I’m taking a brief break this week to focus on writing and life. But check back in next Friday for the next installment of my ongoing autobiography project (posted every Friday to my blog!). A hint: this next essay is called “Summer Sex.” You won’t want to miss it!
Stuyvesant High School
Welcome to the fifth installment of my ongoing autobiography project, posted every Friday to my blog.
Stuyvesant High School was the best academic school I ever attended. It was also, in another sense, the worst school I ever attended. It was located in Manhattan, isolating me, an already shy loner, from my fellow Queens neighborhood high school students who mostly went to Jamaica High School. Jamaica was co-ed, Stuyvesant was all male. When I reflect back on my twelve years of former schooling, starting with Stuyvesant, the educational institutions I attended were almost all male up through medical school (although there were four women in my medical school class of 150 students). Those twelve years spanned the time when the most erogenous drives flourish in a young male’s body. I wasn’t given to homosexuality, rather to vicarious fantasies with any attractive-enough female who might cross my path. Summer jobs at hotels and camps provided ripe seasonal sexual contacts as did fraternity life at Union College. But it was never enough. Women, until later in my life, remained sexual objects, their thought process alien.
Of interest, Stuyvesant went co-ed in 1969 when Alicia De Rivera sued the NYC School Board for discrimination against women and won on unconstitutional grounds.
Stuyvesant was the equivalent of a magnet school. It was located in a building constructed in 1903, between 1st and 2nd Avenue on 15th Street in lower Manhattan. My family lived in Queens so, as a 13-year-old, I set out each morning, walking two blocks to the Utopia Parkway bus stop to catch the Q-17A bus to the 169th Street Station of the IND subway line – a fifteen minute, standing-room-only trip. The bus made at least fifteen stops in those fifteen minutes, each with the threat of flinging strap-holders to the floor of the bus. Many were saved such a fate by slamming into other, sturdier strap-holders in the overcrowded aisle.
Subway pass in hand (New York City public school students who required taking public transportation to school were given free passes), I zoomed, two steps at a time, down three flights of stairs to the train platform to catch the E-train to Manhattan. How many fellow subterranean travelers did I jostle, cut off, intimidate? I don’t know, but it was certainly a lot.
The E-train started its Manhattan-bound run just one stop before 169th Street. Many riders took the E “backwards” to board the “empty” train in order to get a seat. My tactic was to position myself on the 169th street platform at the exact location that I knew the train door of the next-to-the-last-car would open and, hoping for a seat, I would charge the moment the door was sufficiently cracked. If none was available, it meant more practice at staying upright during the raucous thrashing of the E as it stopped, accelerated, lurched and rocked back and forth on its odyssey to Manhattan. Within two stops, the train was packed solid. Physical intimacy was forced on everyone, with most people maintaining psychic separation. On lucky occasions, I was beset by a young, hot female body squeezed against mine, gyrating into me by the train’s motions. Usually the body was that of a sweaty, tie and suited businessman.
The subway, especially at rush hour, was the great homogenizer. All varieties of humankind were stuffed together in one car and then mixed up and mashed into each other. If you despised or feared a specific ethnic group, you were more then likely to be obligated to share physical space with one of “them,” share the breathed air with one of “them,” share sweat with one of “them,” voluntarily give up your cherished hard won seat to a crippled one of “them,” and, if you were so inclined, be lucky enough to get personal with one of them, to feel their humanity. It was impossible for prejudices to exist after a time. “Here you go sir, you need this more than me,” I remember addressing a rickety senior, barely balancing himself upright. He nodded thanks as he crumpled into my seat with a sigh. “I am going to get to heaven before you son and I will save you a seat up there,” he replied.
I got so good at riding the rush hour sardine can upright that I could even do my math homework on other people’s backs, on a moving train!
Stuyvesant’s subway stop was 14th Street and 1st Avenue, on the 14th Street line. I could reach the 14th Street line by at least three different routes and I liked to mix it up to avoid boredom. I was fast and a great broken field runner. Many connections between train lines often meant two or three-block walks. My friends and I ran. The best though, was when I returned to the 169th Station on my way home. By determining which door on the first car of the E-train was closest to the staircase that provided a clear shot to the surface and the bus, I could charge up the three flights of stairs two at a time and, two days out of three, be the first one on the bus. This was no mean achievement, as at least fifty other determined souls were always on my heels. To this day, I still run up stairs, two at a time. One at a time seems unnatural and difficult.
Those long trips became easier with time. But my first few months at Stuyvesant High School were intimidating, due to a combination of shyness and a totally new student body. No old faces to cling to. Academically—and Stuyvesant was all about academics—I felt unsure of myself. I hesitated to answer questions, to raise my hand in class, to be seen.
Then, about two months into the school year, with my first grades sunk in the 70s, I felt bold enough to dare to raise my hand to answer a question in biology class. No one else seemed to know the answer, so I figured I’d try. And I got it right!
The very next day, in the biology lab, I discovered a pair of single-celled critters who resembled pink-tinged paramecium under my monocular microscope. They were mating by means of a cytoplasmic bridge between the two conjugants and streaming nuclear material. Going in both directions, this sexy bridge was a rare phenomenon. My discovery, once again, gave me star status and confidence. It also gave me a chance to reflect on the fact that while we all know single-celled beings like amoeba reproduce by dividing in half, they also, on occasion, indulged in sexual practices. There were sharing DNA, enhancing the species’ vitality, making love!
After my twin social successes, I flipped gears and became an extravert and biology student high achiever. My final grade that semester was a 95, up from its original 75! I also found my sense of humor and my delight in pranksterism.
Stuyvesant’s student body was characterized by overachievers, mostly the children of poor immigrants who came to the United States to give their children a chance to succeed through hard-work and academic achievement. I was sort of in this camp. My four grandparents were Jews transplanted from Polish Shtetls to New York City in the early 1900s. As a youth, my father aspired to be a pharmacist after occasionally filling in for a pharmacist who suffered severe depression. He had no pharmacy training. When confronted with a problem, he would refer the customer to his buddy, Doctor Kirschenbaum, who needed the business. My father’s occupational dream did not stand a chance. His father, a poor tailor, was forced out of the house by his wife, my grandmother. It left my father, the third eldest of five children, thrust into the role of the family’s main breadwinner at age 16. The Great Depression of the 1930s didn’t help matters much.
My mother dreamed of becoming a nurse, but a relative counseled my grandmother not to allow her daughter to enter into the lascivious, gentile world of nurse’s training. She remained a housewife, mother, neighborhood poker shark and part-time piano teacher the whole of her adult life. True to her father’s side of the family, she passed on to her children the joy of swimming as a prime recreational activity.
