Wednesday, January 17, 2018

My Dad, Estee Lauder and Dietrich Bohoeffer

In recent months I have immersed myself in my past in a way I have never done before. For a couple of months I have been writing about my life as a soldier.  I started out writing about my tank, but have since veered off into writing about Basic Training.  In military life, the transition from civilian to soldier is a change beyond every other change, even the change back from soldier to civilian.

In the past year, my Jewish identity has also emerged from some vague part of my past to a very present reality.

It would surprise no one, that as I write about my military past and learn more about Judaism and my Jewish identity, that my father would appear, sometimes vividly, sometimes in a whisper.  He was an American Soldier and the fourth of six sons of Jewish immigrants from Russia. (Now Odessa, Ukraine. They called it Russia.)

Among all of my family, my son Nigel has been most interested in, and my occasional companion on, my ventures exploring my past.

On Monday, the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday, we visited the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.

I particularly wanted to see an exhibit that was closing soon on the Russian emigration from the Soviet Union to Israel and America and other countries from the 1960s through the 80s. After Nigel and I walked through that exhibit, we sat in a viewing area on the first floor and watched a series of two-minute biographies of prominent Americans Jews of the last century.  When Sandy Koufax was on screen, I reminded Nigel that his grandfather pitched for the Reading Phillies in the 1930s.  When the biography of Estee Lauder began, the soft-voiced announcer said she was born in 1906, the same year as my father.

Estee Lauder, 1906-2004

The short video traced Estee Lauder's career making cosmetics. She began her business in the 1920s and continued to grow her business though the Great Depression and on to great success in the post-war years.  We watched a dozen more biographies, then took the Market Street El to 30th Street Station for the train home.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1906-1945

As we waited for the train, I got an article from a Jewish activist friend about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. 
Bonhoeffer was in America in the late 1930s studying American spirituality.  With war looming and Hitler's attacks on Jews and other people of faith growing, Bonhoeffer left the safe haven of America in June of 1939.  In Germany he organized a Church for believers who were against Hitler and then joined the resistance. In the last month of the war, April 1945, Bonhoeffer was murdered by the Gestapo in the Flossenburg Concentration Camp. He was a German who fought Hitler and died with Jews.

In December, Nigel and I had seen a display of children from the Flossenburg Concentration Camp at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York.

While Bonhoeffer struggled against the Nazis in Germany, my father commanded a Prisoner of War Camp for 600 soldiers of the German Army's Afrika Korps. My father came home to Boston after the war with my mother who he met and married during the war in Pennsylvania. In one of those odd twists of fate, I live less than 30 miles from that Prisoner of War Camp which is now the Reading Airport.  Before he was commander of the POW Camp, my Dad commanded a Black Company. 

And in 2018, the Black grandson my Dad never met--George Gussman died in 1982--went to a Jewish museum on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to learn about his family's history. 

My father and Estee Lauder were both children of immigrant Jews born in America in 1906. They lived long lives because their parents came here,  leaving countries that would be crushed by Hitler in the 1940s.  In that same year, 1906, a leading German family of scientists and thinkers added a son who would become a famous man of faith.  Bonhoeffer was offered shelter in America and turned it down to return to his people. 

These three lives share only a birth year and the admiration of a son and grandson who learned a little more about courage and the best of America on a day devoted to an American hero.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Nine Years Ago Today: Packing with an Army PowerPoint

In January of 2009 I was packing to deploy to Iraq with the 28th Combat Aviation Brigade. The five bags the Army wanted me to pack each had their own PowerPoint presentation. I packed more than I need, but a lot less than the Army told me to pack. 

In addition to deciding how much I would bring with me on the trip, I had to be careful about how much I would carry at once.  I had shoulder surgery on Halloween of 2008, just in time to be cleared to fly to Oklahoma for pre-deployment training on January 30, 2009. 

By January I was out of the sling, but still technically a No-Go.  I even had a No-Go Counselor to deal with the problem. Which I wrote about here.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

America Reversed on Military Service in 1992 at the Polls and on the Street

It occurred to me that since 1992 when the Baby Boomers hit middle age the country reversed on military service.

Every President from Harry Truman to George Bush Sr. was a veteran. In the five elections from 1992 to 2008, the Loser was a combat veteran: Bush Sr. and Bob Dole were decorated WWII veterans, Gore, Kerry and McCain served in the Vietnam War. President Obama is alone among the post-war Presidents in being too young for the draft.

In one of the ironies of American life, when I was in the Vietnam War-era Army, no one thanked me for my service and rich draft dodgers thought I was a loser for serving. But at that time, the only road to the Presidency was through military service. Even Antiwar Hubert Humphrey was a decorated combat pilot.

