures in uniform come towards me – police, military guys on leave, even firemen (this was before there were women in the ranks), my skin would begin to turn red and swell up into massive welts. Sometimes, my entire face would blow-up, and I had to get to an emergency room before my throat constricted to the point where I couldn’t breathe. [Looking back, I think this fear was partially based on the fact that I knew that I actually had been conspiring to disrupt governmental operations, just that I was thinking of a more theatrical – and less smelly – technology! I knew I was guilty, and I was making sure that I was "punished" by my own inner-judge.]

I spent those months alternating between classes and the courtroom, between bouts of intense itching and drugged sleepiness from all the antihistamines I was taking; between the bravado of calling myself a political prisoner and the terror of being convicted and spending time in jail. In the midst of all this, two life-changing experiences came my way: my girlfriend dragged me to a meditation class, and I got my draft notice – my deferment was cancelled, my lottery number was already called, and I would have to appear for a pre-induction physical exam at Fort Hamilton Brooklyn in a few weeks. These two events turned out to be intimately linked.

In 1970, meditation was far from mainstream. The Beatles had returned from India, and “transcendental meditation” was just catching on among the counterculture. The incense, the flowers, the white robes, the quiet of the TM centers, only interrupted by the whispers of the accolades and the sound of the giggling Mararishi on videotape, was a far cry from my world of Ivy League intellectual rigor, New York left-wing cynicism, and self-imposed existential angst. You can imagine the scene: me, with my scraggly goatee and beret, carrying a bouquet of flowers and a ripe orange as my initiation gift – that plus $35 got you a mantram – into the foreign world of peace and love. But I did it for Martha, who promised me a great night of sweet delight if I overcame my pride and bowed my head before the framed photo of the Indian guru.

The good news was that the meditation practice actually worked in reducing my stress, and in the consequential attacks of hives. I even learned to recognize the onset of the release of stress chemicals into my bloodstream, and through mindful breathing and focusing on my mantra, reduce the rush to swelling.

The bad news was that these relaxation techniques almost worked too well. For I had discovered that if anything was going to keep me out of the Army, it was obsessive worrying about being in the Army. I learned this on the morning of my first visit to Fort Hamilton. Sitting on the bus as we drew closer to the camp gates, I began to itch and swell. By the time we arrived, all the other kids were surrounding me and begging me to tell them "what it was that I had taken," so that they could do the same. I only got as far as the first registration desk before the medics sent me home. I was told to return in two weeks with doctor’s letters explaining my allergies, and with a supply of antihistamines.

By the time the second visit rolled around, I was feeling pretty cocky. I had letters from my allergist and from my shrink, and an expectation that I would be in the midst of a full-scale histamine fit by the time my number was called to see the medical examiners. The only problem was that I was feeling too safe! Thinking that I would have hives, and the hives would keep me from the Army, was going to get me drafted! I went from inspection station to inspection station – weight, height, reflexes, “cough left, and cough right, bend over, open your mouth, close your mouth, take a number and wait on that bench” – anyone who has seen "Alice’s Restaurant" can imagine the scene.

Finally, my last stop: the shrink. I sat on a bench outside the little cubicle, my letters in my hand, and my heart beat in my ears. Waiting for the slightest sign of puffiness. “Where were the damn hives!” I thought to myself. The door opened and an older man with white hair, a florid Irish face, and a flag pin in his lapel (and this was before every politician was wearing one), called for the next inductee. It wasn’t my number; so I sat there listening to him berate the poor kid who preceded me into his office. He had a loud voice, and it was clear he didn’t approve of draft-dodgers coming to him with cooked up mental problems. I read my psychologist’s letter, thinking of what I would be doing next month in Canada.

Just then, the door opened and the two of them walked out. I was alone, in a dark hallway, waiting in front of an empty room. A few minutes later a young man walked briskly past me and into the cubicle vacated by my Irish nemesis. He had long hair, a tweed jacket, and a beard. After a moment or two, he called me in. We looked at each other as he read my letters. Then he said, “You know, I only work here three afternoons a week as part of my residency duties. I try to keep one kid a week out of Vietnam. This is your lucky day. Go home.”

Riding the bus back to the subway station, with tears of relief in my eyes, it took me a few minutes to notice that my eyes were swollen shut. The hives had returned, but I was a free man. My hives had kept me out of the Army, and learning how to meditate opened the door to a lifetime's journey of spiritual practice, energy work and self-healing.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Red Diaper Memories: An Homage to My Mother

Many of these stories have been about my father, but now its time to honor the real parent, the rock that didn’t disappear – my mother Fay Caller.

