I feel very strongly about ice.  Not the ice with which winter sometimes glazes our streets and sidewalks, but the ice we use to chill our drinks.  I don’t like ice made in the freezer section of modern refrigerators.  I want my ice to be crystal clear cubes or irregular chunks, not white or gray, fogged with air bubbles or impurities.  And I especially don’t like semicircle-shaped ice because it hugs the sides of the glass and forms a dam against your lips when you tip the glass to drink.  Tip the glass a little more to start the flow and suddenly a flood of liquid surges over the ice dam, runs down your chin and soaks the front of your shirt.  Another abomination, shaved ice, is for sno-cones, not beverages.

I am also particular about how much ice should be in a glass of iced tea.  This is mostly an issue at restaurants.  Far too often a glass of “iced tea” arrives with the remnants of three or four ice cubes melting on top of wan colored tea.  Iced tea should be reasonably dark and served with the glass full of ice.  I frequently ask for a separate glass of ice cubes, just so I can properly ice my iced tea.

My fascination with ice started at the tender age of four.  As my family did not have a lot of money, we lived a relatively austere life.  In 1943, we rented a second-floor apartment in a converted two-story house.  Like many homes of that era, it was not equipped with a refrigerator.  We used a literal “icebox” to keep foodstuffs cold.  Naturally, over a few days the ice melted.  Disposing of the water was simple but replenishing the ice supply required a regular visit from the ice man. 

The ice man drove an insulated truck filled with large blocks of clear ice…300 pounds when they left the ice factory.  Home iceboxes used smaller blocks, around 25 pounds.  The ice man dragged a large block to the rear of the truck, then using an ice pick, he deftly chipped through the larger block, gradually carving out smaller blocks of the required size.  To get the ice into the house, he donned a thick leather apron that covered his back.  Grabbing the newly cut block with large tongs, he slung the ice over his shoulder and carried it to its destination…in our case, up the flight of wooden stairs tacked onto the side of the house and into our kitchen.

The best thing about the ice delivery, from a kid’s perspective, was the scattering of ice chips left over from creating the smaller blocks.  In the summer, all the neighborhood kids, me included, would cluster around the back of the truck and gather handfuls of cold, refreshing ice chips to suck on…and sometimes throw at each other…to counter the oppressive Kansas heat and humidity.  The next year we were able to rent house that had a small, but real, refrigerator, thus contributing to the trend that did away with the ice man and those beloved ice chips.

My life was not entirely ice-less.  Our small refrigerator had a miniscule freezer section that was just large enough for stacking three narrow metal trays in which to make ice.  The trays had metal inserts that divided the trays into cube-like partitions.  Getting the ice out of the trays was a challenge, but I quickly learned that running warm water over the bottom of the tray released the frozen mass.  Spanking the tray-shaped ice with the back of a wooden spoon usually dislodged the cubes from the divider, though not always without shattering a few cubes into fragments.

The highlight of our summer visits with my grandparents was the icehouse attached to my grandfather’s combination gas station/store.  Situated on US Route 66 on the northwest corner of Oklahoma City, the station was busy with both local customers and long-distance travelers.  Many of the latter, and some of the former, depended on the icehouse to provide ice for their coolers and the few remaining iceboxes.  The icehouse was about eight-foot square with six-inch thick walls and a heavy door.  My sister and I always looked for opportunities to spend a few minutes in the icehouse. 

When I was nine or ten, I convinced my grandfather to teach me how to chip smaller blocks out of the 300-pound block. It turned out that the large blocks were made with subtle fissures built in.  Using an ice pick on the fissures easily split the block into uniform sized smaller blocks.  I think he was grateful for my help: it allowed him to tend to his store customers with fewer interruptions.  When I asked him if one of my cousins could help me in the icehouse and stocking shelves, he replied sternly, “One boy is half a man; two boys is half a boy; three boys is no boy at all.”

The gas station, along with the icehouse, was forced to close in the late ‘40s when the highway department decided to widen Route 66.  In the process, they also lowered it by about eight feet, leaving only a narrow berm for customers to park, and requiring them to climb a flight of stairs to get to the store. 

Fast forward to 1967.  Carol and I decided to revive the annual University of Michigan Department of Psychology Graduate Student Picnic, an event that had been dormant for about eight years.  Our closest friends, Meredith and Sandy and their husbands Bud and Arvo, and Nancy and her housemate Sue, all volunteered to help.  Each pair peeled, cubed, and boiled 10 pounds of potatoes and a dozen eggs for potato salad.  Forty pounds of potatoes fit very nicely in a 30-gallon plastic trash can (brand new from K-Mart and thoroughly scrubbed).  Bud was in past his (thoroughly scrubbed) elbows mixing all the ingredients on the morning of the picnic.  We also had purchased several cases of soft drinks and six cases of beer (different brands to satisfy different tastes).  We carried dozens of hot dogs and hamburgers in an ice chest for cooking on site.

