Being a history of my father, Ben Baruch Freeman better known as Budgie, written while I was passing through his hometown on a train in winter, fifteen years before he died. Following that, a series of appreciative vignettes I wrote out for him as his memory was faltering, about ten years later.
“I’m Just a Kid Again, Doing What I Did Again…”
I am singing this song about the red, red robin by the window of a train moving in winter through South Bend, Indiana all covered with snow. My father was born here, as I keep saying to myself. On Scott Street, even before these mid-century roofs blanketed the outskirts of town. His family’s old wooden house was big enough for more than fifteen, when they had to accommodate Shabbos guests. But as Budgie recalls, ”We were so poor we had to share an egg.”
It is still as snowy as it was when he grew up there, seen through frost on window-glass, though there are no longer peddler wagons hauling mattresses with blue ticking and box-springs, and not any more buckboard seats. My father Ben Baruch’s seat next to him on that buggy’s buckboard gave my zadeh Yakov easy access to my dad’s ear. To fill with dutiful lessons from the Gemara? Or to box that ear—an act of punishment so automatic as to occur without thought. Gib im nisht eyn frosk! Ever since, my grandfather’s son has lived in fear of letting his own anger loose, which only a few times in my life got aimed at me, both times with terrifying quickness. This is how obedience and rebellion still shudder their reverberations down three generations. Righteousness, repression, resentment—and repair.
He helps his stern father with the horse and buggy, remembers unhitching the animal and combing him in the garage behind Scott Street. My father soon learned that the way off that buckboard was to make his own money. “I’d sell papers every Sunday morning. I’d walk through the alleyways; because I was always afraid I’d run into one of my teachers.”
At home his mother sat almost in state, regally allowing her three daughters to do the housework and to cook, under her close supervision, while she reminisced about Al Jolson’s circumcision, the bris to which she had been a proud invited guest. My father could not remember ever having any physical contact with his mother, my bobbe Rose.
A Polish lady hires ten-year old Benny to sell ice cream cones on the train from South Bend to Chicago, cones that she carefully scooped with a hollow in their center so he had to sell them quickly. He was proud to be given an official train vendor’s cap, which allowed him also to board the northbound and return home, and to this day he can imitate the train conductor, calling out each of the consecutive station stops. When he is twelve he works for the same woman in her brothel, hauling pans of warm water to the rooms of her prostitutes; some of the Black and Polski girls were even imported from Chicago. He begs the madame to let him stay to see. Let the Jewish boy’s eyes take in what is forbidden in his orthodox home, But she’d say, “Benny you’re a good boy,” so never did give him permission.
As Yiddish brothers living near Catholic Notre Dame, they learn to sneak into football games. They also learn to defend themselves against the goyim and the shvartzes. But their most frequent fights are with each other. My father and his elder brother Lazar (my uncle Lee), who looks like Jack Dempsey with his boiled-potato face, were always at it. “I’d call him Kaiser, you know it would make him fight.” Those were no John Garfield dramatic bouts, but are still damaging. And they lead my father into joining the high school wrestling team, where he excells, making his way up to a version of the Golden Gloves. His best friend Izzy Gutstein still remembers that as the most important thing my father ever did in his life. Known as Budgie, my dad’s songs are always of the keep-smiling type: Keep On the Sunny Side, the Red, Red Robin (who “keeps bob, bob, bobbin’ along”), When You’re Smiling or Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile“.
Like most of his brothers, he leaves the land of Knute Rockne and makes his way to sunny Southern California. The obligation to pray in synagogue several times a day is left behind in that cold Indiana home. In Los Angeles (which he always pronounced with a hard G), he meets three Jewish girls and gives rides in his 1929 Chevy from the corner of Beverly and Fairfax to UCLA– for 30 cents roundtrip. “I remember one was Alice Swerdlow, they were all UCLA students—well, so was I, but I never felt that smart. I just got in somehow.”
He also makes a living of a sort selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door. Yes, with the actual pile of dirt dumped on the prospective customer’s carpet to prove how well the Hoover could work! He survives by buying fatty lox ends from a delicatessen on Fairfax. He loses his virginity. He gets booted out of UCLA for cheating on a final exam, but then manages to make his way into USC to finish a bachelor’s degree. He teaches Mexican kids in an elementary school in Brawley, a rural inland town halfway to the border.
And when World War II arrives, he enlists in the Army, serving out the war years stateside as a speech pathologist– as a child he had a stutter—while stationed in the San Fernando Valley at Birmingham Army Base. It would later become Birmingham High School, one of the five high schools I attended, but that is another story.
Those years in the military with his buddies were “the best time of my life,” he tells me. And although not very tall, in those years he is considered handsome in his army khakis, and is always quick with a joke or story. He doesn’t marry the girl who makes love in her rented apartment; he marries the one who wouldn’t.
