An American in Berlin
7 December, 2016
In my last post,1 I found myself writing rather a bit about my grandfather. This prompted a somewhat unexpected response from my own father. Without warning or preamble, he wrote what I might loosely call an “open letter” to me and my brother (Justin), in which he muses on his father, our grandfather. It is a fine piece of writing on its own merits. And if that was it all it was, I probably wouldn’t post it here.
But I think there is great value in it for all of us. It goes some way to showing my grandfather as a more complete person than I was able to know him. It paints a picture of Herb the man, not Herb the grandfather. And yes, it is naturally colored by father’s own experiences. Still, it answers questions I might never have thought to ask. And so, my hope in posting this is that it might prompt some of you to talk to your own parents, to dig a little deeper, to try and get to know your own grandparents a little better, even if – or perhaps especially if – they’re already gone.
What follows, then, will be the letter that my dad wrote in its entirety. Apart from some minor edits for spelling, the only additions will be a handful of footnotes explaining things that might not be obvious to the usual readers of this blog. And so, without further ado…
Some Ramblings on Grandpa, my Dad
by Lawrence Starr
First it needs to be said that my memory is vague enough that in literary terms I could be considered an unreliable narrator. This is also a snapshot. There is so much more I could have gone into. I just wanted to give some insight into the man.
With that said, let’s begin.
My earliest impressions of your grandfather – and I call him grandfather because he was never Dad or Pop, Pa or Papa, just Father – was that of a distant and cool person who lived in the same house. I won’t say he wasn’t caring or loving, but if he was, he wasn’t very good at showing it. It may very well have been due to the fact that I was number five in the line of six children they would produce. Perhaps he was toast by the time I came around; had depleted his reserves on the first four. Or perhaps it was that the years of toiling to maintain a growing family had taken it’s toll. Whatever the reason, I felt very alone in a very crowded house. As the “baby,” I felt I was treated differently that the others. The four that came before me had all been born into a house on East 17th street in Sheepshead Bay,2 a much smaller house than the one I would come home to in Manhattan Beach.3 Perhaps they had formed a special bond in the cramped quarters of a house meant for much smaller families, but I merely speculate.
To understand our father, it helps to know a little of his family dynamics. He was the oldest of two children born to Meyer and Sylvia Starr. Meyer had emigrated from the Ukraine, Sylvia from Lithuania. I don’t know how old they were when they came to this country. Unlike my Grandmother on my mother’s side, as best as I can remember, they spoke English free of any accent. Dad (I will call him that form this point on because it’s easier to type than Father) was born in Chicago. What they were doing there is anybody’s guess. He was doted upon by Sylvia. Meyer was stern and unemotional, interestingly, the way I remember Dad. Dad was king of the household according to his sister, Millie. Millie seemed to have a normal enough childhood until she reached puberty and Meyer turned his back on her. From then on she was alone. She left home relatively early and led a somewhat Bohemian existence. She was a wonderful woman who I wish you had gotten to know better. Watch the movie Auntie Mame someday. That will give you an idea.
As you know, Dad was all about the sciences and music. He went to Brooklyn Tech, which at the time was an all boys’ high school for the sciences. It was and still is a prestigious city public school, though it is now co-ed. It was not an easy school to gain admittance to. From there he went to City College and majored in chemistry. From there he went into the Army.
I don’t know the details of how Mom and Dad met. In their wedding pictures, dad is in uniform. Uncle Richard was a war baby.4
One of my greatest regrets is that I know almost nothing about Dad’s military service. In my seventeen years at the museum5 I have heard countless stories form wonderful people about their experiences during the war; wonderful, intense stories about events that shaped their lives and those of the people around them. And here I am left without clue as to what must have been the most crucial and formative time in my fathers eighty-one years. He never wanted to talk about it. I often wonder, had he lived another five or six years, got to see what course the fates had put me on, if he would have be proud or horrified. Would he have finally opened up and let the past free,6 or would he have said, “what the hell are you doing with all this war shit?”
