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When I reached my early thirties, I decided to change my business situation. I was bored with the dinette business, and bored with my law-practice clients. Perhaps I'd enjoy working as a lawyer for someone else.
My interviews with the large law firms were highly unpleasant. I did not like anything or anybody I encountered. Their emphasis on billable hours was not going to work for me because I was not going to work eighty hours per week. One of their big selling points was the large office with the secretary and fabulous view. Big deal. I received some very tempting offers, but none were tempting enough.
I finally took a job as the trial lawyer for Coldwell Banker, hereinafter, Coldwell. Coldwell was a premier real estate company - the largest, most powerful and most well-connected company in the country. My real estate background made this a natural. I flew through the interview process and was hired.
The salary and perks were far less than I could have received from any number of law firms, but here I could work 9 to 5. They knew that I went to Dr. Grotstein every day, and they also knew I traveled a great deal and would take 8 to 12 weeks vacation every year. They accepted my terms (but paid for only two weeks vacation). I would be working on complex litigation with substantial sums of money on the table. This sounded exciting and challenging.
The Jewish lawyer I was replacing was Ralph Horowitz. I spent a couple of hours with him being briefed on the job, the people, and the company. He told me right up front, first thing: "Understand you are the token Jew. You are the only Jew in the corporate system and you will always be the only Jew. The goyim [the Hebrew word for non-Jews] want a Jewish lawyer pleading their cases at trial, so you're it. Be forewarned." I heard him but didn't care; I had dealt with anti-Semites at USC and other places, and I felt I could deal with these folks. I was looking at this as a challenging experience and wanted nothing else from it aside from interesting legal work.
Coldwell was the classic Eastern establishment organization. Dark suit, white shirt, and rep tie was the required dress. Better if you wore wing-tip shoes. And no brown please, as gentlemen do not wear brown. They accepted nothing less. They gave me a nice car (a new Oldsmobile) and all the usual perks. I had a lovely office with a great view of downtown LA.
They had a firm and fast policy that no one at Coldwell could deal in, or own, real estate. I told them this was a deal breaker because I was not going to give up my real estate or stop the buying and selling. They backed off instantly and told me if I didn't talk about it or make it obvious, I could do as I pleased. Just win the lawsuits.
I was made a Vice-President and had a good parking place. I very much enjoyed the legal work. It was fun to work with the corporate legal departments of major corporations, and I had a back-up staff of young lawyers to do research and draft pleadings. It would normally have taken twenty years in the back rooms of a big law firm to get to this position.
My schedule was a little crazy. I would get up at five a.m., drive to Certified and arrive by six a.m. I worked at Certified and my real estate activities until 8:30 a.m. I would then drive to Coldwell and work all day. I would leave just before five p.m. for Dr. Grotstein's. From there I went directly home for our family dinner, which was sacrosanct. I was told I injured my position at Coldwell because I wouldn't go drinking with the boys, which was very much a part of the shtick there, but my family was far more important to me, and I looked forward to coming home every day. In truth, I never enjoyed after work drinking with the guys; the bars are full of professionals who do this, but I found these sessions very dull. I wasn't required to do this, so I didn't.
I was now far too busy to worry that there was something missing in my life. I had believed that this problem could be cured by doing more physically, and that seemed to be the case. After the Certified move had been completed, I had taken a lot of time off, so although I now worked long days, I felt refreshed and fit. I had no time to think about whether life was all that it should be. The legal work at Coldwell continued to be interesting and very satisfying. I was able to travel and continue my analysis, and Barbara was busy with her decorating business. All was well. I would have the old moments of discomfort, usually raised by something in my analysis, but that was about it.
It was at this point that a new development occurred. I finally met the mysterious Mr. C., hereinafter Wally.
It turned out that my father, Wally, and Sam Nocita (my godfather) went out to lunch together every Wednesday. This had been going on since I was a little boy, but I had never known about these weekly Wednesday meetings. My father had his own schedule and I never questioned him about his whereabouts or his companions for lunch or anything else. Of course, I would not have received an answer from him had I asked, whereas I might have received a strong backhand against the side of my head.
One day my father tells me we are going out to lunch this coming Wednesday with Wally and Sam. Sam I ate with regularly. I was unimpressed with whoever this Wally guy was. We went to lunch at the Rainbow Club in Gardena.
The Rainbow Club, a poker casino, was just two blocks from Certified so we ate there often. I drove there with my father and Sam to meet Wally. I was introduced to Wally. He was a very average looking man in his sixties. Nicely dressed but not "sharp." He was quiet but very personable, and I liked him immediately and always.
He told me that he had followed my progress since I was just a couple of years old. What? How come I hadn't met him before, or even heard of him? The conversation was about football and other regular stuff, just a few guys having lunch. Towards the end of the lunch, Wally asked me a bunch of real estate questions. My father gave me a look that said, "Answer all the questions." Very strange for my closed-mouth father.
The next Wednesday I was told there would again to be lunch with Wally and Sam. I drove down from Coldwell, and we had lunch. This time there was much less idle chat and the conversation zeroed in on real estate. Wally made a proposition that we go into the real estate development business together, the four of us. We all agreed and formed a partnership with a handshake. I was to find the real estate and do the legal work. Sam would handle details and management. My father and Wally would put up the money. Wally would arrange for the financing.
