Thursday, June 30, 2016

Alongside the women at the airplane factory

Harry in 2000 and 1943.
He was always a feminist to me.
In May 2000, my dad emailed a friend about his work at Bell Aircraft Corp before he joined the Army during WWII. I discovered this in his computer files. I, for one, didn’t know he had his own “Rosie the Riveter” story, but I always called him a feminist! Little did Harry know, this simple email would give us a personal history lesson and set an example for writing down our thoughts and experiences.

From 1939 until I went into the Army in 1943, I worked for the Bell Aircraft Corp in Buffalo and Niagara Falls. In the beginning, there were around 200 employees engaged in the business of building aircraft, of whom about 50 were engineers/designers, and the rest, like me, were factory workers doing the assembling, riveting, bolting, screwing, etc., physical factory work.

There were also a few women, secretaries, bookkeepers, etc., whom the men all whistled at whenever they caught a glimpse of them walking by. Halfway through 1940, when the draft started taking men away in droves, the war industry underwent an explosive expansion, and that’s when women were actively sought and encouraged to enter the factory work force. (Initially, men were drafted for one year, but when the war started for us at the end of 1941, the draft was for one year plus the duration, which turned out to be for four more years.) Actually, between mid-1940 and mid-1941, some 10,000 people were added to the workforce at Bell, and the same thing was going on in war plants all over the country. Some were older men, too old for the draft, and others who left lesser-paying jobs to work in the defense industries, but most were women, thousands of them. 

By mid-1941, I was an old pro in the factory, at the ripe old age of 20. So I was made a foreman in the factory, mainly because most of the guys were being drafted so fast that I was getting seniority, and of course I had to teach the women how to do the required jobs – riveting, bolting, screwing and even how to use the tools, most of which operated on pneumatic (air) power rather than electricity. My section specialized in wings, flaps and ailerons, and part of the job required someone to crawl inside the wings to hold rivets on the inside, so size was important. Being small, I was able to do this, and the women were even better – smaller and agile. I got along well with them, though most of the men were merciless in harassing them. This was long before sexual harassment entered the vocabulary and I really felt sorry for the women and embarrassed by the crudeness of the men.

What became apparent, though, is that the women could do these jobs as well as or better than the men, and they were proving it every day in all the sections of the factory. By the time I left for the Army in the fall of ’43, there were 25,000 people working there, and maybe 20,000 of them were women. Mothers, daughters, aunts, sisters, grandmothers, sweethearts, even a few lesbians, according to the men who said they could recognize these things. All white, though, no blacks. We had a sizable number of black men, which was a departure for American industry at that time, but no black women. The country was still a segregated society then, and we haven’t made a lot of progress since then, either. 

Anyway, I found the women to be smart, willing to learn, willing to work, willing to suffer humiliation and harassment, and willing to help in the war effort and to bring their men home quicker. They came in all sizes and shapes and temperaments and personalities, and I did my best to make them feel welcome and appreciated. I kept telling them that as soon as they became proficient at their jobs, I was going to go fight for them.
Copyright 2016, Elaine Blackman

Photo from Airport Journals
Look closely at the thin, balding man on the right side of the photo, just behind the man stooping on the planes wing. (Click on photo to enlarge.) It sure looks like Harrys back. The photo caption on the Airport Journals website reads: "Workers are busy on the P-39 Airacobra assembly line at Bell Aircraft’s Niagara Falls plant. By the time the war ended, Bell had produced 9,584 P-39s. A few examples managed to survive; at last count, three were still flying."

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Keeping Harry’s music alive

Harry and Jeanette (his future wife) in the heyday of Big Band music

For most of his adult life, Harry wrote columns in local papers and newsletters, outside of his writing career in the Pentagon. What I didn’t know is that he pitched yet another series of articles at age 92, which he titled “The Music Corner”, at his last residence, Riderwood Village in Silver Spring, MD. He emailed the first article below to an editor there, but she rejected it. (A famous movie quote comes to mind: Big mistake. Big. Huge.) After my dad passed away in May 2014, we donated almost his entire music collection to the Riderwood Village library.