Keeping everything cold on a hot July afternoon involved ice.  Lots of ice.  Since block ice melts slower than crushed ice, we located a nearby icehouse that sold 300-pound blocks and had them load it into the rental van already filled with picnic supplies.  At the picnic grounds I used the picking skills I had acquired under my grandfather’s tutelage to split it into 50-pound blocks and dumped ice, beer, and soft drinks into two 5-foot round kids wading pools, along with the potato salad container.  I chipped some of the blocks into smaller chunks to provide a cold bath for the beverage cans.

Someone organized a softball game (grad students vs faculty).  Arvo and I took turns cooking dogs and burgers.  The beer and soda stayed ice cold all afternoon.  The potato salad disappeared.  The picnic was a tremendous success, and we repeated the event for two successive years.  We could not have done it without ice.

I don’t have any commerce with block ice these days, but I am fortunate to have a dedicated ice maker that continuously fills its bin with crystal-clear ice…not exactly cubes but close enough.  I brew iced tea in an automatic pot that heats the tea to just the right temperature (just below boiling) before dumping it onto a pitcher of ice.  Since I prefer sweet tea, I make a jar of simple syrup, which I add to the tea.  I fill my double-walled iced tea mug to the brim with ice before topping it off with the chilled tea.

Did I mention that I feel very strongly about ice?  If you suspect that I feel the same way about iced tea, you would be right.

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Ken the Collector

I do not understand what motivates a collector.  The thought of acquiring large quantities of items that have no intrinsic value except to others of similar bent is totally foreign to me.  Paintings, stamps, coins, vinyl records, comic books, baseball cards, beer cans, matchbooks…I cannot imagine what satisfactions owning several hundreds of these items bring to their owners. 

I have known only a few collectors; none very well.  The most interesting collector I met was then-wife Carol’s Uncle Ken, whom I met just twice in the late ‘60s.  Ken and his wife owned a largish house in a mid-sized city in the lower Hudson River Valley.  Their adult daughter had moved out, so there were more rooms in the house than were required for comfortable living.  Two of the rooms on the first floor were dedicated to displaying a selected portion of Ken’s substantial collection of antique smoke bells.

“What is a smoke bell,” you may ask?  When candles, gaslights, and oil or kerosene lamps provided household illumination, they emitted large amounts of smoke and soot.  To prevent an accumulation on the walls and ceilings, people placed a removable, washable barrier a few inches above the flame to collect the soot.  Made of glass, porcelain, or metal, these items evolved into innumerable artistic styles, shapes, colors, and geometric designs.  Simple disks soon boasted fluted edges.  Conical and bell shapes were popular and varied along many different dimensions.  So much variation is apparently a collector’s dream, and Ken had carefully assembled and organized his displays. 

When Carol, her mother, and I visited Ken one Christmas vacation, he led us on a smoke bell tour, proudly discussing the origins and provenance of his major acquisitions.  Since this was not Carol’s first visit to Ken’s collection, I gathered the tour was for my benefit. I must have appreciated it sufficiently, because, just before we left, he said he would like to give us a small Christmas present.

Ken led us downstairs to a large basement room.  A mismatched set of kitchen cabinets filled one wall for a length of about twenty feet. The lower cabinets were about thirty inches high and two feet deep.  The upper cabinets were about as tall, but only about a foot deep.  Eight or ten cardboard cases holding twelve bottles of liquor apiece were scattered along the countertop.  Almost apologetically, Ken explained that he didn’t have room to store the exposed bottles because the cabinets were already full of liquor.  He asked us what our favorite alcoholic beverages were and offered us three bottles of whatever we liked. 

Cautiously, I inquired how he had managed to accumulate such an unusual amount of liquor.  Ken shook his head and said it was quite ironic because he wasn’t much of a drinker.  He was a city employee, and had been for quite a few years, and was instrumental in awarding sizable contracts. Many of those contractors expressed their appreciation to him around this time of year with a case of booze.  He didn’t know what to do with it, so it ended up in his basement.  I later calculated that Ken must have had between 1,900 and 2,000 bottles of whiskey, rum, gin, vodka, brandy, and liqueurs in his basement cabinets.  Even so, it seemed to pain him to offer three bottles to Carol and me. 

The difference in Ken’s demeanor between his upstairs and downstairs collections was striking.  The upstairs items had been carefully selected, purchased, cataloged, organized, and displayed.  Downstairs items were thrust upon him, undesired, unorganized, and hidden, but he appeared to have no inclination to dispose of them.  He was proud of his efforts to gather the items in his smoke bell collection. But he seemed almost ashamed of the vast number of liquor bottles he had stashed in his basement.

