Sunday, 22 August 2010

Harry Steinberg

Harry Steinberg by Pete Steinberg

My father and his twin brother Abe were born in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania on May 12, 1910. the son of immigrant Jews escaping the Pogroms and hellish oppression of Czarist Russia.

The history of his world was very different than our own. Thirty four years before he was born, also in the month of May, General Custer’s detachment of the Seventh Cavalry was slaughtered at the Little Big Horn River. Thirty four years after my father’s birth, in June of 1944, he would step out of a landing craft on the Green Dog sector of Omaha Beach into the greatest Invasion in History.

Ironically, he would be attached to General Patton’s Seventh Armored Tank Cavalry racing to relieve the 101st Airborne at the Battle of the Bulge. But I’m getting ahead of things here.

My Grandfather (born in 1861 – the year of our Civil War) worked in the freight yards of Pittsburgh unloading produce in the early morning hours. He would then buy the damaged fruit, rent a mule and hitch it to his cart and peddle his goods till evening.

In spite of what must have been grinding poverty, my father remembers his childhood as happy and carefree. He always said that my Grandfather made the best pickles, sauerkraut and potently alcoholic Vishnick cherries and he remembers my grandfather moving those barrels around the stoop to find just the right temperature for fermentation. I once visited his old neighborhood with him when I was a child and saw the tiny basement apartment in which he, his parents and his five siblings lived. His brother Sam would die from a heart condition at fifteen when my father was only five. Sam was born in Russia as was another child who died in infancy. I don’t know his or her name. In spite of his nostalgia for this part of his life he has always been rather vague regarding its’ particulars.

I don’t know where he went to high school, if he had any sweethearts there, or what his interests were. He tells a story of being injured as a child in some sort of horse and cart incident and being sewn up by a doctor. The doctor’s ability to heal what must have seemed a horrific wound to a child left him with a burning desire to learn that craft.

He attended the University of Michigan, graduated near the top of his class and entered Medical School there at the age of twenty two. He had to wait a year because the Jewish “quota” was filled. He dropped out for another year to drive a truck to earn enough money to continue.

At that time Medical School was a walloping two hundred dollars a year. Remember – this was the height of the depression and money was very hard to come by. America at this time was steeped in violence, ignorance and cruel poverty. My Grandfather bemoaned the fact that in Russia (now a communist nation) the state was sending his brother’s children to Medical School while he could do nothing to help Harry and Abe.

Little did he know that his old home town in Russia would be flattened by German Panzer divisions and that his brother and almost all his children with their fabulous scientific educations would experience the horror of the Auschwitz concentration camp and be put to death there.

As my father has often said, “Don’t envy anybody. You have no idea.“

During his summers he worked as an orderly at the Monte Fiore Hospital in Pittsburg. Anything to be close to medicine. There he saw death on a daily basis; some from the gang violence that plagued Pittsburgh and some from disease processes that physicians of that time were helpless to combat. Fleming had yet to invent antibiotics and people died from dental infection and pneumonia on a daily basis.

Gangrene was still a common result from trauma and amputation was the solution. One of my father’s daily chores was to take the bodies out of the beds and remove them to the morgue. He came to accept death as a natural and inevitable end to the delicate durability that is life. You are chatting with a patient one day as you take his blood pressure, watch him become anoxic gasping for breath as his lungs gradually fail the next day, and roll his violet corpse to the morgue the next. You accept it but it is a hard thing to sit helplessly by as another dies. It is a wonderful thing to bring a patient through a process that restores them to health.

His favorite book should be mentioned here. It was Thomas Mann’s THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN. People working toward the same goal are thrown together in their journey and so it was with my future father and mother.

While working as an orderly my father met a small thin tough little Scottish immigrant named Isabelle Patricia Mauchline. Pat. She was from the Town of Mauchline where her family had lived for the last eight hundred years as far as anybody knows. Her father was hired by Westinghouse to design steam turbines. A good job in the thirties.

