Category - Harvey & Ellen

Seasons of Solitude – My Pandemic Year

(or: How I spent My WinterSpring SummerFall Vacation). 

(This post is a revision of an earlier opus posted to coincide with the actual anniversary of the pandemic/quarantine.  That version was more than 4,500 words.  Shortly after I posted it I learned that the Nashville writers collective The Porch is compiling an anthology about the plague year, with a maximum word count for submissions of 3,000 words.  So I cut and revised, submitted what follows on  March 25, 2021, and still await a verdict re: acceptance or rejection. In the meantime, the guidelines say that posting to my own blog is ‘fair game.’)

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1. Winter: #HomeAlone

March 13, 2021 marked a full year of the condition I’ve recorded in my journals and social media posts as “#HomeAlone.” I guess that was #HomeAlone Day 366 – since 2020 was a leap year.

Maybe it’s enough to say that a full year into the pandemic, I am still among the living. There are now more than two-and-a-half million Covid victims around the world who cannot say the same.

We have lived through a full cycle of seasons with Covid. It started in the winter of 2020, tore through the spring, the summer and the fall, and now here we are in the spring of 2021. Even with the vaccines, it could be a another full cycle before we can return to whatever passed for ‘normal’ before the virulent little bug first appeared.

Everybody on stage for the finale: Dave Olney tribute/memorial at the Belcourt – March 9, 2020

The last public event I attended was a tribute concert for the iconic singer/songwriter David Olney (Spotify link) – who died suddenly after collapsing on a stage in Florida in January, 2020. As friends and fans gathered the evening of Monday, March 9 at the Belcourt Theater in Nashville, there was casual recognition that something ominous was in the air, but it had yet to dawn on anyone that this might be the last concert we would attend for more than a year.

I worked my part-time job – peddling gizmos for a tech retailer – at the mall in Green Hills on Tuesday March 10 and Wednesday March 11 – which was the day the World Health Organization declared that the novel Corona virus had become a Global Pandemic. My customer interactions that day were normal, but I second-guessed myself after shaking hands a couple of times. By the end of the second day, co-workers and I had resorted to hand waves and fist bumps.

The next two days I was not scheduled to work. I watched too much TeeVee news, read too many online accounts, and tried to make sense of the invisible asteroid that was about to smash into the planet. I tried to separate useful information from the bubbling brew of hysteria. And I wondered how I was going to explain to my employer that because I was born while Harry S Truman was president, I am in the “high-risk-for-mortality” age bracket – and maybe I shouldn’t be coming into work for a while?

The day before my next scheduled shift, I called the store and said, “I’m a little concerned about coming to work today.” A few hours later the woman who runs the whole operation called back and said, “OK, we will take you off the schedule – and find someway to keep you on the payroll until you can come back.”

As I told my therapist at the time, that was such a moment of unexpected and unconditional support that it nearly brought me to tears. Actually, strike the “nearly.”

The next day my company closed all of its more than 300 stores in the U.S. and sent tens of thousands of employees home. The whole world went into panic mode and started running out of toilet paper.

And I started using the hashtag #HomeAlone. I’ll stop using it when I return to work in the store.

 

2. Spring: Expanding Waistline

I had started using a grocery delivery service a couple of months earlier; Once I entered the “I’m not leaving the house” zone, I came to rely even more heavily on such services.

Knowing the risks they were taking, I tipped the drivers generously. And I imagine I was quite the comic vision in bright yellow rubber gloves, washing and rinsing all the packages in the kitchen sink before putting them in the cupboards.

Thankfully, I already had more than enough toilet paper for the one person in the house who needs it once a day, but I might have started over-stocking on certain other staples. The freezer in my basement is still provisioned with a six-month supply of frozen proteins, and I still get weekly deliveries of fresh milk, orange juice, and eggs. And Oreos. Oreos have become my Quarantine Comfort food. I’m quite certain that I have single-handedly kept Nabisco in business for the past year.

It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that I really didn’t do much for the first few months besides eat. What I did do was get fat on Wheat Thins and cheese in the afternoons and a honkin’ bowl of Purity Cookies and Cream that I scarfed down with some late-night comedy around 10 o’clock every evening. From March to July I went from 173 pounds and jeans that were already a bit tight in the waist to 184 pounds – and the next size larger jeans.

Once it became apparent that nobody was going anywhere to do anything for months to come, the commentaries in my daily newsfeed ran the gamut from “don’t feel guilty about not doing anything during a pandemic!” to “use this time to do all the projects you’ve been putting off!” I did a bit of both.

Harvey Schatzkin & Ellen Gould, ca. 1943

On the ‘get busy!’ front, I played my guitar some, and returned to a project that has been lurking on the back burner for a couple of years.

I have in my basement a scrapbook stuffed with all of the letters that my parents exchanged in 1943 – the year between when they met and when they were married in January of 1944.

Most of that time future-father Harvey was deployed to a weather station in Greenland (you’d be surprised how vital weather information from the arctic circle was to the aviation war effort in Europe); Future mother Ellen stayed home in St. Louis, and they exchanged the sort of letters that war-time love stories are made of.

A while back, I’d started reading those letters, using voice-recognition software to transcribe them into digital text. Now with nothing but time on my hands I returned to that undertaking, reading and dictating several of the letters every day.

Harvey and Ellen’s letters, aka “The Pile.”

I am drawn to the letters in part because I never really knew my father. He died from cancer in 1958, at the age of 37; I was only 7 at the time – the age, my mother said later, when he was just starting to do things with me – like the night in October, 1957 when he took me out to see if we could find Sputnik wandering among the stars.

From his letters, I can tell that my father was a man of humor and depth – and was, uncommonly, passionately devoted to the woman he would marry and father three children with. Thanks to Covid and the afternoons spent combing through those letters, I have over the past year spent more time ‘in the presence of my father’ than I did in the few years when were both alive.

