To My Children and Grandchildren
Every so often, one of you asks me about my ancestors. No doubt, the day will come when your children will ask you about yours. What will you tell them? Stories your parents told you, based on stories they heard from me, who heard them from my parents; in short, stories badly distorted by three tellings and three unreliable memories and three temptations to fudge or embellish or just plain make things up. So I thought, why not put what I remember down on paper? So here goes. (1)
My parents came from two very different backgrounds. Let me take them one at a time.
My Father Cecil (to 1930) (2)
My father William Cecil Headrick (called "Cecil") was born in Greeneville, Tennessee, on November 1, 1904. When his ancestors first came to North America is uncertain. One possible ancestor is Michael Heddrich from Langenselbold, a town in Hesse, Germany, who lived between 1651 and 1721. His descendants, calling themselves Headrick, lived in Greene County, Tennessee, from 1795 on.
Alternately, Cecil may have descended from a William Headrick, born in Scotland, who emigrated to America in 1753. That man had a son named Robert, who had a son named John, who had a son named Elijah Walter, who had a son named Orville Benjamin, who had a son named Robert, who was Cecil's father. All of these Headricks lived in Tennessee and were farmers. Today, there are still Headricks living in or near Greene County, Tennessee. Another of Cecil's ancestors was Michael Garoutte, a member of the minor nobility of Marseille, France. In 1775, he equipped two ships and recruited a large number of men and sailed for America, where he fought on the American side in the War of Independence. He was wounded and nursed back to health by the daughter of a Quaker innkeeper. He stayed in the United States and some of his descendants moved to Tennessee.
Cecil's father Robert was a farmer. He and his wife Uona Belle Lovette ("Ona") had five children: Lucy, Herbert, Grace, Luke, and Cecil, the youngest. Sometime around 1910, they moved to Kansas, where there was good soil and land was cheap. Robert intended to become a farmer, but he contracted tuberculosis and moved to New Mexico, hoping that the dry climate would help him recover. Unfortunately, he died there, leaving his wife and five children back in Kansas.
1 I thank Isabelle, Juliet, and Matthew for their comments on this autobiography.
2 See Cecil's Memoirs and photos in the album called Cecil and His Family to 1930.
Cecil grew up in Winfield, a small town in Kansas. How his mother managed, I don't know. At one point, an oil company offered my grandmother one thousand dollars for the right to drill a well on a piece of land she owned outside of town. They found no oil, alas, but the money they paid my grandmother was enough to buy a small house in town.
Cecil went to the local schools and to Southwestern College, a small college in Winfield affiliated with the Methodist Church. His mother and his sisters were Methodists, so that may have helped. He worked in a laundry to help pay his college expenses.
Cecil was a handsome man with a powerful voice. When he was in college he fancied himself a pastor. He left the Methodist Church and became a Baptist. He even preached to some itinerant Mexican farmworkers. Whether they converted, I do not know.
Shortly after graduating from college, Cecil went to Detroit, where he worked for the Packard Motor Company. Soon thereafter, he moved to New York City and enrolled in the Union Theological Seminary, hoping to become an ordained Protestant minister. While there, he took a course with Reinhold Niebuhr, the famed theologian. He once told me that Niebuhr made an atheist out of him!
In 1928 he dropped out of the Seminary and decided to see the world. He obtained an exchange-worker scholarship to go to Germany. His first job was working in a coal mine in Grube Marga, a mining town near Breslau in eastern Germany (now Wroclaw, in Poland). Later, he got another job, this one in the Köln-Deutz Motorenfabrik, a tractor factory near Cologne.
After a few months in Germany, he decided to see Europe. In April 1929, he bought a bicycle. He rode it through the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. He lived as cheaply as possible and slept whenever he could in farmers' barns.
Before he reached the border of the Soviet Union, he bought some rubles and hid them between the inner tubes and the tires of his bicycle. He crossed the border and took the train to the first station. Then he rode his bicycle to Minsk and on to Smolensk. In Smolensk, he met a kulak (a rich peasant - "rich" by Russian standards, that is) who offered him some money in exchange for his bicycle. (No bicycles had been manufactured in Russia since before the First World War.) With the money, Cecil bought a one-way ticket on the Trans-Siberian Express to Vladivostok. ("Express" meant that the train stopped every hour for tea and took thirteen days to cross Siberia.) Once he got to Vladivostok, he had just enough money left over for passage on a boat to Japan, where he arrived in September 1929.
He spent six weeks in Tokyo and visited Kobe and Kyoto, until he ran out of money. He needed to get back to Germany, where he had a scholarship to go to the University of Berlin. As I wrote in my "Stories My Grandfather Told Me," he spent several days trying to find a ship going to Germany via India. But as he had just come from the Soviet Union and wore a linen shirt with his belt outside his pants Russian-peasant-style, and had a beard that made him look like Lenin, all the ships' captains thought he was a Communist and refused to hire him. (3)
Finally, his sister sent him enough money for a ticket back to Vladivostok. There he was met by the same employee of Intourist (the Soviet tourist agency) who had greeted him when he first arrived. In some of his reminiscences, he tells of being taken before a commandant of the OGPU (a predecessor of the KGB, the Russian secret police). In exchange for some German lessons, the official gave him a student identification card that entitled him to free transportation on the railroads. With that, he took the train back to Moscow. It was a hard trip, because outside the train, everything was frozen. In Moscow, he met some Americans he knew. He continued by train to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). From there, he got passage on a ship sailing to Stettin (now Szczecin in Poland).
Once in Berlin, he enrolled in German language classes. He attended lectures by famous professors such as the economist Werner Sombart and the historian Hermann Oncken. In Berlin, he met my mother. So now I will switch to her story.
My Mother Edith (to 1930) (4)
I cannot trace my mother's ancestry back beyond her great-grandfathers Noach Moishe Finkelstein and Wolf Sachs, who lived in Russia. Her grandfathers were Chaim Finkelstein (1836/41-1886) and Raphael Hirsch (1820/25-1905). (5) Her father, Wolf Finkelstein, was born in 1872 in Lodz, now in Poland, but then a part of the Russian Empire. When he was twelve years old, his family moved from Russia to Palestine. When the ship stopped at Constantinople, he jumped ship and found work as an apprentice to a tailor. Unlike Russia, the Ottoman Empire was a place where Jews were welcomed and allowed to live in peace. From then on, Wolf earned his living as a tailor.
In Constantinople, he met my grandmother Serafina Hirsch. She was born in 1876 in Snyatin, now in Poland but at the time in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. She was employed by a traveling orchestra, going ahead to make arrangements for this orchestra. Eventually, she said, she learned to speak fourteen languages.
