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Tag Archives: bar mitzvah

Goodbye Old Friend. It Was Great.

Today was an inordinately sad day for me. It wasn’t for all day, not even most of the day, but the feeling was different than many other sadnesses I’ve felt. I learned today that a man who I’ve been friends with since before I have actual memories passed away. A friend with whom I grew up and spent most of my childhood. My best friend for the better part of my first twenty years on this planet. The guy I enlisted in the U.S. Navy with in 1966 on the buddy system. He apparently had a heart attack and he also, apparently, was living alone as his body was not found for (I’ve been told) “some time.”

We were no longer really friends in the sense that we did things together or even talked; I hadn’t seen him in probably twenty years, but I had remained close to his younger brother, Bob, whose wedding I had performed and whose son was named after me and is my Godson. I heard about it first from his youngest brother, Chuck, in a Facebook message. Chuck lives in Kansas and I haven’t actually seen him in more than twenty years, but we’ve been FB friends for a while and I do believe I’m thought of as extended family. Jim wasn’t a Facebook kind of a guy. Unfortunately, a lot of people my age have never become comfortable with computers, let alone social media of any kind.

Still, Jim was so much a part of my life growing up, there’s no way I could forget his role in it. I used to go with him every Sunday to Saint Genevieve’s in Panorama City. Most of the time he would just grab a pamphlet in the vestibule to prove to his parents he had actually been in the building, then we would go off and play somewhere. There were also times when I had no choice but to attend Mass and I learned all the proper moves to make; holy water, genuflection, grace at meals when I had dinner at his house. I could even recite Hail Marys and Our Fathers if called upon to do so. I almost still can, just like I can almost still read Hebrew after four years of Hebrew school that culminated in my Bar Mitzvah. In all the years we lived with our parents, he always tried to find his way to our house for Friday dinner. He didn’t much care for fish and my father was a butcher at the Grand Central Market.

Back in the mid to late fifties, there was a yearly Carnival that took place in Panorama City, near the intersection where Parthenia peels off to the west from Van Nuys Boulevard. They always had a shooting gallery where real .22 caliber rounds were used and Jim and I would root through the sawdust on the ground in front of the counter where the rifles lay to find unspent bullets people had dropped. We always managed to find a couple or more. After all, we were kids and that was our job.

We would take those bullets to the tennis courts at what was then called Hazeltine Park and “aim” them at the houses on the other side of Costello Avenue, to the northwest. Then we would smack them with a hammer. Great fun was had by all until another friend and I were doing the same thing in his backyard and a piece of shrapnel barely missed taking out his eye, leaving a nice gash in his eyebrow. That was kind of the end of that.

We did lots of crazy-ass things, which I can only assume lots of kids do. We once put our hands on top of the entrance to a red ant colony just to see what would happen. That was a shocker, as I recall. We used to put lady finger firecrackers in oranges — remember, this was in the middle of the San Fernando Valley in the fifties; there were orange trees everywhere — and throw them like grenades. My first lesson, though I hardly realized it at the time, in physics came from the realization that wrapping the firecrackers in duct tape increased the explosive power of those little things. We were just trying to keep them from being so diluted by the orange juice they wouldn’t explode.

Years later, when we were around 14 or 15, my family had moved a few miles away and Jim used to come and visit for a day or two at a time. Two doors to the west they were still constructing the new location of the temple where I had become Bar Mitzvah and one of the walls was unfinished, with horizontal rebar sticking out of the ends. We bent the rebar and made it into a ladder so we could climb up on the roof of the building and run around on it. We played a game for a while where one guy would get a BB pistol and the other guy would get a head start. The idea was to aim for clothing but I’m certain Jim caught one in the ear once. Another damper to our childhood fun.

I could go on. The more I write, the more I remember things we did, and the more stories I could retell, but I’ll save that for another day. I’d rather take one last moment and relate why I feel so melancholy and how important this loss is to me. It’s true we hadn’t talked in something like twenty years. As we grew our lives went in very different directions. The last time I saw him was in his home in Glendale, AZ. He was married, working as a contractor, I believe, and they had at least a dozen cats in their house. I was able to spend a few hours with him during an evening I was in Phoenix on business. We talked a bit about old times. We were in our late forties and not yet disposed to reminisce too much. I would hear about him occasionally from Bob or his wife, Bonnie, but it wasn’t much and life kept moving along.

