In The Company of An Angel


I attended an event at the 92nd Street Y that celebrated the life of Primo Levi. Levi was a Italian Jewish chemist, writer and Holocaust survivor. His major work was “If This Is A Man” an account of the time he spent in the Auschwitz concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. He was rounded up with 650 other Jews. They traveled for many days on a cramped train and were incarcerated for almost a year. By the time the camp was liberated by the Russians only 20 had survived.

An impressive group of writers and publishers had assembled in tribute to this remarkable man. I thought I would stick around afterward and try to meet some of them. The evening was sponsored by the New Yorker magazine. The magazine’s editor David Remnick read from “If This Is A Man,” the chapter about the round up and the trip to Auschwitz. About how no one knew what to expect. Upon arrival, under the watch of guards,  the women, children, elderly and sick were taken away in one direction, the men in another. They were told to leave their luggage on the platform. It was a poignant reading.  Many people were in tears. I must admit I myself was a little weepy.

At the end of the evening there was a wine and cheese reception and an opportunity to meet the readers. Not knowing anyone, I stood by the bar, glass in one hand and cheese plate in the other surveying the crowd and waiting for an opening to talk to Mr.  Remnick. Near me, I noticed a small elderly woman standing by herself. She must have been around 90 years old, dressed in a lovely suit with a scarf and carrying a handbag. Her hair was nicely coiffed.  I thought I would go over and say hello.

I introduced myself and we shook hands. In an effort to make small talk I allowed as to how much I enjoyed the evening, especially the Remnick reading. I noted how palpable the emotion was in the auditorium and how much I was affected. She admitted that she too and became a little teary eyed. At that moment she turned, looked in my eyes and said simply “I made the trip.”  I was stunned, I didn’t know what to say. It was as if a boxer had hit me in my stomach and I stopped breathing. I couldn’t speak. When I gathered my composure I said “Words fail me, I have no words.”  She smiled and said, “I see some friends that I must speak to. Thank you for coming over. It was so nice to have chatted with you.” And she tottered off leaving me to wonder what had just happened. She was so self assured. She was proud. Like a Marine vet who says “I made Iwo.” It was her metaphor for letting me know that she was a survivor. Of the Holocaust.

To this day I still don’t know what happened. That brief encounter affected me in a very deep and profound way that I make no attempt to understand or explain.  Perhaps some day I will. All I know is that for a few brief minutes that night I was in the company  of an an angel.



My friend Annie and I were invited to a Thanksgiving Day dinner party. We thought we should bring something and after some discussion we decided on an apple peach pie. “I will make it from my grandmother’s recipe. I’ll buy some fresh apples and we can use the big jar of peaches that we got from the farm stand,” she said.

She was soon back from the market with a large bag of apples and we got started. She quickly finished the pie crust and began to cut up the apples. “Why don’t you open the peaches?,” she said. “This is great,” I thought, “All I have to do is open a jar!.”

The peaches, perfectly formed, succulent yellow orange slices in their syrupy juice sat there, ready to be opened. I held the jar on the counter top with my left hand and started to twist with my right. Nothing happened, the lid wouldn’t budge. I twisted some more, gripping the lid as hard as I could. Still nothing. And more. Nothing. By this time my fingers were red and began to sting. The palm of my hand was burning. Far from ready to admit defeat, I allowed that I was having some trouble getting it open. Annie said “Be careful,” “Why don’t you try holding the lid with a towel or a rubber glove. That way you might get more traction.” I tried in quick succession a towel and then a glove. I had all the traction in the world but neither the towel nor the glove worked. By this time all  the twisting was causing my forearm muscles to shake. I reached for a knife. I gingerly tapped around the lid a few times. I tried again with harder taps, they didn’t work. Taking up the jar in my left hand I tried again, and again, and yet again. By this time, in frustration and desperation, I was hammering on the lid. “Watch you don’t break the jar,” she said. I was determined not to give up. “I will do battle with you, Jar, you will not defeat me. I shall prevail,” I exclaimed. At this point, thinking that some supernatural power was needed I tried to will it to open, I even prayed. No luck. “Why don’t you try running it under hot water,” Annie said. Great idea. Turning on the hot water and holding the jar in both hands I held the lid under the steaming flow. The water was almost scalding. Soon some of the water ran down through my fingers onto my arms. I screamed in pain. “This damned thing is killing me,” I said. “Easy does it,” she said, a wise piece of advice, sadly unheeded on my part.

