Thursday, October 27, 2016

A personal update to friends everywhere

When my dad was about to turn 70, he wrote the following letter to a number of his friends. He gave typical updates on his life, probably of little interest to people who didnt know him; however, it will fill in gaps for those who did. If you like Harry’s writing style, it’ll entertain you. And, it might encourage you to write a letter or email to old friends. Or, make a phone call.

28 May 1991 
To Friends Everywhere:

I have become one of the laziest people around. Even though I have spent the best years of my life in writing – so many hundreds of thousands of words – and still write a fair amount almost every day, I just can’t seem to find the energy to sit down and write letters. Those of you who send out annual letters, usually but not always around Christmas time, just to keep all your friends up to date on your families and your activities, put me to shame. I never even acknowledge receiving them. It’s not that I don’t love them. I read and reread every word. I enjoy them. I savor them. I just don’t acknowledge them.

Now, suddenly, the pangs of conscience are overwhelming me. The spirit moves me. The urge is upon me. So here I am, trying to put into words the things that have happened to me in the last five years since I retired. Retired from the government, that is, since I have never really fully retired, though I’m getting closer to it all the time. The fact that I will be 70 in a couple of weeks, and the realization that I am mortal, after all, is probably one of the factors that impels me to write this letter – that and a guilty conscience.

I retired in June 1986, at the age of 65, but my replacement, Herb Coleman, who was the Editor at Aviation Week, couldn’t get away from there until October, so I stayed on as a retired annuitant until he came aboard. Then, after lining up financing and people and other things, I started my newsletter, the Defense Media Review, in which I got a chance to do what they would never let me do for publication in the Pentagon (I did it for eyes only for a few selected officials) – namely, I got to comment on media performance in their coverage of national security affairs. I had two very bright young men working with me.

Everything went along swimmingly, as they say, for a couple years. Jeanette and I even got to do some traveling – to Israel in 1987, to Hawaii in 1988 – not as much as she wanted to do, but I still had commitments and deadlines. Then, on August 30, 1988, the day after we got back from a month’s vacation, two weeks in Hawaii and two weeks doing California, I had a heart attack. Well, not exactly a heart attack. It was diagnosed as severe angina, which, technically speaking is a warning signal that a heart attack may be imminent, and you better do something about it.

After an angiogram, which determined that one of the main arteries going to the heart was 90 percent blocked, they decided to do the angioplasty procedure, rather than a bypass operation. In the angioplasty procedure, they simply insert a “balloon” into the artery and press the blockage (cholesterol) against the wall of the artery, thereby clearing the passageway for the flow of blood to the heart. It’s much simpler and easier than a bypass, but it’s not feasible for everyone; it depends on exactly where the blockage is. There is no guarantee, of course, that the blockage will not return. Mine did, some six months or so later. That was in March 1989, just after we got back from a cruise in the Caribbean (six islands in eight days). 

I keep telling Jeanette that traveling can be hazardous to your health. So I got a second angioplasty and, according to the prevailing medical view, the odds are that the second one will last much longer. It’s now a little more than two years later, and it’s still holding, so maybe the doctors are right. Of course, an important element in recovering and staying healthy is exercise – aerobic exercise, to be precise. And, it goes without saying, I really don’t do enough of that.

By the way, an important factor in bringing on heart problems in the first place is smoking. And everybody knows that I smoked too much. In fact, from the time I was fifteen years old until the time I was sixty seven, well over fifty years, I smoked – two to three packs a day. Not only did it help bring about the coronary problem, it also did irreparable damage to my lungs. Looking back on it, it’s hard for me to believe that I was so dumb for so long. Knowing what we know now, it’s idiotic for smokers to continue smoking and it’s moronic for young people to start smoking. Anyway, I quit on August 30, 1988, in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, and, though I still miss it now and then, I have no real desire to start again.

By the end of 1988, the newsletter was becoming a burden that I didn’t want to carry too much longer. As it happens, shortly after I retired from the government, the College of Communication at Boston University established a Center for Defense Journalism and the Dean of the College invited me to serve on their Advisory Board. He also wanted the Center to start producing a newsletter. What he had in mind was very much like the one I was already producing – a commentary on media coverage of defense matters. So, for a very modest sum that did not involve a profit for me, I sold the newsletter to Boston University. It is now the flagship publication of the Center for Defense Journalism, and I am listed as a Contributing Editor, which means that I write an article now and then for them, and give them some ideas on what I think they ought to write about – all for free, of course.

For money I’ve been doing some free-lance writing and a little consulting for people who want to start newsletters or newspapers. I’m also trying to get into the fiction field, short stories mostly. The trouble is that I’m not hungry enough, as they say in the trade, which means that the motivation to try hard is lacking. Fortunately, you see, my government pension is quite generous, after almost 40 years of service (including Army time in WWII).

Last year I started taking some courses at the University of Maryland. One of the advantages of being over 65 is that you can go to school free here. One course in particular sounded intriguing – a course in modern military history, which starts in 1494 and extends to the present time. I found it fascinating and exciting. Also, humbling. There is so much I don’t know. As it happens, the professor used to work in the Army Historian’s office, and we knew each other slightly. I was truly impressed with the depth and range of knowledge he displayed.