Here is what little I know, or think I know. Dad was in the medical corps. Was he a non-combatant by choice? Don’t know. He may very well have been a pacifist but I never heard him say that. We do know that he spent a lot of time at sea making crossings on various ships, including the Queen Mary and at least one Liberty Ship. I just learned from Uncle Richard, that one of the trips on the Grey Ghost (the Queen Mary, as she was called during the war) took him to Australia. This I had never heard before.
Another Atlantic crossing on the GG was shortly after the Battle of the Bulge. That would have been in January of ’45. It was a westbound voyage bringing home many of the wounded.7 He never mentioned the fact that it would also have carried many German POWs. He spoke about never ending card games in the hold of these ships. GIs sitting around gambling only stopping long enough to puke into their helmets.
One thing I have seen for myself is that Dad NEVER got seasick. EVER. On a cruise during which virtually everyone was sick, Dad walked around like it was Christmas Eve or Chanukah or whatever the hell he would have celebrated (Lenin’s Birthday?). I also remember a story he told with amusement tinged with disgust. He had arrived in the Middle East on a freighter, probably the Liberty Ship. I know no other detail of that trip other than what he said he saw form the ship while in port. There were huge piles of grain on the docks. I would imagine they were awaiting shipment to various combat theaters. He watched as an Arab climbed one of the piles and committed what may well have been the first act of terrorism: he proceeded to defecate. He took a dump into the Allied food supply chain. I think it put Dad off of bread for a while.
Dad left the service as a Master Sargent, though here is where my memory is a little fuzzy. The memory I have of dad’s Ike jacket8 was that it had three rockers up and three down on the sleeves. That would have made him a M. Sgt. I also seem to remember that there was a “T” between the chevrons so I always thought he was a Technincal Sergent. In doing research, I found that it was impossible to have three up and three down with a tech rating, so now I am confused. I am fairly certain that there were 3 up and 3 down. Anyway, here is a Wiki excerpt explaining the rank during WWII.9
Sergeant ranks were sometimes referred to by the number of chevrons (the upper angle) and rockers (the lower arc) on their stripes. Thus saying a man had “three up, two down” meant he was a technical sergeant. Before the war, NCOs could not transfer between regiments without having to start in the new unit as a private.
While officers lived and ate in separate facilities, the NCOs lived and ate with the enlisted men. Most senior NCOs had their own private or semi-private rooms in the barracks. Officers, it was said, commanded the Army; Sergeants however, ran the Army. Officers would order a project be done, but it was the sergeants who told the men what to do and saw it was done properly. There was an unspoken rule in the Army that an NCO overseeing a group of men working was not to perform the work himself.
Two major changes in the Army affected enlisted men. In June 1942 an Army wide pay raise provided more money for the troops. Pay for higher ranking officers stayed the same. Then in December 1943, in an effort to boost the morale of the infantry, NCO ranks in infantry units were boosted so that assistant squad leaders became sergeants, and squad leaders became staff sergeants, and platoon sergeants Technical Sergeants. The number of authorized Pfc slots in infantry units was raised to half of all privates. The additional pay and rank was hoped to offset the rigors and dangers of being in an infantry unit.
With the increase of technical skills needed in the Army, a new category of NCO was created. Known as technicians, these were men who needed to be paid more for specific skills, but did not need the command authorization of a higher rank. They were first authorized in January 1942. In September 1942 the rank stripes had a letter “T” on them to indicate there were a Technician. Long after the war these would turn into the “Specialist” ratings still in use today.
Technician ratings are not to be confused with the rank of the more traditional rank of technical sergeant. For command purposes technicians ranked just below the equivalent of their strips. A technician 3rd grade (Tech/3) ranked just below a staff sergeant when it came to giving orders.
And that is about the sum total of my knowledge of dad’s military experience.10
As I said, Uncle Richard was a War Baby. I guess that makes him a Pre-Boomer. Aunt Carol followed just after the war and the rest of us came at roughly 2 year intervals except for Aunt Gail. She arrived nine years after me (I?), who came nine years after Richard. That is a baby making span of eighteen years. I’ll get to the significance of this later.