April 5, 2014
The Music Corner

Most of us here at Riderwood are old enough to remember the popular music of the World War II era. Many of us actually lived through the turbulent 1930s and ’40s, and those who came along soon afterwards have heard the songs of those days on the radio, in concerts and TV performances. I have been collecting the music of that era for the past half century and have amassed more than 15 thousand recordings featuring the big bands and the legendary performers who entertained us over the years. They are all on CD albums, which I’d gladly share with anyone interested.

Meanwhile, I’d like to share some of the background information I’ve accumulated regarding the songs, the composers, the lyricists and the performers. These kinds of stories may not be directly related to activities here at Riderwood, but there is certainly a high degree of interest here in popular music and the “big bands” in particular.

Just a year ago, for example, a singer named Clara Ann Fowler passed away, and while not many were aware of her death by her real name, everybody took note of it by her stage name – Patti Page. She was one of many performers dubbed Patti Page by the Page Milk Company, which featured her on its fifteen-minute radio show, but she kept that name permanently and went on to make it famous. She was only 18 when she started, shortly after she graduated from high school in 1945. In 1947 she signed a recording contract with Mercury Records, becoming their official girl singer, and in 1948 she had her first million-selling record single – “With My Eyes Wide Open, I’m Dreaming”. Remember that one? Run it in your mind and it will haunt you for days.

Mitch Miller, who made all those sing-a-long records, was the producer for Mercury Records. He had developed a technique for overdubbing a singer’s voice to create a vocal harmony arrangement. He used this process on many of Patti’s recordings and she became the first pop artist to do so. But it wasn’t until 1950 that she hit it big-time with her recording of “Tennessee Waltz”. It became her signature song and is listed among the two or three best-selling songs in American popular music history, along with Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” and Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America”.

Nov. 17, 2013

This article honors TAPS. It was Harrys final music-themed column in his previous community’s newsletter, in Leisure World, also in Silver Spring, MD. He kept up that column for several years. Researchers now consider the tale below as military folklore; chances are Harry heard it long ago.

It is especially fitting that we end the year of musical columns with the melody that ends each day at every American military base – TAPS. It is also fitting because it marks the end of my tenure as a columnist for this newsletter, since my Jeanette and I are leaving Creekside for the Assisted Living facility at Riderwood, where she can get much better care than I can provide for her here.

At sunset, when the flag is lowered and the sound of the bugle blowing TAPS over the loud-speaker system fills the air, everything on a base stops moving. Vehicles stop, people stand still in their tracks, all activity ceases while the solemn notes ring in their ears. It is a military tradition, just as the playing of TAPS at every military funeral is a tradition. It all started during the Civil War when most of the Southern states attempted to secede from the Union and the Northern states, under the leadership of Abraham Lincoln, stopped them from doing so. It is one of those historical moments that are quickly forgotten, yet have the power to change a nation.

The year was 1862. Capt. Elli and his Union troops were stationed at a place called Harrison’s Landing in Virginia where they had just fought a pitched battle with Confederate troops. After dark, when the fighting stopped, he heard the moans of a wounded soldier in the field between the two sides. Capt. Elli risked his life to crawl on his stomach to the wounded man, since both sides frequently indulged in random fire across the field between them. He succeeded in dragging the man back where he could get medical attention, but when he reached his own lines they found that he was a Confederate soldier and that he was dead. In the early morning light the Capt. took a closer look at the dead soldier and froze with shock when he suddenly realized that the dead boy was his own son.

His son had been studying music at a school in the South when the war began and, without telling his parents, he had enlisted in the Confederate Army, as did most of his fellow students. The next day, Capt. Elli asked if he could give his son a full military funeral along with the Union troops who had died in that battle, in spite of the fact that he was an enemy soldier. He was given permission to have a solitary funeral with only one musician, a bugler. The Capt. found a paper in his son’s uniform pocket with a song that the boy had written himself, and he asked the bugler to play the melody at the funeral.