She was to be given in marriage to some steel mill worker from McKeesport but she would have none of it. She ran away from home and became a nurse. Soon she was the head nurse at Monte Fiore Hospital. My father’s boss.

It was owing in large part to her and to the charitable wing of the Hillel organization that my father got through Medical School. Being from Scotland my mother was possessed of progressive sentiments and believed things strongly. She hated the English and became a champion of the Civil Rights Movement. My grandfather was a socialist, but, it was my mother who gave my father Political focus. Incidentally, my mother never looked back. She never saw her father again.

My father enlisted in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to serve as a doctor in the Spanish Civil War – the first war against Fascism – but could not go.

If he left, my mother would never be let back into the country. The United States at this time was terrified of Communist revolution and many of the powers that be were pro Fascist One need only read Henry Ford’s THE INTERNATIONAL JEW or Smedley Butler’s little known account of the attempted Fascist overthrow of the Roosevelt presidency backed by many notable Industrialists to see how hysterically anti Communist they were. To my fathers everlasting regret the war in Spain was lost and Hitler’s wermacht emerged combat ready.

Upon completing his residency my father became a C.C. (country circuit) rider in Virginia. The rural towns were too poor to hire a full time physician so my father would drive his Model T through the creeks and back roads and serve the sick and injured.

Here he did everything. He set broken bones, did appendectomies, assisted in births closed wounds with sterile suture and opened and drained abscesses with sterile scalpels. Here he used the first antibiotic wonder drug. Sulfa. Here he also developed his life long loathing for faith healers, chiropractors, naturopaths and all the other dollar driven charlatans who preyed upon the sick, the desperate and the ignorant.

He became a life long proponent of public health and making health care accessible to all who needed it. Oddly enough he was a little leery of socialized programs in that he feared it would allow mediocre hacks to find comfortable salaried positions in which they would do only the minimum necessary to get by.

Oddly enough he worked for the Veteran’s Administration for forty five years after the war and loved it. He had a little dog named Chunky that accompanied him on his rounds and he speaks to this day as though that animal was Lassie herself. Supposedly, when the Model T got stuck in creek and river fords, Chunky would dash forward, bark at a farmer and soon a mule team and lines were pulling the car out of the mire.

My father’s main source of employment at this time was the Virginia Hardwood Lumber Company and he lived in a home provided by them in their company town. He also served as a Doctor for the C.C.C. (Civilian Conservation Corp) and loved it. He still believes that dismantling that program was a big mistake. He also served as a doctor to the local prison chain gangs and witnessed the horror of the conscripted labor system (almost all black) first hand.

Many who he was called to aid had been beaten nearly to death. Had he spoken up they simply would not have called him anymore. Deciding the right thing to do was not easy. Either way it resulted in something bad.

It was in Virginia that his first two children were born; Judy in 1939 and Penny in 1941. He loved being a country doctor, loved his patients and felt that he could ultimately be a force for good there, but, the political body in the south was corrupt, evil and could be very dangerous. It was no place to raise kids.

He had enlisted in the Army in 1938 I believe and his hitch was now up. Where to go? What to do?

The answer to those questions would drop like a bomb – literally – out of the sky. A few days after his Army service was up, on December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was bombed. All leaves and releases from service were canceled. Especially for Doctors. He reported to Plattsburgh Barracks.

My father served throughout the duration of the war in the European theater. He was in three battles and two invasions. He came out without a scratch. He always said war happens in a hospital tent. That is where you witness the grief, panic and inconsolable heartbreak of the wounded.

It is where a young man finds out he will never walk or see or make love to a woman again. It is impossible to imagine the terror one experiences as he reaches up to find his lower jaw and tongue gone. My father saw a lot of horror there. I never learned until his 99th birthday that he received a bronze star on Omaha Beach for getting over 800 men off the beach into the landing craft that still worked in order to get them back to a ship’s hospital and back to England.

