November Anniversaries

This week brings two anniversaries to mind, not of the wedding kind.

A birth and a death, both. A man I knew well and one I never met. I’ll concentrate on the former.

My dad would have been 108 had he lived another 19 years. When I think of him, it is not as a man near life’s end, but the middle-aged version. Perhaps that’s because he was 35 when I walked on stage, and never less than 40 during my school days.

I think of the challenges he faced getting a job in the Great Depression and his wartime service in the army. I recall how hard (and how much) he labored to make a living for his three boys and our mother. I witnessed how the responsibility was like a machine-lowered ceiling pressing down on him.

Milt Stein was a sweet man. My brothers and I saw him express that affection to my mother with tender words and embraces. She occupied his world. We were satellites circling a planet named Jeanette.

How might one celebrate his memory?

I could revisit the video interview I did when he was about 75.

No, too weighty. Moreover, the four-hour recording won’t fit my schedule right now.

I might arrange one of his favorite hot meals and uncap a lava flow of ketchup on top of it, as was his habit. My mom, you see, was not a master chef.

Another possible homage would be to stir a creamer in my morning coffee as he did, for what seemed like minutes at a time, almost long enough to wear his metal spoon to a nub.

The bell-like sound echoed too early and too long inside our two-flat on Talman Avenue. You knew dad was home — so announced the clanging — as it did that by 5:30 AM he’d be off to his job at the downtown post office.

If I had the urge to go to Chicago’s Loop today, a visit to the main library would serve as a symbolic honor. He borrowed books there and read novels and the Sun Times on public transit to and from work.

My memories take me to all these places and more: to excursions on the elevated train beginning at the Western stop, to trips on the #11 Lincoln Avenue bus, to Riverview Park’s high-rides, and Cubs games at Wrigley Field.

In the bag full of a lifetime’s remembrances, those ritualized, repeated events stand out. One such repetition occurred at the baseball contests. We understood the drill, though Milt Stein never failed to remind his boys of an essential feature.

The relative poverty of dad’s childhood required continued focus on the dearness of a hard-won dollar, even as time moved him away from the economic challenge of America in the 1930s. Thus, this man told his three sons we could each have only “two items” on our day at Wrigley.

Mom packed us all lunches. Corned beef on rye bread was typical, maybe a banana, too. But if we wanted ice cream or a Coke or a hot dog, my father limited us to any two of these, not more.

Ed, Jack, and I thought the restriction unreasonable, but we’d never experienced want. Our sire got categorized as a miser. Only years later did I recognize his limitations offered protection against a future when food might be a question not of how much, but whether we’d have any.

This little story leads me to salute Milton Stein’s 108th birthday anniversary the way he’d have advised. I intend to shop at the grocery, especially those aisles filled with all the goodies I likely wanted on a day at the ballpark in, say, 1959.

You know what I’m going to do, don’t you?

I’ll buy just two items.

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The top image is a sign of The Four Candles, a Wetherspoons pub in Oxford named after The Two Ronnies comedy sketch. Matt Brown is the author. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Dr. Frankenstein and Danger of Self-awareness

Does self-awareness bring happiness? Most people seem to believe their portion of self-awareness is sufficient for contentment. Others don’t think about the question. The latter live without much excavation of what is deep in the cavernous underground of their psyche.

I intend to write more about this subject, but will introduce the topic with the story of two people who don’t know themselves well. After reading, you might ask yourself how much self-awareness you possess and whether it improves your life.

My take on the subject may surprise you.

If you watched Ralph for 30 minutes straight and walked away, you would be unable to describe him. He was a man with no distinguishing qualities: not too heavy, not too thin; not too much hair (if there is such a thing), but not bald either; a man of indifferent facial features rendering him unremarkable. Although mega smart, his eyes displayed no light or life. Indeed, his brain’s powerful wattage came as a surprise and then only after you’d gotten to know him.

Nor did withdrawn Ralph have many friends; wait — any friends. Vocation became all. If I gave you the name of what he did, you probably wouldn’t comprehend it. Suffice to say, this brainiac possessed a specialized knowledge of something to do with physics. Still, if one is preoccupied by such arcane, abstract, and technical work — a marginalizing kind of territory — conversation is hard.