When we got to the WWII era, about which I thought I knew a lot, I displayed my ignorance on occasion. He was very patient with me. Of course, most of the other students didn’t realize how truly ignorant I was. They thought that just because I was there that I knew more than I did. So, like the old saying goes, it’s better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt. I tried to keep my mouth shut most of the time. One thing, though, that really impressed those young people, an attitude that was expressed very well by one when he said:  “You fought in World War II? Wow! My grandfather fought in World War II.”

Nowadays, when I’m out walking with my grandchildren, the young pretty girls never mistake me for their father. It used to be easy to start a conversation with them in the presence of the children, but now they got me pegged. “You must be the grandfather,” they say. I can’t imagine why, since I look as young and handsome as I always did.

That’s about all there is to the continuing story of my life. I’m now tapering off the work ethic and beginning to enjoy the retired life, especially the ability to yield to sudden impulses to take off and go where we want or do what we want.

With love and best wishes to all of you,

Copyright 2016, Elaine Blackman

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Harry’s wit and wisdom in more random letters

If you have enjoyed the letters Harry wrote in several earlier posts on this blog, you’ll like the following letters, too, also recovered from his computer files. They add humorous and thoughtful details to what we know about his personal life. And, they further prove that he could write about anything.

January 1991 – Undergraduate Advising Center, University of Maryland

Dear Wendy:

Your letter of January 28 came as somewhat of a shock to me, since you indicated that I had a “difficult” semester in the fall. As a Golden ID Student, I audited a course in Modern Military History (History 224) and I must say I enjoyed every minute of it. Not only did I not have a “difficult” time, I had a truly delightful time. I found the course both informative and entertaining, while the Professor, Dr. David Trask, and his Teaching Assistant, Paul Moreno, both displayed a depth of knowledge that added immeasurably to the texts we studied. Indeed, I came away from the course with a feeling of satisfaction at a semester well spent and a sense of accomplishment at subject matter well learned.

You will understand, therefore, why I was at a loss when your letter suggested that I consider repeating the course or perhaps attending a workshop on “Recovering from a Bad Semester.” You also suggested that I consult my “assigned advisor”. I’d be happy to do so, except that I didn’t know I had one. Did I get one somehow while I was having a “difficult” semester? In any case, I am currently auditing the follow-up course, History 225, and I will be most pleased if this semester turns out to be as “difficult” as the fall semester.

I don’t really mean to be facetious, but I’d be very interested in hearing what bureaucratic procedure or what legal requirement prompted you to send me that letter.         

June 1991 – Richard Cohen, The Washington Post

Dear Mr. Cohen:

As a man of relatively modest stature, at five feet five inches, even more modest than yours, I truly appreciated your column entitled “Selling Us Short” in the Washington Post Magazine of 9 June. You did, however, inadvertently, I’m sure, forget to mention one other problem. In addition to the problem with shoes, which you described so eloquently, there is also the problem of men’s socks.

I refer, of course, to the monstrous hoax perpetrated on the male population of modest size by all the manufacturers of men’s socks who advertise that one size fits all – size 10-13. This is an obvious lie, and surely a violation of the law that prohibits false advertising. It may very well also be a violation of the anti-trust laws, since all the manufacturers seem to have entered into a conspiracy to hoodwink men with this “one-size” scam. Not only are those socks too big to begin with – the heel comes midway up my ankle – but it is my observation that socks are the only male garments that do not shrink but rather grow with each washing.

As a result of this nefarious practice, I and many others I know are reduced to shopping for socks, furtively, to be sure, either in the Boy’s Department or the Women’s Department, where size 9-11 is available. Unfortunately, neither the Boy’s nor the Women’s Departments carry socks of a quality and style equal to those in the Men’s Department. So I want to go on record as endorsing your call for men of modest size to rise up and rebel against the clothing manufacturers of America and their unfair sizing policies, as well as their unfair pricing policies. The trouble is, almost all of them are now in Taiwan, or South Korea, or China, or Hong Kong, or Indonesia, or Latin America, or Eastern Europe – or almost anywhere but the United States.

29 November 1991 – National Geographic Society, Washington, DC

Dear Bob:

It was very thoughtful of you to send me a copy of your December issue, and I can’t tell you how pleased I was to receive it. The pictures and the maps are phenomenal; Allen’s accompanying commentary is outstanding. Over the past fifty years I’ve read hundreds of articles and dozens of books about Pearl Harbor, but nothing I have ever seen presents so clear and graphic a summary of that event as this issue of the National Geographic magazine.

I recall very well where I was on that fateful day. I was working for one of the so-called war plants – the Bell Aircraft Corporation in Buffalo, New York – which was on a three-shift schedule at the time. Everybody knew that we could not stay out of the war in Europe forever, and that a war with Japan was probably inevitable, too. We were producing airplanes, mainly for the Russians for lend-lease, but also, we hoped, for eventual use by our own Air Corps.

It was Sunday afternoon with the plant going full blast when the loudspeakers came on with the announcement about the attack on Pearl Harbor. The grim certainty that this meant war only confirmed our fears, and when President Roosevelt announced that the Congress had declared war a couple days later, it was almost an anticlimax. I decided right then and there that I would devote my life to serving my country and, aside from my military service during the war, that’s exactly what I did as best I could as a civilian for almost forty years.