Carol and I returned home with three bottles of Uncle Ken’s booze in our luggage, still marveling at what he had disclosed.  As a city official he was almost certainly forbidden to accept gifts from contractors.  As the person who had to maintain relationships with his contractors, he hadn’t found a way to refuse what they considered small tokens of appreciation.  Even if he had been a heavy drinker, he could never have consumed enough alcohol to make a dent in the ever-growing supply.  There was too much of it for him to give away to his limited number of friends and relatives and doing so would have revealed that he had accepted contraband.  And he couldn’t pour it all down the drain without killing a lot of fish in the Hudson River. 

Despite whatever mixed feelings he may have had, deep in his soul Ken was a collector.  What alternative did he have but to keep expanding his basement storage space to accommodate a few dozen more bottles every year? 

Ken died about ten years after our visit.  I doubt that the estate would have had much problem disposing of the smoke bells.  It is likely that other collectors purchased some pieces, and some were probably donated to museums.

But isn’t the more interesting question: “What happened to Uncle Ken’s other collection”?

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A few months ago, the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles notified me that my driver’s license was set to expire at my next birthday and informed me that I could renew it by mail or I could make an appointment to apply in person to obtain a REAL ID license.  Assuming that someday we will be able to travel again, the REAL ID would make it easier to access Federal facilities and board domestic airline flights.  Ever the optimist, I made an appointment. 

Because of the pandemic, appointments were limiting the number of people that could be in the DMV at any given time. You know what the DMV is like – too many people needing service and too few clerks available to provide the service.  During the best of times, you could easily wait several hours before your number was called.  Under pandemic rules, you have to wait months before you can show up at the DMV…then you have to wait an hour or more to be admitted to the building…then you have to wait for another half hour or so for the two or three people in line ahead of you to resolve their problems at the assigned window…which is inevitably staffed by a trainee.

When it was finally my turn, I told the trainee and her mentor that I was applying for a license renewal with REAL ID and handed over the documents I had brought to prove that I am an American citizen, I have a valid Social Security number, I am a resident of the Commonwealth of Virginia, and I live at an actual fixed address (not a P.O. Box).  Computer keys clicked and documents were shuffled, and more computer keys clicked.  Then the trainee leaned around her computer screen, peered through the Plexiglas covid barrier, and asked, “What else did you bring?”

It turns out that to satisfy the Homeland Security requirement for a REAL ID, you’re supposed to have TWO documents that show your residential address.  The VA Driver’s License is one, but they also want to see “recent utility bills, mortgage statement, or rental lease agreements.”  Well, I don’t have any mortgages or leases, and my utility bills are all “paperless.” 

Dragging every single card and slip of paper from my wallet, I finally found an official looking card containing my address, but it was issued by the Virginia DMV, so they couldn’t accept it as “independent” verification. I called Katie, who had been waiting patiently in the car, to ask  if she could find anything suitable mixed among the detritus accumulated in the floor of the back seat.  She found a Costco receipt with the correct address, but, alas, Costco knows me as “Jesse” and I still use “Ramon” at the DMV.

I didn’t get a REAL ID star on my renewed license because I did not produce an envelope showing my residential address.  But I did get an email from the DMV the day after my visit notifying me that they had put my new license in the mail. 

Ironically, and apparently without any hesitation, they sent it to the same address they said they were not able to verify.

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The Entertainment Miracle

Sometimes, inanimate objects just gather in ways that defy the imagination. Items lying about the house in different rooms for different purposes just seem to gravitate together to create a uniquely transformational union.

‘The Entertainment Miracle’ started in 1991 with planning a summer vacation trip from our home in Silver Spring, Maryland, to South Carolina’s Hilton Head Island resort.  We had taken long trips before and were well aware of the potential for conflict between Danny, almost 9, and Liza, not quite 6.  We had recently replaced our ’88 Caravan with a 1991 model specifically because the second-row seating featured separate bucket seats that helped create a narrow DMZ between the kids.  It is critical to note at this point that Chrysler designers had not yet filled the space between the driver’s and passenger’s seats with a storage console.

By 1991, VHS had been part of home entertainment in the US for some 14 years.  We had several TVs scattered around our house and at least two of them had VHS players attached.  As it turns out, there was also an older, more primitive model stashed on a shelf in my bedroom closet.  This was an Olympus model VC-101 “Portable Video Cassette Recorder” – half of our first video recording technology.  The other half was a shoe-box sized video camera that plugged into the VC-101. To complete its VCR functioning, there was also a tuner component the same size as the tape deck. The camera and tuner were also stashed on the shelf but had not been used for several years.  The critical note here is that the VC-101 was about 10 inches square and less than 4 inches high – and it ran on a 12-volt battery.

