OF HEROES AND TRANSITIONS
Life brings sorrows and joys alike. It is what a man does with them – not what they do to him – that is the true test of his mettle. - Theodore Roosevelt
Leon’s safe return to Boston should have been the most joyful time of my life. Yet it was tinged with sorrow as I watched him struggle to regain the life he’d known before the war. Today, as I write this in the year 2005, United States soldiers are scheduled to rotate home from the war in Iraq for rest and relaxation. They are counseled about what to expect, and their families are counseled as well. It is accepted by everyone that the transition home from a war zone can be difficult, and soldiers and their families receive much needed help. After World War II, there was no help at all. There was not even the realization that help was needed. We all muddled through as best we could. Leon joined me again in my parents’ home, settling in the third floor guest room we’d shared when we were first married. He was restless, irritable, not the carefree, bubbly person I’d known before the war. I was distraught and my parents were no help. My father, who was too young to serve in World War I and too old for World War II, had no idea what Leon was going through. Because he didn’t understand, he had no sympathy and was constantly complaining to me of Leon’s behavior. Leon threw himself into his new job, as he did with everything to which he applied himself. After a few short weeks, Leon came up with many good suggestions. Several of his ideas centered on improving the lot of the workers and involved benefits such as paid vacations and medical insurance. Leon had grown up in a socialist family where dinner table discussions frequently dealt with social reforms. Norman Thomas, the Socialist party candidate for president from 1928 to 1948, was a guest in their home, expounding on his ideas for workplace improvements for America’s labor force, and Leon had internalized these conversations. Leon wished to return to school on the G.I. bill and earn a PhD in mathematics. He’d always loved math and dreamed of a life in which he explored the subject further, perhaps writing textbooks and finding ways to make math more accessible to students. I suggested he consider teaching at a small college in New England, picturing myself as a faculty wife, taking care of the students’ emotional needs while Leon trained their minds. The day Leon went to speak with Professor MacLaine, I found myself nervously wondering what was going to happen. I didn’t share Leon’s plans with my parents, not wanting them to be judgmental and begin complaining of Leon returning to school, even before we knew if that was an option. Leon was despondent when he came home from the interview. Professor MacLaine had told him to forget a career in mathematics for three reasons. First, during Leon’s absence from school while in the Air Corps, the field of math had moved in new directions and Leon was now behind the undergraduates in his knowledge of the subject. Second, while he graduated fifth in his class, this was considered inadequate to pursue a PhD at Harvard; only the top two or three students were invited to join the program and Leon wasn’t interested in going elsewhere. Finally, at the age of twenty-five, he was already too old to try to catch up. MacLaine suggested Leon pursue a new field. Leon idolized Professor MacLaine, starting with his early days at Harvard, and had followed MacLaine’s advice every step of the way, confident it was right. I realized this was a pattern for Leon. He had heroes all his life. As a young teenager, he worshipped his brother-in-law, Henry Lerner, and emulated Henry in many ways. One of Karyl’s boyfriends, Lee Goodman, later captured his respect. Through the years, I found it difficult to question or criticize Leon’s heroes. Any time I did, Leon would get mad and tell me I didn’t know what I was talking about. Each mentor had a profound effect on Leon’s life, but not always for the best. Had Leon stayed in mathematics instead of following MacLaine’s advice, perhaps he would have been happier. We’ll never know. Leon’s hours were shorter than mine. With his extra time, he handled the grocery shopping and had dinner waiting on the table when I got home. In the mid-1940s, it was unusual for a husband to take on household duties, yet that never bothered Leon. Throughout the years of our marriage, he always pulled his weight at home, which I greatly appreciated.
After we’d received several rounds of applause, one of the brothers lay flat on his back with his legs in the air. The other two lifted me to a standing position on his feet. Despite my earlier success, everyone thought I would lose my balance immediately. No one but
Leon knew I had been an acrobatic dancer. The audience cheered as I stood erect, in full control. Then I made the mistake of looking down. The brother on the floor was looking up at me and I realized he could see up my skirt. I was so embarrassed that I lost my balance and started to fall. The other two caught me and we all took a bow. Leon suggested we sell the house and find a cheap apartment in Boston’s South End, a run-down neighborhood not too far from the BU medical school. My father hated the idea of our living in such a seedy location and proposed that he give us an extra twenty-five dollars a week, just enough to allow us to move into the house on Cloverdale Road. Leon balked at the suggestion, not wanting to be dependent on anyone else. Dad said, “ Leon, please don’t let your pride get in the way of Aura’s well-being. I want to do this for you. If it will make you feel better, we’ll call it a loan and you can pay me back whenever you’re ready.” For the next several years, my salary and my parents’ help saw us through medical school, internship, residency, and the start-up of Leon’s pediatrics practice. Leon hugged and comforted me, explaining that the actual procedure would take less than two minutes. I should relax for the three weeks and if the two minutes turned out to be painful, I could “yell like hell.” That made me laugh. I took his advice and felt much better. As things turned out, I was given a sleeping pill the night before the surgery and didn’t wake up until the whole thing was over. What a special lesson Leon taught me. Don’t worry until you have to, and then handle the situation appropriately. I’ve remembered Leon’s words many times over the years. They always helped me when I was afraid of what might happen and I’ve shared them with others when they turned to me for comfort. Leon was so wrapped up in his new experiences as a freshman at medical school that he seemed oblivious to my sorrow. Not wanting to burden him with my problems, I never spoke of my disappointment each month. Finally, however, when I could bear the waiting no longer, I suggested we both scheduled check- ups to determine why I wasn’t getting pregnant, and see if anything could be done. Leon’s appointment was first. He went to it expecting everything to be fine. We had assumed our difficulties were caused by my medical problems. My periods had always been difficult, frequently resulting in hemorrhaging, so it seemed natural to believe I was the one having trouble conceiving. This turned out not to be the case. Leon’s sperm count was low and the few sperm he had were abnormal. His doctor said it was unlikely he could ever have children.