The song, of course, was TAPS. That was the first time that haunting melody was played, and it became an instant sensation, to be played at all military funerals ever since. To this day you cannot hear that plaintive tune without getting a lump in your throat or even a tear in your eyes.

The words were added later, in three stanzas.

TAPS (Lyric)

Day is done, Gone the Sun, From the lakes, From the hills, From the sky. 
All is well, Safely rest, God is nigh.  

Fading light, Dims the sight, And a star, Gems the sky, Gleaming bright.
From afar, Drawing nigh, Falls the night. 

Thanks and praise, For our days, Neath the Sun, Neath the stars, Neath the sky.
As we go, This we know, God is nigh.

Harry’s wife for 70 years passed away at Riderwood Village barely two weeks after he wrote this story.

Copyright 2016
Elaine Blackman

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Israeli settlements are not an obstacle to peace

Harry in 2009
My dad would have turned 95 today. To commemorate his birthday, he surely would have chosen to post an article he wrote about Israel – so strong in his heart. Harry’s Israel-themed newsletter articles from years past are absolutely still relevant. He wrote this one in 2009. Feel free to share and discuss it with your family and friends. 

Are the Israeli settlements an obstacle to peace? Are they illegal, that is, in the sense that they violate international law as stated in the Geneva Convention? You don’t have to be an expert in international law or a “Philadelphia” lawyer to know that the answer is no. It is only in a world in which the United Nations contains a majority of nations with majority Muslim populations who, together with the 22 Arab countries of the Middle East and Africa, are virulently anti-Semitic, that they are considered illegal. But this is a question that lawyers and judges can argue over ad infinitum. The world consensus will always come out against Israel and it is futile to counter with logic and precedent against hatred and bigotry.

The provisions of the Geneva Convention adopted after WWII prohibit the forcible transfer of any part of the population of one state to the territory of another state which has been occupied as a result of war. This is the principle on which the critics of Israel denounce the settlements as illegal. But this principle was intended to protect local populations from displacement, as the Soviets and Germans had done with forced transfers of Poles, Czechs and Hungarians during the war. The Geneva Convention does not prohibit individuals and groups from moving to land which is not and was not part of a “state” and is not privately owned by any individual. In that sense, Israelis moving to and establishing settlements is voluntary, not forced, and those settlements are not meant to displace anyone living there – and they don’t.

The charge that the settlements are illegal cannot be justified legally and can only be regarded as political, but, as with any lie, it has been repeated so often and so widely that it has come to be accepted as truth. What is true is that the so-called occupied territories, which is the West Bank, is not part of any other state but is simply land over which there are competing claims. Jordan occupied it for a while but never claimed it or annexed it, and it came under Israeli control as a result of a war of self-defense. Israel has a valid claim to this land and, if the Arabs of that area feel they have a valid claim, too, these claims can be resolved by negotiation. Throughout the world, competing territorial claims have been resolved by war, with the victor making the final decision. Israel is the only country in history which, having won the war, must negotiate with the defeated enemy to resolve a land dispute. The problem is that there is no international court of law and justice that can be described as fair and impartial to hear the legal arguments.  

The question remains: Are the settlements an obstacle to peace between the Israelis and the Arabs? There is no evidence to support the claim that they are. In fact, all the evidence refutes it. Before the settlements existed, the Arabs were unwilling to make peace with Israel. It is the very existence of the state of Israel that is the obstacle to peace. Even before the state of Israel existed, the Arabs were unwilling to live in peace with the Jewish residents of the British Mandate in Palestine. We can go into that history in another article, but for now, let’s stick to the present.

The President of the Palestinian National Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, has stated that any new peace negotiations can only be conducted if the Israelis stop building settlements in the Palestinian territories. But what exactly are the Palestinian territories? They claim all the land, every inch of what the Unite Nations set aside for them when it partitioned one quarter of the Palestine Mandate into two parts, the smaller part for the Jews and the larger part for the Arabs. (Three quarters of the Mandate area had already been given to the Arabs for their own state, now known as Jordan.) The Arabs immediately went to war to eliminate the Jewish state, and lost part of their original parcel in their defeat. Now they want it back, despite their defeat in the war they started, and they still refuse to recognize the state of Israel. Can anyone seriously believe that the settlements have anything to do with it? In any case, in various agreements between Arabs and Jews, the question of the settlements was to be left for discussion in the final status negotiations. It was also agreed that the Arabs would have no jurisdiction regarding the settlements until the conclusion of a permanent Status agreement. It is important to note that all the settlements in the Sinai were uprooted and their residents relocated when Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel.  

