Friday, May 29, 2015

A drive through 1930s Buffalo

If you’re over 80 and from Buffalo, you might especially appreciate Harry’s musings about life in his hometown in Upstate New York. If you're old enough to drive and from anywhere, you might appreciate his quip about making out in the back seat. And, if you knew Harry at all, you may be surprised by a regret he reveals toward the end. Harry shared these memories in an email to a young confidante, in 2010.

When I was 16, I did what all 16-year-old kids do. I got a learner’s permit to learn how to drive. But, I also got a learner’s permit to learn how to fly. This was in 1937, the middle of the Depression, when money was scarce and I was a junior in high school. I never took a driving lesson because I already knew how to drive – just from watching others. My brother, seven years older than I, took me one day to take the test, which I passed the first time, and I had a license but not car.

Harry (standing on right) poses with buddies in 
1930s Buffalo.
Several friends had cars, so, whenever we went out on double dates, I would drive their cars. The way it worked was we would chip in a quarter apiece for gas – believe it or not, 50 cents would buy six or eight gallons of gas, and I’d drive on a Saturday night usually, to a great diner in Batavia or to Niagara Falls for a late snack.

My date and I would sit in front and talk while my friend, whose car it was, would sit in the back seat and make out with his date. I didn’t mind because I enjoyed driving and talking. I had three such friends who had cars and they always wanted to double date with me because they knew I would drive and they could enjoy their back seats.

When I was 17, I graduated from Fosdick-Masten Park High School. I had already been working part-time, so then I went to work full time. My older brother joined the Army. My oldest sister had married and gone to Palestine to build a home for the Jewish people. My other sister, four years older than I, was married and pregnant, no longer living at home. My parents, both terminally ill, unable to work, depended on me to support them. Which I did, of course.

Every Sunday afternoon, if the weather was good, I took a flying lesson from an old World War I pilot who had a small airfield on Sheridan Drive. At that time, Sheridan Drive from Delaware Ave., all the way to Main Street was uninhabited – empty wilderness. Somewhere way past Niagara Falls Blvd. was this little airfield where I flew. I paid two bucks a lesson – for an hour of dual instruction, and then one dollar an hour for solo flights until I got my private pilot’s license in 1938. It took well over a year for the entire thing.

In those days, I had a motorcycle that I bought for 10 bucks, and that’s how I got around. I paid for it a dollar a week for 10 weeks. I was earning 12 bucks a week and, by the end of 1938, about $15 a week, which was pretty good money in those days. People were supporting families on that kind of money. In 1939, I went to work for a war plant, the Bell Aircraft Co., for $20 a week, which averaged around $30 a week with overtime pay. The war in Europe started in September 1939, and though we weren’t in it yet, everyone expected we would get into it sooner or later.

People ask me where I went to school. I never felt as though I was missing anything. My friends all went on to college after high school. I had to stay home and work and take care of my parents. Looking back on it, I don’t think I ever felt sorry for myself and I don’t think that, at the time, it bothered me that I didn’t go to college. In later years it did, but by then, it was too late. But, we’ll come to that later.

I would say, right now, you and all the kids in similar circumstances, just don’t realize how lucky you are to get the chance to get an education – and more than that, to go to a college away from home, to mingle with others whom you would never otherwise encounter, and to form friendships and associations that will broaden your outlook and give you perspectives you could never obtain any other way.

Harry never went to college for credit, but he did take college classes and volunteer on campus after he retired. Stay tuned for his memories about those days. 

The Zubkoff legacy – it's all in a (nick)name
Harry (right), again with his hand on his hip (a sign of confidence?), working at a summer camp in Buffalo. At age 17, he was already smitten with future wife Jeanette, who worked there, too. It looks like she labeled this photo; Harry was "Zubie,"of course. I was "Zubby" in high school, too. In fact, I would bet anything that all Zubkoffs are nicknamed Zubby in their teens. If you are (or were) a Zubkoff, let us know if your nickname is Zubby (or Zubie), too! By the way, Harry believed that all Zubkoffs are somehow related. Do you agree? Please send this blog to every Zubkoff (or former Zubkoff) you know.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Skyward reflections

Do you wonder why I chose the photo at the top of this website -- the small plane gliding through clouds? Harry's reflections below will explain. He wrote them in his late 80s, when he was writing more about his personal thoughts because (I believe) he knew he was "approaching the sunset of my life." Harry was especially inspired at the time by a young email companion who recently shared some of Harry's emails with me so I could post them for all of you. Below is a portion of one email.