 

3. Summer: Life Is Better With The Top Down

As the months wore on, my part-time job went through numerous work-at-home iterations. To its credit, while millions were being fired or furloughed, my employer kept everybody on the payroll. But there really wasn’t a whole lot for us to do.

For the first few months, we did a lot of video conferencing, studying online manuals and guides to keep our knowledge and skills sharp in the event we returned to the store.

The store tried to reopen in the spring and called us all in for some “socially distanced” sales training.

It was weird driving into town for the first time in months, though it did occur to me that one upside of a global pandemic is the relative absence of traffic. It had been so long since I’d been to work, I had to consciously remind myself of the route that I take from my home in Pegram to the Mall in Green Hills: “Oh yeah, I get off the Interstate here… I turn here… wait, where the hell is everybody? Oh, look, plenty of places to park.”

Walking into the the Mall, I got my first taste of who was or was not wearing a mask – and I discovered how irritated I get whenever I see somebody with a mask that doesn’t cover their nose. I’m writing this nine months later and that still pisses me off – but I have learned to stifle my irritation – if barely.

With Covid case numbers still rising, the reopening date was postponed once… twice. When it was postponed the third time, they didn’t even bother to reschedule. The store stayed closed all summer and well into the fall.

In July, the company sent us specially configured computers so that we could join the online-and-telephone sales force. I am now a telemarketer.

I am genuinely grateful for the benefits my company has continued to provide – like health insurance (even though I am old enough to qualify for Medicare), weekly Covid tests and generous discounts on all the gizmos that I have come to rely on even more heavily in all these months of digitally-mediated isolation.

And I must admit that that those bi-weekly pay checks provide an essential buffer between daily deliveries from Amazon and having to compete with the cat for food.

When my shifts ended early enough – especially after Daylight Savings kicked in – I amused myself with almost daily drives in my Mustang convertible along the curvy backroads of this part of Tennessee on the outskirts of Nashville that I like to call “West Bumfuque.”

When there isn’t much else going on in your daily life, there is a lot to be said for putting on a cap and sunglasses, putting the top down – and downshifting and stepping on the gas coming out of the backcountry curves while a carefully curated playlist throbs from the stereo.

They said I’d never find what I was looking for: a Mustang Convertible with 6-speed manual transmission. But there it is, even in the color I wanted: Ruby-Fucking-Red.

Since there are no passing lanes along my routes, my idea of an “an achievement” in those days was going the whole 15 or 20 mile route without getting stuck behind a slower car in front of me. Suffice it to say my average speed was well above the posted limits.

Every such excursion reminded me how fortunate I am to live in the country, and offered a new appreciation for the fresh-cut fragrance of a farm no matter how fast I drove past it. But I did wonder if the people I zoomed past noticed, perhaps saying to one another “there goes that crazy guy in the red Mustang again!” – and again, and again.

I remember how anxious I was the first time I had to stop for gas. One of the info-nuggets that circulated during the early Days of Covid was that the virus could be transmitted through physical surfaces like a gas-pump handle. I adopted the practice of carrying my yellow rubber gloves with me when I went to the gas station. I panicked slightly one time when I left the store after paying and opened the door with my bare left hand instead of my gloved right.

Maybe it’s just fatigue after nearly a year, but I am less reluctant now to enter public spaces – though I still prefer curb-side delivery. Recently I ran to a restaurant in town to pick up a take-out order. While I was there I observed a surprising number of people seated at tables – and wondered if there was a revolver on each table with a single bullet in the chamber.

 

4. Fall: The Social Dilemma

Like everybody else in the world, I have defaulted to a virtual reality. Almost all of my social interaction is through screens of one kind or another. My laptop and tablet are always on, relentlessly tempting me into the bottomless abyss of doomscrolling.

Even more so than before the pandemic, Facebook has knotted itself into the daily fabric of my life. Here in the Covid Bunker, Facebook offers the persistent illusion of social contact and stimulation – in its compulsive, simulated way, filling the vacuum that forms in the absence of a real world.

It’s hard to separate the good that Facebook sometimes does from its insidious side-effects.

On the one hand, through Facebook I recently recently struck up a correspondence with a dear friend from junior high school I hadn’t spoken to for several years. When she wondered about my near daily #HomeAlone posts, I informed her of my divorce two years ago. We’re in the same boat, so to speak – only 2,000 miles apart.

There is also a group page keeps me connected with my neighborhood out here in West Bumfuque. Early in the lockdown, when the grocery stores ran out of staples, one of those neighbors supplied with me a huge bottle of ketchup.

On the other hand, Facebook is a relentless distraction, never more than a mouse-click away, and the cultural impact of its pernicious surveillance model has been widely documented.

I feel the same way about Facebook that I felt about Scotch and vodka before I quit drinking – but I’ve been saying that for years. For now, though, social media is the easiest place to go when I feel the need to unload some snark and irony – or if I just want people to see that I really – literally! – haven’t gone anywhere.

My “Work-At-Home” Station

My work has gone entirely online. Three-and-a-half days each week, I take calls from people all over the country, usually telling them why they are not going to get the gizmo they want when they want it – and asking sarcastic, rhetorical questions like “you do know we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, don’t you?”

 

Back in October, after one particularly arduous shift, a woman I’d ‘swiped right’ with started sending me text messages, and I just wasn’t in the mood.

That’s when I put a name on the condition that defines my year.

I have been living in an “Isolation Feedback Loop.”

I am alone, and, yes, it gets lonely. Now leave me alone.

 

5: Redux: Winter and Spring – Again

Given my age, the case numbers and the unfathomable death toll over the past year, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that staying healthy has been no mean feat. As fellow Boomer Fran Lebowitz put it it in a recent NPR interview, “I think I’ve been excellent at not getting Covid – because I have not gotten it.”

Staying alive has mostly meant staying #HomeAlone. It’s just me and my screens and Buster the Demon Cat, who showed up over Memorial Day weekend thanks to a (mostly) Facebook friend. See? There’s that whole Facebook conundrum again.

