Thursday, February 23, 2017

Young Harry’s Greenbelt editorials

In this glimpse of Harry’s life, he was volunteer editor of his city newspaper, for 10-12 years in the 1950s and ’60s. Named the Cooperator in 1937, Greenbelt, MD, residents changed it to the News Review in 1954. After reading several editions he had saved in old boxes, I skimmed the online archives and chose additional editorials to share with you. They begin in 1950, when Harry was 29 years old, a year after his move to Greenbelt from Buffalo. They showcase his writing style and his views at the time, as well as local and national history. 

December 28, 1950 
“To The Infantry”

Harry, circa 1950
Drew Pearson is one of the most controversial of all columnists. He has thousands of warm admirers and thousands of bitter enemies. Most of his columns make a point of stepping hard on many toes – and the more prominent the toes, the better. However, one of his recent items is likely to be given near-unanimous approval. It discusses the bad financial deal the infantry soldier receives by comparison with his compatriots in other branches of military service.

Writes Mr. Pearson, “Under the current army pay system, the real heroes in the Korean war are drawing the least pay. They don’t even get a fair share of the glory when the publicity and medals are dished out.

“These unsung heroes are the infantrymen, who form the army’s battering ram, but who are not paid as much as the technical men and the pencil pushers behind the lines.” He goes on to say that the average monthly pay of a member of a rifle company is $135, as compared with $226 for an air force combat crewman and $172 for a submariner. Combat infantrymen once got a $10 a month bonus, but this is no longer given.

Moreover, according to Mr. Pearson, infantrymen are actually the poorest paid of all the troops in the army. Ordnance, signal corps, armored force, quartermaster, artillery and everyone else does better financially. And the ironical part of it is that all these other troops are basically, simply the infantry’s support. They exist for the sole purpose of aiding the infantry in its grim task of closing with and capturing or destroying the enemy. If the infantry fails to do that, the cause is always doomed.

Relatively little stress was placed on the infantry in the so-called New Army we heard so much about a year or so ago. This was to be pretty much the mechanized army, the push button army, in which almost everyone would be a technician of some kind. The Korean war changed that concept, and with a vengeance. It was infantry – the poor, bloody infantry of legend – that fought the delaying actions.

Infantry takes the beating in war. It suffered 70 per cent of the casualties in World War II, perhaps a higher percentage in Korea. Yet, Mr. Pearson says, In World War II it got only 11.6 percent of the medals. And as noted before, it is way down the line at the pay table.

It can be argued that mere money is a small recompense for asking a man to risk his life in war and, at best, live miserably. But it is the only recompense possible – no way exists to make the infantryman’s lot an easy, pleasant one. It is certainly a reasonable assumption that the footslogger with a rifle in his hands deserves a better break than he’s now getting.

No one who has never seen combat can possibly understand what it’s like. But, when we wake up with big heads on New Year morning, let’s stop for a moment and think – and pray – and give thanks to those brave men who are making our New Year celebrations possible. Let us remember the sobering figure of more than thirty thousand casualties. Let us join their loved ones in crying for them!

January 10, 1952 
“Leave of Absence”

(Did Harry take a break to help with his soon-to-be-born daughter?)

It is with considerable reluctance that I have offered my resignation as Editor of this newspaper, and even though that resignation was changed to a four month leave of absence it is still a severance of a relationship which I have enjoyed immensely.

The Cooperator to me represents a way of contributing to community living. It is an instrument which can be used to great advantage, particularly in an isolated location like Greenbelt, not only to keep everyone informed about matters of civic interest, but also to promote the community consciousness, to make friends out of neighbors.

Too many of us, today, are prone to forget or to ignore our obligations to each other. We are no longer savages who have gathered together behind a stone wall for our mutual protection. On the contrary, we are, presumably, civilized people who have recognized that community living offers many advantages which are otherwise inaccessible to us as individuals. And that very recognition imposes upon us all the obligation to contribute part of our talents and energies to our own mutual welfare. We simply cannot exist completely alone or detached from our neighbors; yet, many of us are trying to do just that.

It is a matter of deep concern to me that so few of us display any constructive interest in our community affairs. It is even more disturbing because so many who are shrinking from all contacts with community activities are so richly talented and so capable of making significant contributions. The spectacle of a city council election with only six candidates, or a GCS membership meeting with less than a quorum in attendance, is both saddening and humiliating.

Now, particularly because it is the beginning of a new year, may be a good time to take stock – to measure the benefits which accrue to us by virtue of our community life as against the contributions which we are making in return. Perhaps, as a result of such stock-taking, many will find it possible to devote more time to participating in our community’s activities. There are so many varied fields of interest in Greenbelt, so many organizations actively engaged in furthering the common welfare, and all of them eager to welcome and absorb new talent. Surely we can, each of us, pursue an activity to his liking.

I believe that the Cooperator is an ideal medium to satisfy the creative urge in each of us, an ideal vehicle for self-expression. The Cooperator has behind it a long history of worthwhile and significant contributions to the community life. Indeed, I believe it to be one of the foremost factors in the transition of Greenbelt from a government housing project to a living, vibrant city. And I believe that it will continue to figure prominently in the growth and development of Greenbelt as it changes hands from government to private ownership. The Cooperator will, I am sure, continue to make itself heard in Greenbelt, with vigor and dignity, sometimes loudly, or bitterly, or quietly, or gently but always sincerely, and always honestly.

In this connection, I am particularly pleased with the choice of Bobby Solet as Managing Editor. She brings to the Cooperator a forceful and dynamic personality, the impact of which will soon be apparent on these pages. Withal, she is quiet, thoughtful and level-headed, and, I am sure, will attract many additional recruits to augment the small staff of the paper.

Those of our readers who have an inclination to work on their community newspaper would know that the opportunity is here and that they will be welcomed. It is a satisfying and rewarding experience, an experience for which I shall always be grateful.

