Arthur Cerf Mayer

Good Things That Have Come to me as I've Grown Older

When I turned seventy years of age, I became very, very depressed indeed. I thought to myself, what's left to live for?

I turned for help to the world of psychiatry. And for two or three months, I took a drug prescribed by a psychiatrist.

That drug was Prozac. Today there are some questions as to its real effectiveness—whether it possesses genuine potency—or is merely a placebo. Whether one or the other, Prozac worked for me; my life in the subsequent sixteen years has been upbeat all the way. (Well, at least most of the way.) Surprised as I am to be saying this, I have to declare that I've enjoyed the sixteen years I've lived since I was 70—enjoyed them a whole lot.

A lot of this has to do with decisions I made earlier in my life. The first of these being not to be killed or captured in World War II. Though how much this had to do with resolve, and how much to pure dumb luck, it is hard to say.

The second was my decision to give up my parents' absurd religion and go it alone without religion, entirely. As a result, think of all the Sundays and holidays I saved for myself to enjoy in other ways. To say nothing of the control over my life that I took back from "whatever Gods may be."

The third was to go into the advertising business, as the best outlet for a guy who likes the business scene, likes to write, and likes dealing with both words and pictures.

The next was to leave my home town, Chicago, owing to conflicts between myself and my mother, which could never have been resolved any other way.

The next was my decision to settle in Dallas. It was as good a first step in my break with my mother as I could have undertaken. I loved the weather down there. But a couple of years into residence, I could see there were better markets for my talents, New York being the best.

Next was my decision to move to New York. From the start, I felt completely at home here. Or rather, on a permanent vacation. I never wanted to leave. I still don't.

Next was my decision to divorce my first wife when it became clear to her doctors that she would probably never recover from her mental illness, manic depression, as it was called then (now, bi-polar disorder). They were not wrong. Forty years later, she still has to be institutionalized.

Next has been my relative freedom from serious illness. True, I had to get through a bout with prostate cancer. But caught very early, it yielded without too much resistance to three months of radiation.

Next has been to get my exercise, including plenty of jogging, cycling and swimming. The swimming especially has been helpful. Exciting it is not, but after every swim, I feel better than when I first jump in.

Next was my marriage to my second wife, who is a beloved companion, and whom I love dearly, though she's no more perfect than I am.

Finally, my two beautiful granddaughters—one made in China and one made in Brooklyn, just as different in temperament as can be. But just as endearing in their ways.

Upon reflection, I can see that a happier life as one grows older may depend a great deal on good decisions made in early life.

And, then there is the factor of luck.
Too Few Options

Don't blame me for the goof-ups I'm about to call to your attention. They were all the fault of the U.S. Army.

When it came to a declaration of religious preference on the part of a soldier, the Army had given us three choices: Catholic, Protestant, or Hebrew. I needed a fourth.

To step back for just a moment…During her long career as a single woman, well before she met my father and before I was born, my mother took to a Brand-New-Made-in-America Religion, imagined and invented by a hitherto unknown writer, Mary Baker Eddy. This religion, which Mrs. Eddy called Christian Science, sounds more than a bit naïve today, when so many agree that religion and science don't mix all that well. Nevertheless, way back toward the end of the nineteenth century, more than two decades before I was born, Christian Science was all the rage.

I think that today it's been more or less supplanted in the minds of people who have a taste for that sort of thing by more recent innovations— Scientology, for example. But I can’t say for sure. Christian Scientists know how to keep their secrets, as you’ll see from what I’m about to tell you. They don’t report their church membership figures. I suspect, however, that today there are fewer and fewer Christian Scientists left for them or others to count.

Since my mother was an enthusiastic, nearly-fanatical follower of what was then considered by many to be a sure-fire road to health and happiness, it also followed that I, my mother's long-awaited first-born son, must be brought up in this sure-fire, fail-safe religious discipline, or otherwise be left behind in every important aspect of life. In my very early years I had no vote in the matter.

So, the Sunday School I attended was not the Sunday School of the nearest Jewish Temple, which many of my cousins, children of neighbors, and other friends attended. It was the Christian Science Sunday School presided over by the board and members of the Eighteenth Church of Christ Scientist, on the South Side, in Chicago. (I think there were at least 21 such Christian Science churches and Sunday Schools in the Chicago area when I was a kid.)

By the time I was in my mid-teens, or as, I remember it, even before that, I’d "had it" with Christian Science, which by the time I was fourteen or fifteen, struck me as the craziest, silliest, least attractive so-called religion that anyone could ever have imagined, let alone lived with.

