"Y'all kin order a drink, if you lahk," said Sharon's father. He looked to be in his forties, tall, heavyset, seriously balding. He wore crisp dark slacks and a starched short-sleeve dress shirt that revealed a deeply tanned left arm. His right arm, however, was pale as a catfish belly.
"I'm only 20," I replied. I was weeks back from Korea, where Johnny Walker Black, Wild Turkey, Jack Daniels, Jamison's Irish and good French cognac flowed freely at two bits a shot at NCO clubs. If you had the stripes on your sleeve, nobody cared when you were born. But liquor was not for me. I had seen too many smart men act stupid and witnessed dimwits become even dimmer after only a few drinks.
"Ah thought you were younger," he said. "But so what? Think some nigra waiter's gonna ask to see a guest's ID?" snorted Sharon's father.
Most of the 400 Jewish families in Columbus played golf and tennis, swam in the outdoor pool, dined in air conditioned splendor, or got falling-down drunk, as it suited them, at the Standard Club. It was an uneasy time in the South. Marches and demonstrations demanding full civil rights for blacks had begun, and integration of Georgia's lunch counters, schools and public transportation was only five years off. But Jews joining restricted country clubs—that would take longer. Much longer. So they had built their own club. Membership was open to all, but if any gentiles belonged to the Standard Club, I never met one.
I had gone to one of the city's two synagogues on Friday night; after services, Sharon's father had taken me aside to say that he had three beautiful daughters, and if I wanted to meet them I could be his guest at the Standard Club for Sunday brunch.
The first beautiful daughter was a leggy brunette starting her senior year at some New York college in the fall. Before excusing herself for a tennis match, she offered to show me around Columbus some time, not forgetting to mention that her fiancé read law at Yale and was due down in a few weeks. Daughter Number Three was nine, a shy, coltish charmer with new braces and frizzy brown hair. Number Two was Sharon, the reason for my invitation.
Sharon was sixteen, a sweet girl with a fondness for sweets and the complexion and figure to prove it. When her father found out that I was not 18, as he had supposed, he decreed that I could hang out with the family at the club and maybe come to their home, but Sharon was too young to go on dates with a sergeant in the US Army, even if he was baby-faced.
That suited me. Like every horny young troop, I was looking for love, or something like it. I had seven more months on my enlistment, and then it was back to California and college. If I hung out at the club, I thought, I might meet somebody my age, somebody who didn't have a fiancé.
And there were few young man at the Standard Club. "They all go to college in the nawth," explained Sharon's father. "Come back at all, they bring a wife."
On the other hand, about twenty suitable girls belonged to Standard Club families. Over months of Sundays, I met their fathers. Aside from a few doctors and lawyers, most were merchants. There was a grocer, a haberdasher, a used auto dealer, a pharmacist, purveyors of ladies clothing and building supplies, jobbers and cousins who had built their grandfather's dry goods establishment into the city's leading department store, and the father and son who had a huge home furnishings emporium. Among themselves, these merchants of Columbus commingled Yiddish with English, their inflection and vocabulary suggesting Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and, it occurred to me, Ab Snopes, Faulkner’s fictional barn-burning sharecropper and horse thief. Whenever I was within earshot they all seemed preoccupied with the racial dimensions of business:
"Ah told that nigra to come back when he had luhnned him some mannuhs…"
"How many tahms I got to say it, don' be givin' credit to no nigra…"
"We treated our shvartzer maid lahk one of the family, but fust time we went on vacation and left her alone in the house this meshugah sneaks some buck in the back dowah and he's intah mah likker."
At few of these men, who were mostly in their forties and fifties, invited me to have a drink, to join their family for a meal. But as quickly as they learned that I was "at the Fort" and a mere enlisted man, yet to experience college, their interest cooled. They were polite, but they did not introduce me to their daughters.
I was only a little disappointed. The longer I was around these men, the more they seemed like their Southern gentile counterparts. At Fort Benning, as elsewhere in the Army, I served with, under and alongside black officers and noncoms. I ate with black men and shared living quarters with them. I knew them as soldiers, neither better nor worse than others, and gradually I realized that Jews talking about "nigras" made me even more uncomfortable than rednecks spouting anti-Semitic slurs.