Apparently Harry published Christmastime poems during the 1950s and '60s, in which he thanked the city folks for their work. (Click on photo to enlarge.) No surprise; an earlier post on this blog shows a sample of his similarly styled annual poems published throughout his government career, when he held the title of Pentagon Poet Laureate. (Anyone can skim the Greenbelt News Review archives at: )

I’ll post more of Harry’s editorials next week.

Copyright 2017, Elaine Blackman

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Harry the correspondent

My dad answers questions I never asked him, in the following four communications he wrote in his elderly years. Each reveals an activity or feelings from his past, and each offers a bit of advice to someone who was special in his life. So, to everyone ever touched by – or just curious about Harry’s communications, please enjoy!

Concerts at the beach

February 2014
Dear [Cousin],

It’s so nice to get emails like this with news about the family. I’ve been thinking about all the [cousin’s family], too, especially since I saw those photos of the ice caves at Crystal Beach. Everybody who ever grew up in Buffalo had to have gone to Crystal Beach. I have lots of memories about the Beach, and about the dance hall where the big bands of the 1930s and early ’40s used to play. In fact, it was the memories of some of their performances – Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and other orchestras, that motivated me to write a series of articles about the music of the WW II Era for the newspaper in Leisure World.

Now I’m in Riderwood, another development populated by old folks like me, and I have a whole new audience for these articles, since everybody here remembers that music. I just wanted you to know that I’m okay and adjusting to my new circumstances. Email exchanges like this are so welcome and so helpful. It’s so much easier to keep in touch this way than by the antiquated method of writing letters and sending them by snail mail. Keep them coming.


Too bad the Riderwood newsletter rejected his idea for the music column.

Retirement advice

January 2008
Dear Ron:

I deeply regret that Jeanette and I had to leave the celebration Friday before we got a chance to see you and shake your hand. And I can’t tell you how honored and flattered I was that you took the time personally to arrange matters to make it easier for us to attend. I used to think that the 36 years I spent in my job at the Pentagon (plus service in the Army in WW II for a total of almost 40 years of government service) was more than enough for anyone, but your 50 plus years, and Wilma’s, too (for a total of around 100 years) whew!! … Anyway, Ron, I wanted to express my heartfelt appreciation for inviting us and taking the time and trouble to make special arrangements.

Now, a word of advice from an older retiree – do not, repeat do not wait till you finish any projects at home such as remodeling or renovating, etc. before traveling or vacationing. Start booking cruises and other travels as soon as you can, while you both have the strength and stamina to enjoy them. The longer you wait, the tougher it gets to travel. So do it now. And enjoy each other for leisurely breakfasts, lunches and dinners, which, I suspect, you haven’t done very often over the past 50 years.

As for remodeling, I waited till I was 85 before I decided that our big house was too much for the two of us to handle. So we sold out and moved into a nice big apartment which, even though it’s much smaller than any house, relieves us of the problems of maintenance and upkeep and endless chores, as well as stairs up and stairs down etc. It was almost too late, because even though our kids and grandkids and nephew and niece and others helped a lot, it was nevertheless a great physical hardship. I should have done it ten years earlier, when I was 75 and still fit enough to stand the strain.

I feel almost like a member of your family, a cousin, maybe, because Meredith is like my second daughter, the one I never had but always wanted, and I love her.

Anyway, Ron and Wilma, congratulations and best wishes for the best years of your life, the ones starting now.


Reaction to criticism

February 2007

This is too long to put into an email message, so it will be a letter, instead, with enclosures for you to read at your leisure. I’m writing it over a period of days with additions from time to time as they occur to me. I’ll start by saying I’m sorry you’re disappointed in me, but that’s your problem, not mine. I dunno why I’m perplexing to you. I’m a simple, straight- speaking guy, much like you, but maybe because I’m some 20-odd years older than you, I’m more tolerant, less opinionated, more accepting of people whose opinions differ from mine. Maybe, too, it’s because I don’t have the energy or the stomach to argue with people who disagree with me. I don’t feel as strongly as I used to feel that I have to justify my beliefs or argue the rightness of my convictions. And I don’t feel as strongly as I used to feel that people whose views differ from mine are necessarily wrong. Sometimes they’re right and I’m wrong. And I’m more willing than I used to be to examine the other guy’s views and to accept the fact that he is honest in his beliefs as I am in mine. 
I suspect that you’re disappointed in me because I haven’t been making substantial comments on the articles circulating in our round table. Or maybe you want more of my comments on my years in the Pentagon, which could maybe shed more light on what’s going on right now? Maybe you just want more of my views on politics, or government, or the Iraq war, or the Democratic or Republican parties? Views that are based on my experience in government? 
The problem is that I feel about my Pentagon years and the work that I did there much the same as I feel about my WW II years and my wartime experience. It’s all in the past, no longer pertinent, not something I want to dwell on any more. I know that some people never grow out of their wartime experience or their worktime experience. They want to relive those times all the time. I can understand that, but I think it’s because they have nothing new to occupy their minds, so they just want to live in the past. Some people never outgrow high school, either. But I don’t want to live in the past. I’m fully occupied with the present and the future. WW II is more than 60 years in the past. My retirement from the Pentagon is more than 20 years in the past. The world and I are now absorbed in the problems of the present.

So, let’s talk about the present. We have gone through the traumatic experience this past year of downsizing, moving from a big house to a small apartment. We’ve been here now since last August and have finally begun to settle in and get the apartment close to the shape we want it in. One of the three bedrooms has been converted into an office with built-ins to house our files, books, records, tapes and CDs, as well as the computer. One, of course is our bedroom and the third is our den/lounge, TV room, spare guest room. Now we’re starting to get involved in community activities. Jeanette is involved in a couple of women’s groups. I have volunteered to serve on two committees, both of which involve a few hours of work each week. Then, too, we go to lectures, social affairs, synagogue affairs and services. I got into a weekly poker game, too.
Aside from all that, I agreed to write some articles for a monthly discussion group, dealing mainly with Jewish affairs and Holocaust history. Enclosed are a few things to read about a Holocaust project that is taking a good deal of my time and interest. These are not the kinds of things that I would expect our round-table group to be interested in. The problem is that they do not leave me much time to comment extensively on matters or articles for our round table, and I’m sorry about that. I still send articles for you all to read and read the articles that you all send me, but as far as I can see, the discussion part of our exchange has diminished considerably. I’m not the only one whose volume of comment has shrunk. 
Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that I’m trying to cram a lot of activity into living in the present. I’ll be 86 in a few months – in June, to be exact, and the odds are that I really don’t have many more years ahead of me. I would rather think about and devote my creative energies to present-day matters than to spend my remaining time remembering the past. 