Like my father, “Fagie” was a Communist activist from her teenage years. She was the eighth of ten children, the first “Yankee” born in America. While her sisters were ardent socialist Zionists – many became “Kibbutzniks” in the 1930’s and were involved in the founding of the State of Israel, Fay was drawn to the broader class struggle.

She was thrown out of high school for organizing a lunchroom protest, and at age sixteen, found herself featured on the [3/3/1930] front page of the New York Times, which described how a “girl Communist” arrested at a City Hall demonstration the day before, who had refused to pay a three-dollar bail and instead spent the night in jail, was found guilty of disorderly conduct by a City Magistrate “after bandying words with him for more than forty minutes.” She received a suspended sentence, and was told by the judge to “stay home, mend your clothes and help your mother.”

Well, Fay went home, and may have mended her clothes, but was soon out protesting once again, and soon back in jail. She was arrested for painting political slogans on factory walls, for throwing marbles under the hooves of police horses, for carrying the furniture of evicted families back into their apartments, for dozens of similar actions in the 1930s.

By the early 1940s, she had become one of the leaders of the Brooklyn Young Communist League, and when the Party began running candidates for local office [part of the “united front” strategy once the US and the USSR were wartime allies], she was often on the ballot for state and city positions. She worked on the [1937-41] campaigns for Peter Cacchione, who became the first Communist elected to the New York City Council in 1941. My father was Pete’s campaign manager, and my mother and he were already a couple by then [this despite his dalliances with some of the younger girls in the movement].

When the War took the men overseas, my mother joined a number of Party comrades and went to work in defense plants in New York City and later in Schenectady, where she was an activist union organizer. These women forged a deep and special friendship, a sisterhood that would last through the end of the War, McCarthyism, the end of the Communist Party, the birth of their children, the end of most of their marriages, illness and death. These were the “aunties” that raised me and Peter, whose [“Red Diaper”] children were our deepest friends during a time when the whole country hated us, whose apartments I was always welcome at, whether as a twelve-year-old “running away from home,” a confused college student, or later, as a father with my own wife and child.

These incredible women went through hell together. They loved each other, and they loved each other’s children. They supported each other through their aging, long after their political idealism was crushed by the realities of Stalin's horrors and the Cold War, they still had the special bond formed in their youth. They taught us well.

And I still love them: Ruthie, Flo, Lil, Martha, Bertha and May – the village that raised me.

Red Diaper Memories: The "Freedom Now Mural"

Throughout much of the 1950s and early 1960’s, my father depended on a string of low-paying jobs, where the owner wouldn’t care if their employee had once been “a dirty commie.” According to him, every time he finally found a more responsible, middle-class job, the FBI had been quick to visit his new employer and let them know what kind of security risk they were taking. Most of their income came from his wife’s Evelyn’s job as a high-level administrative secretary in the L.A. music industry. When I stayed with them in the summer of 1962, he was driving a delivery truck for a men’s clothing chain.

By the next year, he was hired to be the manager of a small art gallery in West Hollywood whose profits would go to support the community’s listener-supported radio station – KPFK-FM. It was from this place that he would gain his second lease on life: within five years he would be traveling the entire county hauling a trailer containing a 300 pound wooden carved mural, four slide projectors and screens, thousands of glossy full-color handouts, and hundreds of audio cassettes telling the story of “Freedom Now: African-American History from the Middle Passage to the March on Washington.”

The Freedom Now Mural was a labor of love by a white craftsman, Robert Ames. Bob was the son of an Army surgeon stationed in the Philippines, had attended law school, lived in Illinois, but found his home in the Hollywood studios as a carpenter and set-builder, working on many of the models that would be used in the 1937 film Lost Horizon. Blacklisted in the 1950’s for his Communist leanings within his union, Bob found work as a free-lance woodworker, and in his free time took up watercolors and also began to carve large wooden bas-reliefs. As a supporter of KPFK, he offered to loan it to their new gallery. It was at its opening reception that my father met the woman who was to be his professional guide and mentor and friend for the rest of her life: Sue Bailey Thurman.

