It Was 1957 and a Skinny 16-Year-Old Needed an Emergency Loan to Keep His Family Up and Running. Enter Mort Reubens.
VERY FIRST PERSON
Los Angeles Times Magazine, October 11, 1998
Marvin J. Wolf
Journalist and author Marvin J. Wolf is immediate past president of Independent Writers of Southern California. His most recent book is Where White Men Fear to Tread (St. Martin's Press), which he co-authored with Russell Means.
I stood on tiptoe and handed the 3-by-5 card from the Help Wanted board at Fairfax High up to the tall, broad-shouldered, ruddy-faced man behind the counter of Mort's Deli at Farmers Market. He wore a starched chef's hat and a clean white apron over slacks and a sports shirt, and even before I opened my mouth to speak, he was frowning and shaking his head.
"This is a tough job for any high school kid," he said. "I need somebody big and strong."
At 16, I looked younger and was barely 5 feet tall. "I worked last summer washing dishes in a boys camp," I said. "Near Chicago. I'm not afraid of hot water, dirty dishes or heavy lifting."
"Florine, come out here a minute," called the tall man. In the kitchen doorway appeared an elfin presence, his dark skin mottled and wrinkled with age. He was even shorter than I was. Several long, wispy white hairs sprouted from his chin. "This is Mr. Joaquin, the chef. He's 80 years old. He needs someone strong enough to lift great big pots filled with boiling water."
"I can do the job."
"Really, we need someone bigger. You'll find something easier than this, kid," the tall man said in a kind voice. It was September 1957, and my family had just arrived in California. Without seniority in the local union, my father, a sheet-metal worker, was lucky to get work two or three days a week. Our meager savings were gone, and I, the eldest boy among what would soon be six children, was the only one able to help. I'd applied at retail stores, but without local references, shopkeepers were reluctant to let me handle cash. And everyone said I was too small.
"Tell you what," I said. "Put me to work the rest of the week, and if you don't like the way I do the job, don't pay me."
The tall man stared at me, then nodded. "I'm Mort Reubens," he said. "What's your name?"
The patio at Farmers Market, then as now, was a collection of small shops and about 30 highly individualized restaurants. All used the same crockery and silverware, retrieved from tables by busboys and returned for washing. At Mort's, a river of soiled utensils, trays and dishes flowed into my sinks. Huge pots and pans came off the stove and out of the ovens to be scrubbed. I washed and rinsed and scoured; by the end of my first after-school shift, sharp pains were shooting up my heels and lower legs from four hours of standing on concrete without a break.
My father suggested that I would get used to it, but as closing time approached on Saturday, I was in agony. I would need better shoes if I was to continue working here, but I had no money and no idea if Mort would pay me for four days of work. Near the end of the day he called me up front. "How much did that card at school say this job paid?" he asked.
"Dollar an hour," I murmured. "The minimum wage." I was willing to take less.
"That's not enough for someone who works as hard as you," said Mort. "You start at $1.25."
Over the next few weeks I learned a lot about Mort. He was a few years older than my dad, was from Chicago and had a daughter my age. About 1937, Mort had joined the National Guard's horse-drawn artillery because he loved horses. Early in World War II, he was nearly killed in a savage battle in New Guinea's Owen Stanley mountains. Recuperating from a terrible head wound, he was attached to Gen. Douglas MacArthur's personal staff as a military policeman, where he cultivated an Aussie accent while tracking down GI black marketers. When things were slow at the deli, he often shared stories from his Army days. But things were never slow in the kitchen; there was always something to be washed or swept or scoured.
We were closed on Sundays, and so every Saturday evening, Mort encouraged me to take home the leftover soup in a huge jar. A rich broth of turkey, rice and vegetables, it was a meal in itself, a treat for my struggling family. My father usually picked me up after work on Saturdays because the soup was too much to lug home on my bike. Then, one Saturday about six weeks after I began working, my father was hired to hang gutters on a neighbor's house, and I took the family car.
After work I drove home and parked on 6th Street, a few doors from Sweetzer Avenue, and, with the warm jar in my arms, crossed the lawn. As I passed the living room window, I glanced inside–and almost dropped the jar. In my father's chair–my father's chair!–was a large, heavy bald man. He was cursing my father, flinging the most obscene words in a voice dripping with contempt. My brothers and sisters sat like statues. Dad's face was stone; Mom wept.
