Sunday, March 22, 2009

I Love a Parade

I’m not sure why it is but I often cannot watch a parade without my eyes welling up and, at times, tears run down my cheeks. Perhaps it is a mixture of nostalgia and some powerful feeling of pride and kinship, but when I see the American flag fluttering in the breeze as it passes by, followed by people marching in lock step to the rhythm of a drumbeat timed to brass trumpeting or a piper’s tempo, I go all queasy inside.

I’ve been marching in parades since joining Boy Scout Troop 157 in Brownsville, Brooklyn when I was 12 years old. These experiences began during World War II, and our scout troop Drum and Bugle Corps participated in the commemoration of the raising of plaques to the boys in the service in scores of neighborhoods. It was a matter of deep patriotic pride among the neighbors whose sons had enlisted or were drafted to serve in the Armed Forces.

I was both a drummer and a bugler and not very good at either but passable enough to march and play. We held band practice in PS 183 a few blocks from our headquarters in the finished basement of the Silverman house on Strauss Street. Later, as the war progressed, the band played again at the same sites when gold stars replaced the blue ones.

The most memorable parade I ever participated in was the Victory Parade down Fifth Avenue after World War II was won. I’ve been in a number of parades since then, but nothing surpasses that event. I played the bugle in that parade and can still hear the cheering and see the vast crowds that lined the avenue. It was a glorious heart stirring moment. It was America at its pinnacle.

As a parade watcher, there is one parade that sticks in my mind and just recalling the images of that day sends chills of patriotic pride down my spine. It was, as usual, up Fifth Avenue, and for some reason I found myself at a high floor along the parade route. It was the celebration, if I remember correctly, of the first group of troops to come from Europe after their victory in World War II.

It was led by one of the youngest Generals in that war, General James Gavin who was the Commander of the 82nd Paratroop Division. Imagine, a single soldier, this ramrod straight young general in his shined paratrooper boots and perfectly groomed uniform, a single symbolic American solder leading the victorious Army that had brought down a cruel monster, the demonic Adolph Hitler and his evil attempt to shackle the world to his brutal idea of the master race. Behind him marched the men of the 82nd, proud men in a division that had taken enormous casualties and who still retained the pride of belonging as they strutted in perfect sync down the most famous thoroughfare in America. You don’t have more stirring images than that to quicken the pulse and appreciate the meaning of sacrifice and victory.

Whenever I can, I attend the greatest annual parade of all, the St. Patrick’s Day parade, where those of Irish ancestry, men, women and children, proud of their heritage, swagger up Fifth Avenue with all the pageantry and regalia they can muster to proclaim their pride and glory of having come from the Emerald Isle and become part of a great new country. It is an inspiring event, seeing those wonderful Irish faces marching together in a parade that lasts more than six hours and sometimes longer.

It is a spectacle worth attending, not only for its pageantry, but what it says about the big-hearted melting pot that is America. These days the parade is speckled with people of all races who are part of the vast network of Irish beneficence that welcomes all people to celebrate with them. Considering that the Irish immigrants were once reviled as low class drunken troublemakers by the powers that then were running America in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the St. Patrick’s day parade illustrates the upward mobility that our way of life portends for those who come to our shores to ply their dreams.

I find it inspiring to see people celebrating themselves and the native culture that has stitched them into the American fabric. Indeed, Fifth Avenue is the route of choice for ethnic groups of all varieties to exhibit their traditions, their music and their pride in being Americans. To celebrate Columbus’ landing in the New World, both the Spanish who claim him as a native son and the Italians who make a similar claim organize a parade on different days, a double whammy.

There are parades celebrating the heritages of Germans, Puerto Ricans, Greeks, Jews commemorating Israel Independence day and other groups who wish to memorialize their native roots. The time and effort that goes into these activities is awesome but the results offer a profound perspective on the vast patchwork quilt of the American experience.

Nostalgia must strike something deep inside me to be so stirred by watching parades. Perhaps it has something to do with my father who would carry me on his shoulders on what was called Armistice Day to see the bands and doughboys of the peacetime Army along with veterans of what was once called the Great War, march down Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn during that bygone holiday many years ago.

In those days lampposts were festooned with wreaths, and red poppies were offered for sale as a reminder of that brutal war and the men who were left behind on the bloody battlefields of Europe. When I sometimes think of the American blood shed to protect our European allies from their enemies and the ingratitude of their progeny, I often cannot control a trill of anger.

Indeed, I am often angered by people who cite the hostility to America from people of other countries as proof that somehow America is a land of arrogance, selfishness and greed. Worse, I grow livid with rage when our own citizens rant about our imperfections and imagined cruelties as if we are motivated by sinister forces with evil intent, condemning us as a nation without a soul or a sense of humanity. By no means are we a perfect populace and we often make monumental mistakes in our choice of leaders, and it is true that there are many among us who are corrupt and greedy or afflicted with other evils of the human condition. It is also true that we do terrible things to each other, but not because we are Americans. Rather because we are Homo sapiens with built-in evil traits that, at times, dominate our actions with awful consequences.

But I contend that we Americans are a lot less worse than other organized governments on this planet, more enlightened, and, by and large, more big hearted, generous and decent than perhaps all the others. We are always striving to improve and have an enormous capacity and talent for self-correction.