Click the picture  to see all the “Daily Buster”s

Buster is my constant companion, following me all over the house as I make my daily commutes from the bedroom to the kitchen to the office to the living room and back to the bedroom. Every morning begins with her nestled in my arms, nuzzling my chin and purring her little heart out while I type in my journal.

While friends and acquaintances have turned this year into a period of extraordinary output – writing books, writing and recording songs and posting an infinite stream of Facebook Lives and videos on YouTube – the only thing I have done with any consistency is make photos of Buster and put them on Instagram and Facebook. When my grandkids ask, “Grandpa, what did you do during the pandemic?” I’ll just say “I put cat pictures on the Internet.”

Oh, wait.. I don’t have any grandkids – even though I turned 70 back in November. I had a step-granddaughter for a while, but lost her in the divorce, too.

One upside of all this solitude was rediscovering extended, linear concentration in the form of an ancient information technology called “books” – which I read sitting on my deck, watching the sunset while hummingbirds hovered at the feeders overhead.

Honestly, it hasn’t been all solitude and screens. I’ve had a few lunches with friends – outside, on sunny autumn days. I’ve gone for hikes in the park. I have spoken with neighbors that I hadn’t spoken to since the divorce (“I got the house but she got the neighbors…”). And, speaking of my domicile, I see my housekeeper every other Tuesday. I can’t imagine the squalor I’d be living in were it not for her.

But I can count the total number of hugs I have had since March, 2020 on the fingers of one hand.

From peak-to-trough, minus 30+ lbs

At the end of July, my Wheat-Thins-and-Ice-Cream-Quarantine-Diet peaked the scale at almost 185 lbs, and even the expanded-waist jeans I was wearing were starting to bind. That’s when I decided to try a regimen “Interim Fasting” that I learned about – where else but? – on Facebook. In my case, “fasting” mostly means I stopped eating those honking bowls of ice-cream every night at 10:30.

I walk four to six miles around my neighborhood every day, repeating the route so often that I’m surprised there is no rut in the pavement. I use an app to count my calories, and on March 4 I hit my goal weight of 155 lbs – the first time my weight has had a “150-handle” since I was in my 20s.

As March, 2021 draws to a close, I am – thanks to my advanced age and, at last, a competent Federal government – fully vaccinated.

As the prospect of a return to some semblance of normalcy shines over the horizon, I am beginning to detect the visceral changes that this year has imposed.   I seem to be going through the world very differently. Maybe spending an hour or two nearly every day just walking at three miles an hour has rewired my internal wheel-works.  Maybe that explains why I have found new comfort in books and words on paper and less patience for words on screens.

A few weeks ago, some prophet scrawled on a New York subway wall that “after the plague came the Renaissance.” There is good reason now to shed the gloom of the past year and begin to imagine the world reborn – the bright light that will shine upon us as we emerge from this long, dark tunnel.

When the pandemic is over, I’ll be able to say that I survived. I hung out with my dead parents. I put cat pictures on the Internet. I kept my job and learned new skills. I lost 30 pounds. And I read more books in a year than I read in the five years prior.

I didn’t get sick, and I didn’t die.

Now, where are my shades?

The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls…

How Is This Even Possible?

(Reflections on a Numerical Milestone)

by Paul Schatzkin
November 15, 2020 

For the past few months, I have been looking at this photo and thinking I should have something to say about it pertinent to the occasion of my 70th birthday. 

These are “the Schatzkin men.”  In the center, my father, Harvey; on the left, my brother, Arthur; on the right, yours truly.  The photo was taken in our backyard in Rumson, New Jersey in March, 1954 (note the white picket fence in the background).   I was 3.  Arthur was 6, and Harvey… well, we didn’t know it at the time, but Harvey had only a few years left on the planet: multiple myeloma dispatched him in 1958 at the age of 37. 

Arthur died in 2011, just a month shy of his 63rd birthday.   Glioblastoma – the same kind of brain cancer that nicked Ted Kennedy and John McCain.  “Heart disease runs in some families,” my brother’s widow said at the time. “In your family it’s cancer.” 

So here I am, having outlived them all, the only one of “the Schatzkin men” with a first-person need to learn how to spell “septuagenarian.” 

How is this even possible?

Mickey Mantle ca. 1951 (not a Schatzkin)

Before I try to answer that question, let’s talk about Mickey Mantle. (What’s that you say,  you don’t know who Mickey Mantle was? Then a) you’re an idiot, and b) Google it.) 

Mickey Mantle’s father died  at age 40 – as did several other men in the Mantle family.  Hell, they all worked in the lead and zinc mines in Oklahoma, so their early demise is not altogether surprising. 

But Mickey, even though he was a strapping athlete who worked in the verdant, sunlit expanses of major league baseball, lived his life like a man who expected to experience a similar fate.  He told anybody who would listen that he had no expectation of living past 40. 

“I’m not gonna be cheated,” Mickey said during the best years of his career, and he conducted himself like a man bound and determined to pack a lifetime of living into half a lifetime. 

When those decades of hard living  and hard drinking finally caught up with him – well after his 40th birthday – Mickey would often say, “If I’d known I was gonna live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.”

Like Mickey Mantle, I grew up expecting I was gonna be dead by 40, too. 

But in my case, the lament is more along the lines of “If I’d known I was gonna live this long, I might have planned my life a little better.” 

By which I mean, “I might have planned it at all. 

The really odd, perplexing thing is: even though I averted that Gateway of Doom for more than 30 years ago, I still live in its shadow. 

That’s despite a lifetime of therapy that started in the third grade – the  year after Harvey disappeared from the set.  Despite spending countless hours in the presence of a highly regarded (i.e. Freudian) child psychiatrist, nobody managed to figure out that I’d been traumatized by Harvey’s sudden departure.  

Guess who is going to have (at least) 67 more birthdays!?

Let’s do the math: 

Harvey Schatzkin: dead at 37. 