At this point I need to shift attention to Grandma’s story. We know more about her life and that of the Polakoffs than we do about the Starrs. Both Ella and Morris were from the Ukraine. Ella’s family escaped from the Czarist pogroms as Bubby used to say, by “stealing the border.” They snuck out of Russia in the earliest years of the 20th Century. (If you haven’t read or listened to the “Bubby Interviews” that Uncle Richard did in the years before her death, you should, if only for the Yiddish that she would lapse into).11 Fast forward to the late 1930s. Morris and Ella, now with three children, Nathan, Samuel and Ida, are operating a sweater mill. Nat is a teacher, I am not sure what Sam is doing, but he is probably in Baltimore with his new wife Lil running a photography store (not totally sure of the timeline here) and Ida, your grandmother, has graduated Lincoln High School and is working in New York City.
Hit the FF button again and stop at 1945. The war is over. Ida is pregnant with Aunt Carol. I am not sure what dad is doing after he comes home. What I do know is that days after Aunt Carol is born, Poppy Morris drops dead form a heart attack. Ida and Carol haven’t even come home form the hospital. Bubby Ella, in addition to being devastated by the death of her relatively young husband, is now burdened with a business she has to run on her own. I am going to oversimplify the facts.
- a) Morris and Ella owned the house on 17th St and shared it with Herb, Ida and their son.
- b) Ella needed help with the business and Dad agreed to step in and help. I don’t know if this was done reluctantly or not. It did put an end to any hope of a career in chemistry or a related field, if he had hoped for one.
- c) At some point Sam returned from Baltimore with his family and joined the business. Nat continued teaching but received a portion of the earnings as long as the business existed, though I never remember him ever setting foot in the place.
The apartment on 17th St became more crowded as soon as Ida came home home from the hospital with Carol. By 1950, there were three adults and four children in a house that was about the same size as the house we lived in on Pembroke St.12 There was a living room, kitchen, a master bedroom and a smaller bedroom. There was a separate apartment downstairs where Bubby lived. It was clear that the family had out grown 17th St.
Sam and Lil had purchased a nice three-bedroom house in the Long Island suburb of Elmont. Their family now included two girls, Ellen and Marion.13 Mom and Dad thought it would be a good idea to follow suit and move out to Long Island where they could stretch their legs. They had been sleeping on a sofa bed in the living room on 17th St as the two boys and two girls occupied each of the bedrooms. Ella pleaded with them not to leave her alone. She said find a house big enough for all of them in Brooklyn and she would buy it. Reluctantly they agreed. By 1951 they had moved into the house on Ocean Avenue in Manhattan Beach. I was born in November of that year.14
What is the point of all this? Why bring it up now?
David, you wonder what your grandfather would have done at your age. By the time he was 35, Dad was the father of five and running a business that, more often than not, was struggling to stay competitive and afloat. He did not have the choices that you have. He did see much of the world during the war, probably too much. He also saw enough of what mankind is capable of to alter whatever beliefs he held. I have no way of knowing what his politics were like before the war. I only know what I saw and heard after. He threw himself and his own money into a business that in reality wasn’t his, put a lot of his money into a house that wasn’t his (that’s a whole other story). Most of the time I remember him coming home late from work exhausted. One thing I can tell you is, you have his work ethic. I don’t think he was great with small children. I may be wrong. I don’t now how he was with the four that came before me. I don’t think I ever really felt loved, though I am sure if they heard that they would be shocked.
Their philosophy of childrearing was very different form what you would expect. They told us later in our lives that they had read the best thing for the children is not to make them dependent on each other. As a result, we were never all that close as a family. This they regretted. I don’t have warm and fuzzy recollections about many things. In a way it makes me feel damaged. Your mother had different experiences that were more traumatic and she turned out to be a more loving and warmer person than I (me?).
Mom and Dad believed their children were incapable of lying or doing the wrong thing. They believed just about anything we told them. Great when you’re a kid, lousy for your development. We received no guidance at all when it came to school, at least I didn’t. Your mother said from the day you guys were born that you were going to college, and that it would be away from home. I never took an SAT because I had no intention of going to college.