As a soldier during the Korean War, I marched in military parades and always felt a sense of profound participation, part of something bigger than myself. During that war I was ordered to the Pentagon to become the Washington Correspondent for Armed Forces Press Service. In that role I was able to provide important information of concern to the average Joe who served in all the branches of the American military.

It wasn’t combat, of course, but it gave me insight into the inner workings and psychology of the American military, which I found to be mostly decent, dedicated and talented professionals who have the awesome responsibility to defend us and run our wars. I found them to be compassionate and deeply concerned as they tried their best to weigh the price to be paid in American lives for every move planned to bring a victorious end to whatever hostilities they were engaged in.

To many, especially those who have not been involved in such experiences, my ebullience might sound jingoistic or emotionally naïve or an aberration of aging memories. I make no apologies for this feeling or my sometimes tearful sense of joyous pride watching a parade organized by my fellow citizens, and I am stirred to gratitude for my astonishing good luck in being an American.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

How I Got The Idea For The Sunset Gang

I’m not sure my father graduated from High School. He never told me. I think my mother graduated from Girls High in Brooklyn, but I’m not certain. She had come to New York in the hold of a ship from Russia with her mother, my Grandmother, who had six children in tow. My mother was three years old. My Grandfather had come a few years earlier to save enough money to bring them to the United States. It all happened in the waning days of the nineteenth century. That was the way it was done.

My father came to New York from London’s East End when he was ten years old. He was, I think, born in Poland and had come to England with my grandparents when he was eight months old. He rarely talked about his early childhood in London, but when he did he cited merely the names of boys with whom he had played. He never went back.

That is the sum total of knowledge that I gleaned from my parents about their early days. It represents a huge gap in my education. Perhaps it was my fault. I never asked. But they never told me. I didn’t miss this lack of knowledge until a few years ago. Now I hunger for it. Not only about their history but about the whole line of ancestors that came before me.

This is not how I got the idea for the Sunset Gang, but it is an element of memory that clearly connects with the idea and might be one of the subconscious reasons why I wrote these stories.

Late in life my parents retired to Florida. Somehow, after a life of hard economic knocks, they managed to scrape up enough money to buy a one-bedroom condominium for $13,000 in Century Village in West Palm Beach. My father had been a bookkeeper, mostly expendable and mostly unemployed throughout the great depression. Half our lives were spent in a small three-bedroom house in Brownsville, Brooklyn bought for my mother’s parents, my grandparents, by their sons who supported them. We moved in whenever we were thrown out of our apartment for not paying the rent. It was called being dispossessed.

My grandparents had no social security, no pension, no means of support except by their children. The house became a refuge for us and those of my aunts and uncles and cousins who had lost the means of their livelihood because of hard times. There were eleven of us who lived in this tiny house with one bathroom. I slept with my kid brother. My parents slept somewhere downstairs in the dining room.

I have no memories of deprivation or unhappiness. I loved my childhood and loved that house, but that is another story I will write someday.

Oh yes, the idea of The Sunset Gang. Century Village in West Palm Beach is a sprawling community which was populated in the seventies and eighties by mostly lower middle class people, many of whom were Jewish, who had found Valhalla after lives of tough sledding in New York City and other northern cities. It’s probably much changed these days. Most people who lived there then were, like my parents, immigrants. With their children grown, they trekked to the new promised land. Florida! This became the magic destination, with sunshine, perpetually blooming flora and fauna, swimming pools, a giant clubhouse for entertainment, vast areas for card playing, old comedians doing their Catskill shtick, cycling clubs, lectures, classes and, above all, gossip.

Gossip had always been the coin of the realm among these immigrants who had come to American as children. They had always lived in close quarters, always watching and listening to the people who lived around them. They were always observing each other, talking about each other, criticizing, commenting, bragging. They were a living pulsing version of today’s tabloids. They knew who was cheating on whose husband or wife, who was lying about their past lives, who was exaggerating about their children’s achievements, who was richer or poorer, who had been a crook or a gangster, who was in bad health, who was dying, which widow was on the prowl for a man and vice versa. Above all, they knew who had secrets and they passed them around to each other in strict confidence. “You shouldn’t tell” meant spread the word. They were more efficient communicators than today’s Internet.

The principal conduits for this word of mouth knowledge were the women. The “Yentas”. Yenta is a Yiddish word for busybodies, a term of derision and mild contempt.
My mother would have been appalled if she was referred to as a Yenta. In fact, no woman would ever admit she was, at heart, a Yenta. “Me a Yenta. Are you crazy?”

The men, too, were a form of male yenta, although I never heard them referred to as such. To them yenta was the ultimate put-down, a troublemaker, a female gangster. “Watch your mouth. The Yentas could be listening.” was the ultimate danger signal of all the men who I met at Century Village on my periodic visits to my parents.

This said, I must confess that all of the ideas that became the short stories in my books, The Sunset Gang and later with more stories added “Its Never Too Late for Love” came from the Yentas of Century Village, including my mother. I owe them a profound debt of gratitude.

I began this little essay with some background about where my parents came from. I am, after all, a child of their experience and their genes flow in the blood of my body and my brain. I know in my gut that these stories come from that fount, that milieu.

God, how I miss them.