Arthur Schatzkin: dead at 62.

Mickey Mantle: dead at 63.

Paul Schatzkin:  hearty and hale and now 70 years old! 

How is this even possible? 

Well, for starters, it’s possible because I’m ridiculously healthy.  

Nobody is going to confuse me with Adonis or Apollo, but I get out of bed every morning, put on my sneakers and walk for two miles.  I close the fitness rings on my Apple Watch  and by the time I put it back on the charger each night I’ve walked the requisite 10,000 steps every day.

And, knock wood, in those seven decades the most serious illness I have ever had is the measles when I was a kid and a skin cancer on my leg that was thoroughly excised about 4 years ago.  That’s it.  Knock wood again.   

When I had my annual physical last spring, the doc said my blood-work numbers were nearing the threshold where I might want to start thinking about possibly doing something to bring them down.  That was about two months into Covid 2020: My weight was in the high 170s, but on the rise amid a pandemic spent sitting at home eating fistfuls of Wheat Thins in the afternoons and a hefty bowl of Cookies and Cream with Colbert just before going to bed every night. 

At the end of July I started counting calories and commenced a practice of (daily) intermittent fasting; My weight has gone from a peak in the mid-180s to the mid-160s today.   I’m gonna go see the doc tomorrow and run the numbers again to see if they aren’t below the aforementioned Threshold of Concern. In the meantime my jeans fit a lot better.  

Be it ever so humble…

So if I’ve lived this long and I’m in such good health, why do I feel I should have more to show for my time on Earth than a paid-for house, a muscle-car convertible, an old truck and a crazy cat? 

Others in my age bracket are settling into their retirement now: moving to Florida, setting up rocking chairs, counting their grandkids.  I’m still working at a part-time job and skipped the part about having kids altogether, grand or otherwise. 

Which brings me back to Mickey Mantle:  Mickey said he should have taken better care of himself, and I’m saying I should have planned my life better.  

If I hadn’t expected to be dead, maybe I would have paid more attention in school, gotten a better education and availed myself to one of those “profession” things that I keep hearing about.   

Lahaina, Maui ca. 1984 –What else do I have to do?

Instead, my academic career was most notable for bearing the label of “underachiever.” In the years when my classmates were earning their fortunes – in some cases raking in more money than a croupier at a Vegas craps table – I might have done something more lucrative than smoking vast quantities of dope and taking tourists sailing and snorkeling in Hawaii (it was a tough life, but, dammit, somebody had to do it…).

Despite my academic sloth, I did have one substantial material success in my life.    

The drugs and alcohol wore off in the late 80s. I came to Nashville in the mid 90s and, combining a little bit of knowledge of music with 15 years of experience with personal computers, I started an Internet music business – before most people had even heard of the World Wide Web.  With that enterprise I found a purpose, built a business and became part of a community.  Despite the lack of any formal training, I was  doing good work, making friends and earning the respect of colleagues. 

Ahead of the curve? I was there before there even was a curve.

But I swear to God, the whole time I thought, “I guess this means I’ll be dead soon…” 

That was 20 years ago.  The business has come and gone. I was fortunate that its demise included a “liquidity event” that paid off my mortgage and has kept me  afloat for all of those 20 years.  

Like a scene in a Monty Python movie, “I’m not dead yet…” – but I have struggled mightily to find a similar measure of purpose and commitment in the years since. 

It’s not like I didn’t do things: I wrote a biography of “The Boy Who Invented Television” – a story that his transfixed me since my years on the periphery of the TeeVee business in Hollywood in the 70s.  As that volume went into the world in the fall of 2002, I imagined that I’d embarked on a career as a “biographer of obscure 20th century scientists.” Unfortunately the fabled ‘sophomore effort  went off the rails and took that career idea with it. 

There have been several other fuses lit – that burned off into duds. 

But… wait a minute. I’m not supposed to be finding a second or third career.   I’m supposed to be dead – like my father, like my brother, like Mickey-fucking-Mantle.  

And yet…. here I am. 

How is this even possible? 

I know that part of the answer to that question is a tale of sobriety.  

“I’m not dead yet!” because “The Reverend” Gene Perkins introduced me to AA in 1987

With the help of a friend who 12th stepped me into ‘the program’ in 1987, I stopped smoking, drinking, and snorting just in time to avoid imposing my father’s fate upon myself.  I have not had a sip, a sniff, or a puff since shortly after I turned… wait for it… 37.   I did a lifetime’s worth of drinking, I just stuffed it all into half a lifetime.  Me and Mickey – except, in my case, without the incurable liver disease.

Now I reach the biblically prescribed three-score-years-and-ten wondering “why me?” and “what for?”  

The decades-long inability to find answers to such questions – and make further contributions to the household treasury beyond paying off the mortgage and spending stupid money renovating the place – might be one reason I find myself living alone at age 70.   

When my cozy domestic reality started unraveling, I discovered that I needed to supplement my income with, well…. actual income.  That’s when I discovered that the only thing I was still qualified to do was peddle gizmos at the Trillion Dollar Digital Fruit Stand. 

Like everything else, that situation changed dramatically this year. Where I once got to spend several days each week having occasionally meaningful encounters with actual other humans, for the past several months I’ve just been sitting at a computer terminal staring at a screen and listening to people mumble inaudibly about stuff they need.  A couple of times a day I get to conjure up some useful knowledge and make a modest difference in people’s lives, but mostly it’s been telling  cardholders from the International Bank of Entitlement that they cannot have the thing they want in the minute that they want it.  

Arthur @ 2-1/2, Ellen @ 29, me @ 5 weeks.

That’s when the part about ‘not having a plan’  starts to gnaw at me.  I start to think “this is not what I had in mind…” for this stage of my life.  Then I remember, “Oh yeah, I never really had anything in mind for this stage.  I didn’t expect there would even be a ‘this stage’.” 

