Columns
Truck Day is the First Day of Spring PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 26 February 2015 15:06

NOTES OF A REPORTER AT LARGE

By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

A few days ago at breakfast the Lady Friend asks, “What’s Truck Day?”

“Truck Day?” I say. “How should I know?”

“You should know. It has something to do with the Red Sox.”

“The Red Sox?” Now I’m wide awake.

“Look,” she says, and hands me the Chronicle comics. “Read `Non Sequitur.’”

I give it a look. The characters are in an offshore diner in a swirling snowstorm talking about Truck Day at Fenway Park. But they are talking gibberish until I realize it’s my own Boston English they’re speaking. Says one, “WELL, THAT’S IT. WINTAH IS FINALLY OVAH!”

”AH-YEA! HAPPY TRUCK DAY, EDDIE!” says another.

Someone speaks up, “UH, WHAT ARE YOU GUYS TALKING ABOUT?”

Another explains, “TRUCK DAY AT FENWAY. THE RED SOX HEAD OUT FAH SPRING TRAINING, WHICH MAKES THIS THE FAUST DAY OF SPRING.”

The guy who raises the question is nonplussed but the others are in a mood to party.

“HAPPY TRUCK DAY, EVERYBODY!” shouts one. “LIFE IS DIFFERENT HERE ON PLANET NEW ENGLAND,” declares a second. “AND WE WOULDN’T HAVE IT ANY OTHAH WAY, DEAH,” says a third.

I lay the paper to rest, and say, “Just what goes on on Truck Day?” As I ask the question I’m getting up to google for the answer when the Lady Friend wheels ’round and beats me to the punch. Two minutes later she returns with the dope.

Truck Day, I learn, is February 6. when  a moving van is loaded with equipment at Fenway for the trip to the club’s spring training complex in Fort Myers, Florida. There’s a bit of hoopla to the occasion. The 18-wheeler is followed “in a procession by Red Sox staff, and Wally the Green Monster tossing gifts to fans from a flat-bed truck.”

“Tell me something,” I say. “Why have you gone to the trouble of letting me know all this?”

“Simple,” is the reply. ”Your mood changes drastically when baseball starts.”

This column originally appeared on Feb. 18, 2010.

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


 
Looking Ahead and Looking Back PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 19 February 2015 13:02

NOTES OF A REPORTER AT LARGE

By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

The 2016 Democratic National Convention will choose its candidates for president and vice president in July in Philadelphia. The Republicans have already picked Cleveland as the site for their convention. Philadelphia may be the more auspicious.

It was from Philadelphia that Roosevelt would lead the party to an historic landslide in 1936 after delivering one of the great acceptance speeches in history. It was delivered at a time when the world was teetering towards a Second World War. In the speech he famously proclaimed that “this generation of Americans has a ‘rendezous with destiny.’”

In 1936, the dominant issue was the economic recovery from the Great Depression. Roosevelt’s strategy was to ignore his opponent, Alf London, governor of Kansas. In defending the New Deal,  Roosevelt reminded voters that it was the New Deal that saved the free enterprise system. The election marked a decisive shift of the black vote with the endorsement of Roosevelt by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

*   *   *

The Lady Friend says she remembers a time when the outcome of conventions was exciting because the outcome was often in doubt. Probably Kennedy’s nomination in 1960 was the last. But then I looked it up and even then there was little doubt in the outcome.

Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota was Kennedy’s  leading opponent. But Kennedy’s victories in primaries in Wisconsin and West  Virginia were crucial. Most critical was Kennedy’s showing in West Virginia. It proved that a Catholic could win in predominately Protestant states.

Senator Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas was another name to reckon with as well as Adlai Stevenson of Illinois. He had lost two elections in the 1950s to Dwight Eisenhower. As Democrats convened in July 1960 in California, Kennedy was well ahead in the contest for delegates, and nominated on the first ballot with 806 votes to 409 for Johnson. Kennedy disappointed  many liberals when he chose Johnson as his running mate. But there was reason for doing so. It helped Kennedy to carry Texas, pivotal in the outcome.

