Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Ursula's World

I met Ursula Schramm while I was living in Northern Wisconsin. Ursula was well-known in the area as being an eccentric rock of a woman who, in her 70s when I met her, lived alone on a 20-acre farm on which she raised sheep. She also sheared them and spun their wool into yarn, from which she made mittens, scarves, and various other items. She had electricity but no running water and no toilet.

I knew Ursula was Jewish before I met her…there were very few Jews in the area, most of the residents being either Finnish (to work the forests) or Italian (to work the mines).
I worked part time at a supermarket, which is where I first met her. Knowing she was Jewish, I wished her a happy Rosh Hashana during the holiday, and she took a liking to me, and gradually I learned her story.

She did not willingly talk of her past, and it was only in small bits and pieces, over time, that I learned some of her story. She was born in Germany of a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father, and she had one older brother whom she adored. When the Nazis came to power, she and her family were shipped off to a concentration camp for "half-breeds". Spared the gas chamber, life in the camps was still incomprehensible to those not experiencing it.

Her beloved brother was beaten to death by a group of Nazi thugs. He was 19.

On February 13, 1945, she was on a prison train which was stopped at the outskirts of Dresden as the infamous bombing raids began. Over 100,000 people died in the firestorms that swept the city. Ursula and others on the train were forced to go through the destroyed city for three days, retrieving bodies.

When her camp was liberated at the end of the war, her mother and father went out for a walk, leaving the confines of the camp for the first time. Her father was shot and killed while on that walk…I was never sure by whom, but it didn’t matter. Murder is murder.

Somehow coming to the U.S., Ursula married a Serb emigre and had two daughters. The marriage was a disaster, and they were divorced after Ursula moved to Chicago. She managed to buy a small house and raise her daughters. During the riots of the 1968 Democratic Party convention in Chicago, Ursula was convinced that what had happened in Germany in the 1930s was happening in America. She sold her house and moved to Northern Wisconsin, where she bought her farm. She became estranged from her daughters, who moved away as soon as they could.

I would visit her frequently, picking up a few things from the store for her. She had a large garden, and would always supply me with vegetables in season. She mowed her own lawn, using a scythe and a push lawnmower.

She, I, and a gay mutual friend (one of only about 10 gays in a 100 mile radius) built a 30 x 60 foot barn for her sheep, largely out of materials salvaged from the various collapsed buildings around her property. She was fiercely, fiercely independent and resourceful.

She was also literally paranoid over the threat of government intervention. The government had installed an "ELF" tracking system throughout northern Wisconsin, and every low-flying plane or passing helicopter was an omen of danger.

We talked every day on the phone, and she would always say "We have to watch out for one another: you never know what might happen."

And then one day I tried to call her. That there was no answer wasn’t surprising: she was always out of the house tending to chores. But when after five or six calls with no response, I began to get concerned. She usually told me when she was planning to go somewhere, and she’d mentioned nothing. Finally, after about the eighth call, I was truly concerned. For some reason, I was unable to drive over (it was about a 20 minute drive) to check on her, and so I called the Sheriff’s office and asked that if they had a car in the area, they could stop and check to be sure she was okay.

I heard nothing further, and later that evening, I called again. Ursula answered the phone. I asked what had happened, and she said she had just been outside working. She then said: "You had no right to call the police. I do not want to talk to you anymore." And she hung up, and that, despite my efforts to explain that I only called the police because I was concerned for her, was except for a few cursory accidental meetings at the store during which she was painfully uncomfortable, the end of our friendship.

I was truly sorry to lose her as a friend, but I realize that in her eyes, I had done the unforgivable: I had called her to the attention of the authorities.

I heard Ursula died last year. Though I was no longer her friend, she was still mine. I miss her.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Pacing It

Well, I guess it was inevitable…I just have to face the fact that much as I want to put up a new blog entry every day, it just isn’t practical if I have any hope at all of keeping up with my other writing (like, books, for example).

So what I plan to do (got a pencil handy to jot it down?) is to post a new blog entry three times a week: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. If I can establish and maintain that pattern, I hope you will stay with me. Now that I have you, I certainly don’t want to risk your wandering away.

Pacing things has always been something of a problem for me. My tendency has always been to burst out of the gate, run as fast as I can go until I’m out of wind, and then worry about what happens next.