Which is when I stop thinking about the male side of the family and wonder if maybe I got a longevity gene from my mother’s side of the family.  She lived until she was 81. In fact, she got married for the third time when she was 73.  

Maybe that’s why, along with all the other thoughts percolating above, I keep circling back to this vague idea that I will (or should?) do something remarkable with my 70s.

“I took the tablets an hour ago. I’ll be gone by midnight.”

Given my continued good health (did I mention knocking on wood?) it’s not unreasonable to surmise that – like my mother – I’ve got a good ten more years before faculties fade and organs start breaking down and I have to face the decision that Ruth Gordon made in “Harold and Maude” (you can Google that, too). 

Then I catch myself, and begin to question this whole fixation, this lingering self-and-social pressure that I am supposed to “do” and “strive” and “accomplish.” 

I recall something Kurt Vonnegut (admittedly, no slouch in the “doing” and “accomplishing” departments) said: “I am a human being, not a human doing.”

And then it dawns on me:  Maybe I’ve finally reached the point where I can stop obsessing on the “doing” part of life and just make the best of the “being” part. 

Maybe, in the eighth decade of my life, that’s enough.  

It’s certainly more than Harvey and Arthur – and Mickey – were doing at this point in their lives.

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This is 70 (OK, I took it last night, so it’s actually 69+365 (since 2020 is a 366-day leap year)

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(Care to comment?  I think we’ll gather most of  them here at Facebook; in the space below if you’ve managed to get yourself out of roach motel….)

Harvey & Ellen
Chapter 1: First ‘Darlings’

Harvey Schatzkin and Ellen Gould met on November 30, 1942.

As Ellen recalled decades later:

There was an Army Air Force communications school at Scott Field in East St. Louis.  My good friend Howard Beck kept telling me that he wanted me to meet his brother Norman’s friend who was at Scott Field who was only free on Monday nights.  At the time I had a regular Monday night date with a boy named Dan, and told Howard, “I don’t break dates.” But Howard kept  insisting that his brother’s friend and I would really like each. I finally agreed and broke my usual Monday date. I was working at the USO downtown and Howard arranged to pick me up there.

November 30 in Missouri “dawned cold, snowy… blizzard-like.”  Howard and Ellen rode the trolley through the drifting snow to have dinner at the home of a friend…

Hedy Lamar as the jungle temptress ‘Tondelayo’ in “White Cargo.” I’ve see the movie. It’s pretty awful.

And there was this really cute guy in the uniform of the U.S. Army Air Force Cadets named Harvey Schatzkin. We really did like each other. We had a perfectly great evening with lots of repartee and jokes. When the evening was over, Harvey took me on the trolley back to my apartment, and we made a date for the following Monday.  I am not sure we knew it that night but I know now that it was “love at first sight.”

A week later they had their first date: Chinese food and a Hedy Lamar movie called “White Cargo.”  Harvey returned to Scott Field and graduated from Officer’s Candidate School.  Then the Army  sent the newly minted Second Lieutenant to several locations on the East Coast  before he landed at his first post: a weather station in Greenland.

Which left their new-found devotion to the vagaries of the mail in the middle of World War II.

I have all the letters.  There are hundreds of them.

Harvey and Ellen’s letters, aka “The Pile.”

One of the things I have been doing over the past few months of Involuntary Covid Incarceration is  reading all these letters and dictating them into digital documents.  I’m almost done going through the “first tranche” – the letters they wrote between their meeting at the end of 1942 and their wedding in New York in January 1944.  Whatever the final result, I think those two markers will serve as the bookends, so to speak.

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Ellen and her father went to Alton Illinois to spend Christmas with family but…

I was feeling kind of miserable and I really couldn’t think why. I guess I figured I would never see Harvey again. We went to Alton and I was even more unhappy. In the middle of the afternoon the phone rang. It was Harvey. He had tracked me down and wanted me to come back to St. Louis. My father I thought I was crazy, but I talked him into leaving and taking me back to town. Harvey and I spent the evening together and we decided we were in love. We sort of got engaged. I don’t remember an actual proposal, but it was sort of taken for granted that we would get married someday.

While everybody is honoring their father’s on this Pandemic Father’s Day in 2020, I am going to honor both of my parents by sharing the beginning of their correspondence, exchanged over New Years 1942-43.  They have known each other about a month at this point.

Harvey wrote first:

December 30, 1942
Hotel Miami
Dayton Ohio

Darling,

(That’s the first time I ever started a letter that way; hope I spelled it right.) 

In a room about six times too big for him sits a somewhat sleepy Second Lieutenant who has spent the day (1) signing papers and filling out forms, (2) thinking about you.

It’s been another one of those typical army days –standing in lines and waiting around while nothing happens. As usual I told six captains, ten sergeants and three men who sell Good Humors my name, address, birthplace and favorite seafood.

Tomorrow I have to go back and continue some more of the same since I did not get anywheres near finished today. Also tomorrow I shall move into the Bachelors Officers Quarters. By then I should have an address and will expect you to send me cases of champagne, boxes of caviar and other little items essential to my well-being.

I am wondering if you have enough Air Corps knickknacks to get along avec.  I’ve had my agents working on the case and they have come up with the following information which may be of interest to you: 

To begin with, very popular this year are full-size propellers; they are strapped across the back and considered excellent for travel in crowded buses; Another item that is definitely chic for junior misses, sub-debutantes and Pomeranians are old carburetors; A spray of wisteria and a few drops of 100-octane gas are added, and the whole business made into the neatest little hat you’ve ever seen. Also high on there list are hearts of newly-minted Second Lieutenants – but, then, what would you do with more than one?

Honey, tonight while waiting to see if I can sell the hotel the idea of letting me have a bed upon which to toss my weary bones and blood and stuff I heard music pouring out of the little bar they have here – the Kotex room or something, I think it’s called. Like a little, hungry tyke on a cold day looking into a bakery shop I pushed my nose against the glass. It was just one of those quiet little bars with a three piece orchestra, soft blue lights, and scattered couples sitting around. I figured it would take a long time to get your hat on and get down here, but something inside me just got all knotted up, and all I can think of was how I wish you were here, darling.