I asked my father about Wally. Who is he? Where did he come from? And then it hit me - this was the Mr. C who had been referred to by the heavies in Las Vegas. This was "the" Mr. C. I was more confused than before, but, not surprisingly, I was not enlightened my father other than to hear, yes, this is Mr. C. Be nice to him.
I purchased the first building. Everything went fine. Then I purchased another building, and then another. This was a very pleasant partnership. Wally was becoming a good friend. I found a great building to buy and discussed it with my father. He said it was probably too much cash, but let's discuss it with Wally. Wally liked the building, and said, "OK let's buy it." I asked about the down payment. How do we get that money?
No problem says Wally. Just go negotiate the purchase, put it into escrow, and here is a check to open the escrow. Within a few days I received a call at Coldwell from the Bank of America, Main Office, San Francisco. As I had no business with them, and no cases involving them, I was curious and took the call. The sum and substance of the telephone call was that the Bank of America was going to provide to the partnership a mortgage loan to purchase the new building in question. The loan would be a 95% loan at the prime rate, no points, no fees, and thank you for doing business with the Bank of America. I hung up the phone and sat at my desk with my mouth open.
I called my father and told him this unbelievable news. Banks do not call you out of the blue and offer you loans. The going rate for loans was several points above the prime rate, never the prime rate. A very good industrial real estate loan is an 80% loan. A more normal loan is 70%. They were giving me a 95% loan at prime. Unheard of. Unreal.
And it happened. I never filled out a loan application. We all went in and signed the loan documents, and we owned the building.
I did not know who Wally really was, but I was more than curious and started to ask him questions directly. To which I would never get an answer.
One day I received a call at Coldwell from Wally. He invited me to have lunch with Sam and my father at his factory in the City of Industry. I accepted and received directions to the factory. I arrived at an enormous facility; I cannot begin to guess how big this place was. It was bigger than North American Aviation. It was bigger than Hughes Aircraft. It was spectacular, and I was speechless.
I found the front entrance, went in and asked for Wally, Mr. C. Oh yes, you are expected. I was ushered into his large but not impressive office. Very Wally-like, plain and simple. We went to lunch at a very strange place. In an industrial zone near his factory there was what appeared to be a sleazy bar. The four of us entered what was exactly what it looked like, a poor workingman's bar. We continued through to the back of the bar, through a large, plain door, and entered an elegant and lovely restaurant. We sat down at a large upholstered booth set with china and crystal. The food started to come, and it was one of the greatest Italian meals I have ever had, including the very best in Rome.
Everyone treated Mr. C, as they called him, like a king. Having seen part of his factory, I could understand the deference they showed to him. We had lunch and discussed our usual real estate matters. We then went back to Wally's factory, and one of his workers came out and put a large box of samples into the trunk of my car. I left to go back to Coldwell, while Sam and my father stayed and went inside with Wally. This is how all of our lunches were arranged; I would leave to go back to work at Coldwell, and the three of them would remain. However, this was the first time it struck me that something was going on that I was not to know. I was out of the loop and did not like it.
To this day I don't know what went on, or what they discussed. From that lunch on, I would get a box of samples from Wally. The box contained a wide assortment of foods. Always there were six cans of pressurized whipped cream, a couple of cans of diet whipped cream, avocado dip, bean dip, and other assorted dips. The other products varied.
Most of the time the Wednesday lunches were at the Rainbow Club. Every once in a while we would meet at Wally's factory. On my second or third trip there, Wally offered to give me a full tour of his factory. We got into golf carts for the drive around the complex of buildings. The machinery was amazing. Everything stainless steel, shining and polished. You could eat off of the floors. I was in machinery heaven. Wally knew I loved this stuff and pointed out all of the details. It took hours to take the tour. However, once I saw how pressurized whipped cream was manufactured I never again wanted to eat it. It was made of various kinds of fats and oils mixed and processed by a staggering complement of machines. Out of the various lines came every brand of whipped cream I have ever seen. The next building was avocado dip. Millions of avocados were processed into dip and packaged. The next building was bean dip, etc., etc. It was awesome.
The last building was enormous. I estimate it was a million square feet, at least. There was an entire train, with an engine and dozens of refrigerated boxcars, standing in one corner, and being loaded by countless forklifts. There were dozens and dozens of semi-trailers pulled up to loading docks, all inside of this totally refrigerated warehouse. The whole thing was a refrigerator. Now this was a factory. And this was Wally's. He had no partners, just little, quiet, nice Wally. He also had no debt. He didn't believe in it.
Wally lived in a small house in the San Gabriel Valley, much smaller than mine, and very plain. It was decorated from Sears Roebuck or a similar emporium. Wally had no children. His wife was drunk every time I saw her, which was seldom. After Wally died, I saw her a couple of times, and each time she was blind drunk. One time she invited us to a brunch at her new home, which was in one of the highly restricted, no Jews or blacks, country clubs in Palm Desert. Wally must have turned over in his grave at the show of ostentation. It was in very bad taste. When Wally died, his entire operation was sold to Annhauser Busch, the beer folks. The widow was taken care of, but I don't think she got even a small fraction of his net worth. Her new husband was a total zero.