After drying myself off and waiting for the stinging pain in my arms to subside. I reconsidered my strategy. Let’s try the knife again, this time a larger knife, a carving knife. I furiously beat the around the lid not caring whether or not I broke the jar. In fact, the idea of actually breaking the jar was beginning to appeal to me. I thought, how can I do it safely, and how to do it without breaking the whole jar and spilling all the peaches? I had the perfect hammer for the job in my tool box. Sanity prevailed however, and I gave up on that idea. Next I found a large flat head screwdriver and, cradling the jar like a football in the crook of my left arm tried to pry the lid loose. The blade was not thin enough to slip between the top of the jar and the lid. I was losing my patience by this time. I furiously jammed the screwdriver against, alternately, the glass and the metal lid. Until the screwdriver slipped and speared my left hand, in the crevice between my thumb and index finger. “Yow!,”  I screamed, while looking at the ugly cut.  I rushed into the bathroom, washed the wound and put some bandages on it. I went back to the kitchen to continue the battle. Realizing the  screwdriver method would not work, I had another thought. What if I could find one of those really cool jar opener things? They have a grip and a handle that would give me the leverage I needed. I knew I had the strength to open it with one of those.  I put my jacket on and made my way to the door. “Where are you going?” Annie said. “I’m running up to Feldman’s to get one of those jar opener things. I’ll be right back.” “Hurry back, we are running out of time,” she said. So armed with grit, determination and resolve and, with the knowledge that time was no longer on my side, I raced the 10 blocks up to Feldman’s Housewares. Of course they were all out; they sold the last one that morning. But they would be getting some more in next week.  I guessed that someone else was having trouble opening their jar of peaches, and waiting until next week just wasn’t an option. I left Feldman’s feeling pretty dejected. “Maybe I could convince Annie to just make an apple pie,” I thought, ruefully. I didn’t want to give up and at the same time I knew that Annie would not buy the apple pie idea. I was doomed.

I raced the ten blocks back to the apartment. “They didn’t have any more left,” I said sadly, completely defeated. “Why don’t you try hot water one more time. Try running the water all around the edge of the lid, where the rim meets the glass. Make the water as hot as you can.  But don’t burn yourself again.” I was skeptical but did as she told me. Being a good sport and having run out of all my options I gave it another try. After a few minutes I dried the jar off and scooped it up again. I grabbed the lid with my best vise-like grip with all the strength I could muster and started twisting.  I was shocked and surprised to see it easily come off, without resistance and fall into my hand. “Oh my God!,” I shouted. I was almost speechless and amazed to see what had happened. When I gathered my composure I asked her, “How did you know to try that again? How did you know that would work?” “I didn’t know it would work with certainty but I did know that heat causes metal to expand at twice the rate of glass,”she said. “The heated air in the jar will also expand reducing the pressure difference that holds the lid on. You probably ran the water only on the top of the lid; running it on the sides is what does the trick.”  “How do you know all that?,” I said incredulously. “Sophomore science. That was part of an experiment I did for the High School science fair,” she said with a smile as she busily set about scooping the redolent peaches out of the jar and into the pie.

Cargo Nets


In the summer of 1956, when I was 11 years old, I went to see the movie “Away All Boats.” It starred Jeff Chandler who played the captain of the amphibious attack transport, Belinda (APA-22). The movie followed the ship and its crew across the Pacific carrying Marines to their island campaigns.I was so excited to see this movie. The scenes of Marines climbing down the cargo nets suspended along the sides of the the ships excited me stirred up a desire to do something like that. In later years I did not remember much about the movie except for those scenes and the sight of the little boats forming up in circles preparatory to assembling on the line of departure for their trip to the beach. I did not know then that I wanted to a Marine, I just knew that I wanted very much something to do with the heroism, bravery, and sacrifices of those men. Growing up in the years after World War II I heard many tales and adventures from my dad, uncles, and men in the neighborhood. I overheard one man say to a friend, “I met your dad on the beach at Saipan.” That sent shivers down my spine. I wanted to be like these men and do noble deeds.

