Body and Soul
When I was growing up, I lived in a Reader’s Digest home. We were middle class, literate, and apt to share with each other stories of what we found funny or touching in our everyday lives. We not only fit the Reader's Digest characteristics, we also subscribed. There were always several copies of the magazine lying around on tables in our den and even volumes of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books on our shelves or coffee table. My mother particularly loved the magazine, which came to our house 10 times a year and was a great source of a wide range of informative or helpful articles and short, funny stories from real life, such as this one:
We rushed our four-year-old son, Ben, to the emergency room with a terrible cough, high fever, and vomiting. The doctor did an exam, then asked Ben what bothered him the most. After thinking it over, Ben said hoarsely, "My little sister."
Perhaps my favorite regular feature was the occasional essays from readers submitted under the heading: “My Most Unforgettable Character.” I even determined whom I would write about if I decided to submit my own Reader’s Digest essay. It was an easy choice—a Savannahian named Jack Berliner. I visited Jack several times a year at his house on 56th Street. He was the best listener and sharer I have ever met.
I don’t remember just how I felt during my first visit with Jack, though I can imagine that I was both nervous and a little frightened. I had been filled in on some of his back story before going with my father or older brother to his house. Here’s what I was told:
When Jack was 18, he was a counselor at the Jewish Educational Alliance Day Camp. He was practicing some tumbling in the exercise room, missed the mat, and suffered a horrific fall, breaking his neck. He lost the use of his legs and torso and went through endless surgeries and rehabilitation to regain the use of his arms and shoulders. Now he lived at home with his older brother Sam, who ran a candy-vending business. Jack made a living by selling magazine subscriptions and stationery supplies on the phone. But he made a life by talking to any visitors who showed up on his doorstep, and there were lots of us. He doled out philosophy and politics and positivity to all comers.
I learned quickly during that first visit and many others that followed that while so much of Jack was broken, what really mattered—his mind, mouth, ears, and heart—were intact and very much alive. He was a voracious reader, and could talk knowledgeably on any subject you might bring up.
Jack’s brother Sam (whom my cousin Richard once described as deserving of sainthood) met us at the door and led us to the bedroom where Jack held court in a large hospital bed. A bar was suspended from the ceiling above Jack’s chest. He would often link his elbows onto the bar to lift himself up and shift his position in the bed in order to get in a more comfortable spot to carry on our conversation. He never stopped talking or listening. A headset lay on his chest to be used for occasional sales calls and a burning cigarette in a holder stuck out from between his teeth. Sam spent almost too much time filling and emptying the cigarette holder, lighting up the cigarettes, or tapping ashes into an ashtray before they fell off by themselves onto the bedsheets. Watching those ashes and wondering if Sam would catch them in time could be hypnotic.
|Jack's cigarette ash could have an hypnotic effect.|
I can’t recall just what we talked about during our visits, but I know that I always felt better when I left the Berliner house than when I arrived. Jack had opinions, but he didn’t make judgments. Long before Bill O’Reilly came along, Jack Berliner established the original “no-spin zone.” You could share truths with him in confidence. What is so rare as that! I wish that all of us could have had a Jack Berliner in our lives.
I would visit Jack when I came back to Savannah from college into the early 1970s. Then I moved up North and seldom saw him again. In 1979, my mother gave me the sad news that Jack had died while going through another surgery. He was 49 years old, and had spent 30 of those years living outside of his broken body and embracing all of us who entered his sphere.
I had not thought of Jack for many years until I read last week about the impending and eventual death of Charles Krauthammer, who doled out wisdom for more than 40 years while confined to a wheelchair after a freak accident while diving into a pool at college. I have heard Krauthammer’s political pronouncements over the years and have not always (or even usually) agreed with him. But I honor his courage and his spirit, as well as his brilliance. They are so reminiscent of Jack’s. Neither man would let you feel sorry for their impediments. They both strove to make the world a better place, and we were better for having spoken with or listened to them.
|Charles Krauthammer was a master of words and chess moves.|
Regrettably, I never wrote that unforgettable character essay for Reader’s Digest. This blogpost and my lasting memory will have to do.