I kind of think I’m getting tired so I can sleep (Gee wouldn’t that make a clever song title) so I’ll close this one up. I’ll write you again as soon as I have an address. 

All my love, darling, and right now I’m kissing you good night.

Harvey

 

The next day, Ellen wrote back….

 

December 31, 1942

New Year’s Eve

Darling,

Gee, it seems funny writing that.  It’s the first time for me, too. 

I was so glad to hear your voice today. And you called just at a time when I was thinking hardest about you, wishing you were here and thinking about how much I love you.

The trip back from the station was like a rocket trip to some other planet, and equally as terrifying. In fact I’ve written to General Arnold to see if that cab driver could not be presented a pair of wings. He handled that cab beautifully in the air.

Daddy fell down a flight of stairs today and hurt his back! He can’t move. The doctor doesn’t know whether there are any broken bones or not. He told him to stay in the bed until Saturday, and then come down for an x-ray. He’s better tonight, though. He can turn over, etc. When he came in this morning he was a pale chartreuse. His stomach has been bothering him for two weeks, and now this. If it weren’t for you darling I wouldn’t have a very happy New Year.

As I told you over the phone, I lost my wallet with our gas ration books.  See what you do to me? I never lose things.

I think I have enough Air Corps bric-a-brac. In fact if things get too tough, I’ll turn myself in to the scrap metal drive. 

I really didn’t have to tell anyone about us. People just looked at  the expression on my face, and guessed that I was in love. They don’t know how wonderful you are.

I was going to a party tonight. They all insisted I come, date or not. But now I feel that I ought to stay home with Daddy.

I went marketing today. I just love to go marketing. You find such interesting things, things you’ve never eaten before, but someone must.  OK, I’ll take a can. As I stood in line with my booty, I trembled from head to foot, suffused in shame, thinking what Mr. Wickard  would say if you could see me.  I looked around, and instead of the usual expressions on the faces of my fellow shoppers – The pensive look: have I forgotten anything?; The worried look;:This is going to cost too much; The harassed look: Did the maid remember to take little Ambrosia out? – These were all supplanted by grim looks of of determination, as knuckles turned white from gripping the cart handles.  

Each woman had the gleam of a Commando in her eye. This strange transformation did not change till she was out of the store with her precious cargo of cans.  Then you’d hear something like this, “I know this is unpatriotic, but you know, Oswald just adores pickled snails, and what with rationing, well, I just don’t know what he’d do, so I just thought I’d get a few….  

I read Daddy parts of your letter, and he thought you were very, very clever.  Of course, I think so, But I’m kind of prejudiced.  You see, I’m very much in love with you. 

Howard called the other night.  He kept asking me what was new.  So I started to tell, and then he admitted that he knew all about it, and thought it was wonderful.  So do I. 

Daddy is getting lonesome in there by himself and wants me to come in and talk to him, so I guess I’ll say Good Night, honey. 

Happy New Year, darling, and I hope we’ll be able to spend next New Year’s Eve together.  

I love you, 

Ellen

*

They didn’t spend New Years 43/44 together but Harvey was furloughed back to the States for the holidays that year.  Ellen and her father went east to New York, and they were married at Harvey’s parents apartment on January 16, 1944.  Harvey had just turned 23, Ellen was 22.

I haven’t figured out yet what I am going to do with all this material… Book? Screenplay?  Podcast?  Multimedia Internet Extravaganza?  Dunno yet.

But I figure there’s a story in there somewhere.  Some of you already know how it ends… 

Incidentally, the working title “I’ve Heard That Song Before” comes from a popular recording by the Harry James Orchestra that Harvey and Ellen both reference several times in the correspondence.  I guess that was “their song.”  And it’s a pretty good one…

 

 

Trauma, Nostalgia and Closure 

I went back to Rumson for a few hours last week…. 

Rumson is the town near the Jersey Shore where I was a kid.  My family lived there from 1950 until 1962 – from age 0 to age 11. My childhood, pretty much. 

Over the decades since, I’ve gone back there several times.  In the fall of 1984 I went back for  two whole weeks.  I owned a house in Hawaii at the time, and could have arranged a ‘vacation home exchange’ anywhere in the world.  I could have gone to England or France; I chose instead to spend two weeks in New Jersey.  But even that was not enough to heal the psychic wounds inflicted by the way I’d left 22 years earlier. 

Prior to this most recent visit, the last time I was there was in 2002, when my sister and my brother and his wife and a couple of their kids and I granted our mother’s final wish and spread her ashes around the town where she’d spent the happiest years of her life – before our father’s untimely demise in 1958. 

Today I am publishing a pair of companion pieces that explore my departure from Rumson in 1962 – and why I keep going back:

The Summer of ’62 is about the move.  It’s a piece that I wrote as part of a memoir writing class I took in March of this year.  

Return to Brigadoon is about one of those return visits in the summer of 1969; it’s based on a poem I found when I re-opened the journals I kept during my last year of high school and first year in college. 

I’m posting these now as part of an attempt to find meaningful closure around some of what my new therapist calls “early childhood trauma.” 

For the past 8 months, I have been working with Lee Norton, a therapist in Nashville who specializes in the full spectrum of trauma, from assault-rifle-massacre-survival to the sort of catastrophic early losses like I suffered when Harvey died.  I’ve been in-and-out of therapy since I was in the third grade but this feels like the most productive therapeutic work I’ve ever done.  Please don’t ask me why it took so long.

I’m not sure what the outcome of this current course is supposed to be. My 67-year-old-self has been spending a lot of time with my 7-year-old self, who, it seems, went into hiding about the time his father died.  The kid and I are  still deliberating over who liberates who.

And while I’ve been doing that work, I’ve been spending some (but not nearly enough) time rummaging through my father’s writing and the correspondence he and my mother exchanged during World War II.  There seems to be a connection. 