Ten years later II was a young Marine Lieutenant assigned to the Basic Officers Course at Quantico, VA. One week the training schedule showed a full day blocked out for “Cargo Nets.” I immediately knew what this meant. On the assigned day we fell in with rifles and full gear and proceeded out to the training area. There in front of us was a 20 foot wall with two cargo nets attached. The structure looked huge and presented me with yet another training challenge. I was confident I could climb down the net; climbing up would be something else. With the “encouragement” of the instructors and my comrades I made it up and down several times. I was so concentrated on the instruction “Don’t Look Down” that I did not have time to think of the  heavy rifle and pack on my back. This activity prepared us for more fun to come: a live exercise.

The following week we traveled to the Navy base at Norfolk, VA where we boarded the Attack Transport USS Francis Marion (APA-249). We were quickly assigned to quarters. Each space accommodated 50 Marines. The racks were arranged in 6-high tiers. I took the top rack, with the overhead about a foot above me. The space was somewhat private as I had no one above me, although I had 5 guys below me!

. The following morning, the first day of our 3 days of landings, we were awakened at 0600. We proceeded to breakfast at 0630. Breakfast consisted of steak and eggs, the traditional breakfast fed to Marines before a landing. I felt so proud to be part of that tradition as it represented the last meal many Marines would ever have had. By 0800 we were all on deck. I was eager to get to my station early. As I recall, the sky was overcast and a light breeze was blowing. The sea was choppy, and the air felt crisp. The deck was noisy with orders being shouted and sailors running everywhere. I was assigned to debark station Red 1. There are 5 debarcation stations on either side of an APA and each is color coded. Red 1 was the highest station because it was up on the bow. Of course I had to get that one! I and my pals Max Kalletta, Jack Kelly and Pete Kearney were the first ones over the rail. I broke the first rule and  looked down into the little boat about 40 feet below me bobbing up and down in the water and banging into the side of the ship. It could have been a mile away! All of a sudden reality hit me, I have to climb down this net and into that little boat. At once I felt nauseous and scared. I did not want to get sea sick and I did not want my fear to show and I certainly did not want to fall off the net. My training kicked in and, with the three others, in an instant, I was over the side. That was a life lesson for me. Fear is dispelled by taking action. Once you get absorbed in doing something, the fear goes away. The descent was easier than I thought. I followed the second training rule which was to climb with my feet and not with my hands. I relied on my feet for weight and position and my hands for balance. And I timed my jump into the boat so I would land on the up roll of the boat on the waves. Before going over the side we were warned to time our leap into  the boat with its upward roll. To do otherwise would risk a fall and a broken ankle. Once in the boat, we grabbed the lines fastened to the beam at the end of the net and pull them hard so the net would remain taut and would rest at the bottom of the boat. No sooner did I grab hold of my rope than the net started to fill with Marines. It took all my strength to hold that rope and my side of the net taut as the little Papa boat rose and fell and banged against the side of the ship. The wind and waves had picked up by that time and I was starting to get wet. But as hard as I worked I kept my gear on my back and my rifle on my shoulder.

Once our boat filled with Marines, the coxswain received the order to depart. He proceeded out into the open ocean and formed up with other boats from the Francis Marion in a tight circle which got larger as other boats were joined. The sea was really choppy by this time and we soon got sopping wet. The sound of the loud engines was so noisy that it was almost impossible to be heard so hand signals were used. Once all the boats had joined the circle we proceeded out to form up on the line of departure. Nothing is more thrilling than to see to the right and left boats lined up in a perfectly straight line poised for the order to attack. The waiting seemed forever but at last the signal was given and we proceeded to make our 2,000 yard trip to the beach. The little boat plowed through the chop as it rose and fell on each wave, Water streamed over the gunwales and spray flew over the flat ramp at the forward part of the boat. The bad news was that i was soaked; the good news was that I was not seasick!