His death, though, leaves a special hole in my past, the kind of hole most of us end up having more of than we’d like. My grief is only marginally for him, more so for his family, but in large part for myself. It’s the same kind of hole others who played a larger-than-life role in my past have left as well, even if they were nowhere near as close to me as Jim had been. One that comes to mind is Richard M. Nixon. I despised that man and spent many years fighting to end the war in Vietnam when he was President. He played, although indirectly, a huge role in the years I came of age that I nearly wept when I learned of his death. Not because of him — I wouldn’t dream of weeping over his death — but I grieved for the passing, the irrevocable disappearance of my young adulthood and all that was attached to it. Before he died, I had something to hang on to; an artifact of that part of my life. With his passing, it was gone.

The hole I feel with Jim’s death is far more devastating and just a little difficult to deal with. Much like Nixon, as long as he was alive, we had our past and our years of friendship. There was always the possibility we’d see each other again and have some laughs, maybe a beer or two. Now that possibility is forever gone. I have often written about death. It fascinates me. In the meantime, however, life goes on and I will too. I’m surely not the only person to experience these feelings. I just wanted to get them out and say a few words about, and in honor of, someone who was very special to me.

So, via con dios, Jimmy. You will forever live in my heart. We had too many good times and meant far too much to each other for me to just let your passing pass. I will someday join you, as will we all. For now, I’ll content myself with remembering our friendship and take the most from it until it’s my time.

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The McRib’s Ribs . . . Aren’t. Nu?

I was raised to be intimately familiar with lunch meat. All kinds of lunch meat. And sausage. My father worked in the Grand Central Market from my birth until my Bar Mitzvah. Faber’s Ham Shop. They didn’t sell fresh meat, except chicken. Everybody sold fresh chicken because it was small and easily cut into its constituent parts, a feat not possible with a cow or a pig. He mostly sold lunch meat, or what is sometimes referred to as smoked meats. Not all of it was, but that’s of little importance to this story.

I can still recall the scene after my Bar Mitzvah – I mean immediately after; probably in a private room during the reception (it was at a place in North Hollywood, CA, USA that has gone the way of the Dodo bird) – where I endorsed every check I had received as a gift from my family and our friends. I immediately handed the checks over to my father, who was leaving Faber’s Ham Shop and striking out on his own. He was buying a truck and becoming a peddler. A meat peddler. It was an amicable resignation, as Louie Faber became one of my old man’s best customers and the Grand Central Market was always pretty central to my father’s success.

I bring this up merely to demonstrate my familiarity with — perhaps a modicum of expertise in the field of — lunch meat in all it’s numerous incarnations (Oops!) and variety. I have eaten just about every one of those varieties. I didn’t necessarily care for them once I tasted them, however. Head Cheese and Olive & Pimento Loaf come to mind, but I tried them. Some of the varieties I was quite fond of, especially since they were already cooked and I could grab one whenever I was hungry. This was especially true of hot dogs and FARMER JOHN® Hot Louisiana Brand Smoked Sausage, the former of which we sold in very large quantities loosely packed in boxes of about 50lbs.; the latter of which came in cases of 10 5lb. boxes. It was easy to open a case, pick up a box, open it, and remove (and eat) one of the hot links.

How to Make a McRib

Do NOT Attempt This in Your Kitchen

This brings me to the graphic that appeared on my Facebook News Feed yesterday; a graphic which tickled me to no end. As I have said, what we today view primarily as culinary crap; unhealthy, sometimes disgusting pseudo-food, was a long-time staple of mine. Frankly, I still eat hot dogs, though I now only purchase all-beef (usually from Trader Joe’s) and I deeply appreciate the occasional Nathan’s natural casing weiner <snap!>. This graphic makes it quite clear the author subscribes to the assertion the McRib is constructed of mystery meat. I’m not sure I agree with the assessment (Wikipedia reports the faux ribs are actually formed from pork shoulder meat), but I now avoid this sandwich like the plague .  .  . as I do everything by most all fast food outlets (franchise or not).

