Chapter One: In the Beginning
"Write the easy part first," said my perceptive friend William Safire. "Then you can go back and do the hard part."
This is the hard part -- a jumble of long-submerged memories of childhood poverty, a polio-stricken young brother and a struggling widowed mother, memories of how I felt fat, unattractive, Jewish, an outsider struggling for a way in. I had a strong temptation to skip the early years and cut to the career chase. But then you would not understand why I became a journalist and the kind of journalist (combative? abrasive?) that I became. It was, in the end, the journalist in me that demanded that I fill in the early background.
Part of that background is the immigrant experience. While writing this chapter, I went for a visit to Ellis Island, trying to imagine the bewilderment my parents must have felt when they came to this country. They came from Telechan, a shtetl (village) in the Pinsk area of what is now Belarus. I would have gone back to the shtetl, too, but it no longer exists. It was wiped out, and all my remaining relatives were murdered in the Holocaust.
In September 1912, my parents married in Telechan, my father then twenty and, I think, a year younger than my mother. From relatives I learned how he had courted her, once taking her for a ride in a horse-drawn wagon, usually, but not always, chaperoned by her brother, Naftali. They had waited, according to tradition, for my mother's older sister, Chaya, to marry. But then, with her encouragement, they decided to wait no longer.
With what prescience I do not know, my parents came to America in May 1914, three months before the outbreak of World War I. They had been staked to steamship tickets, as a loan, by a relative already in the United States, about whose identity I am very vague.
My mother's maiden name was Tillie Godiner (from the Yiddish Gott-Diener, meaning "servant of God"). My father's name was Gedaliah Tchornemoretz ("Black Sea" in Russian). An immigration officer arbitrarily conferred on my father the more manageable name of Louis Schorr. (Little did he know that a half century later I would be in his debt for not having to sign off my broadcasts with "This is Daniel Tchornemoretz, CBS News, Washington.")
Relatives have told me that when I was born on August 31, 1916, my parents were having a hard time. Like many immigrants they were learning that America was not the advertised goldeneh medina (golden domain). My father, artistic, poetic, apparently had no trade. He worked as a waiter. He opened a dry-goods store in Hackensack, New Jersey, that failed. He later joined with a partner in a Delancey Street real estate brokerage that also was not successful. During some of that time my mother ran a bakery on St. Nicholas Avenue in Washington Heights and, later, worked in a factory as a dress finisher.
My father must have been ill quite early because, in 1917, he was rejected for military service on medical grounds. By 1922 he was in the hospital, suffering from a kidney infection that would today be treated with antibiotics. He died two days after my sixth birthday. My brother, Alvin, was sixteen months old.
I have dim memories of my father, whose brown eyes and love of music I share. I remember -- or think I do -- lying on the living room floor, chin cupped in hand, looking up while my father played the violin. I even recall -- or think I do -- that he played the Dvor?ak "Humoresque." (Inheriting his violin, I would take violin lessons for fifty cents a session in a class in elementary school, but would give it up after showing no great promise.)
My father's last wish, my mother said, was to make sure that the boys would go to college, to which end she saved most of the $2,000 in insurance that he left.
My father's death undoubtedly had a shattering effect on me. I have no memory of the funeral other than the rainy day and my first ride in an automobile and the ferry ride (to Staten Island). Of the rest -- who was there, what was said, how the casket was laid in the ground -- I have no recollection whatsoever. I have come to believe that, unable to cope with such a loss, I banished it from my mind. (Denial, I think they call it.) In later years, I wondered about my sense of detachment from tragedy and customary lack of emotional response.
My first reimbursement as a journalist came at the age of twelve when a woman fell or jumped from the roof of our apartment house, landing outside our ground-floor window. I called the police, waited for them to arrive, interviewed them about what they had found out about the victim, and coolly telephoned the Bronx Home News, which paid $5 for news tips. I felt no particular sense of awe or emotion about the first dead body I had ever seen.
This sense of detachment from the woes and trials of strangers would serve me when I came to report from the death camp in Auschwitz or the urban slums of America.
