Thursday, December 16, 2004

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (12/16/04)


Given the astronomical salaries paid to baseball superstars, shouldn't we get from them a measure of integrity to match their millions? It required an appearance before a grand jury to get the truth about his use of illegal drugs from Jason Giambi. And who believes Barry Bonds's ludicrous assertions that he used creams and liquids to enhance his performance--but wasn't aware of what was in them? In my lifetime I have met many honorable men. My first editing job was as associate editor of a posh, full-color, hardcover magazine covering every aspect of motor cars. It also put me in contact with the world of auto racing--particularly as practiced in Great Britain and Europe. These gallant racers, participants in bitterly contested events ranging from hill climbs to Grand Prix races, were superb athletes with an unwritten code of ethics akin to the rules that governed knights in the Middle Ages.

One competitor I was fortunate to meet was Stirling Moss, British racing champion. After competing brilliantly between 1948 and 1962, his career was terminated by a near-fatal accident on a wet road. Shaking hands with him was like putting your hand in a vise; his forearms were rock solid from making racing cars go where they did not want to go. Early in 1964, he was in America and would occasionally drop into our offices, usually with a fur-coated Park Avenue groupie on each arm--"a bit of crumpet," as he would put it.

The magazine had a rising young photographer who was becoming known for his classic car portraits, so the editor sent him to Europe to work his magic there and to capture racing cars at speed on European circuits. In Switzerland, he purchased an expensive Patek Philippe watch as a gift. Not wanting to carry it with him all over Europe, on learning that Stirling Moss was coming to New York, he asked him to bring the watch with him. Moss agreed. When I learned that Stirling Moss was to speak at a meeting of the Dutch Treat Club, an idea formed in my head. The club was--and is--an informal group of people active in writing, the arts and the theater. It meets for lunch every Tuesday, and everyone pays for his or her own meal.

I was already familiar with their luncheons, which then were held in the Regency Hotel on Park Avenue at 61st Street. On the day he was scheduled to speak, I called the hotel during the cocktail period and asked that Mr. Moss be paged. I had rehearsed in my mind what I would say: "Mr. Moss, this is Inspector Joseph Hawkins of the U.S. Customs Service. We know that when you arrived in the United Sates recently you were carrying an expensive Patek Philippe watch that was not declared on a customs form, nor did you pay duty on the item. Did you do that?" I wasn't even sure that such items were dutiable; nevertheless I decided to leave it in my spiel.

I went over in my mind what his response might be. After a long pause in which he considered the implications of his answer, an ordinary person might stammer, "Can't we talk this over in your office?" Some might even deny the charge. The expectation of my victim's discomfiture was almost too delicious to contemplate. I made my phone call and waited for the hotel staff to fetch him. In the background, I could hear the sounds of typical cocktail-hour conversation. Finally, I heard the telephone being picked up. A voice said, "Moss here." Clearing my throat, I ran through my prepared charges in what I hoped would sound like the prosecutorial voice of officialdom. "Did you do that?" I asked. Without a moment's hesitation, the voice at the other end said, "Yes, I did."

"Yes, I did." That forthright answer wasn't part of my script. Clearly, I had misjudged the intended target of my practical joke. Where was the embarrassment, indignity or discomfort I had hoped to cause? Where was the groveling victim I had expected to stall for time and look for a way out? Instead, I was met with unhesitating absolute honesty. Now I was the one faced with a dilemma. How was I going to get myself out of this? I finally found the words: "Well, that was a very naughty thing to do," I blurted and hung up the phone quickly, hoping that he had not recognized my voice.

My prank turned out to be a humiliating lesson that increased my respect for Stirling Moss--today Sir Stirling Moss (he was knighted in 2001). I had expected him to adhere to the loose standards so many of us follow in everyday life. But Stirling Moss's racing life was lived in an atmosphere of split-second decisions and total self-honesty. Would that today's professional athletes exhibited the same sense of personal honor and integrity.

Before Tom Ridge resigned as Director of Homeland Security, he told friends that with two college-age children he simply had to earn more money. His salary as a cabinet member was $175,000. Where does that leave the average U.S. household, which has an annual income of $43,318?

General Motors spends about $1,400 for workers' health care for each vehicle produced in the United States. Some economists see the reason Ontario has surpassed Michigan in automobile production--temporarily, one hopes--may be Canada's nationalized health care system.

The blessings of democracy? In a May 2001 report, the U.N. announced that Afghanistan had completely eradicated opium poppy cultivation. Of course, this was under the Taliban, which made farmers switch to growing wheat and severely punished drug trafficking. Farmers of wheat became unhappy; they were paid for their crop after it was harvested. Opium buyers pay up front. Now that we have ousted the Taliban, Afghanistan supplies 87 percent of the world's opium and heroin. Today's output of Afghanistan's poppy growing is valued at $2.8 billion, making up more than 60 percent of its gross domestic product. This year's crop would have been even larger except for insect pests and a poor growing season.