Sue was a doyen of the 1930’s, 40s and 50’s African-American women’s community – a former chair of the national YWCA, a writer and editor, and the organizer of the first Afro-American delegation to meet Mahatma Gandhi in India in 1936 – and the wife of one of the great Christian mystics of his time, the Reverend Howard Thurman. Sue saw the mural, and made it a personal project. She convinced her husband to endorse it and write an introduction; she found a few thousand dollars in startup funds, and asked my father to bring it to the rest of the country. Here was J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI’s worst nightmare scenario: the Jewish Communist and the Black Christian teaming up to challenge the racial status quo!

From 1965 to 1971, Dad, often accompanied by Bob Ames, took the mural to nearly 60 cities and towns, often sleeping in the back of his rental truck when cash ran short. It appeared at the Statehouse in Boston, at City Hall in Los Angeles, Pasadena and San Francisco, at the NAACP National Convention, at dozens of colleges and churches. It helped cement relationships between LA’s liberal Jewish community and the campaign of Tom Bradley, who became that city’s first black mayor. It was the centerpiece of the 1967 Watts Summer Festival, and in some communities it was guarded by the Black Panthers!

But by the early 1970’s it was “old hat.” The Black community was no longer interested in having its story told by two old white guys – no matter how good their civil rights credentials. The younger leaders were not as deferential to the FDR-generation of leaders that had embraced Dr. Thurman and his wife. The invitations stopped coming. In the end, the growing radicalism of the Black Power movement on one hand, and the “mainstreaming” of civil rights on the other eclipsed the mural’s relevance. It eventually found a home at the DuSable Museum in Chicago, where it is the centerpiece of the education center gallery.

Years later, when Dad was moving to the Jewish Home, his wife asked me to clean out their basement storage locker. In a dusty corner, my brother and I found boxes and boxes of those beautiful color brochures. Today, school groups still get a commemorative copy with their museum tour.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Red Diaper Memories: How Dad Became a Communist

My father became a Communist as a young man growing up in Depression-era New York, but he might have been a Socialist, or even a Mormon convert! It was through the Mormons that he wound up, like me, as a media techie. But it was the Depression that pushed him into becoming a radical.

Dad’s mother and uncle owned a small candy store in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn; all the kids were expected to work. As a teenager in the 1920’s, he sold newspapers, and then magazine subscriptions to teachers. He practiced reading English from the magazines he sold; reading in Yiddish and Russian, speaking some Rumanian and even some French. He hung out with the other kids, dancing to Jazz 78’s and smoking pilfered cigarettes. He handed out literature for Progressive “Fighting Bob” La Follette’s 1924 presidential campaign. He tried to join the Young Socialists, but remembers being turned away as too young.

He got a job in Manhattan in the shipping department of Amplion – a high-tech company of its time. They imported loudspeakers from England, and installed them in movie theaters that wanted to play recorded music along with “the silents.” The US distributorship was owned by a Mormon family, who took an interest in this Jewish kid from Brooklyn. They encouraged him to learn the trade, sending him to the Polo Grounds (in 1929) to help install the first PA system in the Major Leagues. He was doing pretty well, and soon was able to marry Lillian, “the girl upstairs.” I found their wedding picture. Dad looks light a frightened deer in the headlights, and Lillian has a gleam in her eye. My half-brother Karl says that Lillian “always wanted to party.” Dad had another “party” in his life path.

By 1930, Amplion was out of business, a casualty of the Depression, and of the “talkies” – no theater was going to install a recorded music system designed for silent film. Unemployed, Dad joins the ranks of the protesters, and is drawn to the Communist Party activists. He was interested in photography, and joins the newly formed Workers Film and Photo League and travels to the strike-embattled coalfields of Pennsylvania where he sees first-hand the starving miners’ children. One of his pictures is published in the Daily Worker. He returns a committed Communist.

He once told me that he always recalled the Red Star on the caps of the soldiers protecting Uman’s Jews during the Russian Civil War of 1919-21. It was easy for him to picture his political work in Brooklyn as part of the same world revolution that protected his childhood village.

I always knew him as a political organizer, it wasn’t till I interviewed him about his early days did I realize how much of my interest in media was already in my genes. I was a licensed movie projectionist; he added amplifiers and speakers to those same projection rooms forty-years earlier. He built one of the first “sound trucks” in New York, when in 1930 he took the Amplion speakers he had received as a parting gift from the company, and mounted them on an old panel truck and took it to Union Square on May Day. Thirty-six years later I drove an updated version that included roof-mounted slide projectors around Chelsea for a reform candidate for Congress. Like him, I showed radical movies: mine of student strikes shown in college basements; his were Russian silents, shown as “warm-ups” before the main Party speaker.