At the club Sharon and her sisters played tennis, swam and sunned with a very small group of girls. Their mother, an ample, pleasant, dark-haired woman, used the pool but mostly played cards with a trio of white-haired grandmothers. Sharon's father haunted the bar. He read the thick Sunday Atlanta newspaper and nursed three or four drinks along from brunch till late afternoon; his wife always took the wheel of their station wagon when they drove home.
"You don't play golf?" I asked him, after a few weeks.
"Not much anymore," he replied. "Tough getting a decent tee time, less you're part of the in-crowd," he added, sounding bitter.
Little by little it came to me that no one at the club spoke to him except the help and his own family. One Friday night before dinner, I asked Sharon about it.
"They all think they're too good to waste their time on Daddy," she replied.
"I don't understand," I said.
"Because he travels, he's on the road all week."
I still didn't get it.
"He's got his own business, same as they do, but he travels three states and he's on the road Monday to Friday," she said, as though that made everything clear.
One Sunday I asked Sharon's mother.
"Your husband has his own business?" I began.
"Yes, he's in retail distribution," she smiled. We rarely spoke, but Sharon's mother always treated me with kindness, filling my plate with second helpings before I could refuse them, shushing the nine-year-old if I had started to speak.
"What is it about his business that bothers people at the club?"
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean," she responded, then excused herself to make coffee.
Later I asked the nine-year-old, "What does your Daddy do for a living?"
"He's in sales or something. He drives around all week," she said. "I guess."
Now I was really curious. The Yellow Pages yielded no listing for a business with his name, so after one Sunday brunch I told Sharon that I didn't feel like getting any more sun, and went inside to find her father working on a Bloody Mary.
"Please don't be offended," I started, "But I'm curious about your business."
"Florida, Georgia and Alabama," he said. "I make a circuit through one state each week, hit each customer every other time, so it's about six weeks between calls. Used to do a lot of business by mail, but it's fallen off, last few years."
"What is that you sell?"
"I'm in the health care field, disease prevention," he replied. "'S'cuse, me I need to use the rest room."
I sat at the bar for nearly half an hour till I decided that he was not coming back. Later I spotted Sharon's father drinking alone under a patio umbrella.
Friday night I went to synagogue an hour before services and waited for the rabbi. He was from New York, I suppose, a man my father's age, and when he opened the door, I said hello and got straight to the point: "I've been hanging out with Sharon _______," I said. "What does her father do for a living, do you know?"
The rabbi shot me an appraising look. "Sales, I think."
"And nobody will tell me what he sells," I said. "What's going on? Why doesn't he have any friends at the Standard Club? Why won't anyone talk to him?"
"Is that true?" said the rabbi, dismay clouding his face. "How unfortunate. You know, I think I'll ask my wife to invite them for dinner after the High Holidays."
"Rabbi!" I almost shouted.
"WHAT DOES HE SELL?" Now I was shouting.
"They're fine people," he said, as though I had not asked a question. "This town is too small. Everyone knows everyone else's business. I'll have a word with the president of the congregation. It's wrong that the others ostracize him." He turned to greet a family arriving for services.
"It was good of you to bring this to me," he said, when they had passed.
"You're not going to tell me what he sells?"
"Maybe I'll use this in my Yom Kippur sermon," he said. He shook my hand, suddenly excited. "Yes, yes, that's what I'll do. You have performed a great mitzvah!"
The dignified black man in a starched white jacket behind the Standard Club bar may not have known about mitzvot, but he certainly knew about Sharon's father.
"Rubbahs," he replied to my low-voiced query.
"Condoms. Pro-full-lack-ticks," he intoned, drawling it out. "Most anywhere in the South, yo pulls into a gas station and uses the restroom, theys a machine. Two rubbahs for fo' quarters, somethin' lahk that."
"That's it? He sells rubbers, prophylactics, so nobody talks to him?"
"All they evuh talks about heah is bidness an' nigras. Cain't talk bidness about restrooms and rubbahs with womens and chilluns around. Use to be, he play golf, just the mens, but every hole, somebody tell a rubbahs joke. He don't play no mo'."
Now I knew why her father had been eager, at first, for me to date Sharon. The local boys must taunt her about his business. Probably the girls, too, I realized. And her mother, whose only friends were three grannies. A family of pariahs! I wanted to offer sympathy, tell them that I knew how it felt to be snubbed—but I had no idea what to say. Maybe I would only make things worse. I stopped going to the club, broke contact with Sharon and her family.
