MAJOR LEAGUE TRYOUT

Is there a little boy (or little girl) who has ever thrown a baseball who hasn’t dreamed of the day the scouts come to watch him, if only for a moment? During the countless childhood hours I spent throwing a ball against a wall, I imagined performing in front of clipboard-carrying men in numerous ways. The dream sometimes evolved into making diving catches in front of thousands, or signing autographs for long lines of adoring fans. Occasionally, the dream involved hitting the World Series-winning home run. But first, always, the sense of being discovered by scouts, the sensation of BEING the diamond in the rough.

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Even as a ten-year-old, I never seriously envisioned myself a professional baseball player. Still, my imagination had to chew on SOMETHING while I threw the ball against the wall, over and over and over. Eventually, thanks to my solitary practice, I developed an extraordinary level of control. As a high school senior, I pitched 45 innings and walked only one batter. But the ability to “control” my pitches constituted my only big league ”tool” — there are at least four others I didn’t have – a pitcher who excels beyond high school must throw with velocity, movement, deceptiveness, command of several different pitches, such as a fastball, curve, and slider, AND control. Against accomplished hitters, to have control without the other attributes is called a batting practice machine.

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*****

By age sixteen, my imagination was even less likely to take major league flights of fancy. I fully accepted my status as a solid shortstop and pitcher for a weak high school that rarely produced a college player, let alone a professional. Over summers, I played for a team in West Philadelphia sponsored by the American Legion a step or two more accomplished than my high school team, but still a bottom feeder in the ocean of baseball talent.

Despite my sense of reality, my heart fluttered when my summer coach, a man whose only memorable trait was to sport a perennially open fly, called me aside after a game to ask me to attend a special practice the next afternoon. He said, affecting nonchalance: “The Dodgers will be there.”

“What Dodgers?” I asked, as though there were numerous kinds.

“The Los Angeles Dodgers, their local scout,” he said, a broad smile melting his cool.

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My eyes widened with excitement and disbelief, until he added: “You’ll cover shortstop for Jeff Leonard’s tryout.”

“What about ME?” I said.

“Well, he won’t be there for you, of course” he said. “He’s looking at Jeff.”

I let out a deep breath. NOW, I understood.   My face red with embarrassment, I felt like an idiot for reacting like the scout was coming to evaluate me. Fortunately, in his own excitement, the coach hadn’t focused on my naïve reaction. He’d already moved on to boast to several nearby adults: “Hey, I got the Dodgers coming out tomorrow.”

*****

Jeff Leonard was notionally a teammate of mine. But I’m certain he’d never bothered to learn my name. He never came to practices and rarely attended games. His appearances were like events after which you said: “Did that really happen?” When he came, he stood or sat by himself, aloof, until it was his turn to bat. On defense, he covered center field with silent efficiency. I’m not certain Jeff was arrogant or unfriendly; maybe he was just shy. But he certainly appeared unapproachable. As a seventeen-year-old, he carried himself like a world-weary adult, a man among boys.

Jeff, we were repeatedly told by our coach, was a superstar, a special talent. He attempted to salve hurt feelings by players displaced by Jeff’s appearances with an insider’s tone of voice, generally along the lines of:   “Listen fellas, we’re lucky to have Jeff whenever we do. He splits his time between several teams and some are way above our level.   He also has individual workouts for the benefit of professional scouts.”

Our collective sense of jealousy was mostly, but not entirely, satisfied with a sense of awe.

*****

When I arrived at the field that humid summer afternoon in 1972, I was surprised to see only three other teammates besides Jeff. I was instructed to stand at shortstop, the others were placed deep in left and center fields, and our catcher took his spot behind home plate. An otherwise nondescript middle-aged man explained he would pitch to Jeff, but his striking blue Dodger cap captivated my 16-year-old eyes like the world’s largest sapphire.

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Our coach and a man I assumed was Jeff’s dad stood next to the batting cage along with two strangers who also wore Dodger caps. They held the clipboards I’d always imagined and one held a stopwatch on a string around his neck. Jeff stood next to the batting cage, solemn as always, apparently unfazed by proximity to gatekeepers to the Pantheon of baseball greatness.

I knew Jeff starred at football as well as baseball in high school. His chiseled physique was unlike the skinny frames of the rest of us. Yet, his statistics when he played for our team were mediocre.

“What makes Jeff so special?” asked a teammate whose position in the lineup disappeared whenever Jeff appeared.