What Ralph did have, to the shock of anyone who met his family, was a knock-out wife named Fox. And, funny enough, she resembled Megan Fox: equally sultry, but more curvaceous, with hair so black you wondered if it came from a bottle of dye. Indeed, Fox existed as a woman to die for. Ralph was close to fulfilling the expression’s prediction: dying inside because of her.

The honeymood period had been different. This woman only now devoted her life to turning heads. She observed men to see if they ogled, and so they did. The throng turned toward her, where she once blended unknown and unnoticed into every crowd.

When they married, Fox was as plain as white bread. Much like Ralph, in fact. Maybe I’m being too kind to her. Her nose reminded one of a driver frozen in place at a four-way traffic stop, unable to decide which way to go. Her jaw was too small, so her bottom teeth bunched up, like a classroom of eager students all raising their hands. Her “bum” was absent — one of the many straight, boyish lines on a body screaming for curves.

This young woman’s ear lobes had been marred by a failing intern at a bargain “piercing shop.” The cretin used something like a train conductor’s punch to do the job. Meanwhile, her oversized, protruding ears (as if ready for takeoff) created a human likeness to Disney’s Dumbo. Fox’s feet made grace of motion a challenge, too. Topping everything, the delicate dear-one’s sensitive eyes responded with pain to sunlight, requiring an almost vampire-like avoidance of the summer outdoors. In total, this woman appeared a mess on the outside, while her insides couldn’t help noticing and sent out distress signals.

Given the lady’s neediness, perhaps Ralph’s arrival falls into the “meant to be” category. She struggled to reach for a top shelf grocery item and asked for his aid. When he provided the assistance she started chatting him up, telling him the details of her miserable life. “Oh my God, thank you. I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t been here to get the Cheerios. I always have such trouble with these things. No one ever seems to give me the time, so sometimes I go without.”

Fox went on and on. The relationship might have been different, if only lonely Ralph had been a more confident and not so good-hearted. A woman eager for his company should not be ignored, he thought. Soon they were sitting together in the supermarket’s cafe. He still listened and she still filled the conversational carbon dioxide with her ill-fated history. The pattern had been set.

Ralph couldn’t help but notice two things. First, she enjoyed talking to him. Second, he garnered appreciation despite doing almost nothing. Our fellow’s muteness around women mattered not. Since Fox engaged in endless monologue, he found an uncommon ease in being with her.

A third idea occurred to this Everyman, too: he pitied the injured creature. The recitation of her life disappointments touched him. The masculine heart broke as he auditioned the ugly duckling disses she described, her parents’ neglect, and the absence of outstanding qualities in a world demanding them.

Ralph looked beyond Fox’s outsides to the “poor girl” insides he saw on the newsreel of sorrow she re-ran. They became a couple. At first, Fox was overjoyed for a boyfriend — one who would listen to her! Ralph wanted a girlfriend just as much, so it seemed inconsiderate to begrudge the woman he loved for her uncontrollable regurgitation of life’s raw indignities. Besides, she seemed grateful he’d drop anything for her, and he felt wanted and purposeful in being able to better this woman’s life.

Marriage inevitably followed courting. Children inevitably followed marriage. Challenges inevitably followed children. “Oh, Ralphie, look at what Molly (their two-year-old) did. I’m too totalled-out to clean up the mess. Can you take care of it, Ralphie?” What could the dear man do? He’d come home from work “totalled-out” himself, but Fox needed rest. Their daughter couldn’t be alone to create further disorder, Ralph said to himself.

As time passed Fox came to treat our boy’s devotion as an entitlement, treat Ralph’s patient listening as an entitlement, treat Ralph’s bread-winning and housekeeping and childcare as an entitlement.

The miserable male consoled himself. She’s had such a hard life, he thought. She’ll soon snap out of it. Maybe if I can do more, things between us will be good again. “Good,” meaning back to the time Fox offered gratitude and the kids were distracting her husband from focusing on her. Then, one day, she asked for something new.

“Ralphie, my doctor says he knows a foot specialist who can fix my feet so it’s not so hard to walk. Wouldn’t that be great? We can afford that, right Ralphie? How about it?”

