Today's Reading

I barely made it, having slipped, along with my dad, into a funk. I had always been an aggressive learner, a self-starter who at the age of thirteen or so joined the Book-of-the-Month Club and dutifully mailed one dollar for the monthly nonfiction selection—more often than not an anticommunist diatribe written by J. Edgar Hoover or people who shared his views. But there were also delights—long histories of the Hapsburg monarchy and studies of the Roman Catholic Church and the Christian Crusades of the Middle Ages. High school, though, had become increasingly irrelevant for me as my father slowly faded away. I cut classes, ignored homework, smarted off to teachers, and in all sorts of other antisocial ways displayed acute distress that no one picked up, in school or at home.

I made a deal with Alan, who had been fascinated for years by the new science of cybernetics, led by Norbert Wiener of MIT, its guru, that he could flee Chicago for the downstate campus at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, two hours away by car. It was understood that in return he would take care of our mother after graduation. Al studied electrical engineering and made all in the family proud by going on to earn a doctorate in fluid dynamics at the University of California at Los Angeles.

I did not sulk because all along I had been much more engaged than Al in my father's cleaning store, with its constant sweatshop smell from the steam generated by a pressing machine as it pounded away on suits and coats. I wanted to make sure the struggling business survived and would keep my mother in pots and pans and flour. Talk about dislocation. It did not matter that I and two others in my high school class had scored the same highest grade on a standardized IQ test in our senior year; the other two went off to Harvard, and I had no idea what I would do, other than continuing to run a family business. My sisters had fled the family much earlier, and so it was just me, my mom, a new home I hated, and the store. Being smart was, at that moment, irrelevant. But I was my own man and made the choices I thought had to be made, even if they kept me on Indiana Avenue.

I got an early lesson in business ethics a few weeks after my father's death from Benny Rubenstein, the patriarch of the local temple in our old neighborhood—which none in our agnostic family went near, although Al and I had gone to Hebrew school there, essentially because it was adjacent to a great softball field. Benny, who survived the Holocaust, was a thin little guy in his late eighties or so with a big nose and huge tufts of white hair coming out of his ears. It was hot, a midsummer heat, and his apartment, like all others in our old neighborhood, had no air-conditioning. I was more than a little rattled about being summoned by Benny, and as I walked in, the old man flicked out his hand and caught a fly, squeezed it, and let it fall. Try it sometime. There is no way I could forget his words, said in the most Yiddish of Yiddish accents: "Seymour. You are now the man of the house, and you must take care of your mother. So let me give you some advice as a businessman. Fuck them before they fuck you!" I was nonplussed. Did he really say "fuck" two times? Was he talking about Nazis or a would-be business partner? I got out of that apartment as fast as I could.

A month later I followed the only path I had: I, a generalist who hated science but was consumed by novels and history, would go to a two-year junior college at the edge of downtown Chicago that had no admission requirement other than the ability to pay a forty-five-dollar semester fee for a locker. The school, known as Navy Pier, was opened by the University of Illinois immediately after the war in a former navy training base that jutted more than half a mile into Lake Michigan. It was meant to accommodate returning veterans with little money who were desperate for education. After two years, students had to transfer to the main campus at Urbana-Champaign to get their degree.

My weekday schedule called for me to open the store at seven o'clock and then, when help arrived, to drive a few miles north to the school to attend classes. I remember walking along a dim central corridor linked to dank wooden classrooms that had initially been used for teaching navigation and other skills to men going off to war. I especially hated the compulsory gym classes, which required all male students to run, or try to run, a quarter mile daily under one minute. I knew no one at the school and made no friends there. It was just driving, going to classes, running around a track, and driving back to the store.

And yet my life was changed there—perhaps salvaged—by an intervention that I managed to repress for three decades. Flash forward to 1983, in the months after I published The Price of Power, a very critical look at the White House career of Henry Kissinger. I was working in Washington, D.C., happily married with three children, and my days at Navy Pier had evaporated from my memory bank. The book made waves, lots of them, pro and con, and generated a flood of letters. One, carefully typed, was from a University of Illinois professor named Bernard Kogan who introduced himself by saying that he had been a recently frocked Ph.D. in English from the University of Chicago who, in the fall of 1954, was teaching a modern literature course at Navy Pier. "Dear Mr. Hersh," his letter began. "I am sure you do not remember me." I did not, even after he explained his reason for writing. "I intervened with you in a way I have only done two times in my career. In one case it was on behalf of a young man who became a surgeon and has saved many lives. The other intervention was with you. I am proud of both of you." I had no idea what the guy was talking about. And then, as I reread the letter, memory flooded back with a jolt, as did tears. It was three decades earlier and class had just ended. I was trying to hide in a back row, as always, and scrambling toward the door when Kogan called out my name and asked me to come talk to him. Total anxiety. Had I fucked up? I walked up and the first thing he said was "What are you doing here?"

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