Even if the Israelis were to stop building or even adding on to settlements, what do the Arabs offer in return? Would they recognize Israel’s right to exist? Sign a peace treaty? They have offered nothing. Meanwhile, Arab building continues and accelerates. For example, a new housing project is proceeding in Ramallah, which is planned to house some 10,000 people. And thousands of Arabs are moving into Jewish sections of Jerusalem, though the Arabs object strenuously when the Jews move into the Arab sections. There are more than a million Arabs living in Israel, some 20 percent of the population, enjoying all the rights and benefits of citizenship. It is a cliche, but it is also true, that the Israeli Arabs enjoy greater freedom and opportunity than they have in any of the Arab countries of the Middle East. The Arabs of Palestine, on the other hand, want no Jews in their territories and condemn the settlements as intruding on their land.

In Gaza, for example, the Israelis decided not only to stop building new settlements but to remove their existing settlements entirely, forcibly removing all the settlers and relocating them in other parts of the country. Did peace ensue? Hardly. Instead, an unceasing rain of rocket and mortar fire followed from Gaza into the cities and towns of southern Israel – more than 12,000 over an eight-year period, before Israel finally decided to retaliate. Did the UN condemn the ceaseless rocket fire from Gaza into civilian communities in Israel? No. But it condemned Israel for finally fighting back in an effort to stop the bombardment. In the face of this evidence, how can anyone seriously claim that the settlements are an obstacle to peace?

Also on the topic of Israeli settlement and building is his article “The Jerusalem Affair”, posted here in April 2016.

Copyright 2016
Elaine Blackman

Friday, June 10, 2016

The military and the media – good news or bad?

Author Harry Zubkoff
Those of us lucky enough to have had our parents around in their old age may think we knew everything they were up to. I knew my dad was a prolific writer, but I read little of what he wrote. Thankfully he saved some of his essays, because now I’m getting an education. I hope you are, too. Harry wrote this piece in 1991, probably for Defense Media Review, the newsletter he began after he retired from government.

The relationship between the military and the media has never been entirely amicable, and rightly so, but it has seldom been as tense as it seems to be now, when we are engaged in a shooting war. Each side of this relationship seems suspicious of the other. Many in the media believe the military is holding back on too much of the information surrounding the combat operations; many in the Pentagon feel that they are providing too much information, or certainly as much information as possible without endangering the security of those operations. There is merit on both sides of the argument; there is also some fault.

Between early August last year and mid-January this year, a period of six short months, Americans followed the rapid sequence of events unfolding in the Middle East step by step. First, of course, there was Iraq’s unexpected invasion and takeover of Kuwait, preceded, we learned subsequently, by the most inept diplomacy since Chamberlain’s visit to Munich in 1938. Then came the dispatch of American troops to defend Saudi Arabia and the brilliant diplomatic efforts to mobilize the United Nations and to assemble a coalition to eject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. These developments were covered admirably in the news media, both print and electronic, and all of us had ample opportunity to keep abreast of the news and to understand the direction in which American policy was inexorably heading.

Since the combat started in mid-January, most Americans have remained glued to their television sets, fascinated by the pictures and trying to gain an understanding of the war through the words spoken by all the talking heads. And there’s the rub! It is a paradox of the times that despite almost saturation coverage, totaling hundreds of hours of broadcasts on all the networks, with dozens of experts and specialists paraded before the viewing audience to explain every aspect of the continuing operations, the complaint that we are not getting enough hard news or information is growing. What’s going on here? Is it a legitimate complaint on the part of the public, or is it a complaint that arises out of the frustrations of journalists who are not as free to pursue their stories in the Saudi Arabian desert as they are at home? Are there really limitations on them that affect the public understanding of events?