To understand this, you must "get" what a true believer in Christian Science was obligated to believe in order to remain a loyal Christian Scientist. To begin with, there was to be no reliance by Christian Scientists on doctors, be they GPs or specialists. Strangely, Mrs. Eddy makes no reference that I can find in her endless (and tedious) writings to dentists. (Maybe she had bad teeth, and sneaked off to the dentist once in a while.) Instead, in Christian Science, one is supposed to heal one’s self. Or perhaps, even help to heal others. All in the miraculous manner of Jesus Christ, himself. Jesus, that is, and his "father-mother God." Yes, Mrs. Eddy, the "discoverer and founder" of Christian Science was not only a faith healer, and a teacher of faith healing, but a person more than slightly inclined toward feminism, so much so that she evidently could not abide the thought of her version and vision of almighty God as being mostly or merely male.

Maybe being not yet an adult but still a rather uppity teen-ager was all I needed to consider all this as wholly ridiculous. At this point, I had certainly lost all respect for a God who could or would permit himself to be worshipped in this nutty, kooky, utterly screwy way. So, early on, I became a convinced atheist and still am most comfortable not with a firm belief system, but in the absence of one.

Meanwhile, here I am, or was, rather, with a decision to make because I’m in the army where one has to declare one’s self to be one of three religions, Catholic, Protestant, or Hebrew. (Information, it seemed that might be needed by the burial detail if it came to that.) And I could imagine only a Cross or a Star of David being erected over my last resting place. Not all that comforting. But, still, a decision that had to be made.

I decided on “Hebrew.” After all, I came from a family that I suppose had considered itself “Hebrew” for generations. Only thing, I would have preferred at this point to be allowed a write-in ballot telling the world what I considered my religion to be, which was “none of the above.” With, perhaps, if needed, a nice big white-painted wooden “N” to mark my last resting place. But as I say that choice was not being offered.

So, what happened as a result? For starters, consider this: Our company was briefly stationed at Camp Shanks, along the Hudson, in New York’s Rockland County. It was nicknamed, by G.I.s “Last Stop, U.S.A.” We were about to be sent to England for further training, in preparation for being sent still further along, to the beaches of Normandy.

At this point I was called in for a “chat” with a rather high ranking officer of severe demeanor—big brass, as I thought of him—a colonel or major, whose name I no longer remember. He got right to the point.

“How is it, Soldier, that your father knows exactly where you are today when that is a military secret?” And, then, “Are you a Nazi?” I assured him that as to my father's access to secret knowledge, I believed he'd got it from our family’s connection with Christian Science. And, as to being a Nazi, I was absolutely no such thing. And, he took me at my word, (I suppose I didn't look that threatening.) and let me ship out with my regiment.

Frankly, I wasn't all that surprised by the incident. At the time Christian Scientists seemed to have an informal world-wide sort of intelligence network. Whatever they knew, which was quite a good deal, they passed on to one another. They must have felt that was the least they could do for a fellow “Scientist.”

The next such nutty thing happened just a few months later, apparently owing to the army's religious grading system: I was in an Army Hospital, in England. I’d been wounded in my left leg and right arm, the wound in the right arm being much the more serious of the two, (For a while I’d been worried about losing my arm, which had indeed happened to a guy who for some reason had been lying next to me on the deck of the ship that took us back to England.)

Fortunately that didn't happen, and to accelerate the healing, the medics had placed me on a table underneath some sort of heat or ray lamp, doubtless greatly outmoded by now, but at the time, the latest medical “thing.”

The medics had interrupted their work, telling me that down at the admissions desk, there was a Christian Science Practitioner asking to see me. Christian Science practitioners, as you probably realize, have absolutely no medical skills and do not aspire to have them. When a “Scientist” falls ill or let’s say becomes inconvenienced by an illness or injury, he may visit a practitioner or a practitioner may visit him. The point being to help the affected person pray, or give him or her counsel on the finer points of Mrs. Eddy’s religious thought. The resulting more efficient, more high powered prayer might in the sufferer’s thinking lead to more efficient healing. However, being under this “high-tech” healing lamp, I couldn't escape the feeling of having been caught in the act! That is, being caught in the dishonorable act of accepting aid and comfort from a medical doctor. (Instead of directly from God himself, thus, by-passing Him altogether.)

To be fair, this practitioner didn't rub it in. He was a nice, well brought up, middle aged English gentleman, a little on the “gay” side, I thought. (Not an especially helpful notion to someone whose mind was set on simply getting his injured parts repaired and thus getting himself out of the hospital.) In any case, the practitioner invited me to tea. I thanked him, but declined, with a politeness I hoped was equal to his.