How poor Shtetl immigrants from Eastern Poland became voracious swimmers, I never figured out. I liked to claim that my maternal stock came from the Polish Riviera and that’s where they learned to swim. Of course, that was absurd. We all know there is no Polish Riviera.
My mother, on a daily basis, performed unrehearsed theatrical performances as part of her daily routine. The simplest conversations would be dramatized with flashes of anger, bursts of laughter, eyebrow-raising, head-knocking, vituperative innuendo, condescending insults, or spectacular self-pity. I suspect this is why, as a grown man, similar behavior in my friends and patients and wives is acceptable, normal—no, even desirable to me.
At Stuyvesant, I excelled, eventually ending up with a 91.66 average, which placed me in the top 15%, of my class—not bad, considering all my competitors were the “chosen.” I won a state scholarship and a merit scholarship honorable mention, as well as two letters in swimming, even though I hated working out to improve my pool times. Back and forth, back and forth, too boring. So I never swam more than the 50-yard sprints and in no record time.
Stuyvesant had no pool, so the team trained where one was available. For a while, we swam at the Salvation Army pool on 14th Street, two blocks from Stuyvesant. A thick cloud of chlorine gas hung over the saturated water. If you didn’t wear goggles, the chlorine gas rapidly turned your eyes bloodshot. It was a reminder of who the Salv’s usual clientele were in lower Manhattan. While the chlorine may have stung, it also comforted—not even the vilest of street vermin could survive it.
Another pool that we trained in was two subway stops north of Stuyvesant on the J line. Our subway passes didn’t allow us to ride the J line, so when we practiced there we walked the mile or so to the pool. One day, we decided to sneak onto the J train. Four of us hid behind the token booth until the uptown local pulled into the 14th Street station. Then we jumped the turnstiles and headed for the open train door. We never made it—a plain-clothes officer was also hiding in wait. He nabbed us all. I felt a rush of shame and helplessness. I had been caught committing a premeditated crime. Would I be put in jail? The officer had the right to punish us as he saw fit. I flashed back to when I had been nine or ten-years-old and went to the local supermarket with a neighborhood associate, a casual friend. Once in an aisle where we were alone, seemingly out of anyone’s view, he began grabbing candy bars and stuffing them in his shirt. Startled, my reflex was to protect him from detection by acting as a look out. It turned out that the aisle was in full view of the manager’s elevated office with its tinted, one-way windows. He caught us and threatened to tell our parents and so succeeded in scaring the wits out of me, at least. My career as a thief’s accomplice went down the tubes there and then.
For having jumped the turnstiles, the four of us received J.D. (Juvenile Delinquent) cards, copies of which were sent to Stuyvesant. I had to take mine home and have it signed by my parents and mailed back to the police. Ever since I was seven or so, I’d learned to duplicate my mother’s signature and had signed all sorts of school documents, most regarding absences, late slips, and misconduct reports. Her Z in Zuckerman was telling—it was a printed capital Z, not a cursive one. To this day, I use a variety of signatures, including my mother’s, when signing documents, checks, etc., depending on my mood. This time, I was afraid not to let my mother and father in on my problem. My mother listened to my story and shrugged it off. Stuyvesant did too. My record up to that time was pristine. The next day, I went around to my Stuyvesant buddies declaring, “I’m a J.D., I’m a J.D.!”
The Parable of Joseph M.
Stuyvesant was both an egalitarian and an elitist high school, filled with a wide range of characters. Brilliance was the constant amongst my class, but in my opinion, the class valedictorian wasn’t actually the most brilliant. Peter Biskind was a respected, reserved, pleasant, thoughtful, steady-as-you-go, bright fellow. He ended up writing books about the movie industry. The kid who was actually the most brilliant student in my class ended up having the most tragic of lives. At least, for me, it was a tragic life, genius wasted.
Joseph M entered Stuyvesant in the 10th grade rather than the 9th. He had attended a private junior high school, which, in those days, ran from 7th to 9th. Public schools usually ran first through eighth grade. In junior high, he was apparently considered a poor student, though he must have done well enough on the Stuyvesant entrance exams to get in. Once in Stuyvesant, he excelled. He was not only brilliant, he was a rare creative genius. In the super math class, where only the elite of Stuyvesant were allowed and where the lowest grade you could achieve was a 95%, Joseph M made the rest of us look like cardboard. I remember he presented a solution to what I believed was an advanced geometry problem that the teacher had never seen before and could not find a single fault with.
Joseph M went to Harvard, as a genius should. I heard he didn’t last six months there. Years later, at my 40th high school reunion, Joseph M, to my delight, showed up. Between Joseph and I there had always been an openness, a warm intimacy that overcame my sense of being in the presence of a superior intellect. I prided myself that I could keep up with his rapid-fire, stuttering conversation. We spent about a half hour that evening talking about his life and he filled me in on the gritty details.
After Harvard, Joseph M never went back to school, never worked. He revealed that he had lived almost all of the past 40 years with his mother until she died. He still lived in her apartment in Manhattan. He had been on disability all this time and had been under psychiatric treatment almost constantly. I gathered that his diagnosis was obsessive-compulsive disorder. He told me that he had improved recently and I guess his ability to bring himself to attend our high school reunion was, to him, a major achievement. He seemed totally absorbed in his day-to-day efforts to deal with his illness and, at least in my presence, was not depressed by his life or his circumstances. I wasn’t depressed by him either, but I felt a deep sadness for Joseph M—a sense of loss – loss of what could have been if Joseph M had been able to use his genius and not been crippled by mental illness. I took Joseph M into my heart. But as my college psychology professor used to say, quoting Popeye, “I yam what I yam and dats what I yam. I’m Popeye the Sailor Man.” The sum of Joseph M’s parts had added up to an emotionally crippled genius, a big time loss for him personally and for humankind.
A number of years ago I had a premonition that I would live a good life until age 82 and then die suddenly. If this was to be the case then I would be alive and able to attend my 60th Stuyvesant class reunion, hoping Joseph M would also be there. Thankfully, I was at that meet-up, along with 150 or so others from different classes, celebrating our reunion. I searched amongst the crowd for Joseph M, but with no success. Fortuitously, I ran into another classmate from my year, the class of ’58. The man had spied Joseph and pointed him out to me. “There he is, I’m so glad he made it,” the former classmate said. “Too bad about his emotional problems. He never got to it.”