Because some of their friends were horrified that I wasn’t planning on continuing my education, my parents came to me in the second half of my senior year and told me they would by me any car I wanted if I went to college. I declined. I wanted to work in the movie business and I was going to do it on my terms. As Jim Vocell15 would say, “So how’d that work out for ya?”
Actually not terrible. I worked in the business until I ran afoul of the union. I wasn’t a member, could not join, and had to leave a great job. Let’s skip to the next chapter because this really isn’t bout me.
We are at the point where Tyrol Sportswear, the sweater company that our family owned and operated out of a five story 19th century brick building in Williamsburg,16 was struggling . Dad needed help. Uncle Michael had worked for him until he decided that dentistry was a better prospect. Richard was living and teaching in Vermont. It fell upon me to pitch in. After all, I was out of work.
Ever since I was old enough to reach the machines, Dad would bring me in some Saturdays to help repair damage that was done during the night shift. So by the time I was recruited in my twenties, I had some working knowledge of the equipment. This was about 1972.
I’m going to backtrack here for a moment. Something happened in July of 1961 that was a game changer for all of us. Aunt Gail was born. And it seemed she was born to different parents than the rest of us. I was nine years old. Richard was already out of the house and living in an apartment near Brooklyn College, which he was attending. Carol and Michael were in high school and Judy was in what was then Junior High, which was 7th and 8th grades. Business was improving. Dad bought his first brand new car. Okay, so it was a POS Rambler station wagon. Still it was the first car in our family that wasn’t a hand-me-down.
Dad was more relaxed and seemed to actually enjoy having a baby in the house. Even though I was glad to have the “baby” of the family spotlight off me, I was pissed that she was receiving attention that I felt I never got. The fact the she was severely asthmatic didn’t help. They coddled her and she was able to get away with things that none of us ever dreamed of. It affected our relationship for years. But this isn’t about me or Gail. What she did do was soften dad. This was not the same father that raised me or the other four.
And they began to travel. Carol was married in 1964. Right after the wedding we all piled into a brand spanking new Buick and drove to Florida. They took their first airplane ride down there, flying to the west coast to look at some property.17 You know those kind of deals. I remember being terrified until they returned. It was my first experience with air travel and I didn’t even get on the plane. Shortly after that, they started their world travels. The plant would close for the first two weeks of July and they were off to different exotic places. Then the cruising began. The first was a family cruise (including Bubby) to St Thomas that had to be in 1964. I know that they lied about my age to save some money on my fare. (So much for honesty, eh? See next paragraph).
After that, it was just the two of them or sometimes with Gail. They always offered to take me, but in my stupidity, I’d decline, thinking it was better to stay home and party. When the cats are away…
Hit the FF button and go back to 1972. I am now working for Dad in the sweater biz full time. This had advantages and disadvantages. I will focus on the advantages. For the first time, I truly got to know my father. I got to see him the way others saw him. And this is what I saw. I saw a man of irreproachable honesty, integrity and fairness. A man respected by his employees and customers. Whether he was a good business man is open for debate, but as I said earlier, his work ethic was super-human. Unfortunately, he expected the same from me. Not that I don’t have a work ethic, it’s just that it wasn’t for this business. He expected me to work twice as hard as anyone else in the plant, for half the pay.18 I had no illusions about taking over the business. Not what I wanted. What I gained, though, was a skill that would someday allow me to support my own family.
But the greatest gain was the time spent with the man. The long forgotten discussions we would have, the respect for each other’s abilities. He recognized quickly that I was a far better mechanic than he was and took advantage of that fact. Not in a bad way. He capitalized on it and I was flattered. The bottom line is that I didn’t get to really know the man until I was in my twenties. I don’t think that that is all that unusual in father-son relationships. The child has to grow out of his stupidity to realize that his father really does know more than he. The only argument we ever had was over the business. I wanted to go back to school. He needed me, as the business was failing. I remember storming out of the house, getting into the Jag19 and driving off, leaving a trail of smoking rubber. Ultimately he won out. Sort of. I worked during the day and went to Brooklyn College at night. It didn’t help. The plant shut down in 1975. Within months of the closing, Mom, Dad and Gail were off to the Philippines to start a new chapter in the Starr family saga that would last three years.