Wolf and Serafina were married in Istanbul in 1901. The next year, while visiting her sister in Salonica (now in Greece under the name of Thessaloniki, but then still part of the Ottoman Empire), Serafina gave birth to Edith, my mother. (So, by American law, she was considered a Greek!) (6) She later had a second daughter, my aunt Renée.
3 See "Cecil Goes to Russia, 1928" and "Cecil Goes to Japan and Back" in "Grandpa Daniel's Favorite Stories." (All subsequent citations are to this collection of stories.)
4 See "Edith Finkelstein Headrick's Early Life" and photos in the album called Edith and Her Family to 1930.
5 See the document "Edith's Genealogy" in the album Edith and Her Family to 1930.
6 See "How Your Great-Grandmother Edith Became Greek (1902-1919)."
In 1905 or 1906, the family moved to Paris. (At the time, there were no passports and no visas, and people could move around western Europe at will.) They made their home in Paris, very near the Sacré Coeur cathedral. There they had two more daughters, my aunts Thérèse and Marie. When the First World War broke out, the French police came looking for foreigners. My grandfather did not tell them that he was originally from Russia, for fear that they would send him back to Russia, where he would likely be conscripted into the army and sent to the front. Instead, he told the police that he was from Constantinople. That marked him as a Turk, an "enemy alien," so he was sent to a camp for enemy prisoners. After a while, the French authorities, perhaps tired of feeding him, offered to let him out on condition that he leave France. So he moved to Barcelona in neutral Spain, where he spent the rest of the war.
Meanwhile, my grandmother and her four daughters continued to live in Paris. (The French authorities were not interested in foreign women and children.) Without my grandfather to provide for them, they were very poor. Also, they lived in fear, first of a German invasion and later of shells from a German cannon called Big Bertha that could reach Paris. Whenever they heard a shell explode, my grandmother would rush to the children's school to see if they were still alive, and they would rush home to see if their mother was still alive.
My mother and her sisters, having spent their childhood in Paris, became culturally French. French was their first language and they loved everything French. The girls (unofficially) changed their surname from Finkelstein to Fantin. (My mother later changed her name back to Finkelstein.) (7)
In 1918, my grandfather Wolf emigrated to the United States. The following year, after the war ended, Serafina and her daughters emigrated to the United States and were reunited with my grandfather. They settled in New York City, where my grandfather built up a business. Eventually, he owned three clothing stores in the Bronx, but he later lost them in the Depression. Meanwhile, my mother enrolled in Hunter College. She quickly learned English and got a job as a stenographer and translator at the French Consulate in New York. While she was working in New York, the U.S. State Department was preparing to host a conference on the limitation of naval armaments to be held in Washington in late 1921 and early 1922. Needing a French-English translator, the State Department called the French Consulate in New York, which offered the services of my mother. That is how she found herself working as a translator for international conferences, such as the 69th Congress of the Inter-Parliamentary Union in Geneva in 1925 and the Pan-American Conference on Arbitration and Conciliation in Washington in December 1928. (8)
When she returned to New York, my mother worked for an agency that arranged tours for visiting artists such as Arthur Honegger, Maurice Ravel, and the Pro Arte Quartet. In 1930, she went to Berlin, hoping to add German to the languages that she could use as a translator. There she joined the Internationale Studenten Vereinigung (International Student Union). I have a picture of that group (including my mother) with Albert Einstein:
7 See "Great-Grandmother Edith and Her Family During World War I (1914-1918)"
8 See "How Edith Became a Translator."
She also traveled around Europe, as evidenced by photographs I have of her in Paris, Prague, and Brighton, England. She visited an uncle and his family in Lodz, Poland; they did not survive the war.
My Parents, My Brother, and I (1930-1945)
In Berlin, my mother met my father.
After they returned to the United States, they got married in New York in January 1931. They went to
Mexico on their honeymoon, hitchhiking to the border and from there taking a train to Mexico
Even after they were married, Edith continued to work as a translator and stenographer. I have pictures of her on the stage at the Sixth Annual Conference of the International Chamber of Commerce in Washington in May 1931 - she is taking shorthand while President Herbert Hoover is giving a speech urging world disarmament.
Edith earned a good living and, for a few years, she supported my father.
Starting in the fall of 1930, my father taught at a private school in Pawling, New York. He later
became associate dean of men at New York University. They bought a house in Babylon, on
Long Island, from where my father commuted to New York City to work. They did not have a
problem coming from different religious backgrounds, as they were both atheists.
Now me. I was born on August 2, 1941, in Bay Shore, New York.
During those years, my mother stayed home and took care of my brother William (whom we
call Cedric) and myself. My mother spoke to my brother and me in French and my father spoke
German; I did not learn to speak English until I was five years old. Between 1931 and 1945, they
did not return to Europe. Yet it is clear that they wanted to.
Back to Europe ( 1945-1952)
In 1945, they got their wish. The U.S. Government was looking for American citizens who spoke German but who were not immigrants from Germany or Austria. They offered my father a job working for the U.S. occupation authority in Germany as part of the de-nazification program. He eagerly accepted. He promised to bring his family as soon as it was safe to do so. According to his memoirs, Edith was quite strongly opposed to his going, leaving her with the two boys, ages 7 and 3. But he thought it would not be long before she could come and he told her they would stay twenty years in Europe!
9 See "Cecil and Edith's Honeymoon (1931)."
The idea of giving the boys an education in Germany and France appealed to her and she "went along" with the idea. She and the boys moved from their house in Babylon to her parents' house in Bay Shore. In January 1946, she and the boys came to live in Switzerland for six months, before an apartment was available in Berlin. And they stayed [in Europe] for twenty-four years and her dream of French and German education was fulfilled!
In the summer of 1945, Cecil arrived in Paris, then went to Luxembourg, then to Frankfurt, Germany. He wore a U.S. Army uniform, even though he was officially a civilian. His job was to organize and run an "Amerika-Haus," a library in which Germans could learn all about democracy and the wonders of the United States.
In the spring of 1946, my mother, my brother, and I sailed on the Swedish passenger liner Gripsholm to France and from there we took the train to Switzerland.
For several months, until it was deemed safe for American
families to enter Germany, we lived in a hotel in Wengen, a small resort town in the mountains.
Switzerland at the time was rich and lovely
and very welcoming to Americans with dollars!
In 1947, we joined my father and moved to Berlin, where we lived for two years. Germany was a conquered and defeated country: cities in ruins, bridges and railroads destroyed, food shortages, refugees and crippled war veterans everywhere. But we Americans lived in the lap of luxury. We had a big beautiful house in Dahlem, a posh suburb. My parents kindly allowed the owners of the house, a couple in their eighties, to live in their own basement, next to the furnace. It probably saved their lives, because the winter of 1947-1948 was one of the coldest on record and most Berliners were living in the subways or in the basements of ruined buildings, with little fuel to keep warm.