Joseph had turned all gray with head and shoulders tipped forward. He appeared animated, agile, and trim. “Hey, Joe,” I said when I came up to him. He looked at me, a bit bewildered. I pointed at myself. “Steve Zuckerman.”
“Oh yeah, Zuckerman, how are you?” Joseph coolly enquired.
“It’s been 20 years,” I said. “Are you still living in your mother’s apartment in Manhattan?”
To which he answered in his usual rapid, stuttering speech: “Blah blah blah, rent controlled, trying to buy me out, blah, blah, blah, I have to get that SOB of a neighbor, blah, blah.”
The combination of an increase in the velocity of Joseph’s stuttering speech and my failing hearing made our conversation mostly a failure. Except it was obvious that Joseph remained emotionally involved in his day-to-day life, living in the moment. I went to touch him on his shoulder while “signing off.” He withdrew.
Following my encounter with Joseph, there was a talk by the president of the Stuyvesant Alumni Association for those attending the reunion. The theme was the duplicitous behavior of The New York Times for writing a derogatory article about Stuyvesant, labeling the school elitist, its student body pampered and wealthy. “Yes, we are elitist—academically,” the president went on to say. “It requires being the best on a blinded test to get in to Stuyvesant. Twenty-five percent of our students come from families below the poverty line. There is no favoritism in admission. It’s the glamorous Stuyvesant building, now some thirty-years-old, built in Battery Park City, facing the Hudson, that sparked a lot of the criticism. Stuyvesant doesn’t receive any more money per student than any other New York City high school.”
During the entire speech, Joseph guffawed, mumbled seemingly cynically, just loud enough to be heard but not to be ejected. I was embarrassed for him, though glad it didn’t come down to a confrontation with Joseph being escorted away.
Following the alumni president’s talk there was a cocktail hour of sorts with the reunion celebrants standing about conversing. Amongst the crowd was a knotted band of women, four or five or so, who crowded around Joseph and engaged in delightfully charged conversation. The ever-stuttering, charming Joseph M was the center of attention.
Do you dear readers ever sum up your life’s achievements on earth to bolster your belief that you wrung from your physical and intellectual endowments all, or nearly all, or enough, so that you can convince yourself that you lived a full life? I do, and most often, but not always, I feel consoled. I am now retired from the practice of medicine but not able to justify not “doing” something on the basis of physical or mental incapacity. Be it shame and or guilt, I still need to continue to grow the CV in my mind and to write, to sense the joy of plumbing my mind if for no other purpose than just that. It was time in Stuyvesant that helped spark this in me, and those school days are forever burned in my mind.
Public schools in New York City ran nine months a year. June through the end of August was vacation time. Thanks to connections my father had made through his dress business, starting at age 15½, I got to work at resort hotels and summer overnight camps where there were also teenage “women” workers. Sexuality was in bloom and parental or other forms of oversight were negligently absent. Hurray!
This is chapter four of my ongoing autobiography project, all about my early school years. Check back in each Friday for more installments from my life’s work!
When you are 5½-years-old, how do you know what suffering is? Looking back, if not actual suffering, my days in Williamsburg were at least lacking in joy. As such, I had few memories of those early years when school became the centerpiece of my outer world and, for the most part, the memories I do have are shaded grey, if not darker.
My first school experience, P.S. 16, was a four-block walk from my family’s third floor walk-up apartment in an aged brick building situated on the busily traveled Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn. My sister, Bernice, four years my elder, also attended P.S. 16. Every morning, hand in hand, she would mother me safely to school. Before entering the building, students lined up according to their class in the paved-over grim schoolyard. I don’t have many memories from that time, but somehow the memory of that schoolyard stuck. I suspect it was because the physical and emotional boundary of family ended (with my sister letting go of my hand) and the alien outer-world began.
A surprisingly similar dislocation occurred when I was 25. My wife of three years and I left New York City headed for Chicago, where I was to begin my internal medicine internship at Michael Reiss Hospital. As the bus left the Port Authority terminal on 8th Avenue in Manhattan, it faced west into a deepening reddish sunset before descending into the Lincoln Tunnel on its way to New Jersey. I was suddenly beset with melancholia in that moment, a great sense of loneliness. I am leaving my mother, I couldn’t stop thinking. I sobbed profusely, uncontrollably. Perplexed, as well she should have been, my wife requested a reason. “Why are you crying, what’s wrong?!” I was too ashamed to answer her. I said nothing.
The schoolyard was like that for me. Burned into my psyche, a great emotional brand that I’ve never been able to forget. But try as I might I am unable to conjure up any further images from the two years I attended P S. 16, for 1st and 2nd grade. Was it simply that nothing of note was happening? I don’t feel that I am repressing traumatic events, but rather that there just were no events worth remembering!
At the same time, my summer sojourns at Lake Hopatcong left multitudes of joyous impressions in my memory bank. I am beginning to realize that I only hold onto memories if they are truly happy or truly traumatic.
I do remember that my school day did not end after being discharged from P.S. 16. Following my public school classes, I attended Hebrew school, or Heder, five days a week. The Heder was also within walking distance from my home. In fact, the area of Williamsburg I lived in was a hotbed of Jewish ghetto activity. All forms of institutions of Jewish learning and prayer were within walking distance. It remains mostly the same today along Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn.
I distinctly remember the Heder’s classroom. It was located in one of those half-sunken basements. Windows lined what was designated the rear of the room. Through them could be seen the lower half of the torsos of passersby as they meandered up and down the street outside the Heder. Creatures such as dogs, cats and even rats were at eye level, in full view.
The Heder, which consisted of just the one room, was filled with three rows of ten wooden chairs, each with attached arms that served as desks. Purposefully, the chairs faced away from the windowed “rear” wall to avoid distractions and towards the room’s front wall, which was covered with a blackboard almost in its entirety. I remember the Heder’s youngish male teacher pacing back and forth in front of that giant blackboard. His duty was to teach us to speak Hebrew, the language of the newly-to-be-established State of Israel. A few words stuck but, once again, my school experience was a dud.