Next thing I knew, I got another call from the admissions desk. This time from the local rabbi. (The two “faiths” appeared to be fighting over my body.) But never mind. I figured, again probably rightly, that this had something to do with the army's religious grading system. Anyway, up comes the rabbi arrayed from his throat to his ankles in beautifully tailored, polished and embroidered clerical garb. Elegantly black.

And he invites me over to the synagogue where he evidently presides over a fairly considerable flock. This time I said yes, because I figured that among his flock, there would have to be a fair number of attractive girls. Wrong, as it turned out. So.…

What does this all add up to?

Well, as far as I could tell, neither the Christian Science Practitioner nor his competitor, the rabbi, were in the least helpful to my injured arm. And any credit for its improvement, and return to at least 90% of what it had been, must go to the hospital, which was staffed not by practitioners, preachers, priests, or rabbis, but almost entirely, and more to the point, by excellent doctors, nurses and medical technicians from the Massachusetts General Hospital, which like Mrs. Eddy's famous Mother Church was and is indeed situated in Boston.

So, that was how the army goofed. They wasted the time and talents of two busy men of the cloth, to say nothing of those of one rather obstinate G.I. We all could have been more usefully engaged, if the army had simply considered the possibility that when it comes to religion, or the absence thereof, just three options will never be enough.

I’ve been thinking about my buddy, Marty from Omaha. He and I were the only two Jewish GIs in Company A of the 327th Glider Infantry of the 101st Airborne.

I was the spoiled first kid of an older mother, for whom I probably represented some kind of unexpected gift. ( I arrived sometime after her 40th birthday.) One thing she worried about a lot was that my shoes should fit. And, so, until I was in my early teens, she accompanied me to the shoe store – the one that had the x-ray machine that showed how loosely or tightly the shoes fit. This mattered more when I was a kid than it does today because we wore leather shoes everywhere, except to gym, and when our shoes were new, they were stiff, and could hurt.

Marty from Omaha was even more pampered, coddled and spoiled than I. And, his Omaha mother must have had an even more anxious approach to shoes than my Chicago mother. From what I can gather, she was even more fussy about Marty’s precious feet. She certainly made an impression on him. Because as a grown up, and a soldier for Uncle Sam, still taking his cues from momma, Marty continued to worry about them..

I say that because for almost a year, as we soldiered along together, and hiked the same hikes together (some of them pretty long hikes), Marty would complain to me that hiking gave him blisters. Once or twice he showed me his feet. He did have a lot of blisters. Somehow or other, none of the rest of us did.

Blisters or not, when the Company Commander hollered “Fall in!” the whole company, including Marty, fell in and we hiked. With full packs. Rifles or heavy automatic rifles. Ammo belts laden down with tons of ammunition. Sometimes as far as 25 miles. After any hike, long or medium-long - there were never any short ones - Marty was likely to moan about his blistered feet.

Well, eventually, they dropped us off in Normandy, and before very long, the platoon Marty and I belonged to got trapped across a river from the rest of our company.

The lieutenant in command of our platoon needed a volunteer so he demands, “Who knows how to swim?” He wants someone to swim across to the rest of our company on the opposite bank, and direct mortar fire from there onto the enemy.

Marty gets the job. Seemingly, most of the other GIs in our platoon have no special confidence in their swimming skills, but it’s really not that wide a river, and Marty figures he can make it across. So he goes down to the river bank, takes off his boots in a hurry, and wades in. He gets to the opposite shore, delivers the message to the nearest mortar squad, and, just at this point, another of the officers notices Marty wandering around barefoot.

Very un-soldierly, and completely impractical if the U.S. army is to make any further use of him. So, as you might suppose, the officer hollers, “Hey, soldier, get yourself a pair of boots.” And, Marty just stands there wondering where to find a shoe store. He’s all alone, without his mother there to make sure his new boots will fit. I’m not saying all this passes through Marty’s mind. But you can see the problem.

He asks the officer where he can find a pair of boots his size. And the officer, who has bigger problems to deal with, hollers at Marty, “Look over there. See that dead paratrooper? Take his boots!”

So, Marty takes the boots off the dead paratrooper. And he must have doubted, really, if they would fit. However, I guess they did.

Maybe his mother’s spirit was hovering over him. Because we never heard another word from Marty about boots, or blisters, or his feet.

We kids lined up along the tracks of the Englewood Station in Chicago, waiting for the train to come in.This was the true beginning of summer. This train was headed north to northern Wisconsin. The passengers were not grown businessmen on the prowl for deals, but boys, some as young as five or six, going away to summer camp.