We, meanwhile, had American food and goods and access to the Barter-Mart, a place where Americans could exchange their cigarette rations for certificates with which, in another room, they could buy things that Germans were selling. (Cigarettes were money then, as the Reichsmarks were worthless and Germans were not allowed to have dollars.) That is how my parents exchanged two hundred cartons of American cigarettes for a grand piano that belonged to the famous pianist and composer Walter Gieseking. My brother and I were sent to the Waldorfschule, a progressive private school, rather than to the school for American children. We were driven to school and back in an official car with a chauffeur! We spoke English at home, but German outside the house. (10)
In 1949, we moved to Stuttgart. We lived in a big house in Sonnenberg, a suburb overlooking the city. During the week, my father was driven to work in the city. My mother also had an official car with a chauffeur who drove my brother and me to school. We also had our own car, a Jeep Station Wagon (an ancestor of today's SUVs). On many weekends, we drove to Basel in Switzerland to go shopping in the Globus department store.
Back then, Switzerland was very rich compared to Germany.
10 See "Our Life in Berlin after the War (1947-1949)."
In 1950 we moved once again, this time to Nürtingen, a small town south of Stuttgart. My father became the Kreiskommissar, that is the American supervisor of the county. We lived in a house called Villa Heller that belonged to a local manufacturer and had been requisitioned by the American occupation authorities for our use. It was a magnificent mansion on a hill overlooking the town. It had eighteen rooms, a huge garden with a swimming pool and an orchard, and a garage for half a dozen cars. Living there, I was spoiled for life!
My parents had a staff of servants: a cook, a gardener, two maids, and two chauffeurs, one for my father and one for my mother. They often threw parties for the important people in the county. At one party, I remember, Walter Gieseking himself came and played the piano that had once belonged to him!
The first year we lived in Nürtingen, I went to a school called Seminarschule. There I learned to speak Schwärbisch, the local dialect. While my parents were happy that I was fluent in German, my mother worried that I was losing my French. So the next year, they sent me to a French school in the neighboring town of Türbingen, in the French zone of occupation. That school was called Collège Decourdemanche and was set up for the children of French officials and military personnel living in the French zone. I continued to speak French and German, but at home we spoke English. That explains why I ended up so mid-Atlantic, culturally speaking: part-American and part-European, neither fully American nor fully European.
Living in Europe (1952-1959)
The Allied occupation of Germany ended in 1952 and was replaced by the Federal Republic of Germany in the west and the German Democratic Republic in the former Soviet zone of occupation in the east. That meant that my father's job ended and, with it, the luxurious life-style we had become accustomed to.
My father looked for a job in Europe, but without success. Instead, he was offered a position as the English-language announcer on Radio Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia. While there, he broadcast the ceremony of Ethiopia's annexation of Eritrea, formerly a colony of Italy.
My mother refused to live in Ethiopia. Instead, she, my brother, and I moved to Cannes on the French Riviera. That lasted a year, until my father returned from Ethiopia. Once again, he looked for a job with the U.S. Government in Europe, and this time, he found one: as education advisor at Bitburg Air Base in western Germany, near the city of Trier. His was a civilian job, helping arrange courses for airmen who wanted to continue their education.
We moved into an apartment in an American housing complex just outside the air base. Rather than go to the German school in the nearby town of Bitburg like my brother, I went to the French school in Trier, the Collège Ausone, named after the Roman poet Ausonius. I was there from 1953 until my "premier baccalauréat" in 1958.
In October 1956, as I was passing by the French military camp in Trier, I noticed that the tanks
and trucks parked there had been painted yellow. "Why are the tanks and trucks painted yellow?"
I asked my French friends. "Oh, didn't you know? We're invading Egypt next week." That was
how I learned about the Suez Crisis, the (botched) Anglo-Franco-Israeli invasion of Egypt.
While Edith was responsible for my French education. I inherited a love of traveling from Cecil.
When we lived in Germany, we traveled a great deal as a family, especially to other countries
such as France, Italy, Spain, England, and Scandinavia. Edith liked to take her sons to cities like
Rome and Paris and stay in hotels. Cecil preferred the countryside and camping out. In the
summer of 1957, when I turned sixteen, Cecil bought a Vespa scooter. We loaded it with
camping gear and off we went, from Germany through Denmark and Sweden to northern
Finland. We reached the North Cape, the northernmost point of Europe, around the summer
solstice when it was still light enough at midnight to read a newspaper out of doors. We returned
down the coast of Norway. (11)
The next summer, Cecil bought a BMW motorcycle and had it shipped to the United States. We loaded it up with our camping gear and took off from New York, heading west. For about a month, we traveled across country, camping and occasionally getting soaked. (12)
In Los Angeles, we stayed with my half-sister Jean and her husband and daughter. On the way home, we stopped in Winfield to see my grandmother and my aunts Lucy and Grace.
During the year 1958-59, I attended the Lycée de Garçons (boys' high school) in Metz, a French
city near the border of Luxembourg. On weekends, I commuted back and forth on my father's
After a year there, I got my second baccalaureat in June 1959. When the results of the exam
were posted on the doors of the school, all the students who had taken it rushed to see whether
they had passed. Among them were my then girlfriend Francette and I. When we learned that we
had passed, we and hundreds of other teenagers ran through the streets shouting and jumping for
joy. The authorities were nervous, for it was the anniversary of General Charles de Gaulle's
accession to power. Suddenly, we found ourselves surrounded by the CRS (the French security
police) and their paddy wagons blocking every exit! Francette and I ran into a department store
and out the other side. That is how we avoided getting thrown in jail for "disturbing the peace."
College and Rita
As I was finishing my baccalauréat, my parents decided I should get an American education. I entered Swarthmore College, a Quaker school outside of Philadelphia, in the fall of 1959. I started as a sophomore, for I was given a year's credit for having gotten such a fine European high school education.
11 See "To the North Cape and Back (Summer 1957)."
12 See the essays "One Rainy Night in South Dakota (Summer 1958)," "Camping in Butte, Montana," "Visiting Las Vegas," and "Stopover in Colorado."
That winter, I met a girl who made me forget all other girls. Her name was Rita. Rita was born on July 31, 1942, in Goldsboro, North Carolina, where her father, Sol Koplowitz, had been stationed during the war. Her mother's name was Mollie Fleit Koplowitz. She also had a younger brother, Herb. After the war, her parents moved to New York and bought a new house in Elmont, a suburb of New York City. There, she attended elementary School and Elmont Memorial High School.
Out first date was on February 20, 1960, and we promptly fell in love. She was all of seventeen and I was eighteen when she decided that I was the man for her. A few weeks later, she proposed to me. How could I resist?