Well, you know Ralph. Refusal of a reasonable request was unthinkable. He achieved an abundant living and knew it. It was the least he could do for the woman he loved and the mother of his children.

Although Fox had to go through a difficult period of recuperation, the surgery made walking the natural, unconscious thing it is for most young people. Once the healing advanced, her surgeon recommended training in ballet. Ralph’s wife became the embodiment of grace, a creature whose movement across space was streaming and seamless — something to behold.

For a brief period the spouse was even grateful to Ralph, but within a few months wretched routine resumed. Customary indifference and lack of approbation were Ralph’s daily bread, duly accepted. Until, of course, the next thing Fox wanted.

“Ralphie, my doctor says he knows a plastic surgeon who can fix my schnoz. Wouldn’t that be great? We can afford that, right Ralphie? How about it?”

Ralph didn’t jump at this suggestion quite as fast as the idea of taking Fox’s feet to the repair shop. Moreover, he’d grown to like the way Fox’s nose couldn’t seem to make up its mind about the best route to take from its bridge to her nostrils.

Still, she was the woman he loved and the mother of his children. Before too long, Fox had a nose to die for. Straight, not too big, not too small; “just right,” as Goldilocks would have said. Fox spent hours staring at her proboscis in the mirror, admiring the surgeon’s craft and her enhanced appearance: what you might call attractive if your standards for beauty weren’t too high.

Sex, however, didn’t improve. Romance had never sizzled, but Ralph accepted what his companion offered. Since he’d never had intercourse with anyone else, for a long time it satisfied. Now, however, frequency diminished. Fox also made it more “conditional.”

Let me explain.

The wife complained of headaches and exhaustion — both words sometimes uttered when the other is preoccupied with something else, their brain is somewhere else, and they only wish their partner were elsewhere, too. Fox had an ever-changing, ever smaller list of body parts available for touching, and a growing catalogue of forbidden sex acts. These, she claimed, might cause a brain hemmorhage.

“The Mayo Clinic will prove it. Take me there, you’ll see!”

He didn’t. She’d won the point.

For his part, Ralph began to think of Fox’s torso as a terrain undergoing lots of highway and road repair. He imagined her naked physique covered with little CAUTION and DANGER signs: arrows indicating detours, and tiny flagmen waiving him right or left, but always into a dead end. The helpless bloke wished for the radio traffic reports one hears every 10 minutes, desperate for guidance to the least hazardous routes. Alas, no station carried the needed updates on Fox’s body map. All Ralph got was static.

Other than when Ralph kissed Fox on her rear end (which she loved but left him cold), ardor was ever more frustrating for our Mr. R. Indeed, as Fox transformed into a fox, the limitations multiplied and the frustration grew.

Attempts at sex caused a mindset akin to days without food, knowing the closest restaurant took a three-hour drive and remained open for just 15 minutes beginning at 3 AM every other week; and the food was cold and tasteless and they never had what you wanted on the menu; and the wait staff were impatient and complained and banged around with pots and pans while you were trying to eat; and the servers were pestering you to hurry up because they were closing soon.

Well, you won’t be surprised when I tell you the surgical requests kept coming. They took the usual form: “Ralphie, my doctor says he knows a surgeon who can do ‘X.’” Next came a complete reworking of her jaw, mouth, and teeth; later breast implants, buttock rounding, and cheek inserts. Botox injections targeted a variety of places. An “ear job” followed to close up the holes left by the conductor’s punch and pin them back so that they didn’t stick out. Soon Fox requested an alteration of her hairline, in addition to lots of consultations with makeup artists, skin specialists, and hair stylists.

The family’s dull doll became unrecognizable — movie-star beautiful. She also transformed into a one-woman cheerleading squad for the wonderful doctor who picked out the best people to work their magic; with not a word about Ralphie, the guy who paid the surgeons and kept doing everything else he’d always done — ever faithful, ever devoted, ever taken-advantage-of, all-day-sucker Ralphie.

Nor was the new “arm candy” an unalloyed benefit to him. Ralph was told he was a lucky hombre, but overheard strangers wondering about the ill-matched “FR” pair. Someone would take her away from him, they guessed.