Soon after that I was sent to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, on temporary duty. After I returned, several weeks past Yom Kippur, I went to a Friday night service. A new rabbi was on the pulpit, an older man with magnificent Southern diction, drawling deeper even than the merchants whose generosity paid his salary.
I still wish that I had heard his predecessor's Yom Kippur sermon.
© 2001 Marvin J. Wolf
"What is a map?" inquired the sergeant in his Oklahoma twang, swiveling his close-cropped head to lock eyes with us one by one. It was damp and chilly when we lined up at dawn with rifles and field gear; I had welcomed my field jacket. But now the Fort Ord sun was high and our fatigue shirts dripped with sweat from five miles of quick-time-march to this hilltop bleachers.
"What is a map?" repeated Sergeant First Class Eugene F. Lawhorn. He wore a badge above the left breast pocket of his faded fatigue uniform, a tiny sterling flintlock with a laurel wreath on a blue background. Barely out of his twenties, this infantryman had seen combat. When I raised my hand, he scowled.
"What is it?'
I rose to attention, looking past Lawhorn to the huge sheets of plywood painted with arcane map symbols.
"Sergeant, a map is a topographical representation of a portion of the earth's surface as viewed from above and drawn to scale."
That was the first sentence of the first page of the Army map-reading manual; I’d memorized it a year earlier as a 16-year-old high school R.O.T.C. cadet.
"Yes it is," bellowed the noncom. "Did you all get that?" he said, and 200 cropped heads nodded. "Sit down, Private.”
I sat, and Lawhorn began his lecture, pointing at the symbols for terrain features and landmarks with a long, tapered swagger stick tipped with a burnished .50 caliber bullet. He matched these symbols to points in the landscape before us. After an hour, we filed out of the bleachers for a short break.
"What is a contour line?" asked Lawhorn when we had returned to our seats. No one moved. I raised my hand again, and the sergeant glared at me like I’d just crawled out from beneath a slimy rock. "What?"
I stood up. "Sergeant, a contour line is a black or brown line that connects points of equal elevation."
Lawhorn examined my face as though he collected bugs and I was some strange new species.
Finally he nodded. "Do you know what a rhetorical question is?"
I confessed that I did not.
"The next time I see you, you will explain the meaning of the phrase ‘rhetorical question.’"
"Yes, Sergeant," I said.
Another NCO took over for the third hour. Map-reading and land navigation classes continued through the weeks, but Lawhorn was no longer among our instructors. Nevertheless, on Sunday I went to the post library, consulted a dictionary, and, not for the first or last time, felt myself suitably ignorant even while becoming slightly more enlightened.
After basic training I was signed up for advanced infantry training. Then I was volunteered to participate in an eight-week, small-unit leadership experiment. In September I was assigned to a rifle company at Ft. Lewis, Washington. And early in the new year, after graduating from the post NCO Academy, I came down on orders for South Korea.
I sailed from a quay below the Golden Gate Bridge on a steel leviathan called the USNS Daniel I. Sultan. Along with 5,200 of my closest friends. The ship vibrated and rumbled like some enormous cat as I stood at the fantail watching the ocean swallow San Francisco. On the brine, fifty miles to the horizon's arc and nothing but water in between, our huge ship seemed puny.
After seventeen days of fresh sea air, a land breeze, fetid with the stench of nightsoil, brought me gagging topside to the rail at four in the morning. We were inbound for Inchon, on Korea's west coast. Before the moon surrendered to the Yellow Sea fog, I gaped at dark silhouettes, the grotesque shapes of a humpbacked archipelago. Here and there, oil lamps swaying from fishing boat masts stained the sea a feeble yellow. At dawn, our anchors rattled into the deep water seven miles out and we were safe from Inchon's enormous tides.
We tossed our duffel over the side and climbed down cargo nets. Flat-bottomed boats carried us to a sandy beach. A convoy of Army trucks took us to a replacement depot. Then we split up: Some 1500 of us were bused northward to Tongduchon, a farm town and headquarters of the Seventh Infantry Division. The next day, with about 300 companions, I rattled north over dusty, washboard roads, fording a half dozen swift, rock-strewn mountain streams before we reached Camp Kaiser, near the DMZ dividing North and South Korea.
At the camp's reception center we were interviewed by finance and personnel specialists, then split into packets of replacements for each company. As darkness fell, I stood on a gravel street of steel huts, home of Delta Company, 17th Infantry, along with just three of the 5,200 who had sailed from San Francisco.