Life brings sorrows and joys alike. It is what a man does with them – not what they do to him – that is the true test of his mettle. - Theodore Roosevelt
My father wasn’t the only one frustrated.
Leon was unhappy with himself, not realizing that every returning soldier was stumbling, trying to start life over. He knew he needed to keep busy, so he answered a help wanted ad and got an assembly line job in a watch factory in Waltham for the summer. Mornings, he walked the mile to the streetcar stop. Evenings, I drove to Newton Corner to pick him up. By the end of each day, he was exhausted, which was exactly what he needed. In his own way, he was putting the horrors of the war behind him.
My father was annoyed with this turn of events. He couldn’t understand how a young man with a Harvard education could waste his time as a laborer. He kept saying, “
Leon spent all that time in college just to take a mindless job at a rock-bottom wage. It’s not right. He needs to quit working there and take a job with a future. He’ll never amount to anything if he stays there.” At least my father vented his anger and disappointment on me, and not on Leon.
Dad had watched Herb go through a similar readjustment period a year earlier. Herb had been discharged from the service following an emotional breakdown caused by combat stress syndrome. Mother and Dad watched while he and Karyl pulled their lives together. It took a few months, but they succeeded. Herb returned to Harvard to earn a PhD, and while he was doing so, worked as an instructor there. They found an apartment near
Harvard Square and seemed content. Karyl enjoyed learning to cook, shop, and do everything else necessary to run a small household.
As the summer wore on, I envied Karyl and Herb. They were established in their own home while we lived with my parents. Karyl played the role of the young housewife while I lay about recovering from yet another surgery on my back. They no longer were subject to my father’s attempts to control their lives, while I had to deal with such attempts on a daily basis. I constantly served as a buffer between my husband and my father, trying to keep peace in the household, just as I had done as a child for my mother and Grandma Lena.
Another major difference between Karyl and Herb and
Leon and me was that they had a social life, while we had none. One weekend, Leon and I were sitting in the back yard discussing how different our lives had become from our time together in college and during his training. Then we had friends, went places, did things. It occurred to us that in college and the service, our social life was provided for us and we had thus lost the habit of calling friends, setting up evenings together. Recognizing that we needed to cultivate those activities once again, I started contacting old friends and our social life blossomed.
By the end of the summer,
Leon had regained much of his former equilibrium. He still had bad moments but no longer seemed stressed all the time. His job in the watch factory had worked its miracles and Leon decided he was ready to take Dad up on his offer to join him in the restaurant business.
I was initially surprised when Dad agreed to implement Leon’s ideas, but then I saw that Leon had presented them to my father as beneficial not just to the employee, but to the business owner as well.
Leon pointed out that if Dad’s restaurant workers were content, they would perform better on the job. Any money spent on vacations and insurance would be saved through higher productivity and lower employee turnover. It turned out that Leon’s predictions were accurate. Dad kept his employees for twenty years, an unusual statistic in the restaurant business. Because they were content, the workers created a pleasant environment in the diners, which in turn brought in many more customers.
Leon enjoying his work in the restaurant business, we decided it was time for us to move into a place of our own and found a charming two-family house on Cloverdale Road in Newton Highlands. I’d loved the area the first time I saw it when Karyl and Herb were house hunting several months earlier. Although they liked the neighborhood as much as I did, they concluded it would be better for them to rent an apartment in Cambridge within walking distance of Harvard. I on the other hand had kept returning, hoping to find the perfect house on the perfect street.
The home of my childhood dreams was becoming a reality. My parents handled the down payment for us, glad to help, as always. We were eager to move in, but there was a problem. Both apartments in the house were occupied by tenants, and we couldn’t simply evict one of them. We were required by law to give them six months notice to find another place to live. After World War II, vacancies were at a premium all over the country, and people needed that time to re-locate.
So Leon and I became landlords, happily making plans for the day we would move into our own home. Whenever we got impatient about the inconveniences of living with my parents, we’d talk about what life would be like in the future. We’d quote Lenny’s line from John Steinbeck’s book, Of Mice and Men, “Tell how it’s gonna be,” and then we’d say George’s answer, “I’ll tell you so you can almost see it…We gonna get a little place.” It was our way of promising each other everything was going to work out fine. We’d quote those words, and then hold each other in a long hug.
While we waited,
Leon continued to work with my father. In addition to proposing improvements for the workers, Leon developed ideas for opening diners in cities up and down the East Coast, as Howard Johnson had done in the 1930’s. Leon said he could fly back and forth, overseeing the new locations. Dad laughed at the idea. Had he agreed to Leon’s expansion proposal, perhaps Leon would have continued to work in the diner business. Instead, he felt trapped, unchallenged by the routine activities. Wanting his job to be more than a paycheck, he decided to seek advice from his undergraduate counselor at Harvard, Saunders MacLaine.
