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Flew by the Seat of My Pants
By Art Frankel
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2010 Art Frankel
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWhen you're tempted to think of something as being bad luck, you might just be wrong.
On the morning of October 22, 2007, a one-hundred-foot wall of flames hot enough to melt metal raced through the idyllic mountain community of Lake Arrowhead, California. Pine trees exploded in the fierce heat, firefighters bravely assaulted the flames, risking their lives to save the homes lying in the inferno's path. Despite their efforts, over 176 houses were reduced to ash and rubble. One of them was the dream house that Shirley, my wife of sixty years, and I had designed and built ourselves ten years earlier.
We officially moved in during June of 1997, just Shirley, me, and our three dogs, Sadie, Sydney, and Stimpy. It was a beautiful mountain escape, with views of pine-covered mountains, desert peaks, and Mt. San Gorgonio at 11,499 feet tall, the highest mountain in southern California. In 2003, my grown daughter Rochelle moved in with us and brought a little Chihuahua with her. Shirley liked the dog so much, we bought another one. Over the next few years we added four cats, a blue-tick coon hound, a pit bull, you name it; our house was practically a kennel. 2400 square feet with four bedrooms, three baths, cool in the summer and warm in the winter, thanks to our wood-burning stove in the living room. We had a deck on the main floor where we could take in the views, enjoy the breeze, and feed the birds. We put in a second deck down below and a two-car garage. It was a very, very comfortable house and we loved it. And then one morning the wind screamed, blew down an Edison pole, and started a fire. The sheriff ordered us to evacuate or possibly lose our lives, and everything changed.
I will never forget the day — after the fires had been contained — that we returned to see what was left of our home. Coming up the mountain was fine, but when we could actually see where the fire had been, everything was so completely devastated it looked like an atomic bomb had gone off. Everything was flattened; the ground barren and gray and scorched. It wasn't as if there'd been a fire and a few minor structures had burned, or perhaps the corner of a house was still there — almost everything was completely leveled. Black sticks protruded from the ashen soil — trunks of trees that had been charred. Incredibly, every so often a house right in the middle of the devastation was still standing, completely untouched by the flames.
As we pulled up to what had been our home just several days earlier, only the driveway was left. It was as if our home had never even existed. The wind, I was told later, had accelerated to over one hundred miles per hour coming up the hill. The wind was so fierce and it made the fire so hot that it melted things you wouldn't have thought possible. The burned skeletons of cars sat in the road, their alloy wheels liquified. We got out of the car and slowly walked down our driveway to assess the damage. The raging flames were so hot that they actually destroyed the concrete, popping the concrete out of the driveway.
We looked down below at all of the debris; some of our appliances were so twisted that we couldn't tell what they originally had been. I couldn't even recognize my snow blower.
At that moment, seeing that literally nothing was left of the house we'd worked all of our lives for, it was impossible to envision what would happen next. What I didn't realize is that what seemed like a terrible disaster would turn out to be one of the most fortunate things that ever happened to me.
Chapter TwoThe world you come from tells you a lot about where you're headed.
I was born in 1928 in the Bronx, and in September of 1929 the stock market crashed. You think that was a coincidence? I didn't even own any stock, being as I was only a year-and-a-half-old. Fortunately, my parents didn't own any stocks either since my father worked as a streetcar conductor and my mother stayed at home with my older brother and me. In fact, they were so poor, they couldn't even afford to give us middle names.
When my parents came to the United States, they were so pleased to be in a country which guaranteed freedoms, especially religious freedom, that they wanted to assimilate. So they gave all their children English names and that's how I got the name Arthur. Most of the Jews coming into the U.S. in those days had the same feelings about what a great country it was to be in and they wanted other people to believe they were going to fit in.
My father came to the United States from Lithuania in 1900 when he was five-years-old. When he was a small boy living in the ghetto in Lithuania, like all Jews had to do, he was kidnapped by gypsies. As he was literally being led away never to be seen again, one of his neighbors recognized him, chased the gypsies off, and took him back. I came that close to never existing.
My mother came from a little village that today is inside the Polish/ Russian border called Tourgawelke bei Strei which is on the Strei River. She wasn't exactly sure how old she was when she came to America and could only remember that she was a young teenager. My parents met in New York City. It was never clear how they got together, but I'm pretty sure it was an arranged marriage. It was important to Jewish immigrants at the time for everyone to stay within the Jewish community.
