This is a five-part story of a long friendship in which I learned a lot about life outside of the schooling I received. See Part 1 for why I connect my friendships with an education that goes beyond schooling.
How We Began
Our origins are familiar, if not common. A group of urban teenagers, first and second generation Americans from homes of working men, small businessmen, and stay-at-home mothers, joined a local chapter of Pittsburgh’s B’nai Brith youth called Victory in the late 1940s. Passions for sports, girls, driving cars, and being accepted by the “guys” filled our lives. For some, practicing Judaism was part of the mix; for others, less so. Getting through high school and graduating was important but no more than a blip on radar screens dominated by our club.
High school and Victory were intertwined in our daily lives. While we spent far more time in classrooms and corridors of our nearby high school, few of us were members of the popular in-groups. Much of our social and athletic life revolved around club activities. We played each sport in its season, attended weekly meetings, and double-dated while gnawing nails over how to carry off a goodnight kiss. In the four years each of us were members of Victory, what we probably did most was talk.
And did we talk! Over hot dogs at the local deli after club meetings or at one of our homes after a football game that we had played or in cars late at night after dropping off dates, we would talk about everything. For some of us, this club served as family; for others it was another prized activity in an already busy life; and even for others it eased the stormy passage through difficult years. No matter which purpose Victory served in our lives, the club glued us together. Here is where some of us learned the basic requirement for an intimate friendship: trust.
Not only did we learn to trust one another, but we learned life lessons also. I remember one meeting vividly when Sam was president of Victory. On the agenda—we learned well Roberts’ Rules of Order—was an item to vote on new members. Because you aged out of the club at 18, there was constant turnover in this group of about 25. We recruited new members and sometimes teenagers simply wanted to join because of the full array of sports teams that we fielded over the course of a year, the B’nai Brith tournaments we went to in Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia and many social activities we sponsored. So we voted unanimously to accept the handful up for membership because they brought athletic and social skills that we felt the club would benefit from. Except for one teenager whose nomination for membership triggered a vigorous discussion that I remember to this day.
There was a split in our group over whether Merle should become part of Victory. Those who argued for him saw his speaking skills as a solid addition to our debate team that went to B’nai Brith regional and state tournaments. One member of that team had aged out of Victory; Merle would be useful to the club. Those who argued against him pointed out his argumentative skills went too far and he was constantly talking and trying to make his point. Moreover, he was too talkative and didn’t pick up what others were saying and feeling. He was not a listener. There was a deadlock over admitting Merle, a highly unusual situation, one that in my experience had never occurred while I was in Victory.
Sam presided over the discussion. He listened carefully to each point made by advocates and opponents of Merle’s entry into Victory. At one point, one of us—I don’t remember who—asked Sam what was his opinion of Merle. Sam answered by saying that he uses a principle when he considers each nominee for membership. He asks himself not only what the candidate can contribute to Victory but also what Victory can do for him. He felt that Merle would surely help the club given his verbal skills but more important, Sam felt, who we were as a club could help Merle be a stronger, better, and less antagonistic person.
I, for one, had only asked one question of myself whenever I voted on new candidates: how will the nominee contribute to our athletic, social, and religious activities? Sam asked another one as well: what can the club contribute to the candidate? I had never thought until then about the club culture and activities having significant influence on how I think and what I do. The concept of the club helping someone be a better person I simply had not considered. It was a light bulb moment for me that I have never forgotten. Sam’s response brought the discussion to a close and we voted. In a close vote, Merle became a member of Victory.
Common to many teenagers, such intense club life was put behind after high school graduation. Most of us went to the University of Pittsburgh, a short trolley ride from our homes in Squirrel Hill, and spent the next four years there. Those in our group who didn’t go to college, eventually drifted away.
About ten former club members, however, continued to see each other periodically either in part-time jobs on campus before and after class, in playing sports, and occasional double dates. Some of us not yet 18 still participated in club athletic and social events, some of us joined college fraternities and some of us now seriously dated young women.
With little continuing contact weekly, sub-groups among the dozen of us formed and re-formed throughout the four years of college. Some of us, more than others, remained close sometimes drifting away for a year only to return when classes, playing ball, dating, or a summer job drew us back together (e.g., Dave and I sold magazines door-to-door the summer of 1953).
Exuberant and fun-seeking as most others our age, we were not hell raisers. Few of us smoked or drank more than the absolute minimum to prove our manliness. In our group, no one smoked pot, weed, or whatever else it was called in the early-1950s. It was unknown to us as were other drugs. I didn’t hear the word “beatnik” until after I got married in 1958. In short, we were—there are no other words—hard-working young men, children and grand-children of immigrants, who saw going to college, getting married, and having a family the fulfillment of our dreams as well as those of our parents.