Once or twice a year we would have lunch with Wally at another place which looked like a sleazy bar. It was located on 7th street in Los Angeles, near Western Avenue. A bad and dumpy part of town, and not a place where you wanted to walk around the streets, even in the daytime. The bar was called "Vince and Paul's." It had the same arrangement as his other place. Scummy and nothing in front, and special classy Italian in the rear. The food was even better than Mr. C's place in the City of Industry. The other customers would say hello to Mr. C. They would studiously ignore the rest of us. Most of the other "customers" were straight out of a Damon Runyon novel: gangsters with lumps in their coats that were not fat wallets. There were always a few police officers eating at their own tables. It was interesting, but I did not like being there and I felt very uncomfortable. Of course, I couldn't say anything and made no comment.
Once a year Wally had a huge birthday party. It was again in one of these strange places like Vince and Paul's, except this place, also in an industrial area, had a large ballroom that held a thousand people. It was always full for these birthday parties, and it was festively decorated.
We always sat at a large round table near the front of the room. Wally sat up on the dais with his wife and people I did not recognize. No one was introduced except for the people at our table. The guests at our table consisted of Barbara and myself, my father and mother, Wally's doctor and his wife, Wally's dentist and his wife, Wally's accountant and his wife, Wally's lawyer and his wife, etc.
Early on in the evening, Wally would get up and ask everyone to toast the Jewish table. Each man was introduced with his job. Leonard my lawyer, Irving my dentist., etc. I was Richard, my counselor. My father was Albert, my friend. Everyone else in the room looked tough and unpleasant. Gangsters would be a kind description.
The food was spectacular, Italian, of course. The liquor flowed and was consumed in copious quantities. After the first birthday party Barbara and my mother did not want to go to another, but there was no choice, you went to Wally's birthday party. We dreaded the introduction of the Jewish table, but Wally was my friend so what the heck, we went.
At some point my father decided he wanted out of the furniture business. He was going to sell it. I stepped in and said I would buy it with some investor friends. I knew the business better than anyone, and felt I could run it and make a lot of money with it. We entered into negotiations, which were short and quick. I thought we would make a deal. I was preparing the documents when my father called and told me that he had sold the company to a person named Goldstein. I had never heard of this man, and knew nothing about him.
The worst part of the deal is that he sold it to Goldstein for one dollar. I would have been much happier had I never known about the particulars of the sale. Naturally, I could ask no questions. I had to accept my father's decision, but I had no idea why this had happened.
I thought I might be enlightened when my father passed away, but I wasn't. The executor of his estate was Lloyd Richmond, a powerful figure in the Mormon Church. I was told he was one of the twelve elders, but I don't know that for a fact. Until my father's funeral, I had never heard of Lloyd Richmond. He stole a lot of money from the estate, so my sister and I sued him. We had to settle cheaply, because I was strongly advised to do so by people whom I did not want to fight with.
The sale of Certified caused me to become very cynical about the world of business and finance. I had always considered myself comfortable in that element. It was basic and physical and sensible, if a little shady now and then. I now wondered if I had ever had any clue about what I was doing and whom I was involved with.
At the same time, my feelings about Coldwell became soured. I had enjoyed the legal work very much, but I began to tire of their snooty ambiance and their incessant drinking. I felt that I needed a major change, a new beginning, and started to put out feelers for a new legal position.
The background noise of something being wrong in my life was growing louder. Barbara and I were very happy. My children were fine, and all was well with us financially and socially. It must be the disenchantment with the sale of Certified and the snootiness Coldwell. Who could blame me for feeling that something was amiss?
I received a telephone call from a lawyer, Carl Albert. He asked me to have lunch with him. Carl represented a powerful and very successful businessman, Fred Sands. Fred was the owner of Fred Sands Realtors, a very large and profitable residential real estate brokerage house. He had many dozens of offices and many varied interests. Carl and his firm had been Fred's lawyer for many years, but Fred now needed a full time in-house legal counsel.
We had not been at lunch for more than a few minutes, having just concluded introductions, when Carl said, "I think you should leave Coldwell Banker and go to work for Fred. Here is what Fred and I think is a fair salary and perks."
The number was triple what I had been making at Coldwell. And Fred Sands Realtors was closer to home. I nodded and agreed that it sounded fair to me and when did he want me to start. We agreed on a date a couple of weeks away.
The balance of lunch was a briefing session about Fred and his needs. I mentioned that one problem Fred was going to have with me was my schedule, and that was not negotiable. I take off every day for my session no matter what is going on. I will get up and leave in the middle of a meeting if need be. Fine. I also travel a great deal and take off big chunks of time. That was not only OK, but I would be paid for all of my vacation time, not just the two weeks per year. It was almost too good to be true. We shook hands and that was that.
I hadn't discussed any of this with Barbara. I always discussed my intentions with her before making any serious decision. This, however, seemed to be a no-brainer. She was going to agree. I relied greatly on her opinion, and was very nervous until I had a chance discuss it with her, even though I was sure she would approve. She did.
I wanted to tell my boss at Coldwell the very next day, but he wasn't there and wasn't going to be in for a couple of days. That very day, a young lawyer whom I had hired some six months before came into my office. He was visibly upset and wanted to talk to me. He closed the door and sat down and told his story.
He told me that he had been invited to attend a Vice-Presidents' weekend at Alisol Ranch the previous weekend and was surprised that I had not been there. I was shocked, because as a First Vice-President I should have been invited. He asked questions and was told that these getaway weekends were held every couple of months for senior officers and staff of Coldwell, but that certainly Levine would never be invited since he was Jewish. And, please do not tell Levine about this weekend or any others.