In 1991 I was employed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. I also did some computer programming work for Katie’s company, mostly involving writing helpful utilities to ease her management burden.  To support this effort, I had constructed a large workstation in the corner of a small room in our house.  I had a sound system in the room, but I thought that a small TV would let me check out the nightly news. I had picked up an RCA Space-Saver 5½” portable color TV receiver on a whim a while back at the local Goodwill while shopping for vintage patterned sport shirts and “pre-worn” Levis.  It turns out that the TV could run on ten “D” cells or it could be plugged into a wall socket.  Critically, it had a 12-volt power input, as well.

Despite having all these components in close proximity for some length of time, and despite having suffered through child entertainment hassles on previous long trips, I had never put them together until the ’91 Hilton Head trip.  Lightning struck!  This could solve the problem of contentious children! 

Armed with a tape measure and a pad of paper, I wrote down all the relevant dimensions and began to sketch some ideas about how to fit everything between the two front seats. The VCR fit nicely on the floor and the TV could sit on the arm rests.  There should be a storage area to hold a supply of tapes, and a place to put the headphones and stray cables.  A trip to the supermarket yielded some sturdy cardboard boxes of varying sizes. A boxcutter, a roll of duct tape, and a glue gun produced a cardboard “tower” that slid smoothly into the area between the driver’s and passenger’s seats. A couple of nylon straps anchored the whole assembly to the arm rests.

We purchased all the necessary fittings at the neighborhood Radio Shack with the expectation that each kid would listen through individual headphones with their own volume controls.  Alas, the TV output was a few watts short of sufficient, so we all ended up listening to the tapes on the speaker.

That trip was the most peaceful ten hours we had ever spent in a car with our young offspring.  They took turns choosing which of the videos to watch, they paid attention to the screen, and no one picked a fight with their sibling for invading their own “private space.”

That stack of boxes, the VCR, and the TV went with us on quite a few trips after that.  We never did solve the sound level problem, and numerous repetitions of A Goofy Movie almost drove Katie mad.

As much as this gathering of originally unrelated components simplified our own lives, it was destined to wreak havoc in a few others’.  Every time another minivan passed ours, the kids in those cars (who should have been buckled into their seats) were clustered at their side windows pointing at the glowing TV screen in our minivan. 

I’d like to think that whoever created the first crop of digital “in-vehicle-infotainment systems” was among the kids in one of those passing minivans, waving and pointing, and begging their dads and moms to get one for them.

Now, that would have been an entertainment miracle.

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Maury’s Bookstore

My real education began in Maury’s Book Store during the summer of 1958.  I had always been an avid reader…I read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey in high school.  But mostly it was science fiction or Sherlock Holmes.  It is to the latter that I attribute my acute powers of observation.

Charlie Boos and I spent most of our summer evenings in hanging around Maury’s Book Store on State Street, just north of Chicago Avenue, in Chicago’s legendary entertainment district, the Near North Side. Maury owned the Book Store, but it was run by a guy named Bill Smith.  Smith was the quintessential Beatnik, full beard, sloven clothing, rebellious attitude, and extremely well read.  Brilliant, you might say.  I believed that Bill had read every book in the place.  Perhaps his most striking feature was his almost soprano voice, which could always be heard dispensing an opinion above any other conversations in the room

The Book Store itself had nothing to apologize for.  It was a single room with glass windows facing the street and shelves on the three inside walls. Bins and bins held books in the center of the room, leaving only enough space in a corner for Bill’s chair and a cash drawer.  The titles focused on philosophy, religion, science, politics, psychology, classic literature, and poetry. I don’t recall any “popular fiction” or travel or anything that would detract from the gravity of the room’s main occupants.

That was the year that Fidel Castro and Che Guevarra stormed out of the mountains of Cuba to rid the island of the corrupt Fulgencio Batista regime and restore stolen plantation lands to the people, to get rid of the oppressive gambling dens and houses of prostitution that catered to decadent tourists, to institute educational reforms, and to foster the growth of the arts, literature, and music that were long suppressed. These were ideal times.  Every so often, a few young men would wander into the bookstore and ask who might want to leave everything behind and go to Cuba to fight with Fidel. Idealistic appeal notwithstanding, no one volunteered.

When you hung out in Maury’s bookstore, Bill had quite a few ideas about what you should read. My education started with a heavy dose of Dostoyevsky: not only The Brothers Karamazov, but Crime and Punishment, and The Idiot, thrown in for good measure.  Somewhere along the way, Bill handed me a copy of Emile Zola’s Germinal, just in case I needed to be radicalized.  Then, since I was beginning to question my Baptist background, Bill recommended the Outlines of the History of Dogma, by Adolph Harnack. Mark Twain’s Puddin’ Head Wilson and Voltaire’s Candide provided the satirical relief.