Harry (in knickers) -- the 10-year-old boy 
who saw his future in the sky -- poses with 
his cousin Maury Zubkoff (I believe) in Buffalo.

When I was a kid I used to lie on the grass now and then after dark and look at the sky and wonder about the stars. I was a science fiction nut, and used to imagine myself in a spaceship exploring the universe and meeting intelligent beings from other galaxies and earth-like planets. Science fiction stories in those days concentrated on BEMs (bug-eyed monsters), all more intelligent than human beings, and spaceships that could travel faster than the speed of light.

I always wanted to learn how to fly, and when I was 16, I got my pilot’s learning permit. Also, by then I used to lie on the grass during the day and look at the clouds and think about them. And, one of the first things I learned when I started flying was about clouds and what they mean to pilots.

I think of clouds as God’s handwriting in the sky. What He is telling us with the clouds is what the weather is going to be in the next few hours and the next few days. All you have to do is learn to read them. Until modern technology came along only in the last 50 years or so, the people who knew the most about the weather were sailors and farmers – and that’s because their lives and their livelihoods depend a lot on the weather.

Sailors invented the saying about the sun: Red at night, Sailors delight, Red in the morning, Sailors take warning. That’s still true, has always been true and is still something to remember. Memorize it and surprise your friends some night when the sunset is especially red by telling them that tomorrow will be a delightful day. And, when the sun is red in the morning, tell them bad weather is coming within the next 24 hours, no matter what the forecasters are saying. You’ll be right nine times out of ten.

But think about clouds for a minute. You know, we see clouds in the sky almost every day of our lives – yet, hardly anyone knows the names of all the different cloud formations and what they mean as a sign of weather to come. It seems to me that everyone would be curious about them and want to know more about them. But, when I say so to my friends, they look at me like they think I’m nuts.

Anyway, I made it my business to study clouds, to learn their names and meanings. And, when I started teaching people to fly, weather for pilots was one of the ground school subjects I taught in conjunction with flight school. Meteorology for pilots, it’s called, and while it doesn’t qualify me to be a licensed weatherman, I do know a lot about the weather; but without the technical instruments used to measure weather phenomena, I can’t predict it as accurately as the professionals.

Harry the flying instructor, circa late 1950s or early '60s.

More on clouds 
I found a yellowed copy of an article Harry wrote, published in The AOPA Pilot magazine, April 1964, "CLOUDS: Their Message to Pilots." (AOPA is the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.) Much of the article discusses technical details about clouds, but here's a non-technical excerpt:

Everyone who opens his eyes while he's awake must occasionally notice clouds in the sky. Now, clouds are one of the best visual indications as to the kind of weather you may expect to encounter during the next few hours. Some flyers no doubt regard clouds as a menace, something to be avoided at all costs -- obstructions in the sky and nothing more. But they are more, much more.

Clouds are the handwriting in the sky. Almost all weather is associated with one type of cloud formation or another. Your ability to read this handwriting and understand its significance may make the difference between a completed flight and a statistic.

The article ends with this paragraph: Any pilot who does not understand how to use the information provided by his instruments would quickly be grounded. In the same way, any pilot who cannot read the handwriting in the sky should also be grounded.

A picture worth a thousand words

To create this picture -- one of Harry's favorites -- someone photographed the plane from the sky, printed it as a silhouette on the back of the glass, and mounted the glass on the background print of the sunset. A couple months before Harry died, his son Earl replaced the old, broken frame and was ready to hang the picture in Harry's new apartment. That's when Harry mentioned that he was the pilot flying this plane. I believed him, of course; I had no reason to doubt it after I had watched him score 100% on every recent memory test. This picture is one of my earliest recollections of Harry's souvenirs. It reminds me of the Sailors' rhyme that he quotes above on this page. You could say, also, that it represents the sunset of his life. And, though we see the sun, not the moon, I think of the Frank Sinatra song, one of several Sinatra tunes that Harry asked us to play in his last alert moments on Earth. We all know it: "Fly Me to the Moon"

I'll post more about Harry's greatest passion -- flying -- in the future. For now, here's a trivia question for people who knew him: What was Harry's favorite airplane?