When we arrived at the beach, the boat unloaded us in about 5 feet of water and we had to wade the rest of the distance to shore, holding our rifles over our heads. By this time, I was cold, wet, covered with sand, and exhausted. Once ashore we began to execute our training exercise. And have the chance to do it all over again the next day.



France, April 1944. Here is a young woman on a train. She is sitting in 2nd class. It is raining. Preoccupied, her thoughts are elsewhere as she gazes out the window at the countryside as it rushes past. The driving rain is strong and the wind beats streams  of water against the steamy glass. She can barely make out the farms and houses as they flash by in the gray mist.

The woman is of average height and build, 35 years of age, with pale complexion, and blue eyes. Her light brown hair is long and  pinned back with a barrette, the kind  that was popular in the ‘20s. Her eyeglasses perch on the end of her small nose. She is wearing an oversized, heavy blue cardigan sweater, gray gabardine trousers, and brown walking shoes. She is dressed like a teacher, which she is, a teacher of archaeology at the the Université at Rheins. She studied at the Sorbonne and graduated with a masters degree and honors. She spent several summers in digs throughout Syria examining Assyrian royal tombs. Her name is Justine, her code name, the name by which she is known in the Resistance. It is not important that we know her real name. We need only know that on this day she is escorting a downed American airman over one of the escape routes of the Comete Line, a network from Belgium to Spain. Her responsibility is the Rheims – Paris link. She is traveling with false papers under the name of Emilie Durand, a teacher. She has a 9 mm Walther PPK pistol tucked snugly into the waistband of her trousers at the small of her back.

Her traveling companion, and “cousin,” is 1st Lieutenant Hal Davenport, U.S Air Force. Hal’s bomber crash landed 3 weeks ago. He is carrying a piece of German anti aircraft shell in his left side. The pain is bearable. The wound is sufficiently healed to allow him to travel. His  false papers identify him as Etienne Pascal, an office clerk. Hal is 24 years old, over six feet  all, a Texan. He is a handsome man, with dark brown hair, piercing dark brown eyes, and an Errol Flynn pencil mustache. His lanky frame is crammed down into the small, uncomfortable seat. He has had a heightened sense of awareness since boarding the train in Rheins where they passed through document control without a hitch. They were lucky the French police were not so thorough. Lately, since the Jewish roundups, the police have become more attentive. Hal is dressed as a typical Parisian office clerk. He is wearing an ill fitting black suit, white shirt and nondescript gray tie. In his lapel the badge of the local Vichy political society. His shoes are well worn. It was difficult to find clothes that fit him which delayed their departure.The size 12 shoes posed quite a problem. The journey from Rheims to Paris takes a little more than an hour. They are making good time. They will arrive early.

Suddenly the train begins to slow. Justine sits bolt upright. She strains her neck and eyes to see out the window. They are not near a station. Why are they slowing? The train proceeds more and more slowly. She becomes even more concerned.  Is there a problem with the engine? With the tracks? Are they switching us? She has a strong sense that something is very wrong. Suddenly, coming into view, a road crossing with a safety gate. The gate is down. There are several civilian cars and a German army staff car parked at the side of the road. The German officers are standing next to their car. Beside the other cars are small groups of men wearing long black coats, smoking and talking. Dear God, she thinks. The Gestapo! This is not another document control! They are probably looking for someone. The train hissing steam, grinds to a stop.  The men pair up and quickly and efficiently board the train, each entering different carriages. What to do? She is thinking quickly now, critically assessing f the situation. She looks out  the window on the other side of the carriage. She sees tracks and beyond  the continuation of the road, a forest. The door to the forward carriage is about 2 meters away. Beyond that door the platform between the cars and a safety gate. The gate can easily be unlatched. Just 15 seconds to be out the door, onto the platform and through the gate. The 3 meter jump to the ground and a 50 meter run across the tracks to the tree line would take at most one minute. They could do that even with Hal’s wound. The train is blocking the road which works in their favor. Her hand reaches slowly for the Walther and her fingers carefully unlatch the safety. She does not want to shoot the men but she will if she must. She whispers her plan to Hal. With a wink and a nod he signals his understanding and approval. She sits back and waits.

