The winter of 1963-1964 started off harshly for adults. Kids like me in kindergarten were oblivious and went about our business playing house, doctor, tag, World Wide Wrestling Federation re-enactments, and what-not.
First there was the Kennedy Assassination for Thanksgiving. I have no idea where I was when the shooting went down in Dallas that Friday at 1:30 PM EST other than that I was probably in class at The Cathedral School off of Eola Park in Orlando. No one came to inform us that the President had been shot and killed. Nope, we went home that day, just like normal, played with our toys for the weekend, and, when Monday came around, suddenly there was no school. They had to tell us then.
“Why is there no school today?” I asked my Mom.
“It’s Thanksgiving. It’s a holiday. There’s no school this week,” came her reply. I was too young to know that there is always school Monday through Wednesday before Thanksgiving.
That was just fine with me. I could catch up on Bullwinkle on the black and white TV. You see, we didn’t have the internet in 1963.
But I was stymied right away. Boris and Natasha, the famous Russian spies trying to seize power on behalf of Pottsylvania (they would have to wait until the Presidential election of 2016 before succeeding), were not on the screen scheming to block Rocky and Bullwinkle.
Instead, on the grainy black and white screen, a somber drum beat could be heard. A caisson with a rider-less horse, boots reversed, made its way slowly through the streets of a city I did not know. My mother was somber and quiet. I could feel she was upset, unhappy. My mood changed instantly from the joy of an unexpected school break to the question, “What’s wrong?”
My Mom simply said, “The President is dead and everyone is sad.” Although I wasn’t sure what that meant exactly, it reinforced the grave mood broadcast on television that day. I certainly felt that sadness, and, when I think of that broadcast, I still do.
Six weeks later, another bombshell dropped. The Surgeon General of the United States issued a seminal report on January 11, 1964 with the impressive title, “Smoking and Health: Report of the Advisory Committee to the Surgeon General of the United States.” Although there had been previous reports that smoking was unhealthy from prominent researchers in the US and UK, this was considered to be the definitive study of the relationship between cigarette smoking and cancer.
This news was everywhere; even at an all-school assembly at Cathedral School, the principal introduced a guest physician to address the student body. The message was clear: “Cigarette smoking was dangerous! Don’t start!”
At the end of his harangue, the physician stopped with a pregnant pause. He said to the audience, “any questions?”
Way in the back, I raised my hand up high, thinking he would never see it.
Pointing at me, he said, “Yes?”
I looked around to make sure he was pointing at me. I cleared my throat. “How many cigarettes does it take to get addicted?” I sputtered out.
“The first match,” was the terse reply. Assembly over. We sauntered out in silence to go back to our classrooms.
Thus began my most unsuccessful campaign ever – getting adults to quit their dangerous habit. My Mom smoked. My step-dad smoked. His brother and sister smoked. Just about every adult I knew smoked.
The only exception was my Dad, Bernard Olcott. In his case, though, I don’t think health risks were his primary objection to the habit; it was more likely the expense.
Long story short: it wasn’t long before it was explained to me sharply that it was rude for a 7-year-old to demand that adults stop smoking. “Even if it’s bad for them?” I pleaded. Yes, even so.
The only reason my Mom ever stopped smoking was due to something stronger than addiction: short-term memory loss. She simply “forgot” she was addicted one day and never asked for another cigarette!
Welcome to Earth, home of strange and unusual occurrences in the desert.
Meanwhile, in the Pan Am Building later during my summer of yak, alert readers may remember that my Dad had a secretary named Lenny. A male secretary? This leads me to wonder to this day: were male secretaries less expensive than female secretaries in the 1960s?
Lenny was a gangly, spindly man with white pale skin covered by a sweater of black hair. I recall that he was smart and set upon his work with the attitude that he always knew what he was doing. When entering Bernard Olcott’s small suite on the 33rd floor, Lenny’s desk lined the long room on the left. Straight ahead was Dad’s window office overlooking Park Avenue South.
I didn’t know it then, but I do now, that I had come in contact with my first black-lunged, I mean, black-hearted man. During infancy, we are typically shielded from such creatures. But as we grow up, we start to encounter them; those who are overwhelmed by the moral abyss. As we grow older, we learn how to protect ourselves. And write blogs.
Dad’s job was to dictate letters on his Dictaphone – typically with the closing line “extending a warm handshake across the many miles of ocean” – and Lenny’s job was to type them.
Lenny was offish, and, as mentioned in my story 2 weeks ago, chain smoked Pall Mall’s unfiltered. When I told him that smoking was dangerous, he just gave me a look and blew smoke in my face. I wondered what his lungs looked like.
The next year, when I came back to New York for summer vacation, I entered the office expecting to see Lenny. Instead, there was a new (female) secretary.
“What happened to Lenny?” I asked Dad.
“Lenny forged my signature,” Dad told me matter-of-factly. He pulled out of his drawer several specimens and showed me the bogus signature on his checks made payable to “Leonard Johnson.”
“So, I fired him.” Dad explained. I looked again at the checks and felt Dad’s pain of loss.
Lenny has long since been lost in the miasma of New York City. I’m sure the city spit him out by 1969.
Nevertheless, he was only the first in a line of people stealing from my Dad and our family. The harder they come, the harder they fall. One and all.