When I was born, we lived at 898 Fairmont Place, which was right near Tremont Avenue and Southern Boulevard. As an adult I found out from my cousin that his wealthy father owned the building and that my parents didn't pay any rent, which is good because I'm sure they couldn't afford it. Today the building is gone.
I never met my father's father, who died of cancer before I was born. I know he owned a haberdashery in New York, though my grandfather had been a grain merchant back in Lithuania and for some reason he had farming in his blood. Eventually, he saved enough money from his business in the city to buy a 300-acre farm in the Millington Green Township of East Haddam in Connecticut. Sadly, my grandfather died before he and my grandmother were able to move there.
Jews are traditionally known as doctors, lawyers, jewelers, some kind of businessman and the interesting thing is that most Jews stayed in the city ... but my father became a farmer! How many Jews came to the U.S., the land of opportunity, to become farmers? Do you know of any? There were some Jewish families in Moodus and East Haddam, and Sprecker Dairy, the dairy in town that processed their own milk was run by Jews. It was the first pasteurized milk I had. I count about eight Jewish farmers in our area. I'm sure there were more in the state of Connecticut. I remember a chicken hatchery in Guilford run by Jews. That's where we bought our chicks to raise for laying hens and broilers.
A few years after my grandmother and father arrived on the farm in 1913, World War I broke out. My uncles Barney and Herman, who helped run the place, lied about their ages and joined the military — leaving my grandmother and father alone to run the farm. After thirteen years, my father and grandmother and my mother moved back into New York. My mother didn't like the isolation and primitive farm life.
We eventually moved back out to Connecticut in 1931 when I was three because my father could not stand the city any longer. Our apartment on Fairmont Place was right across the street from a street car barn, but what my father loved was being outdoors, working outside, and he just liked being on a farm — so off we went, back to Moodus, which means "place of noises" in the local Indian dialect. At that time, the whole township had about 2500 people, and the new farm my parents bought had about eighty acres.
That old farmhouse wasn't much, built in 1800 in the old barn construction method. It didn't have insulated walls or framed construction, just planks against beams, and when that was done, they put the lath on the inside and plastered it. It had the old 16-by-16 windows, made with original 1800 wavy vintage glass. We had no running water except for a hand pump in the kitchen, no electricity, no central heat, just two wood-burning stoves. We didn't have a car, just a horse and buggy to go to town. We had an outhouse, no inside toilet. One thing I remember quite clearly is that the winters were colder than hell! Nothing in that house was insulated, no weather stripping, no storm windows. It was drafty and cold! Our main source of heat was one of the stoves, an old parlor stove in the living room that we loaded up at night with logs. In the morning we'd run out there and put our arms around the stove to get warm.
Despite all of this, I never remember once going hungry or not having warm clothes to wear. In the fall with some help, my dad would cut firewood for the two stoves, sometimes as much as forty cords. When I got big enough, I would help with the wood. I remember using a two-man crosscut saw with my dad. Shortly after we moved there we got telephone, electricity, and inside plumbing. Talk about moving up in the world! Even when we did get running water, we used to see ice in the toilet — it would freeze, inside the house! The barn outside was even colder than the house; one time I remember it was thirty below. We didn't get central heat until after World War II. Many times our plumbing froze up in the winter.
We grew all kinds of vegetables for ourselves, and eventually we got sixteen head of cattle for milking cows. We also had chickens. We sold broilers, eggs, and milk to a milk company. We sold maybe eighty gallons of milk a day.
I had a lot of jobs on the farm, most of which I wasn't too fond of. It was my job to clean out all the manure from the barn and to throw hay down from the rafters of the barn to feed the cows. I also had to throw silage down from the silo. The silo had rungs that I climbed up and little doors that fit in and closed it up. As the silage went down, I'd take out a door, pull out another one, and that's how the silage went down in the winter time.
One of my least favorite duties was weeding. I hated weeding frigging carrots. Carrots are very fine when they come up and I had to pull out all the weeds. I helped plant the potatoes and then we had to hoe the damn things to get out all the weeds. When it was time, we harvested them with a three-pronged potato hook. The trick was to dig on the side of the mound and try to get the potatoes out of the ground without piercing them and destroying them.
My dad did all the work around the farm with a workhorse. I remember him plowing the fields by hand, walking behind the plow and workhorse. And he cultivated with it. We took the hay in on a wagon and he'd pick it up by hand with a pitchfork, which I still can't believe — we're talking about a man who was only 5'4" tall! When he worked my grandmother's first farm out on Millington Green as a teenager, he would cut railroad ties by hand — each tie weighed like 300 pounds — and he would put them up on a wagon and then walk twelve miles to the railroad station with two pair of oxen in the wintertime. The reason he walked was simple: that wagon moved so slow, he'd freeze to death if he sat still and rode on it. He was an incredibly strong guy. But he was also a tough disciplinarian and was not overly affectionate.
Chapter ThreeAs a kid, I never went through that period of time where I didn't like girls like some young boys do. Luckily, my fifth-grade teacher, Miss Sullivan, thought the best way to discipline me was to make me sit with the girls. Talk about the fox in the henhouse! Unfortunately, anti-Semitism was pretty prevalent at the time and two girls in school thought it was cute to go tell Miss Sullivan that I beat them up at recess. She sent me to the principal, Royal O. Fisher, who was a sadistic prick. His daughter was in my class and she used to call me a "Jew son-of-a-bitch."
Anyway, one time I was sent to see the principal for supposedly terrorizing these girls and he strapped me. When I got home, my dad also strapped me because I was sent to the principal's office. He didn't want to know why, didn't want any excuses, he didn't ask me anything. That was hard for me. I also remember around the same time, my mom and I would walk to town. Part of our route took us under a big maple tree near where a Polish family lived. Well, the kids who lived there thought it would be funny to hide up in this tree and dumb pails of water on us. When I told my dad about it, he got pretty steamed. Though he was only five-foot, four-inches and these guys were six-footers, he went to their place and told them to leave us alone. He made it pretty clear that he wasn't going to take any crap from them, and these kids believed it. He wasn't a guy who would get in fights and he would stand up for us, but still one-on-one he couldn't show any affection. That's just who he was.
He was always into baseball, and he took me to the fourth game of the 1937 World Series between the Yankees and the Giants at the Polo Grounds. The Giants won that game, but the Yankees went on to win the series that year. I know that he cared about me; he just didn't know how to express it. He also had a habit that if he was upset with us, not only would he punish us, but he wouldn't talk to us for a whole week. That hurt more than anything else.
My brother, Marvin, is three years older than I and my sister, Edie, is twelve years younger. Marvin was crippled on the right side of his body. I was never sure if he was born that way or if it was from a bout of polio shortly after he was born, but it severely impacted his life. His right arm was shorter with a weakened hand and as a young boy, he had to have surgery on his right leg, which left him with a permanent limp. At the age of thirteen, he developed epilepsy. I, on the other hand, was physically fit and life was much easier on me. Unfortunately, Marvin's physical disability affected his mental outlook and over time he became very jealous of me and bitter in general. He used to fight with me all the time. My dad used to tell me, "Don't fight with him; just run away." So whenever he'd get angry and want to beat me up, I would just run off and hide in the hayloft or somewhere else.
Things were not easy for Marvin. Because he was Jewish, had epilepsy, and was disabled, kids in high school would torment him terribly. Once, they tripped him and broke his two front teeth. If he would have had access to some kind of firearm, he would have gone and shot up that school, he was that angry. I never remember him really being happy, even later in life raising his own kids. His son once said to me, "I can't believe you two are from the same family." He blamed my father and mother for not sending him to college. They would have sent him, but they needed him to fill out the application and apply and he never did that. He was very bright and excelled in math, but rather than using his ability to achieve something that would help him make something of his life, he didn't do anything, and blamed his problems on everyone else. He became so difficult to deal with that my parents finally gave up and quit asking him for any help on the farm.
He was difficult to love, and I was a naturally-affectionate person, so my mother paid more attention to me. She would constantly hug me and call me "zin in tomas," which I think means "my sun in the sky." Don't ask me what language it is, but it always reminds me of the comic W.C. Fields who once said, "When I was a young child, I was so bright my mother called me Sunny."
My sister was born in 1939, and she immediately became my father's favorite. Her real name is Ethel, named after my mother's grandmother, Bubba Etela. But she calls herself Edie. I remember going to Middletown, Connecticut to pick her up at the Middlesex hospital when she was born. We drove there in a brand new 1940 Ford pick-up that we'd bought for $650. I was back in the truck bed and my mom and dad were in the front and we picked Edie up and brought her home. To this day, she won't talk to my brother because when he babysat her, he used to go out of his way to terrorize her and scare the hell out of her whenever he could. That was the way he acted with her, and she still hasn't forgiven him.
Excerpted from Flew by the Seat of My Pants by Art Frankel Copyright © 2010 by Art Frankel. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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