Communication king

August 2005
Dear [Cousin],

When I saw this TIME magazine cover, I immediately thought of you, since you will be thirteen years old in less than a year. The article inside also made me think of you. So, in case you haven’t seen it, I thought I’d send it to you. I enjoyed reading it and I’m sure you will, too. About 15 or 20 years ago, I helped with a similar article for Newsweek magazine on teen-agers, mostly 16 to 19-year-olds, and I learned a lot then about young people. The trouble with growing old is that we forget what it was like to be young. That’s why you have to keep reminding your parents that you have thoughts and feelings and yearnings and wishes, just as they did once and probably still do. The important thing is to communicate to them and with them, which means simply to talk to them and explain how you feel about things. You’d be surprised, I’ll bet, to see how interested they are to hear your views on everything.                                    

With love,                                            
Your 900-year-old cousin (He was really 84.)

Copyright 2017, Elaine Blackman

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Harry’s taste for mystery

Did he pull out an old manuscript in the 90s?
After Harry died in 2014, I inherited the boxes he’d long-ago packed with bulky, brown accordion folders containing his typewritten novels – or parts of them. I remember reading only one manuscript he was trying to publish in the 1970s. You can read the synopsis to one I’d never seen, last week on this blog.

In addition to the boxed versions, I found a folder on his computer titled “BOOK 4”. It contains 29 documents that apparently make up part of another novel. To give you a taste, heres one document, last modified July 22, 1994, titled “One”. At some point, he had asked a friend to read his manuscripts, and she confirmed that Harry’s novels are (loosely) based on his experiences.


Bill Freelav was killed in my office, sitting at my desk. That made it kind of personal, even though I didn’t know him. He was the only person on the sixteen member staff of the Riverview News I hadn't met yet. That’s because he was out of town the previous week when I took over as Editor and met them all. I was looking forward to meeting him tonight, but not this way.

When I approached the newspaper office, which was in the basement of an apartment building, I had a feeling something was wrong. You cannot spend ten years fighting spies and terrorists as an officer of a top secret NATO security unit without developing an instinct for trouble. My problem was that I didn’t trust that instinct, not at that moment. I thought it was compounded largely of fear, and I hadn’t yet learned how to handle the fear that possessed me. That’s why I had retired as a Light Colonel after twenty years in the Army’s Special Forces, with a bright career ahead of me if I’d stayed in. That’s why I was here, the new editor of a small town weekly newspaper, trying to wind down from the stress and the fear that gripped me constantly. But that’s another story. So I ignored the instinct and the growing sense of unease as I walked up the sidewalk leading from the street to the big, thick, heavy glass double doors of the entrance.

It was almost nine-thirty on a balmy Monday evening in mid-August. No cloud cover obscured the emerging stars, and I was able to pick out the steady glitter of Polaris off the end of the Big Dipper, pointing eternally to the north. All things considered, I thought for the millionth time, I’d rather be flying. Looking through the glass doors that opened onto a fairly large landing, I could see the bottom few stairs on the left leading up to the first-floor apartments and the landing on the right for the steps leading down to the newspaper office in the basement – my office, as of one week ago.

I pulled open the door on the right and, as I descended the stairs, the feeling of apprehension that had gripped me outside became stronger. The small hallway in the basement should have been brightly lit. It was dark. The light switch on the wall was in the “on” position. I flicked it twice. It was still dark. I could see the bulb dimly in the ceiling. I had put in a new one myself last week. At an even six feet, I could just reach it standing on my toes, the only one in the office my first night there who could do it. I was about to reach up now to jiggle it, but I stopped myself. The door to the newspaper office was slightly open, which meant someone was in there. If someone was in there, there should have been some light, at least a glimmer of light, showing through the opening. But there wasn’t. It was dark. The danger instinct tingling the nerve endings in the back of my neck was now too strong to ignore.

I had been in situations like this before, where death or worse – there is worse, believe me – waited on the other side of an open door. At the far end of the basement hallway I could see the very pale square of glass set in the top of the back door leading outside. It seemed to be closed but, even as I strained to see it in the dark, I heard the automatic latch, always set on lock and only able to be opened from inside, click shut. Someone must have just gone out that door. I switched my attention to the office door. It was the kind that opened from the inside into the hallway. I got down on the floor and, lying to the side of it, stuck my hand out and eased it halfway open. I was not in the doorway, in case someone inside wanted to take a shot at me. I’d been in that situation before, too. And someone had taken a shot at me before; several, in fact, and on several occasions. The last time I had gotten careless. I’d thought that because I’d never been hit before I was invincible. I was wrong. And now my nerve was gone; I was gripped with fear and starting to sweat. The bullet wound in my upper left chest, just below the shoulder, pretty well healed now, gave me a small twinge as I got up on my left elbow and eased my head around the door jamb.

It was dark inside, but I could just make out the lighter squares of the big picture windows that came halfway down the wall at the far end of the room. Except for that half wall, the rest of the room was all below ground level. I listened for the slightest sound. Nothing. I sniffed the air, all my senses alert for a sign of life, a rustle of breath, a movement of air, a scent of something, anything. There are some scents you never, never forget. One is the scent of blood, the coppery acrid scent of blood freshly spilled. God help me, I knew that scent well enough. It wasn’t there.