“Jeff,” the coach explained, “can run like the wind, can throw twice as far as you can, and when his bat makes contact, the ball takes off like it was launched by a bazooka.”

“Is it fair that he doesn’t come to practice?” asked the kid.

“This is baseball,” said the coach. “It ain’t democracy.”

I happened to know that Jeff’s bat didn’t make contact all that often. I’m sure his batting average was lower than mine. But scouts, I knew, looked for those elusive “tools,” the ones I lacked. A smooth swing, like a pitcher’s control, could be developed, but power, running speed, height and strength – those qualities derived more from nature than nurture. Even when Jeff sauntered on and off the field like he was bored, and slouched on the bench like he hadn’t slept in days, there was nothing sluggish about his swing.

*****

Thwack, thwack, thwack went the baseballs as Jeff pounded the easy pitches over my head. He didn’t hit any ground balls to shortstop but I received the returned balls from the outfield and, in turn, tossed them to the scout. I tried to make eye contact with him. Nothing doing. I tried to scoop the throws from the outfield with such style that the other two Dodger scouts couldn’t help but notice. Nothing doing.

After about fifteen minutes, the scout told Jeff to rest for a moment and told my other teammates they could come in while he conferred with his assistants.   After a moment, he said to me: “You stay at shortstop. We’re gonna have Jeff run down some fly balls and then hit you as the cutoff man.” (For the uninitiated, this means Jeff would show off his power and accuracy by throwing to me after his catches at full speed.) Jeff jogged past me to the outfield with his glove and one of the other men brandished a bat with practiced expertise. “Be ready, little man,” I think Jeff whispered to me as he passed. But like everything else about Jeff, I wondered: “Did he really say that?” The scout proceeded to launch balls to Jeff while I relished the renewed chance to become noticed.

I had to admire Jeff’s smoothness in tracking down the fly balls. Up, back, to the side, he made everything look easy. His throws seemed life threatening to me; never had he or any of our other outfielders put as much power and accuracy into their cutoff throws. “Jeff DOES care about this tryout,” I said to myself, as another ball crashed into my glove and burrowed down to my palm, now numb from repeated blows.

“Wow, that’s incredible,” exclaimed the scout after one particular laser-like throw battered my hand.

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I wanted to take off my glove and count my fingers but I didn’t want the scout to think I couldn’t handle such throws routinely. Fortunately, just as I reached the breaking point of my pain threshold, the scout motioned Jeff to come in, and said to me: “Okay, kid, that’s enough. Thanks. We’re just gonna check Jeff’s speed.”

My efforts in front of the Dodgers were at an end. All three Dodger scouts gathered at first base and timed Jeff’s speed around the bases. My teammates and I watched from the bleachers as a new, deeply motivated Jeff appeared before us. We’d heard about his abilities, but in front of these men, he appeared to have been struck with a lightning bolt of professionalism. His hitting had impressed me; his throws had blasted me; but his running was beyond anything I’d ever seen close-up, in person.

*****

My tryout experience was over. Personally, it was anti-climactic. But I read in the local paper the next day that Jeff had signed a contract and even received a bonus. He left West Philadelphia for California to play in the Dodgers’ minor league system. I didn’t think I’d ever hear more of Jeff Leonard since most high school age signees never make the major leagues. Approximately five years later, however, Jeff debuted in the big leagues with the Dodgers and proceeded to have a long and successful career, chiefly with the Houston Astros and San Francisco Giants. It was marked by a peculiar string of run-ins with teammates, management and opponents alike. According to my Google research, Jeff chose the nickname “Penitentiary Face” for himself! Still, Jeff Leonard had admirers. For a time, he became a team captain. And in what can only be called “major league irony,” he now works in public relations for the Giants. Who woulda thought?

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SNOWPOCALYPSE

 

 

The world appeared it might be coming to an end last Friday when forecasts predicted a 6-8 inch snowfall for Durham, NC. I’d always heard about pre-storm panics and stores selling out of essentials, but I’d never personally experienced it until I went to the local hardware store that morning in need of a paint sample. The parking lot resembled Normandy Beach on D-Day. A line snaked out the door with people clutching numbers like life preservers. Though some customers planned to purchase sleds and saucers to enjoy the storm, most hoped to obtain portions of the store’s fast-dwindling supply of salt, sand and shovels. Not anxious to spend ninety minutes at the store, I retreated, paintless, to my new home, a townhouse half a mile away.