Yeshiva Torah Vodaath
It was one dreary afternoon when my parents dragged me, without warning, kicking and screaming, to enroll in Yeshiva Torah Vodaath. That was when, as a third grader, I finally started to have vivid school memories. Bad ones. Who convinced my loving parents to enroll me in the devil’s pit? I would sincerely like to know. No doubt it would be too late to rebuke them for the calamity they caused me, however limited in duration the experience was, because the guilty parties are dead after all these years. Neither my mother nor father earned a high school diploma. Neither were they self-taught scholars. They were ignorant as to the ways of education and how to assess schooling. A strict Jewish education, mated with public school curriculum, the Yeshiva Model played well to my parents’ guilt, and their need to provide their male child with a better Jewish-oriented education than they’d had. It is somewhat of a paradox that non-practicing Jews would seek out for their son a parochial Jewish education. Well, there’s one correction that needs to be made. My mother did practice a modified form of Kosher. We used two sets of dishes, pots, pans, and silverware in the home: one set for meat (fleishik) and one for milk (milkhik), so that never the twain shall meet. However, Kosher law was suspended when we went out to eat at a local Chinese restaurant. In order not to “offend” our hosts, we ate, with gusto, fried pork ribs.
I was lost at sea in the Yeshiva and felt helpless to express this feeling to anyone at the school or to my parents. My math class was tackling long division and having come into class in the middle of the school year, from a hapless public school, I had no idea what long division was about. Day after day, I sat in class bewildered, uncomprehending and silent, feeling oh so lost.
Worse yet was Hebrew class. How vivid was my memory of the teacher, a man in his fifties or sixties with puffy, reddish cheeks and bulging, incriminating eyes that were magnified by Coke bottle-thick eyeglass lenses. His thickly accented, barely understandable voice was laced with anger. Miss a translation of a Hebrew word and he would shout, “Dumm kopf!” Miss two words and he would command, “Put out your hand,” in order for him to deliver a ruler whack across the knuckles. I had learned little Hebrew at the Heder and was incapable of keeping up with my Yeshiva Hebrew class. Day after day I lived in terror of my teacher, my tormentor, suffering frequent painful knuckle blows and feeling hopeless. My parents remained distant, unable to comprehend what was happening to me. They didn’t ask and I didn’t know how to tell.
What I did learn at Yeshiva Torah Vodaath was to gamble and steal. On our lunch break, the students organized a marble game that included betting. One student positioned himself in the gutter, his back against the curb (traffic was blocked off on our street during school hours), legs spread, facing the other side of the street. He would place a marble between his legs. From across the street, a second student would launch marbles aimed at his. All misses were kept by the gutter student, but a hit would pay off in either marbles or money. The local candy store sold marbles for ten cents a dozen. A hit usually paid ten cents, so one hit in twelve shots and the shooter broke even. Some shooters got either very good or very lucky, and some students ended up paying off large sums of money, enough to wipe out their lunch change. In time, this led to a crack down on Yeshiva gambling, which included dire threats or expulsion, mothers being called and, worst of all, a total lockdown of Yeshiva gambling—the highlight of most students’ days.
As for theft, the plot went like this: the local vendor of potato knishes would roll his wagon—a two-wheeled push-cart with a heated container mounted on it—onto the Yeshiva block at lunch time. Knishes were a fried dough skin loaded with spicy baked potato and salted on the outside. Delicious. The fastest student would pretend to buy a knish, but once he had it in hand, he would run off without paying. The over-challenged, heavy-set vendor would then give chase, huffing and puffing, between shouts of “thief, thief!” Like vultures, the rest of us descended upon the unguarded knish wagon. I think I stole a knish once, but mostly I remember feeling sorry for the knish seller. Somehow none of us got in trouble for our prank. We should have.
On my way home from Yeshiva I would make sure to take a route that went past my maternal grandparents’ candy store on the corner of Division avenue and Roebling. “Come, sit down, Schmul,” Grandma Rose would say, hugging me gently and pointing to the high top chairs that adorned the store’s soda fountain. Schmul was my Hebrew name. Grandpa Joe (or J.B.), with his Bhudda-like belly and silent mannerisms, would load up my chocolate éclair. They had a large, slow-moving orange feline named Rusty who guarded the store. When the mood struck him, he’d jump on my lap and purr for caresses. “What did you learn today?” J.B. would inquire daily, not expecting any particular answer. Since I hadn’t learned much and he expected little in the way of an answer, I didn’t need to suffer a lie. “Oh, we played punch ball at lunch break and I got a single,” I’d say. Or, “The Rabbi said we should take a Pushkah home [a Jewish charity box with a slot to deposit coins] and go about our block asking for donations to help the Yeshiva.” Grandma Rose, slender, with sharp attractive features, was the straight woman, strong and contained. J.B. was the whimsical one, uncritical and divine—like the Buddha he so physically resembled. Their candy store was heaven on earth for me, a love sanctuary with eclairs.
Somewhere in my reflective years, around age 60, I finally got around to reading the text included in my Great Uncle Lionel Reiss’ book, A World at Twilight. The book was Lionel’s vehicle to present his paintings and sketches of Eastern European Jewry before the Holocaust. The text was written by Milton Hindus and contained a chapter entitled, “The Heder,” from which I quote, “At the Heder, the elementary Hebrew school of the Eastern European Jews before the Holocaust, studies began very early (age 3 or 4). The discipline was rigorous and punitive, and the hours spent were inordinately long (nine, ten, or more). The poverty of the Melamedim (elementary teachers), the condition of their homes, in which they had to carry out their instructions under the scrutiny of their wives, and the lack of esteem in which they were held— all contributed to the development of the worst sides of their character.”
It was then I understood the roots of the misery I endured at my Heder and later at the Yeshiva. It is incongruous to me that the “people of the book,” a religion steeped in knowledge and wisdom, could be so poorly treated by their own elementary educational institutions.
I was saved from the Yeshiva by my father’s success in business. We moved to Flushing, Queens, into an attached house—now called a townhouse—with a postage stamp-sized backyard. The street in front of our house, 175th Street, saw only local traffic. A stickball game could be played safely on 175th Street—except for the loss of pink, high-bouncing Spaulding balls hit onto rooftops.
The local public school was two blocks from our house. It was fourth grade time for me. I went from being the loser of the Yeshiva bunch to a minor star. My new public school was my speed and there were girls—which the Yeshiva did not have—and no Gestapo teachers.
I attended Hebrew lessons on a one-on-one basis, three times a week, with a gentle, somewhat dried up, lean old man. He taught me how to translate English words into Hebrew, read portions from the original testament (old to me is derogatory) and tried to explain their meaning. Later, as I approached thirteen, or manhood in Judaism, he instructed me in my HAF Torah, the part of the Torah that I was to read at my Bar Mitzvah. The day of my Bar Mitzvah was the day my formal Hebrew training ended.
