January 14, 2000 (Ira Pilgrim)


Perhaps our supercilious disgust with existence is a cover for a secret disgust with ourselves; we have botched and bungled our lives, and we cast the blame upon the "environment" or the "world," which have no tongues to utter a defense. The mature man accepts the natural limitations of life; he does not expect Providence to be prejudiced in his favor; he does not ask for loaded dice to play the game of life. He knows, with Carlyle, that there is no sense in vilifying the sun because it will not light our cigars. And perhaps, if we are clever enough to help it, the sun will even do that; and this vast neutral cosmos may turn out to be a pleasant place enough if we bring a little sunshine of our own to help it out. In truth, the world is neither with us or against us; it is but raw material in our hands, and can be heaven or hell according to what we are.

Will Durant 1953

November 4, 1999

I am lying in bed, typing on a laptop computer. At 6:51 am, the sun rose over what we call David's Mountain. I have just pulled down the aluminized mylar window shade, which allows light in and blocks most of the heat.

I have been musing about my life and thinking how lucky I have been. My father almost died of starvation in Europe before a cousin sent him a ticket to this country. Here, he did what he knew how to do, became a merchant, married, raised a family. In his later years he turned to inventing. None of his inventions were successful. He was a classical American failure story. As a father, he was very successful; he raised me. I didn't realize what a wonderful father he was until I had raised a passle of my own kids. He had little formal education, but he spoke and read several languages. He was always reading. He was warm and loving and had a great sense of humor. I remember once during my most obnoxious stage of adolescence, when I was furious with him over something trivial. I yelled at him, "The only thing that you've been in my life is a prick!" He looked at me and smiled, "I see that I got out what I put in." It cracked me up and ended my anger.

My mother read and sang to me constantly. By the time I entered school, I was a fluent reader and could follow any tune, on key. After an elementary school education, which varied from good to horrible, I went to the Bronx High School of Science, which had just opened up one block away from my home. It was four of the best years of my life. It was a spotty time, with many failures and a few successes. I learned to deal with both.

After an unsuccessful semester at New York University, I was drafted into the army. I learned a trade as a medical laboratory technician, learned how much endurance I really had, fought the army at every turn and ended up as an aid man in an infantry platoon. It was the only time in the army when I felt free, but my life was in danger. That I survived the experience, I can only attribute to dumb luck. It was certainly not brains. A number of things that I did could have gotten me killed.

Thanks to the GI bill, the government paid for my education and, despite many bumps in the road, it was generally uphill from there.

I have just read a few National Geographic articles about cultures that haven't changed for a very long time. I grew up in a multi-cultural environment and was allowed to change and to make choices about what paths I chose to follow.

Much of who I am is related to the size and constitution of my family. Had my family been constituted differently, I would now be a very different kind of person than I am. Besides his natural aptitudes, Benjamin Franklin was brought up as the next to the youngest of a brood of 13 children, and the youngest son. Much of who he was related to his position in the family. A younger sibling has to learn early how to get along with other people. Franklin was a master at it, besides being a very original thinker. He had that unbeatable combination of a fine mind, was a hard worker and knew how to get along with people.

I was the first child and was followed, 6 years later, by my brother. As a consequence, what I know about how to get along with others was mostly learned as an adolescent and adult. My brother took much of my parent's time. Consequently I had a lot of time to myself and learned to enjoy doing things by myself. I was, and still am, mostly a loner.

I don't know how I managed to get through my youth. When I think of the many times that I could have been killed or gone down the tube in some other way, I can't help but think that I must be one of the luckiest people in the world.

Next column

Return to the Personal Home Page

Return to Ira's Home Page