We talked about it in bed that night and I begged
Leon to get a second opinion before giving up. From the day I met him, he spoke of wanting to go to MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and prepare himself to work in mathematics. As a high school senior, he was accepted there as well as at Harvard, but his parents insisted he go to Harvard. Since he was still dependent upon them financially, he felt as if he had no choice but to follow their wishes. However, he didn’t enroll as a pre-med student, which what they wanted. Instead, he became a math major, unwilling to give up on his dream. Yet now, seven years later, he wouldn’t get a second opinion after listening to Saunders MacLaine. He got angry with me for even suggesting it, saying I didn’t know anything. I was hurt by his harsh words and too insecure to realize they sprang from his own disappointment.
In any case,
Leon remained depressed for several days before snapping out of it. Then he said, “If I have to leave mathematics, I’ll go into medicine.” I expected Leon’s family to be pleased with his decision. After all, that’s what they’d wanted for him from the time he first showed such promise as a student, many years earlier. Instead, they thought Leon was foolish to give up working for my father. They said he could become a rich man in the restaurant business, and they couldn’t understand why he would walk away from that opportunity to begin the long, difficult, and costly process of becoming a physician.
My father, on the other hand, was supportive. Instead of trying to talk
Leon into staying in business with him, he encouraged him to apply to medical school. He said he’d always regretted not pursuing a career as a lawyer after he graduated from law school, and he didn’t want Leon to have those regrets.
“I didn’t have a choice," he said. "I graduated during the depression and there were no legal jobs to be had. But you do have a choice. Apply to med school and Mother and I will help in any way we can.”
“I didn’t have a choice," he said. "I graduated during the depression and there were no legal jobs to be had. But you do have a choice. Apply to med school and Mother and I will help in any way we can.”
How did I feel about it? I had been eager to make a home with
Leon and start a family. Now, I had to let go of that dream. Instead, we were looking at ten difficult years of medical school, internships, and residency. With Leon’s decision to go back to school, I felt as if all of my dreams were falling apart. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before I grew ashamed of my self-centeredness and resolved to be the Rock of Gibraltar through the difficult years ahead. My parents were being supportive and I should, too.
As soon as
Leon began to look at medical schools, he discovered it would be more difficult to get in than he had thought. Many returning soldiers were taking advantage of the G.I. Bill to go to school and admissions offices were growing more selective. Because Leon hadn’t chosen the field while an under-graduate, he’d never taken organic chemistry, a class required for anyone wanting to attend medical school. It became apparent that he would have to complete this one course before applying.
At first we thought it would take a full year, and
Leon was disappointed. Henry Lerner, hearing of the dilemma, came to our rescue. Henry had been teaching radiology at the in University of Utah Salt Lake City ever since he got out of the service. He told Leon the school was still operating on a wartime schedule that offered accelerated organic chemistry over the summer. He and Helen said we could come to Utah and stay with them until we found a place of our own. Leon could enroll in the course and be able to start medical school in the fall of 1946, thus saving an entire year. It was the perfect solution to our problem.
We packed a few things and took the train to
Salt Lake City. It was reminiscent of my wartime travels, which on the whole had been quite pleasant. Only this time, not only did I get to enjoy all the beautiful scenery and sense of adventure, I didn’t have the fear of Leon getting injured lurking in the back of my mind. We arrived on June 6th, ready to jump into our new lives, and two days later the University went off its wartime schedule and canceled organic chemistry for the summer. Leon would have to wait until the fall after all.
Helen and Henry urged us to remain for the year, saying
Leon might as well take the class at the , since he had to take it somewhere. We’d had a good time visiting them during the war and they seemed eager for us to stay. Helen especially spoke of how special it would be to have family near by. With their encouragement, we decided a year in University of Utah Salt Lake City made sense and accepted their invitation to use their guest room for a few more days while we searched for an apartment.
Our few days with Helen and Henry turned into six weeks because housing was unavailable. We looked in the newspaper every day, following every lead to no avail.
Leon started teaching math at the University, leaving me alone all day with Helen and the children. I thought I would enjoy my time staying with Helen but instead felt very much in the way. While Helen said she was happy to have us there, her actions said otherwise. I’d help prepare the evening meal, only to find she expected Leon and me to eat bread and butter in the kitchen with five-year-old Toby and two-year-old Bennett, rather than sharing dinner with their parents. I loved being Auntie Aura to the children, but found myself treated as a servant, a nanny, and realized something had to change.
Leon and I became more aggressive about looking for an apartment. One day, we found a promising ad that said, “Do not come before .” We went at and sat on their doorstep, planning to ring the bell at seven. Fifteen minutes later, another couple walked out the door with a lease in hand. They’d shown up even earlier than we had. It was frustrating. My discomfort with the situation grew more intense when little Toby said, “Why do you only read the ads in the morning paper? Why don’t you look in the afternoon paper, too?” I knew a five-year-old could never have thought of that herself. Helen must have been complaining in front of her about how long we’d been there.
Eager to get out of the house, even if it was only during the day, I responded to an ad for a position at the Photo-Reflex Studio of ZCMI, the large department store in the center of town. I was hired on the spot and started work the next day. It felt great to have a job once again. I had enjoyed my work during
Leon’s army training, preferring employment to sitting about with little to do. I liked being productive. An added benefit of my job was that it helped us find an apartment; one of my co-workers told me about a studio apartment for rent near the store. Leon and I took one look at it and decided to move in.
