THE BIG FIGHT

My years at Rabbi Jacob Joseph Yeshiva are tattooed on my brain. My grandmother insisted that public school was no place for me and that I would probably do better with children of my own kind. Grandma was like that. People of our own kind excluded Litvaks (Jews who were not from Eastern Europe- literally Lithuanians), bums (people who did not work much), non observant Jews and so many more within the Jewish community itself.
This was the Lower East side in the mid 1940’s. So, I was shipped off to a place that caused me to be away from Judaism most of my early adult years. It was not until I had children that I even thought of entering a synagogue. It’s not that I disavowed by heritage, but it was too much trouble to be observant and I had no idea of the other streams of the religion.
My time at the yeshiva was cut a bit short because of my birthday and the fact that I skipped third grade. At the beginning of my third grade year, the principal came into my room and lifted me, Carl Eis, and Paul Cohen and plunked us down in 4th grade with Mrs. Skern. She was an amiable, but forceful woman who insisted that we read Robinson Crusoe in the original (that means the long book).
Fourth grade is kind of a blur, but fifth grade was where it was at. Because I was a bit smaller and younger than most boys in the class, I was often called weird names. Not that the boys would make fun of me, but they knew that I was a bit different. I have described my punch ball and basketball ability, so it was not sports, but just general. Let’s give Rubin some misery (that was my name at that time).
After a few months of “Rubber Rubin Hamantachen Skoozie,” ( don’t ask me where that came from), I had had enough. During one lunchtime, one of my serious enemies, Jack Prince, began to hurl epithets at me at more than the usual numbers. My temper had worn thin and I rushed at him (he was a head taller than me) and began punching him in the face and stomach (I was always partial to body blows, first the stomach and then the head).
Jack was startled, but not hurt. He looked at me as if I was an alien from another planet. I am sure that he was startled that this little pits was attempting to do something bad to him. Fortunately, there were no adults around. He began to hit me back, slowly at first and then more rapidly. As he hit me, he would step back and wait for my charge. At one point, I was boiling over with anger and rushed at him with full force and knocked him over.
Jack saw that I was serious and backed away even more quickly. He put out a couple of jabs and I ran towards him again. Since he was taller and faster than me, I had to exert myself to keep up. The next half hour (and it was 30 minutes), we repeated this ballet. Jack would stick his hands out and hit me a bit and I would rush to hit him back, with little success. At the end, we were fatigued and probably a little hungry. We had used up most of our lunchtime.
The crowd that watched us began the fight rooting for Jack, but ended up clapping me on the back and seemed to be supporting the underdog. From that moment on, I learned a few things. If you don’t challenge someone, you will constantly be called names or worse (no one ever called me a name again), don’t back down, even if you are losing, and get the crowd on your side.
I can still see a bright October sky as I chased Jack from stoop to stoop on Henry St. I believe that something happened to me on that day, although I have no idea what. Suffice it to say that it remains as clear to me today as it did when it happened.