Complaints about the lack of hard information had been simmering beneath the surface before the shooting started, even though the public had been inundated with stories that included detailed rundowns on the Pentagon’s war plans. They came to a head when the Defense Department issued some ground rules early in January governing the reporting of combat operations when and if the war started. These rules generated such heated controversy that they were promptly withdrawn, to be replaced by a modified set of rules that included advance security review of all stories coming out of the Gulf. To the media, this amounted to censorship. Since the rules also required reporters to be accompanied by military escorts at all times, they were effectively prevented from collecting information on their own.

Since the end of the Vietnam War, reporters charge, the military has carried a bitter resentment against the press in the mistaken belief that the critical reports reaching the American people undermined public support for the war effort and ultimately led to our defeat and withdrawal. Thus, when the military declares that Iraq will not be another Vietnam, what they really mean is that the press will be severely restricted from the freedom to criticize that they enjoyed at that time. Evidently, according to some journalists, the military public affairs people believe that they can assure continued public support for the war effort by seeing to it that the press only transmits good news to the American people.

The military is making a bad mistake, say the reporters. This sort of attitude is rapidly poisoning the relationship between the reporters covering the war and the public affairs officers who are trying to control their access to the news and monitor the stories they publish. The problem is compounded by the unique situation in Saudi Arabia, where reporters must also be concerned with the particular sensitivities of the host nation, whose societal values and practices are so different from our own.

Criticism of the pool system is especially bitter on the grounds that reporters assigned to pools have to go where they are taken, rather than where they would prefer to go or where the action is taking place. Pool coverage failed miserably in Panama, mainly, they claim, because they arrived too late to record the action or because they were held on a short leash by their military escorts. By the same token, pool reports in the Gulf result in great public relations stories for the military, but that is not journalism and it is not the role reporters want to play.


There is a popular cliche to the effect that Generals are always preparing to fight the last war. Obviously that is not true in the Gulf, where a host of remarkable new high-tech weapons has made possible the employment of new tactics and techniques. What is true, however, in the view of many military public affairs officials, is that the media seem to be preparing to cover the last war; they seem not to have grasped the fact that the Gulf presents a totally different situation.

To begin with, when American troops were first dispatched to Saudi Arabia, there was no way for reporters to accompany them. Reporters had to obtain Saudi visas in order to enter the country, and such visas were not available to them. The organization of press pools enabled them to accompany the military initially, and still enables them to perform their jobs today. Moreover, once they are in the country, it is simply not possible to jump into a jeep and drive to where the troops are, often hundreds of miles away across a vast and very hostile desert. The only alternative, if they want to see anything beyond their hotels, is to be assigned to a pool and taken to various military sites.

There is also another aspect to the problem, that of numbers. As we go to press, there are somewhere between 700 and 800 reporters in Saudi Arabia (the visa problem has been relaxed somewhat). There is simply no way for the military to accommodate the wishes of so many reporters clamoring to go off on their own to cover stories of choice. The only way to give them access to anything at all is through the use of pools.

There may be a few exceptions, but almost no public affairs officers today have any lingering residual prejudices against the media because of the Vietnam experience. On the contrary, they welcome the press and want the coverage of this war to be as full and as accurate as possible. Everyone from the top down, both in the Pentagon and in the theater, takes great pains to make the daily press briefings as informative as they can be within the bounds of operational security. And there’s the dilemma, in the military view, which the reporters fail to see.

In this age of instantaneous transmission by satellite, it is entirely possible to disclose helpful intelligence to the enemy unwittingly or inadvertently, according to military officials, either in words or in pictures. This is why advance security review of transmissions is necessary, not to preclude the publication of embarrassing or critical material, as some reporters claim, but rather to screen out information that might jeopardize the security of our forces or of specific military operations.