It was nothing like what I expected of our first post-war home. The apartment was so tiny that when we pulled down the Murphy bed at night, we had to step on the couch to climb in. The neighborhood was poor, though not as bad as some of the places I’d stayed in during the war. Despite the dingy surroundings and tight quarters, we got used to living in our one-room home. We loved keeping house and going to work every day. Each morning
Leon took the bus to the university and I walked over to ZCMI. We were free and independent and grown up, and it was wonderful.
One of my favorite times each day was when Leon and I would sit together on the couch working on a cross-stitch rug. It was
Leon’s suggestion. Perhaps because his father had been in the textile industry, he didn’t consider needlework to be for women only. We would sit near each other with the rug spread out on our laps, Leon working on one end while I worked on the other. We’d tell each other how our day went and talk of our dreams for the future.
On the weekends, Henry would pick us up for a few hours of visiting. We’d talk of the news, how
Leon’s math classes were going, all the cute little things the Lerner children were doing. Helen frequently mentioned newspaper articles she’d read regarding the dearth of teachers in Salt Lake City. During the war, many female teachers left the field, preferring to take higher paying jobs that became available as young men quit to volunteer in the army. Although the war had ended, many of the women chose to remain in their new jobs, enjoying the better salaries associated with the traditionally male positions. The school district was begging anyone remotely qualified to apply, and Helen suggested I call for an interview.
It never would have occurred to me that I could teach. I had no training in education.. Not only that, I was still shy, to the point of stuttering if I were complimented. I’d always admired the way the entire Kruger family seemed so sure of themselves, never doubting their capabilities, always willing to try new things. My family was conservative and I would have considered it audacious to apply for a teaching position. Not so with Helen and Leon. They both encouraged me to explore the possibilities.
Still scared, but also curious and eager to please
Leon, I made an appointment. As soon as the gentleman interviewing me learned I had a college degree, he said he was going to hire me. The only decision to be made was the subject I would teach. I hastily said I would only be comfortable teaching English. He ask more questions about the rest of my background. When he found out I had four years each of Latin, French, and German and could play the piano, he said, “You could teach foreign language. You could be a music teacher.” My confidence soared as he waxed enthusiastic.
Then he asked me to tell him a little about my life. I said I came from
Boston, and my husband and I were in Salt Lake City so he could take organic chemistry at the University before applying to medical school. When I said that Leon was teaching mathematics at the same time, he grinned widely and said, “Then you’ll teach math as well. I’m desperate for an 8th grade math teacher.”
Math! That was impossible. I told him I couldn’t do it, having had only beginning algebra and geometry in high school and no aptitude in the field. He said, “Mrs. Kruger, in addition to my responsibilities as assistant superintendent, I’m in charge of math for the district. I’ve watched many math teachers over the years and I know you can be a good one. I can easily hire someone to fake their way through an English course, but I can’t do that for math. With your college degree and high school algebra and geometry, you’re the most qualified person I’ve got. Besides, your husband can work with you each evening, teaching you what you’ll need to know for class the next day.”
On my way home, I kept replaying the interview in my mind. I knew when I was nine years old that I wanted to be a teacher but never dreamed it would happen this way. I thought I’d get additional training and would then teach English, speech, or drama, the fields for which I was prepared from my time at Emerson. But there I was, still in my early twenties with no background in education, and I was going to teach mathematics.
While I found this all very difficult to take in,
Leon was not surprised that I’d been offered a job. He always believed more in my capabilities than I did. His praise over the years went a long way toward helping me believe in myself when my parents had made me feel inadequate. He said I shouldn’t worry at all, and we spent much of the weekend reviewing the math I’d had almost ten years earlier. Just as the assistant superintendent predicted, Leon prepared me each night for the next day’s work, and I muddled through and even enjoyed the process.
Before we settled in for a weekend of studying, we joined Helen and Henry for Friday night at the movies. We were sitting in the theater waiting for a Bob Hope movie to begin when I told them my news. I expected Helen to be happy for me, and she was, but she also said I might wish to delay starting for a few weeks.
“I hate to spoil a surprise," she said, "but my parents told me that your parents are planning to visit next weekend and stay for at least ten days.”
“I hate to spoil a surprise," she said, "but my parents told me that your parents are planning to visit next weekend and stay for at least ten days.”
No longer concerned with the start of the movie, I went to the lobby to call my folks and let them know I would be teaching. While I was eager to see them, I was also looking forward to starting my job and didn’t want to wait. I thought it was important to tell them this because I was afraid they would be disappointed if they came all this way to visit us and I was gone all day. Dad said not to worry. We would have two great weekends together and he and Mom could sight-see on Mondays through Friday. I thanked Dad over and over, grateful both for his understanding and his willingness to work around my schedule.
The following Monday morning, I went to school early to get my room in order and review the textbook one more time before my students arrived.
Leon had helped as best he could, but I still felt unequal to the task before me. How was I ever going to teach the children when I didn’t understand the material myself? I sat at the desk flipping through pages of the book. Meanwhile, several teachers stepped into the room and opened the cabinet next to the door. They each waved hello but didn’t come in to chat. I found it curious, but my desk was situated in such a way that the cabinet door blocked my view, and I was too worried about preparing for class to get up and take a look.