I can picture him driving a station wagon with film cans and projectors across a snowy New England winter. Once he got lost on Boston Common in the midst of a whiteout blizzard, and had to follow an Irish cop to the Finnish labor hall where the small but devoted crowd was waiting for the entertainment.

Meanwhile, with all this traveling, things were not going to well at home with Lillian. She wanted a stable breadwinner and someone to take her out dancing. My Dad was a failure on both these counts. She was not pleased with his becoming a Communist; her father was a Tammany Hall political appointee, and this might cost him his job. My father said going off on Party business was a relief from the fights at home. After one weeklong training, he came back to find he was kicked out of the house by his now-pregnant wife.

Dad told me that he was ready to leave Lillian, and that by then, he saw himself as a different man than the boy who rushed into marriage. He even had a new name. Little Leon (Jidel on the Ellis Island immigration manifest) Krassen had taken the Party name of Carl Vedro: Carl for his father’s first name, Kallman; Vedro, a shortened version of Vydrock, his mother’s maiden name. And yes, it sounded Italian, for by then he was already working in the Italian neighborhoods and on the docks organizing against the Mafia-controlled labor unions.

By the time his first son Karl was born in 1934, Dad was busy organizing street demonstrations against the rise of fascism in Germany. In fact, on the night of Karl’s birth, Dad was in jail, arrested in Coney Island for distributing leaflets to the beach crowd on a sweltering Saturday afternoon. Karl wound up for a time in an orphanage, and later was reclaimed by Lillian and her new husband. My father eventually became head of the Communist Party in Brooklyn, and succeeded in getting the first Communist elected to the New York City Council. He met and married my mother, the head of the Brooklyn Young Communists. My brother and I were born into the Red Scare of the 1950’s, and never knew our father as youngsters. He was gone from my mother by the time I was two-years old: first “going underground,” hiding from the FBI, then surfacing with his old girlfriend, but that’s another story.

Red Diaper Memories: The Safest Boys in Brooklyn

My brother and I were two of the safest little boys in Brooklyn. Every day for a decade in the 1950s, our personal FBI agents followed us to and from school, our friend’s homes, the shoe store and the bakery, on foot or by bus or subway or the occasional taxicab.

They, of course, were not waiting on the street corner near our house, or across from the schoolyard, to insure our well-being. They were looking for our father who, along with most of the Communist leadership, had “gone underground” after the Smith Act outlawed the U.S. Party in the mid-1950s. Dad was the head of the Party organization in Brooklyn. He was not a “hidden agent” of any kind; he was a public figure, his name on brochures and handouts, his reports featured regularly in the Daily Worker. Mom was head of the Brooklyn Young Communist League, and as little children, we first lived in the basement apartment of the house at the end of 18th Avenue occupied by Simon Gerson, head of the New York State CP.

Soon after Dad "disappeared" and the Party outlawed, Mom found a job working for her brother-in-law as a bookkeeper in Manhattan. Every day she went to work, and every day the same two guys followed her on the subway. Peter and I had a different team. Every day these guys would ask us if we knew where our Dad was, as they had a package to bring him, or a letter or a prize that he won, or a message from an uncle or family friend – the stories were always pretty much the same. Our job was to ignore them, not to talk to strangers, especially those with shiny black shoes.

When we were really little, we were told that Dad had a job “selling records” and was always traveling. This seemed possible. One of my first memories is of my brother and I rolling black vinyl disks – Dad’s collection of 78s – across the living room floor. Later, we were told that our family was part of community that wanted to make life better for all the working people and Black people and poor people, and that the bad men who had all the power, wanted to take all of our parents away to jail – or possibly, the electric chair. This was never said out loud, but we all knew of the Rosenbergs, awaiting execution at Sing-Sing. This was very frightening, and you can be sure that we never wanted our loose lips to be the cause of losing Mom as well! Learning how to be a consummate liar was one of the unwanted legacies of my childhood.

We did occasionally get to see our father in his “underground” hiding places – winter visits to deserted summerhouses on Long Island, hot 4th floor walk-up apartments in Harlem. These places, with their late night gatherings and the shades drawn tight during the day, stood out like a sore thumbs, and were, despite the over-dramatic efforts of the Party, fully under FBI surveillance.