When I was in the Iraq War Army in the last decade, many people thanked me for my service, but 60 million people, including millions of veterans he sneered at, voted for a man with five deferments who insulted Prisoners of War.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

MRE vs. C-Rations: for me, the 21st Century MRE is the Winner!

When I first enlisted in 1972, C-Rations, or more properly the MCI--Meal, Combat, Individual--was breakfast, lunch and dinner in the field if there was no hot chow until I left the Army Reserves in 1984. 

In 2007 when I re-enlisted MRE--Meal Ready to Eat--was the field food.  MREs are delicious compared to MCIs. In fact, when I was in the field and the 20-year-olds complained about MREs, I would wish they could be given cold ham and eggs in an olive drab can until they were begging the First Sergeant to give their MREs back!

In 2010, after I returned from Iraq, I made a video comparing the two.  This week it went over 100,000 views on YouTube when a soldier who went to Basic Training in 2007 commented on the video.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Preparing to Survive a Nuclear War, Or Not

In 1977, one of my additional duties as a tank commander in West Germany was CBR NCO. I was the Chemical, Biological, Radiation Weapons Sergeant for our unit.  Each month I gave and hour-long class in a different weapon of mass destruction and how to survive if the Soviets attacked using them.  Although we tank soldiers had a better chance of surviving than ground troops, everyone knew that in a war with nerve gas and nukes and weaponized bugs, we were going to die. 

At the end of each class I would yell, "On your feet!"  The room stood up and I presented the doomsday scenario of the month.  For instance, what should we do if a nuclear weapon detonates directly over or on our position? 

The soldiers answered in unison, "Sergeant Gussman, we will put our heads firmly between our legs and kiss our asses goodbye!" 

We walked out laughing, but no one thought these weapons were anything but terrifying. They still are.

If we knew the nuclear bomb or nerve gas was coming, the main defensive action was to move the unit to safety, if a safe place was available.  

Forty years later, the rest of the world is waking up to what Cold War soldiers assumed could or would be their future, or the end of their future.  

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Neil’s Best and Worst Books of 2017: Update With Full List


I had a few people who read this post ask me about the rest of the list, so I am going to add the additional titles with only an occasional comment. They will be in my arbitrary categories.

The list below represents the best and the worst of the 52 books I read in 2017. Only two of the books were published this year. The majority of the authors are alive and I went to readings by two of them.  I am an obsessive reader; both in wanting to read and in trying to read everything by an author I love.  In that regard, 2017 was a wonderful year because Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize in literature. I started reading him four years ago and in a few days will have read all of his novels and stories. The last book, The Unconsoled will be on next year’s list. All the links are to the author's page or a page about the author. I picked a book or two in each of the categories I sorted them into.  

The recommendations are brief. Each of those books I believe are worth reading for anyone interested in that kind of book. I wanted to write only enough to say, "This is great!" But the last review, the book I did not like, goes on for a thousand words. If you have not read the book, it will be dull since it refers to specific disagreements I had with the author's assertions, and I do not present his side of the argument.  Enjoy! Except the last one.


My largest category this year by number of books was poetry at 13 books.  The best book in this category is, for me, the completely predictable choice of Inferno by Dante Alighieri.  This is my eighth time reading this first book of the Divine Comedy but the eighth different translator, this time the Lombardo translation.  It is good, but I still like the Pinsky translation best.  This time, because I was in a class studying Dante, I read aloud and listened to Roberto Benigni read all of the cantos. I never read the Italian before.  I recommend it, just for the sound.

After Dante, the next best was Nativity Poems by Joseph Brodsky. An émigré communist Jew writing on the theme of the incarnation was not just a one-time crazy idea, Brodsky returned to the theme of nativity throughout his career. A lovely collection.

The rest of the poetry list:
I also read Brodsky's Selected Poems and two other volumes titled Selected Poems by Vladimir Nabokov and Boris Pasternak.
Staying with Russians, I read Veronezh Notebooks by Osip Mandelstam and a collection titled Four of Us with poems by Mandelstam, Pasternak, Anna Akmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva.

The Bad-Tempered Man a comedy by Menander
How We Must Have Looked to the Stars by Alysia Nicole Harris
Spirits in Bondage: A Cycle of Lyrics by C.S. Lewis
Some Ether by Nick Flynn, which is a memoir in poems
Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver
In Flanders Field poems about World War I by several poets.