A few days later I discovered what had been going on. The students and I had used up all the supplies that had been out on desks and tables, so I asked at the office where I could get refills. One of the secretaries told me to look in the cabinet by my door, saying there should be enough there to last the rest of the year. She walked to my room with me to show me, only to find the cupboard almost empty. That first day, all those teachers that came into my room were stealing my supplies. Apparently, this happened every time a new teacher started. This was my introduction to the insufficient funding suffered by many schools all over the country. No one blamed the teachers for using whatever means they could to get what they needed for their students, even if it meant stealing from other teachers.
I learned another lesson that first week. Although I viewed myself as a mature adult, quite a bit older than my students, the rest of the world didn’t see me that way. I was 4’10” tall and petite in every way. As a result, the boys didn’t realize I was a teacher. They mistook me for a teenager and flirted with me, coming up behind me and snapping my bra and swatting me on the behind. It happened so often that I stopped walking in the halls between class periods. This behavior had made me uncomfortable when I was in junior high myself, and now, as an adult, I found it intolerable. Today, of course, boys who harass girls in this manner are stopped, but in the 1940s, people saw it as innocent flirting, not harassment.
It wasn’t just the students who had trouble recognizing me as a teacher. One time I was leading my class into the auditorium and stood aside to let them sit down ahead of me. As they filed past me into their seats, another teacher came up behind me and shook me, reprimanding me for stepping out of line. When I turned around to speak with her, she realized her mistake and apologized.
Somehow I got through that first week. I loved my students and they could tell. They warmed up to me immediately and didn’t seem to mind that I barely knew more than they did. Because the actress in me projected a sense of confidence, the students were unaware of how much I was struggling. On my last day in class I shared with them the fact that my math background was so weak that I’d been learning right along with them. I said, “If I can do it, you can too.”
As much as I enjoyed my first week of teaching, I eagerly awaited the weekend and my parents’ arrival. Mother and Dad, always interested in exploring new places, took us to see
and Bryce Canyon . Zion National Park Leon packed a picnic lunch of sardine and cucumber sandwiches with thermoses of hot coffee. When we got hungry, we pulled off to the side of the road and ate our lunch, gazing at the beautiful scenery.
When we arrived at
, we discovered we could go for a horseback ride to the bottom. As I looked at the tiny trail hugging the side of a cliff, my heart started to race. Not only had it been many years since I’d been on a horse, I’d always been bothered by looking over the edge of a long drop; the combination of the two fears seemed overwhelming. When I expressed my concerns, the leader assured me the horses knew what they were doing and all I had to do was hold the reins. No one had ever gone over the edge. Bryce Canyon
Not wanting to disappoint
Leon, I gritted my teeth and told myself I could handle this. We started out and three minutes later were headed toward the bottom, making one hairpin turn after another. Each time we changed direction, my horse walked to the edge of the trail, leaned out over the abyss, and looked down into the depths of the canyon. My stomach churned as I pictured him losing his footing and the two of us tumbling over the cliff. When we finally reached the bottom, I breathed a sigh of relief and tried not to think about the trip back up to the top.
Somehow I got through the ordeal, but it was four hours of torture and I ended up with a headache. I slept in the car on the way to
where Dad had arranged for a cabin for the night. The next morning, Zion National Park Leon wanted to go riding again, this time taking a trail up a mountain instead of down into a canyon. Although he tried to convince me it would be easier than the day before, I decided to enjoy the view from the porch of our cabin, visiting with Mother and Dad instead. I appreciated the view a lot more from my comfortable perch on a rocking chair than on the more precarious perch atop a horse.
By the following weekend, memories of the difficult ride had faded and I was looking forward to another adventure. Dad drove us through
to Logan Canyon . Once again, we were treated to views I’ll never forget – Yellowstone National Park Old Faithful, the bears, and the morning glory pool. We stayed overnight in and returned to Jackson Hole, Wyoming Salt Lake City through the . My father certainly had a flare for road trips. Grand Teton Mountains
Because he loved to travel, Dad always encouraged Leon and me to explore new places. At the end of their visit, he and Mother said that our Christmas gift was going to be a week in
Las Vegas, including plane tickets and a few days at a hotel. We were overwhelmed by their generosity. Without it, we could never have considered such an extravagance. Even if we could have afforded the trip, we wouldn’t have thought to vacation in Las Vegas because it was a relatively new tourist destination, a small town with only a few hotels. Most people wanting to gamble went to the much more established town of Reno. Dad always prided himself on identifying exciting places to visit before they became well known.
The semester ended and Christmas arrived. As promised, Mother and Dad arranged a
Las Vegas vacation for us. It began with a flight on a small plane with fewer than 20 passengers, all headed to Las Vegas for a week of entertainment. We landed at a tiny airport in the middle of the desert with no town in sight. As we looked around with our fellow passengers, a man greeted us, saying he would drive us to our hotels. He looked like cowboys in the movies, complete with a Stetson hat and boots with spurs. I wondered how he could drive with those spurs sticking out from the back of his boots, but he didn’t seem to have any difficulty.
After about 20 minutes, we arrived at what would eventually become the famous Las Vegas Strip. We could see no sign of the town itself, just two hotels plopped down in the desert. After checking into our room, Leon and I walked to the stables to reserve horses for the next day. The man there took out a book and asked us what time we wanted to go. When we said eight in the morning, he laughed, saying we wouldn’t need a reservation. He said, “Nobody else will be up that early.” Not quite believing him, we asked him to write down our names anyway, and he grinned as he did so, shaking his head.
