Wednesday, August 31, 2011
Should I have been surprised? I wasn’t sure. By the time the Red Ball Express trucks began their most dangerous and crucial supply runs to General Patton’s quickly advancing troops in Europe, our victory was dependent on their delivery of essential war materiel. That was August 21, 1944.
Eighty-two days later the Red Ball mission ended. 75% of its drivers had been Afro Americans, men whose patience with America and bravery under fire as they drove their trucks non stop 24 hours a day was proven again and again.
I’ve had the good fortune to meet one of the Red Ball drivers as a result of a random conversation we had while he was shopping at my store. He admitted how frightened he was at times, especially when bombs were falling and wreckage blocked the roads. How I wished we could have videoed our conversation!
Or the one I had with the Lt. Colonel. He’d returned home from his second or third tour in Iraq. After his son’s wedding in September, he will return to help direct our troops’ exit. He and I talked about that too.
As he was leaving, I asked if he would come to my Humanities class on Friday, in uniform if possible. Chances are that he will. Although I asked him to speak about America’s role in Iraq, he indicated that he might be interested in listening to my lecture about Islam although I warned him that our State Department might not agree with my politically incorrect remarks.
Not until near the end of my work day was I distracted from thoughts about my presentation on Friday. On that slow business day, one customer’s comment to me that he “needed a few new suits” snapped me back to my job as salesman.
At sixty five, and about 6‘ 2”, my customer, an associate minister, appeared athletic and broad shouldered. Friendly and talkative, Rev. Culley and I quickly discovered a common interest: golf. I knew how good he was for two reasons; he’d parred the professional course at Goodyear and he’d played with many of the other Afro American golfers I’d come to revere.
“Ever play with Tyrone Robertson?” I asked, the longest hitter I’ve ever known.
“Oh yeh,” he said, then named a few of the other stellar black golfers he’d linked with. “I used to caddy at Tuscarora,” he told me. “They’d let us play on Mondays.”
Long ago, despite being the only private course in Danville that admitted Jews, Tuscarora was segregated. “I fought against that,” I told the reverend. “Whenever there was a member guest tournament, I’d get Tyrone to be on my team. All of the Tuscarora members knew him and respected him. Why they were and are segregated I still can’t comprehend.”
He just laughed about that. I asked whether he remembered another minister, Rev. Doyle Thomas.
“Reverend Thomas and I decided to integrate Tuscarora,” I told Culley. “When I found a share of stock for sale, I bought it, then sold it to him. That meant he was automatically a member.”
Culley seemed surprised.
“But when the execs at the club found out, they quickly held a meeting to change the by-laws. Owning a share of stock no longer meant someone was a member. They had to be voted in. The value of each member’s stock plummeted.”
We laughed about that since it seemed so long ago. Neither Culley nor I played much anymore. “I hit a bucket of balls now and then at the driving range at Goodyear,” he told me.
He’d retired from there, his day job, not long ago.
“Tyrone works in the pro shop,” he said.
“I’d love to see him,” I said. “Maybe you’ll call me when you want to hit some balls. I’d love that.”
“Me too,” he said, as I handed him my card.
That was yesterday, not Yesterday as in decades ago, but just a few dozen hours ago. It mattered to me that there was still much to be done to finish the process of integration although the golf course issue was of much less concern now. Private courses that held on to their exclusionary rules had lost membership; their greens were dying. Public courses, much more affordable, were just as appealing and much less expensive.
Culley knew that, just as the Lt. Colonel knew that America no longer held back its black soldiers. I felt good being around those men. I told both of them about my encounter with the most perverse segregation, that of our schools during the Civil Rights era. “I wrote a book about it, No Gold Stars, based on my memoir, when I integrated the school system in Greenville, SC, at Rev. Jesse Jackson’s alma mater. There’s a signed testimonial from him on the back cover. And it’s available from Amazon books.”
They wanted to buy a copy. I thanked each of them for that.
“After you’ve read it,“ I suggested, “let’s compare notes.”
They liked that idea too. All of us agreed that nothing beats a good read.
Saturday, August 27, 2011
A famous man you probably never knew Unlike Edward Cone, author of the article, “Who is Chico Sabbah?” (www.forbes.com/forbes/2002/0930/400086_print.html) that appeared September 30, 2002, I wasn’t a member of the press so I didn’t need or want to talk to Mr. Sabbah in the same way Cone did. In fact, Mr. Sabbah and I talked mostly with written words.
They were mostly mine. When my older daughter, Chana, enrolled at the American Hebrew Academy, I quickly became appreciative of Sabbah’s vision, his generosity, and his tenacity. Idyllic by almost any standard, AHA offered a pristine yet dynamically futuristic campus. Students there did double duty; their course load matched that of the best high schools. However, added to that curriculum were required courses in Jewish studies. By the time they graduated, students were expected to be proficient in Hebrew.
And they knew that going in. When I found that Mr. Sabbah and I were both enthusiastic supporters of Israel (each in our own unique way), I suggested that he might be interested in reading my essays. “Please send them,” he told me.
So I did. Rarely did he comment on what I’d written. However, when I chose him to receive one of the handmade walking sticks I’d crafted, he thanked me with a brief note about my comparison of him to Moses. His message was clear and simple; he explained that he had never been much of writer. But he thanked me for being able to do that.
Although, in more than seven years, I’d only given away five of my walking sticks to people who I’d regarded as most deserving, I was never more sure that giving one to Chico was essential. By that time, he was always attached to his oxygen canister. Even so, it was hard to believe him when he said that his breathing problems had slowed him down.
By my daughter’s senior year, I had sent countless essays to Mr. Sabbah. Because he didn’t seem to mind receiving them, I was never reluctant to e-mail them to him. Not until late in my daughter’s stay at AHA did he ever call me.