By the time Fox reached her early 40s, her physical transformation was complete. She passed for 30, at most, and pursued a life unimaginable during her frumpy, freaky, friendless teens. The kids both attended college out-of-state and Ralph never stood in the way of what she wanted. Ralphie earned a fine salary, she rationalized. In fact, however, he worked overtime to pay for the kids’ tuition, the old doctors’ bills, and Fox’s impulse purchases.

With fewer responsibilities due to the the children’s departure and no more surgeons to consult, the manufactured femme fatale realized she missed her divorced doctor, the man she so idolized: the person who guided her to achieving her new, traffic-stopping, stunning state of being. Their meetings started when she dropped in at his office, unannounced, and said hello. Soon they scheduled lunches. Long ones. Ralph couldn’t help but wonder if something was happening.

One day at sunrise, while Fox slept in and the provider was taking a rare vacation day, he drove to a nearby beach. As a young man, when he was the friendless class nerd, he’d walk along the lake front, let the sun soothe him, and nursed his malaise. Sometimes it worked. The sound of the waves and the warmth of the rays eased his craptastic condition. Perhaps he got lost in a fantasy of winning an adoring girlfriend who would become his wife.

How did things go so wrong, he wondered? The stillness of the deserted beach provided no comfort. “What can I do? I still love her.” Ralph was talking aloud. “If only I can regain what we had on our first day in the grocery.”

Ralph’s right foot caught on something and he fell on his face, eating a mouthful of sand and pebbles. Disrespect everywhere. Not even the beach likes me, he thought.

As Ralph got up he noticed the object he tripped over. A hard item protruded from the otherwise flat surface. He pulled at it: a golden Middle Eastern style lamp. Scuffed and dented, it nonetheless looked as though it had once been a fine product of the metal artisan’s craft. Ever prepared to do cleaning, the Sad Sack took out his handkerchief and tried to shine it up a bit.

That’s when the genie appeared.

For the conclusion of this story, go to Dr. Frankenstein and the Curse of Self-awareness: Part II.

—–

The top photo is of Megan Fox, by Luke Ford. Next comes Girlfriend and I by Christian Reusch. That is followed by Beauty and the Beast by Giovana Milanezi, uploaded by Johnny MrNinj and a Singapore Road Sign by Woodennature. Deep Sadness by Erik Charlton is the fifth image. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Ultimate Comment on Marrying Younger Women — Dr. Gerald Stein

They used to be called “May/December” romances — a younger woman and an older man. The lady was variously described as a “gold digger” or a “trophy wife,” more often the latter now. Sometimes you see the reverse, a woman senior to the man — a gigolo, if he is “kept” by her. The relationship […]

via The Ultimate Comment on Marrying Younger Women — Dr. Gerald Stein

A Good Man is Hard to Find: Remembering Bob Calsyn

Life is a funny thing. It had been a while since I thought about Bob Calsyn, my old graduate school friend. But then I recognized that a post I wrote five years ago was getting visited more than usual today. Clearly, the fifth anniversary of Bob’s death on September 21, 2012 isn’t going unnoticed. He deserves notice and remembrance. I’ve not known a better man.

Memory has a different place in our lives than in ancient times.

The pre-literate Greeks of Homer’s day could not apply the balm of eternal life to their troubled psyches. They had no notion of the heaven Christians believe in, no sense of reincarnation such as Hindus expect, no Muslim vision of paradise, no anticipation of a reunion with relatives and friends who had predeceased them. Instead, death led to a trip to Hades, the underworld, where existence was a pale and not very attractive shadow of earthly life, not something to be eagerly awaited.

Bob would not have liked Hades. He lived for the sunlight, not the shadows.

The life of the pre-literate Greeks was painfully short. Even at the turn of the last century, around 1900, the average American survived only about 50 years. The brevity of our time above ground was certainly known to the ancients.

Greek literature and philosophy point to two driving concepts that motivated those men. (And I speak of men only, because women were extraordinarily disadvantaged, seen as having almost no function other than sex, companionship, rearing children, and producing domestic handicrafts). Honor and glory were what men sought. Honor tended to come in the form of goods, precious metal, slaves, concubines, and the like; in other words, mostly material things or things that could be counted or displayed or used.