That night we went to the dining room for dinner and a show. For $3.50 each, we had steak, danced to Orrin Tucker’s orchestra, and listened to Wee Bonnie Baker singing songs like Oh, Johnny and others she’d made famous. It was still relatively early when we went to bed, planning to get up early for our ride.
When we left our room at seven in the morning to have breakfast, we figured out why the stable hand had laughed at us for insisting on a reservation. There was no one in sight. The casino was empty, the dining room was empty, and when we walked over to the stables, we found them empty as well, except for one employee. We rode for an hour and I was relieved to find there were no steep mountains or canyons to terrify me, just the flat desert. Our horses walked slowly, never going faster than a slight trot, so I was able to enjoy taking deep breaths of the clean desert air and looking around at the beautiful terrain.
When we returned to the hotel a few hours later, it was still almost deserted. There were two or three people wandering about in the casino and
Leon said he was going to try gambling. I was never tempted to gamble, for it reminded me of the days when my father was involved with the illegal numbers racket, so I sat in a lounge chair with my knitting while Leon played the slot machines. He quickly got bored with that, and we decided to sign up for a tour of Hoover Dam in the afternoon. It had just opened and was supposed to be spectacular.
We had a couple of hours before the tour started, so we took a cab downtown and walked around looking for a place to eat lunch. We couldn’t believe our good fortune when we found a delicatessen. It was the first Jewish food we’d eaten since we left
Newton six months earlier. I don’t think we realized how much we missed it until we had the chance to dive into a big pastrami sandwich again. It was so good that we returned the next day. Not only did we enjoy the food, but it also felt good to know there were other Jews around. In Salt Lake City, surrounded by Mormons, we had felt isolated.
We were soon to discover why there was Jewish food available in
Las Vegas. The dinner theaters at the hotels were bringing in Jewish comedians, performers from the Vaudeville circuit who starred in many of the 1930’s movies. While we were at Hoover Dam, we met an older Jewish couple staying at the other hotel, El Rancho Vegas. We talked about the delicatessen we had found, and that led to a conversation about the restaurants where they lived in New York City. By the end of the tour, they’d invited us to join them for dinner at their hotel, where they were going to see the comedy team of the Ritz Brothers. We’d been watching Ritz Brothers movies since the mid-1930s, enjoying them almost as much as we did their fellow comedians, the Marx Brothers. When we heard the El Rancho Vegas had booked the Ritz Brothers for their first West Coast tour in ten years, we were eager to see them.
After a brief nap to recover from our horseback riding and tour, we met the Moskowitzes in the lobby of their hotel and walked past the casino to the dinner theater where Leon and I expected to sit at a small table for four. Instead, the maitre d’ showed us to a large table near the stage. We would have a perfect view of the performers. As we sat down, we recognized the others at our table – the Ritz Brothers. Our hosts knew them in
New York City and we were all having dinner together.
The conversation was lively, barely stopping long enough for Leon and me to be introduced to everyone. They were all discussing how upset Mrs. Marx was because her son was getting married to a girl who wasn’t Jewish. My new friend leaned over and whispered in my ear that they were talking about Groucho. It was hard for me to believe I was sitting at the table with such famous people.
When it was time for the Ritz Brothers to perform, they pulled me up on the stage with them. I never had a chance to say no. Before I knew it, I was part of the act. They did all kinds of crazy stunts, bouncing me around like a rag doll, taking advantage of my tiny size. Although we hadn’t talked about it over dinner, they quickly figured out that I was comfortable with the acrobatic nature of the routine and they began having me do more and more complicated tricks.
|ACROBATIC AURA AT GRANDPARENTS' BEACH|
Shortly after I sat down, the Ritz Brothers took a break and Peggy Lee, a singer still new on the scene, took the stage. We were impressed with her style, her presence, and her voice. For years afterward,
Leon said he was in love with Peggy Lee. Although I knew he was joking, it always hurt. He described her as the ultimate beauty with her long legs and blonde hair. How could I help but feel insecure, knowing that as a short-legged brunette, I was the exact opposite of Peggy Lee, and moreover, I couldn’t sing.
The show ended around and
Leon and I got up to leave, thanking our friends for a superb evening. They said, “Don’t go yet. The night is young. You have to join us in the casino.”
For the first time, we found the casino full of people. Mr. Moskowitz kept
Leon by his side saying Leon was his good luck charm. Perhaps he was, for our host won over three thousand dollars in a short time. Meanwhile, Mrs. Moskowitz and I played bingo. It was considerably tamer, but just right for me. Three hours later, the chuck wagon restaurant opened, providing free food for the remainder of the night. We gambled and grazed until six in the morning, finishing our escapade with a breakfast of eggs and coffee. Leon and I went back to our hotel at dawn and slept through the next day. We had finally discovered what Las Vegas was all about.
We returned to
Salt Lake City, exhausted but satisfied. While the vacation had been just what we needed, we both felt ready to go back. We’d grown to love the city with its beautiful views of the mountains, its perfectly maintained streets and sidewalks, and its strong sense of family and community. There was, however, one aspect of Mormon life I found upsetting. The church dogma has been revised in recent years, but back in 1945, Mormons preached that the more you sinned, the darker your skin became. Blacks were systematically excluded from important roles in the church, and segregation was not only practiced, but supported by the religion. The secondary school in which I taught was the only one in the entire city that allowed students of color to attend.