Early on I made a financial contribution to the household by selling magazines on the street, by tending to an after-school newspaper delivery route, by canvassing neighborhood stores selling printing for a mail-order house.
Most of my ventures were law-abiding. One got me arrested. On sunny Sunday mornings I offered sunglasses to motorists stopped for a red light in the Botanical Gardens and facing into the sun. For many weeks I managed to elude Detective Corby, trying to arrest me for peddling on park property without a permit. I could spot his police car, stuck in the long line of traffic, and flee. One morning, however, he was in an unmarked car, and I walked right up to him, offering him a pair of sunglasses. He grabbed my wrist, and next thing I knew I was in a police wagon with other transgressors against the peddling ordinance, on our way to be locked up, waiting to be arraigned in Manhattan night court. My only sustenance was from the ice cream peddler, who saw his stock melting anyway.
At 10 P.M. a dozen of us malefactors came before the judge. He asked the police officer how long we had been locked up.
"They've been punished enough," he said. "Let 'em go."
I had been permitted one telephone call -- to my mother. She was waiting in the courtroom in tears to receive the first member of our family with a police record -- all in the cause of helping to support my family.
Money was the easiest thing to give. Giving of myself was harder.
In the 1920s we were joined by three uncles and an aunt, who came from Europe, one by one, and boarded with us until they found jobs and married. In the traditional manner of children of immigrants striving for assimilation, I bristled at their ignorance of my American language and my culture. To meet the changing needs of our family for space, we moved from one apartment to another in the East Bronx. The last of the family to arrive was my maternal grandmother in 1925, who was needed to help care for my brother. She never did learn to speak English, and she irritated me by leaving her dentures in the bathroom.
Alvin needed special help because his early years were marked by a succession of misfortunes -- scarlet fever, diphtheria, and finally, polio, which, after a series of operations, left him with one leg attenuated. I can remember the quarantine notices posted on our door, which kept me out of school, but not out of the movies.
I must have visited my brother in Fordham Hospital with my mother but, typically, have no memory of having done so. One Sunday my mother, needing some free time with other family members, asked me to take Alvin to the movies, and an uncle offered to pay for the tickets. I refused, saying, "I am an American and I have the right to do what I want."
At that point, Uncle Srolik, a law student, the youngest and mildest mannered of my mother's siblings, banged the table and said, "That's the trouble with you Americans. You know all about your rights and you don't know anything about your responsibilities!" That I remember the incident to this day indicates how surprised, if not chastened, I felt.
The family spoke mainly Yiddish, to which I vociferously objected as a ghetto jargon. I mounted frequent campaigns to speak English or Hebrew, the language of a future Jewish state in Palestine. I, attending heder (Hebrew school) five days a week after school, was quite fluent in Hebrew. As a prize student in the Bronx Jewish Center I was awarded a gold watch with Hebrew numerals and a railroad trip (my first time outside New York) to the 1926 Philadelphia Sesquicentennial Exposition.
At my bar mitzvah in 1929 I read from the Torah and got to deliver a speech. I was praised extravagantly by Rabbi Charlap. (Alvin would later refuse to undergo the bar mitzvah ritual.)
In the interest of full disclosure, let me also report that I sang soprano in the synagogue choir on the high holy days and, occasionally, at weddings for fifty cents.
Hebrew school, where I was the rabbi's pet, served my need to be noticed, but in P.S. 6, on Tremont Avenue, the teachers seemed less enamored of my wit and wisdom. Years later my mother recalled (though I did not) that I talked out of turn so often that she would be called to school and asked to discipline me. My mother said this happened several times, costing her a half day's work each time. Finally, more peremptory than was her wont, she ordered me to desist from talking in class.
Looking back, I wonder how I could have been so oblivious to her desperate efforts to keep the family afloat. I did not realize how important was the check she received from Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt's New York State relief program, the precursor to the federal welfare system.
In 1929 I entered DeWitt Clinton High School as a sophomore, having saved a year in junior high school. DeWitt Clinton was housed in a brand-new building on Moshulu Parkway in the northern reaches of the West Bronx. For me, living in the East Bronx, this meant a subway ride down to 149th Street and up again on the Jerome Avenue line. The forty-five minutes allowed me time for last-minute homework. My extracurricular interests were the Hebrew Society, of which I was president, the History Honor Society, and of course, the school paper, the Clinton News. I was also managing editor of the senior yearbook, the Clintonian.