After lunch, I went to the public library to pick up a book. A sign on the door indicated the library had closed at noon “due to inclement weather.” Even the direst of forecasts did not call for precipitation before the evening!

 

*****

 

We moved from New Jersey to Chapel Hill in 2009. Having heard tales of an ice storm in 1999 that had shut off electricity for ten days we were putty in our realtor’s hands when she showed us a house with an optional generator for $7,000 and a large basement. “That’s a small price to pay for peace of mind,” she said. “And you can host the whole neighborhood in your basement when their lights go out.”

As an introvert, the latter possibility sounded awful, but the idea of having electricity during the famed Carolina ice storms made sense. We bought the house and the generator and smugly signed up for its $350 yearly service and maintenance contract. We settled in and waited for the opportunity to be “the smartest people in the neighborhood.” There was no ice during our first winter, or the second.

The years went by. No ice. We began to hope for an ice storm or even a tree to take down a power line, anything to help us realize value from our generator. Increasingly, we doubted there’d ever really been an ice storm that rendered local life as primitive as the Stone Age, or more appropriately, I suppose, the Ice Age.  After seven years, we moved to a new home in Durham just one month ago. It has neither a basement nor a generator. “I’m not making that mistake again,” I declared.

 

*****

 

The forecast downplayed the risk of ice damage because unusual cold foretold a dry, puffy sort of snow. Instead, the predicted sleet/snow line moved thirty miles farther north than expected, and we woke on Saturday to little snow but two inches of accumulated sleet. The temperature then plunged to the teens and the region shut down like a congressional committee on ethics reform. Nothing moved, not cars nor people nor trucks. And that includes snow removal trucks because North Carolina communities hardly have any, and what they have is focused solely on major highways.

Today is the sixth day after the storm! To the amazement of anyone who’s ever lived as far north as New Jersey, schools and libraries are STILL closed even though temperatures have been above forty for three days. The local news refers to “stubborn areas of ice that are under trees and pose a grave danger.” The icy mix is now a muddy mess. Our electricity has stayed on, however, a fact for which I’m mostly grateful. To the extent I’m a writer, however, I’d sort of hoped for a dose of delicious irony.

 

 


 

AN UNLIKELY BROMANCE

 

For some reason, I’ve recently been pondering our relationship to politicians.  There can be surprises.  Consider Frank Rizzo, the mayor of Philadelphia from 1972-1980. During his term, he distinguished himself for brutishness. Describing how he intended to deal with opponents, he declared, on several occasions: “By comparison, I’ll make Attila the Hun look like a fag.” For reasons I never understood, my non-threatening, mild-mannered father adored this man.

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Before he was mayor, Frank Rizzo had served as police commissioner. His reign featured continual charges of police brutality. Admittedly, the late 1960’s and early 1970’s were challenging times for big-city police. Potentially violent protests bubbled up from radical students as well as from organizations like the Black Panthers. To be fair, many credited Rizzo’s aggressive tactics with keeping a lid on several situations that could have spiraled into deadly riots. Even his opponents admitted as much, though they were grudging in expressing admiration, understandable from their perspectives on the receiving end of nightsticks.

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Considering my father’s clothing store was in a neighborhood conducive to trouble, I eventually comprehended why Frank Rizzo’s “law and order” platform appealed. But his manner was so repugnant! Opponents, including my siblings, referred to him as “Ratzo.” Yet, my father, in the face this scathing skepticism and derision, remained supportive.

 

*****

My father was an active member of the Marshall Street Store Owners Association. This was a robust organization in the 1940’s and 1950’s, when the street featured over one hundred stores. By the late 1960’s, however, Marshall Street’s customer base had moved away and development of malls added another challenge. In a misguided effort to revitalize the old shopping area and its deteriorating neighborhood, Philadelphia bought out and razed half the stores with the stated intention of rebuilding them. Half the remaining stores were left empty. Unfortunately, the city’s “Redevelopment Authority” ran out of money before the “redevelopment” part occurred, leaving a skeletal streetscape like a depression-era movie. By then, my father was the only storeowner willing to act as “President.” As such, apparently, each year, commencing in 1972, he received a Christmas card at the store signed: “Mayor Frank Rizzo.”

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“Look what I have here,” proclaimed my father, proudly brandishing the card when he strode into the house after work. “It’s from Frank Rizzo himself.”

“He didn’t really sign it,” said my mother.