Although lots in the new community of Harmon were first sold to the public in 1907, it was not until 1923 that twenty residents organized the Harmon Fire Protection Company. William Quinn was its first president. Thanks to the formation of this volunteer fire company, whose successor is today's Harmon Engine Company, fire insurance rates in Harmon were reduced by 50 percent.
Despite years of study, medical science still does not know what causes SIDS--Sudden Infant Death Syndrome--that mysteriously steals the gift of life away from otherwise normal infants. The SIDS death rate has dropped since 1983, but there are still about 2,500 SIDS deaths annually in the United States. What is known: Babies with mothers who smoke are more likely to die of SIDS than those from non-smoking mothers. Infants born prematurely and babies whose siblings have died from SIDS are also at high risk. Dr. Bradley T. Thach, Professor of Pediatrics at Washington University in St. Louis, says SIDS may be related to sleeping position and the possibility of smothering. "The first few times babies who usually sleep on their backs or sides shift to the prone (i.e., face down) position, they have a 19-fold increased risk of sudden death," he points out. "Back sleeping should be strongly encouraged to protect against SIDS."


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Thursday, December 02, 2004

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (12/02/04)


Watching a rerun of the film Doctor Zhivago brought back an embarrassing and bitterly remembered incident from my childhood. When I was in the second grade, my mother found a pattern for a child's Russian blouse in a sewing magazine. The Russian blouse is collarless, with buttons all to one side. Perhaps its appeal was there was no need for me to wear a necktie--the tying of which was a morning task I badly managed. Dutifully, I went off to school one morning wearing this unusual apparel, a clean handkerchief in its pocket.

When I removed my outer jacket, a barrage of taunts erupted. "Where's your tie?" Others scoffed, "What's that? A Scotch shirt?" For the rest of that week, school became an unbearable experience. And the following week brought no respite. My mother had run up several Russian blouses on her sewing machine, and a fresh Russian blouse awaited me. Eventually, I grew out of the hated attire. The ignominy of this affair is not only burned into my memory, it is preserved in a memento. The practice of public schools in those days was to allow contract photographers to take individual student photos that were sold to parents. In a photo made then, my unhappiness is all too apparent. A year later, another photo recorded my return to traditional garb and the hint of a smile on my face.

I'm a gun owner and sometime target shooter. A Wisconsin hunter armed with a semiautomatic rifle recently killed six hunters and wounded two others in a confrontation. I hope the gun lobby will now acknowledge that rapid-fire weapons are inappropriate for hunting.

Our military misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan throw into sharp relief the tragic aspect of the failures of America in its professed role as the leader of the "free world." The plainest lesson for Americans in the turbulent dramas now being played out in the non-Western world is the need not only of more sympathetic understanding of the diverse ways and values of other peoples, but greater self-understanding--a more critical attitude toward our own accepted values and notions of the good life. There is a real chance that America, the pace-setter in technology--and the country in which above all it has run amok--may go down in history as the greatest failure because of our misapplication of technology. When are we going to get serious and develop alternate fuels so we are no longer in thrall to petroleum? Meanwhile, does anyone really need a gas-guzzling Hummer, the civilian version of the military's Humvee?

The blessings of democracy? In a May 2001 report, the U.N. announced that Afghanistan had completely eradicated opium poppy cultivation. Of course, this was under the Taliban, which made farmers switch to growing wheat and severely punished drug trafficking. Now that we have ousted the Taliban, Afghanistan supplies 87 percent of the world's opium. The output of Afghanistan's poppy growing is today valued at $2.8 billion, making up more than 60 percent of its gross domestic product.

When television burst upon the scene more than fifty years ago, critics hailed it as a wonderful educational medium, enabling scholars from all over the world to lecture to students in American classrooms. It failed that assignment miserably. Similarly, 24-hour news stations were seen as a giant step toward educating American audiences about issues. Instead, such stations allow themselves to be used for partisan political purposes. They spend endless hours analyzing and dissecting the most sordid murder trials. And they herald the most insignificant incidents as "breaking news." TV stations should deliver more than mere talking heads of doubtful authority or highly paid card-reading personalities, interspersed with commercials in questionable taste. Similarly, major newspapers, once bastions of independence and investigative reporting, today are hotbeds of biased reporting.

My father had an ecumenical attitude toward religion. "Going to heaven is like going to Chicago," he would say. "Some people take the Catholic Express; others ride the Methodist Limited; still others prefer the Baptist Flyer. And some, like me, just walk the tracks. But no matter how we do it, we all manage to get there just the same."

To the list of writers who died young should be added the name Ernest Walsh, a little known poet. I discovered his poetry as a young man certain that I would not come back from the war. Born in Detroit in 1895, Ernest Walsh joined the U.S. Aviation Service in 1917. He was badly hurt in a plane crash while training in Texas and spent six months in a body cast. In the succession of military hospitals through which he passed, he began writing poems. Discharged at Camp Kearney, California, in 1921, he was encouraged by doctors to "travel gently." He went to Europe, where he could live on his modest Army pension and write poems. Recurring hemorrhages eventually sapped his strength, and he died in France in 1926 at the age of 31. Here is one of my favorites, written a year before his death:


It must be a good thing
To reach up and feel a white head
And to put an old hand
on the sharp rough bristles of a neck
that has turned and looked
At pretty women more than fifty years

O you old men
stroking your beards
remembering more than fifty years back
Good dinners pretty women
Think of me who died young
Think of me when you light
your first cigarette after dinner
I too I too was there
I promise you
Every thought of me shall be
Cognac to your blood
Every thought of me
shall be fire to you
I who am dead shall warm you and urge you
I shall show you how to love a beautiful girl
I shall be an old brandy
That lasted only ten dinners
But they were not the dinners of a careful man


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