My father died a few days ago. He was 100 years old.
I never met his parents; he barely knew them himself. His mother, the daughter of a Russian Jewish immigrant who fought for the Union, taught second grade in New York City public schools. She died when he was three, in the flu epidemic of 1918-1919, one of the greatest disasters in American history. A quarter of the American population, including President Wilson, caught the disease, and 700,000 died from it – twice as many as fell in World War II. In New York City people were dying so fast that the authorities limited funerals to 15 minutes. Some of those contracting the disease died within hours, suffocated by phlegm. One of them was my grandmother. She was 38.
Grandpa’s family also came from Russia, but in the late 1800s. By the time my father was born, he owned a picture frame store at 1 East Broadway, in what is now, and was even then becoming, Chinatown. He was a famous wit, who would spend the day cracking jokes one after another to an audience of men who would stay there all day, just to listen to him. As a result, he became something of a local political force, and even knew Al Smith, who ran for president in 1928 – the first Catholic to ever do so.
But Grandpa died of some other sickness in 1930, leaving my father to work his way through high school selling newspapers in the midst of the Depression.
So dad grew up in Chinatown, picking up a love of Shakespeare from his high school, and some very unprintable Chinese on the street. To get a better job, he needed to learn how to drive, and no one he knew owned a car. But in those days in New York State, you could take the driving test on a car provided by the motor vehicle department. So he went to take the test, and failed within seconds, as he obviously didn’t know a thing about how to drive a car. But he went back to take the test again, and again, and again, each time getting a little further, until finally he passed. This goal achieved, he became a delivery driver. That’s how he met my mom.
It was in 1937, approaching 5 PM. He was making the last delivery of the day, and this very pretty girl at the front desk was packing up her things to leave the office. “Where are you going?” he asked. “Night school at City College,” she replied. “I’ve got a truck,” he volunteered. “I’ll take you there.” They never made it the City College that night. He took her rowing in Central Park instead. Her name was Rosalyn.
My father was of the political center. My mother was of the Left. But in late 1939 she stood up in a meeting of the Young Communist League at CCNY to furiously denounce Stalin’s pact with Hitler. “Out Trotskyite, out!” they all started screaming. “Out! Out! Throw her out!” Then they threw her out of the meeting and down the staircase. She was a gutsy kid. Her brother Abe, the first of her family born in America, was a gutsy kid too. I’ll tell you about that shortly.
In 1940, she married my dad. Then he was drafted, and spent three years away at war.
He shipped out to the Pacific in December 1943. It was a cold day, with fog and freezing rain. He and his buddies were standing on the bow deck on a troop ship leaving San Francisco harbor, in full battle dress, shivering from cold, and trepidation of what was to come. Then he started to sing. All the guys started yelling at him. “Zubrin, what are you singing for? Are you crazy? Don’t you know where we are going, and what is about to happen to us?” He answered. “Yeah, sure. That’s why I’m singing now.”
And so he sang. “Give my regards to Broadway…”
He was posted to a rear echelon assignment, and so only saw one day of action in the entire war, when a Japanese submarine hit an ammunition ship moored just off the beach where he was standing. It exploded immediately, setting off six more ammunition ships moored nearby “like a string a firecrackers,” as he recalled it, blasting away with a shattering collective yield comparable to a small atomic bomb. Over a thousand men were killed, mostly black sailors, because that is who the Navy preferred to put on ammunition ships at that time.
Abe saw a lot more action. As a boy, he was into crystal sets, so the Army, with unusual intelligence, put him in the Signal Corps. But he knew what the Germans were about, and wanted to fight them. So he got himself transferred to a front line combat unit of New Mexico rednecks. He landed on Normandy Beach in the second wave, fought at St. Lo, took part in the liberation of Paris, and was killed in action on September 14, 1944, recovering his platoon’s BAR from its fallen holder under enemy fire during the liberation of Ferrier. The Rothschilds had a chateau in Ferrier, which Goering had made his own and into which he had put much of the stolen art of France. Abe’s battalion took it back. Those were the real Monuments Men.
After the Japanese surrendered, dad was shipped stateside, but kept in the Army in a base in Virginia, not far from Washington DC. As his first weekend leave approached, mom went down to Washington to get a hotel room where they could meet. As she was a person of modest means, she started with the cheapest hotels first. But this was wartime Washington, and no cheap hotel rooms were to be had. So she moved on to the mid-priced hotels, and then the expensive ones, but still no luck. Finally she reached to most expensive hotel in town, which was the DuPont Plaza Hotel. Again the desk clerk told her that the hotel was completely booked. She told him, “I demand to see the manager!” “Why,” responded the clerk. “It will do no good. As I’ve told you, we simply have no rooms.” But she persisted, and made such a fuss that eventually the manager came down. “What’s this all about?” he asked. “Here’s what this is about,” she answered. “My husband has been away at war for three years, and this is his first weekend leave, and I have been to every single hotel in this town, and no one will give us a room. So I demand that you give us a room!” “Well, actually,” he replied, “we do have one room.” He gave them the presidential suite.