What the people at Coldwell had not known was that this young lawyer's wife was Jewish. He was not, and they could not have guessed about his wife's Jewishness. She was angry, and he was equally upset, and therefore came in to tell me at the first opportunity. Although I had already decided to resign and leave, I felt like someone had plunged a knife into my stomach. It got worse when he told me about the comments that the weekend guests had made about Jews in general, and how cute they thought it was that Levine had not known of these weekends, and never suspected, all the years he worked at Coldwell. Neither had his predecessor Horowitz.
I marched upstairs into the inner sanctum sanctorium of the executive offices and demanded to see the President. He was busy and couldn't see me now. I said I would wait two minutes, and then go into his office and embarrass him there. He was going to see me now. At the end of the two minutes I did just that. I told him off and quit. He became red in the face, and was deeply embarrassed.
Nevertheless, he had to gall to tell me I shouldn't quit now because it was poor timing for Coldwell. After all, he said, several large trials were coming up. I angrily told him he could have two weeks notice, take it or leave it.
I'm not sure why I was so livid. I had already decided to leave and already had a new job lined up. I had known these guys weren't fond of Jews, and I had never been "one of the boys" as far as the drinking sessions were concerned. I suppose I felt that having been there for a few years, having been part of the team and done a good job for them, I would be judged on my merit as an individual. To instead have been a butt of their jokes and their conspiracy of silence was a rude shock to my ego, and although I hate to admit it, their behavior hurt my feelings as well.
I felt right at home at Fred Sands Realtors. It was loaded with Jews and a whole variety of ethnic types. It was fun. I enjoyed Fred. Fred was the best executive I have ever dealt with, ever. He was sharp, knowledgeable, and fast on his feet. Fred, and his wife at the time, Cindy, became very good and close friends of ours. We traveled together and they spent time with us at our condos.
I worked for Fred for several good years, but Fred was the ultimate type A person, and just too hard to live with on a daily basis. In addition, I was tired of having a boss and wanted to be out on my own again. I was just about to quit when Fred fired me. My lifestyle of vacations and time off was too much for him. We parted as good friends, and have remained friends.
I was now in my late 30's, and was excited about opening my own law office in the San Fernando Valley, close to home. I was worn out from commuting long distances., and I looked forward to having a peaceful, small, calm law practice. Within a couple of months, however, I was overwhelmed with work and clients. I had three secretaries and was going crazy. This was not what I had envisaged.
I found two sharp young lawyers and made them my partners. This was a very lucky move, because my partners were wonderful lawyers, and they are my personal lawyers to this very day. The law firm was LeVine, Manfredi and Levine. I pronounced my name "le-vine" and my partner pronounced his "le-veene." This worked out great as the name caught on and Judges would always remember "le-vine and le-veene."
Soon we had to hire more lawyers and more secretaries and our practice was becoming a big business. My contribution was that I basically brought in the clients and tried the cases in court. I arranged my schedule so that I had lots of time free. As a trial lawyer I was able to do this because cases are planned well in advance, so I could set my trial dates as I wished. In addition, lawyers are frequently forced to delay trials due to conflicts in their schedules, so it's not anything unusual to change a trial date. Therefore, I had no trouble arranging my trials around my travels, or rescheduling trials when necessary. Barbara and I traveled a great deal and we took long vacations in Vail and Palm Springs. We were clearly "happy," yet the old and familiar feeling that something was wrong dogged us.
I decided to again spend time painting, and I also took up sculpting. I carved marble into large sculptures, mostly of naked women. I opened a marble-sculpting studio directly across the street from the law office. I had a speaker-phone and would talk to clients while I was working. If need be, I'd clean up and run across the street for a meeting.
Our garage at home was also a sculpting studio, complete with several large cranes to haul around the rock. I had it delivered by the truckload from New Mexico. Barbara and I found a group of New Mexico Indians who had a marble quarry. They refused to sell to the white man, but sold to me, as I was a member of the Levite Tribe of the Jews, which they knew about from the bible that was given to them by missionaries. As a member of a tribe, I was acceptable. They had beautiful stone in a variety of wonderful colors: greens, reds, pinks, and some laced with white. Their prices were ridiculously low. I would pay them with a check, which they used to buy liquor. The checks were always endorsed by the New Mexico Wholesale Liquor Company.
The Indians insisted that in every load of marble, one stone had to be carved into the spirit of an animal. That rock was decorated with feathers, bones and hand-made twine, and had a note attached. It would say "spirit of the dog," or "spirit of the eagle." I would promise to carve the stone into that animal and then give it away to someone who felt he was connected to it. I could not sell it. It was fascinating how those pieces would sit for a while in my studio, and then someone would come in, go right for that eagle or whatever, and make it clear that they were the connected one. I'd give it to them, and I was amazed each time this happened.
I enjoyed being a sculptor more than anything I had previously done. I spent most of my time sculpting, and very little time practicing law. It became difficult for me to take clients out to lunch or dinner or to shmooze with them. I'd give them the usual gloss and spin, but now I hated myself for it. Going to trial was still wonderful, but most of my court appearances were for boring motions and technical matters.
I began to worry that my attitude was affecting the quality of my work and my behavior toward my clients. I didn't care enough anymore, but they were paying me a lot of money and deserved my best service.