In high school, mentored by faculty adviser Ray Philipson, a retired newspaperman, I settled on journalism as my vocation in life. My mother had qualms about a profession requiring no advanced degree, such as law or medicine. "Isn't it a little like being an actor?" she asked hesitantly. But, in the end, she withdrew her objections. (And, forty years later, basking in her son's fame, she would recall with pleasure how wrong she had been.)
Love of journalism meant long evenings in the commercial printing plant, listening to the soft tick-tick of the letters dropping into place on the Linotype machine, laying out the pages and seeing them cast in hot metal. For the Clintonian, I reviewed the little blurbs that went under the seniors' pictures. My own blurb was written by others on the staff and I was not allowed to see it until the yearbook appeared. It read:
I love me, I love me,
I'm wild about myself.
I love me, I love me,
I've got my picture on my shelf.
I also learned an early lesson in journalistic ethics. Because of the long lead time for the yearbook, I undertook to write a vivid story about the senior prom before it was held. When the event was cancelled because of the deepening depression, all I could think to do was to include, next to that page in the yearbook, a slip of paper with the Whittier lines:
For all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: "It might have been!"
One other memory remains with me of my 1933 graduation amid the Great Depression. The nearby delicatessen put out a sign, "Eat here or we'll both starve."
To make some money, my best high school friend, Bernard Zamichow, and I decided to start a news syndicate. We would dig up stories and try to sell them to the big newspapers. One of the first scoops of the Collegiate Press Service was about the impending resignation of a famous football coach. It was published by the New York Daily News. Unfortunately, it was not true, and our enterprise quietly folded, leaving us with a lot of unused stationery. Our confidential source had been a member of the team, whether fantasizing or playing a practical joke I shall never know.
Pudgy as I was, I nevertheless did some youthful dating. With press tickets for a lavish Zionist pageant called "The Romance of a People," I invited a particularly attractive girl whom I had recently met. The show was in the Kingsbridge Armory, not far from my home in the Bronx. She lived in the outer reaches of Bensonhurst in Brooklyn. When I called to make arrangements to meet, she cut me off with peremptory word that she expected to be picked up. That meant two round-trips of more than an hour each by subway, to Brooklyn and back, to pick her up and afterward to take her home. I got home at 2 A.M., with school the next day.
My uncle Naftali said, "This should teach you not to date a girl who lives further than Freeman Street." That was one subway stop away from ours. (Some thirty years later I met the woman I would marry, who lived a few blocks from me in Georgetown. Li teased me that I was still heeding my uncle's advice.)
I was graduated from Clinton with an average good enough for tuition-free admission to the College of the City of New York. CCNY in those days was a hotbed of radicalism. In the basement area, called the Alcoves, arguments about Stalin and Trotsky vied for attention with lunchtime Ping-Pong. On the campus there were frequent demonstrations for "Books, Not Battleships." I, with my customary detachment from struggle, covered the demonstrations for the college newspaper, The Campus. Short of money, I also sorted library slips for fifty cents an hour from the National Youth Administration, one of the New Deal agencies. And I constantly looked for paying opportunities in journalism.
The New York Times allowed me to do occasional music reviews and articles for the Sunday music page. Once, I was invited to meet with Olin Downes, the most famous critic of his time. In the subway on the way to Times Square, I read a Downes review of a Carnegie Hall performance by the violinist Josef Szigeti. Downes had written that Szigeti's tone was fine, but that the "profile of his tone" left something to be desired. Awed by the dimension of musical understanding that this indicated, I asked Downes what the line meant.
Cheerfully he said, "Don't give it a second thought. That's just the kind of bullshit you put down when you're up against a deadline."
I decided that being a music critic was not an honorable profession.
Another opportunity presented itself in the form of a newly launched venture called the Jewish Daily Bulletin. It was the first (and last) English-language Jewish daily, founded by the Vienna-born Jacob Landau, head of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. His hope was that the daily would appeal to people feeling increasingly Jewish with the rise of Hitler, but no longer reading Yiddish.