Ours was a tumultuous love affair. Rita was forthright and outspoken, with a big,
friendly personality. She had an amazing sense of ethics, meaning she could tell right
from wrong, in politics as well as in personal relations. She saw me as a means to escape
from her middle-class suburban American upbringing and lead a life of adventure. She also
knew that she wanted to be involved in the Civil Rights Movement.
Just as Rita and I were starting college, America was entering a decade-long upheaval. African Americans began to organize and demonstrate for their civil rights and equal justice and against racial segregation. As the Vietnam War intensified after 1964, the government began drafting young men, gradually extending the net to include college students and married men. In 1967, riots broke out in Newark, Detroit, Los Angeles, and other cities. Rita and many of her friends began to view the U.S. Government as the enemy.
In contrast to Rita, I was timid and scholarly. I was very unsure of myself and what I wanted to be. When I arrived in Swarthmore, I was quite disoriented. So many new people! So many new ideas! So many decisions to make! When my adviser asked me what I wanted to major in, I told her economics because I did not know anything about it and was curious. That year, I took the two required introduction courses.
In the summer of 1960, while Rita stayed in New York, I went to Spain to learn Spanish. First I attended summer programs for foreigners in Santander and Seville. Then in October I enrolled in the University of Madrid. I avoided the American students on their "junior year abroad" who all stayed together and spoke English. I lived in a dorm for Spanish students called Colegio Mayor Santo Tomás de Aquinas, run by Dominican Friars. (Luckily, I was excused from attending Mass.) I made friends with Spanish students, especially Vicente Ferrandis y Cordona, my best friend. I also traveled all over Spain and other parts of Europe on my trusty Vespa.
In the fall of 1961, I returned to Swartmore College as a senior, having taken only two
courses in my major! As a result, I had to take all economics courses that year, except
for one French literature seminar. Rita had had a bad spring semester while I was in
Spain, perhaps because I was away. So she took the fall semester off, and we met
periodically, either in New York or in Philadelphia. I graduated in 1962 with a B.A. in
Bologna, Washington, and Rita
There I was, a college graduate with no plans for the future. I liked going to school, but I also missed Europe. So I sought a way to continue my life as a peripatetic trans-Atlantic student, alternating years in the United States and in Europe. Luckily, I found just what I was looking for, namely the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), which had a school in Bologna, Italy, and another one in Washington, D.C. I signed up for the Bologna Center, to the dismay of my girlfriend Rita, who had suffered enough from my absence in Spain. Now we had to spend another year apart!
Bologna was a very pleasant place to spend a year. The students there came from all different Western European countries, as well as from the United States and a few other places like Algeria. Classes were in English, but conversations were in French, Italian, Spanish, and other languages. We went on outings to Florence, Venice, Milan, and Brussels. I also rode all over northern Italy on my Vespa. All the while, Rita and I kept up a frequent and passionate correspondence. (This was before the Internet.)
In the summer of 1963, before returning to the United States, I went to visit my parents. By this time, they had moved to Evreux, a small town in Normandy where Cecil had been posted to the local American air base. They even bought a house, with the intention of settling there when Cecil retired. Not wanting to spend my time hanging around the house with nothing to do, I did what I had so often done before in idle moments, namely take off on my Vespa with my camping equipment and a very limited supply of money. I rode through Germany, Austria, and Yugoslavia all the way to Greece, then returned via Italy.
That fall, I moved to the School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. to complete my master's degree, which I received in the spring of 1964. Again, I was following my usual pattern of alternate years on each side of the Atlantic. Most of the students at SAIS, like those at the Bologna Center, hoped to become government officials, diplomats, or business people. Many later became wealthy or important in one of those fields.
Rita, meanwhile, got her B.A. in history from Swarthmore in January 1964, and was free to do what she - and so many other young people - were eager to do, namely change the world. The early sixties were a time of political ferment in the United States, when educated young white people began questioning the values of their parents - conservative, materialistic, narrow-minded, and prejudiced - and joining movements for Civil Rights and, later, against the Vietnam War. Rita was one of those youths. She was very committed to fighting racism and injustice. That spring, in order to become a Civil Rights activist, she joined the Economic Research and Action Project in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In the summer, she attended a training camp in Ohio, then joined some other members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in Moss Point, Mississippi. Their goal was to open a freedom school to teach local Black children subjects that they did not learn in the local segregated schools. They also worked in a voter registration drive. During the fall of 1964 and the spring of 1965, she became an activist for the Students for a Democratic Society and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in Philadelphia. (11)
While I enjoyed the atmosphere and the challenges of being a student at SAIS, I realized that I did not have the personality to be a businessman nor the willingness to put up with the life of a bureaucrat. What I really wanted, I realized, was to be a college teacher. But for that, I had to get a Ph.D. from a famous university. So I applied and was admitted to Princeton.
Princeton, Spain, and Married Life
At Princeton, I decided to study modern Spanish history under Professor Stanley Stein, a well- known historian of Spain and Latin America. I chose that field because I had spent a happy year there and loved that country. During my first year, I shared an apartment in town with several other graduate students. On weekends, I drove to Philadelphia to be with Rita.
But weekends were not enough for us, so we made the Big Decision, and on June 20, 1965, we got married. (13)
During our honeymoon in the Caribbean, we camped out at Cinnamon Bay on St. John's Island, a part of the Virgin Islands
National Park. We also visited Guadeloupe, a French island, and Puerto Rico, where Cedric was
Upon our return to the U.S. mainland, we moved to Trenton, New Jersey, and began acting like an ordinary married couple. We acquired two cats, whom we named Ferdinand ("Freddy") and Isabella, in honor of my interest in Spain. A few weeks later - surprise! - we had five kittens; but managed to give them away. (14)
While I commuted to Princeton, Rita worked as a social worker for the Bureau of Children's Service in Trenton, New Jersey. She did not give up her radical ideas, but we had to make a living, now that we were grown-ups.
But being grown-ups did not mean settling down. Quite the contrary: it meant going on an adventure! And the adventure we found was to spend a year in Europe. That way, I could continue doing what I liked, which was to be a perpetual student, with the added benefit of being married. And Rita could achieve two of her three goals, namely being married and going to Europe with me. As for her third goal - changing the world - she put that aside for the time being.
Rita and I flew to Europe in the summer of 1966, leaving our cats with friends. First, we spent some time with Cecil and Edith in Evreux. Then, after a few side trips to Italy and England, we moved to Madrid, where I spent the academic year 1966-67 doing research for my doctoral dissertation on "The Spanish Army and Politics, 1868-1898." We found an apartment in an outlying apartment complex that we shared with another Princeton graduate student, Curt Noel, who was also studying Spanish history. While I was doing research in the archives and libraries, Rita spent her time studying Spanish and making friends. On weekends, we traveled all over Spain in a Fiat Cinquecento mini-car that we had bought in Italy.