“Barry,” he said, “does your daughter really want to go to Brandeis?”
I had written about her hopes of attending Brandeis, hopes that were dashed when they rejected her. Like most parents who believed that any university with an astute administrative staff would openly welcome their daughter’s application, I was as sorely disappointed as she seemed to be. That’s why I wrote an essay about how very fine universities can, unfortunately, make very bad decisions.
Not accepting my daughter definitely made little sense to me. At least that’s what I wrote in my very pointed essay. After reading it, Mr. Sabbah called me.
“Your daughter deserves to go to Brandeis,” he told me. “I know how good a student she is,” he said. “And I’m on the board. If she wants to go, I’ll get her in.”
That was the longest conversation he and I ever had. When I called him back to report that my daughter had wanted me to thank him for his concern but she still felt that she wanted to be accepted on her own merits, he seemed to understand. I promised to call him if she changed her mind.
Not long after that, while Chana was reconsidering Sabbah’s offer, he passed away. She never mentioned Brandeis again.
As for me, I knew I would miss his rarely offered remarks. At his funeral, I told him that as I shoveled dirt onto his casket. Stunned by the void I felt he’d left, I didn’t see his wife, Zmira approach me.
“Thank you, Barry,” she said.
I stopped. Why would she thank me?
“He loved reading your essays. And he always shared them with me. He looked forward to seeing them.”
I was speechless as I clasped her outstretched hand in hopes that she would know that I, too, felt her loss. I tried not to cry, tried not to linger.
Instead, I tried to listen to my daughter. It seemed she had made peace with not going to Brandeis, and had probably done that before either Mr. Sabbah or I had been able to.
“I want to carry his vision with me,” she said. “I’ll never forget him.”
Since then, more than four years have passed. Next week, while my newly married daughter and her husband are visiting me, I hope that the three of us will return to AHA. I’ve been told that Mrs. Sabbah can often be found on the campus.
My hope is that all four of us will find that, in addition to being a stellar academic setting, AHA will be, for us, a great place to reminisce.
The Forbes 400
Who Is Chico Sabbah?
Edward Cone, 09.30.02
How last year's terror attacks uncovered--and imperiled--a long-secret fortune.
On Sept. 10, 2001 the American Hebrew Academy welcomed the first students to its 100-acre campus in Greensboro, N.C. The only Jewish boarding school in the U.S. with a non-Orthodox curriculum, AHA had a secret benefactor--one Maurice (Chico) Sabbah. Sabbah had accumulated immense wealth in the reinsurance business and poured $100 million of it into the school. As Sabbah took in the excitement of opening day, he had the extra satisfaction of knowing that he had succeeded in creating both AHA and the fortune behind it while remaining almost completely unknown to the public.
The next day put an end to Sabbah's anonymity and destroyed the companies that had made him rich. Fortress Re, based in nearby Burlington, had dominated a critical niche of the commercial aviation reinsurance business, while a sister company, a Bermuda-chartered reinsurer called Carolina Re, was distributing a small fortune in dividends to Sabbah and his partner, Kenneth Kornfeld. The terrorist attacks devastated Fortress and the big Japanese reinsurers it represented. One of those companies, Taisei Fire & Marine Insurance, has filed for bankruptcy, and another, Nissan Fire & Marine Insurance, is suing Fortress and its principals for fraud. Fortress says it did nothing wrong.
Sabbah, 73, had never spoken with the press, and for three years he rebuffed our requests for an interview. This summer, though, with his cover blown and his school in need of publicity, he agreed to speak. He says that anonymity always seemed the natural course for him, a private man in a secretive business. "I don't hide, but I don't advertise," he says. "I don't get satisfaction for what I did by having you tell me it was good."
Sabbah did not become rich until late in life. At 45 he was making a good living at an obscure unit of a big insurance company, but there was nothing to suggest that he would one day be making nine-figure gifts to anything. When the big money hit, he wasn't interested in yachts or a trophy wife. "I was faced with all this wealth, and I just wasn't geared for it. I wasn't about to change my lifestyle," he says. "I came into this world with nothing, and I will leave with nothing."
The demise of Fortress and Carolina Re raises the question of Hebrew Academy's future. It appears that Nissan's lawyers want to learn more about Sabbah's charitable contributions and personal wealth, suggesting that they would come after those assets if given the chance. Other donors may step up to the plate: Members of the school's board of trustees include p.r. guru Gershon Kekst and financier Michael Steinhardt.
Sabbah insists that the school is here to stay. He says that at least $50 million, covering the next ten years of operating expenses, is in the bank, and that his (for now) ample estate will go to the school. If other donors can be persuaded to finish the $250 million construction plan, he can focus on creating an endowment of up to $500 million, he says.
Everything about the AHA has been conceived on a grand scale, in keeping with Sabbah's vision of a boarding school that could compete almost overnight with the elite New England prep schools. In 1998 the school paid $10 million for prime acreage in a high-end Greensboro neighborhood and commissioned Aaron Green, a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright, to design the campus (Green died last year). Buildings constructed of imported Jerusalem stone are heated and cooled by a massive network of geothermal wells. The first academic building completed, a behemoth rising from the North Carolina clay, has electronic whiteboards in every classroom. Dorms are spacious; the swimming pool will be 25 yards long. Sabbah's grant allowed the school to cover tuition for the first classes of ninth- and tenth-graders, about 80 kids in all, who started last fall. Students joining this fall are paying $15,000, including room and board. The plan is to have 200 students spread across four grades a year from now.
Grandiose philanthropy had not been the style for Chico Sabbah and his wife, Zmira, who live modestly in a ranch-style house within walking distance of their Greensboro synagogue. Their previous giving included endowing homes for handicapped people in Israel (the Sabbahs have a retarded adult daughter). If Sabbah was all but unknown, though, his partner, Kenny Kornfeld, cut a higher profile. Kornfeld entertained lavishly and lives in an old textile baron's mansion across from the second fairway of the Greensboro Country Club.