My mother expressed the fear that I would quit college, and she reminded me of her promise to my father on his deathbed that his boys would get a college education. I reassured her that I would graduate, but I switched to night school, which meant that I was graduated in 1939 instead of 1937.
I started at the Bulletin as a "stringer" -- that is, a freelancer paid by the number of inches my article occupied. (I believe the word stringer derived from the early practice of measuring column inches with a piece of string.) I was the most productive stringer the Bulletin had. I covered Sunday sermons of Reform rabbis, Zionist conferences, and did shipboard interviews with celebrities arriving on ocean liners. (I had a ship news reporter's pass authorizing me to go out to the ships with the Coast Guard cutter carrying the customs and immigration officers.)
Among my other contributions was a six-part exposé of rackets in Jewish charities. But my most remunerative assignment, although risky, was covering demonstrations of the local Nazis, the German-American Bund, who rallied in Yorkville and Queens, heiling Hitler and threatening the extermination of the American Jews.
Like many of the media before and since, the Bulletin regarded fear as a circulation builder. The Bulletin thrived on Nazi threats, and the Bund thrived on clippings it could send to Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels to show what impact it was having.
I piled up so many column inches that I was earning more than a staff reporter. Whereupon I was appointed to the staff. But the Bulletin was a money-loser that not even the Nazis could save. After some two years the paper folded. The last weeks were grim as the paper ran out of money to pay wages. As a charter member of the American Newspaper Guild, I picketed the Bulletin's office -- the Guild's first strike. Our demand was modest indeed -- our back pay. We got a small part of it.
With the death of the Bulletin, I transferred to its parent organization, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. My principal work was cable rewrite -- expanding brief messages from Europe and Palestine into stories that could be served to the American news agencies. (The adjoining desk served the Yiddish press.)
I received an intensive education in the arcane language "cablese." Since cablegrams had to be paid for by the word -- and even press rates were expensive -- the practice was to affix Latin prefixes and suffixes to make one word do the work of several. Thus, an imaginary cable might read, DUBNOW ARRIVED LONDON BAGGAGELESS EXPOLAND NEWYORKWARDING TOMORROW HOPING PROENTRY ALTHOUGH VISALESS. Translation:
Rabbi Jacob Dubnow, a leader of the Jewish community in Lodz, has escaped from Nazi-occupied Poland and arrived safely in London. He was obliged to leave his baggage behind. He is planning to sail for New York tomorrow, hoping that he will be admitted by the immigration authorities as an asylum seeker although he lacks an American visa.
I have a vivid memory of editor Victor Bienstock's reprimand to a correspondent who overfiled: PROCRISSAKE OFFLAY. Cablese is long since gone, a victim of the Teletype and, eventually, the fax machine. DOWNPLAY, for "play down," was a cablese word that survived in the American language.
At JTA we received chilling cable reports of anti-Semitic depredations in Europe from refugees, Jewish organizations, and neutral travelers. These reports occasioned screaming headlines in the Yiddish press, but were largely ignored by the general newspapers. Editors were being counseled by the State Department to be wary of Jewish propaganda. Years later, declassified records would show how far the American and British governments went to keep Americans in ignorance of the extermination of the Jews in Europe. For fear of distracting the Allies from pursuit of the war, it was said.
My job also included providing a weekly packet of mimeographed news and editorial material for several dozen Anglo-Jewish weekly newspapers around the country. Their demand was as great as their financial resources were small. So, I churned out copy using several pseudonyms, as well as my own name. The rule was to emphasize the "Jewish" angle. In my music column I favored conductor Bruno Walter over Leopold Stokowski, pianist Arthur Rubinstein over Claudio Arrau. (For free concert tickets and phonograph records I had relented on my contempt for music criticism.) Each week I summarized "The War and the Jews." Each year I did an article asking, "Was Columbus a Jew?" (No, but his navigator may have been Jewish.)