Dad, Grandpa by then, had become the man you knew. A man that enjoyed his family. By then he had grandchildren from Carol. He became a doting parent AND grandparent. They – the grandkids – even visited in the Philippines.
While they were away, I met your mom. We married when they came home. Literally, I think it was days after they returned. You pretty much know the rest.
Mom and Dad had a very close knit (no pun intended) social group. One of my childhood memories is of Book Club meetings that they would have periodically. Each month they were held at a different couple’s house. They probably had two a year at Ocean Avenue. I was either too young to know what was discussed or we were not allowed near the meeting. I well remember the morning after, finding the dining room table laded with drinking glasses and full ashtrays. There were occasional left over sweet treats. When I was older the cigarette buts had some value.
They were certainly an intellectual bunch. Among their friends was a chess grand master and some lesser players. Dad counted himself among the lesser players.20 I remember one summer when we were staying at the bungalow colony, watching – or rather listening to – and trying to follow a chess game played without a board. Not my game, for sure.
They were most assuredly well to the left of center. Maybe even a little left of left. One or more of the people in their circle fought with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. They fought alongside the Communists. What ultimately gave them away, at least to me, were the books I found in the attic of the house on Ocean Avenue when I had to empty it. I can’t recall any of the titles. I just remember the “Oh Shit” moment when I looked at them. I guess there is always a chance they were there when they moved in, you honor. When you take into account all of the other clues it lessens the doubt.
I do know that Dad was as unreligious a man as you will find. That came from his father. It is in stark contrast to Bubby, who lived upstairs in the same house and kept a Kosher home. That’s another point to ponder. The man spent a good portion of his adult life living and working with his mother-in-law. Think about that one. Maybe when she moved to Florida is when he really started to relax. Anyway back to religion. Except for Bubby upstairs, it didn’t exist in our house. That was on his terms, not Grandma’s. She went along with whatever he wanted. And gladly. Remember how I said dad was the king in his house when he was growing up? Grandma kept him on the thrown. I don’t mean this in a bad way. Their relationship was one for the record books. As loving a couple as you will ever find. Even with all those damned kids running around. And you wonder why they traveled? So it was an amazing thing for me to see you grandfather climb the steps of the altar during your Bar Mitzvah at the Toro,21 and take the scrolls. He was so proud to do it. Simply Amazing.
During the First Gulf War, I hung an American Flag on the front of the house near the mailbox on Pickwick Drive.22 Mom and Dad came to visit. When he saw the flag, he seemed disturbed. What’s this about? I’m supporting our country and troops, I said. He felt that nationalist zeal led to more wars. He had seen enough and was not interested in war, nationalism or religion. When I was a child, I remember answering a question saying, “Yes’m.”23 I got my head handed to me. For them, it was the equivalent of the “N” word and they would have none of it. And this was in the 1950’s, before Martin Luther King and civil rights. So add racism to that list of things he had no patience for.
The bottom line here is your grandfather was a complex man. He was a brilliant man. He was a talented man. He was warm, loving and compassionate even when he wasn’t showing it. And I didn’t even touch on his sense of humor24 or that he was a voracious reader who loved science fiction.
You and your brother should never have to wonder what he would have thought about you. I know that he would have been as proud a grandparent as ever lived. You guys have accomplished things that he only dreamed of. He loved music, but he was Salieri to your Mozart. (As am I).25 He would have been in heaven (leave it!) had he been able to see you guys play your music, be it classical or metal or whatever. It would have been his biggest thrill.
David. Your love of language and the way you are pursuing your dreams, the way you revel in the glories of the ancient and modern worlds would have given the two of you much to talk about. Your sadness is understandable. With him, with Daitz, you have lost two great authorities and conversationalists. Truly worth mourning. I know he would relish reading your blogs.
Justin. Along with your music, your forays into the world of science would have thrilled him. He was as in love with the heavens as you are. Some of my fondest childhood memories, as you know, involve frequent trips the American Museum of Natural History and the Hayden Planetarium along with building a telescope. We used to have long philosophical talks about science that you would have enjoyed. He loved problem solving.
