Thursday, August 27, 2015

A tender, little essay of epic proportions

Harry kept writing during his elderly years, thanks in part to his attention to learning computer technology, and his impeccable memory. He posted writings on this blog in 2011, the year I took this photo, and continued to write for several publications.

The back story to the essay below is intriguing. Harry submitted it for his monthly column in the October 2013 newsletter ("Inside Creekside") in the Silver Spring, MD, community of Leisure World. On a visit to my parents' apartment, my daughter and I noticed the newsletter and read his essay titled "The Back Nine". We were touched by its tender sentiments and agreed that it looked exactly like something my dad (her Zadie) would write. But still we asked, "Did you really write this?" He said, "Yes, but it was a while ago." We didn't ask him what he meant by "a while ago."

After Harry died (seven months later), I came across the essay on the internet, which led me to search further. I found it everywhere -- the essay had gone viral! Some people had claimed the byline; others wrote Anonymous or Unknown. When Harry became an active web user, did he push the essay out into the web universe? Did he email it to others who pushed it out? Do you suppose he wrote it years earlier for another publication and it kept spreading? Or, did Harry have the only lapse in memory I'd known?

In any case, please enjoy the essay.

The Back Nine

And then it is winter ...

You know, time has a way of moving quickly and catching you unaware of the passing years. It seems just yesterday that I was young, just married and embarking on my new life with my mate. Yet in a way, it seems like eons ago, and I wonder where all the years went. I know that I lived them all. I have glimpses of how it was back then and of all my hopes and dreams.

But, here it is, the “back nine” of my life and it catches me by surprise. How did I get here so fast? Where did the years go, and where did my youth go?

I remember well seeing older people through the years and thinking that those older people were years away from me, and that “I was only on the first hole” and the “back nine” was so far off that I could not fathom it or imagine fully what it would be like.

But, here it is – my friends are retired and getting gray; they move slower and I see an older person now. Some are in better and some worse shape than me, but, I see the great change. Not like the ones that I remember who were young and vibrant, but, like me, their age is beginning to show and we are now those older folks that we used to see and never thought we'd become.

Each day now, I find that just getting a shower is a real target for the day! And taking a nap is not a treat anymore – it’s mandatory! Because if I don’t on my own free will, I just fall asleep where I sit!

And so, now I enter into this new season of my life unprepared for all the aches and pains and the loss of strength and ability to go and do things that I wish I had done but never did!! But, at least I know that though I’m on the “back nine”, and I’m not sure how long it will last, this I know, that when it’s over on this earth, it’s over. A new adventure will begin! Yes, I have regrets. There are things I wish I hadn’t done, things I should have done, but indeed, there are many things I’m happy to have done. It’s all in a lifetime.

So, if you’re not on the “back nine” yet, let me remind you, that it will be here faster than you think. So, whatever you would like to accomplish in your life please do it quickly! Don’t put things off too long!! Life goes by quickly. So, do what you can today, as you can never be sure whether you’re on the “back nine” or not!

You have no promise that you will see all the seasons of your life, so, live for today and say all the things that you want your loved ones to remember, and hope that they appreciate and love you for all the things that you have done for them in all the years past!!

Life is a gift to you. The way you live your life is your gift to those who come after. Make it a fantastic one. Live it well! Enjoy Today! Do something fun! Be happy! Have a great day! Remember: “It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver.” LIVE HAPPY IN 2013!

Lastly, consider this: Your kids are becoming you, but your grandchildren are perfect! Going out is good. Coming home is better! You forget names, but it’s OK because other people forgot they even knew you!!! You realize you’re never going to be really good at anything, especially golf. The things you used to care to do, you no longer care to do, but you really do care that you don’t care to do them anymore. You sleep better on a lounge chair with the TV blaring than in bed. It’s called “pre-sleep”. You miss the days when everything worked with just an ON and OFF switch. You tend to use more four-letter words: What? When? ... ?  Now that you can afford expensive jewelry, it’s not safe to wear it anywhere. You notice everything they sell in stores is sleeveless! What used to be freckles are now liver spots. Everybody whispers. You have three sizes of clothes in your closet, two of which you will never wear. But old is good in some things: old songs, old movies, and best of all, OLD FRIENDS!