In the end, the public will decide how adequate the press coverage has been. The pool system is not cast in concrete; it may be abolished someday. Advance security review may be replaced someday, too, by a system of voluntary restraints similar to those that governed the press in Vietnam. One thing, however, is certain. As long as the war goes well, the present system of briefings and pools may serve the purpose of keeping the public informed. But when things go badly or wrong, as they inevitably will in war, the tensions between the press and the Pentagon will rise. And that is when the public will be better served by free and unbiased reporting, without the favorable spin put on by public affairs officers. In that day, the good news may be that we will have full and free access to the bad news.

Copyright 2016
Elaine Blackman

Thursday, June 2, 2016

When college kids visit home

Harry the advice writer in 2009
In November 2009, Harry (then 88) emailed a teenage cousin about a common situation: when college kids come home for a break. If there’s a lesson to share for the greater good of parent-child communication – and I believe there is – then he would have been fine with posting this. I hope his advice ended up helping the recipient of this email and might help others, too.

It’s a funny thing, but it’s also a natural thing. When you’re at school, away from home, you get a little homesick and you can’t wait to get home for a visit. But when you’re home, after just a day or two, you just can’t wait to get back to school. There are several reasons for this, but, I’ll just give you a few. First, when you get home, you look upon it as a chance to see your family, yes, but that’s really a minor consideration. The major consideration for you is that it’s a chance to see your friends, to get together with them and go out and have fun without the pressure of school work to weigh you down. 

Your parents, on the other hand, look upon your visit as a chance to get together with you, to talk to you, to find out how you’re doing in school, to make sure that you’re eating well and taking care of yourself. They miss you far more than you miss them, but they don’t know how to tell you that. So … when you go out and spend more time with your friends than you do with your family, they resent it. After all, they’re the ones who are working hard to send you to school, and, in their view, you don’t seem to fully appreciate all they are doing for you. So ... you have to understand, there’s some tension there, and sometimes the self-control snaps and harsh words get said, especially by mothers and daughters. In some cases, mothers are under special pressure and strain because they are concerned with the health of their own parents.

What is happening, you see, is that the strings that tie a child to home and parents are beginning to fray, and the parents are sensing that their children are beginning to drift away, and it scares them, though they haven’t yet put this thought into words or actually confronted it squarely. So they fight it by demanding more control over the child. At the same time, the child, subconsciously, is savoring the taste of freedom from parental control while away at school and wants to extend that same freedom to the home environment and chafes at the lack of it, feeling that the parents just won’t let go.

Now, here’s the secret that children and parents just can’t see. If I point it out to you, I’m counting on you being mature enough to recognize this. Here’s what’s happening, too. There is a subtle shift in relationships slowly developing here in which the child is transitioning into an adult and the parents are only dimly aware of it and reluctant to accept it, though deep down they know it’s inevitable. Parents will always treat their children as children, even when they are married with children of their own. Children don’t remember, but parents do, how they held the kids in their arms and sang to them and diapered them and bathed them and comforted them when they got sick, and taught them to read and to ride a bike and to swim and to skate and to use the silverware and to eat and drink – in short, raise them from squealing infants to the person they are today.

So that kid will always be their baby. And this is the time when that baby – you – have to be understanding and, indeed, have to be more adult than your parents, in convincing them that you are in fact a grown up, responsible adult. 

How do you do that? By sitting down with them and talking to them and convincing them that you are taking care of yourself and are aware of the pitfalls and dangers confronting young people, and you are not going to do anything foolish; you just want to spend a little time with your friends, but you love your parents and really do appreciate all they have done and are continuing to do for you. 

You have four years of school ahead of you, and your visits home will get increasingly difficult each year unless you have that talk with your folks and convince them that you really are growing up into adulthood. If you follow the pattern, you see, after you graduate and get a job and go to work and start earning money, you will most likely move into your own apartment, maybe with one or two roommates at first, but eventually by yourself. The thing is, you are already in the beginning stages of no longer living at home with your parents, and believe me, parents don’t like that idea at all. So they fight it, unconsciously maybe, but they fight it by trying very hard to exert the same controls they’ve always imposed all your life.  

My guess is that you have already figured all this out for yourself, though you just haven’t put it into words like I’m doing now.

Copyright 2016
Elaine Blackman