Nevertheless, I can empathize with the sentiment expressed in the last box of this flow chart. I wouldn’t hesitate for a New York minute to scarf one of these babies, i.e. if the only objection was that they’re not really made out of rib meat. I can get by that without batting a eyelash. Unfortunately, there are other reasons involving my health I now refuse to eat this stuff. Doesn’t mean I don’t miss the hell out of it.


Channeling the Grand Central Market in Los Angeles

The Grand Central Market

Stalls at the Grand Central Market in L.A.

Perhaps this may seem strange, especially to those who’ve not experienced it, but I just love being out in places where there’s a lot of foot traffic and commerce is humming along. Although I fairly recently left a large corporation, where I worked in a windowless environment for a mostly faceless organization, I spent my formative years in very small businesses. My father was – after he took the money I got for my Bar Mitzvah to  purchase a truck – a food peddler, selling mostly meat and cheese to places like the Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles.

I used to love going to that market and walking through it to get to a hand truck or a small four-wheeled cart I could bring back to our truck to schlep boxes of product to some of the stalls we sold to or, better yet, to one of the walk-ins where the vendors kept their produce, etc. they would then put in their cases to sell to the public. There was one place that sold a lot of chiles and spices. I think the dominant smell in that cooler was Cumin, or Cominos. I loved going into their walk-in and would usually loiter there after I had unloaded the cart with the boxes of product they had purchased from us. I was also introduced to things like lamb French Dip sandwiches and Orange Julius at the Grand Central. I can still hear my father pushing a cart loaded with meat and cheese, yelling “Wash (sic) your feet!” to warn shoppers of our presence.

Angel's Flight Funicular

The Angel's Flight Funicular

Across the street was one of the iconic places in the City of the Angels, a funicular called Angel’s Flight. It was an amazing ride to nowhere for me. Up the hill (Bunker Hill) and back down. No place to go, but I was in heaven on that little trolley.

I’ve been back a few times since my father’s death just over twenty-five years ago and it never fails to give me the chills and warm my heart at the same time. Now when I go out to talk with prospects for my business, I find I’m getting the same old feeling. There’s a connection I can’t fully explain, though I’m trying to here. I hope it never goes away. It’s part of what makes everything I do worthwhile.

Angel’s Flight Pic Courtesy of NIEHS


A Personal Reflection on the Loss of STS-51-L (Challenger)

I was rooting around in the garage the other day; not really looking for anything in particular;  just looking to remind myself of things I keep around. I have lots of “keepsakes” from my life. Not collectibles . . . hardly, but little things that remind me of events I’ve experienced in one way or another. It could be a ticket to a Lakers’s playoff game (against the Celtics, no less), a “Nixon, Humphrey, Wallace – Three Strikes and You’re Out” button, or a bar mitzvah boy decoration that once sat atop my birthday cake over 50 years ago.

All three of these items have powerful memories associated with them, though each was quite different in the degree to which those things I remember actually affected my life. All three have also faded with time so , interestingly, the one that seems to have the strongest memories is the Lakers ticket. I suppose it makes sense. Even though it’s been over 25 years since it happened, it was the first time the Lakers ever beat the Celtics for the championship. On the other hand, though politics and religion have always played a major role in my life, my everyday existence has not been impinged upon too much by governmental activity and I’ve been an atheist since I was 16. Basketball, however, comes back around every season to refresh the wounds and triumphs and, even though I don’t watch many games any more, the finals are always exciting.

I didn’t actually come across any of these items the other day, but I did come across an item which has more meaning for me – in many ways – than all three of the others combined. As I opened up a piece of old decorative pottery someone once gave me, I found the medallion I’ve pictured below. I suspect most everyone who might read this post is familiar with the Challenger disaster but, just in case some aren’t, the Challenger Space Shuttle Orbiter, one of five orbiters to once exist in the NASA fleet, was lost in an explosion during launch on January 28, 1986. Clicking on the picture will take you to NASA’s official site for this launch. This month marks the 25th anniversary of what was both a national, nay, human tragedy and the beginning of a new life for me.