I crept into the darkened kitchen, carefully set the soup on a counter and listened through a crack in the swinging door. The bald man wanted to take our 1952 Chevy. Dad offered to pay the three weekly payments that were in arrears, but the man demanded the entire sum–$325–or the car.
I had been in Los Angeles just long enough to understand how essential a car is. I slipped out the door, pushed the Chevy down to the corner, then started the engine and circled the neighborhood, thinking furiously. Who might have $325? Who would even consider loaning me such a princely sum?
The only person I could think of was Mort. I drove back to Farmers Market, rapped on the rear door, then waited until the window shade went up. I found myself staring down the barrel of an Army .45. "What do you want?" growled Mort, lowering the gun but peering behind me into the darkness.
I stammered out my tale: The bald man, his foul cursing, the outrageous demand. "So, could you possibly loan my father $325?" I finished, realizing how absurd it sounded.
Mort's eyes bored holes in my face. His cheeks began to purple, and his lips quivered. I realized that he was still clutching the gun, and took an involuntary step backward. At that, he smiled. "I'm not going to shoot you," he chuckled, placing the pistol on his tiny desk. Abruptly he knelt, pried a worn red tile from the floor to reveal a safe and began to twist the dial.
He counted the money twice, placing it in an old envelope. "This is $325," he said. "When school is out this summer, you'll work full time. I'll take back half your wages until it's repaid."
"Thank you," I said, trembling at this responsibility. "Do you want my father to come over and sign something?"
Slowly, he shook his head. "No, son. I'm betting on you."
I went in the back door like the lord of the manor, and Dad came rushing into the kitchen, the bald man on his heels. "Quick! Drive away, take the car away!" cried my father. I calmly handed the repo man the soiled envelope. "Count it, give my father a receipt and get out of our house," I said, a speech I'd rehearsed all the way home.
That night I was a hero to my family. But the real hero was Mort Rubin, who not only saved us from certain penury, but also quietly raised my salary every month or so until, when summer came, I was earning $2.50 an hour, double the original wage. I worked for Mort until I graduated in 1959 and joined the Army. We stayed in touch for many decades, but I lost track of Mort several years ago and don't even know if he's still alive.
But this I know: Mort Reubens made Los Angeles a better place.
© 1998 Marvin J. Wolf
The bottle blond is making out with this old guy and I’m next to them on the couch wondering what the hell is going on in my hallucination, this lucid dream state where I know that I’m sleeping yet don’t want to awaken because somehow, strange as this is, it’s better, more compelling, more involving, than the waking world.
Slender and curvaceous, hard-edged but oh-so-sexy, the blonde—I don’t know her name—is attired for marketing, her catalog of womanly wares displayed for browsing or close inspection. She’s swapping spit with the old dude, letting him rub and stroke her hither, thither and yon—and then she reaches out and takes my hand.
While she’s still making out with the other dude.
He’s wrinkled but tall and raw-boned, a Ben Gurion fringe of white hair crowning his bald dome. I’m not my young, supple, Army-strong, buzz-cut self as I usually am in dreams. No, I’m my present, porcine, white-haired, creaky-jointed self. When she takes my hand and inflates my libido with a stare from one robin’s-egg-blue eye—the other one is jammed against the old guy’s face—I realize that I’m auditioning to understudy him.
It’s creepy weird, but that’s a dream for you. A little reality—over a long life I’ve now and then foolishly allowed myself to be used in demeaning ways—and a whole lot of freakish nonsense.
Now the other guy is gone and it’s just me and her standing on a giant macadam apron behind a row of high-rise apartments and I see that her home is a one-room shack forlornly slumped against a corner of a forbiddingly high fence that borders the complex.
“He’s my hero,” she says, I guess referring to the wrinkled fringe dome guy.
“He rescued me,” she adds, and then a giant wrecking ball flattens her shack and a bulldozer appears from out of nowhere—that’s another thing about my dreams, time is as warped as an Escher drawing—and with one pass of its blade scoops up the wreckage and disappears around a corner that wasn’t there a second ago.