It’s hard to believe that the attack on Pearl Harbor took place fifty years ago. (It’s also hard to believe that I am seventy years old.) And it’s equally hard to believe that the Japanese are so sensitive about the subject. December 7 ought to be a day of remembrance in Japan, as well as in the United States. If they had any public relations sense at all, instead of withdrawing their advertising ($1.8 million from National Geographic alone, according to the Wash. Post), they would increase their allocations to help fund such retrospectives. Indeed, I believe that a properly planned and executed public relations campaign centered around the Pearl Harbor experience could very well help bring our two countries closer together. As it is, the Japanese seem to be fostering the impression that they would gladly do it all over again in a 1990s kind of way – not militarily, but economically.

Ah well, that’s neither here nor there. Thanks again, Bob, I really do appreciate your thoughtfulness.

Copyright 2016, Elaine Blackman

Thursday, October 13, 2016

His complaint letters didn’t go viral – until now

While preparing today’s blog post, I happen to pick up an AARP “Bulletin” newspaper with an article titled “How to Complain”. It suggests we can post our complaint on Twitter. On Twitter and other social media a complaint can go viral”, and the company – whose products or services disappointed us – can see it, too. The other way of writing a complaint – much longer than 140 characters – was right up Harry’s alley, as I discovered in his computer files. I would think he enjoyed voicing his opinions, analyzing the situations, and even offering possible solutions for each complaint. Plus, he wouldn’t stand to let the companies take advantage of him. See if you can relate to any of these.

13 February 1992 – Reader’s Digest

Dear Ms. Davis:

Over the past years, I have bought a great many things from Reader’s Digest, including at least two dozen or more record albums. Until now I have never had a really serious complaint; minor complaints are not worth communicating to you.

Recently, I bought the record album entitled “I’ve Heard That Song Before”. Partly because I was traveling and partly because I was extremely busy with some writing projects, I did not open the box until several weeks after it arrived. When I finally did so, I discovered, to my horror, an album that looked very much like it had been used in a lending library for two years before they threw it into the trash, where the Reader’s Digest crew found it and sent it to me. 

The album cover had been torn and crudely repaired with scotch tape, though it still gaped at the seams; the seven records were not in their proper casings, that is, record number 1 was in casing number 7, record number 2 was in casing number 5, and so forth – not a single one was in the right number casing; the condition of the records themselves was terrible, with oily fingerprints dried on all the records and scratches on some of them. 

It is positively sacrilegious to treat records so shabbily. I spent almost two hours with a special brush and record cleaning fluid, trying to restore those records to usable condition. And if you ask why I bothered or why I just simply didn’t return the album, the answer is that it was long past the seven-day tryout period, and besides, it’s a real hassle to mail something back.

In any case, for the most part I’ve been happy with the Reader’s Digest albums. They have given me many, many hours of enjoyable listening. One bad experience among a multitude of good experiences does not make you a villain, in my view. But, after reflection, it occurred to me that you would never learn about this incident unless you learned it from me, nor would you ever become aware of someone’s bad performance in your organization unless you received a complaint. As it is, if your bureaucracy is like most of the others, you may never see this letter, either. Someone in your outer office will very likely intercept it on the assumption that you should not be bothered with tiresome details like this. I guess I’ll be able to tell by the quality of the form letter I receive in response.

One of the albums I bought during this past year was one entitled “Memories of You”. It was a great disappointment to me. To begin with, there was no little booklet of background material on each of the numbers included in the album. Was that just an oversight, or was it because no booklet was prepared for this particular album? If there is a booklet, I’d like very much to get it. 

With respect to the contents of the album, I don’t know what kind of feedback you get from your customers, but let me register this with you. Some of the best songs in this album were spoiled, in my opinion, by the particular recordings you selected for inclusion. I refer to the recordings by Franklyn MacCormack with Russ Garcia and his orchestra. One or two renditions of that kind would have been more than enough in a seven-record album; nine or ten were far too many for my tastes. I would much rather have heard someone sing the songs the way they were meant to be sung – not murmured with heavy breathing by someone with a stomach ache.

19 June 1992 – Reader’s Digest

Dear Ms. Davis:

I was deeply disappointed in some music albums I bought recently. I was even more deeply disappointed by your failure to respond to my letter of complaint of 13 February 1992. Accordingly, I refuse to buy any more of the albums you are offering.

October 1993 – Credit Services Director, Blair [clothing]

Dear Mr. Park:

Your letter of September 28, 1993, is truly perplexing. Last month, your company sent me an “invitation” to purchase a selection of merchandise. There were no questions regarding my credit references, bank accounts, or charge accounts. I naturally assumed that you check the credit ratings beforehand on individuals to whom you send such invitations. In any case, as I understood it, you offered three payment options: to charge my purchase to a credit card, to accompany my order with a check, or to pay within seven days of receiving the merchandise. I chose the latter option.

Obviously, you have withdrawn that option. Let me make it clear that I will not furnish any of my credit card numbers to you, nor will I list my bank account numbers, nor will I pay in advance for anything “sight unseen”. Indeed, your letter sounds suspiciously like a scam to me and we, the trusting public, are constantly bombarded with such requests, as well as with warnings against revealing such information to anyone, no matter how legitimate they seem to be. It would be like giving someone a license to steal from you. 