The unspoken part of this is that another 800 men had to be “triaged out” because they weren’t going to make it. One must harden ones heart in order to be effective at this. Half the men who landed at the Green Dog sector of Omaha Beach perished that day. Not one man in the first wave of the landing made the beach. My father was scheduled to land after the hostilities but the landing went badly and the battle still raged when he hit the beach at 1:00 P.M. He was with a company of engineers who were going to construct a hospital on the beach, but, they had to attend to neutralizing the Teller mines, clearing obstacles and building defensive positions.

I don’t know what possessed my father to expose himself to fire and start collecting wounded men and getting them back to the boats because he is not a hard-ass glory guy. He just said, “Look, it needed doing and there was no one else to do it. It was my job. It’s what I signed up to do. You help out that’s all. Just do your best. Otherwise lie down and let the Nazi bastards walk all over you. No. This battle ends with them losing. We had right on our side. That is a powerful motivator.”

My father never said much about that day, but, I think there are a few details we all should know. At the end of that day the air was filled with smoke from exploded shells and constant gunfire. The sun was a dim brown/orange ball for two days after. Everyone was covered in a sticky mist made out of what used to be human beings. Landing craft and tanks were in flames everywhere. These things change people forever. He wouldn’t want us ever to forget that. My father seldom took me seriously but, on one occasion I said, “ I don’t know that I could ever step out of a landing craft on a beach like that.” He stopped and considered me for a moment and said, very seriously, “You don’t know what you could do.” He hates the parades and uniforms and patriotic glorious victory crap that politicians peddle. You have to see someone as an ordinary human being in order to understand them.

He was at the Battle of the Bulge and crossed the Rhine into Germany. He stayed in the Army until 1963 and retired a full colonel at my mother’s insistence during the Cuban Missile Crisis. She was certain that we would be back at war again and was not about to have my father gone another four years.

I, his son Peter, was born in 1948. I’m a baby boomer and I was born into a world that was now very different than any before it. The United States emerged from World War Two unscathed. All of our industry was intact and robust. Every major power in Europe lay in Ruins. Anyone who wanted anything had to buy it from us. Times were good in America and my father made the best of them. He did a specialty at the Veteran’s Administration where he became an Ear Nose and Throat doctor schooled in reconstructive surgery. There was plenty of it after the war.

My mother had a talent for finding real estate and remodeling. We would move into a house, fix it up and sell it. This worked out very well for my father and he wound up with quite a nice little situation. He was a hard worker and many times I would hear his car start up in the driveway at two A.M. He was on call and had to attend to some emergency. In the morning he would be at the breakfast table with a blood spattered collar ready to drive me to school.

In the early fifties doctors still made house calls. I remember him saying, “There’s nothing like being alone at night far from a hospital or phone with a patient who just won’t stop bleeding no matter what you try. It gets prayers out of atheists (which he is). It gives you a lot of humility.”

He had a private practice in a little office in Santa Monica and one day an old guy with a bad sinus condition walked in. He heard my dad was a good man to see for this sort of thing. He filled out the necessary paper work and signed it, Thomas Mann. My dad’s hero. At his next appointment my dad brought in his copy of THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN and had him sign it. He has it still.

My father has spent the remainder of his years living what his life is really about. He has involved himself in his two great passions: medicine and art. He is a good painter and a very fine sculptor. He was always able to build a wonderful figure but loves the abstract. I’d say if he had one hero in the arts it would be Henry Moore.

He is still very gregarious and loves new people and new situations. I can hardly remember a day coming home from school when there wasn’t some stranger or strangers in the house. He was always giving lodging to some artist or having some veteran down on his luck painting the house or digging in the garden. He recalls with new excitement how, on a trip to India with my mother, he got caught up in a throng of people moving with some single purpose down the street:

“Here I was in this massive moving river of humanity, unable to extricate myself and unknowing of my destination. We wound up in a dark, windowless ancient stone auditorium lit by oil lamp. Some priest or what not gave an invocation and the crowd chanted a response at the appropriate time. Some gentlemen in turbans next to me helped me to pronounce the response properly and seemed very tickled by my presence in that place. They spoke no English and I no Hindu. We got on quite well and, recognizing the name of my hotel, they helped me find my way back. It was a wonderful adventure.”

My father loves working in the garden building fences and such, but, he is a terrible carpenter. He lacks the patience and does not care to learn any formal aspect of the trade. He makes things up as he goes including the names for things.

“Let’s put a header on the posts,” becomes, “Let’s put a crosspiece on the upright.”

He is also a lousy dishwasher. No patience. So there you have it. He is not without his shortcomings. But boy, can he throw a party. They were legendary. Always plenty of food and drink and anyone who could tell a story, sing a song or play an instrument did. My late Uncle Tim (mother’s side) was beloved by all. He would start a crap game and throw crooked dice. Everyone loved him. My father loves things that are wild, rough and ready.

He became a prodigious collector of Pre Columbian and African Art and made many trips to Mexico. He always wanted to get to Africa and New Guinea but never made it.

My Mother contracted viral encephalitis and was very ill for about twelve years. She passed away in 1978 and my father remarried. He claims that one of the factors contributing to his old age is his marriage to my step mother, Claire, and I believe this to be so.

He is just loony for her and acts like a high school kid with his first girlfriend when he’s with her. There are many grim step mother stories but ours is not one. I can’t imagine our family without her and, she is a phenomenal sculptor, something my father takes immense pride in. She is kind and decent and has made my father extremely happy. She has somehow become the glue that holds us together as a family as none of us siblings (Judy passed away ten years ago) nor my father have what it takes to make that happen. We are hobos and wanderers by nature and find it hard to stay in touch with each other.

There is so much more to be said, but, this would be a hard bound edition if I were to be thorough. A lot of people want to know the secret to my father’s long life. He should probably tell you himself, but, I’ll tell you how it looks to me. One is genetics. My grandfather was over 100.

Another as my dad says, “It’s a lot of luck. There’s no reason why some guy gets it and another doesn’t. When your number’s up it’s up and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. They’re going to get you and that’s it.” He has lived by that.

He is fearless. He will stand on the top tier of a rickety ladder with a chain saw trimming branches. I swear there are times when he seems court disaster. I have seen him take some hard falls from ladders in his nineties and he has always emerged a little battered but otherwise unscathed. He never babies himself. He stays engaged. It is very important to him that he is useful. Whatever the task he pitches in. In his seventies he could outwork twenty year olds. He is thoughtful. He always tries to be a nice guy.

In recent years he has constructed art from found objects. Trash. Once on a walk with my step mom he came across a pile of old palm fronds. This is treasure to my dad. He took a bunch, but not all. My step mom asked if he wanted to come back for the rest; “No. I’ll leave some for the next guy.”

My dad’s sense of humor is unrivaled. When he starts laughing in a theatre, everyone starts laughing. I’ve never seen anyone laugh harder than my dad.

He loves creating art. He loves new people and situations. He loves a good party. He loves a good joke. He loves my step mom. He is physically and emotionally engaged with life. He is possessed of liberal sentiments, loved Roosevelt and hated Nixon. He has always believed that to the extent government and science can make life better for the working man it should. He is not a pacifist but does not believe that war is in any way noble or glorious. He did not approve of Viet Nam or Iraq or any war in which we are invaders and aggressors. Exhaust every other means of resolution first. Listen to others and try to understand how they come to believe what they do.

I remember two things my dad would say to me:

“It’s never too late till rigor mortis sets in”

and, as we drove by the Veteran’s grave yard one day he said,

“That grave yard is full of boys who would give anything for your problems.”

I got it immediately. Just being alive is great.

Even grief and heartbreak and disappointment have a beauty in them that is almost too big to grasp. Be glad for your days.

Live your life so that everyone who knew you is glad that they did.