By the eighth grade, I had “dated” a few neighborhood girls but was decidedly shy and, at the same time, desirous. At most, I managed a few sterile kisses. Like the rest of the boys, I appreciated viewing Debra Waxman’s bigger-than-believable breasts outlined by the tight sweaters she wore. I also was popular enough to be elected to the ceremonial office of school treasurer. My father helped my campaign for office by having a faked front page of a newspaper printed with a headline that read, “Zuckerman Wins Election” in 3½ inch high bold lettering.
Did I have friends in public school? Yes and no. I didn’t seem attached to anyone, to any group, or to any socializing activity like The Boy Scouts or a school team. Was I a loner then? Well, not exactly. I had associates I hung with who lived on my block: Larry Gotkin and Norman Learner. Both ended up becoming doctors, like me. Norman eventually went to an accelerated class where he was able to do high school in three years. I’ll never understand how he did that. I used to study geometry with him and was endlessly impressed with his lack of insight into what to me was obvious. But Norman was a grind, doggedly working to understand what was in front of him. He saw a challenge and applied himself to it, regardless of talent or competence.
My real best friend, Jeffrey Mackler, was my opposite. Self-confident with the girls and socially extroverted, he plucked at the guitar, played tennis, and beat me regularly at chess, a game he learned from his outgoing Jewish communist “intellectual” furrier father (my father was a dressmaker, was little read, didn’t play chess or any sports, and didn’t like Communists like his brother-in-law, my mother’s sister’s husband, Morris, the sweater manufacturer). I followed, Jeffrey led. We split when we went to different high schools. He went to Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, became a teacher and a social leader in the San Francisco Bay area, a leader in an organization described as Trotskyite in leaning, and an environmentalist. We met once at Antioch and never since have been in contact. For many years, I adored both Jeffrey’s father and Morris, while wishing my father had been like them. That ain’t the way it ended up. My father, Max, was honorable, silent, strong, and 100% loyal to family. Bedrock, but you would never hear it from him. He loved, he cried. He was, up to his eyeballs, a human being to all and a joker up to his dying words.
Throughout my public school years, I clung to my ambition to become a doctor. At some point during my eighth grade in public school, I discovered Stuyvesant High School and its reputation for excellence in science and math, the two prerequisite courses for admission to premed college programs. Stuyvesant was a public school, one of a few New York City Schools designated as a Specialty High School. Others included Bronx High School of Science, Brooklyn Tech and Music and Art. Stuyvesant was unfortunately, at the time, an all-boys school.
All New York City’s specialty schools were meant for the academic crème de la crème. Entry to Stuyvesant was by far the most egalitarian of qualifications. You needed to be human, male, have completed the eighth grade, be an official resident of New York City, and to have scored high enough on the three-hour entrance exam. I remember taking the exam in a room that was hot and stifling, unsure of my future. But then I got my letter. And I was jubilant to have received my acceptance.
Here’s the third installment of my ongoing autobiography project, where I post chapters from my life’s story every Friday.
Fishing and swimming—those were my summer joys at Lake Hopatcong. Swimming required only a bathing suit. Fishing, some basic gear. A line, bobber, hook and, of course, the bait.
On those long-ago summer days when I was four or five, sunfish were my specialty game. The flat, bony swimmers are carnivores. They require live animal bait that, after being pierced by the hook in a non-fatal way, twist and turn in their agony to escape, providing irresistible allure.
For me, young and eager to catch any fish I could, bait animals came down to two species: grasshoppers and worms. There were two types of grasshoppers that were local, plentiful, and catchable by a hunter killer such as me. Camouflaged green ones that hopped from one blade of greenery to another, and those that were dull brownish in color and had adapted the means to fly. The brownish ones hung out on brownish dirt patches where their excellent camouflage thwarted detection. When fearing their camouflage had failed, those brown hoppers propelled themselves into the air with a snapping sound. Then they spread their wings—that for no seemingly good reason were colored black and yellow. Off they flew, erratically darting this way and that. Chasing them down was dizzying. Those fliers were the hardest to catch, as there was hardly any way to sneak up on them. With sharp eyes, quick hands, and a cat’s hunting fervor, I learned to track down the flying grasshoppers where they landed and pounce without squashing them, thus rendering them useful as bait. Struggle as they might, I would single-handedly pierce the insect’s exoskeleton with the sharp hook—just past their head in the thorax area—and soon I was ready to fish with a wiggling bait.
Hunting worms was a much greater challenge than hunting grasshoppers, especially the brand of worms that I targeted, the mighty nightcrawler (lumbricus terrestris). Nightcrawlers only rise to the surface of the earth after the noxious sun has set. Their purpose in doing so? Sex! The worms are hermaphrodites and so, to them, sex is a double-edged pleasure. Once out of their holes and slithering about in the evening grass, they seek out one another and, when successful, they match their male to female and female to male sex organs head to tail, tail to head, and proceed to copulate. Double the pleasure. I wasn’t allowed out late at night and so was never able to take advantage of nature’s zest for procreation in order to capture nightcrawlers during their nocturnal debaucheries.
Instead, a fellow Briefite, two years my elder, unveiled to me the secret method used to coax nightcrawlers to come to the surface during the rule of the sun.
Step 1: concoct a caustic brew to be poured down the nightcrawler’s hole. This brew would make the worm seek relief by rapidly coming to the surface, whether it was day or night. To make the offensive liquid, I would covertly borrow the tin of Coleman’s Dry English Mustard from my mother’s pantry. I then mixed the powder with water in an empty quart milk container with its most utilitarian spout. The brew was ready when it took on a bright yellow color and tangy smell.
Step 2: the art of locating the nightcrawlers’ home and preparing it for the delivery of the liquid mustard preparation. To find the holes, we crawled on all fours in the thick grass, searching with our hands for the mounds of worm poop that covered the creature’s hole. The trick was to uncover the hole without letting any poop fall in it, clogging it up. The worm poop was then used to carefully build a funnel around the hole, making sure none of the poop clogged it, to direct the liquid. Down the yellow liquid heat would rush, and in twenty anticipatory seconds, the stillness would explode. Out of the mouth of the hole came this large, pinkish-brown, fleshy, pointed, herded, faceless thing, writhing with mustard burn. When the inflamed beast was halfway out of his tunnel, he would hesitate, offended by the sunlight.
This was the most crucial moment of the hunt, for it required all the discipline a four-year-old could muster. When to strike! Too early and the nightcrawler would seize up so that half his body would be stuck in the tunnel—a hard pull would tear him apart. So my friend taught me to have patience, to wait. Patience paid off, because inevitably the nightcrawler’s pain overcame his distaste for sunlight and he’d slither out of his hole and become easy pickings. Sometimes, the nightcrawler would get stuck, half in and half out, so it took a keen eye to judge when he relaxed his powerful muscles. Then with a quick grasp at his protruding half, before he could tense up again, he could be plucked whole and put into the can of water used to wash off the offending mustard, and then into the dirt holding pen, ready to be sold for bait.