I did sign your order form which, in effect, was an agreement to pay for the merchandise within seven days, assuming it was satisfactory, or to return it if I found it unsatisfactory. I am still willing to abide by that agreement, but you, the seller, must establish your good faith with me, not the other way around. For all I know, you may be selling processed paper goods that would fall apart after one wearing, or, more likely, poorly sized garments that won’t fit properly. 

In short, I’m the one who is taking a chance with you, despite my initial misgivings about buying clothing by mail and despite my further misgivings occasioned by your letter. But if you do not want to take a chance with me, so be it.

20 January 1994 – Fingerhut Corporation


I don’t understand. Indeed, I am completely baffled. Let’s review. I ordered a cordless electric screwdriver for $29.95. You sent me something else, along with a payment plan of some kind which would have wound up costing me either $39.95 or $44.00, I think. That’s just too much. I sent the merchandise back to you and told you to forget the whole thing. You acknowledged receipt of the merchandise, noting that it was not what I had ordered, and expressed the hope that we could do business again sometime in the future. You subsequently sent me additional advertising material. Now you are sending me another payment schedule, at a different price, for the same product, which I have not received and no longer want at the price you charge. This new payment plan says I must pay by 01-18-94, although I received it on 01-19-94 – that was yesterday.

Now then, one of us is mixed up. Am I missing something? Did I misunderstand? Have I entered into some kind of a binding contract that says I have to pay you for something I didn’t get and don’t want? Please clarify. My credit is important to me and I don’t want to jeopardize it over a misunderstanding or a miscommunication.

February 1994
– Fingerhut Corporation


You are trying my patience. On 20 January 1994, I sent you a letter questioning your invoice, returning it together with your inflated payment plan, and cancelling my original order. A copy of that letter is enclosed to refresh your memory. You never responded to that letter. Instead, you now send me another bill for merchandise I did not receive and no longer want at the price you charge. I am returning your bill, with this letter, and ask that you clear up this matter quickly.

8 December 1994 – President, Book-of-the-Month Club

Dear Mr. Artandi:

This letter will be as short and to the point as was your letter to me in which you invited me to take advantage of your “no-strings” offer to join your club. It is, indeed, a generous offer, and I was, for a moment, sorely tempted but, on reflection, I resisted that temptation and I’d like to tell you why.

The truth is that this is not a “no-strings” offer at all. True, I never have to buy another book from you, but every three weeks or so I have to decline to buy another book from you. I refer, of course, to the fact that if a member does not specifically instruct you not to send a book, you will automatically send your monthly selections. It is simply too much of a hassle to respond negatively to all your mailings. But I have a counter-offer for you. I’ll gladly join the club, but with the understanding that you’ll only send me books when I specifically request them, without the need to respond negatively to your frequent mailings.

Think of it for a minute. You would be pioneering a new way of doing business for book clubs. Not only would you not require your members to buy books, you would also not require your members not to buy books. You would be setting a precedent that every book club in the industry would have to emulate if they want to keep pace with the times. You would be inaugurating a new era in the book club industry and, in the process, you would find a grateful public responding to your appeal. In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if your sales would increase dramatically, simply because you could attract far more members if you make it clear at the start that there is never a need to respond negatively if your members don’t want to receive your monthly selections.

I can see a whole new advertising campaign in the making if you adopt this one, simple principle. So, what do you say? Do you want to go boldly where no man has gone before? Do you want to open up a new and final frontier in the book club business?

Copyright 2016, Elaine Blackman

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Harry sounds off on government in letters to Post

It stands to reason that retirees have more time to pursue other interests. In Harry’s case, he loved to express his opinions and share his knowledge through writing. So, if you thought you couldn’t learn any more about him, check out these letters I found to The Washington Post – two to journalist David Broder and one to the Editor. They reveal more bits of Harrys background – and his views on government.

21 July 1993

Dear Mr. Broder:

I have long admired your column, your writing and your thinking. You set the standard for political reporters or commentators to emulate throughout the world of journalism. Your column in this morning’s Washington Post (7/21/93) is a case in point. As you frequently do, you have hit precisely the right note in describing the Vice President’s efforts to institute a sea change in the way the government operates. A note of cautious optimism.

You note that some of the people helping Al Gore in this project are relatively young and inexperienced, with, presumably, inadequate understanding of how the government works or how to effect changes. I have often observed over the years just how these governmental study programs get their staffs. I worked in the Pentagon for 36 years, the last 25 of which was in a position of considerable responsibility. During those years, I witnessed countless commissions and blue ribbon panels established to study and improve the way the government operates. All of them were headed by distinguished individuals; all of them were staffed mainly by people assigned involuntarily by the various government agencies, or through personal contacts by young volunteers. The volunteers were invariably enthusiastic and uninformed. The assignees were usually people whom their respective agencies were happy to farm out. Almost all the studies thus produced were uninspired and deserved the chance to gather dust on hidden shelves.

What is true of all those study groups is that none of them ever seemed to tap the vast pool of talent represented by the recently retired career government employees. I am talking about the middle management people who rose to their positions through the ranks, so to speak, who know and understand the intricacies of federal organizational arrangements, who know where the levers are and where the roadblocks are, and who know when to move them and when to circumvent them.