"Welcome to Delta," growled the first sergeant, a big, bulky, balding man of remarkably few words. "You missed chow. Power's out. Follow me," he said, turning into the gloom. At the first corrugated steel hut he took a man by the arm and led him inside. The topkick returned alone, and we shuffled to second platoon's Quonset, where he took another man inside. At the third hut it was my turn.
"Specialist Four W__," he said to the darkness inside, and left. Someone was noisily pumping a Coleman lantern; a match sputtered and in the dim light a lanky black man stuck out his hand. "Welcome to Korea," he said. "I'm Platoon Sergeant Cox."
I had blundered into an NCO meeting. Most of the other noncoms were hidden in the deep shadows cast by the glowing lantern.
"I'm thinkin' I’ll put you in Second Squad," said Cox.
From the murk beyond my elbow came a voice. "Hold on a minute."
My head swiveled toward that familiar twang but I saw only a darkened shape.
"Specialist,” said the voice. “What is a map?"
"A map— " I bit my tongue.
"A rhetorical question," I resumed, "is one meant to be answered by the person who asks it."
"I'd like to have this man in Weapons Squad," said Sergeant First Class Lawhorn, leaning forward into the light. "Only recruit I ever met who actually read a field manual."
A month later our lieutenant came down with hepatitis and was evacuated Stateside. Cox moved up to acting platoon leader; Lawhorn, as ranking squad leader, took over as platoon sergeant.
I was eighteen years old and junior in every way to three Specialist Fours in Third Platoon alone. Lawhorn nevertheless put me in charge of Weapons Squad. It was the best opportunity that I could have imagined. Eager to make rank, anxious to show that I could lead, willing to learn and work hard, I sewed on sergeant's stripes a week before my 19th birthday.
© 1999 Marvin J. Wolf
Slumped against a tire on my father’s truck, almost enjoying the smog-toothed Santa Anas toasting the Valley, I watched a newish Cadillac maneuver down the alley. The dark-suited man at the wheel eased into a marked space behind the hospital, then eyed me as he strolled toward the staff door.
Then he looked at me again and stopped. A far-away look came into his eyes. “I know who you are,” he said, taking a few steps toward me. “You’re Frank’s son — the scrap-metal guy — right?”
Dad was in the basement, trying to schmooze a hospital janitor into selling him worn-out brass faucets. “Correct,” I replied, looking closely at this man. Tall, burly, balding, with thin lips and a hawk’s nose, he looked to be about fifty and sounded like New York.
“My father's downstairs. Shall I get him for you?”
The man edged closer. “You’ll pardon me saying so, Ted, because I know how old you are, but in the right clothes, you could probably pass for a rugged nine-year-old.”
I was an inch over five feet that day in 1960, and my usual buzz cut was overgrown after weeks of furlough. I swam in my father’s work khakis, sleeves and pant cuffs rolled, shirt bagging over an overlong belt cinching my bunched-up waist. I looked the man in the eye, grinning at his mistake.
“Oh, that’s tremendous!” he said. “How did you lose that tooth? In an accident? It’s appealing, you know, in someone so young.”
I'd been decked by a grenade fragment at Ft. Ord, and my Army-issue temporary denture kept falling out, but all I said was, “In a way."
“Let me tell you what I’m thinking,” said the man, his eyes devouring me. “I’m helping Frank Sinatra produce a film — you know who he is, right?”
He came still closer. From six feet I felt an odd vibe, a weird energy that he projected. It was strange and unsettling. What did he want?
“Sure.” I nodded.
“Well, the film’s called "Ocean’s Eleven," and there’s a part in it for a boy of nine or ten. The undertaker’s son. A small role, but pivotal. Now, when you try to find someone that young to act in a movie — well, it’s difficult. Most kids don’t have the maturity to handle it. At least the ones we’ve tested. They don’t understand what’s expected of them. But you’d be perfect. Has anyone told you that you’re extraordinarily poised?”
“Excuse me, sir,” I said. “Who are you?”
“Sorry,” he said, digging a card from his wallet. “I’m Sheldon Leonard."
The name was familiar. Something to do with the movies.
"I’m a producer," he continued, "but I also do a little PR work for the hospital, consulting — you understand?”
“You're a guy who knows a better way,” I said.
“Oh, that’s great,” he said, flashing a toothy grin. “Well, what do you say, Ted, are you interested in getting into the movies?”