You have both done his legacy justice. More than I ever could. Be as proud of yourselves as I am of you. He most certainly would have been.
- Which, if you didn’t read it, I dunno, fuck you, I guess? [↩]
- Brooklyn. [↩]
- Also Brooklyn. [↩]
- Richard was the first of the six children, born in 1945 before the end of the war. [↩]
- My dad is the operations manager at the American Airpower Museum, Farmingdale New York. [↩]
- Here my dad speaks to an interesting, and somewhat common phenomenon. Many WWII vets never spoke about their experiences with their families. Only in their last years have many of them opened up, and then only to historians or other third parties. [↩]
- My own speculation here, but this is something to think about. The Battle of the Bulge, Hitler’s last major offensive, was a bloody shitshow that took place mostly in the Ardennes forest. You read all kinds of horror stories about people being ripped to shreds not just from ammunition but from the splintered timbers of exploding trees. As a medic, what nightmares must he have encountered on such a crossing? [↩]
- The “Ike jacket” was a waist length jacket worn by US soldiers during WWII; so called because it was popularized by General Eisenhower, who was often pictured wearing it. [↩]
- What follows is a bit long and technical, and while of great interest to someone like me (or Dale!), the casual reader can probably get by on skimming it. [↩]
- I recently asked my dad why we knew so little about my grandfather’s time in the Army. Surely service records are public records. Why didn’t we just consult those? It turns out that sometime after the war, the warehouse where many of these records were stored burned down, depriving us – and many other families – of their loved ones’ wartime experiences. [↩]
- Richard is the de facto family historian. He recorded a series of video interviews with Bubby which we still have, but which I’ve yet to watch. (The comment about the Yiddish is directed towards me, given my interest in the language). [↩]
- Also Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn. [↩]
- That would make them my dad’s first cousins. If I ever met them, I have no memory of it. [↩]
- This is also the house I was born into. [↩]
- My dad’s colleague at the museum. [↩]
- Not too long ago, my dad actually drove me by the place where the factory used to be. It had either burned down or been torn down years ago, and all that was left was an empty lot. Can you imagine an empty lot in Williamsburg? I’m sure it will be luxury housing soon enough. Side note: My dad worked in Williamsburg before it was cool. Take that, hipsters! [↩]
- During my lifetime, my grandparents were “snowbirds,” spending half the year in Toronto and half the year in Florida. Later on, they moved to Florida full time. This made their visits special fucking occasions, but I was always jealous of my friends whose grandparents lived nearby. [↩]
- This deserves an explanation, which my dad doesn’t elaborate on here as I’ve heard this story a million times. But it goes to the heart of my grandfather’s unwillingness to give even the appearance of impropriety. He would have abhorred the idea of my dad getting special treatment simply because he was the boss’ son; hence the “twice the work for half the pay” dictum. Donald Trump, clearly, never got this memo. [↩]
- He’s not kidding. My dad is a magician with machines and cars. The Jag in question was one of several gorgeous E-Types he owned back in the day. [↩]
- It’s hard to get context on what is meant by “lesser player” here. What I do know, is that my grandfather loved playing chess with me. I never beat him, never even came close. But he loved it; we both did. But I’m sure he valued it because it was an “intellectual” thing. I suspect he’d rather watch me lose to him in chess than win a hockey game. [↩]
- While the rest of my friends had their Bar & Bat Mitzvah’s at their local synagogues on Long Island, I had mine at the Toro Synagogue in Rhode Island, which is the oldest synagogue in America. #historynerd [↩]
- Soysset, Long Island. [↩]
- This is something you, thankfully, just don’t hear anymore. In fact, I nearly missed it on my first read-through. But “yes’m” and “yessuh” used to be how a black “boy” was expected to answer his white “superiors.” [↩]
- For any of you who ever rolled your eyes (or worse) at one of my terrible puns, well, Grandpa was the progenitor of all that. When I was a kid, at Thanksgiving dinner, people would go around the table, just punning. The goal was to make a pun off the pun the previous person had just made. My mother, who was not born into this family, has become quite expert at it. [↩]
- Cleary, this is directed towards my brother, the music comp major. [↩]