After some decades, the birth of me and my sister Debbie, more college degrees (including a PhD in Psychology at Denver U (the first year on a scholarship from his longtime employer the Veterans’ Administration and the second on funds cobbled together by his brothers), a third child Philip is born as he graduates, and we move back to Los Angeles. Like other families involved in Jewish Flight to the suburbs, the G.I. Bill allows us as white people to buy a first home in one of the new subdivisions in the San Fernando Valley, followed by a larger one. He finds it harder and harder to relate to his older son who reads books for fun (Ben read one novel in college) and has no interest in sports. Like many men of his background, he really has little idea how to show love to a quickly individuating child, after the infant and cute toddler years are passed.
From about the age of seven I find my father at best absent, at worst distant. As a teenager I leave home as soon as possible, and return what I take as his hostility by refusing the only form of love he had to offer– money. I was lucky to find hip comrades, slightly older mentors, teachers who become lifelong friends, and some great partners. But no other father.
And then he is left by our mother. And the father who cared for us when we were young, moves out of the house. I don’t think the constant joker ever saw it coming. “The times,” as the song now says, “they are a-changing” but he was always the conformist. His politics: “Always go with the winner!” which meant Roosevelt, Eisenhower, JFK and then Nixon! Such was his strategy, learned in the district wards of South Bend. He obviously gets left behind as we outgrow the parameters of his ability to accept the identity politics, cultural disruptions and affronts that his children make during the ’60s-’80s.
What remained were a psychology private practice my mother had once pushed him into opening and used to run for him, plus a lonely condominium, restaurant meals, membership in a health club for shvitz baths. And meetings of a professional group, the Optimists International, of course.
Is this the sad ending of a second-generation immigrant’s history? It is not. Only a depressing hiatus in a suburban cul-de-sac. A road of running from pain and poverty takes a bend when you can’t run any longer. This is what can happen to a man who, avoiding emotions, doesn’t want to look back or forward, so can’t really see where he is.
And the change comes from that potato-faced brother, the physical nemesis of his childhood. Lee, older by one year, is now dying of lung cancer, his large body failing him after having successfully produced athletic children, a good-sized law practice and a legacy in real estate. But in dying he discovers what my father hasn’t yet, then finds my father and teaches him something of how to live at the end of a life. “We have to show each other,” he caringly tells Budgie in a language neither of them has known, “how we feel. And to say I love you.” They embrace, finally, without the justification of wrestling.
At nearly the same time, in his sixth decade, my father falls in love with a woman twenty years younger who has children to raise, still sees other men, and needs money. The affair cannot work. But no matter. He finds out what it is to live at the mercy of emotions larger than himself; and that he has the ability to survive the loss of love. This is a great gift in life.
Not long after he meets and marries Norma, a woman who talks a lot and has a huge heart. They constantly show how much they appreciate each other. They travel a lot. A Manhattanite whose prior marriage had immersed her in show business, Norma also helps him overcome some provincial problems, such as his deep homophobia. He is encouraged to show love to his gay son, and to talk about the regrets in his life, even to admit pain he caused.
Now he likes me asking him about South Bend, the Army, the women in his life. He even tells me he knows he has not always been the best father, and if I would tell him what that was like for me, he will listen. I am surprised, but I do, in some detail. For him, it is a reminder that he can survive the pain of remembering. For me, proof that change can come, even if late, and that there can exist actual redemption. If not on the buckboard of a horse-and-buggy, at least behind the dashboard of an oversize Buick, we each find ways through the gates of forgiveness.
Mark Freeman, December 26, 1985
The only thing you ever requested from me was that I say Kaddish for you after you were gone. I recall how you still did that every year for your Pa.
Ikh hob dir in hertz, you wrote once in a card. I have you in mine too. On my dad’s yartzheit, Dec. 16, 2021
The following is a series of memories I made into a booklet and gave to my dad Budgie when he was already in his eighties.
SOME MEMORIES SAVED
I remember how cold it was in Denver, from the way your ears felt on my cheeks. You would return home from making notes for your thesis in Denver University’s library late at night—at least it was late for me when I was five or six. I had made you promise to come in and wake me up to say goodnight if I fell asleep. And you did. I would ask you to put your cold ears on my cheek, one at a time, until they were all warmed up. That was the time in my early life that I felt closest to you.
I remember that I heard you tell a joke in the barber’s chair on the campus of D.U. I then retold it in school the next day. This got me into enough hot water that they called you and Mom into the elementary school office. I really did not understand the joke, but I certainly found out it was wrong, and powerful.
I remember your tape recorder, a Webcor I think it was. Now we’d think of it as a huge bulky antique with its giant tape reels. They were for use in work environments, no home recorders even existed. You encouraged us talk or sing into it, while you narrated as if we were the most important kid entertainers in the world. And you did this year after year. All to preserve us forever as children.
I remember the Quonset hut we stayed in for some months in 1955 when we first moved to Denver and before our apartment in our brick married student housing residency building was ready. Just up the alley from that hut (a corrugated aluminum half-circular structure left over from the War) lived a family who actually owned a television. They would put it on their window sill, or set it up in their living room, inviting people over to watch it like a tiny theater. We’d catch the Mickey Mouse Club with adults Jimmie Dodd and Roy, plus Darlene and Annette, that cute Bobby and li’l Cubby. It was the first time I’d ever seen TV, likely the first any of us had.