Sabbah, raised in Brooklyn and suburban Great Neck, N.Y. by an Egyptian-born father and an idealistic Zionist mother, attended the University of California, Davis to study agronomy of subtropical environments-those similar to the climate of the land that became Israel halfway through his college years. "I wanted to be a farmer in Israel," says Sabbah. His voice still suggests Brooklyn, and it is easy to see that his frame, though frailer with age, was hardened by his days cutting alfalfa on a kibbutz in Israel. After that (and after serving in both the Israeli and U.S. armies) he joined Public Service Mutual Insurance in New York. There he helped build a reinsurance business that thrived as a series of disasters, including Hurricane Betsy in 1965, laid low many competitors.
In 1972 he was working in a Burlington, N.C. office of Penn General Agencies, where he replaced the traditional high-fee structure for placing reinsurance with low fees plus commissions on profits. Fortress Re, as the business was eventually called, escaped the notice of regulators because it was only a managing agent, not an insurer. In 1979 Penn General sold the business to Sabbah and Kornfeld for $700,000. Sabbah and his family kept two-thirds, Kornfeld the rest. "We had been making maybe $35,000 per year, but we paid off our debt in a few years by working our butts off," says Sabbah.
Sabbah and Kornfeld built strong relationships with the Japanese reinsurers they represented--Nissan, Taisei and Aioi Insurance. Sabbah and Kornfeld made annual trips to Tokyo to stroke them. Insurers and other reinsurers dealt with Fortress in order to do businesses with the Japanese firms it represented, and because Fortress had a good reputation for claims payment. But why stop at being a mere agent when you could get a piece of the action? In 1984 Sabbah and Kornfeld created Carolina Re as a risk-taker in airline liability. Following the common practice in the reinsurance industry, they got a Bermuda charter for Carolina. State insurance regulators in North Carolina paid no mind to its potential liabilities or the assets covering them.
By the 1990s aviation had become the predominant business of Fortress. In time, it was acting as middleman for nearly half of the reinsurance premiums covering losses amounting to $50 million to $400 million per crash. Profits flowed, for both Fortress and the insurers it represented. Fortress claims it produced $2 billion of profits for its clients.
Companies Sabbah and Kornfeld represented were on the hook for a portion of the liability on all four of the planes hijacked on Sept. 11, including liability on the ground. Carolina Re was supposed to cough up about 25% of the $843 million in claims against the Fortress pool, according to court documents. It had but $62 million in capital and surplus. Bermuda authorities declared it bankrupt on Dec. 3, 2001. Fortress is still operating, but not underwriting new business.
Nissan claims in its suit, pending in federal district court in Greensboro, that it was unaware of the extent of the obligations to which Fortress had committed it, and that Fortress had relied too heavily on so-called financial reinsurance. That peculiar beast is like a line of credit reinsurers draw on from other reinsurers to pay claims. But in this arrangement little risk is transferred. Nissan also alleges that while Carolina Re lacked the funds to pay its obligations, Sabbah and Kornfeld had managed to extract, over the years, on the order of $400 million in the form of commissions and dividends from their companies. Nissan wants the two men to put that money back on the table. Glenn Drew, Sabbah's nephew and general counsel of Fortress Re, says the Japanese companies got all the information they requested and that Fortress and Carolina played by the rules.
If Sabbah's fortune and his charitable endeavor survive the legal battle, it still remains to be seen whether America needs a non-Orthodox Jewish boarding school. Sabbah puts this daring venture in self-deprecating terms: "We want others to participate, but it always helps to have a crazy person to get things started."
Tracking a Jewish traitor If there is a good time to engage a controversial speaker, or to express a contrary opinion in a room filled with those who have no interest in hearing any argument but that speaker’s, it’s before you are known to be adversarial. Perfect timing, although important, must couple with opportunity. Often, a well placed thought or question matters more than the thought or question itself. If those in opposition aren’t listening, any comment is wasted.
More than a year ago, that was the situation in a small lecture room at UNC-Chapel Hill. Appearing there to castigate Israel was Anna Baltzer, a very pro-Palestinian Jew. In the room were her fans and fellow believers, those who supported boycotts against Israel, whose list of grievances was as long as it was one-sided.
Many in the room wore khaffiyehs. Some looked to be students taking notes, assigned to be there. It appeared that Baltzer had been courted, shown how badly Israeli forces behaved. Her many examples of injustice by Israeli troops seemed to prove, to her and her supporters, the evil intent of Israel.
Not once did she mention that Palestinians had continued to manipulate their fellow Pals to keep them as refugees. Not once did she even hint that Palestinians had their own evil intent regarding Israeli Jews. Not once did she mention grad rockets or suicide bombers or the good that Israelis did despite Palestinian transgressions. Indeed, by the time for Q & A, although I’d been careful not to tip my hat, I’d had enough.
“What’s it like to ride buses in the Palestinian territories? Did you get to travel that way?” I asked.
“Yes! The countryside is beautiful, lovely to see,” she said.
“Were you able to take pictures as you rode? Could you see everything clearly?”
“Yes,” she continued.”There’s so much to see there.”
“Then,” I said, in a more serious tone, “you’ll tell me why, when I rode an Israeli bus, I couldn’t see outside. In fact, because Israeli Egged buses have to have bullet proof glass in their windows, all we could see was a blur. Why you think that’s the case?”
Baltzer looked perplexed. Her Israeli advisor who claimed to be a former IDF’er, scoffed at me. I ignored him.
“The reason, Ms. Baltzer,” I said, “ is that Palestinians shoot at innocent Israelis riding buses. And Israelis don’t shoot at Palestinians while they ride theirs.”