I know what some of you are thinking: Why doesn’t he just get over it?  His father died, the family moved, yada yada. It was 60 years ago.  Move along… 

I’ve even heard the word “indulgent” to describe these nostalgic disquisitions. 

Yes, I am deeply conflicted about the whole proposition.  On the one hand, it feels like necessary and unfinished work, despite the half-dozen decades between me and the events I keep returning to.  On the other hand, at times the whole exercise seems like an excuse for not moving on to more constructive pursuits. 

All of this came up in a session I had with Lee Norton shortly after this last visit to my point of origin. After wondering why am the only one of three siblings that continues to be affected by these long ago events, Lee offered:

One kid tends to get hit more than the others. Regardless of what the catastrophic loss was, the usual defense mechanisms are overwhelmed.  It’s a very physiological process.  The brain doesn’t have anywhere to put it, so it accumulates and sequesters in the right hemisphere which has no sense of time.  

The brain always wants one linear, explicit storyline that it can then put away.  Until you look into a catastrophic event and do something …. the brain does not recognize it as finished and when it’s not finished then all these unconscious processes kick in and we recapitulate. We’ll have relationship or job dilemmas; it’ll show up in lots of different ways – financially, self medication (umm…that would be me). The goal is you have to get it finished... 

So I am, once again trying to get it finished.

For you, reading these things is optional.  For me, apparently, writing them is not. 

*

A 180º panorama of Monmouth Avenue. It was a great neighborhood for kids and bicycles.
No helmets required.

*

*

More From Harvey:
The 1956 Medical Trilogy, Part 3

In which the hint of a diagnosis is finally revealed in a letter written to Harvey and Ellen’s friends Renee and Jules Gordon during his visit to the Mayo Clinic:

 

December 8, 1956

 Dear Renée and Jules,

 I am now some 150 pages into the Civil War and enjoying it fine. It’s a very exciting business, and I wonder how it comes out. The book is swell. Many thanks. I tried to reach you Monday night before I left but gave up after a half hour or so of busy signals. No perseverance.

 It’s cold out here, but ideal for winter sports such as sleeping, and sitting around fires drinking hot toddies. I may very well settle for sitting around a nice, roaring radiator drinking scotch. Of course it’s that pleasant, dry cold that they have in Minnesota, so you don’t really notice it or mind it so much. It’s just that I wish those damn penguins would quit waddling up and down my windowsill.

 The clinic itself is a real swell place, full of jolly old doctors, nurses, technicians, clerks and the like. There’s plenty to do, which makes it  so different from a lot of these winter lodges that offer nothing but skiing and ice-skating. Although so far I haven’t picked up any gold medals, (after all I’m a relative newcomer) I’ve done very well in the following: The Hundred Meter Needle Toss, Blood Polo, The Urine Put, and the Freestyle Rectal Dash. My coach is very proud of me.

 I keep seeing the doctor from time to time, but so far he has had nothing much to tell me. By Monday the results of all the tests should be tabulated, and I expect to have a conference with him and learn the answer to this whole business – whether I am really Jewish or not.

 Well, that’s about all for now. I want to go back to my book and find out if Grant really does win the damn thing after all.

 Look to you both,

 Harvey

 P. S. If you want to start making a line of mouton-aligned ankle straps and wedgies, I think you have a real market for them out here.

 

More From Harvey:
The 1956 Medical Trilogy, Part 2

(Above: The Schatzkin family, seated around the dining room table at 14 Monmouth Ave, Rumson NJ – celebrating what would be Harvey’s last birthday: January 16, 1958.)

 

It does not appear that  “A Visit to the Mayo Clinic” was ever continued or finished past the second day’s entry.  Maybe that was as long as Harvey was there.

But there is another essay in the archives that seems to pick up where that one left off.  There is no date on the copies in the files, so no way to tell when in the course of his illness it was written.  I do note the mention of Monmouth Memorial Hospital in Long Branch, NJ, which is where he finally succumbed in September, 1958.  But the piece also mentions “they day that I left,” so, obviously, this was before that.

This one is called, simply,

Hospitality
by Harvey Schatzkin

I always enjoy trips to the hospital. I also enjoy stubbing my toe or making a public appearance with my fly open. The last trip was no exception. Herewith a few highlights:

Food: All hospitals serve food. It is probably the result of some State Regulation. I hear they are pretty good with the intravenous gambit. It’s the intra-oral deal that I am concerned with.

First-of-all, hospitals  specialize in diets. On my floor, patients were being treated to low-salt diets, low-fat diets, and the like. For me, it was the specialty of the house – the low-taste diet.  All the harmful flavor had been removed by a special process we call cooking.

I understand that this is presided over by a dietitian – flown in at no small expense. I believe it. To get spaghetti, salad, and bran flakes all to  taste alike is no job to leave to chance. It requires an expert’s hand at the helm. Monmouth Memorial has a gem.

Electronics: Hospitals are abreast of this modern trend. Handy to every patient is a pushbutton. Pushing on it sets into motion a chain of events not unlike what happens when an unknown blip appears on an Air Force radar scope. First, a voice (with a smile) asks, “are you dying?” If you answer, “No”, the voice goes away and that ends it. I soon learned this trick and managed to have several conversations with the voice. I was given time signals, weather reports, road conditions, and an occasional beep whenever Sputnik whizzed over Long Branch. Sometimes, I can even elicit a discussion about my condition or particular needs of the moment.

On the day I left, I found out that the whole business is recorded on a series of tapes in Master Control and no nurses are ever involved in any of it. 

Getting About: Even as a non-ambulatory patient, I was frequently needed in parts of the building other than my room. This required my being shoved into a cart and rolled to my destination. A very dangerous situation. You may never return. There is no particular malice involved, it’s just  that you may be wheeled into some hall and left there. The halls of Monmouth Memorial (known as the Halls of Purgatory) are filled with dispossessed patients. These D. P.’s have – in some age long past – been wheeled into a hall for a purpose – a purpose now vanished on some decayed record.