“Maybe,” I said, a little uneasy, wondering what was going on. He was big, but I was the pugil-stick champ of Company D, 8th Infantry. If he makes a move on me, I decided, I'll feed him the truck door, then grab the crowbar from under the seat “What would I have to do?” I asked, squinting in the sun.
“Come down to the studio,” he said. “Read the script, rehearse a bit, and then do a scene with the cameras rolling. So I can tell if you look as good on film as you do in person.”
“As soon as possible,” he said. “We’re shooting next month.”
Suddenly everything was clear. This tidy North Hollywood alley was my Schwab’s Drugstore. Dad’s baggy khakis were my tight sweater. I had been discovered! A Hollywood bigshot wanted to make me a star. I would be famous! I’d have my pick of girls! My pockets would be stuffed with money! I was going to be a movie star!
Reality jumped up and blew reveille. “I need to tell you something, Mr. Leonard,” I said. “Ted is my brother. I’m M___ — and I’m 18, not 14.”
“And I’ve got to report to the Presidio of San Francisco by midnight tomorrow to catch a ship for Korea. I’m in the Army.”
“I see,” he said, obviously pained. “How long will you be there?”
“Can't you postpone? Reschedule?”
My head swam. Who could I call? My former company commander? The replacement depot? The Red Cross? My mother’s illness! But Mom was doing well that month, and hardship discharges took months, when granted at all. What if I did the screen test, reported a few days late? They’d bust me back to PFC, for sure, and maybe fine me. What would I care? Movie stars make lots of money! Or maybe I’d just quit. Change my name. I’d become, oh, Cole Wilcox, so big a star that even the Army couldn’t touch me.
Two seconds later I realized that a squad of MPs would drag me off to a court-martial for desertion. Then prison. And what if my test was a bust?
“Let me work on that,” I said.
“Call me. And if it doesn’t work out, give me a ring when you get back. I have a hunch you’ll test very well.“ I wrung his manicured hand, and he vanished into the hospital.
I sought Dad’s counsel, but all he said was “You're a man now. Listen to your gut, make up your mind.”
That night I did not sleep. Could I go on sick call at Ft. MacArthur and fake illness? What if I was too old when I returned from Korea? How could I pass up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity?
When I got up in the morning I put on my uniform. My gut said there was something a little odd about this setup, about Leonard. More importantly, I had volunteered to serve, had placed myself under military discipline. Maybe I could have contrived some way to miss my ship, but I knew it wasn't right.
On the 17-day passage to Inchon I read dozens of old magazines from the ships’ library. There were many stories about tragedies that had befallen some of Hollywood's biggest names. Before our anchors rattled into the Yellow Sea, I realized that film fame held no guarantees; the movies might devour me. Nevertheless, I felt cheated. I'd been offered a chance that I couldn't take.
By the time I returned to the States, "Ocean’s Eleven" was no longer in theaters. The screen test offer became family lore; for the rest of her life, my mother bragged that I “gave up a movie career” to be a soldier. I transferred Leonard’s card through decades of wallets. One day I’ll call, I told myself.
When I finally did, in 1974, the number, of course, belonged to someone else. I suppose that I might have found Leonard, but clearly I was no longer a candidate for juvenile roles. I remained curious about who had played the undertaker’s son. Did he go on to become a star?
In the Eighties, when video stores popped up like corn in sizzling oil, I searched in vain for "Ocean’s Eleven." The film ran occasionally on cable, but each time I saw it scheduled, something came up and I missed it.
Sheldon Leonard died in January 1997. I examined the photo that ran with his newspaper obituary, a tall, burly fellow with a bulbous nose and a full head of hair. Not the man I met in the hospital alley. After Sinatra died, I finally found a copy of "Ocean’s Eleven." I watched it twice: There is no child in the cast, no undertaker’s son. Leonard’s name is not among the credits.
So I read And The Show Goes On, Leonard’s 1994 autobiography. In January 1960 he was executive producer of “Make Room For Daddy,” and assembling cast and scripts for “The Andy Griffith Show.” It's hard to believe that he would have also been working as a small-time PR consultant. I’ll probably never know who that man really was, how he got Leonard’s card, or what he wanted, but it seems clear that he had some hidden agenda. The regret that had occasionally gnawed at me at last fell silent. On that warm winter day long ago, I had listened to my gut, and made the right choice.
© 2001 Marvin J. Wolf
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, and short fiction, each offering a glimpse of my life and times. I'll be posting weekly. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.