I eased up to my feet, still keeping to the left of the open doorway, cautiously reached my arm around, groped for the light switches, found them and clicked them on. The lights blazed up. My eyes swept the very large basement room in one quick glance. The office was empty, except for the furniture and the dead man sitting at my desk. My desk faced the window. The previous editor liked to work with his back to the rest of the office. Not me. I was going to turn the desk around to face the office tonight.

He was slumped face down so that all I could see of him was the back of his head, thick, luxuriant, dark brown hair, a lot like my own, his face invisible to me, his arms hanging straight down at his sides. The handle of a knife stuck out of his back. No telling how long the blade was, but it was obviously long enough to penetrate the heart and kill him instantly, because there was no blood visible. I did not have to feel for a pulse to know he was dead, but I did anyway; fingers at the throat where the blood pulses through the carotid artery. Nothing. He was still warm, dead not more than ten or fifteen minutes. I went to another desk, picked up the phone and hit the 911 buttons. A woman’s voice answered.

“Police station,” she said. “Can I help you?”

“I want to report a murder,” I said. She was silent a minute, as though unwilling to believe her ears. “Are you still there?” I asked.

“Excuse me,” she said, “I don’t think I heard you right. Would you repeat that, please?”

“I want to report a murder,” I repeated.

“Is this some kind of a joke?” she asked. Then, with sudden suspicion, “Who is this? Is that you, Phil?”

“No ma’am,” I said. “This is Laurence Stranger. I’m the new editor of the Riverview News. This is not a joke. There’s a dead man here, and he’s been murdered.”

“Where are you?” she asked. Her senses were starting to catch up.

“I’m at the newspaper office on Canal Road.”

“I know where it is,” she said. “Stay there, and don’t touch anything.” In control again, no uncertainty in her voice.

So I went outside and looked at the sky to see if Polaris was still there. It was. I watched it to make sure it didn’t get away until the cops showed up. It took them six minutes. The squad car pulled up to the curb quietly, no sirens, no blinking strobe lights, no screaming rubber or squealing brakes. Two uniformed cops got out of the front seat and a big, broad-shouldered man got out of the rear. He was wearing a well-cut suit that fit him perfectly and he handled himself with the ease and confidence of a man in top physical condition. He stopped in front of me and looked me up and down.

“You’d be Stranger,” he said softly, but there was an undercurrent of hostility in his voice. “Now what the hell is this all about?”

I had to look up at him, which made him around six foot four and, judging by the width of his shoulders, at least 240 pounds, which gave him about fifty pounds on me. He looked hard, too. Not a man to tangle with. “There’s a dead man down there,” I jerked my thumb at the office. “Somebody stuck a knife in him.”

“You two,” he waved a hand at the two uniforms, “go take a look.” They went, quickly, and within thirty seconds one of them came back.

“She got it right, Chief,” he said. “There’s a stiff down there.”

“Who is it?” asked the Chief.

“Can’t see his face,” the officer said, “but I’d guess it’s Freelav. Looks like him from behind, anyway.”

The Chief heaved a deep sigh. “Well, let’s go take a look,” he gestured for me to lead the way. ...

Copyright 2016, Elaine Blackman

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Harry wrote novels, too

Harry in the early 1960s
Last year on this blog, I posted a slew of unpublished short stories Harry wrote during his life. Most I discovered in his boxed paper files, a few on his computer. He also left behind hard-copy versions of never-published fictional novels; or in some cases, partial versions. Several he may have drafted in the 1950s, when his Army experience was still fresh in his mind, and perhaps edited in the ’60s or later. To give you a taste of one, here’s the synopsis from his book proposal, plus the first few paragraphs of the novels introduction.

The book proposal

Clarence Webster, a commercial pilot and flight instructor before the war, joined the Army shortly before Pearl Harbor and eventually was assigned to fly artillery spotting missions and light liaison planes in the combat zone. When his unarmed plane is shot down and he is wounded and temporarily grounded, he is transferred to the Army Counter-Intelligence Corps. After the war ends he responds to an urgent appeal by the Army to stay on as an intelligence agent with the military occupation forces, at least for another year. Though he is eligible to return home, he agrees to stay, and subsequently extend the year for an additional six months. He finally returns to the States in December, 1946.

The story takes place in two main time periods – the last nine months of 1947 when he is a civilian in the States, and the last nine months of 1946, when he is winding up his tour of active duty in Germany. Like all veterans, he has had his fill of war, and of the Army, and of man’s cynicism and seeming inability to learn the bitter lessons of the war. He has returned to his pre-war profession as a flight instructor, but he is restless and dissatisfied, searching for some new answers, trying to “find himself”.

Though he is engaged to the “girl back home”, he cannot forget the girl he loved in Germany, even though she had betrayed his love. On the horizon is the growing threat which communism poses in a world hungry for peace and generally unaware of the full extent of the menace. A few people see the danger, but too few are doing anything about it. What, he asks himself, can one man do to help provide a greater measure of security for his country? In the end he breaks his engagement and joins the Air Force. Oddly enough he goes back into uniform for precisely the same reasons he joined up before World War II started, because his country is at war with the enemy – only the war has not yet been declared.

The writing makes extensive use of the flashback technique, contrasting his experiences and reactions during the last nine months of 1947 in Buffalo (the present) with his experiences and reactions during the last nine months of 1946 in Germany (the past), with occasional glimpses into his more distant past. The two women in his life are seen through his eyes, as well as the manner in which they help to shape his character and the effect they have upon his decisions. Though basically a love-adventure story, this is also a novel of a time so unique in American experience that it can never be fully recaptured on paper. It points up the conflict between one man’s desire for freedom and individuality, and that man’s concept of responsibility and obligation.


The world of April 1947 was a curious place and a curious time. It was a time of tension and a time of relaxation. It was a time of anxiety and insecurity, and still, a time of hopefulness and aspiration. The aftermath of World War II was still being felt, strongly in some parts of the world, perhaps somewhat dimly in the United States. It was as though the war, like a giant hand from nowhere, had picked up the world by the neck and the seat of the pants and shaken it up a little, and the loose change had dropped out of its pockets and the buttons popped off its vest and everything was all jumbled up and confused and the pieces were still falling back but not in their proper places.