Sort of like today, perhaps you are saying to yourself. In our world, honor is conferred by status and material things, too – the size of your house, the amount of money in your bank account, a trophy spouse, the car or cars you drive, a gorgeous vacation home, etc.

Glory (the Greek word kleos) was another matter. It took the form of reputation or fame continuing beyond death. And, since there was no written word, you and your accomplishments had to be sufficiently great to generate discussion, song, and story once you were gone. No one was going to write a book about you, since there was yet no Greek alphabet.

The point being, Bob deserved more than a little of the old-style glory. Telling you his tale once again is the best I can do and the least I can do.

As you might imagine, I have lots of feelings today. If you read this post before I hope you will take another look. And, if you haven’t, then his admirable life will be a fresh experience for you. For those of you, especially my female readers who have been disappointed with my gender, perhaps Bob’s life will give you a bit of hope to keep looking. Regardless, maybe knowing him a little will make you a better person, as knowing him a lot made me. Here is the link: Bob Calsyn

One Holiday, Two Americas: Memorial Day Thoughts

Some of our fathers and brothers, even our sisters and aunts, served in wartime. Some serve now. Perhaps you too.

Today is the day we honor the fallen in all the many conflicts of this, our country.

Can two Americas fit into a holiday designed for one?

Thus do the two Americas array themselves: those for whom service is a calling and those for whom it is an economic necessity; those powerful and those without prospects; those respected and those afraid; those with fat wallets and those with empty purses; the few who are part of our volunteer army and the majority who choose not to be.

When my father did his duty in World War II, walking the Champs-Élysées on the first Bastille Day after the liberation of Paris, there was such a thing as military conscription: able bodied young men were required to participate. In post-war Germany, as part of the occupying Allied forces, he related the following in an October 19, 1945 letter to my mother:

We have two colored boys in our convoy who were carrying our postal equipment. When we went to supper … the Sargent who ran the mess hall made them eat in a separate room. The colored boys were fighting mad for which I can blame them little. I complained about this treatment to the mess Sargent, who said that the First Sargent made the rule. I went to the latter and told him off plenty (my dad was a Staff Sargent). His answer was that I didn’t have to eat in the mess hall either if I didn’t like the rules.

So this is for what we fight. I finally talked to the colored boys and pacified them somewhat.

Some of us thought we were beyond the racial animus of a time 70 years past. Not just the discrimination, but the idea of discrimination. Still, no matter our domestic troubles, we must honor the fallen. My father, who served but did not die in service, would be troubled at our regression; yet he would honor the fallen, as we all should, amid the burgers and bratwurst and beer we inhale today. In this, at least, we can still be one country, even if the ritual unites us only for a few hours.

I wrote some of this seven years ago. Other parts are new:

If you are unhappy about the polarization of our society, think about the differences institutionalized by the volunteer army’s creation. However much good was achieved by the elimination of conscription, surely the absence of shared sacrifice contributes to the ease with which we oppose our fellow-citizens.

No longer does the USA pull together in the way possible during World War II, “the Good War.” In part, “the Good War” was good because enough people believed in the values for which the USA fought, knowing their children, husbands, and brothers would defend those same values with their lives; and it was good because those at home (regardless of class) shared in the rationing of goods, the terror of having loved ones in harm’s way, the heartache of their absence, and a preoccupation with the daily progress of the conflict.

The soldiers shared something more, and more widely than the smaller fighting force of today. Men of different religions, regional accents, political opinions, and ethnicities depended on each other for their survival and discovered the “other” could be depended on, laughed at the same jokes, and partook of the common fear and dedication all brought to the war effort. Even though military segregation deprived brave blacks and Japanese Americans of the opportunity for such camaraderie except with men of the same color, the nation benefited from the portion permitted. The soldiers benefited by the love and mutual reliance of those in the same foxhole. Our fathers and grandfathers were woven together in a way we are not today.