I’d made a point about which she couldn’t argue. Still, people grumbled. I’d anticipated their animosity. Returning their stares defiantly, I stood up and walked out.
As I’ve written, that was a while ago, long before the recent attack on Israeli buses on the highway to Eilat. Probably, most who were riding in those buses never saw their attackers, attackers who knew not to shoot high where the windows were.
- Koplen 8/27/11
Friday, August 26, 2011
The 9/11 hoax “That morning, I was on my way to work, in my convertible...” the man told me. I’ll call him Russ. As Russ began his story, I listened intently, as he had to mine.
I’d told him how shocked and dazed I was on 9/11 as I heard about the first tower then the second, falling. “It was as if the weight of that horror had crashed on me. I was as stunned as I’d been many years before when I’d learned that one of my favorite uncles had died when he flew his plane into the side of a Carolina mountain.”
Although it wasn’t cold, that’s when I shivered.
“Russ,” I told him, “that’s when I felt compelled to go to Manhattan, to see the wreckage, to pay homage to the fallen. I had to make peace with what happened there.” And I did go; I told Russ about that too, about how frantic I was to find a spot where I could clearly view the scope of the damage. “But there was a fence around the site with occasional peep holes, barely big enough to fit my camera lens into. Finally, I saw a walkway. I think I had to get tickets to get on it.” At the time, I couldn’t remember where I had gotten the tickets. I was shaking too badly to recall. “There were memorials everywhere,” I said, as I began to weep, “and small teddy bears from children with pictures of fathers they had lost on 9/11. Pictures I took that day of them are treasures to me.”
When I told Russ about going to Penn Station to see larger than life Polaroid pictures of many of the fallen heroes that day, I thought I heard him sob. “Please tell me your story,” I said quietly.
That’s when he began describing his drive to work. He’d come in late that morning. “Suddenly,” he told me, debris was flying through the air over the top of my car. Moments later I saw what had happened.” He paused. I gasped.
“When I was able,” Russ continued, “I pulled over, in shock. On the top floor of that building was my entire staff, and, for what it’s worth, all of my records. Gone.”
Perhaps I imagined hearing Russ cry. He had brought me so close to the 9/11 catastrophe, to the feeling of enormous pain he had felt, that I sensed a kinship with him, a kinship born of a brutal shared remembrance. When Russ exclaimed, in what sounded like an inconsolable cry, that he didn’t what to do or where to go, I suggested that he start over, that he come to Danville to rebuild his life.
“Things are safer here, more affordable. People are good and trustworthy here,” I told him. “You can begin a new life here. I’ll help.”
And I did. Within three weeks, he’d bought the house I’d told him about, just up the street from my parents. A week later, again with my help, he’d opened a downsized version of his business, a debt collection service. Helping Russ had helped me deal with the trauma that lingered from 9/11.
Or so I thought. Although we didn’t see each other that often, we were friends. We spoke on the phone almost daily. He had seemed interested in my new pursuit, the study of radical Islam. If I wanted to discuss something about it that no one else would listen to, Russ would. For a while, I thought we were buddies. He even introduced me to a few of his girlfriends. Now and then he and I would talk about the aftermath of 9/11.
Word had gotten out that I was helping Russ. People who wanted to know about the work that he did called me. Among his customers were banks. At least one was local.
All seemed to be going well until I received a call months later. The caller wasn’t happy with me because I had helped his father. He accused me of terrible things, made it sound as if I had aided and abetted a criminal.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I confessed. “I thought I was helping him rebuild his life.”
“Well, you helped him destroy mine,” he said, still seething. “He used my social security number for the credit check. That’s how he was able to buy the house he’s in. Now that purchase is showing up on my credit report!”
Hearing that shocked me. I asked the young man to confirm some of the supposed facts his father had shared with me.
“No, he wasn’t anywhere near the Twin Towers that day. He was out of work, sitting in front of the TV after having beaten my mother the night before. She had to be hospitalized. Not long after that, he fled.”
More confirmations that I’d been lied to and swindled followed. Russ had actually been on parole, and had come to Virginia without informing authorities. I did. And I contacted everyone who had any business dealings with him.
I also spoke to his latest girlfriend. She and I worked together to gather more information by contacting sheriff’s departments in four different states. Ultimately, I received a call from one of the law enforcement officers we’d been in touch with.
“Thanks for informing us,” he told me . We’ve just been notified that he has applied for a loan at a bank near Eden. And he’s used his other son’s social security number.”
He asked whether the man, Russ, was dangerous. “I’m sure he is,” I replied. The next day, when he walked into the bank, he was arrested. Since then, he hasn’t left prison.
When I heard that he’d been caught, I called his wife and his sons. By this time, we had gotten to know each other well. When I said, “At least it’s over now,” to the one of the sons, he scoffed at me.
“No it’s not, not for me. I’m a Jr. I have to wear his name.” He was disgusted.
Like a shock wave, his words shook me deeply. Russ’s entire family had been wounded by the repercussions of 9/11.
And so had I.
B. Koplen 8/25/11
Wednesday, August 24, 2011
Idle threats? Maybe I shouldn’t take it personally. Perhaps his speeches are merely a madman’s bluster. How do I know? Do you?
Whether to take Iran’s Ahmadinijad seriously is a question fit for Hamlet. “To believe or not to believe?” his updated version. In the article, "Iranian President Calls for Muslims' Massive Turnout on Quds Day," from Fars News Agency, August 22, Ahmadinijad is quoted as having said,”...on Sunday that nations can get rid of ‘the infected tumor of the Zionist regime’ through mobilizing their beliefs and ideals.”
Since I am concerned about this threat that I’ve internalized, who do I ask for counsel? How do I connect anyone who would listen with my worries about my children, my newly married daughter and her husband who live and love in Jerusalem? From here at my safe desk in America, I would tell a counselor, I can’t offer them any protection.
How do I make clear that there is no hatred in their hearts, even for the Iranian barbarian? Would that matter to Ahmadinijad? Tearfully, I recall their fervent prayers for peace.
I feel old as a toothless lion. In America, my poems that express my infuriation are said to be off-putting; my essays defending Israel are criticized for being politically one-sided.
My children in Israel do not read my essays and poems. But you do. And my dear friend and Holocaust survivor, Solly Ganor, does. Not one has he found to be offensive. I’ve often read, in Solly’s e-mails, that he feels as I do about Ahmadinijad. In fact, he and I are in such synchronized states of mind that, coincidentally, we’ve just traded essays about the passing of our fathers.
Both Solly and I were close to our Dads. Uniquely close. I worked side by side with mine for decades. Solly struggled along with his father to survive Nazi concentration camps together. On his deathbed, Solly’s Dad asked Solly to read one of the favorite stories, “Captain Miracle,” that Solly had written.
Words from that story were the last his Dad ever heard. Just before that, he had praised Solly for having left the safety of their new home in Canada to fight for Israel’s survival during its war of independence. Then Solly’s Dad listened to a story about Captain Miracle, a captain charged with transporting thousands of Holocaust survivors who no one else wanted to the only place on the planet that did, Israel.
That was almost sixty years ago. I have hesitated to ask Solly whether his children think Israel is still worth fighting for. They live in America, out west. I may ask him soon.
Just as I hope my children will ask me, as if to confirm their realization that it is. I know that their good hearts would be more than a match for Ahmadinijad’s hatred. I wonder whether my Dad thought that about me.
If so, did he think I might be able to smite Iranian intentions with my pen? I will never know. But I must show my children that they must be wary of those who so openly speak of doing them harm. How else can I shoulder a shield for them that a father must wear?
B. Koplen 8/24/11
Tuesday, August 23, 2011
An experiment in teaching "Those of you who brought Solly Ganor's Light One Candle to class, please come forward.”
You'd think that, after teaching a course titled Humanities 165 for more than three years, I'd have it so well organized that I could deliver my lectures without notes. You might think that my lesson plans look more like familiar recipes, laminated and slightly faded. You may even think that my students share old exam questions with incoming students to guarantee better grades.
Or you may know me better than I think. If so, the correct answer, if this were your test, would be none of the above.
Although I remember a master English professor (now Dean of Arts and Sciences) who kept a three ring notebook for lectures for each course he taught, I was more impressed with than envious of his organizational skills. Especially after I've tried to keep similar notebooks. Unfortunately, I've had to use a new one each term.
And none of them is current. In fact, I had a noteworthy challenge this semester when, for the first time, I had to teach a class on the solemn anniversary of September 11th. To my surprise, it turned out to be fascinating, both an exhilarating achievement and a relief to complete. Classes like that allow me to feel that I have earned my keep.
The same was true of today. Coming to my class was professor emeritus, Dr. John Guzlowski, a most worthy poet, novelist, and former Professor of English and Creative Writing. He is known for his Holocaust poetry based on stories that his Polish father had never stopped telling once he and his Polish wife and family had left one of America's Displaced Persons camps where they'd been for six years after immigrating to America.
What concerned me was that my students and I hadn't spent much time with poetry. Yet, for homework, I had assigned two striking poems, chosen by Dr. Guzlowski.
But, when class began, I chose five puzzled students who had brought their required book, a Holocaust memoir by Solly Ganor, Light One Candle, to class to surround me at my podium. Instructing each of them not to say a word, I handed them a paper that told each of them they would read to a small group assembled from the still seated students a part Light One Candle, from page XIX to XXI in the Prologue. "First I'll turn the lights off, then, when I flip them back on, you'll begin reading."
They sat down, and I motioned to the remaining students. We gathered outside in the hallway. "After you gather in groups of two or three, I want each of you, when the lights are turned off, to put your head on your desk, and be completely unresponsive. Stay that way when the lights are switched on." Each seemed to understand. All of us returned to the class. I paused until the readers took their seats by their groups, then switched off the lights.
Five voices, none of them in synch, started reading. Determined to finish, they tried to ignore the unresponsive students they were reading to. Finally, it was over. I asked each of them to write how they felt about their reading as I again took the others into the hallway.
"How did you feel while you were being read to?" I asked.
Each told me how difficult it was to be frozen in place. "How do you think the readers felt?" I asked.
"Like we didn't care," said one. Another agreed.
"But what if you weren't able to respond?" I asked.
"Yes. As if you were no longer alive," I said. My chatty group grew silent. They understood what I was trying to do. "Maybe you have some ideas about how to make this work better. If so, let me know. Also, when you go inside, please write a sentence or two about how you felt while they were reading to you."
In earnest, all of them did that. "What did you write?" I asked Lauren, one of the readers.
She told the class that she felt very strange, like something was wrong. And she didn't know what to do about it. I couldn't have asked for a better answer.
"Imagine," I said, " how the Jewish students in Nazi controlled territory felt when their friends and siblings went missing, when, unexpectedly, they could no longer talk to people they knew and loved. Imagine having to live like that. It was almost that bad for Dr. Guzlowski's parents, Polish Catholics made to work as slaves for the Nazis.
"This is what it looked like," I said, as I started playing an award winning documentary by Boston's WGBH, Master Race. It revealed what Hitler had done to capture the loyalty of most Germans. About midway, John Guzlowski joined us.
I stopped the documentary so that we could welcome him to read and talk about his Holocaust poetry. Following polite applause, the intensely gentle Dr. greeted us. For the next hour and fifteen minutes, he read his poetry, explained its origins, and deftly steered each of us to consider what had been our most poignant (and soul shaping) "objects of memory."
For his Dad, he explained calmly, there was the story of the Nazi soldier who his father had watched "cutting the breasts off of a women" his Dad had known. "He told me that story again and again." Some of us gasped at the thought of having to witness such a gruesome atrocity.
When John told of his stoic mother who refused to talk about the horror she had seen, he explained that it seemed to him that one person in every family "is the designated story teller. Not until my father died did my mother tell us what she knew." However, although she had been remiss to talk, as a child he had been curious, so curious that he would put an ear to her door when she shut it to read a letter from a relative. That's when he would hear her weep.
"Some ask why I continue to write these Holocaust poems. Others who, like me, spent their early childhood in Displaced Persons Camps refuse to read what I've written. They feel as if they must move on, must put that past behind them." Our discussion continued; the question he raised was whether any of us could put our past behind us if we didn't express rather than deny the most poignant objects we remembered.
At that time, I was standing near the back of the room. Seated next to me was a quiet student who surprised me by tapping my arm. I almost didn't hear him ask me to read a paper he was handing me, a poem he had written about his painful childhood. Turning my eyes away from John, I read his emotional and poetic survey of troubling experiences, an introduction to memories he seemed ready to write about.
"This is a very good beginning. Please write more," I told him, "and, "as Dr. Guzlowski did, please delve deeper. Thanks for letting me see this."
I wondered how many others would write similar poems and essays, how many would never forget the day they met the master teacher and poet, Dr. John Guzlowski.
B. Koplen 10/18/09
Sunday, August 21, 2011
Six months later “There were at least eight big tobacco warehouses...Farmers...were killing time waiting for their tobacco to be sold. I remember distinctly coming downtown on Halloween, which at that time was something that the big crowds would celebrate, and we kids would come down with a big handful of soap and write it all over the windows of the stores and we thought that was one of the greatest things that could be done...”
It had to be done, not soaping the windows, but finding the words to tell about it. They weren’t my words. In fact, I didn’t know they’d been spoken. Finding them was purely serendipitous.
And it had to do with a clogged drain in the basement, a basement crowded with an old work bench, a converted bookshelf with legs so uneven that it had to lean against the bathroom wall, and a sturdy but makeshift platform for making stained glass.
On the other side of the very narrow aisle, barely wider than shoulder’s width, sat a tall and unused filing cabinet, mostly empty and rusted at the bottom. Next to the work bench, another gray metal three drawer cabinet, unopened for years, held documents that included tax records and my sister’s high school composition books. Along with glass jars containing random nails and screws and shelves loaded with old paint and older leftover parts from once past and future projects, dust had started to collect. Tied to the end of the dried out string that served as a pull chain for the overhead fluorescent was a four inch long metal piece that had once belonged to a water sprinkler.
Or so it seemed. All of that is gone now. In its place is an open space I don’t recall seeing before. Of course, many of the tools, still useful, were wiped off and saved. Boxes of them await a new owner, maybe me.
Before I take them, I feel as if I must answer the question, “What will I do with them?” If they will go unused, I’d rather give them away to someone in need.
Other than those boxed up tools, there was little else left to keep or save. Except for one faded, once white plastic, 12” long, 3” wide, and 4” tall cassette tape player, a Realistic Stereo model, catalog 17-752A. I found it behind the last stack of stained glass left unpacked; its power cord and two-pronged plug were in tact. The player would be useful; I had a collection of very old cassettes, books on tape I’d bought from Goodwill.
Days after after setting it on my writing desk in my office, I didn’t touch it. But, in a very strange way, like Aladdin’s lamp, it called to me. What if a cassette was still in it? Curiosity overtook me; I plugged it in.
“There were at least eight...” I clicked off the player. What I’d heard I hadn’t expected to hear. Although I welcomed the sound of his voice, the familiar pattern of his speech, the unique choice of words, the intense presence that graced every syllable, I didn’t know what to do with my find. By pressing a single button, exactly six months after his passing, I could hear my Dad recording an impromptu history of his life in Danville.
That shook me. Now I had a companion, an unsophisticated device that had no savvy
digital features, a container of my Dad’s voice. But I don’t want to let it out of my sight. My Dad’s in there.
How strange. I can hear him any time I want, listen to him when he recorded at that time just before his voice became too gravelly, his thoughts too jumbled.
I’m not sure how to explain my feelings, feelings I’ve wrestled with since being by his side the moment he breathed his last breath. He’d been unconscious for more than 24 hours. What struck me so profoundly was that there was no whispered final thought, no goodbye, no wisdom distilled into a sentence he wanted to leave me, his oldest son. He’d always given me advice, always had a lesson to share, always his clear eyed interpretation of the best course to take.
Even if I didn’t listen. When his last breath came and went, there were no words. My siblings didn’t know I had to fight not to stumble out of his room that night. I’d missed his final message. Certainly, I felt, he had one for me.
How could I explain that sense of added loss to anyone? My Dad had been the most generous man I’d ever known, one of the most caring. Yet he left without a word.
I pressed play on the Realistic, heard scratchy microphone noises. I held my breath.
“I am Albert Koplen...” it began.
Immediately, I stopped it. Was it meant for me to find this? That couldn’t be. I was sure of that. But, suddenly, my Dad was with me, would be there whenever I wanted to feel his energy, his goodness, its timber and timeless clarity.
That’s what I was missing. What I had missed that night, February 22. Now, if only I could retrieve the hugs he left behind...
B. Koplen 8/22/11
Saturday, August 20, 2011
not among the living
Their Perfect Man,
to their only God,
younger than Moses’
or that promised Paradise
for those who die as they serve
Him while killing infidels.
1400 years later, it still works
like magic, or,
(what’s the word for it in Arabic?)
hypnosis, a deadly form,
an otherworldly spirit poison
that transforms messengers
in subsonic jets,
convinces them they’re aiming
B. Koplen 8/20/11
Friday, August 19, 2011
Just opened, at the Twin Towers
We’d love to hear your thoughts,
your words and phrases,
would love to see those pictures
in your pocket or your purse.
We’d love to know your preferences,
songs you like to sing,
books you want to read,
trips you want to take.
We love to listen to what you like.
So please fill out this form,
then fold it, no postage necessary.
And if you’re no longer
in the place we’ve sent this to,
please forgive us.
your last known address.
B. Koplen 8/19/11
Thursday, August 18, 2011
Catfishin‘ to come If ever I uncouple myself from my family store, I may look back on what I’ve learned much as Mark Twain looked back at his life spent guiding ships on the Mississippi River. Bright as he was, he remembered every port and every sand bar, every dialect and every rascal, every story and each embellishment.
Although the boat canal alongside my Dan River once hauled cotton and dry goods, it is gone now along with worker’s songs and name calling and idioms I vaguely remember. Occasionally, an older customer will make a remark that transports me to the old days, to simple times when words were less nuanced, descriptive phrases more candid.
How many times did I cringe when an old customer, a man whose family my Dad and I had known for decades, would smile at me and announce, as if being absolutely honest and frank, that he was going to “Jew me down”?
Of course, I’m Jewish, and I never hesitate to tell that to my students in order that they understand my bias in favor of Israel. I want them to know that I am biased, and that I own it, and that not everyone shares my views. However, the folks who would warn me that they were going to “Jew me down” never supplied a context, never said, “That’s what my Dad always said, so I’m just repeating his remark.”
Indeed, although both black and white patrons used the phrase, most of the time I heard it from my black customers. Most often, they were long timers whose families we had taken care of for at least two or three generations.
When I finally accepted that old speech habits so deeply rooted would disappear in time, I stopped my occasional retort, “No, you’ll have to Christian me down because I’m Jewish and you’re not.” Although it gave me some satisfaction to communicate that thought with a grin that matched theirs and just as lovingly, I could tell it didn’t seem to register at a deeply conscious level.
Perhaps that’s why I eventually stopped admonishing my black salesmen not to call their customers, even some of their favorite customers, nigger. They used the word, and still do, as if it were no more offensive than a tossed quarter, a gift of sorts. The n-word, I discovered, could be used affectionately or derogatorily depending on the inflection.
There are countless variations. Just as there are in Huck Finn, a book I am drifting through reverentially. As told through the eyes and mind of young Huck, the story of Huck and widow Douglas’ slave, Jim, offers amazing insights that parallel my own as I’ve grown up in and around the expansion of civil rights in the south. Directly involved with freedom’s spread, I often marvel at vestiges of the language, the colorful quips I used to hear.
Changes have been long in coming. No longer can I even imagine hearing a conversation between a black person and a white person, as between Jim and Huck, where each uses the n-word casually when referring to other people, or themselves. In that sense, it comes across as completely innocent, uninformed, perhaps, but innocent.
I’ll be writing and thinking more about this long after I’ve finished Huck Finn. I’ll wonder how I will teach about its place in our culture, about whether to regard it as a relic or an abomination. Or will I just turn my back to it when I finally leave my store, hopeful that, like the phrase, “Jew me down,” it will vanish, like me, from the sales floor?
That’ll be something to consider as I amble toward the bank of the Dan with my fishing pole and my bait where the catfish are jumpin’ and the striped bass call to me with a language all their own.
B. Koplen 8/18/11
Wednesday, August 17, 2011
Wren whistled blues clutch imaginary ledges,
tightrope those creases where time climbs
from my brain through my eyes.
Peril subways any trail that takes me
where home used to be. On my map,
its directions, dust settles, covers signs;
backroads blur, markers fall like notes from
harmonicas blind men play;
a blizzard of books disguises my terrain of tears;
there’s little else left to see.
But you, my love, your wings to which
I cling as never before.
Weightless as sunshine, you say that
about me as if my flailing arms are balsa,
my body, a once hefty ode, its weight
you lift now with music you put to it,
arrange like a poem its poet might
live in, unless its words, my blood lines,
you fear may jamb or go askew
on that page of me you’ve framed so well
only blues leak from its good seal.
B. Koplen 8/17/11
Tuesday, August 16, 2011
Those daunting questions cut across a trail to a larger concern. Would climbing into a meditative state be like crawling into a comforting cocoon that would insulate me from the world? If so, would I feel less and less connected to those forces that drive my writing, those causes that I deem demand real justice?
At issue is that singular human trait, forgiveness. If nothing bothers me, if nothing disturbs me when I reach my calm center, does that mean that I’m more open to and more willing to welcome into my life those unrepentant few who, in the past, may have done me harm?
If so, need I be concerned that I’d be engaging in a kind of meditative self-immolation? Indeed, what I’ve read about Stockholm Syndrome comes to mind. In other words, at what point does forgiveness become sacrificial?
How possible is it to save the world by forgiving the likes of Hitler or Stalin or Osama bin Laden? Perhaps another kind of wisdom should be blended with meditation’s warm embrace of human frailties. That’s just this: consider that what has been done has, indeed, been done of one’s free will. May I not assume that any salient being must know that almost any voluntary act aimed at another individual has an impact, whether positive or negative.
For the positive, we’re generally appreciative, for the negative, at best, wary. When we’re badly treated, what happens to trust, to that basic human assumption that we may have relied on too heavily, that all people are good at heart?
Do we teach our children to forgive an abuser? Do we ignore psychological harm that we’ve suffered because we believe in the power of forgiveness? If our belief is strong enough, will that change a person who sees forgiveness as a weakness? If so, there is the possibility of provoking death by meditation.
What seems to be more realistic is that, over time, people forget even the sharpest pains. They may outgrow harmful effects of life’s mishaps. However, there seems to be a point where almost anyone must say that they can make peace with a terrifying event. Every Holocaust survivor has had to do that. However, to forgive such an atrocity goes beyond what any human should be expected to do. That is the work for a higher force in a realm that deals with final answers.
Meditation, soothing as it may be, is something I never do without my protective third eye, always open.
B. Koplen 8/16/11
Monday, August 15, 2011
We were waiting for the curtain to go up on Jerusalem, the play for which actor Mark Rylance won the 2010 Tony. Fascinated by the conversation with the couple to my left, I asked to hear the anecdote the musician had promised.
"My Dad believed in public education despite Governor Faubus. He drove around the city and campaigned for the right for anyone to go to public schools regardless of race or religion. One night, after he'd been doing that for a while, someone tried to burn down our house."
I mentioned that my book, No Gold Stars, about the civil right era in Greenville,SC was coming out soon. We talked about how I integrated Reverend Jesse Jackson's alma mater, Sterling Jr.-Sr. High, that there was no museum there like the one for Central High.
Mentioning the statute that had been erected in downtown Greenville to memorialize Sterling seemed unnecessary, a trifle compared to a museum. That's why I directed a question at the musician's wife, an opera singer born in New York. "Do you know anything about this play?"
"Not really," she said. "Friends have recommended it, but I asked them not to tell me anything about it. Wanted to experience it for myself."
The lights dimmed. I was left wondering why a play named Jerusalem was set in England, and why it began with a young girl wearing angel wings singing a very old song adapted from a William Blake poem. Less than a minute later, all hell broke loose. Shocking as an errant lightning bolt inside the Music Box Theater, a noisy party in the front yard of a Winnebago in the middle of a maple woods erupted. For the next three hours, the cast would not leave that set.
Nor would any of us take our eyes off the main character, Johnny "Rooster" Byron. From the first quiet moment of the first scene, he, played by Rylance, captured everyone's attention. By the end of the frenzied first act, all of us knew that Rooster was a ringleader surrounded by (underaged) devotees and that he was in a heap of trouble.
And he was, in an often terrifying way, magical. But why was the play called Jerusalem? The hint came from lines of the song, sung acapella, that opened the play. Here are the last two:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England's green and pleasant land.
Of course, the audience realized that what was seen as green and pleasant was considered to be the neighborhood that had been built around the vestige of forest that surrounded Rooster's trailer. He was the problem, the civilly disobedient renegade who destroyed his connection with cultural icons by bashing his flat screen TV with a cricket bat while in the throes of a drunken stupor.
If that hardly sounds to you like the deed of a modern day hero, I'd have to agree. In profoundly unique ways, Rooster wasn't that at all. Instead, he was portrayed as a modern day Jesus, resurrection, virgin birth and all.
What surprised me was how well he pulled it off, how much like the beleagured ero of Man For All Seasons he seemed to be, albeit in a different era and in completely different circumstances. Jerusalem is one of the few plays I've ever seen that I want to see again. Acting performed more skillfully is rare.
For many reasons, I cried, sobbed near the play's end, throughout the longest applause I've ever heard, and its numerous curtain calls. Indeed, Rooster had tossed an emotion laden spear through a target I had made readily available, my heart. In a word, Rylance's acting was that inspirational.
At once, at play's end, I felt empowered and vulnerable, shaky yet standing taller than when I firsr sat down. I had witnessed a creative triumph, its story so far out of the ordinary box that I felt challenged to do something similar. Or, as I did when I integrated Sterling, to do something just as meaningful once again.
If I figure out what that is, I may even say something like, "Rooster made me do it." And you, unlike a world full of the uninformed, will know exactly what I mean.
B. Koplen 8/15/11
Saturday, August 13, 2011
Admittedly, the wheeze and ripping zing of metal blades on wood and plastic and metal terrified me at first. That combination of sounds without verbal accompaniment produced an other worldly melody, the song of hard work, the lyric of construction. Indeed, I often felt shocked as if I were in the midst of an unnerving dissonant battlefield.
At the end of the day, there is a truce of sorts, a time when quiet inspection connects unplugged tools and scissor lifts to what they've built or torn down that day.
What progress there is can often be measured by the intensity of sounds as they yield to the quiet grunt of men pushing against scheduled inspections to do less noisy finishing. Those sounds, I tell myself are still a week away.
Of course, I said the same last week. "We'll be ready to resurface the floors," I'd said to anyone who'd listen, not knowing whether mine was wishful thinking or something more positive. Sounds I would hear would bring answers.
Or should I say, sounds I wouldn't hear. There was the silence of contractors who didn't show up or didn't return calls. There was the missing conversation with workers who weren't there to paint and sand, to hold and carry, to be here or there.
Those days there would be no harmony until a rhythm asserted itself in concert with work that was ongoing, that had to get done, that didn't sound exactly as it had days before. On those days, I discovered, there would be a new set of sounds, less frequent, less symphonic, the work of a smaller choir.
What I wonder now, as I struggle to end the work I started as I wrestle with unanticipated mysteries each day brings, is whether I will have identified the peculiar signature of this project's theme, the melodies that define it. When all is done, will I yearn to hear them again, perhaps with slight variation, at another site? Will I come to think of what I heard as music, and the radio that was never turned off as background noise?
I have learned to listen carefully to the sounds of men at work. Those sounds convey the essences of achievement and danger, of transformation and intelligent design, of accord and the thrill from simple and difficult things done well, often at the same time. Over the past weeks, I've come to treasure those sounds as they pound and pulse through me, as they empower me with their energy.
What I hear conveys the feeling of joy those sounds bring, the commingling of energies, the union of laborers and their different skills, the creation of something new, the sound it makes on completion when all the men have left their sounds behind.
B. Koplen 5/28/11