Don’t misunderstand. I am not volunteering my services, but I personally know dozens of retirees from the middle management levels of the government who could make a truly constructive contribution to Al Gore’s study effort. And I’m sure there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, more who would happily place their knowledge and experience at the Vice President’s disposal. In all probability, OPM [Office of Personnel Management] could surely give Mr. Gore a short list of outstanding recently retired individuals from each of the federal agencies, from among whom he could choose a few who could bring their accumulated wisdom to bear on the problems being studied. If you think this suggestion is worthy, you might mention it to Mr. Gore or one of his key people. (No need to credit me.)

All that aside, I want to thank you for all those great columns you produce, for the depth and the breadth of the information you impart to your readers, and for the pleasure you give this reader by the quality of your writing.

16 March 1994

Dear Mr. Broder:

Your column in today’s Washington Post moves me to contribute a few random thoughts about the workings of government and the bureaucracy. It is no wonder that the public has a negative view of government, considering the following factors:

1.  Every presidential candidate in recent memory has run for office against the government. It has become fashionable to badmouth the government and the bureaucracy, and every time a candidate says something negative, the press multiplies it a hundred-fold. No matter how well the government operates, the public will not believe it so long as politicians continue to deride it.

2.  The professional civil service, which is to say the bureaucracy, operates at a severe disadvantage. The problem is that every President appoints people to the top positions in all the agencies, and these people are answerable only to the President. Now, here’s the rub. The kinds of people who are appointed to the statutory positions are chosen not on the basis of their professional qualifications for the job, but rather on the basis of their political qualifications. In fact, many of them are completely unsuited for the jobs to which they are appointed, despite the scrutiny by the press and the Senate confirmation process. With few exceptions, they are either campaign workers being rewarded with government jobs, financial supporters being rewarded with government jobs, representatives of industries that do business with the agencies involved, political and/or personal cronies, and an assortment of hangers-on who take any job that’s offered. 

Most of them enter into their jobs with an attitude of unrelenting hostility to the professional civil service. Very few of them, very few, try to work with their staffs of professionals or make a serious attempt to understand the peculiarities or intricacies of government operations. Instead, they staff their second- and third-tier ranks with pals and cronies, and they try in every way imaginable to circumvent the bureaucracy in order to do things that their agencies should not do, or to prevent their agencies from doing things that they should do. 

Rarely do their illegal or unethical activities get public scrutiny, mainly because the press is always too busy scrutinizing the President instead of looking into the less-glamorous conduct of lower-level appointees in the agencies. And, also because the press seldom talks to the professional civil servants who, in any case, are seldom willing to blow the whistle on the statutory appointees. Only occasionally are some of them exposed, either through a Justice Dept. investigation or a congressional investigation, and in those instances, the resultant press coverage solidifies the public perception of the “bureaucracy” as a den of thieves. Most of them are never exposed, either for the “shady” things they do, or for the ineptness of their conduct in office. Still, what they do makes their agencies look bad and you, by which I mean the press, really ought to differentiate between the civil service bureaucracy and the statutory bureaucracy.

3.  As I said in my letter to you last July, I want to thank you for the all the great columns you produce and for the pleasure you give me by virtue of the quality of your writing.

11 May 1993

To the Editor, The Washington Post
Regarding Rule XXII

The articles by Lloyd Cutler, George Will, Howard Baker and Norman Ornstein (today) all miss the mark, though the discussion itself is fascinating. The fact is, however, they all start with the assumption that the United States Senate is genuinely willing to act in the best interests of the country, and that the current policy on filibusters thwart this purpose. In my view, and I honestly believe a great many Americans share this view, nothing could be farther from the truth. If anyone still believes that the Senate is interested in the good of the country or the welfare of the people, I have a bridge in Brooklyn for sale at a bargain price.

The Senate has displayed time and time again its complete indifference to the best interests of the country. Individual Senators, Bob Dole included, are interested in their own self-aggrandizement and their own reelection first. Secondly, and a far second indeed, they pretend to work on behalf of their own constituents. In that respect, they put up a good front, but it’s all for show, not for real. I do not believe the good of the country enters their considerations at all. All their pious mouthings about their concerns for the welfare of the American “middle class” are sickening, especially coming from Republicans, who did as much as they could during the twelve years when they owned the White House, to eliminate the middle class. And those Senators who point with pride to their years of “public” service are hoodwinking the public. Their service was performed for private or special interests, not for the public.

If the Senate as a body were genuinely concerned with the best interests of the nation, it would find a way to cope with the filibusters that thwart the public interest. Until it does, until it demonstrates a greater degree of active concern for the country, it will continue to be regarded by many of us voters as a joke.

Copyright 2016, Elaine Blackman

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Harry tributes hit songs written in 1937

Harry loved writing about – and recording music from his era. 
On an afternoon in 2012, I was having lunch with my parents at Nancy’s Kitchen near their retirement community, Leisure World in Silver Spring, MD. My 91-year-old dad asked, “Do you hear the music they’re playing? I gave them a box of CDs and they play them all the time.” And then a manager called out,“Hi Harry!” That was my dad; he recorded music on CDs and shared them far and wide. He knew the restaurant patrons would enjoy them. Here are two stories Harry wrote for his community newsletter.