A visit to Dad usually involved 2 to 3 hours of subway and bus travel, much backtracking between Brooklyn and Manhattan, all to avoid the FBI, only to arrive at an apartment ten minutes away by cab from our starting point. Many times we wound up on Avenue J, at an apartment occupied by my father’s true love: a woman named E and her daughter L.

E was my father’s girlfriend from Young Communist days in the 1930’s. My Dad, having left Karl’s mother years before, was now living with my mother, Fay Caller. Fay and Carl were seen as the Dylan and Baez of Brooklyn: two powerful organizers, always ready to lead a demonstration, to fight the cops. My mother was a real tomboy, but Evelyn was a ravishingly attractive redhead. Everyone in the Party adored my mother, and came down hard on my Dad for having this “distracting affair” with this young woman. He agreed to end it, but their love simmered for over a decade before they had a chance to reactivate their passion.

Dad married my mother before he shipped out with the Army in World War II, but his heart never left Evelyn. After the war, he returned to live, and father two children with, my mother. But, when it was time to “go into hiding,” he didn’t go alone: Evelyn left her husband and took her child, and joined him in the underground life. I think they were hiding as much from my mother and her circle of New York “comrades” as they were from the government. Dad and E were an inseparable couple for more than fifty years.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Red Diaper Memories: The Shy "King" of the Jewish Home Strike

My Dad spent the last few years of his lie as “the King of the San Francisco Jewish Home.” I don’t mean that he lorded over anyone. In fact, he was pretty shy and docile with the caregivers and medical staff. He told me that he felt he was back in the Army: “follow the rules, don’t complain, and you’ll get three square meals a day and a warm place to sleep.”

So, how did he get to be the King? He did it by acting on his lifelong political justice principles – supporting the caregiver staff in a very public way.

On a cold and rainy November morning, an old man is wheeled out of the Jewish Home to a small gathering of reporters and local television camera crews. He is there to speak out on behalf of the Home’s workers, who are in the midst of a long and ongoing battle with management over wages and benefits. The Home’s managers have asked for a pay freeze and increase contributions to the employee’s healthcare plan. The union has refused, and tempers are high. The union has warned of a Christmas Day “sickout,” and the Home has responded by contracting with an agency that has agreed to provide replacement workers if needed. No one has backed down, and tensions inside the Home are rising.
The old man lifts his head. It is Carl Vedro, bent and shrunken with age, but with a strong voice nonetheless. “For my entire life I supported workers’ rights, organized unions and marched on picket lines, and there is no way at the end of my life that can break that promise. I will starve before I will allow strikebreakers to feed me. Its unacceptable to me to see my caregivers out on the street, while we’re inside being fed by the people who took their jobs.”

Within a few hours, Senator Barbara Boxer, whose father had been a Jewish Home resident a few years earlier, called the sides together. The sick-out is called off and the contract is extended for another year.

From that day on, till his death two years later, every worker at the Home knew that it was Carl who “saved his or her benefits.” They showered him with the appreciation he so much deserved for his life’s work.

Red Diaper Memories: Karl's Saxophone

Karl, my half-brother, was named for Karl Marx, but he certainly did not grow up to embrace his father’s plans. In the height of the Depression, Dad left Karl’s mother to become a full-time Communist Party organizer. This precipitated a crisis, and she wound up putting her son into an orphanage, where he stayed (quite unhappily) until his mother remarried and took him back home.

As Karl tells it, from the moment he got home, he knew he wanted to make music. Fingers in mouth did more than pacify – they became fleshy reeds: middle fingers, blown against, moist with baby spittle, thumb and pinky waving to some unheard tune. He loved to dance to jazz records, and would often wander in to neighbor’s yards, up on their stoops, and into their doorways, in pre-World War Two Brighton Beach Brooklyn, to get closer to the radio music he heard coming from inside their living rooms. He played the kazoo, the wax-papered comb, the recorder, anything that would make a sound!

One evening, returning home from a walk on the beach with his mother and brother, they passed the open door of a restaurant. Inside, the music was coming from a live combo, and he heard and then saw, bright brass catching the pink spotlight’s beam, for the first time, the instrument that would be his life partner. “I want that,” he said with a certainty that would be repeated every morning for over two years: “I want a sax-phone.” Until, at age nine, he got his wish – not a beaten-up, pawn-shopped, instrument, but an expensive professional “King” saxophone, paid for by his stepfather on a long installment plan.