“I don’t think he knows how to write,” said my sister.

A teenager at the time, I found my father’s worshipful attitude oddly touching. I’d rarely seen him express affection for a public figure, even an entertainer, aside from Ed Sullivan. And I’d NEVER seen him express affection for a politician. Yet, here he was, wielding a Christmas card as though it were the sweetest thing he’d ever seen. I wanted him to be right. I wanted to believe the card was truly “personalized” but, after looking at the machine-like tone of the ink, I, too, concluded someone had stamped “Mayor Frank Rizzo” onto a standard mass-produced card. I remained silent.

Certainly, I thought, my father, a confirmed skeptic, would look at the card again and agree he was mistaken. He had to know the new mayor had more to do than individually sign hundreds of Christmas cards that were sent to every club and organization in the city. Shockingly, instead, my father doubled down on his faith.

“I’m sure he signed this himself,” he said, “and I want to send him a card back. Do we have any Christmas cards?”

“We have Hannukkah cards,” said my mother.

“Can we get a Christmas card?” he asked. By “we,” he clearly meant my mother.

“I’ll get you one tomorrow,” said my mother. Not generally given to blind obedience, she, too, seemed taken aback by his fervor, and, perhaps, a little touched.

 

*****

 

The receipt of the annual holiday card from Mayor Rizzo became something of a family joke. My mother, sister and I looked forward to making fun of it, but each year, we were a little more private about our scoffing, a little less likely to do it in front of my father. His earnestness was simply too sincere to mock — openly. So proud of his personal connection to Philadelphia’s most powerful man, my father would bring the card home and place it prominently on our fireplace mantle, front and center of any other cards.

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After the first year, my mother automatically presented my father with a card to send in response, without discussion. For the next seven years, as long as Frank Rizzo was mayor, she’d even address and stamp the envelopes, a task my father somehow handled at the store, but couldn’t manage at home.

“Should I sign ‘Lou’ or ‘Louis Sanders?” he would ask, each year.

We would stifle the roll-of-the-eyes reaction and urge to say: “It won’t make any difference. He won’t read it anyway.”

“Either way will be fine,” my mother would respond.

 

*****

 

 

As the 1970’s proceeded, Marshall Street, which barely survived, continued to deteriorate. Additional store closings and robberies sapped my father’s determination to remain open. After being pistol-whipped by a thug in 1979, my father reluctantly agreed to give up his business of over fifty years. But what about the building? My father listed it with a realtor for $50,000, but no one made an offer. Hardly anyone looked. It was in a worthless location.

 

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“Someone offered $2,000 today for the bricks,” he reported one evening, dejected, as we sat down to dinner.

“Why don’t you call the mayor?” said my mother. “His term ends in a week. It’s now or never for him to reward your loyalty.”

It was clear to me that her tone was ironic, but my father’s expression brightened.

“Do you have the number?” he asked.

Home for the holidays from law school at the time, it occurred to me I’d never seen my father dial the telephone at home. My mother found the number for the Mayor’s office in the phone book and wrote it down for him. He went into the adjacent kitchen where there was a phone. As he shut the door I heard him pronounce:

“This is Lou Sanders, President of the Marshall Street Store Owners Association. Is the mayor in?”

My father’s discussion continued for several minutes though I couldn’t make out every word.

“Who could he be talking to?” I wondered aloud.

“Who knows?” said my mother. “I guess the mayor has employees.”

“Dad’s probably interrupted their card game,” I said.

“Good thing the Eagles aren’t playing now — they’d never have answered the phone,” said my mother.

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I heard the kitchen door open, and my father returned to the dining room.

“Well?” said my mother.

“Who did you talk to?” I asked.

“The mayor’s assistant,” said my father, casually. “Is the coffee hot?”

“And what did he say?” asked my mother.

“We’ll see,” said my father. “I told him to thank Mayor Rizzo for the Christmas card, and to wish him well in his retirement next week.”

“That’s all you discussed, for ten minutes?” I asked.

“We’ll see,” he repeated.

Coyness was not a personality trait I’d ever seen in my father. Clearly, he was not going to share any other details of his conversation. When he left the room several minutes later I said to my mother: “It’s kind of sad he’s willing to humiliate himself like that. I bet the mayor’s office had a good laugh.”

She nodded in agreement.

Imagine our surprise a week later when my father received a check in the amount of $48,000 from the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. A short cover letter advised that the City had chosen to purchase my father’s building “in its ongoing campaign to accumulate valuable commercial properties.”