These thoughts occurred to me as I listened (on CD) to the book Final Salute by Pulitzer Prize winning author Jim Sheeler. The volume is about the officers who inform families they have lost a loved one; and of the families who suffer the unspeakable pain of the death of a son, a husband, a wife, a brother, or a sister; a dad or a mom.

Several survivors become your acquaintances in this narrative, as well as the warriors — the Marines — who died serving our country. And you will get to know Major Steve Beck, a Marine who delivers a message nearly as shattering as the projectile that killed their loved one.

Major Beck and the Marines live by the creed of leaving no comrade behind. Consistent with this value, Major Beck leaves no family behind, providing comfort and support long after the knock on the door that changes everything, creating a “before and after” without end.

I wish I had the words to convey what is in this book. I don’t. I only will say it is plainly written, eloquent in its simplicity, aching in its beauty, profound in its impact. It does not make melodrama of what is already poignant enough. Rest assured you will contemplate war, any war, differently after reading Final Salute; unless, of course, you are a member of the “other America,” the one fighting the wars and sending its loved ones into conflict. If you belong to the bereft group within this group, then there is nothing here you do not already know at a level too deep for words.

To those who have lost just such a one as the young men portrayed in Final Salute, I can only give my condolences to you and your kin.

We — those of us in the non-fighting America, those of us for whom the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are abstractions — perhaps remain too comfortable, detached from something of desperate importance: the duty done far from home in our stead by the children of other people. And removed and distant from how the “best and brightest” of their families risk and sometimes give up everything they hold dear.

For such families, the human cost never fully goes away, for there is no inoculation against the plague of war, nor any cure.

They are out there, these inhabitants of “the other America.”

We walk past them unaware …

Once a year we give their departed a day of remembrance, if that’s what you call taking an extra day off from work, singing the National Anthem, looking at the maimed soldiers standing at attention, and then forgetting why we sang before our bottoms touch the seats. The words “play ball,” don’t quite capture a sentiment of honor or atonement, do they?

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All the images above are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. 1. “Vice Admiral Scott Swift, Director of Navy Staff holds Savannah Wriglesworth of Bowie, Maryland during a group photo with families of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) before taking a tour at the Pentagon May 23, 2014. The children of fallen U.S. service members toured the Pentagon seeing different exhibitions from the Navy, Army, Marine Corps and Air Force including Klinger the horse. Klinger has served at more than 5,000 military funerals and has a book published about him called “Klinger: A Story of Honor and Hope” and is often a warm and comforting face for the children to see when making their final good-byes.” (Department of Defense photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo). 2. and 3. The work of Allstrak. 4. “Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt looks on during the singing of the National Anthem before his squad’s Memorial Day Major League Baseball matchup against the San Diego Padres at Chase Field in Phoenix, May 26, 2014. U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Brandon Kidd, right, was on hand to represent the United States Marine Corps during pre-game dedications.” (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Tyler J. Bolken).

George Altman and the Art of Living

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Nineteen-sixty-one began well for George Lee Altman. The year also looked positive for Jack Randolph Stein — my brother, Jack — the ballplayer’s best nine-year-old fan. Jack studied the newspaper box scores and memorized Altman’s statistics. He defended Altman to any “unbelievers” who might have preferred some other big league star. No defense, however, was needed in 1961: by baseball’s All-Star break Altman led the league in hitting. The 6’4″ black outfielder blasted a home run in the game. Only a better Cubs team would have made the world of George and Jack perfect.

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Ah, but the baseball gods are capricious and the long ball Altman drove over the fence proved the highpoint of his Major League career. After another All-Star year in Chicago he was traded to St. Louis and then to the New York Mets at a time when a ballplayer might be considered a “well-paid slave,” to quote Curt Flood about his own baseball career. But this story ends well so don’t lose heart. George Altman never did.

I offer you two stories here: one, a brief recounting of the life of an extraordinary athlete and man, and the other of a little boy who admired him. A tale, too, of the unexpected turns you meet if you live long enough.

Altman was 27-years-old in 1961, Jack at the age boys acquire heroes. Baseball permitted the love of a man of a different race in a way not allowed by almost any other public activities of the day.