This was not the kind of education I was getting in school!  These were not recitations of facts.  Bill was pushing me to look at things from disparate viewpoints; to consider different arguments, to make judgments, to draw conclusions.  There were no right answers.

It was from Bill Smith’s soprano voice that I first heard the phrase: “Don’t let school interfere with your education.”  Long after the summer of 1958 in Maury’s Book Store came to a close, I finally ended my schooling in 1972, but I am proud to say that my education continues unimpeded.

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Am I my Brother’s Keeper?

One of the most significant, and probably the most misunderstood, tenets of Christian mythology is the notion that every living person is a child of God.  I think this misunderstanding is most apparent in the allegorical story of Cain, the gardener, and his younger brother, Abel, the shepherd, as told in the fourth chapter of Genesis.

We know very little about these two characters other than they were the first offspring of Adam and Eve.  Were they full-grown men or merely adolescent boys when this event occurred?  It might make a difference in how we interpret the story. And Eve had not given birth to any daughters at this point in the story, so the narrative is confined to the relationship between two brothers.

For an unexplained reason, Abel’s sacrificial lamb pleased God.  Cain’s presentation of his freshly harvested produce, not so much.  We know only that Cain’s gift was “fruit of the ground,” which could have been anything from a few potatoes to carefully bound sheafs of grain. If it was zucchini, I could understand God’s disdain. Still, I envision an overflowing cornucopia of fresh fruits and vegetables, lovingly selected for their perfection.

Cain, confused and angry, attacks Able and kills him, whether intentionally or accidentally we do not know.  God, already knowing this outcome, asked Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” To which Cain replied, somewhat sarcastically, “I do not know.  Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Traditionally – perhaps exclusively – we have focused on Cain’s reply: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  And those of us with a conscience interpret this to mean the opposite of Cain’s implication: “Yes, By golly! We ARE (or at least, should be) our brother’s keeper!”  (I have always assumed that by his answer, Cain confirmed himself to be the very first Republican.)

To me, the point of this allegory is not just that we should take care of those who are close to us, but that we have lost sight of the significance of God’s question: “Where is your brother Abel?”  Since God already knew the answer, this was not a direct question to obtain information.  It was posed to evoke a myriad of existential questions in the minds of those attempting to interpret this allegory to define the very nature of brotherhood: its extent, its requirements and responsibilities, its duties and obligations, its advantages and benefits.

Who are my brothers (and sisters, to be more inclusive)? How many brothers do I have?  How can I decide if someone is my brother?  Is there anyone who is NOT my brother?  What do I owe these brothers? What should I expect of them?  Are all my brothers just like me or can they be richer or poorer, or darker or lighter skinned, or speak different languages, or believe different mythologies, or even reject my claim to be their brother? When we find the answers, what shall we do?

Seminaries full of theologians could ponder these questions for centuries, but, occasionally, eloquent solutions emerge from other, common sources. During the 1940’s, when America’s labor movement was establishing itself as an effective force advocating for workers’ rights, folk-singer Tom Glazer composed the following words, set to the soaring music of J.S. Bach’s Chorale, O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden:

Because all men are brothers, wherever men may be,
The world shall be one union forever proud and free.
No tyrant shall defeat us, no nation strike us down,
All men who toil shall greet us, the whole wide world around.

My brothers are all others, forever hand in hand,
Where chimes the bell of freedom, there is my native land.
My brothers’ fears are my fears, yellow, white or brown.
My brothers’ tears are my tears, the whole wide world around.

Let every voice be thunder, let every heart be strong
Until all tyrants perish our work will not be done.
Let every pain be token, the lost years shall be found.
Let slavery’s chains be broken, the whole wide world around

Where is your brother?

Oh, and to emphasize that the origin of these profound words came from a common source, Glazer’s most famous contribution to the folk genre was the ever-popular, “On Top Of Spaghetti.”

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The Chosen People

Although my family’s surname is “Blatt,” I am not Jewish, even though every other Blatt that I have ever met has been.   I strongly suspect that my not-too-distant ancestors (perhaps as close as my great-great-grandfather) were, but converted when they left Germany less than 150 years ago. When I asked my Uncle Ralph if our family had once been Jewish, he became apoplectic and left the room without answering.

All my life I have been drawn to books by Jewish writers, many of which were richly informative about Jewish history and tradition, as well as everyday life.  The list includes (in alphabetical order) Isaac Asimov, David Bakan, Saul Bellow, Harlan Coben, E.L. Doctorow, Jonathan Safran Foer, Sigmund Freud, Joseph Heller, Erica Jong, Franz Kafka, Faye Kellerman, Jonathon Kellerman, Arthur Koestler, Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud, Abraham Maslow, Arthur Miller, Henry Miller, Henry Roth, Philip Roth, J.D. Salinger, William Styron, Leon Uris, Nathanael West, and Herman Wouk, among many others.