My sister, Bernice, four years older than me, handled the bookkeeping. We sold a dozen nightcrawlers for $.10 and by summer’s end, our tin can bank was full of dimes to the tune of $9.00.
Every now and then, I think back to my nightcrawler hunting days and how exciting it was. Do I have nightmares where giant nightcrawlers are threatening to avenge the mayhem and murder my sister and I perpetrated against their brethren? No! But, as of recently, I began to think of nightcrawlers, those faceless creatures, as having feelings, a soul, especially now that I have come to contemplate my own demise. Even without Darwin, it is now intuitively obvious that all living creatures are my brethren.
Please enjoy the second installment of my ongoing autobiography project, where I post chapters from my life’s story every Friday.
From ages 4½ to 11½, summers were heaven. For two delicious months, my family and I escaped our tenement confinement in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, by heading to Brief’s Bungalow Colony on the western shore of Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey’s largest lake. Uncle Philly, who was married to Aunt Lena, my father’s younger sister, was a fish monger. He sold to rural New York and New Jersey hotels, which were kept hopping with Jewish vacationers escaping the summer swelter of the city. Philly had discovered Lake Hopatcong on one of his Pisces peddling sojourns and couldn’t wait to tell my father about it.
“Max, you won’t believe it!” he told my father. “I found Gan Eden [Garden of Eden in Hebrew], minus that grumpy, self-righteous landlord, just a couple of hours from here. What are you going to do this summer to get Helen and the kids out of Brooklyn’s schvitz bath and bad tempers? I’ll tell you what! You send them up to Brief’s Bungalow Colony on Lake Hopatcong for two months! Cheap, $400 for the summer. And you? You can visit them on the weekends!”
Philly’s enthusiasm successfully persuaded my father, although I will never be sure if it was because Dad thought it was truly a great deal or because he couldn’t wait to get rid of Philly. Philly traveled with a miasma about him from the fish he sold—mostly of the northern Atlantic variety—that he purchased wholesale at the Fulton Fish Market in lower Manhattan at three o’clock in the morning. Lake Hopatcong’s fish did not smell like that, nor did they reek of alcohol like Philly did. How memorably embarrassing was his commandeering the emcee’s microphone to blurt out his own version of Bay Mir Bistu Sheyn, or To Me You’re Beautiful, at one relative or another’s Bar Mitzvah or wedding. Like most Jewish families, ours were righteous teetotalers. Only ceremonial Manischewitz and Schnapps were sanctified. Whiskey, Philly’s favorite, was not. It was not unusual to hear one relative or another say, “Who invited that Shmegegee [buffoon]?” or “Why doesn’t Lena divorce that Shikker [drunkard]?” or “Look, nobody has the Chutzpah to take the microphone away from that pisher.” But that was just Uncle Philly.
My mother’s family were all experienced swimmers. Her father, Grandpa Joe, a candy store owner, loved the ocean, and as soon as his children could walk, he taught the three of them to swim in the waves at Rockaway’s public beaches.
When my mother’s brother, my Uncle Myer, heard of Lake Hopatcong, he joined the summer exodus with his wife, Ester, and his three children. This was great for us, because Uncle Myer owned a hand-me-down woody station wagon. It was a gift from his Uncle Lionel, the artist, who, amongst other things, created the MGM Lion! Into the woody would go our suitcases, fishing lines, towels and bedding, and then we would set off for summer heaven. Even the trip to the lake was itself an adventure, because the woody was old and cranky and would overheat at the hint of any grade over five degrees. Lake Hopatcong was 60 miles away on winding, hilly roads from Brooklyn. We would all be on alert for steam rushing out from under woody’s hood, the signal for the caravan to circle. Myer stocked woody’s running-boards with five gallon water tanks, strapped down securely and ready for action. After guzzling a couple of gallons of water, the old timer settled down and the caravan would round us kids up and move on. We’d replicate this ritual four or five times on the way to Lake Hopatcong.
Brief’s Bungalow Colony sat on the western shore of the lake. The area had a foreboding name—the River Styx—and it included a two lane, narrow bridge. Our bungalow had three bedrooms and an all-purpose kitchen, living room, and dining area. The bungalow’s screen doors and windows invited summer breezes to pass unhindered through the bungalow, blurring the lines between outdoors and in.
There, at Brief’s, we escaped the squalor of Brooklyn with its locked doors and windows used to keep out winter and thieves, and the relentless noise and traffic pollution of Bedford Avenue, a major thoroughfare that was right outside our door.
Brief’s Bungalow Colony owned 50 feet of lakeshore. Its dock extended far into the lake before making a sharp turn to the left. Doing so, it created a rectangular “pool,” or safe area. It was here that my mother taught me, an already accomplished swimmer at age 4½, how to float. I remember floating effortlessly on top of Lake Hopatcong’s gentle waters, arms and legs outstretched, relaxed, completely enchanted by the billowing clouds that moved lazily across the blue sky above.
I never did, as a youth, fathom the length and depth of Lake Hopatcong. From Brief’s dock, I could see the white plumes of speed-boats in the distance as they crisscrossed the main body of the lake. It was probably smaller than I imagined then, but in my mind it stretched on forever, blue waves and endless water.
It wasn’t just the water. My whole Hopatcong world seemed vast, though it mostly consisted of our bungalow, the grassy commons of the larger colony where I hunted night crawlers, and the long dock where I caught upwards of 400 sunfish every summer. I spent a good deal of time diving under the water, trying to become like those very fish I spent so much time catching, beheading, gutting, scaling, frying (though my mother did that part), and eating.
I remember lying on my belly, fishing on the dock with a drop line, hook and worm dangling in the clear lake water, watching the brightly speckled orange-bellied sunfish dart about my hook, just two feet from my nose. Those sunfish never failed me.
When I was fifty, I revisited Lake Hopatcong and tried to locate Brief’s Bungalow Colony. I drove back and forth about four or five times, unable to figure out where Brief’s was. It finally dawned on me that I was looking for Brief’s with my child’s eye. The actual area, sans bungalows, was so small compared to my memory of it that I had passed by it time and time again without recognizing what it was.
Beginnings: First Memories
This is the first real installment of my ongoing autobiography project, where I post chapters from my life’s story every Friday. Enjoy!