Brother Karl played the saxophone way into his seventies; until his front teeth fell out from all the years of holding the mouthpiece, until his lungs could no longer vibrate the reed. He held many different jobs, trained and practiced as a chiropractor, dreamed of hosting a jazz show on the radio despite his awful Brooklyn accent, but the constant throughout his life was making music. He played the beatnik clubs on Venice Beach, was in a combo traveling the “silver dollar circuit” from LA to Reno and Las Vegas, playing in second-tier casinos, he buskered every weekend at the San Francisco Ferry Terminal (his wife on the tambourine and drum, his daughter passing the hat), and later in life took almost any gig, from hotel weddings and bar mitzvahs, to free concerts at senior centers and nursing homes, that would allow him to make music.

Our father never made peace with Karl’s love for the saxophone. To Dad, Karl’s was a wasted life. The thought that his first-born son was choosing Dionysus over Marx, the pleasure principle over class struggle, was truly a moral failure of the highest order. And, sadly, he regularly let him know it. This, despite Karl’s bringing his music to every family gathering, and in my Dad’s later years, to almost every “coffee and cookies” Sunday afternoon sing-along at the nursing home he was living in.

In fact, Dad’s even being accepted as a patient in this home was partially due to Karl’s years of volunteer service there. Dad could look out from his room and see Karl bringing smiles to his neighbors, and later chastise him for “not making more of his life,” even as Karl was on his knees clipping the old man’s toenails!

It would have been nice to report a deathbed conversion: a final acceptance or “thank you.” But even at the end, fading in and out of consciousness, his parched lips being swapped with ice by the hospice nurse, my stepmother at his side, and Karl holding his hand, no blessing came forth, only the same whispered words of judgment and reproach for “not doing enough” with his life.

I like to think that when Dad got to heaven, in that life-review space between incarnations, he saw his parents dancing, turning and bowing to the sounds of Karl’s saxophone wafting up from this world down below. And, in that brief moment, gave him the blessing Karl so long deserved.

Red Diaper Memories: The Little Boy at the Dneiper River

It is 1920, and the Russian Civil War rages across the Ukraine. First the Bolsheviks come and promise the Jews freedom once the revolution is secured. The Jews of the village of Uman celebrate, but it is too soon. The Army of the Whites pushes back, and the Soviets retreat, leaving a few old rifles behind for defense. “We’ll be back,” they promise.

Overrun, the community is under attack once again. Fires are smoldering outside. Animals are loose and crying out. Horses hooves shake the ground. The guns are hidden away before the reprisals begin. The children are sent to the basement. Houses are torched, stores ransacked, young men kidnapped, girls raped; over 170 left dead. So much fear: it is time to flee.

This is the beginning of many immigrants’ journey: the burning village, the army in the streets, looking for booty and revenge. My father tells me this story, and how his father was killed in their escape.
We were at the border between the Ukraine and Moldova, on the way to Romania, at the Dneiper River. Our family was middle class. We owned a store and warehouse in the shtetl, but it had been ransacked by both the Whites and the Reds, and the family knew that we had to leave. Papa had paid a smuggler to get them across. He and my older brother Joe were to go across first. My sister and I waited with our mother in the woods for the smuggler to return and take us next. The sun finally set, but no one had returned to get them.

Eventually, only Joe came back, crying that Papa was murdered. The smuggler and the boatman had robbed them of all the gold and jewels hidden in their coats, and thrown them overboard, laughing and cursing the “Jews who hid their money.”

Papa drowned, but Joe was able to swim back to shore under cover of darkness. I waited on the shoreline for two days for the body to appear, but my mother had found another boat, and we, Joe, Beatty, and me the baby, had to leave on what would become a two-year-long journey across Europe, to France, and eventually a steamer to Ellis Island and New York.

I can picture my father as a five or six-year-old little boy standing on the bank of that river, staring at the water’s surface for hours, refusing to move until finally dragged away by his mother. The little boy waiting in tears for his father’s return; the little boy now totally dependent on his mother for survival. This is my inheritance.

I loved this man, who in turn abandoned first his sone Karl, and later, my brother and me, disappearing “underground” to hide from the FBI, to hide from my mother (and his responsibilities to his children) as well. Responsible for nothing, yet perhaps in some hidden corner of that little boy's brain, feeling ultimately responsible for his Papa’s death itself.

In some ways, I became this man. Like my father, I can be a victim, a dreamer, and a liar; often dependent on women, yet deeply resentful of this dependency. I have been blessed with a deeper "inner understanding," and have found the space to love him, and evolve past his limitations.