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I Know My Way Around the Catskills

Veteran CBS reporter Bob Simon died in a car accident last week. Wikipedia states that he “covered crises, war, and unrest in 67 countries. Simon reported the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam, the Yom Kippur War in 1973, and the student protests in China's Tiananmen Square in 1989. During the Persian Gulf War in 1991, he and four of his TV crew were captured and imprisoned by Iraq for 40 days, about which experience he wrote a book, Forty Days.”

I have a different recollection of Bob Simon.

He was the host of CBS’s “Sixty Minutes Two” when David Greenglass broke his 50-year silence. The interview was broadcast on December 5th, 2001, and although my memory is not precise enough to repeat Bob’s questions and David’s answers verbatim, that interview is seared in my mind.

My younger daughter, Rachel, now an attorney suing the government on behalf of political prisoners while working for the Center for Constitutional Rights, was then in law school. The day of the broadcast, Rachel said, “It’s my birthday. Do I have to watch it?” Of course not, I responded, but I felt compelled to watch and was immediately distressed. Even with a fake beard, I could see a family resemblance. I was mortified to think that I looked even a bit like my uncle.

Bob Simon asked Greenglass how he expected to be remembered. David’s reply was unhesitating: As a spy who turned his sister in, he said. Simon followed up with how that made David feel. The instantaneous response was, “I don’t lose any sleep over it.” And I think David was telling the truth, even though it was an astounding statement for someone who’d just admitted on national television that his key trial testimony against his sister, my mother, was a lie.

And so it went, more probing questions, and a series of amoral, sociopathic replies. I was struck that as the interview progressed, Simon leaned further and further back in his seat. His body language seemed to indicate that he wanted to put as much space as possible between himself and Greenglass. Watching the two men, I felt that Simon was almost as repulsed as I was.

The program included a moment of comic relief. Greenglass said that in the month before his arrest he realized the FBI was following him so he devised an escape plan for himself and his family. He told Simon that he slipped his tail and spent the day in the Catskills to see if it would work. Simon was incredulous. You mean you thought you and your family could hide from the FBI in the Catskills? Greenglass replied with a hint of petulance, “You’d be surprised. I know my way around the Catskills.”

Perhaps you will think that I’m letting Greenglass off the hook too easily, but that statement epitomized the mindless arrogance that enabled Greenglass to rationalize all his actions without batting an eye. So I couldn’t help laughing. Perhaps, with Bob Simon’s help, David Greenglass had just written a fitting epitaph.  Read More 
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Fear of Trains?

I admit it: I’m a sucker for trains. I fell in love with New York City subways as a child. Sometimes on weekends my brother and I picked a line, usually one with a long elevated section, rode it to the end and then took it back home. Starting in the fourth grade, I took the train to school from the Upper West Side to Greenwich Village. I’d stand at the front window of the first car staring at the onrushing rails, signals and stations, pretending to be the motorman. After we moved to Westchester when I was a teenager, I’d ride what was then called the Grand Central Railroad (now MetroNorth) into the city whenever I could.

Now my favorite way to get to New York is to drive to New Haven and take MetroNorth. Other people get work or reading done on the train. I can’t; I’m transfixed by the world passing by. I was so excited to ride the bullet train in Japan a few years ago. And while I’m not sure when we’ll manage it, I’m already dreaming about taking the Canadian National Railroad with Elli from Toronto to Banff and Jasper.

The mass media histrionics in the wake of every deadly commuter rail accident troubles me. Are my trusted trains becoming unsafe? I suspected, however, that even with the recent spate of MetroNorth commuter rail accidents, it was likely that passenger trains remained safer than driving. So I checked it out. I asked a transportation expert friend for research tips to find accurate information on the relative safety of passenger rail versus auto travel.

While the figures for 2014 aren’t out yet, motor vehicle crashes have resulted in 32,000 to 35,000 deaths annually since 2010. That translates to a death rate of slightly over 1 per 100 million miles travelled per year. This figure underestimates the peril to car and small truck drivers and their passengers, because it includes heavy truck and bus riders who have a much lower accident mortality rate.

As of 2013, travel on intercity rail was about 20 times safer than driving. Impressive as that number is, it actually exaggerates the danger to train passengers because most of the reported fatalities are people in cars that get hit by trains at railroad crossings. Incidentally, a surprisingly high percentage of those deaths are ruled suicides.

While a couple of recent accidents may have put a dent in rail’s safety superiority, the bottom line remains that you are much safer traveling in a train than in a car.

I can’t help but wonder if there is a pro-auto, anti-train, bias in the media’s fear-mongering about commuter rail service. Oil companies and the automobile industry are acutely aware of the threat an efficient rail poses to their profits, and they are not above badmouthing such travel in order to undermine efforts to expand and upgrade train service. Don’t be fooled, even our outdated, and underfunded rail system is worth riding. I will continue to take the train whenever I can. Read More 
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Strange Convergence: Billie Holiday and Ethel Rosenberg

If Billie Holiday and Ethel Rosenberg were alive, they’d both celebrate their 100th birthdays this year. At first glance they may seem an unlikely couple, but a closer look reveals surprising parallels.

They were each born into poverty six months and a hundred miles apart. Billie in April 1915 in Philadelphia, and Ethel in September in lower Manhattan. Both had extraordinary singing voices, although Billie’s vocal genius eclipsed Ethel’s. Still, Ethel’s teachers considered her voice so special that they called her out of class to sing the national anthem at assemblies.

Both girls were precocious. Ethel graduated high school at 15 and tried to pursue a singing and acting career. At the height of the depression, she could only find work as a clerk-typist in New York’s garment district. There she helped organize and lead a strike at 19. Billie was singing in clubs in Harlem at 17, and made her mark as a recording artist before she was 20.

Both got in trouble with the law. Billie first ran afoul of powerful forces for singing “Strange Fruit,” the anti-lynching anthem. Her performances generated threats, even riots. Josh White also sang the song and was questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy period. He bowed to their demands that he stop. Billie defiantly refused and continued singing “Strange Fruit.” Many believe that her resistance led law enforcement to hound and arrest her in 1947 for drug possession. She served almost a year in prison, and her conviction disrupted her career for the rest of her life.

In 1950 Ethel was arrested with her husband Julius and charged with Conspiracy to Commit Espionage; they were convicted and sentenced to death. The government knew she had not committed espionage, but they held her as a hostage to coerce her husband into cooperating with the authorities. She refused to confess to something she did not do and backed her husband’s refusal to implicate others. The FBI files never claimed she was guilty, but consistently described her as “cognizant and recalcitrant.”

You might conclude that Billie and Ethel had similar talents and defied similar enemies.

Both died prematurely, victimized by law enforcement. Ethel was executed in 1953 at age 37, and Billie died in a hospital bed at age 44, while awaiting arraignment after another drug arrest.

Billie and Ethel followed different paths in life and probably never met, but they converged in death. High school English teacher, poet, and songwriter Abel Meeropol wrote “Strange Fruit” after seeing a photograph of a lynching. He played it for Billie Holiday in 1939, when she was performing at Cafe Society. Fourteen years later, Abel helped carry Ethel Rosenberg’s coffin to her grave site. Within a year, Abel and his wife Anne had adopted Ethel and Julius’ sons. The man who abhored lynching adopted Ethel’s orphans, my brother and me.

We remember Billie Holiday for singing about lynching and we remember Ethel Rosenberg for being legally lynched.  Read More 
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