April 19, 2013 - That Old Feeling

Some songs evoke memories – of people, or events, or special occasions. As soon as you hear it, a memory clicks into place. This is one of those songs. You don’t hear this one at all these days, but I’ll bet the very thought of it will call forth a memory in your mind. It was written by Sammy Fain, with lyric by Lew Brown. A word about the writers.

Sammy Fain (his real name was Samuel Feinberg) was born in New York in 1902, and died in 1989 at the age of 87. He was a prolific composer who worked mainly in collaboration with Irving Kahal, though he worked with many others on an occasional basis. With Kahal he wrote “Let a Smile Be Your Umbrella”, among other hits. He taught himself to play the piano and, though he played by ear, as they say, he became good enough to give an occasional concert for friends. Sammy Fain composed the music for more than two dozen films from the 1930s through the 1950s and was nominated for the Best Original Song Academy Award nine times. He won that Oscar twice, in 1954 for “Secret Love” from the movie “Calamity Jane”, and in 1955 for “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing” from the movie of the same name. The lyrics for both songs were written by Paul Francis Webster, with whom he worked quite frequently. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1962.

Lew Brown (his real name was Louis Brownstein) was also an old pro in the music business. He was born in 1893 in Russia and his family came to the U.S. when he was five. He grew up in the Bronx and died in 1958, at age 64. Brown was a member of the three-man team of Ray Henderson, Buddy DeSylva and Brown who, in the 1920s wrote dozens of popular songs in “Tin Pan Alley”. He also collaborated with many of the great song writers of that era including Harold Arlen and Albert Von Tilzer. He wrote lyrics for a number of Broadway shows, too, including “George White’s Scandals” and “Mr. Wonderful”.

This song was published in 1937 (one of the best years ever for popular music) and first appeared in the movie “Vogues of 1938”. It was an immediate hit. Throughout the late 1930s and early ’40s it was extremely popular. Then, in 1952, it was featured in a Susan Hayward movie “With a Song In My Heart”, the story of Jane Froman. Patti Page had a million-seller recording in 1955, and Frank Sinatra had another in 1960. In 1997 the title was used for a movie that starred Bette Midler and Dennis Farina and featured performances by Louis Armstrong and Oscar Peterson. Almost all of the great singing artists of our times have recorded it.

That Old Feeling (Lyric)

I saw you last night and got that old feeling,
When you came in sight I got that old feeling.
The moment that you danced by, I felt a thrill,
And when you caught my eye, my heart stood still.
Once again I seemed to feel that old yearning,
Then I knew the spark of love was still burning.
There’ll be no new romance for me; it’s foolish to start,
‘Cause that old feeling is still in my heart.

May 27, 2013 - I’ll Be Seeing You

Some songs are immediate hits with the public from the time they’re first performed. That’s the way it was with last month’s song, “That Old Feeling”. Some songs, on the other hand, take years before they become popular. That’s the way it was with “As Time Goes By”, which I wrote about last year. It was written in 1930-31, and even though it was performed by Rudy Vallee, one of the most popular singers of the early 1930s, it was not until 1942-43, when Dooley Wilson sang it in “Casablanca”, that it really became popular. And that’s the way it was with this song, too.

“I’ll Be Seeing You” was another one of the great songs written in 1937. This one, too, was written by Sammy Fain, who wrote last month’s song. The lyric for this one was written by Irving Kahal and it was used in a Broadway musical called “Right This Way” in 1938. It had everything going for it – successful composer and lyricist, a Broadway show to introduce it – and yet it did not impress the public. The show closed after only two weeks and the song sank without a trace; that is, until Bing Crosby recorded it in 1944 and it was featured in a movie of the same name that starred Ginger Rogers and Joseph Cotton. After that, it was used in countless movies and television shows and recorded by just about every recording artist of the 20th century.

In retrospect, it’s easy to understand. By 1944, millions of us were in war zones overseas and lovers everywhere looked forward to the day when they would see each other again. This song reflected the sentiment of separation and hope that all of us felt. There was a preamble to the words, too, very touching though not ordinarily included in most performances.

I’ll Be Seeing You (Lyric)

Cathedral Bells were tolling and our hearts sang on,
Was it the spell of Paris or the April dawn?
Who knows if we shall meet again?
But when the morning chimes ring sweet again.

I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places,
That this heart of mine embraces all day through.
In that small cafe, the park across the way,
The children’s carousel, the chestnut tree, the wishing well.
I’ll be seeing you in every lovely summer’s day,
In everything that’s light and gay,
I’ll always think of you that way.
I’ll find you in the morning sun,
And when the night is new,
I’ll be looking at the moon,
But I’ll be seeing you.

Copyright 2016, Elaine Blackman

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Snapshots of Harry’s sentimental side

Sandy and her Zadie in 1984
Im dedicating todays post to a sentimental family occasion the wedding of Harry’s granddaughter, Sandy. She is learning more about her Zadie because he saved letters and emails in computer files. The rest of us, too, are getting a closer look at Harrys memories, beliefs, and relationships. He wrote this letter to a dear friend in 1994, when he was 73. (I changed the names of the people in the letter.)