As I waited to come back from the X-ray room, I talked with one of the hall people – and the horror of it all dawned on me. My friend had no idea how long he had been in The Halls; but he kept mumbling about, “that man in the White House.” It was pretty disquieting.

I was one of the lucky ones. After a few hours and attendant from the 6th  floor came roaming along to see if she could find any patients she had misplaced during the day. I threw my arms around her promising love, devotion, and jewels. She agreed to wheeled me back up.

I made it just in time. They were starting to change my bed clothes and erase my name from the door. After making it back from the X-ray room in one day I was regarded as something of a celebrity – and treated with considerably more respect. 

That’s it.

As long as we’re observing birthday’s, here’s another photo, a month later, from my brother Arthur’s 10th birthday – February 11, 1958.

February 11, 1958. Note the little dish between them, filled with cigarettes…

More From Harvey:
The 1956 Medical Trilogy, Part 1

I surmise that anybody who’s been following this revival of my father’s writing has learned by now that Harvey died of cancer in 1958 at the ripe young age of 37.  Therein lies the tragedy and the origins of the personal trauma that I’m exploring now (while undergoing a fresh round of new personal trauma right here in 2018. But we’ll get to that later…).

We don’t really know a whole lot about his illness nor his death.  It came, frankly, as a complete surprise to my siblings and me, although I was only 7 years old at the time and my sister only 4.  My brother (also currently deceased) might have had more of a grasp of it, but even he was only 10 years old at the time.

Almost everything I ever knew about his illness (which is to say, nothing), was expressed in a poem I wrote a long time ago about the Little Green Boat our family owned while we still lived near the Shrewsbury River in Rumson, New Jersey.

What I do have in the archives that I’m rummaging through now are three short essays that Harvey wrote about his experiences in the world of mid-1950s medical care.  Herewith, then, are those three essays, starting with:

*

A Visit To The Mayo Clinic – December, 1956

It’s peculiar that when reading the travel and resort section of the Sunday papers that I have never noticed any ads for Rochester, Minnesota as the ideal winter vacation spot. Much is written about Miami, Palm Beach, Bermuda, and the West Indies. But who is singing the praises of this happy little village nestled peacefully in the Zumbro Valley?  (named for its discoverer Sam Zumbro, who mistakenly thought he had found the Khyber Pass.) Read More

From Harvey, ca. 1940:
“The Parker Pen Letter”

Returning now too the subject of My Father and the things that he wrote during his relatively brief time on Earth:

One of the most “famous” of my father’s works (which is to say, famous within the family) is the letter that he wrote to the Parker Pen Company while a student at the University of Illinois in the fall of 1940.

*

The letter was written in 1940, but I don’t have any photos from that era handy, so here’s one from the 1950’s.

December 6, 1940

The Parker pen company
Janesville, Wisconsin

Gentlemen:

As you can see I am writing a letter to the company that makes (by its own admission) the finest pens in the world – by using a typewriter.

I do  this not because I do not have a pen., No, gentlemen right here in my left hand I have a pen. Said pen is called in one of your ads which I just happened to read, quote, a Jewel of Pendom, unquote. However, if I were to attempt to write this letter with this pen, the pages would be so smudged up with ink that it would be totally impossible for you to read it. But allow me to explain the case a little more fully.

About two years ago (or possibly a few months less) I wandered into a bookstore on our campus – that of the University of Illinois – and purchased a Parker pen.  Since this memorable date, I have had nothing but trouble with the amazing instrument.

The trouble, to sum it up briefly, is that this pen leaks – leaks torrentially.

Read More

My Name Is Harvey…

…as in the rabbit….

So began a letter that my father, Harvey Schatzkin, wrote to Macy’s in the winter of 1946 – four years before I was born.

He and wife Ellen were living at the time in an “inflated white house” in Milltown, New Jersey – building their lives together on the early fruits of America’s post-war prosperity.  For a vehicle, they owned a surplus Army Jeep, and as they assembled their household, they purchased a lot of stuff from Macy’s Department Store in New York City.

Problem was, Macy’s kept delivering their purchases to a factory on the other side of town.

So my father wrote Macy’s a letter.

Letter-writing was one of my father’s talents.  For decades now, I have been sitting on a trove of letters, essays and stories that he wrote.  All along I have been thinking I might one day do something with them. It seems that day has arrived.

Read More

Harvey and the Lionel Trains

I think I’m goin’ back
To the things I learned so well in my youth
I think I’m returning to those days
When I was young enough to know the truth
Now there are no games to only pass the time
No more electric trains, no more trees to climb
Thinking young and growing older is no sin
And I can play the game of life to win

–– Carol King

Trains1955-op_8abelhj6h120

Harvey, Arthur, and the 736 Berkshire

For Christmas in 1955, my father bought, set up and gave to my older brother an elaborate set of Lionel trains, tracks, and accessories.  

In our family photo albums, there is  just one photo of Harvey operating the trains, my brother Arthur looking on in gleeful fascination as the cast iron 736 Berkshire electric locomotive “steams” by; Just out of the frame,  circles of chemical-pellet induced smoke are puffing out of its little smokestack.

In the 1950s, Lionel trains were the quintessential under-the-tree expression of America’s post-war prosperity.   The Lionel Corporation had found a way to flourish during the war, by retooling their assembly lines to manufacture servo motors for military equipment instead of electric motors for toy trains. Once the war ended, the company repurposed those servo motors in the first post-war generation of its marquee product.

Our family was sufficiently prosperous (the family business produced ceramic household tile at a plant in Keyport, New Jersey) that our parents could afford to give their kids the very best: that Berkshire locomotive with its smoke puffing stack and whistling coal car was top-of-the-line, but that was just the start of the layout. Arrayed within the circle of tracks were equally high-end accessories:

Read More