IT’S THE PEOPLE, STUPID

God has seen fit to make me mechanically disinclined. Not that I am completely bereft of ANY mechanical skills, but my mindless puttering with things never seems to end up fixing anything. Yes, I can replace any kind of light bulb. I can even fix an electric socket, or replace it. If push comes to shove, I can do a small bit of plumbing, first turning off every water entry point on the block.
However, I cannot build anything. You should have seen my razor blade box in 7th grade or my son’s pine box derby car (which actually came in second). My spatial ability is only outstripped by my ability to hang up pictures as someone’s eye level.
The creator did give me some other talents and one of them is getting to know people in a hurry. My kids have warned their children that grandpa speaks to random people. They are all correct. I do speak with random people and I will continue to do so till I croak (or lose my voice).
People are much more interesting than things, or even places. The Corn Palace was much less interesting than Jim and Rhonda at the Signature Casino and restaurant. When we got to Mitchell, South Dakota, we only knew that there was something there called the Corn Palace. The AAA lady had told us about it and the signs were strewn along the road like Burma Shave.
We arrived at Mitchell pretty early and walked into the Corn Palace, an athletic facility with corncob murals all over every walled surface. We were dying of hunger, having started out without breakfast. We asked the two blue haired ladies at the desk about an eating place. They consulted with each other and muttered some names, discarded them and then told us about the Signature restaurant a few blocks down and to the left.
Not sure what they meant by a few blocks down, but we had a devil of a time trying to find the place. Who expected the Signature Restaurant to be a gambling casino? What we did not know was that the state allows machine games of chance almost anywhere and takes a 50% cut of the take. 25% more percent goes to the handlers of the machines and leaves a cool twenty five percent for the owners of the establishment.
We walked into the place not knowing what to expect. Rhonda the waitress greeted us and told us that they had not served breakfast at Signature’s for over two years. I told her she might tell the folks at the Corn Palace that piece of information. She told us to wait a minute and went into a backroom office and came out with Jim, the owner. He told us that they did not serve breakfast, but would be happy to make us some. Rhonda went off to the kitchen.
Jim sat down at our table and began to talk to us about how he came to Mitchell from Tennessee. It was a fascinating story of an entrepreneur, who finally found a place to settle down. Rhonda came out with our food and we talked for the next hour. At the end of the hour, we attempted to pay, but Jim would hear nothing of it. He said, “Just give Rhonda a tip.” We did and we left. It was a good start to the day.
Lindsay was our 12 hour tour guide in Yellowstone. She picked us up at about 7:30 at the Big Bear Motel. We were the only ones on this tour. Eventually, she drove over 350 miles that day. Lindsey was 29 years old and recently divorced, when she found out that her husband was cheating. She had one child and was trying to make it as a tour guide, vitamin salesperson and a few other jobs.
The tour was amazing for a number of reasons. As Lindsay was telling us about the history of the park and its creation over 400 million years ago, she also told us that she did not believe in that number because the earth was created in 7 days of 24 hours between 5 and 8 thousand years ago.
Carol and I were astounded. Here was this person, a graduate of the University of Wyoming, touring us around in Yellowstone, who did not believe in geology or the things that she was telling us. There was no conclusion to the contradiction and we could not get over it. It’s something that we are still talking about.
In Jackson Hole, Wyoming, we walked around this upscale tourist place, with as many tshachkie stores as there are on 42nd St. in New York. We were looking for a t shirt for our son-in-law, who is a big guy. We were finally directed to this shop with extra large sizes. We encountered a young man of about 30, who appeared to be from a foreign shore. He told us that he was originally from Israel, but lived four years in Italy.