The following year, 1967-1968, I returned to Princeton University and we moved into graduate student housing. Rita got a job teaching 8th grade math at Crossroads School in South Brunswick, N.J.
13 See "Grandma Rita and the Silver Chalice (1965)."
14 See "Counting Kittens (Spring 1966)"
We realized that this was to be my last year as a student living off scholarships, and that we should be thinking about what to do next. At this point in my life, I had narrowed down my options to one: becoming a college teacher. But Rita was still eager to change America by participating in the Civil Rights Movement. What to do? By chance, a solution presented itself that would satisfy both of us. I applied for, and was offered, a job teaching at Tuskegee Institute, a historically Black university in Alabama.
Tuskegee, Isabelle, Juliet, and Matthew
And so, in August 1968, we packed our things into our Volkswagen Beetle, and off we went. We planned to take Interstate 81, the long highway down the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, but it was very hot and our car did not have air conditioning. Instead we took the Blue Ridge Parkway, which parallels I-81 along the top of the Blue Ridge, where it was much cooler.
Tuskegee is a Black college in a town and county with a Black majority. The people there greeted us warmly. Meanwhile all around us, the nation was in upheaval. That spring, after Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King and the leading Democratic presidential candidate, Robert Kennedy, were assassinated, there had been student uprisings across the country, including at Tuskegee. Students returning to class after the summer were understandably jittery, as were the faculty and administrators. And so were we.
I was to teach several sections of world history and one upper-division course in European history. I knew my European history, but world history - what was that? I was very nervous, not only because I was asked to teach something I knew little about, but also because we found ourselves in a setting and culture that were new to us.
Before our arrival, public schools throughout the South were strictly segregated. Tuskegee had two high schools, one white and one Black. When the Supreme Court found that segregated schools were unconstitutional and had to be integrated, the white parents withdrew their children from the public schools and founded a private "Christian Academy," staffed by the white teachers who had formerly taught in the white schools. This left the newly "integrated" public schools just as overwhelmingly Black as the Black public schools had been before. The public schools were also under court order to integrate their faculty. No sooner had we arrived than Rita was recruited to teach at the local high school. She was the only white teacher in an otherwise all-Black school.
We had something else to occupy our minds: Rita was pregnant! On February 21, 1969, she gave birth to Isabel Sonia.
A friend later wrote:
That period in her life, when we first came to Tuskegee and Isabelle was born was, I think, the high point in her life, the time when she was at her happiest, most outgoing, most thrilled with living. She was recently enough married to be delighted with marriage, she was pregnant (which she loved) and then had a baby (that she adored), she was in a new place, meeting new people, doing something exciting and adventurous and, in her eyes, worthwhile; all of which made her the kind of person you knew and liked so much.
I liked teaching, and Rita loved being a mother. Isabelle changed our lives, and even Rita's politics. Oh, she remained a committed leftist, but the day Isabelle was born, she ceased being a radical and became much more cautious in her activities. That's what parenthood will do to you! Fortunately, we did not have to stay in Tuskegee year-round. Because summers in Alabama were very hot, we found ways to travel to cooler places. In the summer of 1970, we flew to Paris, bought a car, and set off for Innsbruck, Austria, where my parents had just moved. When we arrived, we found my mother in the hospital, recovering from surgery to remove a benign tumor from her brain. She was delighted to see her new granddaughter and eager to leave the hospital. The next day, when we went to visit her, we were told that she had gotten out of bed, had a massive heart attack, and died! She was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Innsbruck. After a few days spent with Cecil, mourning, Rita, Isabelle, and I went off to Italy, France, and Spain, while Cecil returned to Germany, where he and Edith had lived before moving to Innsbruck. At some point during our trip, Rita got pregnant again and on April 13, 1971, Juliet Edith was born in Tuskegee. By then, I had finished my dissertation and was awarded a Ph.D. from Princeton in June 1971.
From Princeton, Rita, Isabelle, baby Juliet, and I took off on a long road trip. First we drove to
New York to see Rita's parents. Then, camping along the way, we drove to Missoula, Montana,
to visit Cedric and his wife Inga, then on to San Francisco. After two months in San Francisco,
we drove back to Tuskegee via Winfield to visit Cecil's mother and his sisters Lucy and Grace.
In the spring of 1972, I was awarded a post-doctoral fellowship to turn my dissertation into a
book. So we took the opportunity to fly to Europe - once again - and spent the spring and
summer of 1972 in Madrid. In 1981, it was published by Editorial Tecnos in Madrid under the
title Ejército y política en España (1866-1898).
While we were in Spain, Rita got pregnant once again! When Rita went into labor during the night of February 20, 1973, I rushed her to the hospital. This was most unexpected, for we had planned a big birthday party for Isabelle, who was to turn four the very next day. Rita had invited all of Isabelle's friends (and their parents) and had even baked a cake - but had not had time to make the icing. The next morning, when our guests arrived, they asked "Where is Rita?" I told them she was in the hospital with our new baby, Matthew Peter. So that is how, every February 21, we celebrate two birthdays on the same day.
Meanwhile, starting in the fall of 1970, Rita had been hired to teach history at Tuskegee Institute. We were now colleagues! Together, we discovered world history, a course that was offered at very few universities - Tuskegee being one of the few - instead of the history of Western Civilization, which was the standard introductory college history course at that time. 15
See "Isabelle's Fourth Birthday (February 21, 1973)."
The world included Africa, which our students were curious about, being the continent from which their ancestors had been brought to America as enslaved people.
Rita had always loved history, her major in college. Teaching world history at Tuskegee made her want to go to graduate school and get a Ph.D. so that she could become a proper college professor. Having participated in the Civil Rights Movement and having taught African- American students awakened an interest in African history. How to accomplish that, so far from any major research university?
After seven years at Tuskegee - from the fall of 1969 to the spring of 1975 - we were getting restless, Rita even more than I. As a friend wrote about her in those years, "A few years later, with three small children and so many of our friends gone or leaving and the prospect of being stuck in Alabama, she became frustrated and unhappy."
We dealt with our unhappiness in a most irrational way. In the winter of 1974-75, we bought a house on Main Street in Tuskegee, not a very expensive house (ten thousand dollars). It was a sign of our confusion, for at the very same time, Rita was applying to graduate schools in the north that offered a Ph.D. in African history, which would mean leaving Tuskegee. In the spring of 1975, she was admitted to the universities of Wisconsin and Chicago. She was determined to go to one of them, but what would I and the children do without her?