*   *   *

One of the narrowest  races of the past century pitted Kennedy against Richard Nixon in the election for president in 1960. Nixon won the Republican nomination on the first ballot with 1,321 votes to 10 for Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona. (Four years later Goldwater would be the Republican candidate for president and lose in a wipeout at the hands of Lyndon Johnson.)

Back again to the presidential election of 1960. The lead seesawed back and forth. The economy and communism were leading concerns. But the religious question was still hot. Kennedy put it to rest it in a speech before a ministerial association in Houston.

The central moment of the campaign was the first of four Nixon-Kennedy televised debates drawing 70 million viewers. The confrontation appeared to be a draw. But as William A. Degregorio pointed out in his book on U.S. presidents: “It was the physical comparison of the two men that most hurt Nixon.”

Kennedy looked to be in superb health; Nixon, having lost weight after spending  nearly  two weeks on his back in a hospital for treatment for an infection, looked “haggard and menacing.” Kennedy himself believed that without the debates he would have lost the election.

*   *   *

We’re getting closer to the primary season. They were designed as  the route to cleaner and more open elections as early as 1913. More than one hundred years later it still remains to be seen. Follow the money.

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


 
Does Memory Lie? PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 12 February 2015 15:04

NOTES OF A REPORTER AT LARGE

By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

I was distracted from the real news by the attention given Brian Williams for wittingly or unwittingly misleading the public when he said he was on a helicopter forced to land in 2003 after coming under fire in Iraq. Williams, who is under investigation by his network, was suspended for six months without pay from NBC News this week.

Last week, Williams apologized. He has been a target of easy criticism ever since. Some military veterans and critics have called for his resignation.

“Should Mr. Williams be forced out of the anchor chair it would be a major setback for NBC’s news division, which is in a fierce competition for viewers.” the New York Times said. “NBC has averaged 9.3 million total viewers for its nightly broadcast compared with 8.7 million for ABC and 7.3 million for CBS, according to Nielsen. Williams reportedly has been tied to a five-year-contract paying him $10 million a year.

In the Times’ weekly science section, Tara Parker-Pope wrote on Tuesday: “Mr. Williams has been branded a liar for embellishing his role in the event, with critics saying that as a newscaster he should be held to a higher standard. After apologizing, he temporarily stepped away from the nightly news. But memory experts see the issue differently, noting that the well-documented story, told differently many times by Mr. Williams, actually offers a compelling case study in how memories can change and shift dramatically over time.”

The Lady Friend has her own perspective on memory. “We recall, then embellish, and forget we embellished,” she said. “It’s not unusual to remember things differently than friends and family. And lest we forget, we embellish to make our stories better and more interesting.”

My father, who was wounded in World War I, was awarded the Silver Star for valor. He told war stories to my brother and me when we were growing up. My recollection is that the stories changed some in the re-telling.

“They got better?” asked the Lady Friend.

I couldn’t  remember, I said.

On the other hand, Maureen Dowd reported in her column in the Times Sunday that NBC executives had been warned for a long time that Brian was “constantly inflating his biography. They were flummoxed over why the leading anchor felt that he needed Hemingwayesque flourishes to pull himself up, sometimes to the point where it was a joke in the news division.

“But the caustic media big shots who once roamed the land were gone, and ‘there was no one around to pull his chain when he got too over-the-top,’ as one NBC News reporter put it.”

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


 
Learning to Drive PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 05 February 2015 15:45

NOTES OF A REPORTER AT LARGE

By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

I’m thinking of giving up driving. I haven’t told anyone because I’m not sure I’m ready to go through with it. But maybe it’s time. I was 87 in November.

The other day, I read in the New Yorker that a fellow in Canada who was turning 80 had been forced to take a driving test, but it wasn’t just a driving test but a vision test connected to a reading test and conducted in a friendly way. Another 80 year old had to surrender his license, never to take the wheels of a car again.