The best of eleven works of fiction I read was Identity by Milan Kundera, or The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which I read a week later.  I had never read Kundera so seeing the world through the eyes of his obsessive, alienated characters was lovely.  These two books also represent two phases of his life. Unbearable Lightness was written when he lived in Prague in what is now the Czech Republic. Identity was written in Paris after he left the Eastern Bloc for the west. I was in Prague and Paris this summer so the two books helped bring back these two lovely cities in my mind. 

Also wonderful: Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. If you only saw the movie, read the book. It is so beautifully told and the poetry in the novel was so good, I next read a volume of Pasternak’s poems.

In addition to Identity,  I read two other books originally written in French:
The Lover by Marguerite Duras
Femme Fatale by Guy de Maupassant
And two books in French
D'Artagnan by Alexandre Dumas, an abridged version for middle/high school
Il Etait Une Fois three Once Upon a Time stories
Two novels about the Vietnam War by Tim O'Brien:
If I Die in a Combat Zone
The Things They Carried

I read a funny book titled Greek and Roman Comedy by Shawn O'Bryhim
Another Russian novel The Day of the Oprichnik by Vladimir Sorokin, a book that is dark and funny and violent and so entertaining.
Finally How I Learned to Drive a play by Paula Vogel.  A strange and compelling play. I could not put it down.


I read eight memoirs this year, but the one that spread into my soul and will not let go is Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi.  I read this book a couple of months before visiting Auschwitz and seven other concentration camps and Holocaust memorials. When a book conjures a nightmare, no two readers will have exactly the same terror.  In my case, the most vivid and painful of all the stories was the man who had earned the Iron Cross for gallantry under fire in World War I and thought his bravery proved his patriotism.  Even though he earned the equivalent of the American Congressional Medal of Honor, he was a Jew; he went to the gas chamber.  Since Trump’s election, I have had several people tell me that I have nothing to worry about because I am a veteran.  But the men who marched in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us” would kill any Jew, veteran or not. 

I also read three memoirs by Nick Flynn.  The best was a short collection of poems called Some Ether. The other two by Flynn were Another Bullshit Night in Suck City and Reenactments a memoir about making a movie about the other memoir.  I listened to Flynn speak and met him after his reading.  He is about my age and grew up near where I grew up. It is funny he is a memoir writer.  His books and presence reminded me of being beaten up by Irish kids when I was in grade school. 

Gamelife by Michael Clune
The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits
Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed
Why I am so Clever a funny little book by Friedrich Nietzsche
My Fellow Prisoners by Mikhail Khodorkovsky. This last one is a prison memoir in character sketches of fellow prisoners written by the first billionaire Putin jailed, way back in 2003. He got 10 years. 


Six Days of War by Michael Oren topped the short list of four history books I read this year. It is the story of the stunning victory of Israel over Egypt, Jordan and Syria in that order. Israel was outnumbered 100 to 1 and beat three bordering Arab nations in sequence in roughly two days each.  The book shows how the blindness of arrogance can lead armies with overwhelming numbers in men and equipment to ignominious defeat.  If you wonder how a small army can defeat a huge one, this book shows every step in how Egypt took every advantage they possessed and threw it away. It also shows how reluctant allies can be almost as bad as enemies.  Syria especially held back in a way that assured the defeat of Egypt and Jordan. 

I began the year reading the book Band of Brothers by Stephen Ambrose. The book is the basis of the HBO series of the same name, which is my favorite video production on war. The book is good, but there is nothing better than the HBO series.
Lenin's Tomb by David Remnick. The last days of the Soviet Empire.
Histories by Herodotus, Book V partly in Greek, partly in English.


I was going to highlight On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder as my top politics book for 2017.  But I am going to re-read it in 2018 along with The Prince by Machiavelli.  Both books in their own way are handbooks on how politics really works. Machiavelli advises the prospective leader on how to take and keep power, Snyder tells the rest of us what to do when a tyrant is taking control. If Robert Mueller is fired in 2018, Snyder will be the top of my list next year, assuming ordinary citizens are allowed free use of the Internet. 

With Snyder pushed to next year, I will turn to American Vertigo, one of two books I read this year by Bernard-Henri Levy, French Philosopher who travels the most dangerous corners of the world writing and producing movies about cultures in conflict.  He has written about Libya, Syria and much of the Arab world with insight and empathy rare in any writer, but all the more in Jew born in the rubble of France after World War II.  In American Vertigo Levy reprises the journey of Alexis de Tocqueville took in 1831. Tocqueville planned to write about prisons in America, which he did, but then wrote arguably one of the top political works ever, one still quoted by Americans of every political affiliation.  Levy begins in Rikers and winds across our continent to Alcatraz and loops back through the South.  It really is a delightful view of America, by a visitor clearly delighted with America.