I had two black students in one class and none in the others. One young man was exceptionally bright, the son of a captain at Kern Air Force Base. The other was sweet, but had difficulty with math so I spent a lot of time working with him. The seats in the classroom were double and the administration encouraged teachers to sit with their students to give them individual help. One day I was sitting with the black student who needed extra help when I noticed the principal had walked in to observe my class. I was pleased because everyone was working diligently and I was sitting with a student as I was supposed to do. After a few minutes, I went on to the next student, and the next. The principal stayed about 20 minutes and then, just before leaving, whispered he would like to see me for a few minutes after school.
When I went to his office late in the day, he reprimanded me for sitting with a black student. I pointed out that at faculty meetings we had all been urged to sit with students. He said, “Yes, but not the black ones. If you must work with them, stand by their desks. Don’t sit with them.” I told him I was disappointed that he was prejudiced. I said, “As our leader, I expect more from you.”
He answered, “Oh, I forgot. You’re from the North.” Before he could add anything more, I said I would continue to sit with my students and he could fire me if he wished. He shook his head, clearly unable to understand my position, but said no, he wouldn’t fire me.
Another time, the school held a talent show. One student performed a monologue in black-face that was highly offensive. She wore her hair standing on end and clothes that were mismatched, and she spoke with a heavy dialect. I was angered that the teacher in charge allowed this to happen. How could she not have realized how rude and hurtful the monologue was? At the end of the day, my two black students came to my room to talk, saying I was the only teacher in the entire school who might understand. They were upset and didn’t know what to do. I told them that I, too, was offended by what we had seen and that I intended to discuss it with the principal. They were pleased by my willingness to take a stand and say something, although not optimistic that anything would be done.
When I spoke with the principal, I told him I thought a public apology at another assembly program was in order. He said he’d consider my suggestion and wanted me to be aware that he had not known about the monologue beforehand. I said, “I appreciate that, but it’s still your responsibility. You and that teacher should apologize together.” And they did. But not in front of the whole school, just to the black students individually. I believed that this was inadequate, for it wasn’t only the black students who were injured by the monologue. Every student in the school was being taught it was acceptable to make fun of people for the color of their skin, and they all deserved better.
The prejudice I found at the school was a reflection of the same attitude prevalent throughout the community. The great concert singer and actor Paul Robeson came to
Salt Lake City to perform at the and was denied a room at the only major hotel in town. Their policy was “No Blacks Allowed,” and they had no intention of changing it just because Mr. Robeson was famous. Henry, through his connections with the university, heard of the situation and he and Helen asked Mr. Robeson to stay with them. University of Utah
Leon and I went with his sister and Henry to the concert and it was a memorable evening. At one point, Mr. Robeson sang The Ballad of Joe Hill, a social protest song describing the life and death of labor organizer Joseph Hillstorm, executed by a firing squad in
Salt Lake City over thirty years earlier for a murder his supporters claimed he never committed. Mr. Robeson was known for using his concerts to challenge his audiences’ political beliefs, but no one had ever dared to perform this particular song in Utah before and the audience refused to applaud when it was over.
The following night, the Lerners invited us to their home for dinner with Mr. Robeson and we talked for hours. The more Leon and I listened, the more impressed we became. Not only was Mr. Robeson a talented performer, he was also brilliant. He was valedictorian at
Rutgers University, could sing in over twenty languages, and was deeply involved in politics. Little did we know at the time that within the year, he would be one of the first victims of the McCarthy era, banned from theaters throughout the country for his leftist views.
The conversation moved from concerts to the theater, and Leon and I told Mr. Robeson we’d seen him do Shakespeare’s Othello at the Brattle Theater in
Harvard Square. He was pleased when we said we’d seen the show twice, returning for a second time because we’d enjoyed it so much. He then told us his history with the play and how he’d first performed it in England because American producers didn’t believe audiences in the United States were ready to see a black man play opposite a white woman.
After a highly successful run in
London, the decision was made to try it out in America, but not on Broadway. The show was staged in Harvard Square, playing to a university town where it was believed that the younger, more educated audience would accept him when the general theater-going population was not yet ready to do so. Othello’s wife, Desdemona, was played by the well-known actress Uta Hagen, and her real-life husband, Jose Ferrer, portrayed the villain, Iago. When the show finally moved to Broadway, it was a smash hit.
Our talk of racism in the theater evolved into a discussion of the hostility Mr. Robeson had experienced playing college football. He described how he was the only black athlete on he
Rutgers football team when he was in college. He expected players on the other teams to harass him, but was shocked to find his own teammates attacking him as well. In the first week of practice, one of his teammates intentionally stomped on his hand when he was stretched out on the ground, tearing off a couple of his fingernails. During his junior year, he was benched for a game when players from refused to play against a black man. Washington & Lee College
Part way through the evening, Helen excused herself, saying it was time to put baby Bennett to bed. Mr. Robeson asked her to name her favorite lullaby and then offered to sing it to Bennett. He sat in a large armchair with my infant nephew cradled in his arms and then the gentlest sound I’d ever heard came from this great, big athlete. It was an evening I’ll never forget.
Not long after that,
Leon’s spring semester ended, and he was done with organic chemistry and teaching math. My school year, however, still had a couple of months to go. I would have liked to stay, but Leon was eager to return to Boston and asked me to quit early. Since I’d never been given a contract, we both believed this would not be unreasonable. When I spoke with my principal, he understood the situation and supported my decision to leave before the end of the school year.