“My goddamn landlord,” she says, spreading her arms wide and frowning till I worry that her mascara will crack, sighing and blinking like this explains everything.
Maybe, in her dream, it actually does.
Then I hear a rattling, high-pitched whine like the bogey wheels on an Abrams tank and here’s this massive tracked vehicle, treads higher than a point guard’s head, and Main-Street wide. Behind it rolls a giant crane. In two shakes the crane is pulling pre-fab boxes off the back of the behemoth mover and stacking one atop another into a rambling ziggurat that turns out to be a multi-story, wedding-cake of a house.
We go inside and mirabile dictu, it’s completely furnished, lights on, music playing. I see now that I’m not even auditioning for understudy. I’m only the backup.
I’m her Plan B.
And I think about this for a minute, which in a dream might be an hour or a second of actual REM time, and as I cogitate and concentrate and worry over the details I conclude that libido be damned, I am never, no-how, nobody’s sugar daddy, not possible.
“You need to find some way to support yourself,” I tell the bottle blonde and zip zap zoom! we’re meandering through an endless hardware store, like some lunatic Mandelbrot fractal of B&B Hardware, floor-to-ceiling bins and shelves and drawers crammed with every sort of nut and bolt and screw and nail and knob and chain and tool and gizmo, a store so big that you’re always deep in its twisting, curvilinear middle.
I grab some tiny screwdrivers and squish five into an irregular lineup.
“Look, these could be earrings. Maybe even a belt buckle.”
I pull a length of chain off a roll, bite off a link and circle her waist with it.
“See, they could go with this as a belt.”
She grunts, very softly, moving against me, calculatingly making body contact. I take anodized carbon-steel lug nuts from a bin and arrange them in her manicured hand, grooving on their shape and texture, arranging them this way and that.
“Do mechanics even wear earrings?” she mumbles.
“Think about how cool they’d look plated with silver. Or brass. Maybe copper, and then an acid bath for a nice patina. Even an anodized finish,” I add
“I don’t know about all this stuff. I just need someone to rescue me.”
“Wait, look at these,” I say, grabbing some hacksaw blades and arranging the edges so they’re irregularly staggered. I pull out my camera and zoom it to take a close-up of the geometric pattern, then hold the Nikon’s back up for her to look at.
“Very pretty. I’ve got a lot of overhead, you know.”
In the distance, thunder rattles the store.
Distracted, I turn my head to paw through tiny, round-head stainless steel hex nuts, arranging them in my hand, peering closely at them, grooving on the reflections of nearby bins and shelves. Then I see a stack of needle files, and marvel over their surface patterns. Could these be bent round, plated and made into bracelets?
There’s the thunder again, louder. There was nothing in the forecast—Oh, there’s those cool chromed nails. Their heads are tiny ellipses--
So much to look at. I spy bronze concrete nails with grooved, twisted shanks--
I open one eye. My daughter has cracked my bedroom door and is looking at me. “Can I use your car? Samson needs to go to the doggie park and my brakes won’t be ready until this afternoon?”
Brakes? I bet the shoes will have an interesting texture. Carborundum is way cool stuff. I should go over and look at that.
Annoyed, I open both eyes. “Sure, take the car.”
I drift back to sleep, vaguely wondering about the blonde but getting more and more worried, obsessing, really, because I want to look at the emery cloth, it’s got really nifty teeny-tiny, jagged-edge grains and naturally folds into different patterns but I can’t find the hardware store and now I can’t find my car—it isn’t where I parked it.
Peering every which way, panic rising in me, I walk streets somehow simultaneously familiar and strange. Could they be Frankfurt, Seoul, London, Montreal, New York, Chicago, Tokyo, Saigon, Chicago—places I haven’t visited in decades? I’m stressed, anxious to get back to the store but disoriented and this morphs into my familiar standby dream, where I’m wandering, lost, trying to find my way home. I always end up home in bed in these, mildly exasperated, a little disappointed.
I open both eyes and sit up.
Bottle blondes are always on sale somewhere. But I really wish that I could find that hardware store again.