Dear Mary:  It is one of the mysterious truisms of life that the male friends of a newlywed man are never fully at ease with his new wife. There is some obscure chemistry at work that makes the friend and the wife view each other with suspicion, or, at least, not with complete acceptance. There is, no doubt, another kind of chemistry at work with a female friend of the groom and his new wife, but that’s another story.

Anyway, even though we seldom see each other or communicate these days, I have for a long time felt that Mike and I were as close as friends of two different generations can be. In fact, I really don’t feel as though we are separated by a generation gap, probably because we shared some common experiences together. Until now, I could never hope to feel a similar closeness to Mary. I could only think of her as Mike’s new wife. But now, Mary, everything has changed.

Harry in the mid-1990s
The two articles you enclosed with your letter have convinced me that we share a common kinship. First, we are both criers. Second, we have learned to listen to what other people say instead of to ourselves. And third, we want to tell others about the things we’ve learned and the things we feel instead of keeping it bottled up inside. It’s taken me some 70-odd years to reach this understanding about myself. It’s taken you only thirty.

About crying, by the way, I can only say that I am easily moved to tears, and always have been. When I was a kid, I used to cry when the cowboy kissed his horse and rode off into the sunset at the end of the movie. (They never kissed the girl in those days; that would have been unmanly, and all the kids would have booed at such behavior. Times have, indeed, changed.) For years I tried to repress the tears as best I could, or to hide them, which is not always possible. Now, however, I go with the flow, so to speak, and I don’t care at all if people think I’m crazy. I’m sentimental and proud of it. Thus, I can shed a tear when my grandchildren hug and kiss me or when I think of all the joys my own parents missed because they died so young, before my children were born. So I’m a crier and your article on tears moved me – to tears – and made me feel very close to you.

You have a natural talent for writing, Mary, and from the perspective of a professional reader who has spent most of his adult years reading, writing and editing, I would urge you to forsake any other ambition you may have for a career and concentrate on writing. I can foresee a great future for you as a syndicated columnist, free to write on subjects of your choice rather than being confined to any one area of expertise. You should cultivate and nurture this talent, and just keep sending off articles to a variety of publications. I predict success for you in this field and if you have any doubts in your mind about it, banish them.

There is an old saying among pilots that the second greatest thrill known to man is flying. There are varying opinions among non-pilots about just what the greatest thrill is, but again among pilots, the greatest thrill is landing – safely, of course. But I can tell you as a man and as a human being that the greatest thrill of all is holding your own newborn baby in your arms and knowing that you created this miracle with God’s help and praying that it will grow and prosper and make this old world a better place.

They say there are no atheists in foxholes and, having survived that kind of experience, I can attest to the truth of that statement. But here is a greater truth – nobody can look at his own newborn child and not believe in God. I can’t tell you how delighted I am to hear your news. And let me say, for the record, that August is a good month. Jeanette and I celebrated our fiftieth wedding anniversary last August, the fifteenth, to be precise. It will be a great month to celebrate your first child’s birthday, and our 51st anniversary.

* * *

Here’s another snapshot of my dad’s sentimental side. In March 2014, a couple months before he passed away, he emailed the following reply to a relative who had thanked him for his Army service in the 1940s. The relative was prompted by someones emotional description of a WWII veteran who attended a model exhibit of the Vietnam War Memorial. (Again, I changed the names for this blog.)

Harry in March 2014
Dear Steve: Your email touched me deeply in many ways, and I had to think long and hard for the past week or so on how to respond. First, though, let me say how much I appreciate what you said, but I’m also a little embarrassed, too. I didn’t do anything special to deserve thanks or applause or, to put it another way, I only did what millions of other guys did, and to single me out is unfair.

Tom Brokaw got it right when he said we should thank a whole generation for what they did in WWII. It was the whole country, everyone, not only those who went to war but also those who stayed home and contributed to the war effort. Everybody was involved. I cannot describe or define the feeling of togetherness that permeated the country at that time. It lasted only a few years and it never came back.

Today, sadly, we are fighting a war, and most people are not involved or remotely touched by it. Those guys who have been fighting and dying and getting maimed in the Middle East wars deserve our thanks because they are just a tiny fraction of our people.

Anyway, what I did was so long ago that it is mostly forgotten history now. I’ll tell you who my heroes are, now. You are. You and Karen, who have the courage to adopt and raise kids in this troubled world and teach them the values and morals of Americanism and Judaism. You are what made it all worthwhile.


Copyright 2016, Elaine Blackman

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The media and lies in the Middle East

Author Harry M. Zubkoff
When I read Harrys old articles, my mind inevitably goes to our current events, and I imagine how he would feel today. In March 1991, he drafted a comment to a long-time journalist friend, titled “Whom Did We Fight?”, about the war in Iraq. A month later (and after several more essays on the subject), he wrote an article simply titled “Lies” in his computer files. Both reveal exactly how he felt at the time.

March 31, 1991 
Whom Did We Fight?                    

The notion that we were not at war with the Iraqi people, or that we never had anything against the Iraqi people but only against their government, seems to me patently absurd. The President and various members of the Administration, as well as members of the Congress, have said it on a number of occasions, though, on the face of it, it is neither true nor honest. It is repeated, I suspect, as a sop to the sensibilities of people who are not willing to countenance a war against any country but can accept the notion of a war against a nasty government. Certainly Saddam Hussein and company are as nasty as you can get, but how do you distinguish between a people and its government?