Stay well, "old friends!" It's not what you gather, but what you scatter that tells what kind of life you have lived.

Today is the oldest you've ever been, yet the youngest you'll ever be, so enjoy this day while it lasts.

Harry poses on his 92nd birthday in 2013. On most days he enjoyed "old songs, old movies, and best of all, OLD FRIENDS!"

Thursday, August 20, 2015

'I'd rather be flying'

This photo was the only one like it in Harry's files, so I'm guessing he's the pilot -- notice the close-up below -- do you agree? It might have been taken when he was a flight instructor for a flying club while working for the Department of the Air Force.

Flying was Harry’s great love (not counting Jeanette), as we learned in the posts on this blog on May 23 and 29, 2015. In those essays, he wrote about his fascination with the sky since childhood and his knowledge about clouds later on. (By the way, many decades ago, Harry wrote articles about clouds and more for encyclopedias, including Americana, Collier’s, and World Book. But it seems they are nowhere to be found.)

Below, Harry gives us a few more details about his flying days, as a young adult in the DC area and as a youth in Buffalo. I took this story from a casual email he wrote in 2009 to a teenager who was dear to him. At the end, you’ll see his encouraging words to her about writing things down -- aren’t we glad he took his own advice?

I tried playing golf for a while, but I was never very good at it, and I always had the feeling that I would rather by flying. When we first moved down to the Washington area from Buffalo [1949], I used to rent an airplane once in a while just to keep my skills sharp. There were half a dozen or more little airfields around Washington in those days. Sadly, almost all of them are gone now. The land became more valuable for real estate developments.

Anyway, I was working in the Pentagon for the Air Force and the Dept. of Defense, and the Air Force started a flying club, which I joined. Then they needed some instructors who could teach both the flight part of flying and the ground school subjects, like navigation (it’s no use flying if you don’t know how to get from one place to another, and it’s not the same as a road map with street names and route numbers) and meteorology for pilots (you better understand the weather and its effect on your airplane if you want to survive in the air) and other things that you have to know about airplanes if you want to fly them.

So, for some 30 years, I did a lot of flying and made some extra money that way, but mostly I got paid in flying time. For example, depending on which airplane you use, it could cost anywhere from about 15 bucks an hour to fly a two-seater plane, to about 35 bucks an hour for a four-seater, to 60 or 80 bucks an hour for a six-seater – the biggest one we had in the flying club. So if I wanted to take my family on a weekend jaunt that would require ten hours of flying time, that would cost about $350, so that would take care of my teaching time for two evenings and a Sunday in a week.

It was worth it to me because otherwise I couldn’t afford to do much flying. In fact, the only way I could do all the flying I wanted was because I got paid to fly. It’s the greatest hobby – much better than golf. Have you ever been in a light plane? It’s not at all the same as an airliner and certainly not the same as a jet plane.

Discovering Harry's pilot logs brought back memories of our plane rides. Several times he flew me and friends over the sights in Washington, DC, and above our Greenbelt, MD, home so we could wave to the neighbors. (Not allowed anymore, of course.) He took several of his friends on farther excursions. Harry recorded these outings in the red log book, along with our family trip to Buffalo in 1957 ("Family vacation" entry in snapshot below). My brother and I will never forget that flight; I didn't feel so good up in the air, and we stopped overnight in Pittsburgh due to rain. In the green book, Harry recorded his flights from 1942 to '48, while still living in Buffalo. From 1947 to '58, he most often flew a Cessna, the plane we knew was his favorite.

Earlier in Buffalo
When I came home from the war – I had stayed on in Germany for a year and a half after the war ended in May 1945; I was hunting down Nazi war criminals wanted for crimes against humanity – so I came home in December 1946. I had done a little flying in the Army after the war, too, and I wanted more than anything to get a job with the airline, any airline. While I had my applications in at all the airlines, I taught flying at the Buffalo airport, which was just a little airfield at that time – not at all the huge place it is today. My break came through in June 1947 when I was hired to fly for Capital Airlines – a company which went out of business long ago. Two weeks later I was fired – or let go – because I had just passed my 26th birthday, and their policy was not to hire anyone 26 or older. So I continued working at the flying school at Buffalo airport.