© 2011 Marvin J. Wolf
Excerpt from "Sea of Dreams," unpublished novel by Marvin J. Wolf
I swim slowly through an endless bank of thick fog; my whole world is the sea below and a dense white shroud above. I pause to float atop the waves, carried through the thick mist by an invisible current. Hungry, I dive down to snag a passing cod, peel the skin back like a banana, wipe the mayonnaise off with a paper towel, and eat the breaded, perfectly-fried fillets. I drop the head and skeleton and watch it float away, knowing that I am littering my environment but not caring—let the scavengers take care of it. I notice that I can breathe underwater, that my limbs and chest are covered with scales. Suddenly the fog parts. A leviathan ship bears down on me, its decks lined with people. I see them pointing at me, snapping pictures. The ship alters course and slows. Something comes flying down from the observation deck and splashes nearby. I look over and see a bronze urn, slowly sinking. "Get a life!" someone yells from the ship, and peering through the mist I see Out-At-The-Plate Herring at the rail, a slender blonde in a full-length mink clinging to his arm. She looks oddly familiar.
Suddenly the ship is gone. The fog thins, then lifts as I accelerate, moving ever faster. I spy-hop out of the water to peer ahead. Before me, a hole opens in the sea and I’m drawn toward it. Frantic, I try to swim away, but the current overwhelms my feeble strokes. I slide, whirling, down a gigantic whirlpool toward the darkness.
I don't like this.
I get up to pee.
I used to see a shrink, with whom I discussed my dreams at great length. When Dr. Quahog said "Dreams are deal memos from your soul," I thought that he was speaking metaphorically until the day when I caught his mistress, or one of them, listening to our sessions on the intercom as she sat at a court reporter's machine, taking down my words. Not long after that, one of my weirder nightmares came alive on the tube, a series about Pentagon-based supercops who fight corruption, major crime and sexual harassment in the armed services; the voice over introduced each segment with a summary of the team’s after-action reports.
And in my dream, the one I told Quahog, I was back in the Crotch, handling PR for this operation, and between shootouts with the bad guys rewriting my semiliterate colleagues’ mangled syntax, snarled grammar and bad spelling on after-action reports. I watched the television show's credits very carefully, and sure enough, Dr. Quahog is an associate producer and shares story credit with the executive producer. Asking around, I hear that he’s been shopping dreams around town for years, and had pocketed option money on three or four. When I confronted him, he never flinched: "You know very well that you don't own an idea until it's developed, committed to paper and copyrighted," he said. "If you have problems with the way credits were awarded, appeal to the Writers Guild for arbitration." Then he asked when I wanted to schedule our next session.
Out of that experience came one of my better-selling books, Mind Fucking, which kept me solvent for three years. Unfortunately, I also became persona non grata to the entire mental health community, including psychiatrists, psychologists, marriage and family counselors, psych-social workers — even the most ethical shrink was afraid to let me in his office. Now I tell my dreams to my girlfriend.
Maybe that's why I don't have a girlfriend.
After I void my bladder, I decide against going back to sleep. It's sprinkling when I go outside to net my Sunday Tides, a few drops from patchy white clouds floating beneath a cerulean sky. About two hours later, after reading the funnies, the book review and opinion sections, complete leisurely ablutions and dress for the diamond, it's still sprinkling. I decide to chance the five-mile drive to Brentwood; it might not be raining there, and even if it is, the worst case is that only a few guys will show up. So we'll throw and catch, enjoy a little batting practice. Beats sitting in front of the tube watching millionaire leviathans in color-coordinated jerseys banging into each other while grunting like elephant seals in rut.
But when I turn off the Bonefish Avenue freeway ramp, there’s Les Miserable, waving me down. "They won't let us in — parking lot's full of movie trailers," he says. "Making some kinda World War Two movie." This has happened before: the VA includes streets full of pre-war buildings that resemble old-style military bases.
"What about one of the fields by the Post Office?" I ask.
"Marvel went up to see," he replies. "Took Dead-Pull with him."
I pull onto the shoulder, out of the way. Five more players trickle in and we stand around next to our cars, talking, until Marvel comes back with Dead Pull.
"We're out of luck," he says. "League games by the post office, soccer players all over the Little League field and the junior high is mud — sprinklers ran all night."
"Let's go to breakfast," says Sandy, as Satchel pulls up.