I have attended Jewish weddings and Jewish funerals.  I have witnessed Bar and Bat Mitzvoth.  I have chatted with Sabras about their Kibbutz experiences.  I have had many Jewish friends and colleagues, both observant and non-observant.  As different as each person is from the other, I believe that most of them shared one common characteristic: unquestioning support for the State of Israel.

This prelude is my attempt to demonstrate that I am reasonably informed about the mistreatments Jews have suffered throughout history, from Biblical times to the present.  But, at the risk of being labeled antisemitic, I have grown to deplore much of what the State of Israel has done and is doing to the people who were living in Palestine in 1948 and to their descendants.

More than anything, I object to the overwhelming force the Israelis use against Arab protests.  There is no question in my mind that the Arabs are living under oppressive conditions.  Israel has confiscated land that was allocated to the Arab population in the treaties that created the State of Israel.  When Arab teenagers throw rocks at Israeli soldiers, soldiers respond with RPGs.  When the Israeli soldiers drive their tanks into Arab neighborhoods, they not only level residences, they bulldoze olive groves and orange groves, destroying vital economic resources that take decades to recover.  The imbalance of power is so greatly in favor of the Israeli forces that tabulations of casualties show a ratio of close to 100 Arabs killed for each Israeli soldier, and the non-Israeli victims include many women and youth.

I have tried to understand Israel’s point of view.  They have, after all, received death threats from all their neighbors, and need to defend themselves from incursions.  It should not have come as a surprise that the Arabs would resist resettlement: Pretty much wherever you go, there are already people there who will be very upset if you try to push them out of their homes.  But do the Israelis need to intensify tensions by continuing to build settlements in Arab territory?  Do they really need to level houses and decimate income-producing crops?  

Jewish people have been struggling for thousands of years to occupy this land.  The Old Testament is full of accounts of the Hebrews conquering and being conquered; wars and battles galore.  Is this just one more episode in the long historical series of attempts to install The Chosen People in The Promised Land?

Given some of the arguments for the establishment of the State of Israel, part of Israel’s actions must be justified by the belief that non-Jewish occupants of the Holy Land are NOT God’s Chosen People, and therefore stand in the way of fulfilling God’s promise.  If I believed that my right to occupy a territory was ordained by God, then almost anything I do to maintain that occupation is a holy act.  How could anyone object to that?

A recent survey reported that while 80% of American Jews are pro-Israel, more than half are critical of Israeli policy.  Ironically, more respondents were concerned with Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu’s support for Donald Trump than were concerned about the state of Israel’s treatment of the Arabs or its continuation of building settlements on Arab land.

Between 1948 and 2004, the three major Jewish fund-raising organizations (United Jewish Appeal, United Israel Appeal, and Council of Jewish Federations) raised over $25 trillion, mostly from American Jews.  Of this amount, nearly $12 trillion was funneled to Israel.  While efforts to influence Israeli policies initiated by goyim are universally met with charges of antisemitism, American Jews, should they choose to unite behind a few specific issues, could have tremendous power to focus the Israeli government on those issues.

Will enough American Jews ever come together to condemn Israel’s treatment of its Arab neighbors to effect real change?  I am hopeful, but not optimistic.

On a related note, I would like to add that if I were one of the Chosen People, I’d be a little ticked off that God chose such a difficult place as Palestine, surrounded by people that hate me and want to kill me, to be my Promised Land.  Why couldn’t He have promised a place a little safer, a bit more lush, sort of like Florida, instead?

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A Conversation With Louie Armstrong

It is easier to say what Studs Terkel was not, rather than what he was. He was not a Maury Povich or a Jerry Springer. He was not a Johnny Carson or a Jack Paar, and certainly not a Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart. He was not a Merv Griffin or a Phil Donahue.

He was not a typical talk-show host, although his shows always involved talking. He didn’t interrupt or talk over his guests, or try to make jokes. He didn’t tell his guests about themselves, showing off how well he had prepared for their visit, though well-prepared he always was. He asked intelligent questions that required reflective answers. He claimed that he wasn’t interviewing people, he was simply having a conversation with them.  He was without doubt the best interviewer that I have ever encountered.

Studs was an avid listener, and because of that, he could talk to anybody. He was also an avid reader and consumer of the arts. If he was talking with an author, Studs would have read the author’s most recent work, as well as significant forerunners.  He was familiar with the works of the artists and musicians he interviewed.  While he encouraged people with unique histories to speak about themselves, he frequently got “famous” people to tell stories about people they have known; their mentors or teachers, friends or competitors, and incidents or events that had been influential in their lives…not your typical ego-invested celebrity interviews.