I also did other things. Did you ever see the airplanes towing huge advertising banners along the lake shore at Crystal Beach? They do that at all the many beaches everywhere in the country. Well, I did that. I got paid pretty well for that. I also towed gliders into the sky at the gliding capital of the world which, at the time, was Elmira, NY.

Another thing I did was fly charter trips. In the summer, fishermen would hire our company to fly a plane equipped with pontoons to a lake in Canada just to go fishing. Canada has hundreds, maybe thousands of little lakes teeming with fish and accessible only from the air – that is, no roads so you can’t drive to most of them. In the winter when the lakes were frozen over, we had planes equipped with skis to land on the ice and the fishermen would chop a hole in the ice and sit there and freeze their fannies off and drink beer, while I sat in the plane and listened to the radio or wrote in my journal.

Things to write about
I know all this reminiscing is boring you, but it just illustrates to you that you can write and write and write about all kinds of inconsequential things and never run out of things to write about. And just because you haven’t been around as long as I, does not mean that you don’t have lots of things to write about and stories to tell. What’s your most embarrassing moment? What makes your heart swell with pride? What brings tears to your eyes? Do you cry at sentimental movies? Some people never shed a tear. Some sob out loud. I’m very sentimental and am easily moved to tears in sad movies.

Well, that last sentence is true for me, too -- do you think it's hereditary? Concerning Harry's piloting days, did you or a family member ever fly with him? Please tell us what you remember. (If you're not able to post a comment on the blog, feel free to send me an email and I'll post it for you.) 

If you're especially interested in flying and planes, you might like the book Harry co-wrote in 1994:

Thursday, August 13, 2015

A telling story of a riverboat ride

Did you keep a journal on your summer vacation? Harry’s speech below about a long-ago incident in London reminds us that it’s never too late to document our memorable trips. To me, it exemplifies how Harry could tell a story -- and remember every detail. He told this one at a synagogue event honoring his longtime friend Sid Spector. The two men met in the early 1950s, when they and their young families lived in Greenbelt, MD, the planned community where pioneer families formed lifelong friendships.

Harry and Jeanette feed pigeons on their shoulder in London, circa early 1980s; Jeanette (behind) with fellow travelers Sid, Irene, and Frances.

It was about 25 years ago, or thereabouts, when we took a trip to England – Frances and Jack Sanders, Irene and Sid Spector, and Jeanette and I – Harry Zubkoff. It was a great trip, not only because of the adventures we experienced, but because of the company we were in. But let me tell you about one incident that comes to mind, just to illustrate the kind of man Sid Spector is.

We had arranged to take a little boat tour of London on the Thames, that storied river that runs through the heart of town. It wasn’t a big boat, just a couple dozen passengers at most, with a guide who pointed out the historic sites as we passed them by. After a while we noticed that the boat had slowed down considerably and seemed to be lazing around in circles. Actually, it really was sort of drifting around in circles with the engine just a shade above idling.

Then the Captain came down from the bridge and opened up a hatch on the aft deck and disappeared down below. Now all the passengers gathered around wondering what was going on and beginning to get a little concerned.

The Thames, in a way, is something like the Potomac River which runs through the heart of Washington – which is to say, polluted. It was not much more than about 100 yards wide where we were, not too far to swim to shore if we had to; but who would want to risk entering those polluted waters? Well, anyway, there we stood, murmuring to each other nervously and getting increasingly anxious and yes, a little bit scared, too. But not our Sid.

Bold as brass, Sid detached himself from our group and followed the Captain down the hatchway to below decks. We could hear them talking down there but couldn’t make out the words. After a while, the Captain came back up and announced that there was something wrong with the rudder, which meant that he could not steer the boat, and that he would have to call a rescue vessel to come alongside and take the passengers off and ferry them back to shore.