"Grenadier's?" says Marvel, spurring a chorus of dissent. After five minutes of argument, we agree on Bryde's, an unpretentious café known for quick service. With my usual good parking karma, I find a spot down the street and as I leave my car, Satchel calls to me from his Escalade.
"Got a minute?" he says.
"Ain't you coming in?" I say.
"Ate at home."
"If it's urgent, why not call me?"
"Not that important. Anyway, you never know who's listening to your phone these days," says Satchel, glancing around like he thought he was being followed.
"So what's up?"
"Less, and more."
"I'm all ears," I say, wishing he'd get down to it.
"You had a really good idea with Snow Cone," he says.
"I'm not following."
"Basking never called my lawyer back, so I told Snow Cone I'd like to meet him, and he got me right in to see him."
"You didn't tell Snow Cone why?"
"I told him that since Beverly Hills P.D. is world famous, I was pitching a television series idea to Murax about it and kind of wanted to feel department brass out about how much ongoing support we could expect from the city."
"Clever," I say.
"So I had a quick sit-down with Basking, drank a cup of coffee. He apologized for not getting back to Karp. Turns out it's all a big misunderstanding. Mistaken identity. Basking was told that Judah P. Benjamin VI is my real name, but my stage name —"
"Oh no," I say. "They think that you're —"
"But why would they have a hard-on for him?"
"We didn't get into that. My guess is, ‘cause he travels in exalted circles..."
"Could be," I say.
"Anyway, it's all squared away. Basking is an okay dude, get to know him a little. Made a big deal out of apologizing. Said he'd make it up to me."
"They've dropped the charges. I'm to stay out of Beverly Hills when I throw a poker game, and they'll forget about the whole thing."
"That's terrific," I say.
"I owe you."
"What for? I didn't do a damn thing."
"But you give great counsel. You were a buddy. I don't forget my buddies."
"Good. So now that we have the terms of endearment, why don't you come in and buy me breakfast — I didn't bring any cash."
"I'll drink some coffee," says Satchel, climbing out of the car. I look down and sure enough, a chauffeur's billed cap is resting on the passenger seat.
Heading toward our gang in the back room, we’re intercepted by a pretty, middle-aged hostess bearing oversize menus. "I can seat you immediately," she says, then does a double take at Satchel.
"Oh my god!" she shrieks. "It's you! It's really you!"
Satchel switches on the charm like an electric eel sampling live sushi in some briny cafeteria. "It certainly is me," he chuckles, taking her by the arm. "Would you like an autograph?"
The woman is in ecstasy. "Oh, I just never thought — I grew up watching your movies, I mean films. Don't know how you─you don't look a day older. Oh, this is so wonderful!"
Satchel signs a menu with a flourish, kisses the woman's cheek, pats her arm and slides into the booth next to Valentino, who, like the rest of our crowd, is rolling his eyes. "I hate going out with you guys," says Satchel. "You just don't appreciate a fine performance," and we all laugh. Satchel accepts a complimentary bagel with his coffee. After the food comes, he slides a ten under the napkin dispenser and rises.
"That's for Slips and me," he says. "Gotta sail."
Just then the manager, heavy-set and dark, appears, wringing his hands. "Is something wrong?" he says.
"No, not at all," sighs Satchel. "I have an appointment."
"I know it's an imposition," says the manager, "But is there any way we could get an autographed photo to put up in front?"
"Of course," says Satchel, pulling out his wallet and handing the manager a card. "Here's the guy to call. Tell him I said to get you a picture, and he'll take care of you."
"Thank you so very much," says the manager, blissed out. "You bring great honor to our humble place."
"Pleasure is all mine," says Satchel. I walk him out, and on the sidewalk, he leans down to whisper, "Guy has a great racket. Gets free headshots from studio publicity, forges the signatures, and takes whatever the traffic will bear."
"The Coho Archive, right?" I say, which earns me a look.
"He's got all kinds of photos. Use him for my books," I add. "Gets two bills for a genuine forged Kevin Costner. But how do you come out on this?"
"My real name's on that card. Somebody asks for me, he knows to spiel them for some charity he invented. Whatever he drags out of them, we split," he says, shakes my hand and steams majestically towards his Caddy like he owns everything in sight.