An unknown clerk had signed the letter, but a handwritten postscript appeared at the bottom, in blue ink: “Warmest regards, your friend, Frank.”

 


ELECTION NIGHTMARE

A number of readers have expressed surprise the election has not figured prominently in my writing. The reason, I suppose, is the subject is like a slog through a swamp, and the prospect of voluntarily wallowing in the muck for several hours is not appealing. Nonetheless, since I find myself awake at 4 a.m. with despairing thoughts bouncing through my head like ping-pong balls (a much more enjoyable subject) this blog post is not actually voluntary. I hope it will prove cathartic.

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*****

In the words of Richard Nixon, let me be perfectly clear. I don’t “like” Hillary Clinton. It’s not that she’s ever done anything to me personally. And, of course, I’ve never shared a meal or a conversation with her. She might be “likable enough,” as Obama once conceded.

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The problem is her shell, though hardened as an understandable reaction to thirty or forty years of attacks, presents as a lawyerly dissembling that disturbs me. Something is off. Something is amiss. When the circus that defines the Clinton’s comes to town, I find it exhausting. Oh, how I’m going to miss “no-drama Obama.”

But what I feel towards her opponent is an emotion so far from the blandness of “not liking” as to be irreducible to words. After “detest” and “loathe” and “abhor” I’m not sure what else I can conjure.   The language needs something stronger to express the feeling of despair, of embarrassment, of shame that he engenders.

*****

I am not a low information voter. Unlike many Americans, not only do I know that each state has two senators, but also I know the names of ours in North Carolina. Faceless factotums (lackeys) they may be, but Burr and Tillis they are.

I’m not ignorant like some coal miners who believe the charlatan when he says he’ll bring the jobs back. Anyone capable of deductive reasoning and/or of resisting fraudulent come-ons knows it is plentiful and cheap natural gas, not “Obama’s war on coal” that has consigned their careers to the slagheap of history.

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I’m not ignorant like some assembly line workers who believe the charlatan when he says their industries will return. Clearly it is the inexorable march of technology, not governmental policy that is primarily responsible for the elimination of their positions.

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It’s not so much contempt as pity and sadness that I feel for those who can be so deluded, who can be manipulated to vote against their own interests. Sure, lowering corporate tax rates will help the working poor. Haha. Very funny.

I reserve my contempt for those who live behind country club gates yet perceive themselves to be under siege. I despise the ones who enjoy social security, Medicare benefits, mortgage-interest deductions, corporate and government pensions yet cheer and aspire to the avoidance of taxes. Even worse in my estimation are the forty-year-olds, the parents of young children, who have daughters, who profess to want “change” above all, and will vote for a pig, a misogynist, a groper.

*****

I’m among the segment of voters, said to be between two and six percent, who believe the environment is the most important issue. At the risk of sounding like a Hallmark card, the earth is special, it’s unique and it’s all we have. Caring for it, preserving it, restoring it is vital.

America should be and could be leading the way in resolving this issue. Clean, inexpensive, sustainable power should be a win-win for society, even for all of mankind. Creating profits and jobs while improving the environment are not mutually exclusive concepts.

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Republicans breathe air. They drink water. Richard Nixon signed the Clean Air and the Clean Water Acts. How did this issue become partisan? For some reason, probably after significant focus-group polling of low information voters, the same group of propagandists who denied cigarettes are unhealthful has been busy mucking up the truth. Their candidate professes to believe climate change is a hoax. On this rare matter, I take him at his word. He wants to eliminate regulations; he will withdraw from the Paris Accords just entered into by 190 nations.

To those who choose to ignore the scientific consensus I can only ask: Do you ever look at a sunset? Do you listen to a bird sing? Do you appreciate the majesty of a large tree, other than as an obstacle on a golf course?

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If I did not care about the environment in particular, the issues of education, basic human decency, women’s choice, gay equality, efforts to promote gun safety… all of these would be sufficient to make me vote for Hillary Clinton. The alternative is too appalling. (Again, I’ve failed to find a word strong enough to express my disappointment if she loses).   And if she happens to be impeached for whatever sins she has committed, real or imagined I’m okay with that. No problem! What the country might truly enjoy, and what might help me sleep again, would be several years of Tim Kaine, whoever he is.