One of the problems I have with reading other writers’ books is that once I start a book, I can’t pace myself. I want to just sit there and read until I reach the end, which would be all well and good if I wasn’t swept away with guilt for spending too much time enjoying myself.

I am currently working on two novels, but unlike some writers, not simultaneously. I’d find it very frustrating to go back and forth between them. So when I say I’m working on two novels now, what I mean is that I’ve put the one totally aside for the time being (it’s the second book in a new series, of which the first hasn’t yet found a home…so until the first one is sold there is little point in rushing to get the second done).

Anyway, forewarned, please come back on Wednesday for an all new, all talking, all dancing, and hopefully more coherent, entry. Between now and then, consider how lucky you are to be you, and don’t pass up an opportunity to let those you love know how you feel about them: they may have heard it before, but it can never be said too often.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Comparing Minorities

Being in a minority ain’t easy. Nearly every religion, nationality, and race has been persecuted at one time or another, depending on where and when they lived. But the three minorities who have consistently had the worst time of it throughout history are almost surely blacks, Jews, and homosexuals. In a "My People Have Suffered Most" contest, it would be a pretty close match. In overall western culture, the Jews of course have the definite edge: they’ve been harassed and persecuted and hounded for more than two thousand years, culminating in the incomprehensible horrors of the years between 1933 and 1945.

The general large-scale suffering of blacks is relatively recent, mostly starting when the first slave boats started plying their trade between Africa and the New World. Their persecution, even in the deep south of the U.S., very rarely included the types of mass pogroms Jews have suffered over the years. And blacks as a minority were spared the atrocities of WWII.

Which brings us to the homosexuals. Persecution of homosexuals pretty much goes back at least as far as persecution of the Jews, though it was always on an "individual" basis. Gays were regularly put to death for being gay, but seldom if ever in large numbers at any given time with the exception of World War II, during which more than 100,000 homosexuals died alongside the six million Jews in the concentration camps.

Gays, however, have always had one very distinct "advantage" over strongly ethnicised Jews and 99.5 percent of all blacks: You can’t readily pick homosexuals out of a still photograph. The ability to be able to hide, to pretend to be something they were not, has always spared individual gays and lesbians, but at a terrible price in their dignity and self image.

And, in turn, both Jews and blacks have one huge advantage over gays and lesbians: every Jewish child, every black child, is born and raised by those exactly like him or her. They have a priceless built-in network of comfort and protection not afforded gays who, from the instant they realize that they are not like Mom and Dad and Cousin Bill and Great Grandpa Oaks, know they are alone in their families.

A Jewish child called a "Kike", or a black child called a "nigger" or any child of any racial, religious or ethnic minority suffering the epithets hurled against their minority, can run home to the arms of Mommy and Daddy, who will comfort them and assure them that they are loved.

A gay child taunted by calls of "Faggot" or "Queer" has no such option. He or she has no one and nowhere to turn for comfort, for reassurance, for understanding.

I will never forget a popular TV show of the 60s..."The White Shadow," I think it was called, about a high school basketball team. At one point, daring bravely to go where no TV show had gone before, they did a story in which a new kid joined the team, and everyone began to whisper that the kid might possibly know... "one of those."

The coach, stalwart role model for American youth that he was, called the team together to crush the rumors. He began his speech with these truly dumbfounding words: "I’ve never met a homosexual, but…". Right, coach; nobody here but us chickens. I switched channels, and never watched the show again.

Things are slowly getting better for all minorities, largely through the incredibly simple fact of exposure of one group to the other. I grew up in an insular world: Aunt Jemima and Stepp’n Fetchit, and the Gold Dust Twins, of pickanninies and nigger-baby licorice candy. I wasn’t racist...I simply never thought of those things as being insulting and degrading because the way things were was simply the way things were. Blacks never mixed socially with whites; Jews kept a very, very low profile and seldom if ever mentioned their religion to non-Jews. Gays simply hid, gathered whenever and wherever they could , and prayed that no one would ever discover their "shameful" secret.

Stupidity, hatred, intolerance, and bigotry are still very much alive and well, and show not the slightest indication that they will be disappearing any time soon. But at least now people recognize them when they see them. And that’s progress.