I read another book by Levy, which is the best book in my last category.
How to Cure a Fanatic by Amos Oz
Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit


This year I read some of the best science books I have read in years, maybe ever! The Gene: An Intimate Story by Siddhartha Mukherjee wove together the entire history of the gene with Mukherjee’s family history and the cultures he inhabits.  Improbable Destinies by Jonathan Losos gave me the clearest explanation of the interaction between natural selection and chance. I also read Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel which is a social science or psychology book.

But by far the best was Sapiens by Yuval Noah Hariri.  The last time I was this delighted with a history of science book was Guns, Germs and Steel the Pulitzer Prize winning book by Jared Diamond.  Sapiens recounts the full history of the rise of Homo Sapiens from somewhere in Africa to literal world domination. The early bloodthirsty success of our species is fascinating.  Unlike other human species, we could cooperate in groups as large as 500 to trap and slaughter large species. We wiped out mastodons, saber-tooth tigers and many other large species across the globe and in a bit of multitasking, wiped out Neanderthals and every other humanoid species.  After explaining our proficiency in communication and killing, Hariri contends our hunter-gatherer life was much better than the lives most sapiens lived after the rise of agriculture 10,000 years ago. When agriculture arose, a few benefitted, but many had shorter, more brutal lives of servitude and disease.  From there he takes us right to the present with the rise of culture and shows why tribalism persists.  I am reading this book again next year.


My last category is Faith.  For someone like me with a believer’s turn of mind, every book has a faith dimension of some sort. The Divine Comedy is a poem, but is also a map of the Catholic view of the universe, physically and spiritually. Every memoir implies life has meaning and value and significance. 

The book explicitly on faith that moved me the most was The Genius of Judaism by Bernard-Henri Levy. This book looks at the history of the Jewish people and Israel through the lens of the Book of Jonah.  Levy shows us Judaism and his view of the Jewish world by his interactions with “Nineveh” in the form of modern-day enemies of Jews and Israel.  One modern Nineveh he visits is Lviv, Ukraine.  I knew my trip last summer was to visit Holocaust sites would center on Auschwitz, but this book led me to pair Lviv with Auschwitz as two sad extremes of the Holocaust.  Auschwitz is the most industrial site of slaughter, Lviv is the most personal.  At Auschwitz, the Nazis built a place of extermination. In Lviv they simply allowed the local population to act out their own anti-Semitism.  Lviv was the most personal of the sites of Holocaust slaughter.  Neighbors killed neighbors and dumped their bodies in ditches.  Levy went to Lviv to make peace with this site of unbridled hate.  He seems to have succeeded.  I did not.  Ukraine tried to kill my grandparents. Ukraine remains a cauldron of anti-Semitism. 

Overall, the book left me wondering about my identity as a Jew. The book helped me to decide that I could reconnect with the Jewish part of me in a positive and growing way, a process that began last spring and is still going on as the New Year begins. 

From the well of hope that Levy opened for me, I will now turn to the dry, barren waste of Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Option.  

When you want to say the nation is going to Hell, you first need a villain. Then you need to say how that villain is going to ruin everyone’s lives. The central theme of The Benedict Option is Dreher predicting the end of Christian culture in America through gay rights and the gay agenda. Dreher is sure that Christian hegemony in America is over. The only option is to withdraw from life in corrupt America into intentional communities of those committed to real goodness. 

The first question I have is, ‘Why will the gay agenda ruin our nation after it flourished with a long history of slavery, Jim Crow and betrayal of Native Americans?’ Is a nation really blessed by slavery and genocide and cursed by gay marriage?

America perpetrated the worst slavery in the history of the world on Africans. They were kidnapped and brought here in chains to be slaves until death for generation after generation. America had slavery with no hope of buying oneself out or getting free. The center of that slavery was the New Orleans slave market.

Dreher grew up in Louisiana and returned there to withdraw from life in big cities.  He is in a state and a region with a horrible history of slavery, followed by 100 years of apartheid called Jim Crow. What could be worse than men who would buy and sell human beings, fight a war to keep their slaves, and then oppress their victims openly for a century after losing the war?

Every confederate battle flag represents unrepentant racism, slavery and murder.  And yet, Dreher says, it is gay rights that will kill Christian faith in a way that Pride, Murder, Rape and Greed could not. Dreher says at the end of the book historians will wonder how a 3% minority killed a great nation like ours.

If America can perpetuate slavery longer than every civilized nation, break uncountable treaties, slaughter Native-Americans, allow Jim Crow laws in the south for a century, and then put a racist sexual predator in the White House with the support of 81% of "Christian" America, can the Gay agenda really trump everything else we have done? Dreher has his enemy.