I continued to enjoy the time we spent in the mountains of Colorado, but I had no desire to live there. It was fine for a couple of weeks here and there, but that was it. I certainly couldn't live in Palm Springs. Even a long weekend was getting to be too long there. The cruises were now my favorite vacation activity. Barbara and I loved the ocean. But there were limits to how much time we could spend sailing on a cruise ship because it was extremely expensive.
We were going to Vail for a month of skiing. It had been snowing hard for weeks and the powder snow was deep. After years of skiing, I was getting tired of the lift lines on the front of the mountain, and decided to try the untracked virgin snows on the back bowls. I soon preferred the exhilaration of deep-powder skiing.
Not only did I prefer the skiing back there, I loved the peace and quiet. I could stand for long periods of time on a ridge just looking at the mountains. I would take a lunch and sit under a tree on a log and stare at the majestic landscape for hours.
I was with a friend one clear and sunny day, standing at the top of a large, natural bowl, admiring its magnificence. We were going to be the first tracks in this untouched virgin snow. The powder was between knee deep and waist deep. In these conditions you float down the hill in slow motion with the snow checking your speed down a steep gradient. We were discussing which route we would take down.
Suddenly there was a strange rumbling sound. I thought it was an earthquake. Being a Californian, I had heard the earthquake sound many times. The ground was moving under our skis. Then the snow broke a few feet away from us, as a huge avalanche formed and started down the hill. This was what is known as a sheet avalanche. A large piece of powder snow breaks free and slides in a large sheet down the hill. As the snow careens down the hillside, it picks up more snow as it goes, and soon is a highly destructive force on the move.
We could see and hear the trees being snapped off in its path. The billows of white dust in the air were awesome. The noise of the slide was horrific. It wasn't so much the amplitude of the noise as the sound itself - crashing, tearing, and destructive.
As quickly as it had started it was over, and quiet again, as if nothing had happened. There was a large gouge in the snow where the snow that went down the mountain had previously been. It was impossible to talk for some time. The fearsome display of nature and its power was overwhelming. We were both in shock and fear. I was literally shaking, knowing that had we started down that slope instead of standing to look for a while, we would have been buried under tons of snow and dead. Had we been standing just ten feet over to our right, or ten feet farther down the slope, we would have been carried away with the avalanche and killed.
Given where we were, no search teams would have come to look for us for many hours. Only when Barbara reported me overdue and missing, would anyone come looking, far too late to help us. No one on the front side of the mountain would have known there had been an avalanche (one of the prices you pay for skiing where there are no other people).
My friend and I, still in shock, were not able to function at a normal level. I did not know how we were going to make it down the hill and back to my condo. I was terrified of going down any portion of this mountain, now knowing that the conditions were right for avalanches, and that we could easily trigger another one. I did not want to ski down the scar in the mountain where the slide had just taken place, as there would be tree stumps, branches, and rocks showing, or, even worse, hidden beneath the surface.
We finally did work our way down the mountain with no further mishaps, but it was a journey fraught with anxiety and stark fear. I couldn't understand why I had come so close to dying. I had done everything right. I was skiing in a legally-marked area. No avalanche warnings were posted anywhere. I knew this for sure, because I always checked out the conditions before going into the back bowls.
I sat in my long underwear in front of a roaring fire for a long time, thinking about what had had happened. I would not be going skiing the next day as I was far too frightened. A person who skies in an uneasy or frightened state of mind will often injure himself. To ski powder, you must be aggressive; if you aren't, you will fall and hurt yourself. I knew I couldn't ski tomorrow, or maybe ever again. I replayed over and over again the sights and sounds of the avalanche, and got shivers thinking about it. I was very unhappy that I had come close to death, because it didn't seem fair. I hadn't been rash or arrogant or negligent, so what was going on?
I dressed and hurried out to report the avalanche to the Ski Patrol, lest some other innocent skier jeopardize his life. They yawned and were unconcerned. Oh yeah, there were a couple of small slides, nothing to worry about. Oh really, I was almost killed and that I consider something to worry about. Their board still showed no chance of avalanches, when they knew full well that several had occurred that day.
I realized that this ski resort didn't care about the welfare of their patrons. I shouldn't have been so surprised. Over the past few years I had noticed an increasing number and severity of accidents on the slopes. People had skis and ski poles imbedded in every part of their bodies. People were killed by out-of-control idiots coming down the hill too fast and crashing into them. This type of accident cannot be prevented unless you stay off the slopes.
I had, until this day, been willing to take that kind of risk. But I was not willing to risk my life in back country deep powder just because the Ski Patrol was dishonest or too lazy or too unconcerned to tell the truth about the skiing conditions. For the first time in my life, I was afraid of the mountains. It was time to quit. Barbara was overjoyed when I told her. In turned out that she had been skiing to please me, and had never really enjoyed it the way I had (I wished I had known that before). We decided to keep the condo for the time being for a summer home. During the winter it was rented every day we weren't there, and it became a good income property.
Our next trip was to be a three-week cruise on the Black Sea. This time we would go without the kids, because our destination was not a place for children. (The kids were not fond of cruising in any event.) The smallish ship would visit several communist countries, including Russia. At this time Russia was very much behind the Iron Curtain. That was the main reason I wanted to go; what went on behind the Iron Curtain was an uncertainty, and I wanted to see personally how the Russian people lived. We were going on the cruise with our analyst friends Carol and Marvin Flicker.