Studs Terkel’s conversation with Louie Armstrong occurred a little after 2:00 am in early June 1962. I was the WFMT engineer who recorded it. Armstrong was playing an engagement in one of Chicago’s Near North Side nightclubs, and we had to wait until after his last set of the night. The streets were crowded with the parked cars of the night’s revelers, forcing us to park a couple blocks away from the interview site The Magnecord “portable” tape recorder was packaged in two suitcase-type boxes weighing about 30 pounds each. I lugged them from the car to the club, and then up a narrow flight of stairs to a room at the back.

The room had just enough space for a small table and three chairs. It was a really small table in a tiny room. The tape recorder filled most of the tabletop, and there was only enough surface left for four elbows, none of them mine. A single microphone stood between the two men, and they both hunched towards each other as if they were about to exchange secrets.

The room was hot and Armstrong was worn out, which accounts for his low-key responses. Terkel was hyped, as he was for all his interviews. They talked for a little more than half an hour. At 3:00 am, we wrapped it up, packed up the equipment, trudged back to the car, and returned to the studio.

Studs was a prolific writer, publishing over 20 books compiled from his conversations.  Shortly after publication of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?: Reflections On Death, Rebirth, And Hunger For A Faith,” Politics and Prose Bookstore brought Studs to Washington, D.C., for a discussion and book signing.  This would have been 2002 or 2003: I had not seen Studs for 40 years, and I was eager to say “hello.”  The hosts circulated note cards for audience members to write questions for Studs.  I labored to write a short introduction of myself, with a reminder that I had been a WFMT engineer, and that I had recorded his conversation with Louie Armstrong.

After the signing crowd thinned, I joined the end of the line and handed my card to the “handler” who had earlier read the questions loudly enough for Studs to hear.  He scanned the card and informed me that Studs couldn’t read such small text, and that his hearing was so bad that he wouldn’t be able to understand such a detailed message.  Studs looked exhausted, and the handler seemed intractable.  Disappointed that I had not made contact with my former colleague, I returned home.

Studs cranked out a couple more books before he died in 2008 at age 96.  Of the many thousands of interviews he had recorded, Studs claimed that the Armstrong interview was his all-time favorite.  I recorded only a handful of those interviews, but it is safe to say that the Armstrong interview was my all-time favorite, too.

You can listen for yourself:

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Jeep Dreams

Although World War Two ended in Europe in May 1945, it took a while to bring home the 3 million soldiers stationed there.  Almost 2 million got back to US soil within the next 12 months.  I met one of these veterans in the summer of 1947 when he happened to drop by my grandparent’s house in Oklahoma City while our family was visiting.  His name was Bill.  Bill Young.  He was driving a Jeep that he had purchased from a government surplus sale.  A real Jeep –  not a picture in Life Magazine or a fuzzy image in an RKO newsreel at the Orpheum Theater. 

Would we like to go for a ride, Bill asked.  It wasn’t really set up for passengers, he said. One person could sit in the passenger seat, next to the driver.  The kids could sit on the rear fenders in the back, but we would have to hold on really tight because it was kind of a rough ride.

I was 8 years old.  How could anyone doubt that I’d want to ride in a real Jeep that had actually been in the war?   So my mother grabbed the front seat and my sister, Louise, and I jumped into the back and grabbed whatever handholds we could find, and off we went.  It was like a magic carpet ride, wind blowing in our faces, bumps bouncing us up and down on the hard metal fenders.  It was glorious.  It was the beginning of my dream to someday drive a jeep of my own.

After we finished the ride, we returned to my grandparent’s house and had cookies and milk – grownups had coffee.  It turns out that Bill was a friend of my mother’s.  I learned later that he was her boyfriend in high school.  I never knew that mothers had boyfriends.  I also learned that the soldier doll I had played with as a child (i.e., before I was 8), whose name was “Bill,” was named for the same Bill that had dropped by with his Jeep.  I figured out later that Bill had kept in touch with another of my mother’s high school friends, Kathryn Downing, who still lived in Oklahoma City, and whom we visited whenever we spent any time with the grandparents, so he knew how to find us.

We didn’t see Bill again after the Jeep ride until a year or so later, when he moved to Wichita, where our family lived.  I don’t think he had the Jeep anymore, but he did have another souvenir from his time in England: a British War Bride.  Her name was Elizabeth, and she was my first foreigner.  Bill and Elizabeth came to dinner at our house one evening.  Elizabeth had a charming British accent and ate with her fork upside down in her left hand, pushing food onto the back of the fork with her knife.  Unfortunately, Elizabeth was profoundly unhappy.  She took her own life shortly after arriving in Kansas.  Hers was my first funeral.  My father conducted the service.  Bill returned to Oklahoma and we lost track of him after that tragic event.