Jack modeled himself after Big George. He adopted a similar left-handed swing of the bat; played the outfield as his hero did. My brother even hoped to spend time with him, something impossible after a ballgame in an ad hoc autograph line.

Jack wrote to the athlete at Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs. “Mom will cook you a meal of steak and beer,” he included as an enticement. No brewery inhabited our basement and no beer lived in our refrigerator, but the letter found its way out the door. Jack waited. The whole family waited and wondered.

My brother received a picture-postcard with Altman’s photo on one side and his autograph on the other. No mention of steak and beer. No comment at all.

A little history: George Altman played a part in advancing race relations in the United States. In 1947 Jackie Robinson, enabled by the Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager (Branch Rickey), broke the informal collusion among Major League Baseball’s owners to keep the game white: the color line. From Robinson’s arrival it took until 1959 — the same year George Altman joined the Cubs — before every team had at least one black man. Big George was among the last to play ball in the Negro Major Leagues (a gifted dark-skinned player’s only alternative to the barred door of the Majors). They began to unravel when some of their best athletes found jobs in the newly integrated big leagues.

A rough road greeted “colored” men (as they were then called) even if they did leap the first barrier. Salary was modest, most took off-season jobs to survive, and racism among some of their white teammates presented itself. Managers were all white and informal limitations prevented “too many” dark-skinned men from taking the field as “starters.” Blacks had to room with blacks, whites with whites. Segregated hotels sometimes separated the races further. Little inter-racial socialization happened after the game ended and, even in the dugout, the dark and light often sat apart.

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Altman had another superb season in 1962, but his trade to St.Louis left both the ballplayer and brother Jack disappointed. Injuries undercut much of Altman’s remaining time in the big leagues, but he eventually became a huge star in Japan for eight seasons. Even then, however, he was a person on the outside. No longer an African-American in a white world, nor a college-educated-man in a group of men of more limited learning, he became an American in Asia.

George Altman grew up in North Carolina. His mother died of pneumonia when he was four. Willie Altman, his dad, made a living as a tenant farmer who became an auto mechanic. The senior Altman could be a hard man, a man of few words and hidden feelings; one who didn’t encourage his talented son’s growing athletic success or attend his games. But the junior Altman gave his all to succeed at everything he tried, including the back-breaking labor of picking cotton and tobacco during teen-aged summers. Altman graduated from Tennessee State thanks to a basketball scholarship. He later became “semi-conversant” in Japanese during his playing days overseas, and a commodities trader at Chicago’s Board of Trade representing himself from the seat he purchased with some of his relatively high Japanese earnings. Along the way he beat down colon cancer.

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Before he left Chicago, George Altman started a chess club for young people and helped build the Better Boys Foundation. The 83-year-old continues a focus on high school-aged kids and combating the evils of drug abuse, but Chicago claims a special place in his heart.

The tall childhood hero once again came to Jack’s mind with the recent World Series Championship of the Cubs. Perhaps, he hoped, a 55-year-old meal ticket could be punched as well. Jack tracked down his 1960s idol and made a date to visit him near Altman’s Missouri home.

The men who broke baseball’s color line are thought of as having advanced the status of their race despite the initially punishing reception of white baseball. Surely this is correct, but not the whole story. They also served all Americans of the time, not only by displaying their particular genius for the game. Blacks were not just stereotyped, but invisible in mid-twentieth-century America: no black newscasters, no blacks in commercials, few blacks on TV or in the movies; and then, almost always in roles fueling the worst stereotypes of the time.

That changed with the vanguard of “Negro” baseball players. Even bigots now observed African-Americans in a new role, heard them speak in radio and TV interviews, and read human interest stories written about them. Unseen, anyone can be stereotyped. A man or woman in the flesh becomes a person, not so easily molded into an object of derision. The black athletes of Altman’s generation played baseball well, but they played a more important role in transforming America. The frozen, deformed national consciousness of people of color reformed because of their courage. We are better because of them, if still not perfect. We are better because of George Altman.

