Thursday, October 27, 2016
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 didn’t 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
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
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
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
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
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