I got my first driver’s license in Massachusetts when I was 16. My parents sent me to a driving school to prepare for the test. My father was uneasy because I showed no flare for mechanics. He was nervous whenever I got near his car. The car was our bread and butter, he said time and again. My older brother was more welcome. As the younger sibling of seven or eight I was shooed away.

My father spent most of his time away from home on the road drumming up trade for his

flooring business. He did pretty well considering it was the Great Depression. There was always plenty of food on the table. Now and then, there was money for a maid.

I got my license at 16, but did little driving for many years. After the army and college, where I did almost no driving, I wound up in Eureka on the Humboldt Times. I bought a used car, a pre-war Chevrolet. In 1955-56 I spent a carless time working my way around the world. When I got back to Eureka the Chevvie was still parked at the paper where I’d left it.

A few years later, I took a job with one of the TV stations in town, where I did a lot of driving. In 1963, a fellowship in journalism got me to Columbia in New York where a car was a pain in the neck. For vacations, we rented.

When I took retirement and left New York in 1992, we returned to the Bay Area and drove a new Honda Accord off the showroom floor.

In the last year, the same Honda was stolen one early winter night by some jerks. It was recovered by the cops the next day. The car needed some fixing. The damage was repaired. But something else happened. I was furious and frustrated; I’d been assaulted, violated. There was nothing to do about it, just take it.

A few months later, I was backing out of my driveway in the Honda. Traffic was heavy. I was in reverse. Without putting it in drive, I hit the accelerator and smashed a car parked on the street. The car was totaled but the young woman at the wheel was wearing her seatbelt and escaped unscathed.

The experience gives me pause. Unlike the theft of the Honda, there is something I can do about it.

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .



 
Playing Politics with Congress PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 29 January 2015 14:26

NOTES OF A REPORTER AT LARGE

By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

House Speaker John Boehner, coming off Republican triumphs in the recent election, is carrying on as if he were president. He announced last week that he’d invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress.

“Normally, the visit of a world leader would be arranged by the White House,” the New York Times said in an editorial. But in a breach of sense and diplomacy, Boehner  and the Israeli ambassador to Washington, have taken it as their own mission to challenge President Obama’s approach to achieving a nuclear agreement with Iran.”

Netanyahu, facing an election in March, apparently thinks he’ll bolster his standing at home and win the loyalty of a Republican Congress by rebuking the president. As for the Speaker of the House, “he seems determined to use whatever means  available to undermine and attack Mr. Obama...”

As a rule, the visit of an important head of state  to the U.S. would be handled by the White House.

Boehner is playing high stakes politics of a kind that backfired in the early 1950s.

General  Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964) was invited to address a joint session of Congress  after he was fired by President Truman, an unpopular president, for insubordination during the Korean War. (Truman relieved the general for fear MacArthur would set off World War 3 with China in 1951.) For a short time, MacArthur was perhaps the most popular American alive.

Truman’s approval  rating had fallen to 22%. (It has remained the lowest Gallup Poll approval recorded by any president. These days historians rank Truman among our better  presidents.)

During his 34-minute speech, the general was interrupted by 50 ovations. It concluded famously proclaiming “old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” The speech aroused expectations he would run for president. It never quite happened although he was the keynote speaker at the 1952 Republican convention. Senator Robert A. Taft and General Dwight Eisenhower were the chief contenders for the presidential nomination. Eisenhower was nominated, and went on to win the ’52 election by a landslide.

Truman and his advisers  were gathered around a television set in the White House on the day MacArthur spoke before Congress , wondering whether they were already history. All, that is, except Dean Acheson, the secretary of state. He thought the speech was more than pathetic. In his first-rate biography, ”American Caesar,” a life of Douglas MacArthur, the late William Manchester quoted Acheson of saying the festivities “reminded him of the father who had zealously guarded his daughter’s chastity and who, when she announced she was pregnant, threw up his hands and cried, ‘Thank heaven, it’s over!’” Truman, less elegant, felt that his opinion of the speech had been confirmed; for all “the carrying on and the damn fool Congressmen crying like a bunch of women, it was a hundred percent B.S.”

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


 
In the Aftermath of the Terrorist Attack PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 22 January 2015 16:11

NOTES OF A REPORTER AT LARGE

By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

More than a million people from around the world gathered in Paris in support of freedom of expression. In a letter to the New York Times a woman in Phoenix wrote, “Was it wise to publish offensive cartoons? Probably  not.  If there is a judgment to be made, it is to maintain dignity as a nation, but not at the expense of liberty. If we stand by our values we will prevail.”

In a recent article the newspaper took the question further. It asked, “France finds itself grappling anew with a question the United States is still confronting: How to fight terrorism while protecting civil liberties?”

The New York Times which reported the massacre in detail did not print any Charlie Hebdo cartoons which triggered the rampage that killed 17 people, including Charlie Hebdo, the editor, and two police officers.

The attack is believed to have been carried out by Muslim extremists in response to the newspaper’s history of publishing caricatures that slandered the Prophet Mohammed.

The other day the  PBS News Hour spent much of its time  on the story but also chose not to show a cartoon. When Judy Woodruff raised the question with moderate to liberal Mark Shields and moderate to conservative  David Brooks, the broadcast’s pundits, both agreed the News Hour did the right thing by keeping the cartoons off the air.

But in a letter to the Times Floyd Abrams,  a First Amendment lawyer who represented the Times in the Pentagon Papers case, wrote: “The decision of the New York Times to report on the murders in Paris of journalists who worked for Charlie Hebdo while not showing a single example of the cartoons that led to their executions is regrettable. There are times for self-restraint, but in the immediate wake of the most threatening assault on journalism in living memory, you would have served the cause of free expression best by engaging it.”

Supreme Court Justice  Oliver Wendell Homes, Jr. is one of our  most cited legal scholars on freedom of speech. In the early years of the last century he advocated judicial restraint. “If there is a principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other,” he wrote,  “it is the principle of free thought – not free thought for those who agree with us, but freedom for the thought that we hate.” He  also put a limit on free speech, famously saying “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing panic.”

His opinions were widely discussed and admired. Holmes, who fought in the Civil War, said the “Founders regarded the Constitution as an experiment, as all life is an experiment.” He favored efforts for economic regulation under the New Deal and advocated broad freedom of speech under the First Amendment.

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


 
A More Divided Country PDF  | Print |  E-mail
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Thursday, 15 January 2015 15:48

NOTES OF A REPORTER AT LARGE

By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

In 1948 Harry Truman traveled 21,928 miles on his famous whistle-stop campaign across the country by train. “I want to see the people,” he explained.

“There were three major tours: first  cross-country to California for fifteen days; then a six-day tour of the Middle West; followed by a final, hard-hitting ten days in the big population centers of the Northeast and a return home to Missouri...for fifteen days,” David McCullough wrote in “Truman,” his biography of our 33rd president.

McCullough quoted an old Truman friend, Charlie Ross, who remembered, “There were no deep-hidden schemes, no devious plans, nothing that could be called, in the language of political analysts, `high strategy.’” The president took his case to the country in what seemed  a lost-cause against Thomas E. Dewey, the Republican candidate. In the end, Truman would defeat Dewey in the upset of the century.

In 1960 John Kennedy campaigned in 49 states, Richard Nixon in all 50 in a contest that Kennedy won with a razor-thin lead of 112,827 votes or 0.10% of the popular vote. Kennedy, however, won the electoral vote handily, 303 to Nixon’s 219.

In Sunday’s New York Times, Adam Liptak, who covers the Supreme Court for the newspaper, argues that in Tuesday’s presidential contest the race was viewed as just as close as in 1960 “but the candidates ...campaigned in only 10 states since the political conventions. There are towns in Ohio that had received more attention than the entire West Coast.”  In effect, the current system “disenfranchises most Americans.”

In more recent years, according to the research, the tendency for people with a similar outlook is to live near one another. Thus the country is increasingly split between  two Americas, the more conservative (Republican in the middle and south of the continent) and the more liberal (Democratic) on the coasts.

The notion of disenfranchisement is rooted “in the fact that almost every state chooses to allocate its electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis. Thus, a candidate confident of winning or sure of losing a bare majority of a state’s popular vote has no reason to expend resources there.”

In 2008 voter turnout in the fifteen states that received most of the candidates’ attention was 67 percent. In 2012 the focus has been on even fewer states. The difference, says Liptak, increases the chances of one candidate carrying the Electoral College, the other the popular vote, making for a more divided country.

This column originally appeared on November 8, 2012.

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


 
Famous Lives PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 08 January 2015 16:48

NOTES OF A REPORTER AT LARGE

By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

Long before there was a Barack Obama there was Edward W. Brooke III, the first African-American elected to the United States Senate by popular vote. A Republican, Brooke won in a landslide in Democratic Massachusetts in 1966. He was re-elected in 1972. According to the New York Times, he’s still the only black senator to have been returned to office.

Brooke took pains to avoid labels, but his positions were more liberal than those of the rising number of conservative Republicans joining the upper chamber. As the Times noted, he opposed the expansion of nuclear arsenals, favored more cordial relations with China and championed civil rights, the legalization of abortion and fair housing policies. He strongly supported programs to aid cities and the poor.

In a 1966 book, “The Challenge of Change: Crisis in Our Two-Party System,” he asked, “Where are our plans for a New Deal or a Great Society?”

A sharp critic of his party’s leader, President Richard M. Nixon, Brooke led the fight to deny two Nixon nominees  to the Supreme Court on grounds their positions on civil rights were open to question. When Nixon was ensnared in the Watergate scandal, Brooke called for the appointment of a special prosecutor. He was the first Republican senator to demand Nixon’s impeachment.

I’d long been gone from my native Massachusetts when Brooke was first elected, but I remember my mother, a Republican, and other family members, mostly Democrats, imagining Brooke’s one day becoming the first African-American president. It never happened but it was a glimmer of an America to be.

In 1974 when I was working for the Today Show there were rumors that Barbara Walters and Brooke were in a clandestine romance. Many years later, in 2008, Walters wrote about the affair in a memoir. Before the book was written Walters told Brooke in a letter that she would write about the affair. Walters said he wrote back “a very nice note.”  In the book, “Audition,”  she said “only my closest friends knew” of the relationship  which she described as “a long and rocky affair,” adding, “Oh, yes. He was also married.”

Edward Brooke, she said, “was simply the most attractive, sexiest, funniest, charming, and impossible man. I was excited, fascinated, intrigued, and infatuated.”

The story was bound to come out. Neither could afford the risk for their careers. “He was proud of being in the Senate and his future could only get better,” Barbara said. “I also could not risk my career, I had a child and my family in Florida to think about. We decided wisely but very sadly that we had to stop seeing each other. That was that. We stopped.”

Brooke, who lost his bid for a third term in 1978, died last Saturday at his home in Coral Gables, Florida. He was 95. Barbara is in her 80s but that may be as much as she is likely to say.

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


 
Crocodile Tears PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Friday, 02 January 2015 22:37

NOTES OF A REPORTER AT LARGE

By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

David Brooks, the New York Times columnist,  wrote a curious piece the other day. He said Elizabeth Warren can win the Democratic nomination for president. Brooks, a Republican moderate,  is sticking his nose into a family feud.

The rise of Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator, is an intriguing subject. The Harvard law professor is a freshman politician but she is already getting national attention. Brooks admires her memoir of growing up in hard times. As an adult her  big battle “has been against the banks, against  what she saw as their rapacious exploitation of the poor and vulnerable,” Brooks quotes from her memoir, “A Fighting Chance.”

She makes  the argument that “it’s not just social conditions like globalization  and technological change that threaten the middle class. It’s an active conspiracy by the rich and powerful. The game is rigged. The proper response is not just policy-making; its indignation and combat.” Brooks notes that the words “fight” or “fighting” appear in the book 224 times, thus defining her as confrontational and combative.

“The political class,’’ the Republican pundit so informs us, “has been wondering if Warren will take on Hillary Clinton...for the Democratic presidential nomination. This speculation is usually based on the premise that Warren couldn’t actually win, but that she could move the party in her direction. But, today, even for those of us who disagree with Warren fundamentally, it seems clear that she does have a significant and growing chance of being nominated.”

Brooks is suggesting that a  feisty candidate like Warren might be the Democratic candidate to trump Hillary and open the floodgates to a Republican triumph come November 2016.

Hillary is widely expected to announce a campaign for the presidency in 2015. For now she is the favorite to succeed Obama as the party’s nominee in 2016. But she could have a problem in a party that may be rediscovering its roots in  populism and the New Deal.

This no doubt is what Brooks is savoring: a movement on the left that could deny Hillary the nomination, install in her place a candidate that is or could be out of control. For now Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren seems to fill the bill.

Hillary, a favorite of Wall Street from her time representing New York in the Senate, is the most likely candidate to lead the Democratic party today, tomorrow, and in 2016. Brooks concedes populist candidates like Warren rarely win. The young senator from Massachusetts, however appealing to the left in the dawn of a  new year, is not likely to take the nomination away from the establishment.

Brooks himself says as much, though in a hypocritical show of sorrow.

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


 
But We Didn’t Call It Christmas PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Friday, 26 December 2014 14:20

NOTES OF A REPORTER AT LARGE

By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

(I’ve told this story before but I like to think of it as a Christmas Carol for the holiday season.)

My mother came to this country in the early years of the last century from Lithuania where Jewish people lived pent-up in ghettos and where she knew little of the outside world. Her worst nightmares, which continued into old age, were of the Russian police swooping down on her neighborhood on horseback, ransacking stalls, shops and houses and attacking innocent people.

She was eleven when she arrived here, speaking no English, knowing nothing at all about the strange, new land called America. The third of eight immigrant children, she was inspired by the progressives of the day, led by Theodore Roosevelt, a man ahead of his time, and perhaps of our own as well.

“There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americans,” Theodore Roosevelt said. We were all one people, newcomers and native-born alike.

The openness of the new country won her confidence. She was eager to be accepted, taken as just another American.

When her boat docked at Ellis Island she had no birth certificate, no legal document attesting to a date of birth. 

The world was a lot looser then. People moved about with far fewer restrictions than they do today. The immigration officers could not spell most of the strange names, let alone pronounce them; so they gave people new names.

Once she was settled in Boston with her family, my mother took note of the fuss made over the Christmas holiday, saw the world around her take on new life with evergreen trees decorated with lights and ornaments, department store windows a profusion of color and fantasy, people singing carols, and on Christmas morning children setting out in a town blanketed in snow, with shiny new boots ands coats, caps and sweaters and skates and sleds, and all because of Christmas.

But my mother’s family didn’t celebrate Christmas. Her father was ultra orthodox, a fan of Teddy Roosevelt to be sure, but he would have raised hell, fire and damnation if my mother or any of his children dared commit such a sacrilege.

And so my mother faced a quandary. She wanted to honor her father but she wanted to be in step with the rest of her splendid new country, especially on this most wondrous of days.

And so it came to pass that my mother resolved her problem by taking December 25 for her birthday. That’s how she got around the taboo, and got her presents and parties on this special day. But we never called it Christmas. Not even after my grandfather died. Not ever, not in all my mother’s years, and she lived to a ripe age of eighty-seven.

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


 
Lessons from My Grandmother PDF  | Print |  E-mail
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Thursday, 18 December 2014 14:05

NOTES OF A REPORTER AT LARGE

By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

Sometimes when I go to the movies and love scenes heat up the screen I think of my grandmother or Bobbe, as we called her in Yiddish. I hear her, complaining, “Mine gelt (money) is in hell, American gonifs (thieves, crooks).” In other words the moviemakers were stealing her purse.

In my grandmother’s philosophy romantic love was hokum, devised  to rob a simple-minded public of its hard-earned money.

She’d had a hard life, raised eight children in a household where money was scarce, and everyone worked. My grandfather eked out a living as a mohel, the man who circumcises the male baby in a religious ritual eight days after birth.