RECENT IMPROVEMENTS

 

The election season shows the value and even the NECESSITY of such technological advances as the DVR and, in its absence, the humble mute button.

 

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Thanks to them I have not yet endured the entirety of a single political advertisement. I began to ponder what other developments in the last quarter century have improved my life.

 

The first two I thought of are in the realm of food, namely: seedless grapes and watermelons. I’ve found the latter may represent a sacrifice in terms of sweetness but, overall, still an improvement.

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GPS devices strike me as wonderful products, helpful without a downside. In a low-tech sort of way, “Post-it” notes are helpful.

 

Unknown-2.jpeg At the other end of the spectrum are personal computers. A related development that strikes me, at least, as ambivalent, is the smart phone. Do they make life better? Or is constant connectedness a scourge?   Doubtless they are convenient, but they are also intrusive and dangerous when viewed in the context of distracted drivers or pedestrians.

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I can’t think of a downside in caller I.D., unless one misses the frisson of suspense in picking up a telephone “unprotected.” For me, Facebook and its ilk are in the “mixed blessing” department. I recognize the joy of those who “stay in touch” with their thousand closest friends. I even succumb myself every week or two just for a peek. But at the risk of sounding like a hopeless curmudgeon, after five or ten minutes the vapidity sends my finger to the “X” button. Still, I admit it’s an easy way to KIT.

 

Doubtless there are thousands of other developments, big and small, that were barely imaginable when I was a child, that now improve my life. I’ve not even touched on the realms of medicine, science or transportation.   Some readers may view hover boards as modern miracles. How about mountain bikes? High-end tennis strings? Yoga pants?

 

I invite readers to weigh in on the most important developments they enjoy. But for the next two weeks, I’m satisfied to have my mute button and a DVR.

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RELATIVELY SPEAKING

 

 

The recent killings in Orlando, Dallas and elsewhere thrust madmen into our consciousness. Their insanity follows a string of similar outrages.   Despite wall-to-wall media coverage few of us can begin to fathom the mindsets of these murderers. The simpleminded among us, including a candidate for president, ascribe killings solely to religion. Like most religions, Islam can be interpreted to support murderous behavior. So can Christianity. Remember the Crusades? The solution, if there is one, continues to elude mankind. Yet, to focus on faith ignores the fact that Tim McVeigh (Oklahoma City) was not a Muslim. Neither was Lanza (Sandy Hook), Holmes (Aurora), the perpetrators of the “original” Columbine massacre, or the killer in Charleston, Dylan Roof.

 

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In America, the combination of easily obtained guns and twisted minds is closer to the common denominator. Many of our politicians flail in the face of NRA pressure. A sizable portion of the population finds the simple explanation for mindless slaughter (radical Islam) appealing. They buy guns in the hopes of keeping themselves safe, ignoring the FACT that they thus render themselves and their families more likely to experience suicide, manslaughter or murder as a result.

 

*****

 

I’m not aware of ever having interacted with a murderer. Studies indicate one in 1,360 Americans will participate in a murder, with higher concentrations in urban areas and lower in rural. (Google “How many Americans are murderers?” to review the literature). Statistically speaking, it’s likely I pass one or two every time I drive on the highway. Murderers don’t murder every moment. While this in no way excuses them, for most, their crime is a once-in-a-lifetime event. Whether their act reflects uncontrollable passion or requires months of preparation, it’s only a tiny portion of the totality of their lives. Criminals they may be, but they still stop at traffic signals, still purchase and eat food, still root for their local teams. At the other end of the spectrum are mass murderers and, on a larger scale, masterminds of ethnic cleansings, genocides, holocausts.

 

*****

 

In an NCIS episode I recently viewed, Tony, the goofiest of the agents, brags that an “Ancestry.com” search disclosed his “long lost relative, the 17th Earl of Trent,” a nineteenth century English nobleman. Tony declares to his co-workers:   “Not only was the Earl rich, but also a painting shows he was handsome.” Tony affects an English accent. Initially, Tony’s co-workers refer to him as “M’lord,” and he struts with characteristic pomposity.  Days later, however, Tony’s further research reveals that the Earl became a criminal. He died shamed and penniless after being linked to Jack the Ripper, a notorious serial murderer. Needless to say, Tony loses interest in genealogy.

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“Imagine if you had such a relative,” said my wife, Katie, after the program ended.

“Well,” I said, and paused for effect. “I can top that.”

“You can?” she said.

 

*****

 

Lazar Kaganovich was my father’s cousin, the son of his mother’s first cousin. The name may be unfamiliar to most readers, but cousin Lazar was Stalin’s right-hand man throughout the 1920’s and 30’s. More than any other Soviet official, he shaped the agricultural policies that effectively caused famine throughout Ukraine and neighboring Soviet republics. Tens of millions died as a result. Kaganovich clothed his intentions in virtuous language but extensive literature shows little doubt he intended to cull the population.

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Kaganovich was sufficiently cunning to survive the countless purges for whch Stalin was famous. In fact, Cousin Lazar lived well into his nineties, just months shy of the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Throughout his life, Kaganovich remained an unapologetic champion of Stalin and his policies. While still a powerful member of the government after Stalin’s 1953 death, he engaged in shouting matches with Premier Khrushchev whom he thought too liberal. Just months before his death, he decried the weakness of Gorbachev and complained the Soviet Union lacked the will to crush dissenters.

How do I feel about my tenuous relation to a man who deserved to join Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot in the pantheon of twentieth century agents of death? Not good. It’s disturbing. I suspect my father felt that way, too, because he never mentioned his connection to Kaganovich in my presence. After my father’s death, I found a trove of newspaper articles he’d saved and confirmed the connection with older relatives who also had never spoken of it.

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*****

What would cousin Lazar think of modern suicide bombers? All evidence indicates he was a tough SOB, belligerent and merciless. But he definitely was not suicidal. His will to survive was his salient feature. Killers who see death as their own salvation would probably have disgusted him. Long-term programs, not spontaneous shooting, were Kaganovich’s specialty. The phrase: “Five Year Plan” was his contribution to twentieth-century history. Though the results of his collectivization schemes were disastrous (“Famine” is the word most connected to Lazar Kaganovich) his emphasis on central planning shaped all of Soviet history and still influences the ruling party in China.

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*****

 

I’m not concerned I contain an “inner Lazar” who is going to emerge. I confine maniacal ruthlessness to the tennis court. And my agricultural plans don’t extend beyond a modest backyard garden.

In case I haven’t been clear enough, NONE of Kaganovich’s horrors are excusable or laudable. But he is somehow easier to relate to, and not just because he is actually a relative of mine. He had a purpose. He persisted. He achieved a lot, all terrible.

My cousin raises huge questions. Was Kaganovich outside the realm of “normal” human experience or were his superhuman powers of perseverance and determination merely at the far end of a continuum? Was he insane in his tolerance of mass suffering or merely a master of organization gone awry? Are his descendants in any way implicated in his actions? Perhaps, if I had a PhD in psychology or sociology I could delve deeper into these questions, but I still would not find a definitive answer. The issue is too complex. As an obvious example, the debate on the issue of guilt among Germans, as individuals and as a society, continues seventy years after the end of the Nazi era.

To conclude, I can state that Kaganovich was a significant historical figure; he left an imprint on human history.  The modern mass killers, domestic and foreign, share the characteristic of being no-bodies – insignificant, contemptible scabs on the human experience.   There’s no honor in being related to Lazar Kaganovich. I merely observe that his evil has stood the test of time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

TO THE BEACH!
Although healthy and involved in various athletic activities, try as I might, it’s delusional to think of myself as still in my thirties. That ship sailed several decades ago. My thoughts are wistful as I stand like a statue in the surf at Carolina Beach watching my friend Mike, a decade older than I, frolicking amidst the crashing waves like a porpoise.  He whoops with joy. He leaps. He splashes.

“Why can’t I enjoy the beach like that?” I wonder, as I inch in up to my knees.

“Oh yeah,” I remind myself, “I didn’t even like going ‘down the shore’ (what Philadelphians call ‘to the beach’) when I was little.”

 

 

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*****

 

In large part I blame the ancient wooden building where we stayed. Mrs. Bernstein’s rooming house in Atlantic City could not have been scarier to me if it were haunted. My grandparents started going there well before my birth and, for reasons incomprehensible to me, my parents continued to visit there as late as the early 1960’s. One of my earliest recollections took place in front of Mrs. Bernstein’s, a struggle, from my perspective, as significant as Gandhi’s. I sat outside on the sidewalk and refused to go in.

“It’s going to fall down,” I said (or words to that effect). “I’m not staying in that dump.”