She hears the doors of the carriage squealing as they open. She doesn’t panic and, even though she is boiling over inside, she maintains her composure. She must not betray any emotion or show fear for to do so means instant arrest, interrogation, and imprisonment. She thinks of Dedée Gaumont, captured by the Gestapo, tortured and executed. She knows they are about 5 km from Epernay where her uncle, a member of the Maquis, the local Resistance,  keeps a safe house. The forest is their only hope. The men are getting closer as they check each passenger. They are formal and direct. “Your papers please,” they say. Slowly and methodically they work their way through the carriage. Did we attract attention at Rheims? That couldn’t be; they would have grabbed us then. What if they speak to Hal?  Will they believe her when she tells them that her cousin can’t speak because he’s had a tonsil operation? No time for useless thoughts. She comes back to their escape plan, running it over and over in her mind. The men are coming closer. She hears their abrupt impatience at the slightest hesitation or delay. The men are now questioning the passengers in the seat behind them She glances at Hal, then at the door. He taps her wrist with assurance. She is fortunate to have him with her, a large, strong man, a definite asset should they need to execute the plan. She is ready, poised to leap.

Harold and Emily


Harold arrived at the park early. He eased his lanky frame down onto his favorite bench, stretched out his legs, and opened the cup of steaming hot coffee that he brought from the deli. This was his favorite park and had been Emily’s too before she moved away. Harold was a tall, gawky man, 40ish with sandy, curly hair, brown eyes and a ruddy complexion. His thick glasses made him look older than he really was. Women found him attractive in an unassuming way and often complimented him on his thick, wavy hair. He was a failed movie and TV writer who made a living tutoring kids on their SATs so that they could get into the right college. Not the job he wanted, perhaps, but it was the best he could do, and besides, it paid the rent.

t was a crisp, sunny October morning, a chill in the air. He savored every detail. The park comforted him. He noticed the sunlight dancing on the water in the little fountain in front of the statue. Some birds started splashing about and a little boy contemplated jumping in after them. “Maybe I’ll have children one day.” His heart leaped at the thought of seeing Emily again. He was certain he could convince her to get back together. “Its crazy, I know, she is in Paris and I’m here. But we could work it out. I was such a fool to say the things I did. If I sincerely apologize one more time, I know she will take me back.” The thoughts flooded in. “Her apartment is probably big enough for both of us. I could get a job tutoring French kids, American kids at the embassy, or a real teaching job. Or maybe she’ll move back to New York?” Harold’s brain buzzed wildly. He had made a reservation at the little French restaurant, where once they had spent many pleasant hours talking and making plans. It was a place where he knew she would feel comfortable. He would win her back.  “What a glorious day, so many possibilities,” he thought.

Emily was on her way to the park. She hadn’t seen Harold since their breakup nearly 2 years before. Emily  didn’t quite know why he had contacted her. She was puzzled by his email. He said only that it would be nice to see her the next time she was in town. Her latest case brought her to New York for a few days so she decided to call him and they agreed to meet. “Our relationship was difficult, I admit,” she thought. “but it will be nice to see Harold again, to hear what he’s been up to. I wonder if he’s met someone? He’s such a sweet guy. Harold needs someone in his life. Its sad, he’s alone so much of  the time.”

As the taxi pulled up in front of the park, she fumbled in her bag for her wallet and credit card. She quickly manipulated the screen. After she swiped the card,  she noticed the name Spence, Powers LLP on it.  “Oh shit, wrong card. Oh well, they can afford me,” she said. She stepped out of the cab and looked around. Emily was a striking woman of medium height, slender, with black hair, blue eyes and pale almost translucent  skin. She was a “high powered” attorney  in the Spence, Powers Paris office where for the past 2 years she handled international trust and estate cases. Since leaving New York her career soared. She had a lovely apartment in the 16th, a Jaguar, summers at Cap Ferat, and a girlfriend, Patricia, with whom she was madly in love. They met while working on a case together, she was the daughter of one of her clients. Their summer friendship blossomed into a romance. She could not keep from thinking about her. She missed herterribly and could not wait to get home. Paris was her home now, she did not want to be anywhere else.