Dreher begins the book saying he was led to the idea of withdrawal from culture by thinking of his son’s future from the moment he was born.  The book has many instances of Dreher and other Christian parents making what he calls sacrifices for their children.  Dreher writes as if parenting were the central Christian ministry.  As a father of six, I would say parenting is one of the central delights and urges and vanities of the Human Condition.  Can any parent really say that spending their time and money toward the success of their children is a sacrifice?  Does working toward the success of my own children make me the equal of Mother Teresa caring for the poorest outcasts in a Calcutta gutter?  No, it doesn’t. My bright, successful, funny children are a delight, they are not a ministry.  And they in no way set me apart from the world.

I heard many idiots in focus groups and on the news say one proof that Trump was obviously a good guy because he is a good father whose children love him.  Saddam Hussein loved Uday and Qusay. The worst Roman emperors were the beloved, spoiled children of previous emperors.  Trump is, by his own words a racist who is willing to grab other people’s children by the pussy. Parenting does not excuse pandering.

Dreher should know well that nothing ties a person to the world like having children.  No actual Benedictine has kids.  The withdrawal from the world with kids that Dreher posits is not a new monastic movement, but a gated community with spiritual decorations on the iron fence. 

Compared to, say, Coptic Christians in Cairo and other believers facing danger and death, the Benedict Option like a military video game, allowing the out-of-shape, pale player to pretend he is a combat soldier while in the comfort of mom’s basement away from the blood and bullets of battle.

I would have called it the book the Benedict Fiction.


A category I did not list was language. I don't expect these books to jump on anyone's 2018 list.

Language Learning

Между Нами a Russian textbook.
English Grammar for Students of Russian by Edwina Cruise (no relation to Tom Cruise)
Introduction to Greek by C.W. Shelmerdine

That's the Whole List! 

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Dixie Pig, Motorcycle Racing and Missing my Tank

I am watching the second season of "The West Wing." A suspect in a plot to kill the President in this late 1990s drama was arrested in a Dixie Pig restaurant.

The only time I ever ate in a Dixie Pig restaurant was in 1987 when I took a weekend course to get a motorcycle road racing license. We all had lunch at the Dixie Pig and got a two-hour lecture on the basics of road racing. There were a dozen racers in the room. I was the only one who ordered the vegetable plate.

We were in Virginia. It was July and 95 degrees. We were wearing full leathers in the sun for the next phase after the lecture lunch. I am not a vegetarian, but eating pork barbecue before practicing mass starts and cornering seemed crazy. So I ordered the vegetable plate. When I did, the blond, blue-eyed sugar-voiced waitress said, "You don't want no meat? None?"

I got the license the next day, and I never raced again after the ten-lap road race that was our final exam.

In just ten laps of the two-mile, ten-turn Summit Point Road Course the two instructors lapped all of us. They were riding RD350 Yamahas.

Our machines varied from my 500 Intercepter to a 1000cc FZR Yamaha.

Serious motorcycle road racing means sliding the rear tire in every turn to get the best launch out of the turn. I knew at the end of that ten-lap race that sliding every lap was way beyond my modest skill level and I would be little more than a rolling chicane for the real racers.

Motorcycle road racing was the first of many things I did to replace the excitement of tank gunnery in my life after I left the Army in 1984. I continued to ride motorcycles for a few more years, but by 1992 had switched to bicycle racing.

The switch was healthier in the sense that I was exercising on the bicycle unlike the motorcycle. But racing and speed on two wheels can end with the rubber side up.

In twenty years of motorcycle riding, I had four accidents which resulted in four broken bones, four concussions, two surgeries and two weeks in the hospital--one of the accidents was by far the worst.

Although bicycling can be safer, it is not with me on the bike. Twenty-five years of bicycling includes 14 broken bones, six concussions, three surgeries and eight nights in the hospital.

The military was definitely safer. Eighteen years of active, reserve and Guard service led to just three broken bones and two concussions, but also seven surgeries and seven nights in the hospital. The surgeries were to remove shrapnel from my eyes and reattach two fingers after a missile explosion.

Clearly, I never found anything in civilian life as exciting as Armor. In 2007 I re-enlisted and spent almost ten years in Army Aviation, sometimes flying in Blackhawk and Chinook helicopters in the U.S. and in Iraq.

And this whole thing started when I saw the Dixie Pig on Netflix.

Happy Holidays.

My Dad, Estee Lauder and Dietrich Bohoeffer

In recent months I have immersed myself in my past in a way I have never done before. For a couple of months I have been writing about my l...