We looked forward to two months of camping. Learning to box, play softball, ride horses, drive golf balls, play basketball, volleyball and tennis, paddle canoes, row boats, dive and swim, and not in a pool either, but off the raft in the middle of a beautiful clear, crystal bright little lake in Wisconsin. Oh Joy!

One of the best things about camp was getting up there in the first place. In a sleeping car. On the train. With a couple of hundred other boys. Including my adored cousin, Ralph.

I must tell you about Ralph. Unlike me, the first of two boys, and thus destined to take all the first steps, and make the most of the missteps, Ralph was the last kid in his family's string of three. And his two predecessors were not brothers but sisters. Can you imagine? Wouldn't that be an experience? As I looked at it, Ralph's life story would have to be the most valuable a boy could have. Just being around a couple of sisters all the time would have to teach him a lot. Maybe everything he needed to know. About GIRLS!!!

And, then, as he explained to me, he learned a lot not only from his sisters, but from their girlfriends, girls older than himself, of course, who would always be in the house, and more than occasionally trying out their tactics, their secret strategies and other charms and delights on humorous, handsome, always agreeable and willing little Ralphie. What a great bunch of teachers to have around at all times! What a fantastic educational experience! What luck to have sisters, and not just sisters, but tall, beautiful sisters, instead of a crappy kid brother like mine.

Ralph knew all about everything. And I would be by his side, picking up hints, all the way north to Hayward, Wisconsin, with its beautiful woodlands, countryside and lake. Because, on the way up on the train, I could quiz my cousin Ralph, and he would impart to me everything he had learned about GIRLS from his two beautiful sisters, and all their fascinatingly beautiful girlfriends.

Only trouble: how could I take full advantage on such a short overnight train ride? I realized that once we got to camp we'd be so busy with the softball, basketball, volleyball, horses, canoes, swimming and such, we'd never have time to get back to learning about sisters and other GIRLS. Well, now, if ever, was to be my chance.

It wasn't long before we had ridden clear past Milwaukee, and the Pullman porters had turned the lights down. It was dark inside the car, but not, as you might suppose, quiet. Instead of its usual quota of sedate and quiet business travelers, this car was full of warm, squirmy six-to-twelve-year-old boys. All in their pjs. All in both upper and lower births. For most of them, lights out was just a signal to start yakking, jibbering and jabbering away. Communicating, if you will.

That's what it was for me. I was in an upper birth. Cousin Ralph was in the lower birth. Just beneath. Neither of us was sleepy. So I whispered down to him.

"Ralph, can I come down and talk to you?"

And he said "Sure."

So, I clambered down. And, before long, we were on the subject Ralph was notably expert in, GIRLS. His sisters, their girlfriends. Their girlfriends' girlfriends. The other girls we knew at school. Especially the naughty ones. And surely Ralph never had a more eager acolyte than his little cousin Artie. Six months older, but a lot unsmarter. Me.

Ralph told me how his sisters were forever buying clothes, and studying college catalogs, and going out on dates. And always doing whatever it took to look pretty. And Ralph's big sisters were seriously pretty.

And how his sisters' girlfriends would come over, and take little Ralphie (who was not THAT little) into the bedroom and play with him, because to play with a little boy like Ralphie would never be commented upon, even if playtime took place in his sister's bedroom. And they, the girlfriends, could try out daring adventures and explorations and never worry about ruining their "reputations," as could be their concern if they engaged in such exploits with boys their own age and older.

And as for being found out, Aunt Ruth was too busy running the house. And Ralphie could be relied upon never to tell.

To say that I was envious would have been to criminally understate. But I certainly couldn't have let anything like that interfere with this golden opportunity. I struggled to find the right conversation to help keep Ralph's deep well of information flowing. And, as long as I remained a willing student and admirer of his precocious prowess, Ralph kept coming up with a virtual instruction book full of those useful nuggets I had to have.

Finally, he seemed to be running down, and I fought to find one or two more conversation starters intriguing enough to keep the talk going. I was trying in every way to get every last bit of information that could make ignorant, sisterless, little me more attractive and exciting to the girls in the neighborhood.

At last, I found the right question. "Ralph," I said, "How do I get them to let me kiss them? Huh, Ralph?"

Ralph, of course, knew the answer and was generous with the precious intelligence. He let me have it instantly.

"Just tell them you love them," said Ralph.

Why would that work I wondered. But I decided to try it next time I had the chance.

And, I did. And it did.

Copyright © 2007 by Arther Cerf Mayer