When I finally reached a position in life that I could own my own vehicle, I could not afford a Jeep.  When I could finally afford a Jeep, life required more conventional features in my transportation.  I found substitutes for the rush I imagined a Jeep would provide.  I had a Triumph TR4 for a while. I owned a Chevy coupe and a Chevy and a Ford sedan.  I have owned two full-size vans and several minivans.  I have owned a total of five Mustangs, all convertibles.  I have had a Ford Explorer and three Subaru Outbacks. I have never owned a Jeep.

Although science had debunked Lamarck’s theories of inheritance of acquired characteristics, somehow our son, Danny, has owned two Jeeps (so far).  I’m not aware of having influenced his choice of vehicles, but I can’t be certain that his choice was not an extension of my own dream.

One of the primary characteristics of dreams is that the dreamer eventually must wake up.  My awakening occurred in August of 2008.  That’s when Danny moved from Boston to Denver, packing all his belongings into the back of his Jeep.  Not wanting him to try to drive nonstop (I don’t know that he would have, but he was young.) I volunteered to keep him company on the trip, and schedule overnight rest stops along the route.  Danny’s Jeep did not have air conditioning, so we kept the side windows open to provide air flow.  It wasn’t too bad until we hit Kansas.  Kansas City to Denver is 600 miles of open prairie, with precious few hills and no woodlands.  The temperature was well over 90 degrees, and at 75 mph with the windows open and the sun shining, it was like spending a full day in a convection oven.

A few years ago, on a mountain road, a patch of black ice and a well-placed snow drift totaled his first Jeep. His second Jeep is a more recent model with some civilized accommodations, such as air conditioning.  I’m happy for him, but I no longer cling to the Jeep dream for myself.

With electric vehicles becoming less expensive and more practical, I can sense a new dream beginning to swirl in my subconscious:  will it be a Tesla? A Chevy Volt or Bolt?  A Nissan Leaf?  I even heard that Jeep is making a plug-in electric Wrangler. 

I can only wonder how this dream is going to turn out.

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My Final Farewell Concert Tour

I played my final concert in December 1963 at Chicago’s Masonic Hospital School of Nursing Annual Holiday Party.  Not coincidentally, it was also my first concert.  

I hadn’t intended to perform at the party…I was there as a guest of one of the nursing school instructors. Barb and I met in one of my night-school classes at Northwestern, and after a few after-class coffees, we began dating.

The party’s main entertainment was a folk trio, reminiscent of the then-popular group, Peter, Paul, and Mary.  The group was a bit unusual as two of the people were playing 12-string guitars.  They were fairly rare on the folk-music scene, which is why I had chosen one as my preferred instrument.  As I liked to say, you could make twice as much noise with half the effort with a 12-string.

The trio sang for about twenty minutes and then left the stage.  We thought it was a bit early for a break, but it was a good party with lively conversations, so we waited patiently for them to return.  After about twenty minutes, though, it became obvious that the trio had packed up and departed, leaving a serious vacancy in the planned entertainment.

Barb asked me if I had my guitar in the car, and would I be willing to fill in for a while.  I did, and I would, so I retrieved the guitar and, after Barb provided a brief introduction, I took the stage.  I sang.  In those days I had quite a repertoire, including, “Buffalo Skinners,” “Pastures of Plenty,” “Shoot Them Buzzards,” and “Blood on the Saddle,” among other all-time favorites.  No PP&M or Kingston Trio hits for me, no sir.  Cisco Huston, Woody Guthrie, Richard Dyer-Bennet, Oscar Brand, Jean Ritchie, and others featured on WFMT’s “Midnight Special” were my sources and inspiration.

I sang for a half-hour or so, and varied the program with some fast songs, some slow songs, and some sing-alongs thrown in (“This Land is Your Land” was good, but “Old King Cole” was the favorite, with its repeated chorus: “’Beer, beer, beer,’ said the privates, merry men are we.  There’s none so fair as can compare with the fighting infantry.”)  I didn’t have a play list; no planned sequence of songs that built on themes or tempos.  I didn’t have any bits of clever monologue.  I just sang the songs that I liked; that I had sung for friends and neighbors and the occasional girlfriend.

(During the whole time I was on stage, I kept hearing a subtle crackling sound, like someone breaking dry spaghetti into smaller pieces.  It wasn’t until I left the stage that I discovered that the varnish on my guitar had cracked as it warmed up from the below zero temperature it had been in the car.)

Many years later, during one of the several brief periods of unemployment that I have enjoyed, I considered hiring myself out as “live entertainment” in one of the local drinking establishments.  As a matter of pride, I still refused to learn any of the current hits that were certain to be requested…well, no more than a handful – certainly not enough to satisfy a bunch of noisy drunks. 

I continued to play for a few friends and neighbors, and an occasional girlfriend, but that holiday party during a brutally cold December was my one and only concert appearance on stage in front of a live audience as a folk singer.  And I have a 12-string guitar with cracked varnish to remember it by.

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