Of course, the confusion was where it had always been, in the minds of men. There was still a residual interest in the war, but it was too early to take an historical interest and besides, there were more important things to do – make money, mainly. So many odd and contradictory things were happening that reading the newspapers was almost frustrating and you could only keep track of the things that interested you.

In Germany, for example, the American Military Government, AMG for short, had just revealed that 3,278,000 of 11,825,000 Germans questioned in the U.S. zone were chargeable for Nazi activities.

This was one area in which Clarence Webster kept himself informed. He had more than a passing interest, too, in the eventual outcome of all the war crimes trials and the ultimate destiny of the men involved. In April, Rudolf Hoess was hanged at the Oswiecim extermination camp in Poland where 4,000,000 persons had been executed at his command. Gernand de Brinson, Vichy Ambassador to the German occupying forces in Paris, was executed as a traitor by the firing squad in Forte de Montrouge, near Paris. Field Marshal Erhard Milch, who built up the Luftwaffe and was Hermann Goering’s chief deputy, was sentenced to life imprisonment for slave labor activited by a U.S. court in Nuremberg. Dr. Hjalmar Schact, on trial before a German denazification court in Stuttgart, denied having been a “major Nazi offender” and said he took part in 4 anti-Hitler plots from 1938 to 1944. Both Carmen Maria Mory and Dr. Percy Treite, under death sentence for the Ravensbrueck concentration camp murders, committed suicide. And Herbert Backe, Nazi Food & Agriculture Minister, hanged himself in a Nuremberg jail. ...
Copyright 2017, Elaine Blackman

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Harry’s telling story of his pal Al

Harry and his friend Al Skolnik in 1962, in Greenbelt, MD, News Review clippings

I remember my parents dear friends Al and Elaine Skolnik, in our hometown Greenbelt, MD, always smiling and friendly. My dad and the Skolniks were tireless volunteers for the city newspaper, the News Review. Al died suddenly in 1977. Recently I found Harrys typewritten tribute and read it for the first time. I saw that its never too late to appreciate this story of his pal Al – and another snapshot of my dad’s life. 

The news spread like wildfire last Thursday afternoon, not only in Greenbelt but throughout the metropolitan area. Al Skolnik was gone. It was unthinkable, unacceptable. Everyone I spoke to had the same reaction – shocked silence, a sense of profound sadness, a feeling of deep and irrevocable personal loss.

It is a symptom of mankind’s shortsightedness that we seldom recognize the true stature of and worth of the giants among us until they are gone. So it is with Al Skolnik. Though he received some measure of recognition while he was here, it was not nearly so much as he deserved. The high regard in which he was held found some expression in the community’s mass attendance at his funeral Sunday morning, and in the moving eulogy so eloquently voiced by Rabbi Berger. But much remains to be said. We are not finished with Al Skolnik; more to the point, he is not finished with us. His presence, his influence, will continue to touch all of us, felt not only by those who were close to him, but by the entire community he loved and served so well.

Of course, he never realized the impact of his presence on the community. I remember the overwhelming support the people showed him when he and the News Review were sued for libel by a land developer whose name has faded into obscurity. Yet, with characteristic modesty, he preferred to believe that we were fighting solely for a principle – freedom of the press. He would not accept the fact that we were just as deeply committed to supporting him personally. Yet, he was the catalyst around whom the support was rallied and upon whose courage steadfastness that most precious of American freedoms was extended and strengthened. I can see him now, in the aftermath of that oh-so-sweet Supreme Court decision, declaring that it was a victory for principle.

“But, Al,” I said, “It was as much a victory for you personally.”

“Me?” he said, a look of genuine bewilderment on his face. “But I didn’t have anything to do with it, I was just incidental.”

When we held that grand banquet a year or two afterwards, it was billed as a tribute to Roger Clark, the defense attorney who had carried the case all the way to the Supreme Court and ultimate victory. In reality, though, it was a tribute to Al and Elaine, who had carried the heavy weight of responsibility during the years of trial and trouble. It represented a massive outpouring of warmth, good will and gratitude for their total commitment to the service of their community. We tried to persuade Al, beforehand, that he should get double billing with the attorney as the guests of honor, but he wouldn’t hear of it.

“I don’t want anything to detract from the tribute we’re paying Roger,” he declared flatly. “This should be his night.”

“But Al,” I argued, “everyone wants to pay tribute to you, too.”

“What for?” he asked, and he was really puzzled.

“For the sacrifices you’ve made,” I replied. “For the contribution you’ve made to the community.”

“That’s not a good enough reason,” he was adamant.

“Al,” I sighed, “you are stubborn and incorrigible.”

Of course, he won. But despite his protestations, the community paid tribute to him that night anyway. And he enjoyed it. I have never seen him grin so broadly or so continuously. He positively beamed. He was jovial. And when the staff of the News Review presented him with an electric typewriter, he accepted it gracefully and cheerfully. But afterwards, just to keep his record intact, he said: “You shouldn’t have done it.”

Like I said, incorrigible!

I never could understand why the plaintiff in that case insisted on including Al personally as a party to that law suit. Perhaps he, and his attorney, as well, perceived Al as a threat. Well, if objectivity and dispassionate honesty can be perceived as a threat, they were right. No one else was or could be as rigorously objective or as dispassionately honest as Al. He used to drive me up the walls with his insistence on knowing and presenting both sides of every controversial issue. He was forever trying to be “fair” to everyone; he even leaned over backwards to be fair to those with whom he disagreed.

I felt some sense of responsibility for Al, since I had recruited him to work on the News Review. At least, I persuaded Elaine to charm him into joining the staff and, as everyone knows, Elaine has the talent to do just that. Of course, we had to wait a few years, until he completed the requirements for his PhD, but he finally joined the staff and the rest is history. I wish I could take some credit for the enormous contribution he and the newspaper subsequently made to the community, but he did it on his own. Anyway, when Al joined the staff, I felt obligated to pass my wisdom and experience along.