As I stood to leave his office, he thanked me for all I had done for the school. He shook my hand, held it, and said I had taught him more than I had taught my students. No one had ever challenged his beliefs about black people before, and he appreciated my willingness to do so. It made me feel good to realize I’d been a positive influence in his life, and I wondered if others at the school felt the same way, or if they objected to my Yankee views. I got my answer the last day I taught, when each of my classes had a party for me and, at the end of the day, the faculty did the same.
When it was time for us to leave, Helen, Henry, Toby, and Bennett took us to the train station and stayed with us until we boarded. Helen, pregnant with her third child, cried as she hugged us goodbye. Once we were gone, she would again have no family with whom to share her children. I too was sad, knowing how much I would miss my little niece and nephew. I comforted myself with the thought that when we got home to Boston, I would finally get to hold and cuddle my sister’s new baby boy, Stephen, who’d been born while Leon and I were in Utah. Karyl had sent me a photo I looked at so often that
Leon joked one day, “No matter how long you stare at the picture, he won’t open his eyes.”
Home. It would be wonderful to get back to
Boston, to see my parents, my sister, and her family again. As we sat on the train, I dreamed of the new life Leon and I would have together, the life that had been postponed by our time in Salt Lake City. I looked about our roomette, thinking the luxuriousness of the space boded well for the future. Throughout World War II, we had traveled primarily in coach cars where all we had were our seats. On rare occasion, we were able to get a sleeper car, where our seats turned into beds at night. On this last train trip before we settled down in our new home, we had a roomette, a small, private room with its own toilet and sink.
Our second night on the train, I woke up crying, having just had a troubling and realistic nightmare. I was so certain that something awful was happening to my father that
Leon had trouble convincing me it was only a dream. All the next day, I had a sense of foreboding. I began to dread our arrival in Boston, fearful of what I would discover about my father once we were there. In one of those inexplicable coincidences, it turned out that my dream was true, only it wasn’t my father who was in danger, but Leon’s. As soon as we got off the train, we learned that my 57-year-old father-in-law had been diagnosed with leukemia, for which there was no cure. This was sad news, especially coming on the heels of my beloved Grandpa Philip’s death from a heart attack a few months earlier. I had gotten through the war years without losing Leon, but now I was losing the men close to me from earlier generations.
Despite the unhappy news, it was heartening to be back in Boston again. Leon and I moved into our bedroom in my childhood home on
Fellsmere Road, staying with my parents until our downstairs tenants on Cloverdale Road could move out. We gave them six months notice and began making our plans. Leon had been accepted at ’s medical school and would start the following September. Over the summer, he worked in the restaurant business with my father, as did I, and Dad taught me to how to keep the books. Boston University
My job running the financial side of the restaurant business didn’t pay quite enough to support our household once
Leon went back to school. When Leon first decided to go to med school, tuition was only four hundred dollars a year and the GI Bill provided enough money to cover it. Unfortunately, over the summer before Leon started, the school raised the tuition to eight hundred dollars and the GI Bill didn’t keep up. All of a sudden, our financial situation looked bleak. If we evicted our tenant so that we could move in, we would lose the rent money and not have enough to pay the mortgage. But if we didn’t evict our tenant, we wouldn’t have a home.
The summer should have been a wonderful time of looking forward to the move into our first home. And it was. But our excitement was muted by the need for me to have yet another surgery on my back. When the procedure was described to me, it sounded terrifying. Unlike my earlier surgeries in which I was given ether to knock me out, this time I was to be awake for the whole process, having only a local anesthetic. I would get a spinal, involving a large needle inserted in my back. For three weeks before the operation, I found myself weeping before falling asleep.
Leon overheard me and wanted to know what was wrong. I was embarrassed to tell him I was scared, so I said that everything was fine. When I saw that he was convinced it was his fault that I was crying, that he had done something to hurt my feelings, I admitted I was frightened of the spinal needle and didn’t know how I would get through the next three weeks.
The summer drew to an end and our tenant moved out. We were finally going to move into our own home. Dad papered and painted all the walls, with
Leon’s occasional assistance. Mom and Dad provided the furniture and Leon’s parents gave us a piano. No home was lovelier than ours. No couple was happier than we were. All that was needed to make everything perfect was for us to have a baby.
I had dreamed of this from the time I was barely more than a toddler, playing with dolls. I knew I could be a wonderful mother, if only I could get pregnant. It had been four years since we stopped taking precautions, yet every month, my period came and I knew I’d have to wait. I cried inside every time I watched my sister with my little nephew, longing to have a baby of my own.
Devastated by the news,
Leon couldn’t bring himself to come home and tell me what he’d learned. He stopped first at Karyl and Herb’s apartment to tell them what had happened and recover his composure. When he later got home and told me about it, I tried to hide my feelings from him, not wanting to make him feel any worse than he already did. In a daze, I called my doctor’s office to cancel my appointment. What good would it do to learn about my problems and potentially get them corrected, when Leon had problems as well?
That night, I cried myself to sleep, burying my face in my pillow so
wouldn’t hear me. What was I going to do? I wanted a baby more than anything in the world. What point was there in life and marriage if I couldn’t have children, if I couldn’t be a mother? My dreams were shattered, and I had nothing left to replace them. Leon