Then he and Sid began discussing the problem and what they could do about it, and after some arguing back and forth they arrived at a solution. Sid was to go back below and manipulate the rudder manually while the Captain eased the engine to slow forward speed and shouted instructions to Sid to move the rudder this way and that to get us back to the home dock.

Well, that’s exactly what they did, and it worked. Sid saved that boat company a lot of money that day, the passengers had an adventure they would always remember (imagine, stuck in the middle of the Thames River), and we confirmed what we always knew anyway – Sid Spector is some kind of clown and our hero.

Oh, and by the way, the Captain made Sid an honorary member of England’s Merchant Marines and gave him a pass on that little river ship line if he ever gets back to England.  

Sid really was "some kind of clown." Harry posed separately with friends Sid and his wife Irene, circa mid 1980s. By the way, these two clowns managed to enter the Pentagon to surprise Harry on the occasion of his retirement in 1986 -- and a TV crew caught them on camera during an "end of an era" interview with Harry. I'll post the video transcript and excerpts soon -- stay tuned.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Harry sheds light on a man for all seasons

I came across the photos on this page in Harry's files. They were taken when Greenbelt, MD, was brand new, in the late 1930s or early '40s.

Before the age of social media, communities like Greenbelt, MD -- a small city outside of Washington, DC -- created neighborhoods that inspired lifelong friendships and constant communication. Below is another of Harry’s eulogies for one of these lifelong friends. To me it demonstrates how to write one, with thoughtful, prosaic examples. Not only will the Greenbelt families of a bygone generation appreciate this, but I believe writers will, too.

It is difficult to try to capture the essence of a man at a time when the grief and pain of his passing is so immediate and so intense. And yet, strangely, this is not true with Nat Schein. Nat is a bright and shining presence in my mind. I can picture him as clearly as if he were standing beside me, talking as articulately and persuasively as only he could talk, about any subject you could name.

He never failed to astound me with the range and depth of his knowledge. From the time I first met him, more than thirty years ago, I was impressed with one characteristic of his that is all too rare in our society. He had an insatiable curiosity; he was genuinely interested in everything. His thirst for information, for knowledge, knew no bounds. Everything he came in contact with, he wanted to know more about. He wanted to learn. He was most enthusiastic, most animated, in this learning process. Whenever he encountered new knowledge, you could see the computer in his head spinning around as it integrated the new facts he was accumulating into the vast data banks he had already absorbed.

And I never ceased to marvel at that huge storehouse of knowledge he had in his head. He was a perfect example of that proverbial man who, when you asked him what time it was, could tell you how to build a clock. And he really did know how.

He had another quality that is all too rare in our society, the ability to listen. And to ask pertinent questions. And to really pay attention to the answers. And to remember. He would confound me, sometimes, by asking follow-up questions about something I had told him six months before. And wanting to know more details, asking for more elaborate explanations.

In the last few days I have spoken to many others about Nat, and I confirmed what I already knew – he was a “family” man, of course, and it is obvious to everyone who knew him how deeply he loved his wife and children and grandchildren, and how much they loved him. But, in a very real way, he had a larger family, too. He had a wide circle of friends. Most of us are blessed with just a few good friends with whom we feel close and comfortable. But Nat had an unusually large number of friends who felt close to him. He had this truly extraordinary capacity to extend himself, to share himself with others, to take them into his embrace, as it were, and to make them feel as though they were very special to him. This is the gift of compassion. He had an innate understanding of people: He could empathize with others. A genuinely compassionate man.

When John Donne said that “No man is an island unto himself,” he was talking about Nat Schein – a man concerned with and a part of all humanity. He was a man of many facets, a multidimensional man, a truly civilized man, a man for all seasons. The grief of this moment will recede, in time; the pain of this moment will subside. But the great joy that Nat’s presence has brought to my life and to those who were privileged to know him will abide with us, always.

Next week I'll post a speech about another old friend -- but it's not a eulogy; it's a story of a riverboat adventure. And later, did you know Harry was a poet? I found files full of poems I'd never seen!