That night I dream again and again I float atop foggy swells, eating fried cod. I watch the urn fly from the ship and splash, and as I feel myself being sucked into the whirlpool, I decide to see where it will take me.
© 2018 Marvin J. Wolf
In 1965 I was a PFC and rookie combat correspondent with the First Cavalry Division in Vietnam. In November, two of our battalions engaged with regular North Vietnamese regiments in the Ia Drang Valley, in what would become a famous battle. With my colleagues in the Public Information Office, I flew to Camp Holloway at Pleiku, 30 miles from the battle but the nearest US base with an airstrip.
By the middle of the second day casualties were evacuated to Holloway and I had an opportunity to interview several of the less seriously, wounded troops before they were hospitalized.
From these interviews, I wrote a 1,000-word story, and brought it to my boss, Major Siler, for approval. He deleted four words in the last paragraph and told me to phone our tent office at An Khe, about 30 miles east, and read it to whoever answered the phone. Siler said to tell the man who took the story to send it to Stars & Stripes in Tokyo without changing a word.
The voice on the other end of my phone was new to me, a sergeant D’Angelo. I read him the story and to my surprise, he typed as fast as I spoke. When he finished I passed on the major’s order to send it without changes, the D’Angelo lectured me on the importance of proofreading, fact-checking, grammar, sentence structure and so forth.
It was three days before I got back to An Khe and my bunk in the section tent. I was filthy and exhausted. I took off my dirty uniform and underwear and slept for ten hours. Then I hitched a ride to the shower point, got a cold shower, and hitched a ride back.
Then for the first time, I began flipping through the previous few days Stars &Stripes, looking for my by-line. When I didn’t find it, I was disappointed. I was a new writer and I assumed that the story wasn’t good enough for the Stripes’ editor.
The next day, reading those papers again, I found five stories by-lined by D’Angelo. It didn’t seem possible, because he had spent the whole battle 60 miles away at our basecamp. Reading the third D’Angelo piece I recognized my own work. He had transposed two clauses in the lead sentence, but otherwise, the story was exactly what I wrote.
I respectfully asked him to explain why his name on was on my story. I got a long-winded lecture about teamwork, that it didn’t matter whose name was on a story as long as it got published and that in any case, he had rewritten the story to fix my grammatical mistakes, spelling errors, and poor organization. I replied that the story published in Stripes was exactly what I wrote, except for those transposed clauses in the first sentence.
He repeated his whole spiel about teamwork, and how it did not matter whose name was on the story.
“If it doesn’t matter, then why your name instead of mine?” I said.
He repeated the entire teamwork spiel yet again.
Later that day I ran into Captain Coleman, the major’s deputy, who told me that Major Siler was away on Army business.
I knew Coleman fairly well and saw him as a tough but fair officer with years of civilian news reporting and editing experience. So I told him about my encounter with Sergeant D’Angelo. He said that he would look into it.
Standing in line for evening chow, D’Angelo and another new member of the section, a Staff Sergeant Jameson, came up on either side of me and took me out of line. They marched me about a half mile to a small patch of jungle inside the base camp, where Jameson held me while D’Angelo pounded by midsection, arms, and legs until he was covered with sweat. I was cautioned that PFCs do not go over their sergeant’s head to talk to an officer. After a few more punches, I was threatened with re-assignment to an infantry company if I didn’t shape up. Jameson told me that I needed “extra training. I was to report to him at 8:00 pm.
I was bruised and sore, but they had avoided hitting my face. When I found Jameson that evening he took me outside, handed me an entrenching tool—a small folding shovel--and told me to dig a standard foxhole, six feet long, two feet wide, and four feet deep.
That took until midnight. When he came back he seemed surprised that I had done as told.
He ordered me to get some sleep and report to him at 0500.
When I did, he had me fill in the foxhole. He warned me again about speaking to officers.
I was angry and frustrated. The next day followed without incident.
After breakfast on the day after that, Major Siler re-appeared. He told me to report to Division Headquarters and the Command Sergeant Major.
There I was promoted one grade to Specialist Four and told that henceforth I was the acting press chief, in charge of all the reporters in the section.
“What about SGT D’Angelo?” I asked.
“He requested re-assignment in his other military occupational specialty, maintaining databases of helicopter replacement parts.”