We did the usual shalom thing and off we went to the races. We asked him what he was doing there. He had run a t shirt shop in West Yellowstone and thought Jackson Hole would be a more profitable place. After all, Sandra Bullock and Harrison Ford lived here so how bad could it be?
He introduced us to his cousin, about the same age, who was from Israel and sounded like a real con man. They had been there about 4 months and claimed to be making it. They gave us a good deal on a bunch of t shirts and we left the store thinking that we had missed something. There was something similar to a store that we had seen in Key West, operated by two Israelis, with no ties to the area and in competition with many other stores like it. Hmmmmmmm.
Salt Lake City was one of the strangest places that we have ever visited. It is essentially a theocratic state (not allowed in our constitution). The church was pretty much in charge of stuff. We believe the state of Utah is pretty much the same way.
Our tour guide was a young man in his late twenties, whose script sounded pretty much written by the elders of the church. There we learned that Brigham Young University was the Harvard of the West and harder to get in to than Harvard. That it had the lowest alcoholism rate in the country, an incredibly low crime rate, the most beautiful state capitol building, the oldest this and the number one that.
We were surprised to learn that not everyone can have a wedding in the Temple, only those who subscribe to the basic tenets of the religion, including tithing. We were taken aback to find out that one of the streets in front of the temple was blocking the view of picture takers across the street. Cars and trucks and buses were obstructing the taking of great pictures. So, the church bought the street and planted beautiful flowers, with heated beds.
The Church was concerned that a mall close to the Temple and operated by private investors was kind of taking people away from the center of town and the Temple and Tabernacle. In an effort to get people back to center city (read Temple and Tabernacle), they were going to build a new mall themselves.
I did the usual thing when we reached Moab, Utah. I wiped out all of the pictures on my camera. I have done this a number of times before, but never with one of these new digital things. I asked at our hotel if there was someone in town who could fix cameras. I was told that there was someone. He was located in a store on the Main St.
When we got there, the man was sitting at a computer, which we later found out was his new toy. He spoke with an accent and told us that for 45 bucks he could retrieve all of the pictures and put them on a cd (I later cracked the cd in my suitcase). He told us to return at about 8:30, but called us at seven and told us that it was ready.
When we arrived at the store, he was in a jovial mood and told us that he had come to Moab with his family from Israel (another weird circumstance) and had started this thriving business. His family, wife and children, did not like the education that they were getting and moved back to Israel. He said that he could not leave such a great business, so in the winter months he goes back to Israel and in the summer months, his family comes back to Moab. Somehow all of these things seemed unusual to us. I guess we are getting old and set in our ways.
We got to Salina, Kansas at 8 o’clock at night and were famished. We registered at our hotel and went straight way to a diner across the way. We were served by a young lady, in her late twenties, who looked to be pregnant. She was and told us her life story. She had been married and had a couple of children, but her husband was a jerk and ran out on her. She then took up with another “gentleman,” who impregnated her. She threw him out because she knew he was a “louse.”
She was working at this job (a twenty four hour diner), while her mother watches the children in the evening. She watches the children during the day. The kids are getting old enough to go to school soon. Once again, I think that we are getting too old.
On our way to Salina, we passed through Ellis, Kansas. It was the home of an army buddy of mine, Elmer Augustine. I was sure that we would be able to see him, if just for a few moments. He was not home and I was sad. I know that I will call him soon.
It’s always the people. The places are nice and interesting, but the people are phenomenal. Somehow, those become the memories and in some cases, we continue conversations with folks we have met all around the country and the world.

THE OLD SINGING COWBOY

We arrived at Cody, Wyoming, not knowing anything about the place. It is just to the East of Yellowstone National Park. We had arranged for a guided tour of the park the next morning and we were anxious to bed down for the night. The next day, we knew, was going to be exhausting.
We arrived at the Big Bear Motel late in the afternoon. The owners Bill and Jody Holly were transplants from New Jersey. Having arrived in Cody seven years previously. Bill was a tall pony-tailed man of about 45 and Jody was a tall blonde smiling woman with twinkling eyes.
We were given room number ten, a new room, in this somewhat plain motel just up the street from the general tourist places. I had gone onto Priceline and had gotten a good deal on the place. It was clean and had all of the amenities that we needed. One of our lamps seemed not to work, so I took the light bulb over to Bill and he replaced it for me. He told me later that I would forever be known as the light bulb man.
We were told about Irma’s restaurant in town. It was a tourist place, but we were just hungry and didn’t care about the ambiance, just the food. It was good and the service was excellent. The whole town seemed to be seeded with Eastern European kids doing jobs that our own kids don’t seem to want to do. It is that way in many resort and tourist areas. The Eastern European kids get a job and are able to tour a number of places in the U.S. What they were doing in Cody, and later Moab, I have no idea.
We got back to our motel and spoke to Jody and Bill awhile and then went to our room. The next morning we were picked up by Lindsey the tour guide. The next twelve hours will be a story for another time. Safe to say that we know more about Yellowstone than any tourist has a right to know. Lindsey was wonderful.
When we returned, Jody and I got into a discussion about their nephew’s cerebral palsy and how the parents really don’t know what to do about it. The child is about one and one half and the parents still have not gotten over the shock of knowing that their child will not be, “normal.” I told Jody that I had a friend who used to be the head of special education for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. I told her that he is from New Jersey and lives there now. I got his phone number and gave it to Jody.
The Hollys told us about their friend Val Geissler. Val was, and still is to some extent, a cowboy country and western singer. He had a good career, but was tired of all the travelling and kind of wound up in Cody, singing locally and riding horses and such. They said they were going to invite Val to come over the next evening and sing and talk to whoever showed up. That was the plan and that’s what happened. After a day of wandering around Cody, we sat down in front of the office on benches and chairs and were treated to a darned good country western singer. Val is 72 years old and his voice seems to be as good as ever.
He is a great showman and had me down on my knees ( without a knee pad) singing to Carol and harmonizing with him. He sang all of the old standards, Red River Valley, You are my Sunshine, some old Hank Williams songs and a couple of his own writing. He was just terrific.
The hast that he wore looked to be ancient, as did his boots. He was about as authentic a cowboy as I had ever seen up close. However, his history was entirely different. He was a California guy and went to Cal Poly ( really hard to get into) and decided in his early twenties to travel around and sing. He told us that Willie Nelson once asked to tour with him. According to Val, he just didn’t have the heart for it. He wanted to stay in one place and set down roots.
He was probably the star of our vacation. He gave us a signed record ( 45 rpm). I asked him how did he know that I had an old record player and he looked at me and laughed. He also gave us a CD, which we played in the car as we drove away from Cody. I know some of the songs, but many werer really old timey and I didn’t know the words. It was quite an experience.

AROUND THE COUNTRY IN 30 DAYS

Here’s the deal. Carol and I decided to take 30 days out of our lives, get into our Mafia Staff Car ( Town and County Van with seats collapsed under the floorboards) and head West. Seven thousand two hundred miles later, we are home and have made some decisions about the rest of our lives. How about that for a vacation.
Bless Priceline. Imagine getting one hundred and fifty dollar rooms for 52 or 65 dollars? It saved us so much money that we went on a spending spree in most of the national parks and in esoteric restaurants (in one we ate frog’s legs and really didn’t know it). As I mentioned before, this is a very large, expansive and beautiful country. There is no limit to its wonders. How about keeping up with traffic in North Dakota and finding that you are doing 90 miles per hour. Honestly, I did not even realize it.
The National Parks that we went to were exciting and wonderful. Although Custer State Park is not national, it is great. We were surrounded by a herd of Bison, saw elk and fed wild donkeys. Arches National Park near Moab, Utah, was spectacular and bright. If you don’t have your climbing shoes or your climbing car, don’t bother to go.
Yellowstone is just Yellowstone. It is strange and beautiful. There are wondrous sights, both natural and animal. The falls are something to see, as is a 30 mile wide lake that is hypothermia causing and still has geysers exuding from it. You can catch a fish, and put it into the geyser and it gets cooked all at once. That is the story that we were told.
Dead Horse Canyon has the capacity to brighten your day and take a bunch of pictures. By the way, I did what I always do, screw up my camera for dummies. Somehow I erased all of the pictures that I had taken till Moab, Utah. An Israeli gentleman somehow got the card to put it on a disc and I cracked the disc in transit. Something about cameras and me that don’t go together.
We loved Denver and St. Louis, but not Salt Lake City. It was impressive, but neither Carol, nor I cotton to theocracies. The Mormon Church did not like the fact that the transportation on the street in front of the Temple obscured picture taking, so they bought the street. They planted flowers and put hot wires underneath the flowerbeds to keep the blooming happening.
St. Louis has wonderful public buildings, parks and things to do. Denver has 300 days of sunshine and lots of wonderful places to live and ski, if that’s your thing. It is most picturesque.
There were so many more things to describe. I am sure boredom would set in. Let’s just say that we had a wonderful time