When Bobbe went to the movies she wanted excitement, action, above all a good story. The love scenes were cheats, giving audiences nonsense while the movemakers made off with your wallet.

She taught me lessons of life: memorably question what you see. It’s almost never the whole story.

One day when we were in the park she pointed out a couple in passing. They walked far apart. After they went on, she said, “They’re married.”

“How do you know?” I asked

“I know,” she said.

A short while later we passed an adoring couple clinging like ivy.

“Now those people, they’re not married,” she said.

To this day when I pass couples distant or intimate I’m likely to venture a status to the Lady Friend..

“But how do you know?” she challenges.

“I know,” I say. “My grandmother told me.”

When I recently saw the movie, “Amelia,” with Hilary Swank and Richard Gere, I caught myself hearing my grandmother. Although Swank does a great job portraying Amelia Earhart, the moviemakers made away with my money. Too much time was spent on sex and not enough on the story. Earhart, a pioneewring aviator, was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1928, a time, as the Washington Post noted, “when a lot of women didn’t drive.”

A friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, Earhart inspired Mrs. Roosevelt to travel by air. In 1933, early in FDR’s presidency, a party including Eleanor flew over Washington with Amelia. It caused the New York Times to report, “The First Lady of the Land and the first woman to fly the (Atlantic Ocean) went skylarking together tonight in a big Condor plane.”

It’s in the history books, but you won’t find it and a good deal more in “Amelia,” the movie.

As my Bobbe would have said, “Mine gelt is in hell. American gonifs.”

This column originally appeared on December 10, 2009.

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .



 
Hard Times PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Thursday, 11 December 2014 15:31

NOTES OF A REPORTER AT LARGE

By Mel Lavine • Special to the Times

I’m thinking of a time in the late 1950s when my wife and I were living through  an economic recession of our own. We were living off the charity of her mother in Salem, Oregon. Some months before, I’d quit my newspaper job in California and taken my bride to Mexico. Like many aspiring writers before and after, I was going to write the Great American Novel. Hemingway could eat his heart out.

In the end, we had little to show for our enterprise; and, with our savings gone, we sheepishly made our way back to the States, wounded in spirit and dead broke.

I had to find a job. Newspaper work was scarce around Salem. Things got so bleak that I was willing to try my soft hands at manual labor. My wife was too frail for the job market. She’d recently had emergency surgery for a ruptured tubular pregnancy.

One day I spotted an opening at a downtown gas station. I  knew next to nothing about cars, except for checking the oil, and changing a tire. But the station manager wasn’t looking for a mechanic. He wanted someone he could trust on the graveyard shift —midnight to eight — someone to keep honest books.

Although he conceded I fit the bill, he refused to hire me.

By way of explanation, he said, “You’re overqualified. You’ve been to college.”

He didn’t understand why a fellow who’d been to a university would want to work in a filling station.

But I pressed. He heard my sorry plight and, probably to shut me up, gave me the job.

The station belonged to a chain that only sold gas and oil. No maintenance, no repairs, no tune up. The draw was a gift shop. For every gallon of gas purchased, a customer “earned” a coupon. Over time, one could accumulate enough coupons to arrive home with a winsome doll, or showy train or sparkling piece of jewelry.

Some people were in such a hurry to leave after they’d stopped for gas that they waved me off when I approached with their stamps. “Keep ‘em,” they said. And I did. A few others never wanted them. Before long I had a pile of coupons. How to dispose of them?

As day would break, a baker and a fellow from a paper mill showed up within an hour of each other. They filled their tanks and always reached out for the coupons. The baker was saving for that winsome doll. The fellow from the mill wanted the sparkling jewelry.

I don’t remember who thought of it, but the three of us eventually worked out a bartering arrangement. I began giving them my “free” coupons. In return, the baker brought me fresh bread from his ovens and the man from the mill reams of white paper. The baker’s fare eased the budget at home, and the reams of paper helped keep me writing.

The barter system — something to keep in mind in hard times.

This column originally appeared on Oct. 16, 2008. Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .



 
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