“Al,” I would say, “a newspaper is not obligated to be fair or objective. It is obligated only to present the facts in its news columns, but it can be as unfair or as prejudiced as it wishes in its editorials.”

“Everybody and every side deserves equal consideration,” he would stubbornly insist.

“Not in editorials,” I would say. “Editorials can and do take clear, unequivocal positions, either for or against any given proposition, without regard to the opposing views held by others.”

“Greenbelt deserves better than that,” he declared. “We ought to show the merits of all opposing viewpoints so that people can make up their own minds.”

“Al,” I said, defeated, “you are exasperating.”

With such an attitude, he often appeared to be straddling the fence rather than expressing or taking clear-cut positions. To those of us who hold strong opinions without regard to facts, this insistence on an objective appraisal seemed irrational. Looking back on it, I am reminded of Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, who viewed all events in the light of cold logic. Thus, when something occurred that defied all the rules of sensible behavior, he was neither horrified nor offended. Instead, he would find such occurrences “interesting” and, some things, even “fascinating,” and would proceed to analyze them in meticulous detail in order to understand them and explain them.

Now, after such careful appraisals, Al sometimes arrived at the same conclusion that I had reached intuitively, based on a “gut” feeling. Naturally, when someone agrees with me, I consider him a reasonable, even a wise man. But when he reaches a conclusion different from mine, that is a horse of another color. It is particularly frustrating when his conclusion is based on intellectual conviction. Have you ever tried to argue with someone whose opinion’s based on an examination of the facts, while yours is based on intuition? There is just no reasoning with such obstinate, opinionated people. Why, a man like that can change the world; on occasion, he even persuaded me to change my opinion. Exposure to logical thinking can sometimes do that.

In essence, Al was an observer and reporter, rather than a direct participant in the affairs of the city. I have no doubt at all that he could have been elected to any public office, had he so desired, but he preferred to remain in the background. He was a public person; indeed, he was basically shy and reserved, a man who felt more at ease behind the scenes. Yet, he has been as instrumental in shaping the nature and destiny of Greenbelt as any elected official in the history of the community. The many background discussions he had with community leaders, and the suggestions and quiet recommendations he made at countless social gatherings, had a way of emerging later on as officially sanctioned policies and programs.

He and Elaine were indefatigable campaigners, but always on behalf of others, never for themselves. Over the years, their efforts assured the election of a great many public-spirited citizens to office. Those of us who were beneficiaries of these efforts used to kid him about it sometimes. In another political environment he would have been known as the “Boss”; in still another milieu, he would have been the “godfather,” though he was too selfless and too gentle a man to deserve that title. In any case, he was really embarrassed by our attempts to credit his efforts for our victories.

“I only cast one vote,” he would say, “And besides,” he would add, with that sly chuckle and half grin, “I wasn’t working to help you so much as I was trying to prevent those other guys from getting elected. You just represented the lesser of two evils.”

He had such a fine mind, trained and disciplined by study and use. During that libel trial the attorney for the plaintiff mocked Al’s educational attainments, implying that a man with a PhD ought to at least understand the meaning of certain legal terms. Among other things, the Supreme Court’s decision proved that lawyers themselves, and even judges, do not agree on the meaning of some legal terms. In any event, by attempting to degrade Al Skolnik, that attorney succeeded only in diminishing himself. I could not then, nor can I today, forgive him for some of the things he said and some of the tactics he used in the courtroom. Al, however, was quite without rancor or malice at such treatment. When I expressed my feelings to him after the initial trial, he shrugged them off.

“He was only doing his job,” he said. Then lifting a hand expressively, he cut right to the heart of it. “After all,” he said, “he was playing to the jury, while our lawyer was addressing the law.” And then came the punchline. “You know,” he added judiciously, a hint of admiration in his voice, “all in all, I think he probably did it very neatly, very professionally. After all, he won, didn’t he?”

“Al,” I said, at a loss for words, “You are too good to be true. It’s infuriating.”

What can you do with a man like that?

The many social evenings we shared, say for dinner and a movie, were illuminating. Al’s orderly mind could not tolerate illogic, a quality that Hollywood’s movies seem to cherish. Invariably, as we emerged from a thrilling and entertaining whodunit film, Al would start dissecting it.

“I don’t understand it,” he would complain. “How did the hero know that the villain was going to confront the girl with an ultimatum, and arrange to intercept the bodyguard before the rendezvous?” or words to that effect. “It just doesn’t make sense,” he would add. “It lacks coherency. The characters didn’t behave logically.”

Over refreshments at the nearest Hot Shoppes afterwards, we would discuss it. It sometimes got hilarious as we tried to explain the plot, the motivation, the situation, the character development – all the classic elements that make a story hang together coherently.

In the process, we would uncover all the flaws and inconsistencies that mark any of today’s movies. So going to a movie with Al was not only an entertaining experience, but an intellectual exercise, as well. Al’s mind at work as he tore a movie to shreds was a delight to behold.

“Al,” I would say, “you are a born critic.”

“It’s easy to criticize,” he once said thoughtfully. “The problem is to create – to build instead of to tear down.”

And in a very real way, this is what Al’s life was all about. He brought a measure of order and humanitarian perspective to a sometimes chaotic public environment. He brought a measure of sanity and rational analysis to the scrutiny of public issues. But most of all, by virtue of the active role he played on the News Review, he made the newspaper the kind of all-pervasive, unifying influence that makes a community out of a development, and gives its people a sense of belonging and sharing and togetherness. He left his corner of the world a better place than he found it, and that’s not a bad epitaph for any man.

I can see him now, scanning these pages coming out of the typewriter, as on so many previous occasions, and frowning in concentration as he mentally rejects clause after clause.

“Sounds kind of pompous doesn’t it?” he would ask mildly.

Like I said, he was incorrigible, a challenging, exasperating, infuriating man, and – oh, dear God – how we loved and respected and admired him. The sense of loss will be with us always, but, for myself, I shall always be thankful for the years of friendship we experienced together and for the memories we accumulated. For Elaine and his family, no mere words can lessen their grief, but perhaps they can take some small solace in the knowledge that so many, many of us share it with them.