I wrote to a hundred colleges and universities, hoping there would be a job for me, but all I got for my trouble was a hundred polite rejections. So, as soon as school was over and we had handed in our grades, we piled into our car and headed north. In Chicago, someone mentioned a program for adults at Roosevelt University. I went there, but since it was summer, there was almost no one around. When the department secretary asked me what I was looking for, I told her that I was inquiring about possible employment opportunities. "Oh," she said, "you're looking for a job! Well, there's only one faculty member here, but you can always go talk to him." He asked me what I was looking for. When I told him I needed a job, he was quite astonished; that is NOT how academics apply for faculty positions in universities! Still, he politely listened to my story and, when I was finished, he asked: "Are you sure you'd be comfortable at Roosevelt University?" "You bet!" I replied.
Later that summer, I flew up for a proper interview with the rest of the department, and was offered a position teaching the Social Science Seminar in Roosevelt's College of Continuing Education. Rita decided to enter the graduate program at the University of Chicago. And so, by an incredible stroke of luck, we once again landed on our feet!
We arrived in Chicago in late August 1975 and settled into an apartment for married graduate students at the University of Chicago. The following morning I stepped out onto the back porch and felt cool air for the first time in months! (16)
16 See "First Impressions of Chicago (August 1975)."
During the next few weeks, we settled into our new life. I went downtown to Roosevelt University and got to know my colleagues and the students in my Social Science Seminars. Rita went to the University of Chicago and met her professors, especially Ralph Austen, the African historian who was to be her mentor, and William H. McNeill, the famous world historian who was to become a mentor to me. We found schools for the children: Juliet and Matthew in a Montessori School, and Isabelle in the Laboratory School of the University of Chicago (thanks to the generosity of Rita's parents).
We worked out a schedule: Rita went to classes in the morning, while I took the kids to school. In the afternoon, when she came home, I took off for downtown, where I stayed to teach my classes in the evenings, and got home late. Whenever family duties did not require my presence, I would go the library of the University of Chicago, with the goal of becoming a real historian. We made friends, in particular a graduate student couple, Kate and Larry Martin. Kate was studying art history at Northwestern University and Larry was studying anthropology at the University of Chicago, where he took some classes with Rita; both were interested in Africa. We would occasionally have dinner together and Kate and Larry would sometimes babysit our children.
In short, we settled down to a peaceful humdrum existence as an ordinary middle-class couple. But it was not to be, because Rita still had her old wanderlust. This time, she was not content to travel to Europe, but had found a new cause: African history. In our first three years in Chicago, she took classes in African history and chose a topic for her dissertation: health and medicine in equatorial Africa during the French colonial period. For this, she would need to visit archives in France and in the People's Republic of the Congo (formerly the French Congo) and interview people in several African countries.
She applied for a Fulbright grant and got it. It offered enough money to support a family of five for an entire year! Before leaving Chicago on our latest adventure, we bought an apartment on Hyde Park Boulevard, between the University of Chicago and Lake Michigan. It was to be our home when we returned.
Paris and Brazzaville
Rita's plan was to spend five months in Paris and the next five months in Africa. In September 1978, we moved to Sceaux, a suburb of Paris, and enrolled our children in the local schools.
My job was to get the children to school and back and do the shopping, etc., while Rita went into Paris to
That winter, while we were living in Sceaux, our friends Kate and Larry came to visit us. Kate had just spent many months in Mali, doing field work for her dissertation on the art of the Bamana people. Larry, who had started out as a graduate student in anthropology but had since switched to Yale Law School, flew in from New York to spend some time with Kate. (16) To complete the research for her dissertation, Rita needed to go to Africa to interview people who remembered the French colonial period. And so in February 1979, we packed out bags and flew to Brazzaville on the Congo River. (17)
It took us a while to settle in, find a house, and enroll our three children in a school for the children of foreigners. We made friends with many Congolese and with a French family, Gérard and Elisabeth Fabres.
Even in Paris and Brazzaville, however, Rita did not find all the information she needed for her dissertation. In June, 1979, therefore, she took a boat up the Congo River to the Central African Republic, stopping in villages to learn about their health problems and medical care. Evidently, it was a harrowing experience; as she wrote in her diary: "Kate's words about not letting yourself get discouraged no matter how bad things get . . . are keeping me going." (18)
She also spent a week in Gabon, another country that had once been a part of French Equatorial Africa. Meanwhile, I took the children to Europe to spend some time with Cecil. (19) From there, the children and I flew to New York to stay with Rita's parents, and then drove home to Chicago to await Rita's arrival.
On Becoming a Historian
It was during my years teaching at Tuskegee and later while living in France and Africa that I realized that I was becoming a different sort of historian from others in my profession. Most historians focus on some very limited aspect of the past, as I did when I wrote my dissertation on the Spanish army in the late nineteenth century. But while teaching at Tuskegee, I found my interests broadening to encompass the whole world.
All other kinds of history, whether national or ethnic or cultural or religious, divide the world into "us" versus "them." Even the most broad-minded historians of American history distinguish between the United States and all other nations. For world historians, in contrast, all humans are "us." They emphasize topics marginal to national or ethnic histories, such as explorations, migrations, global trade, the spread of languages and religions, and the diffusion of plants, animals, and diseases.
When discussing European imperialism and colonialism, even world history textbooks implied (though they did not come out and say) that the European conquest and colonization of Asia and Africa in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a natural outcome of European cultural superiority. I found this explanation very unsatisfying.
Meanwhile, I had also discovered the history of technology. Most historians ignored the role technology in history, preferring to focus on politics, social problems, or economic issues. I thought my interest in technical subjects reflected my knack for fixing bicycles and playing with electric trains and had nothing to do with my profession.
17 See "First Night in Brazzaville (February 1979)."
18 See "Rita's Letters and Diary from Africa" for July 1, 1979.
19 See "Leaving Brazzaville (June 1979)."
Then I started reading about the technologies of the past and discovered that technological history was not only a revelation in itself, but also provided an explanation for the lopsided relations between Europe, on the one hand, and Asia and Africa, on the other, during the Age of Imperialism.
Thus it was that while sitting in Sceaux with no classes to teach or papers to grade, I turned my attention (when the three children were in school) to writing a book that would correct the interpretation of European imperialism that I had found in other history books. The result was The Tools of Empire: Technology and European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century, which was published by Oxford University Press in 1981. This was the beginning of my career as an author of history books aimed at college students.
Our Best Years
Once Rita returned from Africa and the children and I from New York, we settled into our new apartment and signed the children up for school - Isabelle (as she now spelled her name) at the Laboratory School and Juliet and Matthew at Bret Harte School. We also got a cat we named Macgregor and whom we all adored. Then began the best and happiest years of our lives as a family.