Staff Sergeant Jameson had also requested re-assignment to an infantry battalion.
It developed that D’Angelo had stolen the stories of every other reporter in the section. Siler had flown down to Saigon where he found high-quality international circuits, which he used to call Stripes in Tokyo and also the European edition, published in West Germany. Apparently, D’Angelo had been stealing stories for several years.
Fast forward to 1970. I arrived in Kaiserslautern Germany for duty as the Communication-Electronics staff officer for the 93rd Air Defense Group, a large collection of surface-to-air missile units whose weapons were pointed at East Germany and Czechoslovakia. I was assigned the additional duty of Public Information Officer.
In that capacity, I was invited to meet with the lieutenant colonel who served as regional public affairs officer, the better to coordinate public affairs goals and the means of achieving them.
Entering the PAO outer office, out of the corner of my eye I saw a familiar figure wearing the stripes of a sergeant first class. I was greeted by the PAO sergeant major, who took me in to see his boss.
As I strode across the office I heard D’Angelo telling someone, “See that young captain? He’s a hell of a writer. I taught him everything he knows about news reporting.”
Inside the lieutenant colonel’s office, we shook hands and had a collegial chat of about ten minutes. I asked a few questions, and he answered them. Then I turned to the sergeant major. “Have any of your enlisted men made any complaints about SFC D’Angelo?
The sergeant major was startled. “A few, but D’Angelo told me what really happened.”
Leaving myself out of it, I described what had happened in Vietnam, down to Siler’s discovery that this was a habitual behavior.
“Is that Chuck Siler?” asked the lieutenant colonel.
“He’s an old friend,” replied the PAO. “Do you know where he’s stationed these days?”
I told him, we shook hands and I departed for my office, an hour’s ride distant.
When I was back behind my desk attacking a pile of paperwork, my right-hand man, Master Sergeant Bill Solomon, came into my office and perched on the edge of my desk. I didn’t mind—he was almost a friend, Despite the difference in our ranks, he knew more about my job than I knew about his.
“You used to know a Sergeant First Class D’Angelo?” he said, eyes twinkling.
“Tell me,” I replied.
“Got a call from a sergeant-major we know. D’Angelo is up for a court-martial.”
“How interesting,” I replied.
The Sicilians have it right. Revenge is a dish best served cold.
© 2018 Marvin J. Wolf
Excerpt from the second in my Rabbi Ben mystery novels, 'A Scribe Dies in Brooklyn.' Available on Kindle eBook Paperback. For more info and reviews, click here.
“A few weeks ago, a Jewish woman here in New York, discovered—or, at least, thinks she did—the missing pages, perhaps only some of them. They were hidden in the home of her beloved great-uncle, who had just passed away at 97.”
“That’s wonderful news!”
“It isn’t. Two days later, someone broke into the uncle’s house and stole it.”
“Who else knew that she’d found it?”
“An excellent question! You might want to ask her that.”
“The State of Israel wants me to find the missing Codex pages? Mossad is too busy? Shabak can’t be bothered? What about Aman, since you have so much influence?”
“The State of Israel asks nothing of you. Were you to accept any task for us in the U.S., you would be obliged to register as a foreign agent. Mossad and Shabak would know immediately. I would be unhappy if either agency—if anyone in the Israeli government—hears anything about you or the Codex.”
“Why is that?”
“You probably know that we have many political parties in Israel, too many, really. No party ever wins enough seats in the Knesset to form a government on its own.
“So every election is followed by a few days of backroom horse-trading—perhaps necessary, but very unseemly. The small parties are single-issue parties; to get enough seats to govern, the ruling coalition always includes a few of them.”
“You’re talking about the religious parties?”
“I am. And their issue is ensuring that the Haredim, the ultra-Orthodox, get what they want: power.”
“Here’s something you might not know. In 1958, when the Aleppo Codex was still missing, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel commanded any Jew who knew where it was to produce it. Almost immediately, the Codex, except those still-missing pages, mysteriously appeared—in Argentina!—and was brought to Israel.
“Which leads me to the reason for this conversation.”