The fact is, we conducted a war against the people of Iraq, a people who by all accounts seemed fully supportive of Saddam Hussein and his policies. The people of Iraq cheered at the takeover of Kuwait. The people of Iraq, represented by their men in the uniform of their country, displayed an order of savagery and bestiality toward the people of Kuwait seldom seen in human affairs. All the television scenes showing the crowds of Iraqis (and Jordanians and Palestinians) demonstrating in support of Hussein cannot be dismissed as pure propaganda. They supported him, they loved him, and we fought a war against them and him.

Since he lost the war, some of his people have turned against him, but only some. If they all rose up against him he would be out by sundown. As it is, he continues to have enough support and enough power to remain in office. If he is thrown out, it is more likely to be by someone close to him, rather than by a popular uprising against him. And if he remains in power, we will continue to wage a war against the people of Iraq, even if it’s only an economic “sanction” war. 

Let’s face it, the “government” of Iraq did not suffer as the people of Iraq suffered from this war. The people paid the price, not the leaders. If there are any lessons to be drawn from this war, one of them, for us, is surely this, that we cannot wage a war against an individual or a government alone – that all wars are waged against peoples. For the people of other countries that are governed by self-appointed despots, they should surely be thinking about exercising a greater measure of control over their governments, their policies and their destinies. 

April 27, 1991

Saddam Hussein may or may not be another Adolf Hitler, but in at least one respect he has taken an important page from Hitler’s book: A lie, repeated often enough, no matter how big or how absurd, will eventually come to be accepted as truth. We Americans naively believe that a lie can be countered with the truth, and that truth will inevitably win out over lies in the minds of rational people; but that’s a Western idea that has no bearing in the Middle East.

There are two aspects to the spread of lies that are especially baffling to a Western observer: one is the propensity of seemingly intelligent and rational young Jordanian and Palestinian men and women to believe Iraq’s lies; the other, and even more baffling, is the attitude of Western media reporters, interviewers and pundits who, upon hearing the most outrageous lies expressed, accept them and publish them without challenge.

The whole world, outside of the Middle East, knows that Iraq launched more than three dozen SCUD missiles at Israeli population centers in a vain attempt to draw Israel into the Gulf War. The whole world also knows that the United States made an extraordinary diplomatic effort to persuade Israel to stay out of the war, for fear that Israel’s entry would have destroyed the coalition arrayed against Iraq.

In retrospect, it’s hard to understand that fear, since the entire Arab world already believed not only that Israel was deeply engaged in the actual fighting, but also that Israel had instigated the war in the first place. Early in the bombing campaign, before the ground war started, the Iraqi News Agency claimed that dozens of Israeli aircraft and pilots were flying bombing and strafing missions against Iraq out of Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Baghdad also reported that “hundreds” of the coalition’s aircraft were shot down during the first two weeks. In fact, during the first week, Saddam announced that Tel Aviv had been turned into a crematorium, while the Iraqi News Agency reported that the Israelis had suffered thousands of casualties in the SCUD attacks and that Tel Aviv was now a “ghost town”.

Throughout the Arab world, and particularly in Jordan, there was great joy and dancing in the streets at this bit of news. In Jordan, the Amman newspaper reported that Israel was using Palestinians as “human shields” against Iraqi missile attacks, while the fact that Iraq was using Western hostages as human shields was not mentioned. At the same time, Palestinians being interviewed by Western journalists were claiming that Israel was somehow diverting incoming SCUDs to fall on Arab villages in the West Bank. Some Palestinians even charged that Israel itself was launching all those missiles against Tel Aviv as part of a propaganda ploy to whip up war fever in the U.S. by making Iraq look like a villain.

All this may sound ludicrous to most Americans, but there is ample evidence that it is widely believed, not only in the Middle East, but in the Arab-American community in the U.S., as well. A group of Jordanians, interviewed by Ted Koppel, asserted that a great many Israeli planes were flying bombing missions out of Saudi Arabia against civilian targets in Iraq. The Iraqi Ambassador to the United Nations said the same thing in an interview and even declared that proof of this claim would be presented at the proper time. And, in addition to Israeli aircraft flying against Iraq, Yassir Arafat reported from Jordan that the cruise missiles hitting Baghdad were coming out of Israel.

To top it all off, the reason why Saddam pulled his forces out of Kuwait was because the U.S. threatened to use nuclear weapons against him, according to the Algerian newspaper, widely read in the Arab world. Moreover, the coalition forces, suffering from close to 200,000 casualties at the hands of Iraqi troops, had to seek a cease fire or succumb to inevitable and humiliating defeat. And if any of this sounds too absurd to take seriously, there is now – even now, at this late date – the widespread belief in the Middle East that Saddam faced up to the West and emerged triumphant. Now, having defeated the coalition forces, he is reasserting control over his own country with the kind of savagery that has marked his career from the beginning, and which no one in that part of the world seems willing to condemn, least of all Yassir Arafat or King Hussein of Jordan.

Truth in the Middle East is irrelevant. People there will believe what they want to believe. In a way, that’s understandable. Far less understandable is the seeming willingness of Western journalists to allow such lies to go unchallenged and, in fact, to add credence to them by reporting and thus further disseminating them.

Copyright 2016, Elaine Blackman