I received a telephone call from Carl Albert who said, "I understand that you're going to cruise the Black Sea and Russia." "Yes, did Fred tell you?" "No, someone else did. Can we have lunch?" We met for lunch that same day. Carl told me that he had the passenger list of the cruise ship and saw my name. I was surprised and fascinated that he would have access to a passenger list of a cruise ship.
He explained that he was doing a favor for a large national Jewish organization and had obtained the list through their offices. There were Jews in big trouble behind the Iron Curtain, and this organization helped them in any way possible. So what does this have to do with me? "You are going to the Black Sea. Your ship is going to the ports of Yalta and Odessa in the Ukraine. It's almost impossible for any foreigner to get into that part of Russia, because no one can go there for business, and there are no airplane flights with tourists. The only tourists and outsiders that are allowed in are those on the couple of cruise ships that go there every year."
OK, but what has this to do with me? Carl asked that I come to dinner at his house with Barbara, Carol and Marvin, and there he'd explain in detail.
Carl lived in an impressive mansion in Bel Air. This is where the very rich live. The houses cost many millions of dollars at a time when houses of a million dollars were very rare anywhere. We arrived and were shown into a gorgeous sitting room with hors de oeuvres laid out. We had a lovely dinner with Carl and his wife, and then it was time for business.
Carl explained that the Jews of the Ukraine, where Yalta and Odessa are located, were virtually cut off from the world. They had no access to any Jewish organizations or aid of any kind. Other Jews in Russia could be contacted and helped, but not these people. They had no Jewish books whatsoever. They had no employment as it was forbidden for Jews to work. They were starving and they needed whatever help they could get. No matter how little or small the assistance was, they desperately needed it. Would the four of us be willing to take things to them?
Isn't this illegal, I asked. Well technically it wasn't illegal, but practically it was. The Soviet Union did not actually make it illegal to bring things to suffering Russians; since it couldn't be done, they didn't have to make it illegal.
So we are not going to be breaking the law, correct? To this I did not get a direct answer. Legal or illegal, it was dangerous. After all, we were going to be behind the Iron Curtain where the authorities do whatever they please.
Please do it, was his answer. Please. Take a few days and think about it, but say yes, and we will meet here again next week with others who will give you more details.
We talked about it among ourselves all week. We decided not to do this crazy thing, as there was too much personal risk. We drove together to the next meeting at Carl's house, and reminded each other that no way were we going to undertake this project. After all, we had young children and families. And, such an adventure would be dangerous and scary. Why take the risk? Why put our children's future at risk for people we don't even know?
The table was set for ten when we arrived, and there were four nicely dressed men waiting for us in the living room. They showed us a slide show about Russia and the conditions there, not just for Jews, but for everyone. This was not the stuff you saw on the CBS evening news; it was horrific. People must have felt the same way when they saw the concentration camp newsreels that came out after the Second World War. They'd say, shocked, "We had no idea. How could we have known? And even if we'd known, what could we have done about it?"
It was forcefully pointed out to us that we could do something, very real, meaningful, substantial, and now. We had it in our power to help. We would have a serious impact on the lives of thousands of people. This was not a game, this was serious business, and they needed our help, and they needed it right now. We all agreed to do it. We looked at each other with weak smiles, in total disbelief that we had agreed to do this, after we had all agreed we weren't going to do it. Now that we had agreed, what was it that we were going to do?
We then had our first briefing from the four men. I have no idea who they were, as they did not introduce themselves by any affiliation. We received first names only, and I doubt that they were correct.
Russia is a totalitarian state, we were told, and you cannot count on any rule of law. Whatever we tell you is our best information of the situation. It could change before you get there. It could change while you are there. The best thing to do is to make no assumptions and play it by ear.
Be prepared to adjust, and to alter your plans on the spot. Start out with a plan of action for each day, for whatever you are doing, and then be ready to abandon all your plans in an instant, if you feel it is necessary. Your gut reactions must control your activities. Look at this as an athletic event; be on your toes and ready to move fast in whatever direction you must, when you must. Be ready to be creative and to improvise.
They handed each of us a manila envelope, and told us to open them and examine their contents. They contained Russian visa applications already filled out except for our signatures. We were amazed that they had all of this information on each of us, including our social security numbers and mother's maiden names. So much for privacy in the U S of A. At about this point we began to suspect that these guys were from some sort of Israeli underground group. To say it was the Mossad would be pure guesswork, but that's my guess. They had no foreign accents, like spies in the movies always have, so who knew. Whatever they were, they were clearly well trained and knew what they were doing.
This operation included a great deal of planning and forethought. This gave us a degree of comfort. At the same time, though, we felt a bit violated. How did these men get all that information about us? We felt several contradictory emotions all at once; joy in doing something for people in dire need, fear for our personal safety, and insecurity over the fact that our personal histories were accessible to strangers.
Barbara was the most cool-headed of the four of us, and she pressed the men about our safety. Is there any chance we could end up in a Soviet jail or prison? Yes, but it's very slight. But then again, you can't predict with any great certainty what they will do. So it's best not to get yourself arrested. Oh great.