My professional life consisted of teaching at Roosevelt University and, in my spare time, going to conferences and writing articles and books. (My curriculum vitae will give you all the details.) The two books I mentioned earlier, Ejército y política and The Tools of Empire, were both published in 1981. Ejército y política did not raise any ripples, but The Tools of Empire made my reputation as an historian and got me invited to give talks at universities around the country. Rita had come home with boxes of copies of documents and interview notes collected in France and Africa. She settled down to organize all this information and begin writing her dissertation. She also taught part-time at universities around the city and kept the family well fed, nicely clothed, and happy. Then, in the fall of 1983, she started a new job: teaching 8th-grade social studies at the University of Chicago's Laboratory School. She loved teaching there because it was one of the best schools in Chicago, with the smartest and best prepared students. Her new job doubled our family income and, as an incredible side benefit, we could send all three of our children there free of charge!
Rita may have given up her radical ways, but she still suffered from wanderlust, and so did I. No sooner had we settled down than it seized us once again. This time, it was I who got the idea - and the funding - for a year's adventure. My idea was to do research for a second book about technology and imperialism. The funding came from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Of all the places to live while I did my research, we chose Paris - why not? I got a leave of absence from Roosevelt and Rita from the Lab School. We rented out our apartment, packed our suitcases, and off we went. With the help of our good friend Hélène Hogarth, we found an apartment in the house of a Madame Peugeot (of the Peugeot automobile family) in Versailles, a posh suburb of Paris. We put the children in local schools: Matt and Isabelle in the public schools, and Juliet in a Catholic school that, fortunately, did not try to convert her.
During the week, Rita and I alternated going to Paris to libraries and archives. On weekends, we traveled around France in our new Volvo station wagon.
Cecil, who had moved back to Germany, would come visit us periodically. It seemed
like a good arrangement: too bad it could not last forever.
We returned to Chicago in the summer of 1984. Everything seemed to be turning out well. The children thrived in school. Isabelle loved history and literature. Juliet developed an interest in Judaism, took some theology courses at the University of Chicago's Divinity School, and did her Bas Mitzvah. And Matthew, a budding scientist, was invited to participate in graduate-level research projects at the university. Rita went back to teaching at the Lab School. In the evenings and on weekends, she worked on her dissertation, which kept getting longer and longer, until it became the longest Ph.D. dissertation ever presented to the University of Chicago! In the fall of 1985, Rita learned that she had breast cancer. She underwent all the known treatments: mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation. Through it all, she carried on bravely. She taught, she kept writing, she took care of her family. For awhile, the cancer seemed to be in remission, but it was not to be. Friends came to see us; even Gerard and Elisabeth Fabres flew over from France. In the fall of 1987, the cancer returned and she had to be hospitalized. Once again, the doctors tried everything they could, but to no avail.
By that time, Isabelle had started at Oberlin College. Rita, who had long looked forward to this moment, had me drive her from Chicago to Ohio and back the same day, just to see Isabelle. In January 1988, the University of Chicago awarded her a Ph.D. in history. A few weeks later, on February 14, 1988, she died.
Kate and I, 1988-1992
After Rita died, the four of us were left to carry on as best we could. Isabelle went back to college, Juliet and Matthew went back to their studies, and I returned to teaching. Very few people came by to see us.
One of the few who did was Kate. During the Thanksgiving holiday in 1988, she came to Chicago for a conference. She called to say she was in town, and I invited her to dinner. Kate is a shy, scholarly person. She is also very friendly and people-oriented, with a big heart and an eagerness to help others. She is the kindest, most caring person I have ever known. That she called and came to visit us made a big impression on me.
By this time, Kate had divorced Larry and changed back to her maiden name Ezra. She had begun working as a curator of African art in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
During the winter of 1988, the three children and I drove to River Vale, New Jersey, to spend the holidays with Rita's parents Sol and Gertrude. While we were there, I went to see Kate in New York City on December 21, 1988, the winter solstice. It was our first date.
Later that winter, I went to Paris to give a talk at the Bibliothèque Nationale. By a stroke of luck, Kate was asked to ferry a work of art from the Metropolitan Museum to Grenoble in France. On her return, she stopped off in Paris and we spent a few wonderful days and nights together. Thus began the second great love affair of my life.
After I returned to Chicago and Kate to New York in January 1989, we continued to see each other. Every three weeks, either I had a talk to give at some university on the East Coast and arranged to spend the weekend in New York City with Kate, or Kate had a conference or a talk or some other business in the Midwest and arranged to spend the weekend in Chicago with me.
Thereafter, we managed to travel together as often as possible. We met in Nice on the French Riviera in May 1989. In the summer of 1990 we camped out along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Appalachia.
That winter we went to
Munich and Berlin. In 1992 we went to Paris in March, to California in April, to Spain in May,
and to Israel in June!
And on August 23, 1992, we got married!
At the time, we still lived in Chicago and New York, respectively, but got together as often as
our professional lives allowed.
Despite the distractions of romance and travel, we managed to pursue our professional careers. The Tentacles of Progress: Technology Transfer in the Age of Imperialism, 1850-1940, a book I had written long before, came out in 1988; it was a sequel to my first book, The Tools of Empire. The topic of technology and imperialism aroused enough interest to get me invited to give talks in Oxford, Stockholm, Tokyo, Lisbon, Rio de Janeiro, Hamburg, Cali, Colombia, and many universities in the United States.
While reading up on European imperialism, I realized that one aspect thereof had not received much attention from historians, namely the global telecommunications network. I therefore decided to write a book on the subject. For that I had to go to London and visit the archives of Cable & Wireless, at one time the world's preeminent telegraph company. The result was my next book, The Invisible Weapon: Telecommunications and International Politics, 1851-1945, published in 1991. That book made me famous, at least in the small circle of historians who specialize in the history of telecommunications. More importantly, this topic also attracted a lot of interest - and funding - from government communications agencies and telecom companies. Thanks to their generosity, I was invited to conferences and universities in cool places like Paris, Nice, Heidelberg, Amsterdam, Beijing, Madrid, Munich, and Helsinki, as well as in the United States.
(20) See "Grandpa Daniel, Grandma Kate, and the Angel (Early 1989)."
I took advantage of a research leave in 1993 to live in New York with Kate. While there, I edited Rita's dissertation, which was published in 1994 under the title Colonialism, Health and Illness in French Equatorial Africa, 1885-1935.
Kate was equally busy as a curator at the Metropolitan Museum, where she curated several major exhibitions of African art: Bamana: A Human Ideal in African Art in 1986, Art of the Dogon in 1988, The Art of Central Africa in 1990, and Royal Art of Benin in 1992. Each of these exhibitions was accompanied by an important art book on that topic.
The children, by then, had their own lives and adventures, which I'll just summarize here. (If you want more information about them, ask them to write their own autobiographies.) Isabelle, who majored in Russian Studies at Oberlin, spent a semester in Krasnodar, a city in southern Russia, in 1989. (21)
She graduated from Oberlin in 1991.