In his story above, Harry (far right in photo) refers to Al (seated center) accepting an award after the Greenbelt News Review won the 1970 Supreme Court case. I’m told the case became a landmark for freedom of the press.
Copyright 2016, Elaine Blackman

Thursday, January 19, 2017

My father’s advice: How to play the personnel game

On Sunday Ill turn 65 (oh my!), so I thought it fitting to post a letter my dad wrote to me. In 1975, I was a college graduate living in northeast Atlanta and working downtown as a secretary in the Administration on Aging. I saw the job as my entry into the federal government, while updating my resume (aka 171 form – now obsolete) with plans to move into a professional “series”. Evidently I sent the form to my dad for his opinion because recently I came across his reply, which I now vaguely remember. It contains the sort of fatherly advice he offered freely throughout my career. Im showing it off now as another example of Harry’s generosity-driven letters – and how he felt about the bureaucracy. By the way, his general advice is not obsolete, so feel free to pass it around.

Tue. 21 Oct

Dear Elaine,

I’ve looked over your form 171 closely, and I really think you should do the whole thing over. From the point of view of an employer who interviews dozens of people each year for a variety of clerical and professional jobs, I can only tell you how I feel about these applications … but I can also say that I’ve spoken to many other supervisors and all have expressed the same sentiments.

Briefly, then: 1. A form 171 that has obviously been doctored up to reflect your current status is looked upon as a “lazy man’s (woman’s) application.” A freshly made-out form, on the other hand, reflects a serious desire to impress a prospective employer, and he is, therefore, more inclined to take it seriously. 2. In many ways, the government application form is something of a game; both the applicant and the employer know that it contains exaggerations, that it stretches the truth to some extent in order to make the applicant’s previous experience seem more important than it, in fact, was, and that it presents the applicant as a prodigy of virtue whose talents are precisely tailored to the job at issue.

The question, then, is how well do you play the game? If you play it well, it reflects the fact that you displayed a considerable degree of advance preparation and self-discipline in making yourself a saleable commodity. So – let’s face it, the 171 is what you’re judged by, since no employer is a mind-reader and no one can evaluate your attributes by looking into your eyes. Of course, the interview is an essential part of the judging process, but you may never reach the interview stage if your 171 doesn’t impress both the personnel office and the prospective employer.

Dad hand-wrote this eight-page letter.
Now, as to your conduct on the job, I know you have received conflicting reports or opinions, particularly as regards your chances for advancement into professional responsibilities and higher grades. Well, no matter what others may tell you, believe me when I say that such things as a willingness to work, an openly exhibited (cheerful) desire to master all aspects of your job, and an obvious ability to accept and discharge more demanding duties and responsibilities – all these are very rare indeed, and when an employer encounters these things he is quick to note and equally quick to reward. I can cite plenty of cases where people moved from clerical to professional fields because their performance impressed their supervisors.

So – ask yourself, have you displayed those characteristics? When you’re not busy, do you ask around to see if you can help anyone else? Do you seek out work, or do you wait till it’s handed to you? Have you told your supervisor(s) that you are willing to do more and want more responsibilities? And do you actively try to learn everything there is to know about your office, its larger roles and missions, how it fits into the overall organization, what it’s supposed to produce and what it’s actually producing? Can you discuss intelligently what problems your boss and his boss are wrestling with or worried about – and can you make any suggestions to them as to how to improve their organization and their operations?

My own feeling about people who work for me is that it takes them 6 to 8 months – and then, if they don’t come to me with questions to show they’re thinking and/or suggestions that indicate they want to use their talents to help me, well, they’re missing the boat. And that’s the real difference between clerical and professional personnel – between a secretary who will always be a secretary and a secretary who is going to advance into the professional levels. The difference is how much thought and effort you devote to your specific job and your entire organizational efforts.

Now, having said all that, I still think it’s a good idea to keep your applications circulating and your senses tuned to better possibilities. That’s why you need to fill out a new application form and send it out to all the likely places. You should ask your personnel office for all HEW Job Announcements for which you (not they) think you’re qualified so that you can submit an application for each. You should ask the Atlanta office of the Civil Service Commission for Job Announcements in other agencies, and apply for them as well. But, while you’re doing all that, you should be doing everything you can to convince your boss that you’re the smartest and hardest working person he ever had and that if and when you leave he’s going to be the sorriest guy in the world for not hanging on to you. And the way to do that is to take on responsibilities and do so many things that they’ll need two people to replace you.

As to the application itself, here are a few random thoughts: 1. Remember, personnel people are triggered by certain key words and phrases, so they should be used (judiciously) in all job descriptions. These things also impress supervisors or employers. For example: you don’t simply type letters, you compose correspondence; you don’t simply type reports, you draft reports, you provide editorial assistance in the final preparation of reports on (what? the problems of the aging? the use and abuse of dangerous drugs? the love life of the lemming?); you don’t simply research pertinent material relevant to special projects, you exercise initiative in researching pertinent material (where? libraries?, other organizations in HEW?, other agencies?, state and local governmental facilities?, industrial and academic resources?, etc.?), you select the most significant material for inclusion in the report and you integrate it into the substance of the report; and the “special projects” are what? – things such as the absorption of college graduates into the establishment? or whatever!

In other words, no matter how simple or trivial your job – any job – may have seemed to you, you have to write it up as though it were an important and essential operation without which the office or the organization could not have fulfilled its mission. What you’re doing, in effect, is demonstrating to a prospective employer that you are a unique and precious individual (which you are, of course) who is capable of making a real contribution and whose presence in his office will be a valuable addition to his staff. As I see it, your present job should be expanded to 3 or 4 times its present length (which means it must be continued on a separate sheet); and that applies to all the jobs you list. Even your Kelly Girl job can be expanded to indicate what kind of organizations you worked for and how much you did for them and how valuable the experience was in preparing you to do an outstanding job for whoever hires you next.