Is there any possibility that we will be tortured or beaten? No, not really. In cases where westerners were arrested, they spent a very short time in jail, and then they were simply ejected from Russia. The chance that you would miss your cruise ship because you are in jail is extremely small. But the chance exists, pressed Barbara. Well, as we said, there is no clear pattern or predictability to all of this.
The more we heard of the danger, the more questions we asked. We were at the Alberts' house until the wee hours of the morning. I had to go to work at about the time we got home. Barbara and I were both so juiced and hyped up from the danger and excitement that we couldn't have gone to sleep anyway.
The key point of the evening had been the shocking revelation of what was going on in Russia at that time. The entire country was an economic disaster. The communists hid the truth about how bad it was from the whole world. People were starving everywhere. There were no consumer goods. The quality of everything was terrible. The bread was an ersatz mixture of flour, various grains, weeds, grass, and often sawdust as filler. There was no butter or cheese. There was so little meat that for practical purposes no one ever had beef. The communists fooled the world into believing that everyone was working and well taken care of, but we had seen with our own eyes that this was a pack of lies. Of course, none of the dire poverty and horrible conditions applied to those fine leaders of the "masses" who controlled this Marxist paradise. They ate fine. They were warm and well clothed. They had cars and comfortable homes, and luxuries.
We were told time and time again that the entire country was so out of touch with the rest of the world that their rules, regulations, and methods of operating would not be anything we might recognize. Do not be surprised by anything. Be ready for anything. Don't make fun of anyone or anything. Do not make jokes about anything that happens or anything you see. We were going into a time warp, another dimension.
No matter how much we'd hear this, it was difficult to comprehend. They are exaggerating. They are trying to scare us, right?
All four of us spent the next couple of weeks reading whatever we could get our hands on about the USSR. Which was not much. The best information seemed to be that given out by the cruise line. They were more expert on the area than anyone else, as they were the only ones who regularly visited Yalta and Odessa.
We got together several times a week with the Flicker's to discuss our plans and share whatever information any of us had learned. It was precious little, and that added to our anxiety. We had two more sessions planned with our handlers, as we now started to call them. We were convinced that they were Israeli intelligence of some type. Carl was evasive so finally I stopped asking him who they were.
The penultimate session was to give us the details of our exact jobs. It was all very simple we were told. We will deliver to each of you a package of materials. Each will carry into the USSR the contents of your package. Do not mix them up, and try to get as much of what we give you into Russia. Dress as normal cruise ship passengers who are going ashore for a tourist visit. Do not discuss what you are doing with anyone on board the ship, and it is better not to discuss what you are doing even among yourselves once you are onboard the ship. The package will consist of books. Each book would be quite small and printed on very fine paper in very small Cyrillic script. You therefore will not know what the books are, or be able to read them.
This bit of information sent a shiver down my spine. What do you mean written in Russian, and I won't know what they are or what they say. You guys are out of your minds. I'm not doing this. They explained that the books were mostly Old Testament Bibles, and prayer books, all of which were highly illegal to own in the Soviet Union. Some books were about the creation and history of the State of Israel, and some were stories about the Jewish people, and that was it. We questioned them about this for quite some time. They assured us there was no any espionage, just material about Judaism.
Also included in each of our packages would be four names and addresses in both English and Cyrillic. They would be written on rice paper. If necessary we would eat them and destroy the evidence. Destroy the evidence? Well yes, if you are caught, or stopped, you do not want the KGB to be able to find the names of the people to whom you were going to deliver these books. They would all be shipped off to Siberia. You must protect them at all costs and destroy the names if you feel threatened. Well, if they are going to be shipped off to Siberia for having these books in their possession, what the hell is going to happen to us for having them in our possession? Nothing more than we have told you, maybe jail for a day or two, but probably not even that. You will be ejected from Russia and put back onto your ship. That's it. The people you deliver the books to, as Russian citizens, are subject to a whole different set of laws and problems. They will be in serious trouble if caught. Keep that in mind. As if I could forget it.
We were then given a whole set of instructions about what to do in various situations. One example was how to lose a tail when we are certain that the KGB is following us, which they may very well do. Why is that, we asked. Well the main reason is that there are six hundred people on the cruise you are going on. Five hundred ninety six are going on one group tourist visa, and must go only on an Intourist tour. They will be watched carefully and ushered around wherever they go. The four of you will be on open visas, which means you can go almost wherever you want to go. You can take taxicabs, go shopping, and do just about whatever you want to do.
They reminded us of the visa applications which we had signed at our first meeting. Here were our visas, with our passport photos attached, all very official and Soviet looking. It's natural that as the only four people getting off a ship in a very restricted and difficult area, we would be watched. Therefore we must learn how to rid ourselves of those watching us.
This is great. Not only are we going into this totalitarian place with its police and KGB, we are having targets painted on our backs so that the bad guys can easily identify us. You must be kidding. No, not kidding. We were told all of these things with no emotion or concern. Of course there is no concern on their parts, as we are going and not them. They assure us that "friends" will watch us, and if we do not return to the ship on time an alert will be put out at once to the American Embassy. I did not think that would have much effect or do us any good, but we were again assured that we were in no real danger and would be just fine. Then why don't you guys go yourselves?