Friday, May 15, 2015

'If I tell you, they’ll kill me'

Harry Zubkoff was a true storyteller, but he never would tell us one story in particular. We knew that he hunted down Nazi criminals during his stint in the Army Counter Intelligence Corps after World War II ended. However, even in his old age, and of superbly sound mind, he wouldn’t divulge many details.

“Zadie, you’re 92, you can tell us, no one will find you,” his granddaughter insisted during a hospital visit in 2013. 

But he stuck to his story:  “If I tell you, they’ll kill me.” He did, however, encourage friends who showed an interest in his military experience to read “The Brigade” by Howard Blum.

The following excerpts (slightly paraphrased in spots) from Harry’s recorded interview with the U.S. Veterans History Project, give us some insight. 

The basic job of counter intelligence was to investigate cases of sabotage, espionage, subversive activities. … We were being used to trace down Nazi war criminals to get what they could use in war crimes trials, and to help build a network of people who could help us get information.

Harry's ID card
We were worried at the time about the increasing hostility with Russia. … In the intelligence business we were taught so much about the Nazi paramilitary organizations and their political organizations, and we started taking lessons in the same things with regard to the Russians and Communists. We were working on both figuring out what the communists were doing and the Nazi war criminals.

I was sent on several missions, and spent some time in DP, displaced persons camps. … We set up DP camps for Jewish people, and I had a lot of interaction with them. … They thought the American Jewish soldiers were a breed apart from the other soldiers. They didn’t know that Jewish people could be in the Army.

Now, did you ever hear of the Jewish Brigade from Palestine? Some of the guys wrote a book. They were also chasing Nazi war criminals, and finding them, and killing them. … There was a period of time when my superiors were wondering if I was one of the guys who was finding them and killing them. … Other officers (not mine) were not sure about Jewish soldiers. They did things the intelligence community really wasn’t happy with. They brought over the Nazi scientists to the U.S. … We were against that.  … We found out that many Nazis were being placed in responsible government jobs.

More on "The Brigade"
In Harry’s old boxes, we found some disturbing Nazi photos of a concentration camp, postcards with German notes on them, and posters of Hitler, etc. We also found news clippings Harry saved over the years about WWII veterans and then-secret missions. I learned more about the book "The Brigade" from the following note we found on his computer.

The Brigade is the story—the true story—of how the Jews of Palestine formed a Brigade of some 5,000 men to fight as part of the British forces in WWII. In part it is the story, through the eyes of three men, of fighting against the Nazis, of seeking out Nazi war criminals, and of organizing a massive effort to spirit the remnants of Jews out of Europe and into Palestine. I spent a year and a half in Germany after the war ended in May 1945, hunting down war criminals who had gone to great lengths to hide their identities and their whereabouts. So, a part of this story is closely related to a part of my story.

But, the best part of this account is the brilliant efforts of the Palestinians (in those days, the Palestinians were the Jews, not the Arabs) to smuggle the survivors out of Europe under the eyes of the British, and to get them into Palestine. Too few Americans know the story of this Brigade. And almost nobody of the current generation, the young Jewish families of today, knows about this period of Jewish history.

So, if you will bear with this old man, I keep doing my best to inform everybody I can reach with this story. This story of the Brigade is as important as the story of the Exodus, which became such an inspiring movie a generation ago. I hope you will read it and treasure it as a part of your history as Jews, no matter how far removed it is from your own personal experience.

 Harry with older brother Hymie in Hartford, CT, 1945

Does Harry's essay make you want to read “The Brigade” or learn about the 970th Counter Intelligence Corps missions? FYI, the Library of Congress' Veterans History Project has a page on stories from the Jewish Veterans of World War II.
Harry and his younger cousin Harvey Rogers were thrilled 
to run into each other in a hotel in Germany, 1946.
(This post is the first published by Harry's daughter, Elaine, in 2015. Harry wrote and published all previous posts in 2011.)