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My protests were in vain. Once inside the bastion of faded wallpaper and threadbare, musty carpets, an additional early childhood memory involved lying on my stomach on a lumpy bed, groaning because of a sunburned back. Finally, I recall the kitchen or common area on the ground floor populated exclusively by large-bodied, loud-mouthed, chain-smoking Quebecois, shouting, cursing and singing in their strange language. There may only have been four or five men but, in my recollection, I perceived there to be a hundred.

Travel between Mrs. Bernstein’s and the beach also spawned doleful memories. (Disclaimer: I wasn’t the easiest-going little kid). My parents and I lugged mismatched beach chairs, towels and an umbrella. Though only two or three blocks long, the trudge seemed endless to my five-year-old self. The air hung hot and humid. Little planes buzzed above advertising local restaurants or shows, none of which were relevant to me. Once we arrived at the boardwalk, constructed like a wall in front of the beach, I remember splinters sticking up from the planks, litter everywhere and hordes of clamoring people. Then, as now, there were stores selling junk, tee shirts and more junk.

My mother purchased my cooperation in the schlepping operation with the promise of a visit to the one redeeming aspect of Atlantic City: the fudge shop. No dummy, she held this inducement over my head as something we would obtain on the walk home, after the beach, “so long as everything went well.”

 

*****

 

Related to the development of my poor attitude about the beach was the subject of swimming. When I was about eight, I recall attending Sesame Day Camp. Many people recall their summer camps as special places of growth, discovery and the development of lifelong friends. I hated every minute.   I ONLY wanted to play baseball with other kids who also ONLY wanted to play baseball. I didn’t want to shoot arrows, row boats, sing songs, look at someone holding a frog, or make ashtrays.

 

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At the end of each day, after the typical regimen above, my fellow campers and I arrived at the pool, where I experienced abject failure for the first time. Though the sixteen-year-old counselors offered their finest tips, for reasons unclear to me, nothing stuck. Easily the best ballplayer in my group (a skill neither prized nor acknowledged by the others) my swimming aptitude predicted a career as an anchor.

I couldn’t master breathing, and I couldn’t master kicking. I disliked water in my mouth, nose, ears or any other orifice. It didn’t take long before they moved me from general instruction to remedial work in the shallow end with the other losers, the kids who could barely walk on land, let alone swim in water. By summer’s end, I could splash around and tread water with my head held as far above the water as possible. If my stroke had a name, it was the “reverse ostrich.”

 

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*****

 

Mike asks if I like to swim in the ocean.

“Do you mean, like with my head and eyes under salt water?” I ask.

“Well, yes,” he says, kind enough not to add: “Is there another way to do it?”

“No, I’m really happy about up to here,” I respond, indicating my mid-section. “I’m barely competent swimming in a pool, so the ocean….”

I’m relieved that Mike’s already leapt into the next wave before I can complete my explanation. After he emerges from another session of body surfing, Mike is exultant. But he’s a gracious host and understands I’m out of my element. He gestures with his arms: “Well, at least you can enjoy the beautiful beach.”

He’s right about that. Carolina Beach is broad and clean, the sand fine and white. A few other visitors walk along holding hands, relaxing or picking up pretty shells. Every few hundred feet, an individual or family has set up a colorful umbrella and chairs. Sand plovers skitter delicately back and forth with the tide. Even the seagulls are relaxed, in stark contrast to the ones in my New Jersey memories.

In my recollection the beach in Atlantic City resembled Normandy on D-Day.  Large shells with jagged edges threatened my feet.   Families placed chairs, blankets and umbrellas practically on top of each other. Massive seagulls dive-bombed for food, screeching maniacally, like pterodactyls.

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Once my family settled into our spot in the sand, I didn’t lack ambition. With my plastic shovel and bucket in hand, I aimed to dig to China. Discarded popsicle sticks shored up the hole as I dug. My parents offered to accompany me into the surf, but I had little interest in anything but digging. Alas, I never reached China. Though frustrated, I didn’t ask to leave the beach. Perhaps, that was the value of Mrs. Bernstein’s; once I got out I wanted to stay away as long as possible.

 

*****

 

A storm approaches to cut our visit several hours short. We’d enjoyed two nights at Mike and Sue’s. We’d had terrific food and conversation and a mediocre four-way game of Scrabble. (Mike won). I’m happy to have happy beach memories to overlay my old ones. Who knows? If I can find goggles large enough to cover my entire head and more secure than Fort Knox against leakage, maybe next time I’ll brave one wave. It’s never too late to start.