On a bright day, when sunrays danced on water so pure that every grain of sand glimmered on the sea bottom, I was launched into conscious life. I was two and a half at the time. My mother held my hand as she led me gently up to my waist in the briny water. She cuddled me under my belly and laid me facedown in the warm sea. I instantly panicked, arching my back to get my face out of the water. Then she did it again, speaking to me calmly. I couldn’t breathe, the water rushing into my nose and mouth. She urged me to kick, to splash with my arms and, assuming that there was purpose to her dunking me, I frantically obeyed. Two, three, four times she patiently lowered my face into the water. Each time I came up sputtering and coughing from the salt that stung my eyes and lodged in the back of my throat. Finally, my tears, my protest, convinced her that I’d had enough that day.
“Take my hand little one,” she said and led me up onto the warm, sandy beach. We were at Long Beach in New York, the summer of 1943. It was the only time we ever vacationed there, but I remember my swimming lesson vividly. Everything was new, and my senses were glutted with that newness. The feel of sand under my feet, the taste and smell of the salt water. I can still feel those waves on my body. Eventually, I got the hang of having my face in the water and, from that point on, the umbilical cord was severed. I was my own boy!
After swimming, I remember lying on the beach with my mom. A large propeller-driven airplane zoomed overhead, menacingly low, flying over the water. I jumped at the time, startled by the noise and how close it seemed to crashing into the waves. Now, I assume it was a military plane taking off for war from nearby Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn. WWII had been declared two years before I was born.
It was a time of chaos, when my country was fighting to save itself and the rest of the world from the evils of despotism, fascism, communism and anti-Semitism. A great struggle for good-over-evil was taking place, one that would dramatically impact my life.
My parents were both first generation Americans, the children of Polish Jews who had emigrated to New York City in 1913—just before immigration from Eastern Europe was shut down. Both had grown up in the stifling, overcrowded tenements of the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
My mother’s family, while as poor as many of the immigrants who passed through Ellis Island—those who inspired Emma Lazarus to write the sonnet, “The New Colossus”—were of artistic and intellectually rich stock. My father’s family, in contrast, were street-smart, working class shtetl Jews. Their grit and humor transformed Manhattan’s garment district from predominantly uniform manufacturing to women’s wear and eventually to Haute Couture.
Not long after the summer of 1943, I first encountered the man who would be one of the great influences in my life. Dr. Gabriel Kirschenbaum practiced general medicine out of a three-story brownstone across the street from us on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. That day, he had crossed the avenue and climbed the stairs up to our third story walk-up apartment to extract the whole pistachio nut that I had, personally and intentionally, lodged up one of my nostrils. Even though he was a bear of a man with a gruff roar, Dr. Kirschenbaum was surprisingly un-scary. I stood in my crib, unrepentant as he approached, arm-in-arm with my short, round, loquacious mother. She beamed up at him, and he affectionately scowled at her and then nudged me under my chin. My mother then began her trademark barrage aimed at educating Dr. Kirschenbaum on the finer nuances of nostril nut removal. He finally turned to her with glaring eyes and declared, “Shut up, Helen,” and by G-d, she did. She closed her mouth, still looking way up at Kirschenbaum with those adoring eyes. I don’t remember the extraction, but I do remember the power he had in that moment—to help me, and to make my mother stop her verbal stream.
Seven decades later, with all the retrospect wisdom that comes along with stiff muscles, aching joints, and decreased libido, I offered up a heartfelt thank to you Kirschenbaum. He impregnated this infant’s mind with the goal of a tireless and selfless effort to be of help to others, and therefore to be loved. Kirschenbaum: the father of my dreams.
My Life’s Work: An Introduction
For years now, I’ve been writing stories about my life. These have focused on events which were highlights, such as the near-choking death of my two-year-old son, the erroneous prediction of my death from cancer at age 40, my practice of medicine amongst the primal tribal peoples on the remote Pacific island of Truk, my three month encounter with a magical voice that talked to me in my left ear, etc.
The three books I have written are the result of harvesting the nectar of my life’s experiences, each infused with my “off” brand of wisdom (called Zuckerisms) and humor, humor, humor. Lately though I’ve been thinking about my life not as separate parts, but as a whole encompassing journey. In fact, my life has always seemed to follow destiny’s compass, starting when I was 2.5-years-old and an encounter with my neighborhood physician magically convinced me that I was fated to become a doctor. So now I have decided to sit down and write that journey, sharing with you the entire story of my life to date. It won’t be a day-to-day journal—too tedious for me. Rather, it will take the shape of a collection of seminal events throughout my life. I’ve already begun writing these tales, and I’m eager to share them with all of you.
My story starts in Jewish Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and winds its way from childhood summers at Lake Hopatcong in New Jersey to the halls of Stuyvesant High School in lower Manhattan. It takes me to the subways of New York, to medical school while living in Greenwich village, to becoming a wanderer with a wife and two children, to the summer of love in Haight Ashbury, to imparted cultural insight that came to this ultra-urbanite with my naïve effort to organize health co-ops in rural Minnesota. I’ll share with you the women who taught me about women, others who taught me about life, and the prophetically outrageous metamorphic changes that almost did me in at ages 40 and 50. I’ll eventually be collecting these anecdotes and memories into a book, one that’s enticing to read, never ponderous, always seasoned with humor and wisdom: my official autobiography. But for now, I’ll be rolling them out on my blog, with new installments going up on Fridays. I’ll be posting as they come to me, starting at the very beginning. Subscribe to the blog to follow along, or check back in periodically to learn more and more about this life lived and the intuitive inner voice that led me to experience, to achieve, to suffer and to rejoice.
The Oath (To)
I spent my last year of internal medicine residency at the University of Minnesota Hospital in Minneapolis. The first two years, from 1967 to 1969, I was in training at the tumultuous medical acme of the radical ’60’s hippie rebellion, Mt. Zion Hospital, in the Fillmore district of San Francisco. During that time, I lived with my first wife, Kathleen, and newborn daughter, Gabrielle, on Waller Street—two blocks from the infamous intersection of Haight and Ashbury. I grew a beard. I visited Mexico. I smoked a few marijuana cigarettes, did some hash, neither of which improved me. I avoided LSD, too afraid of a bad trip. I visited the Fillmore West, occasionally. I imbibed the atmosphere epitomized by the sexual freedom league. Mostly I was a straight-laced, responsible medical resident sopping up the exuberance of the times, though careful not to be swallowed up by it. What I knew was that my medical training at Mt. Zion was inadequate, made me feel inadequate. I had spent most of my two years in San Francisco on my own personal emotional and social coming out.