Dad was discharged from the Army in 1946, and reached New York via Grand Central Station. As he walked out of the station with a duffel bag slung over one shoulder and three stripes on the other, a well-dressed man approached him. “Where are you headed Sarge?” he asked. “Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.” Dad replied. “No problem,” the guy said. “Here’s my car. I’ll give you a lift.” That’s how it was for the returning vets of that war.
He got a job in the sales and marketing department of Topps chewing gum. A few years later, Topps needed someone to go to postwar Japan to buy junk toys to give away as prizes to kids in exchange for piles of Bazooka bubble gum wrappers. So he volunteered, using his youth in Chinatown plus his time in the Pacific during the war to convince management that he was a great orientalist, who, with his unmatched knowledge of the inscrutable eastern mind, would be just the right guy for job. Incredibly, as matters turned out, he was. Thus he became a business success, able send me and my sister to college.
Eventually he became an independent import consultant, and in that capacity, and even more so after he retired, took my mother with him to see the world, something she had always dreamed hopelessly of doing during her impoverished youth. They were intrepid travelers, and visited every corner of the globe except Antarctica. At one time, when they were about 70, they visited me in Seattle. They were in pretty good shape, so I took them to Mount Rainer. As we hiked up the glacier with me in the lead, I turned around to see how they were doing, and there they were, 46 years married, holding hands.
During his travels, Dad loved to do goofy stuff. When they were in Peking in the late 1970s, near Tiananmen Square, he set a busload of American tourists singing “God Bless America.” Then, on entering a factory, he caused the workers there to stand and sing “The Internationale.” When I was working in Los Alamos, and they came visiting, I thought I would take them to Rancho Chimayo, one of the nicest restaurants in the region, but it was all booked up. Undaunted, Dad walked right up to the hostess and asked her, “Do you have a reservation here for Senator Harrison?” She looked at her register, confused. “I can’t seem to find it here, Senator. But don’t worry, I’ll get you a table right away.” And so she did. Dad could also do a pretty good Mel Brooks impersonation too, which was frequently quite useful as well.
In 1996 mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and told she had six months left to live, or perhaps nine if she underwent chemotherapy. “What do you want to do?” they asked. “I want to learn French,” she replied. “What?” They were mystified. “What good would that do?” “I want to learn French” she explained patiently, “so that next time I go to France, I can speak with the people there.” She lived another two years, playing tennis until three months before she died.
They has been married for 58 years, an epic companionship, so when she passed, he was totally disoriented for a while. But then he pulled himself together, and started to live again, going on cruises, dating, and then ultimately forming a long-term relationship with a former New York City schoolteacher named Joyce, 17 years his junior. They had a good time together for some years, but then she got cancer and died, leaving him alone again. Still, he lived on.
He was hale and hearty until he was 93, able to walk for miles, or dance like a man 40 years his junior. But then he had a massive stroke, which caused him to go blind, and paralyzed the left side of his body, so he could neither walk nor eat without assistance. But in the hospital ward, where others, 10 or 20 years younger and in much less distress could only whine about their predicament, he just kept cracking jokes and making valiant attempts to pick up the nurses. “Charlie, act your age,” one visitor urged. “Why should I act my age?” he said. “If I acted my age I’d be dead.” And with the help of that spirit, he partially recovered, and made himself able to walk and see again, albeit with difficulty.
A few years later my sister and I took him to Broadway to see West Side Story. After we sat down, he peered around the place and said; “I know where we are. This is the old Palace Theater. I took your mother here the night I came back from the Army. We sat in that balcony right up there. It was a one-woman show, with Judy Garland. She closed it singing ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow.’” What a moment that must have been.
On his 95th birthday, the people in his building threw a big party for him, and several of his old friends from various phases of his life came too. It was a boisterous occasion, and he rose to the challenge, staying on his feet for four hours, cracking jokes, even dancing a little, and then throwing out a parting shout, “and I want to see you all back here five years from now for my hundredth!” – never imagining that he would be there too.
Yet he was, but most of those that mattered most to him were not. By his 100th, none of his or my mother’s many brothers and sisters, or any other relations of his generation, were still around. Nor were any old friends from the lower east side or the Army still alive, and but one from his business life. He was the last of the regiment, but still he made the most of it.
He kept his mind until the end. Among his last words to me was to ask after my daughter Rachel, who is serving in the Peace Corps in Indonesia. He was concerned about her safety, yet proud of her as well. I said, “I’m proud of you too, Dad, and really proud to be your son.” He said, “Thanks.”
And so he passed over to the undiscovered country, in bed, at home, with his beloved Broadway songs playing on the CD player. He was one of a kind, perhaps, yet in his own way, a true representative of a generation that really had what it takes. When I was young, they were all around. Now they are nearly gone. Soon they will all rest with the ages.
So long, Dad. Give my regards to Mom.