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Expectations nurtured over time become unspeakably high. The goal, once achieved, usually disappoints: too much pent-up anticipation. Not this. The still trim Altman met my brother at the appointed restaurant. The ballplayer didn’t remember the “steak and beer” invitation, nor did the pair dine on the menu items Jack had promised, but the 55-year-old wish was otherwise satisfied — and not only because of the former Chicagoan’s pleasure at the success of the World Champion players who wore the same uniform he did. Here is Jack’s voice:

After a while I brought up some of the tragedies he endured, from poverty to racial prejudice to his son’s death in a head-on collision with a drunk driver; the loss of his grandson, too. Despite all this, George is an absolutely positive guy who appreciates his life and how he handled his most difficult times.

Since George is not legendary ballplayer, he seemed surprised anyone would drive a long distance to spend a couple of hours with him over lunch.  He enjoyed my detailed interest in his career and the recollections we shared of some of his greatest games.  For me, as I have learned more about George from his autobiography and our meeting, the hero of a nine-year-old boy became his hero again at 64-years-of-age. It was a happy experience for both of us.

Responding to a note of gratitude from Jack, George Altman wrote this:

Jack,

I thank you for the honor of your visit this afternoon. I thoroughly enjoyed every moment. You reminded me of some great experiences I had in baseball. Thanks for the memories. I’m honored that you would drive almost 700 miles (round trip) to have lunch with me. I am amazed at your knowledge of my career.

God bless you and your family.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Geo.

Where do resilience and grace come from? In the dedication of his autobiography, Altman first thanks God and then his mother, “whom I never really knew. Everyone who knew her said that she was a beautiful, kind, and loving person. I have tried to use her legacy as a guideline for my life.” Then he names his wife, Etta; children, relatives, and friends, all acknowledged for “their love, comfort, and support.” Last, gratitude is expressed to five coaches, perhaps father figures, individually identified. As John Donne famously wrote, “No Man is an Island.” Whether he knows the line, George Altman knows the lesson.

The Stein family, ca. 1960. Left to right in the front row, Jack, Gerry, and Eddie.

The Stein family, circa 1960. Left to right in the front row, Jack, Gerry, and Eddie.

Back in the childhood I shared with my brothers we never thought about players writing books or their lives in retirement. We were too busy watching those still active. The “stars” were, quite literally, in our eyes.

Mid-twentieth-century America presented an easy opportunity to believe in heroes. I mean the celebrated athletes of the time, especially baseball players. As Homer said of Trojan War combatants, some were “godlike” men. The human imperfections of anyone in the public eye today, however, have become inescapable. Each man’s and woman’s Achilles heel is x-rayed, dissected, and shamelessly exposed. We live in an age of full-frontal-news. We know more, but are perhaps poorer because of it.

And then there are George Altman and other people like him, quietly living out their lives. There are never too many: intelligent, decent, and hardworking; gifted, grateful and resilient. How many of us can stand comfortably on a pedestal erected by a worshipful nine-year-old? The 64-year-old version of that little boy, my brother Jack, would tell you he met one last year: a man who made a difference, the rare example of a life well-lived.

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Most of the information on George Altman’s life comes from his autobiography, written with Lew Freedman, George Altman: My Baseball Journey from the Negro Leagues to the Majors and Beyond. The second image above is Norman Rockwell’s, The Dugout, which appeared in the September 14, 1948 edition of The Saturday Evening Post. The painting well-symbolizes the futility of most of the Cubs teams my generation watched when we were growing up. The following dugout image includes, from left to right, Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, and George Altman. I do not know the names of the other players, but would be pleased to be informed by those who do.

A Most Unlikely Christmas Movie

Dr. Gerald Stein

When friends bring up their favorite Christmas movies, I never name the ones they mention.

Not for me, It’s a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Carol or A Christmas Story, much as I like them all.

Return with me to the night before Christmas, 1955, the only time I ever spent out with my folks on Christmas Eve. Perhaps then you will understand.

I couldn’t have been more excited.

My folks and I were going to the new movie Ulysses starring Kirk Douglas; more famous these days as Michael Douglas’s father, or the father-in-law of Catherine Zeta-Jones.

I would have my parents to myself. My little brothers (much too small to go) were in the charge of grandparents. More remarkable, we would be eating out, a rare treat for the Stein family, where memories of the Great Depression forever justified frugality, stay-at-home meals, and the second-best of everything…

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