 

Challenger STS-51L Mission Patch

Challenger STS-51L Mission Patch

 

Finding this medallion at this time seems somewhat serendipitous to me, as it neatly intersects with so much of my life these past 25 years. Let me explain and I will try not to bore you.

When Challenger exploded I was working in Century City, Los Angeles, California at a litigation support firm. Our business was to organize the information available from mountains of questions (called interrogatories in the legal profession) and their answers, as well as transcripts of real-time examinations of witnesses and parties (called depositions). The two main cases we were involved with were family battles over empires worth hundreds of millions of dollars, so there was a lot at stake (silly and humorous as it was to me).

There was a grill and pub inside the building I worked in, which I frequented for lunch and a couple of adult beverages in the evening whilst waiting for the Northbound insanity on the 405 to subside. This generally took a few hours, but it was a congenial place and I enjoyed the company of numerous denizens. Sometimes I would eat dinner there as well. It wasn’t like the sports bars we have today, but they had a television in there and, now that I think about it, I believe it was the only one. There were no flatscreens, no HD, etc. After all, it was 1986. A long time ago . . . in terms of consumer technology, at least.

When I heard the news, though I now wonder  how it traveled so fast without Twitter to carry it, I immediately left my desk and went down to the pub. I can’t recall if the TV was on when I entered, but it was certainly on shortly after I got there. I watched in horror as the news showed the explosion of Challenger over and over and over and over and . . . well, you know . . . over. To this day, I can’t stand to watch it again. Without even closing my eyes, right now I can see the two solid rocket motors splitting off, yet continuing to ascend under power after the orbiter disintegrated. It was a horrendous site and it cost the lives of seven intrepid souls, including the woman who would have been the first teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe.

These seven people gave their lives that we and our children might more fully live ours. They deserve to be honored and I wish to acknowledge them here:

Michael J. Smith
Dick Scobee
Ronald McNair
Ellison Onizuka
Christa McAuliffe
Gregory Jarvis
Judith Resnik

I have long been a space cadet (in more than one sense 🙂 ) and I am a staunch supporter of our space program, as well as one who strongly believes we must establish a cultural – not merely technological – presence in space and on other worlds. When I was a boy living in the middle of the San Fernando Valley, I vividly recall hearing the sound of the Saturn vehicle’s second and third stage engines (the J-2) being tested at Rocketdyne’s Santa Susanna Field Laboratory and seeing the sky above turn red over the hills to the West. I also recall laying on the grass in front of our home and watching Sputnik go by overhead when I was 10 years old. I dreamed of going into space; still do, though I have no real expectation of doing so other than in my imagination.

A year after Challenger was destroyed, thanks to a bit of serendipity (and Apple One), I found myself showing up as a temp worker on the Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME) program’s efforts to return to flight after the disaster. Although the SSME was not a factor in the tragedy, the team was using the resultant stand-down to re-assess the likelihood of one of the three engines which are responsible for lifting the shuttle into low earth orbit (LEO) failing at any time in a mission.

A year later, despite not being an Engineer, I found myself working as a full-time employee of Rockwell International‘ on the Flight Operations Team of the SSME. Last year (in May), I took an early retirement package offered to those of us 60 years and older. It’s been about eight months now since my separation from the place I worked at for most of a 23 year period and the 28th of this month will mark the 25th year since these seven brave astronauts perished on a cold, wintry Florida day. I find it ironic (and painfully humbling) to realize their deaths intersect with the birth of my first real career (I had been in many small business until that point, some as an employee, others as a partner) and now this anniversary comes so close on the heels of my leaving. Although I grieve for having left the place I thought I would work at until I dropped dead, I still find an even larger hole in my heart for having lost the crew of Challenger, as well as the vehicle that killed them.

If you have a special memory of these people or this tragedy, I hope you’ll share it somewhere during this anniversary.


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