I just can’t emphasize strongly enough how important I think all these things are in your application form; I honestly believe they often make the difference between being hired or not.

If all this sounds a little pompous to you, blame it on my bureaucratic conditioning. I have been fighting against the “bureaucratic mentality” all my life – but from within – so it’s poetic justice that I should be a victim of the system, after all.

Anyway, bear this in mind, too. When I said the government application form is a game we play, I meant it; unfortunately, it’s the only way to get in. Once in, however, the game becomes more subtle; the same sort of garbage continues to go on between the employee and the personnel office (otherwise, personnel people would have very little to do), but between the employee and his supervisor that part of the game is meaningless. The objective, as I said before, is to take on all the duties and responsibilities you can get, regardless of whether they’re spelled out in your job description or not; then, some day, when the personnel officer/position classifier comes around to do a desk audit of your job, she’ll be so amazed at the extent of your activities that she’ll classify your job at a higher grade, which will astonish your boss, as well. At least, that’s the way it should work if your personnel office is honest – which may be too much to expect. Still, the system does work and if you persevere, you can beat them at their own game.

In the interests of speed, I’m sending this letter out right away so that you can get started on a new application. By the time you get to the references, I’ll have Jenny Klein’s and Nora Levsky’s job titles for you to fill in, as well. And, as soon as you complete it (but don’t sign it), and return it, I’ll make a few dozen copies for you. When you send it to me, use one of these address labels (enclosed).

Y.E.L.D. [Your Ever Loving Dad]

P.S. Thought you might like to see an article I wrote, to be published some time in December, I think.

Your Dad

Copyright 2016, Elaine Blackman

Thursday, January 12, 2017

A tearjerker – and dream songs – to remember

Harry the music man, 2012
Did you see the movie “An Affair to Remember”? Note to young people: Watch it! I saw the Cary Grant version many times in my youth. Harry discusses the movie’s music in the first of two articles below. He wrote the articles for his community newsletter in Leisure World, Silver Spring, MD.

Dec. 6, 2012 
Wishing Will Make It So

There are so many memorable songs that it’s hard to choose which one to write about each month. Sometimes I choose because the melody is stuck in my mind. Sometimes it’s because a song is associated with a person I’m thinking about. And, sometimes, like today, it’s because the lyric strikes me and I can’t let it go. Consider this couplet, for example: “Dreamers tell us dreams come true. It’s no mistake. And wishes are the dreams we dream when we’re awake.” Let that thought roll around in your mind for a while. I think it’s one of the most profound thoughts ever expressed in popular music lyrics.

What brought it to mind was that I caught a glimpse of an old movie, while surfing on TV recently, called “An Affair to Remember”. It starred Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. A real tearjerker. Well, that movie was made in 1957 (good grief, more than 50 years ago). But that movie was a remake of an older movie called “Love Affair” that was made in 1939 (good grief, more than 70 years ago). It featured Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer in the starring roles. In the original movie, Irene Dunne sang the “wishing” song, written especially for that movie, words and music by Buddy DeSylva – the Tin Pan Alley/Hollywood songwriter I’ve talked about in previous columns. That movie, by the way, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Writing, Best Original Story, Best Art Direction and Best Original Song.

Just to prove that Hollywood knows a good thing when it sees it, it tried another remake in 1994 with another “Love Affair” starring Warren Beatty and Annette Benning. Same storyline, etc. I didn’t see that one. Two out of three is enough. Anyway, it was Irene Dunne who got me started on wishing and dreaming and marveling at lyrics that made sense.

Wishing (Lyric)

Wishing will make it so, Just keep on wishing, and cares will go. Dreamers tell us dreams come true. It’s no mistake. And wishes are the dreams we dream, when we’re awake. The curtain of night will part, If you are certain, Within your heart. So if you wish long enough, wish strong enough, You will come to know. Wishing will make it so.

March 19, 2013
Once In a While

Usually, a successful songwriter has several big hits to his credit. Rarely do you hear of a writer with only one big hit, but once in a while, one comes along. His name was Michael Edwards and his one really big hit was “Once In a While”, published in 1937. Tommy Dorsey’s recording that year went to Number One in the country and Patti Page’s recording some fifteen years later, in 1952, also hit the top of the charts. Again, in 1968, Ella Fitzgerald also had a big hit with her recording; Elkie Brooks had a big hit with it in 1984; and Eddie Vetter did it again in 2011. So, it’s still being heard now and then – once in a while. Michael Edwards was a classical violinist, organist and music arranger, and this song was his one and only major composition.

The lyricist, Bud Green, on the other hand, had written many lyrics and had collaborated with a great many composers and other writers, including Buddy DeSylva, Les Brown, Ray Henderson, Al Dubin, Harry Warren, and others. Among his most successful songs was “Alabamy Bound”, “That’s My Weakness Now”, “I’ll Always Be In Love With You”, “Flat Foot Floogie With a Floy, Floy”, “Sentimental Journey”, and many others. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1975. 

Like so many other American songwriters, Bud Green was born in Europe (Austria) and came here as a child. He grew up in Harlem at the beginning of the 20th Century and started writing songs when he was still in elementary school. Aside from his success as a lyricist, Bud Green became famous as a symbol of the “Flapper” era. His song “That’s My Weakness Now” became a huge hit for Helen Kane, including the phrase “Boop Boop-a-Doop”. That song and that phrase and Helen Kane’s rendition became the inspiration for Max Fleischer to create the Betty Boop cartoons that burst on the world in 1930 and that are still with us today.

Once In a While (Lyric)

Once in a while, Will you try to give one little thought to me, Though someone else may be, Nearer your heart? Once in a while, Will you dream of the moments I shared with you, Moments before we two, Drifted apart?

In love’s smoldering ember, One spark may remain, If love still can remember, The flame will burn again. I know that I’ll, Be contented with yesterday’s memory, Knowing you’ll think of me, Once in a while.

Copyright 2016, Elaine Blackman