I remember sneaking into the yard next door and stealing rhubarb from someone we called Mr. Grumpy. That sour rhubarb never got bigger than pencil-thin. If he saw us in his yard he would burst out his back door, yelling, and we’d scamper back under the fence. Later you discovered my candy thefts, which I hid buried in the communal sandbox. I will never forget the day you made me return some to the small store I had lifted it from, to apologize.
I remember sitting on your lap and being big enough to reach around and discover you had lumps on your back. You told Debbie and I not to worry, they were nothing. I’ve since learned they are lipomas, or fatty deposits. And guess what? I have my first one too.
On one of our road trips between Denver and L.A. I remember that you left the two of us outside a building with lots of lights, watching the “one-arm bandits” through the plate glass window of a casino in Vegas. I was holding the envelope you told me not to give you even if you asked for it. But then you came out and asked if we wanted ice cream. Yes! Then you went back in. I believe we ate only peanut butter sandwiches all the rest of the ride home. In my memory of that story we ate peanut butter sandwiches for breakfast, lunch and dinner. But it couldn’t have been that long a trip, could it?
I remember the omelettes you used to make for Flippy, Debbie and I. They rose up airy and hollow in the pan, and even stayed puffy for a few moments on our plates. Where did you learn how to do that? You were always wide awake and cheerful in the morning, before Mom was awake. I usually am too and I still like to make breakfast, but I can’t puff my eggs.
I remember the days you took me to work with you at the V.A. Hospital on Sawtelle. What I recall most are the walls—all the same pale green color, and the wooden ramps for the wheelchairs and guerneys of the ill veterans. I would always get a hot tamale wrapped in printed paper in the cafeteria line. And how proud I was that my father was Dr. Freeman. And I remember how proud to show me off you were, too.
I remember times you took me with you during your speech counseling shifts at a center for developmentally disabled children (in those days still referred to as “retarded”). You left me in the open area to play with them, so I developed comfort instead of learning to be afraid. I liked those kids, and haven’t been afraid of people who are different ever since.
I remember that you would pass on your Hypnosis Journals to me when I was old enough to read such things, and you marked the articles you found interesting with a red marker. Weren’t there also some Journals of Sexuality? You also subscribed to Playboy, but probably not for the waiting room of your office. I don’t recall you passing those on to me. Actually, I liked Esquire better, as I was an incipient clothes-horse by the age of twelve.
I remember when you flew up to get me out of Juvenile Jail in Berkeley, where I had spent the night for being in the car of a friend who tried to throw ten lids (ounces) of weed over a fence when the sirens approached us. It was very important to me as a sixteen-year old who believed my dad would probably turn me in to the police, that instead you stood up for me, and were so kind and supportive when I felt alone, angry and scared, And I recall that you were also concerned about my friend Curren who did not get released.
I remember the years you lived alone in one apartment or condominium or another in the Valley. And I remember helping you get your stuff out of the least likable of your girlfriend’s apartments, the one you were afraid of. We worried about you living alone, with only work to keep you busy, until you finally found a real keeper, your new wife Norma.
I remember your generosity, the way you never hesitated to spend money on your kids, only skimping on yourself. It is still hard to figure out what to give to someone who feels he needs nothing. During my early twenties I refused anything from you and lived on Food Stamps, though I knew that hurt you. But later I got over that anger, luckily, and I could appreciate trips you paid for without any qualms, like one to Baja even when you weren’t very enchanted with it yourself. Or when any of us needed help getting to Israel, or back from Spain, to the Philippines or Hawaii. You taught us to give when we have it, and without expecting praise.
I remember during one of your solo visits to San Francisco we needed to find a shul so you could keep Yizkor for your Pa, on the anniversary of his death. We found an orthodox Sephardic one out in the Avenues. I liked it because they let their children wander free in the aisles, running from the men’s area to the women’s partition.
Then I recall you and Norma visiting Sha’ar Zahav, my LGBT temple with me, and meeting the children I did special story classes with in our cheder. I loved that my kids could see that I too had parents. Then, on a later visit you came with Ken and I to an old converted firehouse near Fisherman’s Wharf where one of those kids had her Bat Mitzvah.
I have never forgotten your telling me that when you work out at the gym you do repetitions of 18 for Chai, plus three more—one for each of your children. Since then as I work out, I still do repetitions of 18.
I remember sitting with you in a garden in the Berkeley Hills while Norma visited with some of her oldest friends. We talked for over an hour, our longest chat in some years, about our memories and health situations (Nu, what else do old Jewish men talk about?) including the terrible annoyance of forgetfulness. Now that my medicines help me not to be forgetful, I’ll be taking care of the remembering for the both of us; this I promised you.
Ben Baruch Freeman, PhD
July 6, 1913- Dec. 16, 1999