It had been cool, my west coast sojourn. It had freed me, allowed me to break “all the rules.” Where else in the free world could you find patients and Doctors communally, openly, smoking marijuana on the medical wards of a reputable American hospital? To get high all you needed to do was inhale secondary weed smoke as you floated through the hospital,s wards for the uninsured.
I concluded I had to hurt, I had to work harder at my medical education, put in more hours, preferably at a more substantial medical training site, a university setting. The University of Minnesota Hospital in Minneapolis, 1969, was spot on for what I craved. I wanted structure and clarity after having indulged myself in the Lotus-eaters intoxication in psychedelic San Francisco. Comparatively speaking, Minneapolis was like going from Technicolor to black and white. From Athens to Sparta. Sexuality was once again infused with guilt. Conversation was restrained, subdued. I was almost immediately told to shave my beard off by an older professor. I had wanted more of a serious minded education, but a part of me worried that this was might be too much of the extreme.
Dr. Ebert, the Chairman of the Medicine Department, was in part my salvation. Eccentric, non-judgmental, frenetic and brilliant, he took a liking to me. Under his guidance, I could be myself, rewarded for doing so, and protected from intrusion by the rest of the establishment.
The university medicine department ran its counterpart at the Minneapolis V.A. Hospital. As such, university residents could take three-month rotations at the V.A. I chose to take the highly-touted infectious disease rotation. To do so, I needed to go on the V.A. payroll, which meant applying for a post and filling out a questionnaire. Two questions on the questionnaire were regarding loyalty to the USA. “Have you ever tried to overthrow the Government of the USA?” And, “Have you ever been, or are you now, a member of the Communist Party, the Nazi Party or any other subversive groups?”
When in San Francisco, I had become a charter member of the Peace And Freedom Party. Founded in California in 1967, the party’s candidate for president in 1998 was Leroy Eldridge Cleaver, a prominent early leader of the Black Panthers. Was the Peace and Freedom party considered subversive? Was voting for Cleaver an act meant to overthrown the incumbent president— Dwight Eisenhower? I chose not to answer the questions and was hired anyway. But a month later the VA bureaucracy contacted me, asking if I would please answer the two questions, as well a third one I truly had forgotten to check off: “Are any of your relatives employees of the V.A. system?” Since the three didn’t connect, the V.A. presumably assumed that all of my omissions were oversights. I answered question three and told the V.A. that I would be glad to answer the first two questions if supplied with a list of subversive organizations so I wouldn’t answer the questions wrongly. I was told that no list was available, and that unless I answered the questions I would be dismissed from my post at the V.A.
At about this time I discovered that civil servants working in the VA system, who had previously been required to answer these very same two questions, had challenged the constitutionality of the questions and had won the right not to answer them. I appealed to the V.A. headquarters in Washington, DC. Why did I, as a doctor, not have the same rights of refusal as civil servants working at the V.A.? The unsigned response was that the “tense” of the civil servant questionnaire was different than the one I had to answer. I was irked; the constitution shouldn’t have “tenses.” I refused to answer the questions and sought out the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union to defend my constitutional right not to answer the questions—a right that was recently granted to civil servants. They bit at the opportunity like a hungry bass at an over confident frog.
Behind the scenes at the V.A. I was getting pressure not to cause a ruckus. Dr. Ebert’s V.A. henchman, Dr. Maynard Jacobson, had been trying for a month to solve the problem while hiding it from Dr. Ebert. Finally the V.A. Chief of Medicine, Dr. Wendall Hall, called me into his office. He advised me that not signing the two questions could ruin my medical career. I was angry at his attempt to twist my arm, and I told him he was wrong. “If I am forced to quit my rotation at the V.A. all that will happen will be that my family and I will spend the remaining month in Mexico vacationing”. Dr. Hall was a man of few words, and so no more was said. As it turns out, he had just gotten out of the hospital for a depressive spell; I assume I didn’t help.
A few days later, I was shocked when I turned to the front page of the second section of the Minneapolis paper. There I was, my headshot front and center. The headline read ”V.A. Doctor Sues Over Oath.” I was working at the university hospital at the time and immediately sensed a tight cramp in my stomach. I walked rapidly over to Dr. Ebert’s office, my pulse around 150. I caught up with him as he was entering his office, Minneapolis paper tucked securely under his left armpit.
“Have you read the paper, yet?” I shakily asked him.
“No, I haven’t, Steve, why?”
“Well, can we go into your office?”
“OK,” Dr. Ebert answered, no doubt impressed by my heightened state of anxiety. We sat at the round desk in his office as he opened to the article and then intensely read it. Is this the end for me? I thought. My medical career was once again in the hands of my superior, who was about to say yeah or nay, thumbs up or down. Palpitation City! Ebert suddenly looked up at me and exclaimed: “What kind of nonsense is this, Steve? What should WE do?!!”
My mental state changed like lightning. I wasn’t alone in this. “Put me back on a university budget and I can go back and study in the V.A. microbiology lab,” I said. “As long as I don’t see patients and I’m not on the V.A. payroll, I can still be there.”
Ebert bolted out of his office, stood over his assistant and told her to switch me to so-and-so budget at the University. “Is this okay, Steve?” he asked.
I could have kissed the man. In that moment I would have gone into battle for him, even for an unjust cause, even though death was guaranteed. “Yes,” I said, subduing my desire to sing out my response. Typical Dr. Ebert, he ran off and never mentioned the incident again. The Civil Liberties Union won the case and the Feds appealed. They eventually dropped the appeal and the Harvard Law Review published the case as a landmark decision.
The following year, I went to work as an itinerant internist in Brainerd, in central Minnesota, a town of 10,000 people. The community was a hotbed of ultra conservative citizenry, many of German descent. The greater community was one of the last holdouts in the country in its resistance to fluoridation. They all seemed to assume the stuff was part of a sick plot being perpetrated by the nefarious federal government. The doctors were no better but I had to admire them. Their approach to criticizing others was to stab them in the chest, not in the back.
One day in the doctors’ lounge, a general practitioner—who often referred consultations to me—approached me and bluntly asked, “Are you some kind of Jewish communist?” He had clearly read about the federal court’s decision that was handed down that very week.
Always quick on my cerebral feet I blurted out, “No, I’m a Nazi. That’s why I dared not answer the questions.” The confounding retort brought stunned silence from my accuser and medical colleague. When I gave up practicing in Brainerd 2 years later, to accept a medical post in the US trust territories of the pacific on Truk Island, I left with fond memories and many appreciated friends.