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Thursday, 05 June 2008

MEMOIR: Meeting My Boyhood Idol on Chowringhee

By Mort Reichek of Octogenarian

Mortreichekbadge_2 Growing up in the Bronx during the 1930s, my intellectual life was dominated by sports. I lived within walking distance of Yankee Stadium so my friends and I had a primary interest in baseball. We could rattle off statistics about batting averages and pitching records and recite the starting lineups of every major league team with extraordinary precision. If we could have devoted such scholarly passion to our schoolwork we all would have been candidates for Ivy League college scholarships.

I stood out among my friends by being the only one who was not a Yankee fan. My team was the Detroit Tigers. One reason may have been that the Tigers won the World Series in 1934, the year in which my interest in Big League baseball began to blossom. My fellow 10-year-old friends, probably embittered by the Yankees' failure to win the American League pennant that year, were obviously not as impressed by the Tigers' achievement as I was.

My loyalty to the Detroit Tigers was also based on the fact that my father had once worked on a Ford Motor Co. assembly line, providing me with a provincial link to the city of Detroit that no other kid on the block possessed.

Hankgreenberg But the over-riding factor in my emotional attachment to the Tigers was my worship of Hank Greenberg, the team's star first baseman. His photograph, along with such other Jewish athletic heroes as the lightweight boxing champ Barney Ross and famed football players Sid Luckman and Marshall Goldberg, covered the wall behind my bed, much to the displeasure of my pious grandmother with whom I shared the bedroom. She would have preferred a more conventional sign of my religious allegiance to Judaism.

My Uncle George had given me Greenberg's photo, which bore both Hank's signature and a personal endorsement to me, his adoring fan. The link between Hank Greenberg and my uncle was a business one. My uncle owned a small shop manufacturing men's suits. One stage in the manufacturing process is called "sponging," in which the fabric is prepared for tailoring. Hank Greenberg's father was a sponging contractor. My Uncle George was his customer.

As I entered my late teen years, my intellectual passion for baseball began to wane. Now I was struggling with a full-time job while attending college at night and awaiting my induction into the Army. And, of course, I had discovered girls. I was starting to lose interest in Hank Greenberg's batting average.

In April 1943, I was inducted into the Army. After nine months of training in bases in Florida and Missouri, I was shipped to India from Hampton Roads, Virginia, and landed in Bombay after a month-long voyage via Capetown, South Africa. For the next few months, I was shuttled from one U.S. military installation to another while the Army was presumably deciding where I could make the most valuable contribution to the war effort.

I was eventually assigned to the 903rd Signal Co., which was initially based near a leper colony operated by Catholic missionaries in the province of Bihar. We were later transferred to a vacant Bengali jute mill about 50 miles north of Calcutta that had been converted into a U.S. Army air depot.

During my travels across India I got to see more of the country than most natives. I visited the Taj Mahal in Agra; the pornograpic Hindu temples outside Madras; the holy Hindu city of Benares; the Towers of Silence outside Bombay, where the Parsis deposit their dead to feed the vultures; the caged prostitutes in Bombay's Red Light district; and enough other famous sites to fill a guide book to India.

But the most startling sighting for me occurred in Calcutta one day in April 1945, as I strolled down Chowringhee, the city's main boulevard, while on a weekend pass. For Calcutta, a city I visited often, Chowringhee had the municipal stature of New York's Fifth Ave. and Broadway combined, but with sanitation facilities not much more advanced that the Stone Age.

Walking alone on a street ahead of me was a tall Air Force officer. From a distance, he looked vaguely familiar. As he approached me, I was stunned to see that the officer was Hank Greenberg. He was now a captain in the 14th Air Force based in China and was visiting Calcutta on a furlough. We exchanged salutes, and he stopped to ask me for directions to some place whose identity I've forgotten. This was Greenberg's first visit to Calcutta. I apparently had the look of an old Calcutta hand.

After replying to his query, I confided that he had been my boyhood idol. He was charmed to hear that and was pleased to discuss his baseball career with me. He even recalled that his father, the sponging contractor, had once had him autograph a photo for a customer's nephew. He was delighted to learn that I was the nephew.

We conversed for about 15 minutes. The weather was brutally hot. In front of us as we talked was the Grand Hotel, which housed a club for British and American military officers. Greenberg was about to invite me to join him for a drink inside when he suddenly realized that I would be barred from entering because I was a mere staff sergeant and not an officer. He was clearly embarrassed by the matter of military rank and apologized. I told him that I was unconcerned and that I had been thrilled to meet him. But I said that the Bronx, our mutual home town, would have been a better setting than Chowringhee.

We exchanged salutes again, shook hands, and said our good-byes. "It was a pleasure to meet you," he said as we parted. During three years in the Army, no officer had ever said that to me. But then I had never met an officer who had been my boyhood idol.

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Once again, the cupboard is nearly bare of stories. Time for any readers inclined to share yours to send them along.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post

Comments

Once again you have written a fascinating story, Mort. Since we lived during the same period I am always interested in stories from the W.W.II era.

I think that your story is proof that it's a small world.

Mort,

What a touching story. Hank Greenberg was a great athlete and after reading your story I realize that he was also a great gentleman.

Thanks for telling us this story. Sometimes ,when we have the opportunity to meet one of our heroes, we are disappointed in their behavior, but not this time.

Hank Greenberg was a real hero!

A fascinating story, and it is just too sad that you were not permitted to enter that hotel! Thanks for sharing.

Hi Mort,
I was born in Detroit and still live in the area. Last year I took a bus tour of old Jewish Detroit. One of the places we stopped was at the synagogue Hank Greenberg went to when he famously sat out the game on a Jewish holiday. Another man on the tour was a little boy in attendance that day and he pointed out the seat that Hank Greenberg sat in. I ran over to sit down in it. A good friend of mine named Greenberg, also a kid of that era, acquired the nickname Hank from his friends and family which he still goes by to this day. He's a Canadian which shows how proud every Jew everywhere was.

Good story, Mort! It must've been a thrill meeting your idol!

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