After seven years of this I began to bridle about this contorted view of a world in crisis. I made my discomfort evident enough so that Landau finally suggested it might be time for me to move on. Fired, you might call it. For the first time, but not the last. Anyway, I would rather be sending cables than receiving and rewriting them. With my language aptitude and my fascination with a Europe in torment, I wanted to be a foreign correspondent, like Vincent Sheean, H. R. Knickerbocker, and Walter Duranty.
The time was the summer of 1941. Expecting soon to be drafted (I had a deferment as the sole support of my widowed mother), I did not try hard to find a permanent job. For a few weeks I worked on the copy desk of Hearst's New York Journal-American, where I first learned about efficiency experts. One of those employed by Hearst had the doors taken off the stalls in the men's room on the theory that people would spend less time there. That's all I remember of my experience with the "Lord of the Press."
A mutual friend introduced me to Arnold Vas Diaz, a bouncy, bearded Hollander who was establishing, in the Associated Press building on Rockefeller Plaza, a bureau of ANETA, the news agency of the Netherlands East Indies (today, Indonesia). He explained that, with Holland occupied and its national news agency spewing out Nazi propaganda, ANETA had set up headquarters in London, where Queen Wilhelmina and her family were living in exile. ANETA wanted now to have an outlet in America, and I was offered the job of news editor, rewriting cables for American consumption.
I volunteered that I knew little about Holland and less about its colonial possessions. Vas Diaz said he considered that a qualification for a job that required an American perspective.
This was weeks before the December 7 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. As the Japanese moved southward toward the Philippines and the Indies, my work took on an unpremeditated form. At 7 A.M. daily, the ANETA bureau in Batavia (now, Jakarta) would call on the telephone and dictate news stories, which we would record, transcribe, and rewrite. With the outbreak of war, the Dutch government in the Indies exercised strict military censorship, and I could sense when my Batavia colleague slowed down or paused for a second that there was something he could not say.
One morning (there, night) our man in Batavia went through his news budget and then, as though adding a feature story, said, "The American airmen, with their crushed caps, are becoming a familiar sight on the streets of Batavia." What American airmen? We knew that several squadrons of the U.S. air force were operating from Australia. I realized that my colleague had slipped something through censorship.
I put out a bulletin on our wire, "Elements of the American air force have arrived in Java to aid in the defense against the oncoming Japanese." Seeing little ANETA credited on the front pages of American newspapers was the most thrilling moment of my year and a half with the little Dutch news agency.
The AP building was also a place for journalistic camaraderie. Around the corner from us on the fifth floor was the Canadian Press bureau, where I met Sydney Gruson, a reporter from Toronto, who would later become, as a New York Times correspondent, my most enduring friend in journalism. I was on hand when he met and married a brilliant young AP diplomatic correspondent, Flora Lewis.
We crossed paths and worked together many times in many places -- Holland, where, as a stringer, I would succeed Sydney; in Poland; in Geneva and in Germany, where Sydney sold me his Mercedes when he left. I went to Mexico on vacation when Sydney was stationed there, leading the high life and making a big splash at the racetrack with his ownership of two horses. Urbane and smooth, son of a rabbi who had migrated to Ireland and later Canada, Sydney had one particular talent as a journalist. In Geneva, while the rest of us scrounged around for word of the American position at the four-power conference on Berlin, he went out to play golf with a member of the American delegation and returned casually flaunting the secret document detailing the American position.
Together, in 1955, we covered a Nicaraguan invasion of Costa Rica that ended abruptly when the United States provided Costa Rican president José "Pepe" Figueres with two outdated P-51 fighters. Together we did stories from Panama and reported on a meeting of the Organization of American States in Caracas at which Secretary of State John Foster Dulles rammed through a resolution condemning the left-wing regime in Guatemala, a preliminary to a CIA-organized coup that ousted the regime and set the stage for thirty years of repressive military rule.
But Sydney's real ambition was to be a Times executive, and he eventually became one -- a loss to journalism. A personal loss to all of us was his divorce from Flora, breaking up one of the great reporting teams of our time.
At ANETA, I developed a warm feeling for my Dutch bosses and colleagues. When, finally, in January 1943 my draft number came up, I was sent off with sentimental farewells and my promise to return after I had helped to liberate the Netherlands and the Netherlands Indies.
To say that I disliked life in the army would be a considerable understatement, but I found ways of coping with it. Undergoing basic training at the replacement center at Fort Riley, Kansas, I contrived to make the experience a little easier on myself. For example, when my platoon was called out of barracks to march to the dispensary at the other end of the post for inoculations, I stayed behind and took the camp bus, falling into place when the others arrived. A sergeant who saw me get off the bus shook his head unbelievingly.
The climax of our training cycle was a weeklong bivouac on ground sodden with Kansas's winter rains. I managed to persuade the top sergeant that he needed someone back in barracks to bring out the mail and other messages, so I was designated "company clerk" and slept no night in the mud.
I was -- let's face it -- not a very good soldier. Named "acting corporal," I was soon dismissed when I displayed absolutely no leadership ability. It took me longer than most soldiers to clean and assemble a rifle. I came close to being killed when I ventured across a shooting range while returning from the latrine.
I disliked guard duty and stable police (Fort Riley was a cavalry post, in transition between horses and jeeps). I disliked that bane of the GI called kitchen police, the mess-hall cleanup detail on which, it sometimes seemed, I spent half my waking and some of my semiwaking hours. A Polish-American man from Chicago, a rough and ready sort, became my undying friend. Paired with me in the kitchen, he helped me with the soapy water as well as doing the clean-water rinse. He would refer to me, affectionately, as "you fuckin' intellectual."
Fuckin', I learned, was a word with no specific meaning, simply a form of emphasis. I remember the comrade-in-arms who returned from his first trip to town on a weekend pass. He talked of "going into this fuckin' bar," ordering a "fuckin' beer," meeting "this fuckin' dame," taking her to "this fuckin' hotel," and "up the fuckin' elevator to a fuckin' room." There, he said, "we had intercourse."
One thing basic training did for me was to cure me forever of being a light sleeper. After a day of guard duty (two hours on, four hours off) followed by KP or stable police, followed by a night march with full gear, I could instantly fall asleep when the sergeant said, "Fall out by the side of the road. Take ten. Smoke if you got 'em."
It was also in basic training that I learned to drive. After one lesson in "double clutching" to shift gears, I was put into a three-quarter-ton armored personnel carrier and told to follow the vehicles ahead of me in a column. Preoccupied with trying to drive the behemoth, I did not watch the vehicles ahead. Suddenly I found myself nearing what looked like a deep pool of water. I hastily tried to jam on the brake, but hit the accelerator instead. My vehicle zoomed into and out of the water. A lieutenant came up in a jeep to compliment me on doing "exactly the right thing" when faced with water on the road.
Having completed basic training (and lean at last), I was assigned to the Eighth Armored Division, training at Camp Polk, Louisiana, for movement overseas at some indeterminate time. Arriving at Camp Polk after a furlough, I found myself waiting outside headquarters with a couple hundred other replacements. Deciding to see if I could influence my fate, I walked into headquarters and looked for the public relations office. There I told a young lieutenant that he might be able to use an experienced journalist who could write press releases and such. He requested my assignment to his office, which saved me from some uncomfortable infantry platoon.
One weekend I went to Houston to meet a friend from New York, Jacques Abram, a talented pianist. He was stationed in a special services (entertainment) unit at Randolph Air Force Base, in San Antonio. Jacques said he thought he could get me transferred to San Antonio because he knew the commanding general of the Fourth Army, who had authority over my division. To my surprise, a few weeks later I was transferred to Headquarters, Fourth Army, Fort Sam Houston, because of "special skills."
The Eighth Armored soon shipped off to Europe and ended up in Czechoslovakia. I, with my "special skills," was promoted to sergeant and placed in the Fourth Army's G-2 (intelligence) section. If I could not be a correspondent for Yank or Stars and Stripes, San Antonio was not a bad place to be. The headquarters occupied a quadrangle around a lawn graced with peacocks and deer (an enthusiasm of the commanding general's).
A headquarters detachment, while waiting for an army to be shipped overseas, had little function other than to observe the training of subordinate units. We were receiving large quantities of briefing materials in the expectation of going to the Pacific. I volunteered to condense some of this material into a treatise on the psychology and traits of the Japanese.
I was sent for a five-week course at the intelligence training center at Fort Ritchie, Maryland. Several of us were sent out on a field exercise that required us to find our way back to camp, using only map and compass. When I realized that none of us had the foggiest idea how to do that, I did the forbidden thing -- asked a gas station attendant where we were and which way to Ritchie.
Being stationed in Maryland also enabled me to make visits to Washington. One evening I stood in the back of the Stage Door Canteen in Lafayette Square near the White House watching Lana Turner perform. A young sailor asked if I knew Washington and whether it was true that there were four women for every man in the nation's capital. I said I had heard some statistic like that.
"Well," the sailor said, "then some son of a bitch must have eight."
I returned to San Antonio to find my headquarters detachment gone -- alerted and one day later on its way to the Pacific. I became part of the new Fourth Army headquarters detachment. As luck would have it, I was in the hospital when this group packed up and started off to the Pacific.
When the war was over and I was asked where I had served, I would say, "In the army of occupation in Texas." And when someone pointed to my one decoration, the Good Conduct Medal, and asked what I got it for, I would say, "I think for not getting syphilis for a whole year."
What, more than anything else, made San Antonio bearable was the presence of a couple, Frank and Florence Rosengren, who ran the best bookshop in town and made their rambling house a salon away from home for those who liked books and music. I spent many a Sunday evening there, and sometimes a whole weekend. Frank, in a wheelchair, suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, and Florence became my dear friends. We corresponded after the war, but I did not get to see them again before they died. Young Frank ("Figgi") and his wife still live in that wonderful house on Anastacia Street, and I was able to visit with them a few years ago.
It may not be customary for a nonviolent civilian who prizes comfort and privacy to be sentimental about any part of his enforced military service. But I associate San Antonio not only with the relative comfort of a permanent garrison, but the friends with whom I shared the climactic closing days of the war.
It was there, on April 12, 1945, that our detachment was called to attention while an officer told of the death of President Roosevelt in Warm Springs, Georgia. Our mourning was mixed with apprehension. We had lost not only our commander in chief, but also our father.
It was there, on August 5, that we learned that a new weapon, the atomic bomb, had been dropped on Japan. And, whatever considerations of morality would trouble me in later life, our predominant feeling as soldiers was joy at the prospect that Japan would surrender without our being involved in an invasion.
In candor I must say that, passionate as I was about the war against Hitler, destroyer of Europe and a generation of Jews, and his allies, that passion did not extend to relishing the idea of combat. Call me a coward, but every time a contingent of troops went overseas without me, I felt only a sense of relief. I felt detached from the maelstrom of war as I felt detached from so many human activities. I guess my mother didn't raise her son to be a hero.
Had the opportunity presented itself to be a war correspondent for Yank or Stars and Stripes, I would have overcome my antipathy to trenches and foxholes. But the army ignored my offer to volunteer for duty overseas as a journalist.
Once the war had ended, the army offered us courses to fill the time before our discharge. (I chose Spanish.)
I used some of my free time to write an article for The New Republic on the rampant discrimination against Mexican-Americans in south Texas. That drew a reprimand from an officer, who said soldiers were not supposed to write for civilian publications -- especially left-wing ones.
One curious thing I must report: As the date for my separation approached, I began to feel more apprehensive than exhilarated. For two years I had been fed, clothed, and directed by the army, with few decisions to make for myself. Now, nearing thirty, I had to reorient myself to the idea of autonomy. No more barracks, no more mess halls, no more PX, no more free dispensary. And I would have to decide what I would wear every day.
I would return to living with my mother in the Bronx. Yes, but for how long? I would return to ANETA, but for how long, now that Holland and Indonesia had been liberated?
Unsure of many things, I was sure of one thing -- I wanted to be a foreign correspondent. I had grown up nourished by the boldface bylines in the New York Times -- Frederick Birchall, Arnaldo Cortesi, Herbert Matthews, Otto Tolischus. I dreamt of seeing my name among them on that front page. That was my clear goal as I reentered civilian life.
Copyright © 2001 by Daniel Schorr