Ben cocked his head, thinking. “Let me guess. You don’t want the Haredim to get their hands on the missing portion of the Codex. And this is because … because … if American Jews, the Jews of the Diaspora, take possession of it, they have a bargaining chip. They can demand, perhaps, that the Haredim recognize Diaspora conversions, marriages, etc. And this is vital for Israel; in the long run, Israel cannot survive without the support of Diaspora Jews.”
Yossi nodded. “Exactly. And I can see that you are just the man to do this.”
Ben shook his head. “I’m not the right man for this.”
Yossi grinned. “You are much too modest. My brother-in-law, Yakov, tells me that Mossad has an open file on you. Perhaps Shabak keeps one, as well.”
“That’s ridiculous! Why?”
“A man who brought down a multimillion-dollar organized-crime scheme? Working alone, without a support team? Why indeed?”
“Not alone. I worked with the police and the DEA.”
“The police of a small city, who were of little help. And the DEA came in only to make arrests. Let’s not quibble. You are a man who knows how to get things done.”
“But I know very little about ancient texts. I can’t tell if a Torah page is a hundred years old or a thousand.”
“If that’s your only problem, it’s easily solved.”
“It’s not my only problem. I have an appointment for Lasik surgery in two weeks. In California.”
“You might be finished by then. And if not, I’ll personally buy you a roundtrip ticket to Israel and pay for your surgery. We have wonderful doctors, you know.”
“That’s very generous. But even so, I’m not a wealthy man. I must earn a living.”
“An American organization has volunteered to pay your fee.”
Ben sighed. “You’re making this very hard. Yossi, I haven’t had even a few days off in more than a year. Since my wife died, I’ve been alone in the world. No family at all. It’s a hard life, to be utterly alone in the world.”
“My parents were Holocaust survivors. I understand.”
“But wait! Two days ago, I discovered that I have a sister and brother in California. I’d like to get to know them, spend some time with them before the High Holy Days.”
“And what will become of your sister, Marcia--Malka bat Mikel—and your brother, Mort--Mordechai ben Mikel—if the power of the Haredim is not checked? Their mothers were Jews by choice, their conversions supervised by rabbis that the Haredim don’t recognize. Will they be allowed to visit the Wailing Wall? Will your sister, a Reform rabbinical student, be allowed even to touch a Sefer Torah? Not long ago, a Conservative woman, a rabbi, was arrested at the Wall merely for carrying a Torah!”
“Marcia is a rabbinical student? How is it possible that you know more about my family than I do?”
“Mossad keeps an eye on certain people, people like you. And your father, alev hashalom, may he rest in peace.”
“They watched him because he was a remorseless swindler who preyed on synagogues and Jewish institutions?”
“I wouldn’t say remorseless. In the last few years of his life, he gave a lot of money to Jewish causes: hospitals, medical research, homeless shelters, Legal Aid societies. Maybe he was trying to make amends for his earlier life.”
Ben’s head swam against this rush of new information. He took several deep breaths, trying to focus.
“Yossi, I appreciate all that you’ve told me. But you haven’t given me a single reason why I, of all people, would have a chance of finding the Codex.”
“So. I will now provide that reason.”
Yossi touched a button on the phone. Seconds later, the door opened to admit the most beautiful woman Ben had ever seen: a face to make Da Vinci weep; tall and graceful, like his dear Rachel, with glowing, flawless skin and dazzling teeth; a modest business suit that displayed magnificent legs while failing to hide a lush but perfectly proportioned body.
“Rabbi Ben Maimon, this is Dr. Chana Kaplan of the Jewish Philanthropy Institute.”
Chana smiled, filling the room with light and warmth. The faint scent of her perfume seemed to evoke the gardens of Paradise. Ben felt her dark eyes penetrating deep into his soul. As though from a great distance, he heard Yossi speaking, and forced himself to listen.
“So we can count on you, Rabbi? You’ll work with Dr. Kaplan to help find the Codex?”
Unable even to summon his voice, Ben nodded, yes.
Yossi said, “Doctor Kaplan?”
She snorted. “This is your fearless genius? Your troubleshooting rabbi? This shrimp? I thought he’d be much taller.”
© 2017 Marvin J. Wolf
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, excerpts from books and unpublished works, short fiction, and photographs, each offering a glimpse of my life, work and times. I'll be posting weekly. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.