Juliet went to Harvard in 1989-90. From 1990 to 1994, she lived in Israel and attended two religious schools, Nishmat and Michlala, and Bar Ilan University; she was the first woman to take Talmud classes in that strictly Orthodox university. She returned to Harvard in 1994 and graduated in 1996. Later she got an MA in poetry from Lehman College in New York and tutored other students.
Meanwhile Matthew won the Westinghouse Prize for high school science students in 1990 and attended Princeton University from 1990 to 1994, where he majored in physics.
Our Life Together, 1994-2008
In the summer of 1994, Kate was offered a job teaching art history at Columbia College Chicago, an art school a few blocks from Roosevelt University in downtown Chicago. At last, we were able to live together!
As usual, we traveled a lot. In December 1995, we flew to Gabon to visit Matt, who was a Peace Corps volunteer there from 1994 to 1996. (22)
After his Peace Corps service ended in 1996, Kate and I went to Mali to travel with him and his then girlfriend Heather. (23)
In the summer of 1998, we spent a month traveling around France and visiting my old friends the Fabres. The next summer, we spend a month in Côte d'Ivoire. In August 2000, we spent a few weeks in Japan. In 2004, we went camping in British Columbia and later went to India to travel with Matt. Two years later we spent ten days in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Nevertheless, we continued with our professional lives. From January to August 2000, I taught at Hawaii Pacific University in Honolulu, and Kate took a leave of absence from Columbia College to join me. Two more of my books were published in those years.
21 See "Calling Isabelle in Russia (Fall 1989)."
22 See "Traveling to Gabon (December 1995)."
23 See "From Mopti to Bamako (Summer 1996).
The Earth and Its Peoples, a textbook for college students that I co-authored with five other historians, first came out in 1997, with new editions every three years thereafter; and When Information Came of Age: Technologies of Knowledge in the Age of Reform and Revolution, 1700-1850 appeared in 2000. I also published articles and reviews and gave talks at universities and conferences. Kate curated exhibitions at Columbia College and published essays and articles on African art. Meanwhile, our family kept growing. On October 29, 1995, Isabelle married Michael Hurewitz in Austin, Texas. Their son Zel Jacob was born on May 29, 1997.
Their second son, Avram ("Avi") Gabriel was born on February 9, 2000. So now we were
grandparents! Juliet settled in Brooklyn, where she wrote poetry and got an M.A. in poetry at
Lehman College. Matthew, meanwhile, had entered the graduate program in physics at Harvard
in 1996 and got his Ph.D. in 2002. He married Tatiana ("Tanya") Pilyugina on August 17, 2007,
and again on July 5, 2008. That September, he began teaching physics at Brandeis University in
Kate had long been wanting to move east to be closer to her sister Liz and her family in Brooklyn, to Matt and Tanya in Waltham, and to Juliet in Brooklyn. In 2008, when she was offered a job as curator of education at the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut, she jumped at the opportunity. Not only was it a wonderful job in a great university, but New Haven was almost exactly halfway between Brooklyn and Waltham!
In May 2008, I retired from Roosevelt University. We flew to New Haven, where a realtor showed us twenty houses. We found one we liked: a cute 92-year-old Tudor-style house with four bedrooms and a very private fenced-in back yard in a lovely tree-shaded neighborhood named Beaver Hills. We bought it and returned to Chicago and began packing.
Retirement opened up a whole new phase in my life. No more commuting to work! No more
schedules! No more papers to grade or meetings to attend! Freedom! But to do what? I told
people that I was not really retired; I just stopped teaching, and now had time to write. Two
books that I had written them earlier appeared after I retired: Technology: A World History in
2009 and Power Over Peoples: Technology, Environments, and Western Imperialism, 1400 to
the Present in 2010. For a few years, I still contributed to new editions of The Earth and Its
Peoples, a textbook that brought in a lot of money.
In 2010, I retired from that project so that I could devote my time to something new. In my last years at Roosevelt, I had developed an interest in environmental history, but I found that there were few books that were suitable for college students. So I decided to learn an entirely new field of history. Writing the book that I wished I had had when I was teaching took me about seven years. It finally came out in 2019 under the title Humans Versus Nature: A Global Environmental History. It's the best book I've ever written. You should read it!
Along the way, I had other things to do. One was visiting our family. Matt and Tanya lived only two and a half hours away, so we could see them quite often. In 2010 we traveled with them to Russia, with Tanya as our guide. The next year, on March 16, she gave birth to twins: Margarita ("Rita") and Michael ("Misha"), our newest grandchildren.
All the more reason to go visit them and have them come visit us as often as possible.
In September 2014, a new member joined our family: Whiskey the Cat.
In January 2015, Kate retired. Now we really were free to roam! The first thing we did with our
newfound freedom was drive to Texas to spend the month of February with Isabelle and her
family. It was a four day drive, because we took it easy, stopping every afternoon to go on short
hikes and to visit museums along the way. After a month in Austin, we took four days to drive
home. That trip was such a success that we have made it every year since then.
Once we returned to New Haven, Kate could devote her time and energy to new projects. One was joining the B'nai Jacob synagogue and learning Hebrew. She also became active with the Jewish Community Alliance for Refugee Resettlement, or JCARR, a social-action committee that helps refugees and asylum seekers from Africa and the Middle East find housing, health care, schools for the children, and jobs for the adults. Kate also spent a lot of time gardening. Not a moment wasted!
In April and May 2019, Kate and I spend several weeks in Spain, visiting my old friend Vicente in Valencia and traveling around Andalusia. Then in June we took our grandsons Zel and Avi on a trip to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks.
Like every year since 2015, we spent the month of February 2020 in Austin. On the way back,
listening to the news on the car radio, we learned that the Covid-19 pandemic had spread to the
United States. We arrived in New Haven in early March, just as the lockdown began. We have
stayed home since then, except for bi-weekly trips to the supermarket and daily walks in the
parks and woods around New Haven. And that, as of July 2020, is the story of our lives.
Historians like myself love to write about crises: the Black Death, the French and American Revolutions, the Civil War, the two World Wars. The crises of the past are not only fascinating in themselves, they are also comforting to read about, because we know how they end. Not so the present moment.
The crisis we are in as I write these words is the worst since the Second World War. The Covid-19 pandemic has engulfed the world, sickening millions and killing hundreds of thousands. It has led governments to order people to stay home, wear masks, and avoid most places of employment and business. The resulting economic downturn rivals the Great Depression. In the United States, black and white people are demonstrating against racism and police brutality. Meanwhile, our government is floundering in a morass of incompetence and denial. In other countries, some governments are trying to balance restarting their economies with keeping their people safe - and failing at both. Others are using the pandemic as an excuse to abridge their citizens' privacy and civil liberties.
What I am writing here is only valid right now, and will have to be revised many times. I hope to live long enough to see the end of this crisis, which is where historians like to be.