That, it appears, was the key to the matter. Our backgrounds were very easy to check by the handlers, and by the Russians after we applied for the visas. One of the four men, who until this time had been silent, explained the whole thing in detail. I as a lawyer, and Carol and Marvin as doctors, were well documented. Anyone who checked us out knew that we were regular cruise-ship passengers. They knew of our work backgrounds and experience because it was almost all in the public records. My bar dues, Marvin's hospital rights and records, etc. etc. Because we were so visible and so easy to check, we were perfect. We caused no suspicions. None of us had ever been political activists. None had been arrested. None of us had belonged to any visible Jewish groups, or organizations. None of us had ever done anything to help persecuted people, let alone persecuted Russian Jews. We were perfect and beyond reasonable question.
The Russians would never have issued the visas to us if we had had any record of anti-Soviet or pro-Jewish behavior. In other words, we were perfect because we were uninvolved in human rights causes and/or religious matters and causes.
I did not like to hear that description of myself, but it was the truth. None of us belonged to a synagogue. None of us worshipped. None of us had ever carried a sign or protested anything. We worshipped the good life, and protested slights at the ski resorts or country clubs, and that was all.
The next set of facts concerned our interest in art. This was the "reason" we were going to Yalta and Odessa, other than merely the tourist reasons. I was going on the pretext, stated in my visa, that I was interested in the sculptures and paintings to be found in several of the major palaces of the area. Barbara was in that same category. Carol was listed as an author interested in the history of the Crimea, and in particular the Revolution of the Soviets and the Potemkin Steps. All of our interests were described as amateur and not serious, as we all had good full time jobs and all made good incomes.
Which was the clincher for the Russians. We had money. We would spend money. We didn't want anything from them. The fact that we paid taxes, were professionals, and had good jobs, was of prime importance to them in the issuing of the visas. It would have been a deal breaker had we not all had good jobs. All of our jobs were easy to check and confirm. We all were therefore considered safe, and were allowed into Russia.
Actually, one significant reason we were going to the Ukraine and Odessa was that Barbara's grandparents came from that part of Russia. Her paternal grandfather left Russia when he was small, and he moved to the New York area. We have very little information about him or his family in spite of our extensive attempts to investigate them. This lack of information caused Barbara to want to go there in the first place, and this turned out to be a reason for the KGB granting her a visa. Searching for your roots was a valid concept in their lexicon.
(Barbara's maternal grandparents lived in France, and we have hit a dead end in trying to obtain any information about them, as everyone who knew anything is now dead.)
As people whom the Soviets considered "safe", we would not be watched too closely. Probably. There was that word "probably" again.
But by this time we were in too deep to back out. The danger, the risk, and the excitement, were enticing, and no way were any of us going to chicken out now. I can still remember the feeling of excitement and anticipation. Not too different from the excitement and anticipation of the drop off and speed down a ski slope, but even more intense than that.
The last meeting was very short. We were each given our package of books. They were wrapped in plain brown wrapping paper. We were told not to unwrap them until we were on board the ship. We went over the visas and the procedures we were to follow, but in a cursory way as we had already gone over this stuff in great detail. They wished us good luck and departed. That was the last time any of us ever saw those four men.
The plane took off two days later for Athens via New York, London and Paris. We spent a couple of days in each place, doing the sights and visiting the great restaurants.
We took a limousine from Athens to the port of Piraeus to pick up the ship. We didn't talk about the adventure to come during those ten days. We had discussed it too much already, and we frankly didn't want to make ourselves more nervous than we already were.
We boarded the ship, and settled into our cabins and the routine of the ship. There were several ports of call along the way before we arrived in Yalta. The shore excursions in Romania and Bulgaria, both Soviet satellites, caused us great consternation as we got a glimpse of what totalitarianism meant. These were repressive and dark places. Everything we were shown on our tour buses was a disaster. The pre-communist buildings were nice, but in great need of cleaning and restoration. Everything was cracked and falling apart. The quality of the cars, the few which there were, was comical. The bus wasn't terrible, but far, far from what would be acceptable anywhere else in the world. The ubiquitous police in their ill-fitting uniforms were unpleasant. The people were washed out and unhappy-looking.
We now had a full day at sea before we arrived in Yalta. It was on this day that we unpacked our packages of books to take ashore in Russia. They were exactly as they had been described to us. Small and compact and finely written on fine paper. You felt you would tear a page if you turned them, as the pages were so thin. We gathered all of the other items, which we had brought with us, and those which we purchased in Europe, getting everything ready to carry ashore.
In addition to the books, we were going to bring in many items which the people could use as currency. We couldn't bring them money, as dollars were of no value to them. In those days you could not get any Russian money, as it was for internal purposes only, and was illegal for us to have. If we would be caught with Russian Rubles, we would be in serious trouble. What did work were Marlboro cigarettes and Timex watches. The Russians were crazed for western cigarettes, and Marlboro was the cigarette of choice. Watches were not available except at an exorbitant price on the black market, and it took many months of salary to purchase one. That is, if you had a job, and could find a watch to buy. We brought four dozen Timex watches, inexpensive and plain. I bought them at a Thrifty Drugstore in LA. They were on sale and very cheap. Marvin bought the cigarettes. We also bought other trinkets and stuff along the way to add to our booty.
We knew our cabins might be searched before our arrival in Russia, so we put most of the items into the ship's safe in the purser's office. The books we hid in the library. It would be difficult to explain to Russian customs agents why we needed four dozen Timex watches, so we were very scared and nervous, but still ready for our arrival in the city of Yalta, in The Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics.