Tuesday, October 25, 2011

At the top of the list?

The Greatest American Novel     “What does the title mean? Why did you choose it?” asked the reporter from the Greenville, SC News.
Her story about my book, No Gold Stars, was almost finished, almost ready to revise.
“I’ve read the first 14 chapters,” she told me. I could tell she’d hoped telling me that would prompt me to tell her about my title, that it wasn’t picked at random.
“On the last page, you’ll find the answer,” I told her. Even that seemed to me to be a hint I shouldn’t have offered.
She switched topics, asked about how difficult it was to teach students at Sterling. I confessed that they were the teachers, that it took me a while to learn from them. “And that happened because you were put in jail?”
Although the answer was yes, I was amused. Without finishing my book, she wouldn’t be able to put the impact of my arrest in its proper context. I offered her my home phone number. “Call me at night after you’ve read the book. Your questions will answer themselves; I know you’ll have new ones.”
Lots of them. I was sure of that.
“Please call me as soon as you know when you’re coming to Greenville.” Without saying that it wouldn’t be before she’d read the final chapter, I promised I would.
And I meant to keep that promise, the first of two I would make that day. The other had to do with Steinbeck’s East of Eden and with a message in response to my post the day before (What I Heard Our Rabbi Say).  That message included this comment:
...East of Eden was the great American Novel.  It spans time from the Civil War to WWI, it spans the country from New England to California, at its very kernel is the once Biblical truth that everyone must understand if the world is ever to become blessed. 
I knew I had to read East of Eden again. Before I had missed the significance of its ties to the Talmud, those midrashim (interpretations) that explain it. One of the most central involves Cain and Abel and tinmshel, the concept that translates to “Thou mayest,” as in “Thou Mayest choose not to do evil” as if the only reason one fails to control an impulse is their unwillingness to choose not to.
Steinbeck understood. To choose to do evil is a human proclivity, it’s a temptation as old as the seed of Adam. East of Eden restates the need to decide to resist in very human terms, terms so profound that the book is a must to re-read.
Or, as I told the Greenville reporter, a book you don’t (or can’t) read just part of.
                                                    B. Koplen  10/26/11
for other articles and to subscribe to my blog, please visit:

Was I listening closely enough?

What I heard our Rabbi say  “This Torah portion upsets me,” said our Rabbi, as he began a discussion about Abraham climbing Mt. Moriah to sacrifice his son Isaac. At least that’s what I think our Rabbi said. Aside from the story being so complex, his concern is that it is also dark and foreboding. 
If the father of the Jewish religion is to be revered, his willingness to sacrifice his son may send up red flags. “Some say that the voice he heard telling him not to sacrifice his son was actually Sarah’s agonizing scream that demanded that Abraham leave his son unharmed.” Our Rabbi said that too.
I grimaced when I thought of Abraham. His God was unpredictable; Abraham had no idea what to expect other than His demand that Abraham be blindly obedient. Although Abraham was a man of great faith and trust, what he was about to do to Isaac was going to break Abraham’s heart, a heart already in distress from having permanently lost his other son, his beloved Ishmael.
Whether Abraham is merely doing God’s bidding is a grave concern. Would a loving God have a man commit such an atrocity? Is there no other satisfactory way to prove one’s faith? 
Why does such a troubling portion of our Torah begin our New Year? Where is the promise,the encouragement to find meaning, to prosper, to reflect on the human condition? It seems, instead, that there is a message involving grief: it is unavoidable.
Abraham seems to be charged with what he must do. He must prove that nothing is more important that his faith in God. What is Isaac’s role? To be completely obedient to his father? Or must he make a separate peace, away from his father’s constraints? Must he redefine his relationship with the same God?
If so, does Isaac remind us that, with each generation, a new agreement with God must be made, perhaps one that is gentler, kindler, more amenable and more life-preserving?
About our children, what are we to think? If Ishmael was as upset and aggrieved about being removed from his father as Abraham was about losing him, is that supposed to remind us that parents are vitally important to their children, and vice versa?
As this Jewish New Year progresses, my hope is that this topic will be addressed again and again, on a worldwide forum. During this New Year, my first without my father, I must ask whether my interpretation of God’s intentions is absolutely crucial in the sense that it will guide me to be a better father, one who believes that Abraham’s painful confrontation sealed the bond with God that I can choose to build on.
Without the dramatic agony of Abraham and Sarah, without the grief Abraham never shed,  I can choose to foster the light that came after, can nurture those sparks of hope and achievement, of love and faith that my children bring to our world.  
                                                   B. Koplen 10/25/11
for other articles and to subscribe to my blog, please visit:

Sunday, October 23, 2011

concerning our Holocaust

A day to remember   “I’m considering getting a lung transplant,” an old friend confided. What followed was his grim smile, then a deep tug of oxygen from nasal tubes attached to the canister he was carrying.
I hadn’t seen him in months; his condition had worsened. Although that shocked me, I admitted to him that he’d been on my mind for the past few days. That pleased him.
“Here’s why,” he said, as his brighter, more familiar smile returned. “After 1 1/2 years of difficult work, I finished this.”
He held up a cell phone.
“After 18 months, I had to come show it to you.”
On the phone’s screen was a menu of fourteen presentations about Jesus and Christianity, each three minutes long. All of them could be viewed in one of six regional dialects of India. “One of the videos teaches how to transfer all of the information (including a library of Christian texts) to the memory chip of another phone. And another, and so on until, potentially, all of India would have access to the work he’d done.
Despite the fact that Jews like me don’t proselytize, I was impressed. “Next, I’ll make one for Spain. Then Africa.” Although he struggled to breathe, he seemed and sounded undaunted. A few ministers who’d been shopping had heard him talking to me; they wanted to see what he’d done.
Weary after that, he had to leave. Weeks prior to his visit, he hadn’t been able to drive. Feeling stronger, he’d decided to make this trip his first solo outing. However, since he’d struggled to get from the front door of my store to a chair fifteen feet away, I was worried about his safety.
“I’ll be fine,” he said. “It’s just the standing and walking that’s hard.” With that, he dropped into the driver’s seat; we said goodbye. For a moment, I thought of offering a prayer in his behalf, something I don’t often do. 
A question one of my students had asked earlier that morning may have provoked me.
“Did you doubt your faith in God?” she’d asked Dr. John Guzlowski, a retired professor whose parents had survived the Holocaust, after he’d read his poetry based on stories they had told him about their ordeal in concentration camps. All of us strained to hear his answer. Very quietly, he explained that he had.
Before his reading, we’d heard a similar question asked of a Holocaust survivor, the mother of our other guest, while she was interviewed on a video filmed as part of Stephen Spielberg’s Shoah project. At the time, the survivor, in her seventies or eighties, was, according to her daughter, battling cancer. 
Even so, although she was Polish, she spoke with clarity in her heavily inflected English. Time and again, she was asked questions that brought her to tears. Her answers that were unforgettable.
One was a about a day she never forgot. That day was May 12, 1942. She described it with absolute certainty, with a touch of stoic rage that pierced any emotionally buffering layers I’d brought to class.
“That was the day,” she’d said, staring directly into the camera, “that they took my parents away.” She never saw them again.
Six months after the filming, she passed away.
Returning to my store after class on that clear autumn day, I was subdued. Not long after that, my  friend with with the telephonic bibles arrived. When I saw him, I recalled the story he’d told me about his Dad, a soldier in World War II who had liberated one of the Nazi concentration camps. After that experience, my friend had told me, his father had been so impacted by what he’d witnessed that he never spoke again.
Perhaps that memory, coupled with the Holocaust documentary, added to my shock at seeing  my friend so enfeebled. Indeed, it will be a day I will long remember.
                                                 B. Koplen 10/23/11
to read more of my articles and to subscribe to my blog, please go to:

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Hello, goodbye

Atoning in Ohio          “Dad, will you please come see me for Yom Kippur?”
In spite of almost six hours to be spent driving to her university on curvy mountain highways, often at 70 miles per hour, saying no to my daughter was impossible. Not just because she asked so sweetly, but also because, despite my dislike of being excessively apologetic to God, I have enjoyed every service I have attended at Ohio University’s Hillel. I actually wanted to go.
“It’s my senior year, Dad,” my daughter had reminded me. “This one’s special.”
Although being with her is always special, this visit promised to be nostalgic. Each time prior, I’d met my daughter’s friends, often ones who were about to graduate. Not seeing them the next time, after their graduation, left me feeling as if conversations I had started had ended too abruptly. However, her new friends distracted me with discussions about theses they were researching, music they were studying, causes they were supporting.
In June, all of that would end. Yom Kippur seemed a good time to begin saying goodbye to Ohio University.
“Dad, let’s go to Donkey.”
“Love too,” I said, since we’d planned nothing else after services. 
Everyone at the Donkey coffee shop appeared to be well under thirty. Except me. My daughter found the communal Scrabble game, then set the board on a table. “Let’s play,” she said.
For the first time in years, she’d asked me to engage me in my favorite game. At her favorite place. No one seemed to mind that I was the only Dad there. Indeed, I was joyous. Just being with my daughter makes me feel that way; I didn’t really care about the Scrabble game even as I spelled MUSTARD, a seven letter word worth, with bonuses, 134 points. That it had come my way was more an indication of how good it felt to be there than the serendipity of picking the right tiles.

My daughter greeted one of her friends, a personable, bearded young man in a tweed sport coat and tie. “Jerry, meet my Dad.”
Jerry, at six feet two, appeared sturdy as an offensive end. But I didn’t ask whether he played football. “He graduated last year from HTC. We had classes together.”
HTC, Honors Tutorial College, a haven for some of the best and brightest at Ohio University. My daughter loved it there. After five minutes of stimulating conversation with Jerry, I was reminded why. Every student there makes an often creative statement, leaves a marker of their stay there, usually in the form of a mandatory thesis, the kind usually required for a graduate degree. Students at HTC are that good.
Jerry studied Dante’s masterpiece, in Italian, then produced a convincing revelation about meanings previously hidden in its text. We talked about that and a dozen more things when we left Donkey for a stroll around downtown Athens.
Jerry talked about his job with the city. He serves as a stellar liaison between Athens and its university. When we talked about O.U.’s rank as one of the nation’s top party schools, he was quick to correct that impression. “At Palmer Fest, I examined the records of arrested revelers. Out of 35, all but three were out of towners who don’t attend our university.”
Knowing that he was on top of things made me feel even better about O.U. Knowing that I wouldn’t see Jerry and many others like him after June’s graduation made me glad that I had come, yet sad at having to leave behind so many good people.
Of course, I know that, wherever my daughter goes next, I may have a chance to share holidays with her there, too. Who knows? Next year I may have to meet her in Israel for Yom Kippur. I tried to stay focused on that possibility as I waved goodbye to my daughter as I drove away.
On both sides of highway 32, a dozen miles outside of town, I admired fall colored hills I knew I was driving by after spending my final autumn there.
                                               B.Koplen 10/13/11

Monday, October 10, 2011

third and final part: elk at Cattaloochee

 No longer less traveled       Although I was tempted to take a few more pictures of Cattaloochee elk before leaving their mountain plateau, I resisted. Saving my last few shots on a roll of film (I don’t use a digital camera) has been my policy for decades. What if, I reason, I find one last shot before daylight fades to dark?
That’s why I pulled off the road just a few miles from where I’d last seen the compact herd. Across the two lane highway were a group of wild turkeys. With luck, I’d be able to get close enough to capture them full frame with my macro lens.
And I did! To my surprise, they didn’t flee; I’ve seen many that did.
Catching them completed my feast of images; my day had been a success. As hurried as I’d been to get to Cattaloochee, I glided slowly down the mountain trail as if names of paths there, Tater Patch, Coldwater Creek, and Rough Creek, were lines from a familiar poem I wanted to savor.  Even the five miles per hour sign ahead of its U-turns seemed the right pace for the end of that clear fall day.
When I saw the Cove Creek Road, I turned toward Asheville rather than Cade’s Cove. Although home was still five hours away, I wanted to try to make the trip. Only one thing stopped me: an exit sign that read, Lake Junaluska and Hot Springs. Although I’d passed that same exit many times before, never had Hot Springs seemed such an inviting destination. Never before had it seemed so irresistible. 
Getting there meant traveling a road that announced to truckers that it wasn’t recommended for them. As it wound through unspoiled countryside, the two lane highway climbed straight up and straight down for miles. There were no places to stop, no shoulders to rest on, no gas stations for brief respites. A sports car would have been gleeful there.
And there were no mile markers; Hot Springs seemed like an unattainable wish. When I finally spotted an advertisement for Hot Springs with an arrow that pointed to the right, I didn’t hesitate to turn onto the parking lot of a convenience store just across from the Route 209 sign.
“That goes to Hot Springs?” I asked the man behind the counter.
“Yep,” he smiled, then said, “24 miles, and about 295 turns.”
“Have you been there?” I asked.
“I been meaning to,” he said, “but the curves, and my business,” he said, pointing toward a half dozen customers with no where else to go for sundries. Then he answered my other question. “Interstate 40 is that way.”
The opposite direction from 209.
But that was the route I chose; all 295 curves of it. There may have been more; I stopped counting when it became obvious that he had estimated the number, that it may have been much higher.
And it was 25 miles, more than enough to convince me that going anywhere else that night was impossible. Literally, I felt that I couldn’t see straight. But I could see the billboard sized sign on the other side of the railroad tracks that pointed to the gated entrance, still open, to Hot Springs Resort.
“Fed by the hot springs?” I asked.
One of the two men behind the counter handed me a price list. The other said, “Yes, we have fourteen hot tubs that are heated by the springs. And we only have one available. That’ll be in about 90 minutes.”
Quickly I glanced at the price list, It read, “$13.50 for an hour.” All I could imagine was an hour long soak, a watery salve for every ache I’d accumulated on the many mountain roads I’d travelled that day. I handed one of the men my credit card.
“That’ll be $32.50,” he said, without looking up.
“But it says here that it’s only $13.50.”
“That’s right. Before six. Goes up after that,” he said, pointing to his watch.
“Why so much?” I asked.
“Because we can,” he answered sarcastically.
Perhaps I should have left, and might have had I not been so tired. Instead, I asked about rooms, dreading what Mr. Because We Can might quote.
“$100.” He paused. “Or you could stay in a cabin across the street. But we don’t provide the bedding. 45 bucks.”
Fortunately, I had my sleeping bag. After soaking in the hot tub, I knew it wouldn’t matter where I slept. I paid the man, left to find my cabin, then enjoyed sweet potato fries and kale at a restaurant on the other side of the tracks, less than 100 yards from the resort. A guitar and harmonica duo played old folk songs.
When I slipped into the hot tub, hidden behind a wooden enclosure, I let all of its jets do their work. After forty minutes, I felt like a rag doll. Five minutes later, I landed on my sleeping bag; it felt like a cloud.
For five hours, I slept as if the feel of every turn and every bend I’d ridden had been connected to create a lullaby’s rhythm. At 3:30 a.m. I left Hot Springs.
And I didn’t take 209. Instead, I traveled a straighter road back to I-40. By daylight, I’d lost sight of the mountains to my back, home to the elk I’d left behind.
                  B. Koplen  10/10/11

Friday, October 7, 2011

Finding the elk: part two

 A sound I’d never heard     “You must stay off the field. It’s for your own protection,” said the friendly volunteer Ranger. Although I wanted to tell her that such a rule made little sense to me because I was a twenty year veteran of Cade’s Cove excursions where I photographed bucks and does at close range, I didn’t. Nor did I mention that Bill, one of my buddies, had been doing the same there for thirty.
But we were new to Cattaloochee, her territory, and she, Esther Blakely, was, according to her name tag, a certified volunteer. She continued, “These guys are full of testosterone. They’re explosive.” 
None of us challenged her; Jack and Lewis didn’t even have their cameras. Both, like Bill, were prize winning photographers in their fields. They had patience to match their skills. For years, the three of them had been my mentors.
We’d spotted a sturdy male hundreds of yards away in the shadows on the far side of the field. Despite looking like a sitting shadow, his tall rack of antlers were visibly enormous, more than four feet high and spread almost that wide. Eager as I was to get a picture, I couldn’t. Minutes later, he ambled back into the woods of the mountain range that met the field.
Not long after that we heard an elk bugle from that same area. His mating call, a piercing high pitched wail, had the ring of an oversized flute mixed with the scrape of fingernails scratching a blackboard. Then there was another, less complex, more direct, it seemed. Rather than worry about photographs, I leaned against my car to enjoy the competing buglers.
Another muscular male appeared, reared his head, and sounded. Watchful, he seemed to count as his seven females hurriedly assembled like cows to a specific area of his pasture. Two smaller males approached him. In seconds, they were rebuffed, sent scurrying.
One of them, obviously older and slower, sauntered across the field in our direction. Very quickly, we realized he was headed for the stream directly behind and below us. Half a dozen followed him closely as he neared our edge of the field, climbed a few steps down to the road, then gingerly entered the stream. Without asking our Ranger’s permission, I snapped six closeups.
“Looks like he was wearing a collar,” I said to Esther, our vigilant Ranger. She looked to be in her late thirties. Unlike the other volunteers, she wasn’t casually dressed. Her uniform shirt had been neatly pressed; her hat was perfectly positioned. It didn’t move. Her makeup and lipstick might have suited a lawyer ready for a trial. She replied at once.
“It is a collar, a tracking device. Until three years ago, we put them on all of the elk. Since then, we haven’t. His will fall off eventually.”
I mentioned that it appeared as if she recognized each elk, as if they had names.
“In a strange way, I do,” she told me. “The one with the collar is number two. the other one who was chased away, number 17.”
Number two was the second oldest elk at Cattaloochee. He’d arrived when he was two. They’d been there for ten years. “So he’s about twelve,” I stated, as a preface to my next question. “Where’d he come from?”
“Colorado,” she told me, “paid for and supplied by a hunting club there.”
That made sense; another Ranger had said that, when the heard is sufficiently plentiful, they’ll raffle off chances to hunt some of the bucks. “For six or seven thousand dollars,” said the Ranger. “But that’ll be another five to ten years from now.”
Closer to us, more bugling came from the mountains. Chances were that the males knew they could out wait us. Ranger Esther said that it was almost time for us to scoot. 
Reluctantly, I saluted number two; he’d done all he could for the herd. He was no longer part of the rut.
Our lady Ranger had made it clear that his weak bugling wasn’t a match for the vocals of younger and stronger males. He didn’t put up a fight about that. Indeed, it seemed that he was there, like us, resigned to enjoy the scenery, to reflect on the way things used to be.
I said goodbye to my friends as they left for the Cove. My path was toward Virginia although I wasn’t sure whether, with two hours of daylight remaining, I might try to make it to another place I’d never been.
                                            B. Koplen 10/7/11

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Where the elk are...

Please don’t try this on your own...        ...at least not without me. Had my dear friend Bill told me D-74 or B-74? I couldn’t remember, and I had forgotten the notes that had listed the number of his campsite at Cade’s Cove in the Smoky Mountains National Park.
“On Tuesday, we’re going to Cattaloochee to see the elk herd during rut, to hear them bugling.” Bugling.That part I recalled exactly as he’d said it. Accustomed as I’d been to photographing deer with Bill for more than 20 years at Cade’s Cove, I was determined to join him to take shots at much larger elk.
“Where is it?” I asked.
“Just off I-40, the Cattaloochee exit.”
I started my trip at 11:00 p.m. Monday night. By 5:00 a.m., under a solid black sky, I began my unsuccessful search for Bill’s campsite. After twenty minutes, frustrated and beyond sleepy, I decided to rest in the Cove parking lot. Around 8:00 a.m., I checked with the ranger in the office.
“It’s B-74,” she confirmed, “and the best way to Cattaloochee is here,” she told me as she pointed to a map she’d given me. “There’s the exit, number 20 on Cove Creek Road, off I-40, almost three hours from here.”
I grimaced. Not only had I not found my friends, but I’d also passed that exit on my way to meet them.  Hurriedly, in hope of catching them, I drove to their campsite, now easily recognizable on that clear and bright sunny morning. All the gear was there, lantern, cookstove, and pop-up sleeper, now unhitched from its SUV. They’d left for Cattaloochee.
I returned to the guard post. “You might try taking 321 out of Townsend, seven miles from here. That’s easier than heading back to Gatlinburg, quicker too, I think.”
It was. Instead of three hours, I spent two hours and forty five minutes retracing my route, most of it on I-40 East. 
“Yes, you missed it,” said the friendly clerk at the convenience store less than half mile on the two laner after I’d taken exit 20. “You want to see the elk, don’t ya?” he asked.
“Yes. My friends are there already.”
“Well, you’ll take that winding road up the mountain, then get on a narrow dirt and gravel trail that’s just as crooked. You’ll see signs. Can’t miss it.”
He was right. It may have taken another thirty minutes, but I didn’t care. Occasionally I stopped to take a picture of the breathtaking views; I felt embraced by the calm sun. I was in no hurry to race up the steady climbing road. Eventually, I passed a campsite by a stream. After a few more miles, I spotted a short truck sporting two antlers as cargo. Written on the tailgate twice were the words, Elk Bugle Corps.
“They’ll be in the fields, a little farther down the road,” said one of the two rangers in charge of the truck. They were volunteers charged with keeping people on the dirt roads alongside the field, away from the elk. “They can be dangerous,” he said, as he pointed to the antlers. “We caught a poacher with this one,” he said, as he picked up one of the almost four feet long antlers. “Saved these after the autopsy.”
“They’ll be out when it cools down,” he assured me.
I drove a little further until I spotted a very old barn and a string of vehicles parked just beyond it. On my right was a flat, almost amber field, its dry grass six to eight inches high. Beyond that were the mountains, thick with vegetation and tall trees just beginning to show their fall colors. On my left was  a twelve foot wide stream.
I pulled onto the well worn dirt area by the wooden barn. At first, I was distracted by the barn’s uneven planks, some wide, some narrow, all uneven, its loft, two stories high. Lots of shade was inside. Someone was sound asleep where hay might have been more than 100 years earlier.
Less than a minute later, after I stopped and slowly stretched out of my car, I spotted Bill and my other buddies, Jack and Lewis. I’d come to the right place; their smiles told me that. 
I forgot how long it had taken me to get there.
                                B. Koplen  10/6/11